Space Archaeology

Over the weekend, I read Alice Gorman’s delightful monograph Dr Space Junk vs The Universe (MIT 2019). It’s a rare book that is both an easy read and full of interesting, useful, and provocative ideas. As someone knee-deep in the archaeology of the contemporary world, Gorman’s book (as well as her more formal research articles) offers a well-drawn sketch of the rough edges of this field and will feature in the book that I’m writing (although, to be honest, I’m not sure where!).

As per my usual practice, I won’t offer a thorough review. The book is such a quick and, frankly, fun read that anyone curious about it should just sit down and read it. Instead, I’ll offer for quick observations.

1. The Contemporary World. One of the most useful things that came from reading this book is that Gorman presents a useful corrective that the notion that archaeology of the contemporary world must involves objects, architecture, and situations grounded in everyday life.  Most of us will not experience outer space and most of the objects associated with space are exceptional in some way. Not only are the actually in space and far from our ability to observe, manipulated, excavate, or measure, but they also tend to be made of exotic materials and technology, protected from the archaeologist’s gaze by being located at secure or difficult to access sites, and, generally speaking, rather rare.

Gorman understands this tension between the traditional objects of archaeological research and space archaeology and begins her book at her childhood home in the Australian countryside. This simple move grounds (heh, heh) her work in the long tradition of historical archaeology with its major focus on domestic places and rural life. She makes reference to the various middens common to family farms in the US and Australia which have long attracted archaeological attention. More than that, though, she links her experiences growing up in the conservative society of rural Australia to her eventual interest in the archaeology of space.

The message here is unmistakable. If traditional historical archaeology is the family farm, her own journey from the farm to academia represents a departure from her disciplinary (and social roots) in conservative rural life to the archaeology “at the end of the universe” (to evoke Douglas Adams who makes frequent appearances in Gorman’s work).

2. Gender and Sex. One of the long-standing questions posed to NASA is whether any of their astronauts have had sex in space. While NASA has continued to insist that this has not happened and may not be possible, space continues to be, for lack of a better word, a sexy place and space exploration has been inextricably bound up in attitudes toward gender here on earth.

On the one hand, Gorman makes these points plainly. Her own drift toward archaeology came as much because she was discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM despite her aptitude and ability as her own interest in the past. Despite recent work emphasizing the role of women in space exploration, most notably Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures (2016) which documents the role of African American women in the US space program, many of the central fields in the “space race” such as physics, engineering, and maths were dominated by men. More than that, the close ties between the “space race” and military technology and warfare (after all the space race was a surrogate battlefield in the Cold War) likewise privileged men who tended to be the most visible combatants in the modern era.

Gorman complicates things in a subtle, entertaining, and thought provoking way. Into the standard narrative of gender and sex, she alludes to Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon makes famously clear the relationship between the phallic shape of the V2 rocket, the distribution of V2 strikes (which follows the Poisson Distributions), and the sexual activities of several of the main characters. Not only are rockets for men, but the entire enterprise of space exploration can be presented as a male sexual fantasy. Gorman returns to this theme, albeit obliquely, later when she discusses the distribution of cable ties at an abandoned Australian site associated with their space program. Cable ties received a patent in 1958 and over the second half of the 20th century became a ubiquitous feature in sites where cabling and digital technologies are prominent. As digital technology spread, so did cable ties. (It’s notable, however, that cable ties received a patent in the US in 1973, the same year that Gravity’s Rainbow appeared).  Gorman notes, with a subtle nod toward Pynchon, gender, and sexuality, that cable ties feature in oddly popular erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey

More obvious is her discussion of rocket parks in the US and Australia. These were children’s playgrounds designed around the theme of space travel and exploration that usually featured rocket-shaped climbing features. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon (or even a careful reader of Lacan) to see that the phallic shaped climbing features in rocket parks represent both science and technology as well as the source of the structural father’s power over the mother as the object of his desire. Rocket parks played a key role, then, in reinforcing both the “phallocentric patriarchy” as well as the role of science in the public imagination.   

In case the reader missed the interweaving of sexuality, gender, and the space race, Gorman brings the themes together at the moment when she and her mother visit a rocket park in Australia and discover as they leave, a cable tie. I admit that this made me blush. 

