Three Things Thursday: Plagiarism, Laptops, and the End of Antiquity

I submitted grades, my summer plans are coming into focus, and I’m almost ready to decamp for the Mediterranean for the first time in two years. I feel like everything is going on at once, and this is more or less a good thing and it feels like a solid backdrop for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, there was a moderately interesting long Twitter thread in response to an incident of plagiarism in academia. The situation was discovered at the peer review stage and other than a bit of outrage, the harm seems to have been minimal. That said, whenever someone talks about plagiarism in academia, they tend to complain about the crime rather than the underlying system that makes plagiarism both unethical and problematic. To be clear, I’m not condoning plagiarism and I realize that I’m writing from a position of privilege. At the same time, I wonder whether our tendency to become outraged at incidents of plagiarism serves to reinforce a system that is fundamentally toxic. Stoking outrage at incidents of plagiarism in academia reinforces as system that seeks to commodify knowledge and connect the public good that might come from new ideas, processes, and products to private gain.

Of course, we all like it when a colleague recognizes our contribution to our field and citation, in its simplest form, represents a kind of acknowledgement. Unfortunately, over the past seventy years, institutions and the market has weaponized this gesture of collegiality and turned it into a way of measuring and even quantifying impact, reach, and significance. As is so often the case, publishers and institutions have found ways to leverage our desire for collegiality and recognition to support a system designed to generate profits and prestige. The rise of i10 scores, h-indices, and journal rankings that leverage citations to track impact and influence is yet another effort to sort and rank academic labor and to find new ways to profit from both the media through which scholars gain influence and the tools that measure such influence and reach. Plagiarism in this context is as much an economic crime as a breach of scholarly decorum.

By sounding off about plagiarism, then, we both reinforce an age old system of academic recognition, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but also bolster system that allows individuals and institutions to profit from the working of scholarly networks. To my mind, over the last 30 years, the tail has come increasingly to wag the dog with the desire for measurable accomplishments increasingly shaping the landscape of academic work. At the same time, academics celebrate the call to be “against cop shit” in our classrooms and finding ways to subvert the status quo. We also have brought critical attention to the way that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the world. Maybe it’s this recent willingness to consider burning it all down that has made social media outrage over plagiarism ring a bit hollow or at least leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Thing the Second

You might not be able to tell, but I’m writing this post on a Dell laptop rather than my trusty MacBook Pro. For better or for worse, I’ve been an Apple guy for the last 15 or so years and have appreciated the tidy integration between my phone (and especially its camera) and my laptops. Each summer, though, I switch over the my PC which I need to run Microsoft Access and ESRI’s ArcGIS which don’t have native Mac implementation. Usually, I bring along a MacBook Air when I go to the Mediterranean and use it for writing and blogging and to access my Apple ecosystem more easily and natively. My MacBook Air is pretty long in the tooth these days and while it can do what I would like it to do, it’s battery is no longer what it was, its pre-Retina screen is pretty underwhelming, and it’s tiny hard drive makes it more like an early-21st century netbook than a modern laptop. I just wonder whether this year is the year that taking my PC and using it for my writing.

This is a bit nerve wracking because I can’t help but feel that abandoning my Mac will make some part of my work more difficult, even if I’m not entirely sure what part of my work it will negatively impact. I suspect this reflects the success of the Apple ecosystem in making us feel dependent (or at very least comfortable) in their world. What is the most remarkable thing to me is how it descends to the gestural level. My years of working on Macs has shaped how I interact with the keyboard, touchpad, and applications and these habits are profoundly hard to break!

Thing the Third

Yesterday, I posted my annual “Summer Reading List” post and a number of friends reached out and said, in various ways, “whoa! so little ancient history!” This was mostly an oversight. I have considered reading Jack Davis’s new book: A Greek State in Formation: The Origins of Civilization in Mycenaean Pylos (2022) which is available Open Access from the University of California Press. I also want to read Alex Knodell’s newish book: Societies in Transition in Early Greece: An Archaeological History (2021). If I had all the time and energy in the world (and just a modicum of discipline), I would certainly read Nathan Arrington’s latest: Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World (2021) from Princeton.

California has also continued its long tradition of publishing novel and significant works in the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity. Since it’s open access, I’d be keen to check out Mary Farag’s What Makes a Church Sacred: Legal and Ritual Perspectives from Late Antiquity (2021).

I also have a copy of Michele Salzman’s The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience, and Resurgence in Late Antiquity (2021) from Cambridge which is not open access, but would help me think about my class for next spring on Late Antiquity.

Summer Reading List 2022

Almost every summer, I put together some kind of summer reading list. They usually a combination of books that I want to read, books that I should read, and books that I have to read, and they are almost always aspiration rather than prescriptive. 

You can check them out here: 2021202020192018, 20172016201520142013, and 2011.

