Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries

Over the past week or so, I’ve worked my way through Luca Zavagno’s new book, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (AD 600-800): An Island in Transition (Routledge 2017). As the title suggests, the book examines the 7th and 8th centuries on the island and brings together in a single volume arguments that Zavagno had made in a number of significant articles in Dumbarton Oaks PapersReti Medievali Rivista, Byzantion, and the Mediterranean Historical Review. He argues that the position of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed it to enjoy significant interregional connectivity with Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant throughout this period, and this allowed for a remarkably resilient economic and social structure on the island that allowed it to survive the disruption of the weakening Roman trade networks (particularly the annona), Arab raids and other military interventions, and the island’s changing place within the political organization of the Mediterranean. Zavagno builds his argument on archaeological sources and challenges ideas grounded in texts that by the late-7th century, the island and the ancient Mediterranean had entered a period of terminal decline.

In many ways, Zavagno’s book will complement David Metcalf’s recent effort to aggregate evidence for Byzantine Cyprus, and follow current trends toward reconsidering the 7th and 8th century Eastern Mediterranean in light of revised ceramic chronologies that have fueled a renewed skepticism toward the apocalyptic narratives so common in textual sources. In many ways, this work is bringing to fruition Peter Brown’s famous arguments for a long late antiquity extending the basic sinews of the Roman (and ancient world) in the 8th century across the Eastern Mediterranean.

I won’t write a full review of this book (yet?), but have a few bullet point type observations:

1. Middle Ground. Like Greg Fisher’s recent book on the Late Roman Near East, Zavagno draws upon  Richard White’s idea of “middle ground” to describe the generative character of the encounter between the Late Roman, Christian, Greek-speaking polities and economic networks of antiquity, and the emerging Arab, Muslim, polities of the Levant and North Africa over the course of the 7th century. To Zavagno’s credit, the manages to avoid a view of the middle ground that essentializes the influences on Cyprus as Christian/Muslim, Greek/Arab, Byzantine/Islamic. In fact, Zavagno recognizes the echoes of the recent political situation in Cyprus in the interpretations of the so-called “condominium” period on the island when scholars speculated that Byzantine and Arab states jointly administered the island’s fiscal and political organization. This arrangement is unlikely, and in its place, Zavagno suggested a more fluid political and economic structure where various relationships across the region, including, but not limited to those mediated by centralize political entities in Constantinople or Damascus, constantly negotiated their stake in the island. The residents of the island itself and its institutions – ranging from the church to imperial and local elites – also contributed to this network of negotiated arrangements which occasionally produced relatively large-scale violence, like raids, and the payments of taxes, but often resolved itself in myriad local actions across a range of institutions and communities, including visits by Arab merchants, Arab settlers on the island, and not excluding the possibility of an Arab garrison.

2. Political and Economic Continuity. As one might expect, Zavagno sees the fluidity of the middle ground as allowing for a remarkable level of political and economic continuity. By examining the archaeological record carefully and with particular attention to recently revised ceramic chronologies, Zavagno is able to argue that the economic relationships between Cyprus and the surrounding regions persisted in the late-7th and 8th centuries. Late Roman D ware, for example, once thought to fall out of producing by the late 7th century has not been shown to persist into the 8th or even 9th. Our ability to recognize and date various forms of Late Roman amphora dating to the late 7th and 8th centuries have similarly allowed archaeologists to trace the persistence of economic connection in the region in new ways. Recently published seals, for example, have demonstrated that continued institutional relationships between Byzantine institutions and local elites as well as between ecclesiastical communities and various elites. These have, in turn, thrown the limited evidence in textual sources (particularly hagiography) for continued contact across the region into higher relief. 

This persistence of ties between Cyprus and institutions, individuals, and communities, almost certainly supported some continuity in settlement both in urban and rural areas. The decline of rural and coastal communities – like our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria – or more marginal settlements like Kalavassos-Kopetra, may reflect shifts in the intensity of economic connections with the surrounding regions and the emergence of a more contingent and dynamic rural settlement structure designed to take advantage of the middle ground of the 7th and 8th century while continuing to exploit longterm environmental and cultural resources present on the island. Cities likewise enduring the changing access to administrative resources and institutional patterns while continuing to function as population centers and nodes of local authority across the island well into the 8th century. 

3. Political and Economic Contingency. Continuity on Cyprus, then was mitigated by the needs to be responsive to the contingent world of White’s middle ground. I was particularly intrigued by Zavagno’s use of the term “resilience” to describe Cypriot communities and institutions. Too often, I think, we imagine local economies and institutions as the products of centralized fiat, and this is certainly true for Late Antiquity where so much archaeological and historical visibility for regions like Cyprus depends upon systems shaped by administrative connections or texts that provide glimpses of the margins from the center.