Gorman also reinforces this in her brief analysis of Elon Musk’s rocket bound Tesla Roadster. This is a conspicuous expression of Musk’s sexuality as the phallic rocket carriers aloft a common symbol of men’s mid-life sexual anxieties (the red convertible). That it plays David Bowie’s 1972 hit “Starman,” offers more than a bit of ambiguity.  “Starman” with its obvious sonic reference to “Over the Rainbow” evokes Julie Garland’s status as a gay icon. At the same time, Bowie’s 1970s persona of Ziggy Stardust is not that of conventional male sexuality, but androgyny, queerness, and bisexualty. In this context, Musk’s launching of the Tesla Roadster into space has more to do with more complex sexuality of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow than traditional masculine phallic fantasies.

To be clear, the subtext presented here does not leap from the pages, but it’s not exactly subtle either. Gorman manages through her artful and deliberate prose to create an (archaeological) context for a queer reading of the space. The allusion to “junk” in the title is an unsubtle hint. The book offers a rich potential for more a more inclusive reading of space. I might have wished for it to be more obvious (and perhaps less grounded in early 1970s cultural references), but perhaps part of the book’s appeal is that it makes you work for its critique.

3. Contested Spaces. On more conventional grounds, Gorman’s understanding of the often contested ground where the space race played out here on Earth is useful. she chose to focus on the Australian site of Woomera in the Far North of South Australia and the Woomera test range which saw rocket launches throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Her discussion of Aboriginal land rights as a counterweight to claims that the area was empty provides disturbing similar parallel to the development of large military test ranges in the US at the expense of Native American claims. We justified our occupation of these spaces by viewing them as terra nullius and ignoring groups who see these lands in different way.

Here, Gorman offers a particular salient critique of the culture logic of space exploration. Our desires to travel into space, to visit the Moon and Mars, and to occupy these places relies on the same logic of “terra nullius” that allowed us to overwrite ways of viewing the the Earth that did not conform to our limited understanding of occupation, possession, and territoriality. Gorman allows the reader to consider the ironic proposition that treaties articulated by nations defined by territorial claims could prevent such claims in space while failing utterly to protect alternate notions of space and place on Earth. She remains skeptical, but in this skepticism is the traces of an optimistic view that by looking to  space as another terra nullius, we might find ways put this term and its cultural baggage to rest and to replace this concept with new ways of thinking about how we can live together.

The space junk circulating in near Earth orbit, however, provides a chilling reminder that there is work to do. 

4. Non-Human Actors. Archaeology remains deeply committed to sewing interest in things as things. From symmetrical archaeology, to object oriented ontologies, the new materialism, and new ways of critiquing the painfully persistent dichotomy of nature and culture. Gorman’s book offers a gentle and theory-free way of thinking about non-human actors, formation processes, and the complexity of taking things as agents seriously.

From the impact of moon dust on the things left behind by the Apollo missions to the possibility of the careening impacts of space junk making near-Earth orbit inhospitable and dangerous for both human space flight and satellites, Gorman unpacks the range of non-human actors that shape space archaeology. In her most compelling example the accumulated space dust on the Voyager and Pioneer deep space probes may offer a better way for a putative extraterrestrial civilization to understand the date and distance that the probes have traveled than any of the more deliberate efforts of human scientists to communicate. 

The book is compelling and complex and a careful reading will undoubtedly reveal more than what I’ve presented here. In Gorman’s hands, space archaeology is much more than the study of orbital artifacts, but a broader platform to offer subtle critiques of contemporary society, useful contributions to archaeological theory, and an entertaining way to spend a holiday weekend. 

Three Thing Thursday: A Story, an Interview, and a Map

My grades were submitted on Monday, and I made the mistake of thinking that summer would begin now. Alas, the world had other plans with zoom meetings, deadlines, and an endless stream of emails from various administrative accounts across my university.

The good news is that despite the noise, there are plenty of fun things to keep my occupied this summer, and I thought that I’d share a few on an mid-May “Three Things Thursday”:

Thing the First

If you’re like me, you’ve already started to think about how to adapt your classes to another COVID-inflected semester in the fall. It seem highly likely that digital media are going to play a larger role in what you do in the classroom. 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota chatted a bit with Sebastian Heath about his recent edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient MediterraneanYou can read the interview with Sebastian here. And you can download the a digital copy of the book, purchase it via Amazon, or from an independent bookstore

Another book that might help you think more broadly about teaching using digital approaches is Shawn Graham’s recently published Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. At a time when it is becoming more and more important that we act in a humane and understanding way toward our students and colleagues, Shawn’s book shines light on failure not as the prelude to triumph, but as a fundamental part of learning and empathy. We also had a long conversation with him that you can read here. You can download it for free here, buy it on Amazon here, or get a copy from an independent bookseller here.