This year, the top book on my reading list is Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King (2022) which is the follow up to his Black Leopard, Red Wolf. This book is long, but if it is in keeping with the first book in the trilogy, then it’ll move along smartly and read much shorter than its 600+ pages implies. This feels like the ideal book for my long flight to Cyprus next week.

I also have sitting on my Kindle the three late-1980s novels from George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen Cycle: When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss. These novels are set in a futuristic Middle East and represent landmarks of the cyberpunk genre that use exotic locales to bridge the gap between the past and near future. 

I have a couple of things to read as well with archaeological themes: Don DeLillo’s The Names (1982), Cynthia Ozick’s Antiquities (2021), and Andreas Karkavitsas’s The Archeologist and Selected Sea Stories translated by Johanna Hanink (2021). This feels like good reading before my afternoon siestas.

I also want to read some things related to teaching. My brother recommended Stanislas Dehaene’s How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now (2020) and Joseph McDonald, et al., The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice (2003).

I’m teaching a class on editing and publishing in the fall and I need to find some books to use in that class. I have a few that I like that I need to review. There’s the classic Gerald Gross edited volume Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do (1993). It could complement Peter Ginna’s slim volume: What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing (2017). I might also add  
Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer’s 2016 edited volume, Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century (2016). 

Finally, I want to read Catherine Keane’s dissertation on Early Christian ecclesiastical complexes in Cyprus. And I’m excited to read Chris Gratien’s The Unsettled Plain An Environmental History of the Late Ottoman Frontier (2022) and the late Clive Foss’s book The Beginnings of the Ottoman Empire (2022). And, I need to re-read Michael Roller’s An Archaeology of Structural Violence: Life in a Twentieth Century Coal Town (2018) for a review.

This list of works is obviously ridiculously ambitious, but it hopefully it serves its aspiration purpose well!

Two Book Thursday

Over spring break I decided to FORCE myself to read TWO novels. Both books had to do with climate change, and my rationale for such a frivolous distraction from my appointed rounds was that these books would help me think more creatively about the the archaeology of climate change which as you (maybe) read yesterday has been on my mind. 

Here are the two books:

Nnedi Okorafor, Noor. 2021

Yoko Tawada, Scattered All Over the Earth. Trans. by Margaret Mitsutani. 2022.

I’m not very comfortable reviewing fiction. So I’ll proceed with my normal list of things that made me think a bit more. 

1. A Changed World. Both books introduce there reader to a time in the near future when the world is fundamentally the same, but somehow profoundly different. The setting for Noor is a northwestern Africa where the western part of the Sahara is subsumed by a great perpetual sand storm that makes life in the desert completely impossible. Scattered is set in Europe, but the characters exist in a world where Japan has disappeared and information about the changing planet seems fragmentary and incomplete. Instead of a future where information flows freely, information seems to be impacted, the past obscure, and human connections predominant.

2. Displacement. Both books present a world dominated by a sense of displacement. In Noor, the eponymous main character becomes friends with a Fulani tribesman who lives along the edge of the great storm. He has just witnessed a massacre of his cattle and some of his fellow herdsman and is despondent. Scattered features a motley crew of displaced people including a woman from Japan, a mis-recognized “Eskimo” from Greenland, an Indian from Pune, and a wandering Dane and German. The book exudes being lost and loss with a pervasive sense of displacement.     

3. Cyborgs and Hybrids. The 21st century may well be when we normalize hybrid, cyborg identities that break down boundaries and categories associated with the 19th century and the modern world. The displaced individuals in Scattered have complicated identities by modern standards: a native of Greenland passing as Japanese, a gay Indian man dressed in a sari, and a Japanese woman who speaks her own language. The eponymous hero in Noor has transformed her body with robotic prosthetics which not only enhance her physically, but also (without giving anything away) cognitively. They also make her more vulnerable just as the group of friends in Scattered continuously confront the vulnerability of their own hybridity. They also do this in a series of bizarrely hybrid places: German, Finnish, and French sushi restaurants, shabby hostels, and Roman ruins that linger and shape the modern world. 

4. Skepticism of Technology. Despite the recent (and incessant) drumbeat of triumphal science, both novels offer compelling reminders that technology alone can’t make the world better. In Noor, it is more obvious as the main character constantly negotiates between her cybernetic self and a material environment that is both hostile and somehow profoundly forgiving. The characters in Scattered live in a world where they are free to move about, but somehow information is constantly being sequestered, lost, and obscured. No one seems to know what happened to Japan and the characters seem rely on physically meeting up to share information as the technological landscape seems fragile and inadequate. 

5. Novels as Research. Like most scholars, I struggle to make time to read fiction. There’s always another monograph, dissertation, article, edited volume, or student paper to read. I can always find ways to tell myself that I need to get serious and read serious, focused, professional work, by trained scholars directly relevant to my particular research. Of course, I don’t want to suggest for a second that these two novels aren’t serious in their own way and that the authors aren’t committed to their craft. 