For Zavagno, the visibility of this evidence presents an illusory stability for Cypriot landscapes. As the relationship with the center – particularly the core imperial lands of the Aegean and Asia Minor – underwent change, the visibility of the connections between Cyprus and the wider region became more contingent and fluid. This is different from arguing that these connections disappeared. In fact, Zavagno insists that connections between Cyprus and the region continue to function but in more contingent and fluid ways that speak to the resilience of Cypriot communities, cities, and settlements as they negotiated new economic relationships amid various competing influences. 

This is clever stuff and while the argument is not entirely compelling (other than as a salutary reminder that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence), it offers a persuasive hypothesis that should shape continued scrutiny of Cypriot material culture. Hand-made vessels, objects like cooking and utility wares, and less visible (or widely recognized) activities associated with building traditions, decorative arts, and agricultural production may well provide hints at contingent practices engaged on a generational scale that often go overlooked in textual studies and archaeology’s tendency to privilege long-term economic and social trends.   

4. The Long Late Antiquity. This book represents a really nice contribution to recent trends toward a longer Late Antiquity. From the 18th century, scholars have seen Late Antiquity as both a period of decline and a period that generated many of the core institutions of the Western world. The break between the ancient world and the Middle Ages reflects no only a key chronological division in our understanding of the past, but one that defines disciplinary boundaries among academics with Classicists working before the Middle Ages and the Medievalists working after. Moreover, since the early 20th century, the division between the ancient and Medieval world has also been geographic with the loss of the Near East and North Africa to the Roman Empire marking a more or less permanent break between the Western, Christian world, and the Eastern, Muslim one.

By challenging the tidiness of this break on the island of Cyprus (and by implication and comparison elsewhere), Zavagno’s book (and the other major and minor works dealing with the 7th century) begins to pick at the very seams of both our academic discipline-making and our definition of what it means to be “western” and “eastern.” Zavagno does not go in for sweeping statements, but on a granular level he is clear. Cyprus in Late Antiquity absorbed influences from around the Mediterranean through travelers, trade, institutional ties, and economic relationships. This was both a characteristic of Cyprus and its insular location, but not also reflected larger trends in connections between regions in the wider Mediterranean. As a result, the long-standing idea of a break between east and west, Christian and Muslim, ancient and Medieval increasingly appears to be gentle elision throughout the 7th and 8th centuries where cultures mingled and mediated in local ways. The birth of the West (if this retains any value), then, comes from myriad local engagements that defied any simple dichotomies.  

5. What is Culture? The biggest critique that I have with this book, which is remarkably detailed and valuable, is that the island of Cyprus sometimes comes across as too unified an object of study. The sites on Cyprus, as some of our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria showed – had remarkable variation in terms of material culture. The distribution of fine wares, alone, suggest that issues other than access and chronology shaped the preference for one kind of table ware over another. The same can probably be said for church decoration, architecture, and other aspects of daily life (particular that associated with display).

The variation across Cyprus, of course, speaks to the varying levels and kinds of engagement with other regions, but also undermines the idea that Cyprus is a useful object of study. The tendency to conflate or attempt to synthesize settlement types on the island, material culture, and even the fate of cities and the countryside, reflects a concession to modern political boundaries that might at times subvert his larger argument for middle ground. 

Moreover, I wonder whether the tendency to see Cyprus as an place unto itself (in an insular ways, as it were), has limited the impact of the remarkable archaeological work on the island in larger considerations of the Late Roman Near East. Zavagno does a great job looking beyond the shores of Cyprus for comparanda and evidence for larger trends and connections. At the same time, I wonder whether our view of Cyprus would be much improved if we considered the sites on the island as extensions of the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt and North Africa? 

6. An Archaeological Quibble. This is really just a quibble, but at times, I found Zavagno’s description of archaeological contexts occasionally not compelling. While the book is not, strictly speaking, the publication of a site, but a book that uses a range of published archaeological data to make an argument, there were times when I wondered whether the quality and character of the excavations would sustain the kind of arguments that Zavagno was building. For example, late examples of Late Roman D ware (Cypriot Red Slip) in a sealed deposit with late-8th century with glazed white wares from Constantinople does not make a compelling case for LRD wares being 8th century without much more detail. In fact, all things being equal it would seem that the LRD wares are residual, but without more detail, it is impossible for me to know for certain.

In the end, this is quibble and my other critique has more to do with the book that I’d write than an actual critique of Zavagno’s book. As it stands, this book is a useful addition to the growing body of work on the 7th century. 

How Do Books Work?

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how books work lately for three reasons.