Thing the Second

I’m pretty excited to have posted Shane Castle’s short story “Ursa” at the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. During my time as editor, it is one of my favorite stories. 

The thing that makes is so appealing is the ambiguity of it all. Is the story meant to be touching and heartfelt? Is it just an exercise in the absurd? Is it meant to be funny? All these things? 

There’s also something about the story that makes it feel appropriate for our current situation. The story reckons with the experience of coming out of hibernation, memories of our past, pre-COVID life, our efforts to stay connected over distance, and the awkwardness in how we engaged with others. In short, the story is so much of what unusual, non-commercial, and (broadly) experimental fiction can be. 

If you have a few minutes over lunch or while sipping an evening cocktail, give it a read.  

Thing the Third

The final thing this Thursday is a map prepared by a team led by my old buddy David Pettegrew. As I’ve mentioned on a previous Three Thing Thursday, he’s been leading an ambitious project, Digital Harrisburg, designed to create rich historical maps of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This past week, we released yet another update to the maps of Harrisburg’s “Old Eighth Ward” which was an African American neighborhood destroyed to produce the state capital area. Check out the interactive maps here

Needless to say, this project has inspired me to think more critically and dynamically about my own community and how constructing data-rich maps can help us understand our community in the past, but as importantly, in the present. 

Summer Reading List

Each summer, I try to put together a summer reading list. Usually this is in response to my summer travels and is a good way to make sure that the books I want to read in Cyprus and Greece are on my iPad, Kindle, or laptop. I usually anticipate some time — especially in the evenings — to read a novel or two and to try to expand my rather narrow scholarly interests. 

You can check out my past reading lists here:  20192018, 20172016201520142013, and 2011. Going back to these lists always evokes a sense of nostalgia commingled with a sense of disappointment that I never really accomplish what I set out to do. I guess life is full of unfinished plans.

This summer will be even a bit more challenging than in the past because not only am I not heading to the Mediterranean, but also because I should be working to wrap up any number of long-overdue publishing projects (including a book) and I should be thinking about how to adapt my classes to a more dynamic and uncertain teaching environment in the fall.

That means books like Alice Gorman’s Dr. Space Junk vs. the Universe (MIT 2019) is on the top of my list. Susan Stewart’s The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (Chicago 2020) needs to also be read and digested. I also want to read some environmental history especially as it intersects with the American West. I have my eyes on Christopher Wells’s Car Country: An Environmental History (Seattle 2014), Matthew Kingle’s Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (Yale 2008), Sara Dants’ Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West (Wiley 2017), Flannery Burke’s A Land Apart: The Southwest and the Nation in the Twentieth Century (Arizona 2017) and the recent gaggle of books on barb wire. 

I also want to think more carefully about how I plan to teach my world history class in the fall. I have on the top of my book pile Antoinette Burton’s A Primer for Teaching World History (Duke 2011). I also know that I’m going to used Eugene Berger’s open access textbook, World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 as my text, but I suspect I’ll need to supplement it, if I want to teach the course the way that I want to teach it. I need to check out Merry E Wiesner and Urmi Engineer Willoughby’s A Primer for Teaching Women, Gender, and Sexuality in World History (Duke 2018). I’m sure there are dozens of other books that I need to check out as I prep this class.

There are also some odds and ends things that I feel like I should read and try to understand. I want to read some Hirokazu Miyazaki and on the idea of an anthropology of hope. I have a copy of his recent edited volume, The Economy of Hope (Penn 2016) and his earlier monograph, The Method of Hope (Standford 2004) on my book pile these days next to Ismael Vaccaro, Krista Harper, and Seth Murray’s edited volume The Anthropology of Postindustrialism: Ethnographies of Disconnection (Routledge 2016) and Arjun Appadurai’s little collection of previously published essays, The Future as Cultural Fact (Verso 2013).

Finally, I’d love to read a few more novels. I’m about halfway through Ling Ma, Severance: A Novel (2018), and I would like to finish N. K. Jemisin’s series, The Broken Earth, although I’m not entirely sure that I’m enjoying it. I also want to read Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019); she’s a Byzantinist and a novelist!

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

I finished Christopher Witmore’s  Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I said last week, it was a great way to kick off my summer reading and a useful tonic for a summer without fieldwork.