Instead, what I’m trying to say is that reading outside my field and even outside my professional wheelhouse is hard to justify even though I find it almost invariably rewarding. It’s interesting to think about how much professionalization and the habits that it instills invariably circumscribes the ideas and approaches that we take to what we know. Everybody know this, but what surprises me the most is how hard it is to break out of these habits and to encounter something different, interesting, and important. 

The Archaeology of Burning Man

A few months ago, I read and enjoyed Carolyn White’s book The Archaeology of Burning Man. In fact, I blogged about it

Last month, I was given an opportunity to review the book more formally and I took some time over spring break to write up my review. Unlike my often half-baked blog posts, I tried to make this view at least two-thirds baked. Enjoy below!

Carolyn White’s The Archaeology of Burning Man: The Rise and Fall of Black Rock City, represents a significant contribution to the archaeology of the contemporary world in an American context. The book documents the design, organization, and infrastructure of Black Rock City, the site of the Burning Man festival, in the Nevada desert as well as the creative ways in which “burners” celebrate the event. The festival, which regularly attracts over 50,000 participants embraces radical inclusion, anti-capitalism, self-reliance, and practices designed to protect the delicate desert landscape. Individuals and groups camp in Nevada desert “playa” for a week to socialize, celebrate, share, create art, and ultimately witness the burning of a number of massive structures at the conclusion of the event. White’s book documents the annual construction of Black Rock City which provides the infrastructure necessarily to make the festival run smoothly, the distinctive domestic forms within the city’s well organized blocks, and the city’s breakdown at the end of the festival and the return of the playa to its original state. The book is detailed and descriptive with enough of a theoretical foundation to frame her argument effectively.

After an introduction to the origins and current status of the Burning Man festival, White situates her work amid a quartet of theoretical perspectives: Henri Lefebvre tripartite division of space into private, public, and intermediary, Michel De Certeau’s division between the strategic and the tactical in his approach to movement through various urban forms, Georg Batailles’s notion of the effervescent as a way that society burns off excess energy, and, finally, Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between the smooth space of the desert and the structured and striated space of Black Rock City. While these theoretical perspectives add significant texture to her work, she leans most heavily on Lefebvre’s division of space to structure her description of features on the playa. Distinguishing between private, public, and intermediary spaces allow the reader to understand how the smooth and undifferentiated space of the playa becomes the striated, ordered space of the city. The use of Lefebvrean divisions also helped make sense of the tactical and strategic structures that shape festival goers experience of the city and the opportunities for the kind of wasteful energy that produces the festival’s famous creative effervescence.

The main body of the book consists of six chapters that document the construction, operation, occupation, and breakdown of Black Rock City. Chapter three outlines the design of the Black Rock City and its division into blocks established for festival goers and for the various forms of infrastructure necessary to make the festival function. Chapter four describes core infrastructure of the site from the main gate and perimeter fencing to waste removal, bike rentals, media center, radio station, cafe and ice shop. In many ways, these features paralleled the design of traditional cities with a commercial district characterized by the cafe and ice shop in the center, amenities, such as port-a-potties strategically located throughout, and service related infrastructure at edges of the city. Chapters five, six, and seven shift from planning and design of the city to the spaces occupied by festival goers. White describes the organization of household camps in chapter five and how residents used vehicles, tents, hexayurts, and shade cloth to create a sense of public and private as well as shelter their living and socializing spaces from wind and sun. Chapter six documents camps which celebrate particular themes from an activist driven camp set up to champion the potential of a homebuilt ebike to a more effervescent camp such as “the jungle.” Chapter seven explores the strategies employed by larger agglomeration of camps called villages. Villages, like theme camps, tend to emphasize a theme, but also consist of more elaborate and larger communal spaces for socializing, food preparation, bathing, relaxing, or showcasing village theme related activities such as yoga or a New Orleans style bar. The final chapter details the break down and removal of Black Rock City that begins with the burning of the festival’s eponymous effigy and concludes with the removal of every trace of the festival from the Nevada playa. The remarkably systematic approach to collecting “MOOP” (matter out of place) and to returning the landscape to standards set by the Bureau of Land Management has clear parallels to archaeological methods, especially those used by intensive pedestrian archaeological survey.

The final chapter of the book serves as both a conclusion and an opportunity for some methodological and disciplinary reflection. White surveys how the various theoretical models shed light on the dynamic spaces of camps and villages and the static spaces of the Black Rock City plan. The tactical and strategic movements across the city intersect with barriers dividing public from private spaces and celebrate the effervescent qualities that shape encounters with the Burning Man event. White proposes that the short lived, but intense dynamism of sites such as Burning Man contribute to the development of new forms of “active site archaeology” that not only acknowledges the tactical and strategic approaches to public and private spaces in Black Rock City, but also traces new methodological and ethical ground responsive to sites that are constantly in motion.