First, sometime this fall, North Dakota State University Press will publish a small tourist guide to the Bakken that I wrote with Bret Weber. Almost as soon as the manuscript went to NDSU, I began to think about producing a revised edition that expanded and complicated our description of the landscape. Tourist guides are interesting books because they have a tendency both to situated everything in the very narrow present of the visitor and to unfold the diachronic history of a place. As a result, they are both prone to obsolescence as well as interesting contributions to the very landscape they seek to produce. Anyone who has traveled with a 19th century Baedeker’s guide in hand knows the uncanny experience of seeing a historical landscape presented from a point in the past. For a century-old guide, this is endearing, for a guide that is just a year old, it’s annoying. I’d like to update my guide so that it better reflects the present realities in the Bakken while at the same time preserving the 2015 version of the text. 

More than that, I want to expand my discussion of the Bakken to bring it into sync with current conversations on petroculture, petrostates, local history, “prairie environmental history,” and the slow flurry of recent work on the Bakken. The challenge is how do I expand this book without compromising its essential integrity and creating a “frankenbook” that tries to do too many things all at once. 

Adding to this challenge, the book is going to be published as paper only. So any additions to the book will have to not only move between a cohesive text and a range of expanded content, but also between paper and, presumably, non-paper. As a start, I have a website.

My second project is along similar lines and focuses on Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual. This book as it currently stands is a technical manual, but from the start a group of folks wanted to expand it into something a bit more dynamic, historical, and discursive. Because it’s an open document, anyone could take a swing at marking it up, but we have had this idea that we might invite a group of contributors to comment on the manual from various methodological, historical, and archaeological perspectives. We’d set up the manuscript in Hypothes.is and invite contributors.

Here the challenge is not so much how to create a platform for conversation, but how to extract the conversations and repackage it in an archivable and persistent format, and perhaps even as paper.

Finally, and the most challenging project, is a serialized publication of a series of limestone and terra-cotta figurines from an archaeological site on Cyprus. The plan initially was to publish a pilot of a few dozen 3D objects and catalogue entries, but it seems like that we’ll expand that. As a result, we are trying to figure out how to publish a catalogue and analysis as a serial way that preserves but the integrity of presentation. 

This project is in its early stages and has lots of details to work out, but these three projects together are pushing me to rethink how books work to create knowledge both on a granular level (e.g. how do you cross-reference objects in a serialized publication? And how do you control for subtle shifts in interpretation across various iterations of the book and exercise version control?) and on the conceptual level (e.g. books remain a kind of standard for scholarly achievement in many disciplines because they represent the mastery of a particular topic or body of evidence or argument. Do open books that evolve through time explicitly subvert that kind of standard?).

These ideas and issues will continue to percolate in my head over the next few months, so please stay tuned!

Introducing Micah Bloom’s Codex

Traditionally, academic publishers fulfill several key steps in moving a manuscript to publication. Once they receive the manuscript, they coordinate peer review, offer editorial and even content suggestions, and perform copy edits, layout pages, and, most importantly, produce the final publication (before distributing and marketing this product from which they take a cut).

In other words, the publication process is creative, generative, and adds value, but also tends to be distinct from the process that generated the manuscript. In other words, a wall exists between author and publisher that helps establish publishing as separate from writing and to justify the role of publisher as playing an economically independent role in the process of knowledge creation. To be clear: this system works and has worked well for over a century. 

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In some cases, this wall is good, like when an author relies on a publisher to manage peer review or copy editing. In other cases, the wall is awkward like when the book is not just the end result of the author’s creative process or the vessel that allows the hard work of the manuscript to become manifest. When the book in totality is the product of a single creative vision that extends from the content of the book to its physical form, publishing draws upon earlier traditions of craft where authors and publishers were often interchangeable.

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This past year, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has been working with Micah Bloom to bring his remarkable book, Codex, to a wider audience. The original version of the book was designed to complement an installation that focused on the destruction of books by the Minot flood of 2011. It featured a series of remarkable photographs of the aftermath of the flood that critically engaged how we consider the destruction of books as both intimate objects and disposable commodities. We worked with Micah to add nine critical essays that engage the books and his art in new ways. Micah then produced a book about books that integrated the new essays with his photographs in a unified design.

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We prepared 20, numbered, signed print versions that we will circulate to local institutions through the generous support of the North Dakota Humanities Council. We’re also going to release the book digitally under a CC-BY-ND license this fall. And because you can never have enough books in enough ways, we’re also going to produce a trade paperback for folks who want the experience of the paper book at a low price.

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It was thrilling to receive photographs of the book this week! Be sure to stay tuned for more on this project.

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Codex Final REAL COVER

Conversations with David Pettegrew

A week worth of conversations with David Pettegrew is pretty challenging and invigorating stuff. 