This is the kind of book that will likely resist any kind of useful, formal review. It’s easy enough to note places where Witmore overlooked scholarship relevant to his larger arguments (e.g. Kostis Kourelis’s important 2007 Hesperia article, “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde” would have fit nicely into Witmore’s treatment of Corinth, for example, or Evi Karouzou’s 2014 monograph,  Les jardins de la Méditerranée: agriculture et société dans la Grèce du sud, 1860-1910, would have complemented and expanded his considerations of the agricultural history of the Corinthia and Argolid, or, finally, David Pettegrew’s observations on Kromna on the Isthmus of Corinth would have complicated Witmore’s analysis of that site). Likewise, it will also be convenient for a reviewer to observe that the routes Witmore took through the Northeast Peloponnesus overlooked certain areas like the Southeastern Corinthia, the Western Argolid, or the Inachos Valley. As a result, he overlooked the delicious abundance of souvlaki stands at the intersection of the old national road and old Peloponnesian narrow-gauge railway in the village of Myloi. There are, of course, little factual slips from time to time: the Athos canning plant near Nauplio (referred to in Route 18) is probably the former Kyknos canning plant.

None of this really matters, however, because the book is not meant to be an exhaustive history of the landscape of the Argolid and Corinthia. Instead, the book represents an unapologetically personal look at the region. This approach reflects Witmore’s commitment to the tradition of chorography which he offers as both a kind of critical commentary on the ancient writings of Strabo and Pausanias, the Ottoman period in the writings of Evlyia Celebi, the early modern works of Jacob Spon and George Wheler and the Expédition scientifique de Morée, and the modern period with the travels of Martin Leake, Edward Dodwell, and Gertrude Bell. Contemporary scholars, John Cherry, Alex Knodell, join Witmore from time to time as do various other Greeks, American students, and family members. At the center of the book, however, is Witmore and his interests, relationships, and restless feet guide carry the reader through the Greek countryside.

Chorography, if I understand it, challenges views of the landscape dominated by cartography, geography, and modern landscape archaeology which serves to create the homogeneous spaces of the modern map. If the lines and points of the modern scholar serves to measure and rectify space into some form of universally recognized pattern, the routes of the chorographer are embedded in the landscape itself and follow the contours of the land, the rhythm of the fields, and the often abrupt discontinuities between the present and a visible past. While archaeologists have often seen Witmore’s work elsewhere as overly (and maybe even oppressively?) theoretical, Old Lands serves as a critical and important corrective. Witmore’s goals are not to use the eastern Peloponnesus as at the basis for some kind of theoretical exegesis, but to offer this landscape as a kind of anti-theory (echoing, in some ways, the work of Peter Sloterdijk who appears frequently in his footnotes). For example, the landscape is not a text to be decoded or deconstructed. It is not a place to be unpacked, analyzed, compared, or abstracted. Instead, it’s a space to be experienced and encountered.  

At times (and as an avowedly selfish reader), I wondered how Witmore’s chorography relates to our modern and perhaps contemporary experience of tourism. His effort to defamiliarize a landscape well-known to archaeologists and scholars evokes the modern promise of the tourists gaze which seeks to bridge the gap between the everyday and the exotic. Witmore makes romantic a walk through an olive grove which represents one of the most banal and unremarkable experiences of time in the northeast Peloponnesus. Fishfarms, irrigation systems, terrace walls, dirt and paved roads, goat tracks, maquis, and even the annoying hillsides of Jerusalem sage take on a wondrous quality in Witmore’s work. But is this because these experiences are wondrous or because, in Witmore’s able hands, he is creating a wondrous experience for the reader in much the same way an able tour guide brings a landscape or encounter alive and something as banal as “Mexican Coke” becomes an invitation to an unfamiliar world. (This relates, of course, to my own work along similar lines here.)

Witmore’s work also nudged me to think a bit more about my idea of a “slow archaeology.” While most of my work has focused on “slow” as a challenge to our technologically mediated encounters with archaeological work, Witmore’s chorography with its attention to the details of experience and encounter feels like it occupies a similar space. The absence of any technology in Witmore’s work (other than the maps which he includes at the end) and the emphasis on the individual rather than the team of archaeologists, the procedures of data collection, and the methods of analysis, creates a view of archaeological practice that differs from the almost-automated routines of the intensive pedestrian surveys or of systematic excavation that so defined the archaeological landscapes of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

In this way, Old Lands offers a critique of contemporary archaeological practices, but doesn’t reject them. It also offers a new way to think about the field of Mediterranean archaeology. In recent years, Mediterranean archaeologists have pushed more archaeological practices that align more closely with our peers in “world archaeology.” This frequently involves more specialized training in scientific methods, the use of digital tools, and systematic approaches grounded in the literature of anthropological archaeology. Witmore doesn’t contest this, but by grounding his approach in chorography, he proposes an alternative that is no less grounded in the latest technologically mediated approach to the past, but is also explicitly aware of the experience of being in the landscape. 