These final meditations highlight the most intriguing character of White’s book. Her inclination to play with Henri LeFebvre’s distinction between public, private, and intermediary spaces extends from the ephemerality of the festival to the book itself. White does an admirable job making public to the reader the correspondingly public spaces of the various households, camps, and and villages as well as the key infrastructure at Burning Man. In fact, the book itself represents a kind of intermediary space that mediates between the various public spaces at Black Rock City and the world of the reader. In contrast, the author’s experiences living and working at Burning Man remain distinctly private and out of sight as do many of the private spaces in the camps that she documents. The reader is left to imagine how she participated in the life of the festival, whether the festival represented a transformative experience, and the experience of working amid the chaotic blend of sun, dust, wind, and revelry remain obscure. Indeed, by obscuring her encounter with Burning Man, This clever strategy of revealing and obscuring leaves space for the reader to encounter the festival in their own terms and seek out glimpses of the archaeologist working behind the shade cloth windbreak.

Ancient and Modern Argos

This weekend, on a lark, I read Jonathan Hall’s relatively recent book Reclaiming the Past: Argos and Its Archaeological Heritage in the Modern Era (2021). It was good and a must-read for anyone who plans to spend any time in Argos or the Argolid. The book does what it says on the cover: it explores the reception of archaeological remains from antiquity (narrowly construed) in the modern period (roughly the 18th century to the present). It does this with a minimum of theoretical bluster and the absence of much conceptual overburden. He acknowledges, for example, the long-standing debates concerning formation of modern Greek identity as both descendants of the ancient Greeks (Hellenes) and Christian Romans, but his nuanced narrative ensures that these longstanding models don’t over simplify complex processes and attitudes. In fact, Hall’s interest in digging into Argive attitudes toward antiquity produces a richly detailed narrative that draws from sources ranging from the Early travelers and Greek revolutionaries to archaeological publications, notebooks, and 19th and 20th century newspapers and media accounts. 

Here are three thoughts on the book:

First, this book defies academic convention by including so much description and narrative. While this is generally laced with analysis and interpretation, it is nevertheless clear that one of Hall’s main objectives was to recover Argive sources for the academic record and compile them. This isn’t to suggest that he wasn’t selective or careful, but instead to highlight his willingness to excavate material from a wide range of contexts in his search for Greek attitudes for the archaeological past of Argos. Our of necessity, this involved culling details from correspondence, newspapers, and local publications as a way to counterbalance the often stereotypical descriptions of Argos and its residents from contemporary travelers. 

Second, I know I will sound like a broken record here, but it bothers me a bit that the book spends so little time with the Early Christian, Byzantine, and Frankish periods in Argos. On the one hand, I get that these fall outside the antiquity-modernity binary and therefore are peripheral to the goals of this book. I also understand that assuming continuity across the centuries even for a city as well-known as Argos risks ignoring the sometimes catastrophic events that displaced its population and triggered cycles of demographic change and renewal. One the other hand, by downplaying the significance of sites such as the church of the Dormition as part of Argive strategies for reconciling Greek antiquity and identity with its Christian history, Hall perhaps removes key evidence for how residents of Argos may have formed their attitudes about the city’s archaeological heritage. I understand, of course, that Hall’s focus was far more directed toward monuments discovered in situ and of interest to foreign archaeologists (e.g. inscriptions, sculpture, and the like). That said, it struck me as a bit odd that despite his interest in how Argives viewed their archaeological past, he overlooked examples of spolia in Medieval and Ottoman buildings which seem to parallel in the more mundane practices using ancient blocks elsewhere. It seems to me that the focus on texts and archaeological heritage as the two interpretative poles of this book would complicate Hall’s efforts to understand local reception and understanding of antiquity because it is predicated on two analytical categories elite texts and the archaeology that these texts recognize and define that exclude a fair number of Argos’s inhabitants and their daily encounter with ancient things.   

Finally, I couldn’t help but compare this book to Chris Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnesus (2020). Witmore shares Hall’s interest in rich and nuanced description and the interplay between antiquity and the modern in the Greek landscape. He and Witmore also have the kind of deep understanding of their physical, archaeological, and historical landscapes that allow both books to situate ancient monuments in a diachronic perspective (albeit informed by different theoretical perspectives and approaches). Someone really should do a comparative review of these two books. 

As I’m teaching Greek history this semester, I couldn’t help but imagine that Witmore’s and Hall’s books could serve both as a way to decenter the often “Athenocentric” narrative of Greek history (past and present) and as a way to escape from viewing the past without taking into consideration the ways that modern attitudes have shaped what we encounter and value. Plus, they both return me to two of my “happy places” the northeastern Peloponnesus and the tangled byways of Argos and the Argolid!  