Big News and Other Notes from The Digital Press

Pssst… Today, we have a little bit of a treat here on the ole bloggeroo. 

I’m going to very quietly release the paperback edition of Sebastian Heath’s edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient MediterraneanYou can buy it for the low, low price of $9 here

On the fence?

That’s ok, you can still download the special unlimited “Digital Alpha” edition for free. It’s been downloaded over 400 times and we’d love to see that number cross the 500 download threshold. On Wednesday, however, we’ll update the download to the normal cover. 

DATAM Cover AlphaVersion2

The other note today involves where you can purchase our books. As most people know, our press uses Amazon’s print-on-demand services (at least for now!). At the same time, we’re big fans of independent book stores around the US.

Last week, there was a nice article in the Washington Post about indie bookstores collaborating on a web platform to bolster their ability to compete with the big online stores. It’s called bookshop.org, and it has taken on increasing significance for indie bookstores since The COVIDs has made their lives much more difficult.

We’re happy to see that quite a few books from The Digital Press are available on bookshop.org. Here’s a list with links:

Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, Derek B Counts, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology (2016).

Micah Bloom, Codex (2017).

Eric Burin ed., Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2017).

Eric Burin ed., Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America (2018)

William Caraher and Kyle Conway, ed., The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016).

Shawn Graham, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays (2019).

David Haeselin ed., Dakota Datebook: North Dakota Stories from Prairie Public (2019).

David Haeselin ed., Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 (2017). 

Chris Price, The Old Church on Walnut Street. Revised Edition. (2018)

G. D. R. Sanders, Sarah James and Alicia Carter, Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual (2017).

Paul Worley trans., Snichimal Vayuchil (North Dakota Quarterly Supplement 1). (2018).

Go and support a local, independent bookstore today!

Work Force Housing, The Bakken, and Photos

Like many people, I’ve been at loose ends over the last 6 weeks or so. While I’ve been trying to remain disciplined, this hasn’t always worked out. This week, for example, I started to play around with the 10,000+ images that the North Dakota Man Camp Project collected over the last 7 years. I learned this morning that it was some kind of Digital humanities day, so maybe I can pretend that I planned to do this to celebrate, you know, the digital or the humanities or something.

I’ll admit that the more I’ve played with little projects like this, the more I’ve thought about starting a little press of my own to publish various vanity projects. For example a couple of years ago, I scanned and compiled a collection of letters written by Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College in Grand Forks, ND from 1935. You can download it here for free.

Along similar lines, I started to compile the documentary photographs that my colleagues and I took in the Bakken. The photos are all from a single camp, which we’ll call Man Camp 11.

Here’s the cover of the book that I mocked up. It’ll probably just be digital.

WFR CoverDraft 1

Most of the photographs are mine which accounts for their rather mediocre quality. In this mediocrity, however, I like to think that there’s a bit of authenticity. I switched after a couple of years from a 35 mm camera to a micro four thirds camera meaning my images changed proportion and requiring me to lay out my pages in a different way. 

MC11 DRAFT 1

MC11 DRAFT 2

I also started to play around with some of the video that Richard Rothaus captured during our time in the Bakken. I converted one of every 100 frames into a still, and I really like how they create a sense of motion.

Layer 52

Layer 53

Layer 54

Layer 55

Layer 56

Layer 57

Layer 58

Layer 59

Layer 60

Layer 61

Layer 62

I then put them together on the page.

MC11 DRAFT 6

I’m also thinking about collating these photographs with some of the interviews we did.

MC11 DRAFT 7

Because it’s my book, I get to feature my truck:

MC11 DRAFT 3

There are some really great aerial photographs of the county taken almost every year from 2012-2018. I think these could be really great chapter header images. More than that, like the stills from the Richard Rothaus’s videos, these images show the passage of time.

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 31 42

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 32 55

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 33 53

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 34 35

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 35 21

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 36 05

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 36 56

Anyway, I’m not sure what exactly to do with this project other than to keep plugging away on it. There are some basic elements like page numbers that I’d like to incorporate, but haven’t really figured out how to do that in a way that I think looks cool. 

If any of my readers are publishers and interested in this kind of thing, drop me a line… 

Old Lands: Nostalgia, Archaeology, and a Summer without Fieldwork

This weekend, I started to read Chris Witmore’s Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020). Witmore is perhaps best known among archaeologists as a theory guy whose work on thingness, symmetrical archaeology, and agency has contributed to the larger “thing turn” or “material turn” in the field. 

This book certainly draws upon his formidably grasp of archaeological theory, but much of it is not explicitly theoretical. Instead, it offers a series of “segments” between points win the northeastern Peloponnesus that provide an opportunity for Witmore to dilate on various topics ranging from fish farming to tourism, antiquity, archaeology, history and agriculture. The thread connecting these largely self-contained segments, each of which gets its own bibliography is the heterogeneity of space and place. By following the things “on the ground” rather than the discursive pathways established by our disciplinary training and knowledge, Witmore offers a literary simulation of the typical archaeological encounter. This encounter, at least in my experience, almost always begins with the question: “what the hell is that?” And proceeds from there.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t offer more than a superficial reaction, and I’ll probably write a more formal review sometime next week when I’ve had more of a chance to digest it. I will offer three observations now, though:

First, this book couldn’t appear at a better time. Like many academic archaeologists, I’m still coming to grips with the idea that there will be no fieldwork or study this summer. While I have plenty of writing and reading to do and have no projects that required fieldwork this summer, it’ll still be strange to be at home rather than living out of a suitcase in Cyprus and Greece and attending to the needs of objects, landscapes, buildings, and places (as well as maps and databases). I do have some fieldwork in town here and a plan for some work in August in Idaho that might still happen, but even that seems unlikely right now.

More than that, I’m worried that without being in Greece and Cyprus and without spending time in the landscape, village, storerooms, and survey area, my reservoir of encounters will diminish. It’ll be harder for me to ask “what the hell is that?” and to follow these encounters in new directions and toward new hypotheses. 

As an aside, I had long wondered what this odd building was south of Kiveri near where the Western Argolid Regional Project was based in Myloi. Apparently it was a pumping station designed to tap a fresh water spring beneath the saltwater Argolidic Gulf. So there you go.

Second, I’ve been thinking a good bit about nostalgia lately. I’m partly blaming this on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), and partly on a new, small-scale research project into the history of the suburbs, and partly on being an old white male. When I was younger, I spent a good bit of each summer hiking around the landscape of the Eastern Corinthia, looking for and at sites, wondering about things, and talking with guys like Tim Gregory, David Pettegrew, and Dimitri Nakassis. More recently, I spent time walking the Western Argolid with Dimitri, Grace Erny, Machal Gardoz, Joey Frankel, Melanie Gadsey, and Alyssa Friedman. While in most cases, we were mapping survey units, it also afforded me the opportunity to become more familiar with the Inachos valley and surrounding landscape.   

Old Lands is set in the olive grooves, orange orchards, dirt roads, “not paths, but routes” hills, valleys, ravines, seaside towns, inland villages, and cities of the northeast Peloponnesus. This is where I’ve learned to be an archaeologist (and continue to learn from both my colleagues and the landscape). Feeling nostalgic for the long days in the field may be no more than just the idylls of a privileged white male, but thinking about those days and weeks walking in the countryside push me to recognize this privileged perspective and reflect on the tension between my own encounters, my memories, and these rugged and difficult landscapes.

Finally, so far, Witmore’s book has reminded me how much my understanding of the Greek countryside is anchored in place. In other words, so much of what I know about Greece is based on my encounters with buildings, landscapes, and relationships rather than predefined academic problems. Whatever one thinks of the theoretical perspectives offered through symmetrical archaeology (e.g. here), Witmore’s book does a good job (again, so far) connecting how archaeologists make knowledge to the landscape itself and then introducing the secondary literature. Witmore’s process of describing the situation with detail and nuance, however literary it is in presentation here, mimics the process of engaging the landscape and starting with the question “what the hell is that?”

As I said, this is my impression based on the first 350 or so pages. I’ll prepare a more careful review sometime in the next week or so.

Upton Sinclair’s Oil and John Sayles’s Yellow Earth

It took me a while to figure it out, but now that I’ve (finally) finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, my understanding of John Sayles’s novel Yellow Earth is much better. 