The Caraheard Podcast is Back!

One of my survival strategies for being over extended and feeling overwhelmed is taking on new projects or excavating old ones. Fortunately, I always have colleagues around to help with this strategy. So when Richard Rothaus proposed that we start a new season of the Caraheard podcast, the timing was perfect and there was no way that I could refuse.

I am very excited to announce the rebooting of the Caraheard Podcast. This is season four and like past seasons we kick it off with a conversation about the books that we’ve read over the past twelve months and as in the past Kostis Kourelis puts us all to shame not only with the quantity of books, but the quality of his commentary. 

You can listen to season four of Caraheard on Soundcloud or via iTunes. The show notes are posted over at Caraheard.com and if you really want an immersive Caraheard experience, you can watch our conversation via YouTube:

Richard and I are already talking about what this season will look like and have a few idea for folks we’d like to talk to before the summer. But we’re also a bit over extended. It might be best if you don’t hold your breath!

Smashing Statues

As readers of this blog know, I’m a sucker for an alliterative title and Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: the Rise and Fall of Americas Public Monuments (2022) is spectacular and as Joe Tessitor is known to say “wildly entertaining.”  

Thompson’s book explores the stories associated with erecting of statues honoring US Presidents, Confederate generals and soldiers, and Christopher Columbus  in the early 20th century and trying to have similar statues removed in the 21st century. The goal of the book was to tell new stories about many of the statues, their construction, and the movements associated with their removal and by changing the context, encourage us to reconsider what these statues represent. Thompson is a brilliant story-teller and this alone makes the book worth reading. Her ability to weave compelling counter narratives around such well known monuments as Georgia’ Stone Mountain and to humanize the removal of St. Paul’s Columbus statue and the political and legal wrangling associated with efforts to remove Birmingham’s Confederate memorial push the reader to expand how they understand these monuments and their place in our society. This is good and important work, even if, in some cases, it is preaching to the choir.

Stone Mountain was a complex pyramid scheme designed to support the lavish lifestyle of its spendthrift sculpture and various grifters associated with the revival of the Klan. The statues of Confederate soldiers at parade rest sought to enforce obedience among working class whites at the moment they were finding common cause with working class southern Blacks. Sowing racial division benefited the early-20th century Southern elite who profited from low wages by undermining efforts to unionize Black and white workers. As always in the US, race and class (as well as gender, which remained relatively unexplored, but not ignored, in Thompson’s book) requires intersectional analysis to reveal the complex histories that inform (and undercut) contemporary racial attitudes.  

Of particular note is Thompson’s discussion of the legal challenges associated with the removal of statues. She argues that part of the reason protestors have turned to unsanctioned methods for removing statues is the lack of clear legal or administrative routes to request, demand, or compelling their removal. Even in communities where the popular will clearly rejects monuments, such as Birmingham where a majority Black city has long felt monuments to the Confederacy painful and unwelcome, sustained state-level legislative and legal actions made it nearly impossible for the community to request their removal.

Thompson’s work likewise engages the somewhat facile argument that by removing statues we’ll be erasing history. She acknowledged that the past clings to statues in ways that is exceedingly difficult to remove and that monuments and statues have the capacity to move people in ways that texts, stories, and interpretative markers do not. That said, Thompson’s book is testimony to her faith that new stories about these monuments can transform out attitudes toward them. Removing the statues or even just debates about removing these statues force us to confront not only their power and legacy, but the situations that led to their construction and protection. In the end, these stories preserved in books, taught in schools, and commemorated in landscapes where monuments are preserved, reinterpreted and made conspicuous by their absence is the history that will remain. 

The only thing that I would add to the superficial pseudo-review was that I was particularly intrigued by the periodic windows into the monument’s urban settings. Birmingham, for example, is a majority Black city. This is a feature that it shares with Richmond, Virginia, another site of highly visible contested monuments. Last year, as I tried to finish my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience, I speculated on how the changing demographics of American cities transformed perspectives on the urban landscape. Monuments originally set up to mark out priorities held by white elite urban dwellers who sought to occupy the ceremonial space of cities now stand amid very different communities with very different priorities, ethnic make ups, and histories. Despite this change, as Thompson argues well, it is exceedingly difficult to transform the monumental space of cities. Not only are new public works hard to finance, difficult to negotiate, and politically fraught, but it is also almost impossible to remove existing monuments In effect, the monumental core of certain cities has become ossified. The departure of many of the communities who set up these monuments into the suburbs not only emphasizes the intrusive nature of these features in the urban landscape, but also encourages a view of the city itself into museums of their past residents alienating the contemporary community who are consigned to live amid its ghosts.

More troubling still is that fact that white elites and middle class residents, when they decamped to the suburbs, rarely troubled with putting up new monuments in these new spaces. It’s almost as if the now-departed city took on the memorial function for these communities as well as the expenses of maintaining these monuments, preserving them, and dealing with the consequences of their presence. I also wonder whether this allowed for a certain amount of moral distancing as well. This distant, urban, and, by definition, “past” stands at safe remove from the daily activities of suburban and exurban denizens who nevertheless rarely support the removal of these monuments while confining their own commemorative landscape to parking lots, shopping centers, and green spaces.

The stories Thompson tells about these monuments are important and not only have to bridge the racial, social, and economic gap between white and Black and rich and poor, but also spatial gap between the perceptions of the city held by urban and non-urban dwellers. 

Three Things Thursday: Dining, Dancing, and Data

It’s been a pretty long week. I managed to teach my two classes via Zoom on Tuesday and made it through my night class face-to-face on Wednesday. Today, I’m bracing for the full slate of teaching and hoping (as much as anything) that the after shocks of my brush with The Omicron remain mild. 

With this as background, I figure my readers likely understand that a Three Things Thursday represents a path of least resistance as I get back up to speed.

Thing the First

Yesterday, I read Yannis Hamilakis’s recent piece in World Archaeology: “Food as affirmative biopolitics at the border: liminality, eating practices, and migration in the Mediterranean.” He argues that food represents a key element in the political discourse of displacement. Food provided to individuals detained on the island of Lesvos served to define their status within the complex network of cultural and social identities present in the Moria camp. Overcooked rice, for example, made some residents understand their status to be as sick patients. Undercooked rice demonstrated a lack of concern by the state, NGOs, and caterers tasked with preparing food. 

As a result, many camp residents took to preparing their own food. They removed the meat from the pre-packaged meals and combined it with spices and other ingredients. They constructed cooking fires and ovens, used their meager cash allowance to buy cooking supplies and spices, and in some cases planted gardens.

This latter practice gave me pause. We were struck by the construction of gardens at work force housing sites in the Bakken oil patch especially during the height of the boom. Recent work on the role of gardens at Japanese internment camps has shown how they served to produce a sense of community in the austerely functional carceral landscape of the camp itself (see for example Bonnie Clark’s book, Finding Solace in the Soil: An Archaeology of Garden and Gardeners at Amache (2020) or Connie Y. Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of Japanese Incarceration (2018) which I blogged about here.) Ann Elena Stinchfield Danis’s 2020 dissertation from the University of California, Berkeley, “Landscapes of Inequality: Creative Approaches to Engaged Research” notes the gardens built my residents of the Albany Bulb on the San Francisco Bay (more here). 

If I were to wring a bit more from our research in the Bakken, I would write something about the gardens we observed there and the way in which gardens and outdoor cooking spaces contributed to the creation of domesticity, community, and place making at temporary workforce housing sites.

Thing the Second

I’ve been reading Hanif Abdurraqib latest book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021). The book is good and combines Abdurraquib’s poetic grasp of language with chapters that could easily stand by themselves as independent essays. I particularly enjoy passages where phrases spill out on top of each other connected only by the “&” and conveying the immediacy of his experience without introducing urgency. 

One of the best chapters in the book is titled “On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of the Limbs” and it explores the place of dancing or being able to dance on Black identity. Abdurraquib spills the beans when he tells us that Whitney Houston could not dance and then unpacks her rise as a black woman to pop super star status and how that shaped views of her Blackness. I won’t spoil the chapter or the book for anyone who has yet to read it, but this chapter alone makes it worth the purchase. It’s one of the best things that I’ve read over the past year. 

Thing the Third

 There’s been a good bit of buzz surrounding Piraye Hacıgüzeller, James Stuart Taylor and Sara Perry’s recent article in Open Archaeology: “On the Emerging Supremacy of Structured Digital Data in Archaeology: A Preliminary Assessment of Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Left Behind.” In the article, the authors take some of the narrative notes from the Çatalhöyük Research Project and convert them into structured data using the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model. 

The fit is predictably awkward and demonstrates for anyone who remains unconvinced that various structured data schemes always leave some information and even “wisdom” behind. I really like this article because it takes something that’s on the verge of being common sensical – i.e. narrative descriptions contain nuance that most ontologies and data capture models can’t reproduce – and makes it plainly visible. It also fits into a larger critique of “big data” or of just “data” driven analyses both in archaeology, narrowly, and also in contemporary society. I wonder, a bit, whether the COVID pandemic and the constant drone of data driven guidelines lurks in the back of these author’s thinking. There’s something about the limits of data as the basis for the analysis of COVID fatalities, spread, and efforts to mitigate COVID. 

An article like this serves as an interesting reminder that data driven analysis (and decision making) depends on methods of inclusion and exclusion and these decisions prefigured the kind of interpretation possible. Of course, this is known situation and hardly profound, but this article sets it out in the context of archaeology in a particularly elegant way.