For folks who lack the Wikipedias, Oil! was published in 1926-1927 and today is perhaps more famous for controversy surrounding a rather chaste sex scene which got the book banned in some cities than its plot or its message. The book loosely follows the life of Bunny Arnold who is the son of an increasingly wealthy oilman in California. It is set against the backdrop of the early-20th century oil boom in Southern California and the  corruption, exploitation, radicalism, and glamour of early 20th century America.  Over the course of the book Bunny grows up and become more and more “woke” through his interaction with workers in the California oil fields, his university education, and his friendship with Paul Watkins, a labor organizer and eventual communist. Despite Bunny’s wealth, he becomes a radical social justice warrior who by the end of the book dedicates his life and what’s left of his father’s fortune to the founding of a socialist labor college.  

The charm of the book largely comes from the characters that conform to the rigid stereotypes. The corrupt businessmen are rabidly corrupt; the beautiful actresses are extraordinarily beautiful; the pious and idealistic communists, socialists, and labor union organizers are delightfully rigorous. Even when Sinclair draws on real characters he manages to preserve a sense of satire which is nowhere more visible as in his thinly veiled depiction of “Sister Amee” in the character of hypocritical evangelist Eli Watkins. A gently fictionalized reference to the Teapot Dome scandal offers another historical anchor for the novel.

Sinclair’s satirical novel leans upon these stereotypes as a way to critique both capitalists and radicals alike. Yellow Earth is its sequel. Like Oil!Yellow Earth similarly relies on a cast of stereotypical characters whose interactions are anchored loosing in a muder-for-hire scandal surrounding Tex Hall, one time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil patch who encouraged oil development on reservation lands. In fact, on my first read, I was not a little offended by Sayles’s cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, Bakken oil workers, opportunistic grifters and the like.

A series of oblique references to Sinclair’s Oil! however makes Sayles intent clear. Bunny Skiles, for example, is the scheming con-man Brent Skiles’s wife. At the end of the novel she boards a train headed for Southern California to meet with a lawyer not only to arrange for a divorce from the steroid-raging Skiles, but also to secure her share of his is assets. Undoubtedly this lawyer is the same individual who represented the Arnold family after the death of the patriarch at the end of Oil! Other references abound. Brent Skiles, for example, is clearly a reference to the shadowy Ben Skutt who in Oil! who helped the oil companies break strikes by infiltrating unions, inciting violence, and, at one point, pretending to be a communist in order to have the unions declared illegal. Similarly the real estate agent J.C. Hardacre in Oil! Reappears as the petroleum geologist Randy Hardacre in Yellow Earth. In one of the more painful efforts to connect the two books, the exotic dancer with a good heart Jewelle alludes to the Jewish radical Rachel Menzies who Bunny marries toward the end of Oil! The characters do not map neatly onto one another, of course, but enough cross references exist to make clear that two books are in dialogue with one another.

Sayles replaces the loping, leisurely pace of Oil! with the frantic, compressed time of the Bakken oil boom. Yellow Earth takes place over just one year marked the pregnancy of Fawn over her senior year in high school. Sayles swaps out the painfully earnest radicalism of Paul Watkins for the Ayn Rand and steroid-fueled hyper capitalism of Brent Skiles. Some of the power of Yellow Earth comes not through the story and characters but as a commentary on how far the Bakken oil boom and our 21st century attitudes toward capital, profits, wealth, extractive industries, and speed have come from from the days of Sinclair’s Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s novel, where the lines between the radicals and the oil industry are drawn in blood and violence, Sayles blurs morality throughout Yellow Earth.  There are characters who appear to be good and characters who are undoubtedly evil, but they don’t align. There is no confrontation here and, as a result, no real resolution. As oil prices decline at the end of the boom, the profiteers get increasingly desperate and the characters who have come to make their money slowly disperse in search of the next opportunity.

It may be that by foregrounding this indeterminacy, driven as much by the complexities of the global oil market as the doings of any individual or the corruption of their business, Sayles’s work responds most clearly to Sinclair’s novel. Sinclair located his characters at the center of the oil industry and largely in control of their own fates. For Sayles, the characters in his novel wrestle as much with the oil itself and the vagaries of a global market as they did one another. There is a constant sense of the Bakken as periphery and no matter how much Ayn Rand Brent Skiles read and despite Harleigh Killdeer’s claims of “sovereignty by the barrel” the oil itself controlled the outcome of events. 

Leia Nilsson is a wildlife biologist in Yellow Earth, who has come to study a prairie dog coterie. She gives the critters classical names: Odysseus, Ajax, Niobe, Hera. A drilling platform ultimately displaces this little community of prairie dogs and Leia contracts Jett to suck the rodents from their burrows so she can relocate them across the road. Despite this displacement, the prairie dogs continue to play out their daily lives, struggle with one another for dominance, and mate. Even the most superficial reader will catch that the story of the prairie dogs is the story of Yellow Earth. The prairie dogs might, at best, be the Watkins family in Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s Watkins family, who find their own way and ultimately negotiate their own fate against the backdrop of capitalism, oil, and world events, Sayles’s prairie dogs and characters are simply actors on a stage for whom choice only appears to matter. 