New Book Day: The Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend

It’s my favorite day of the year! NEW BOOK DAY. 

And this new book day is better than most because it’s a NEW ARCHAEOLOGY BOOK DAY. 

Let’s celebrate the publication of Michael G. Michlovic’s and George R. Holley’s Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend!!

Here’s the skinny on The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota’s latest publication. As always it’s available for free or as a low cost paperback. Download links are below and do remember that purchasing a copy in paperback supports future publication projects by The Digital Press and contributes to building a sustainable infrastructure for small-scale, scholar-led, collaborative, open access publishing!

As a bit of backstory, the authors of this book reached out to me after struggling to find a traditional publisher for their manuscript. They wanted to publish their synthesis of a career of archaeological field work in the Sheyenne Bend region of Walsh County, North Dakota in a way that would ensure that a diverse and interested audience could get access to this work. They eventually discovered The Digital Press and we worked together to bring this remarkable little book together. 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has had the good fortune of publishing quite a few books that deal with archaeology, on the one hand, and North Dakota, on the other. Every now and then, there’s a happy coincidence, and we publish a book on the archaeology of North Dakota. 

Today’s New Book Day celebrates one of these books: Michael G. Michlovic’s and George R. Holley’s Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend. This book will join a small handful of books that explore in an engaging and accessible way the pre-European history and archaeology of North Dakota. Michlovic and Holley present a synthesis of over 35 years of archaeological research in the Sheyenne Bend of Walsh County. The book should be of interest both to specialists who want to get a broad overview of the archaeology of the region as well as to nonspecialists who are interested in how archaeologists interpret their finds and produce new understandings of regions and cultures. 

As with all our books, you can download it for free or pick up a low cost paperback from Amazon. Go here for the download or a link to purchase

More on the book and the press release below the cover image! 

Sheyenne Bend Book Cover

This volume presents the results of several decades of archaeological research in the Sheyenne Bend region of southeastern North Dakota. Piecing together evidence from disparate field projects, along with the work done by previous researchers, Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend offers a status report on the pre-European era cultures of southeastern North Dakota. Presented in ordinary language, this book constitutes the essential details to make sense of the regional archaeological record.

A New Archaeological History of the Sheyenne Bend

Denizens of eastern North Dakota know that there is more to the history of this region than meets the eye. Mike Michlovic and George Holley pulled together over 30 years of archaeological field experience in southeastern North Dakota to write an accessible new history of the pre-European cultures on the Sheyenne Bend region.

Both Michael Michlovic and George Holley are Emeritus Professor s of Anthropology at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where Michlovic served as chair of the Department of Anthropology and Earth Science and president of the Council for Minnesota Archaeology. Holley excavated across the United States in the Southeast, Midwest, Plains, and Southwest, and in Mesoamerica where prehistoric ceramics became his specialty.

Mike Michlovic remarks that the new book, The Archaeological Culture of the Sheyenne Bend, “is an effort to make our work more accessible to a larger audience, and to put all of the sites we worked into a single story.”

Beginning over 10,000 years ago, Michlovic and Holley welcome us into the world of the communities that lived around what is now the Sheyenne River in Walsh County, North Dakota. Retreating glaciers, the disappearance of Lake Agassiz, and the changing course of the Sheyenne River provide a vivid backdrop to the thousands of years of activity in this region that predate the arrival of Europeans.

For Michlovic and Holley, the story of these societies remains important to this day: “We were both educated as anthropologists, and as such were taught that there are no people in the world who are unimportant, and who, through understanding, don’t have something to teach the rest of us. We feel it is the same with the study of the past. There is something to learn from everyone’s past, not just the from the history of presently dominant societies.”

Michlovic and Holley explain how the sites only gave up their history of the area when combined on a regional scale: “The Shea and Sprunk sites demonstrated the features of a previously unknown cultural entity in the Sheyenne region, the Rustad site by far the oldest site, and one well represented by the cultural deposits, and the Biesterfeldt site, now a National Historic Landmark reflecting the early history of the Cheyenne people.”

Taken together these sites remind us “every people and every place have a past worth knowing, and it is vital that we learn this past before it is lost.”

William Caraher, director of the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and himself a field archaeologist, said, “Working on this book was particularly rewarding because it combined the press’s interest in archaeology and North Dakota into a book that is both accessible and one of the very few book length studies of North Dakota archaeology published this century.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, it is available as a free download for the press’s website or as a low cost paperback: https://thedigitalpress.org/sheyenne-bend/

Archaeology of Homelessness

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of reading Courtney Singleton’s recent Columbia dissertation based on her field work at Pelham Bay Park in New York City: “Vague Dwelling: An Archaeology of The Pelham Bay Park Homeless Encampment.