(W)Reading Week for Social Distancing

I feel like my comfortable and predictable teaching-writing-reading has been quite upset lately. First, there was spring break, now there’s this move to online teaching, and finally, there’s the uncertainty of what will come next. It’s almost certain that my early summer field plans are cancelled, my later summer plans are in limbo, and various other local fieldwork projects remain in the balance.

In light of all, this and as a deeply personal effort to seize control of my life in some way, I’ve declared this week a “reading week.” The hope is get on top of a few reading projects and set myself up to write the final chapter of the first part of slowly developing first part of a book that I’m trying to write on archaeology of contemporary American culture. This chapter will focus on three things:

1. Materiality and Media Archaeology.
2. Archaeogaming.
3. The Archaeology of Digital Archaeology. 

As you might gather from reading this blog, the second and third parts of this chapter will be rather easier to write than the first. At the same time, the first part of this chapter will allow me to segue neatly with my previous chapter on “Things, Materiality, and Agency.” (I’ll post a rough draft of this chapter later in the week). To get there, though, I need to sharpen my understanding of the major currents in media archaeology. To start, I’ll re-read the useful forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on media archaeology and make my way through Jussi Parikka’s useful survey of media archaeology as well as his A Geology of Media (2015). I’m also going to read Jennifer Gabrys’ Digital Rubbish (2013), Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot edited volume Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (2014), Josh Lepawsky, Reassembling Rubbish: worlding electronic waste (2018) and Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter’s Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (2009). I’m also going to push myself to read two novels. First, Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials (2008) and, then, Thomas Pynchon’s The Bleeding Edge (2013). We’ll see how this all goes. I’ve tried to be ambitious before and it ended up a total failure.

The rest of the chapter feels – for now – a bit more straightforward. I’ll lean mightily on Andrew Reinhard’s book Archaeogaming (2018) for the middle section of the chapter and the usual suspect for a critical engagement with digital archaeology that considers both its materiality and the way in which digital media and tools have come to shape archaeological practices. 

It’s been a very long time since I’ve taken a week or so just to read and while I’m as horrified and terrified by the swelling number of coronavirus cases both in my community and around the world, I wonder whether immersion in something other than problems beyond my control will be therapeutic. It goes without saying that I will continue to work to transition my classes to online, work to revise a few papers that have re-appeared after a time in the wilderness, and keep nudging various longstanding projects forward (e.g. NDQ, various books with The Digital Press, and some curriculum initiatives). At the same, taking a break from writing and, instead, invest in something that has a more tangible conclusion like reading a book.  

New Book Day and Teaching Tuesday: DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

As the coronavirus has continued to disrupt higher education in the US and globally, The Digital Press accelerated the release of Sebastian Heath’s edited volume, DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean as a way to contribute to the ongoing conversation about digital and online teaching not only in Classics, Ancient History, and Mediterranean Archaeology but across the entire humanities. 

The book is a free, open access download and will be made available as a low-cost paperback by the middle of next month.

We’re calling this version, the “Digital First, Alpha Version” because it sounds cool. You can download it here.

Here’s the description of the book:

DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean provides a series of new critical studies that explore digital practices for teaching the Ancient Mediterranean world at a wide range of institutions and levels. These practical examples demonstrate how gaming, coding, immersive video, and 3D imaging can bridge the disciplinary and digital divide between the Ancient world and contemporary technology, information literacy, and student engagement. While the articles focus on Classics, Ancient History, and Mediterranean archaeology, the issues and approaches considered throughout this book are relevant for anyone who thinks critically and practically about the use of digital technology in the college level classroom.

DATAM features contributions from Sebastian Heath, Lisl Walsh, David Ratzan, Patrick Burns, Sandra Blakely, Eric Poehler, William Caraher, Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Anthony Bucci as well as a critical introduction by Shawn Graham and preface by Society of Classical Studies Executive Director Helen Cullyer.

Here’s the cover:

DATAM Cover AlphaVersion2

For those of you working to bring your classes online, you might also find useful insights and ideas in Shawn Graham’s recent, award winning, book: Failing Gloriously and Other Essays and the journal that he edits Epoiesen (which can be found here in PDF and on the web here).