This dissertation is perhaps finest example of the systematic archaeological documentation of homelessness that I’ve read and should become a crucial text for demonstrating how archaeology of the contemporary world can produce new knowledge, inform social policy, and critique conventional archaeological methods and assumptions. 

I won’t review the dissertation here, but I’m very excited to fold Singleton’s new work into my chapter on homelessness. As is my typical practice, I’ll highlight a few of my key take aways.

1. Methods. One of the most significant aspects of this dissertation is the systematic and rigorous nature of the methods adopted by Singleton and her team. This is not meant as a critique of other efforts to use archaeological methods to document homelessness, but instead to celebrate this dissertation as the most archaeologically rigorous so far. It draws upon intensive survey practices and systematic excavation of deposits produces over the past 60 years. Singleton and team show attentiveness toward formation processes, develop typologies of recovered material (see below), and present results quantitatively. Absent are direct appeals to ethnographic work. This isn’t a criticism of either Singleton’s approach or more ethnographic approaches, but it does highlight the distinct character of her work as exclusively (or almost exclusively) archaeological.

2. Modern Things. One of the most interesting challenge that Singleton faces is the need to create typologies of modern objects that takes into account their materiality and their uses over time. Singleton is blunt here: creating these typologies was a massive challenge. This was as much because of the massive quantity and diversity of modern artifacts and material types and the difficulty association artifacts and materials with certain consistent functions. To her credit, Singleton avoids getting lost in the woods of ever narrower typologies (and speculative artifact histories), and manages to create enough order out of the modern chaos not only to parse the complex strategies employed by homeless people at the Pelham site to dwell there, but also to discern how changing material signatures reflected different material realities of life at this site.        

3. Marginal Spaces. Part of the story of the Pelham park homeless encampment was the concomitant growth of a New York City landfill across Eastchester Bay from the site. Homeless who lived in the park not only availed themselves to the relative seclusion that the park provided from the bustle of the streets, but also, at least for during the time when the landfill was active, took advantage of access to discarded material at the site. The presence of objects that do not align neatly with the dates of occupation of the park’s homeless community likely reflects salvage strategies made possible by the proximity to the landfill. 

The coincidence of landfills and marginal communities is long understood among both archaeologists and students of urbanism. More interesting still is the role of parks in creating marginal places where individuals using drugs, seeking some peace from the bustle of streets, or hoping to find privacy to perform rituals of hygiene or sexual acts. I remained fascinated by the confluence of marginalized individuals and spaces that, whatever their economic value (after all, parks and landfills do offer some economic utility), tend to not be socially productive for the dominant community. How does public space especially in regimes dominated by the push toward privatization afford individuals who lack private wealth to survive? And how do these practices reinforce the desire to privatize or otherwise restrict access to these spaces and limit the rights of the public at large?         

4. Race, Class, and Society. One thing missing in this dissertation is any sustained consideration of race or class as race or class. This is not a criticism necessarily, but it stuck me as a pretty bold absence especially considering the longstanding interest in both of these issues among historical archaeologists. It would not have been a massive leap to from concepts of dwelling and home to notions of the development of class consciousness or social cohesion among individuals identified by the dominant society as homeless. Instead, one could detect a vague thread of critique directed such ways of thinking in Singleton’s rebuke of the Occupy movement’s initial reluctance to recognize the homeless as part of the 99% at their camps. It would have been interesting to consider whether the commonality of practices among those identified as homeless in Pelham park contributed to a kind of collective awareness that gave rise to self-conscious strategies of collective action? Certainly Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg hint at a similar development of social cohesion among the residents of the Pit in their ethnography of drug addicts in Righteous Dopefiend (2009).  

Race is also largely ignored in the discussion of the community at Pelham Park (with the exception of one short section on a history of Black dolls and children’s toys). Again, I don’t want to make this out to be a liability of this work. Instead, I think it reflects a bit of ambivalence in the field of the archaeology of the contemporary world with race as a category of analysis in the US. It may be that notions of contemporaneity within our predominantly white field sit awkwardly with the archaeological and historical priorities present in communities of color which may see the present or the last 50 years as a period of failed promises or a periodization scheme that does reflect their lived experience in a meaningful way.  

5. Archaeology of Care. Finally, I loved the final chapters of this dissertation which demonstrated how the finding of the survey and excavation could contribute to public policy. At the same time, Singleton’s work was not dogmatic or proscriptive in any way. Instead, she demonstrated how an attentiveness to the complex lifeways of the homeless not only affords these communities the dignity of a past as well as a present constructed through a series of deliberate strategies and decisions, but also perspective that allows for a future that is informed by choices and priorities of the groups themselves.

To me, this is the basis for an archaeology of care. By studying others we not only recognize (and validate or even normalize) their lifeways, but also give them a voice.