Part of the great value of doing field work is the conversations during downtimes. David and I have been immersed in working on the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology for the last two years, but we’ve been chatting about other projects – including our next book project, An Introduction to Early Christian Archaeology.

This summer we chatted about a potential collaboration between his brilliant Digital Harrisburg project and maybe a new tourist guide and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This led to a productive conversation about the potential of digital and public humanities. I suggested that the limited time that faculty have to dedicate to public humanities projects may well parallel the limited time that consumers of public humanities projects have to engage them. (In my experience, faculty are not particularly voracious consumers of public humanities projects.) 

We also discussed the strange tension between public humanities as opportunities for student learning, but also as having to compete with myriad distractions of modern life from video games and movies to work, sports, kids, and other media. A significant challenge for the historian or public humanist, who often works constantly between an academic and public audience, is finding ways to present what we know and do in a way that competes with professionally generated media. We’re underfunded amateurs who are often expected to bring students into projects that are intended to compete for attention with highly paid professionals capable of slick production, with access to marketing teams, skilled programers and developers, and massive media markets. 

At the same time, we celebrated the potential of “punk projects” with low costs, modest goals, and do-it-yourself practices. As we contemplate the demise of the National Endowment for the Humanities we began to imagine a world where competition for grants could give way to greater impulse for collaboration and the often large, lavish (but not always even in humanities terms) grants and projects funded by the NEH would be replaced by denser networks of collaboration among humanists. To be clear, I don’t think that more organic and DIY practices could replace the sustained and systematic investment and leadership of the NEH, but I do wonder whether there are positive, alternative ways to think about how the humanities works.

Invariably, David and I also talked about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology. We reflected a bit on the rise and decline of methodology as a central feature of the discourse of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean. I offered the observation that with the growing acceptance of intensive survey among Mediterranean archaeologist has blunted the apologetic tone so prevalent in survey literature in the immediate aftermath of the Second Wave survey projects. It’s hard to know for certain if this lull is real or just the maturation of the conversation which results in fewer blockbuster methods articles and more incremental change. At the same time, it is clear that the way that we talk about intensive survey practice and methods has become more confident and perhaps less critical and reflexive.

Finally, we’ve talked about our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria. We have a small, but tightly controlled body of data from three(plus) seasons of excavation and five worth of study that now almost ready for publication. The most interesting conversation focused on our careful and exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis of the plow zone assemblage from the site of Pyla-Vigla. This assemblage could be compared profitably to the assemblage produced during intensive pedestrian survey to offer a small, but well-controlled case study for the relationship between the surface, plow zone, and subsurface remains.

We usually circle back to our work at the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and various ways to prepare a “final publication” that at least leads researchers to our data (when it’s fully published) if not to a particular set of conclusions or interpretations. 

Most conversations with David conclude with the refrain that we have too many projects and too many top priorities, but I think we both agree that this is better than being bored!

Updates from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters and the Corinth Excavation Manual

Some good news today from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

David Haeselin’s Haunted by Water: the Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 is now available in print from Amazon for the low, low price of $20! We’ve also added a few supplemental pages that developed during the editing and production of the book. One offers some additional reading on the Red River Flood of 1997 and other provides some useful insights into the class that produced this fine book.

If you haven’t already downloaded this book for free. You really should. And if you like it enough to add to your analogue paper book collection, do it, and leave a little review. It helps others make good decisions where they spend their $20 and bookshelf space.

  HbW Caraher Cover RY NL 01

The other bit of good news is that the Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual is on pace to break all of The Digital Press’s download records. It has been available for a little over two weeks and seen almost 500 downloads! 

CEM CoverDIGITAL

To celebrate this, we’ve made it available for purchase through Amazon for $9.99 for the rest of the month (it’ll take a little time for the price to change on Amazon. In the meantime, you can buy it here for $9.99 or be patient!). I can think of no reason not to go and grab a copy. If you like it and find it useful, it’s great for the Digital Press if you leave a comment! 

Finally, if you have an excavation manual that is gathering digital dust on your hard drive and think it’s pretty good and useful, drop me an email. When I first began work on the Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual, I had this idea that it might be the first in a series of published field manuals. A few people expressed some interest and I’d be keen to get a sense for whether other projects might be interested too!

Codex Project: Formation Processes, Floods, and Books

This spring saw the publication of two new books from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. A third will appear this fall with a limited edition print publication appearing of the course of the summer: Micah Bloom’s Codex. For more on that project, go here.

Below is my first draft of the preface for the book and a sneak preview of the contents:

Archaeologists study formation processes. These are the various natural and cultural processes that transform human activity into archaeological sites. To make meaning from the physical traces of the past, archaeologists disentangle the various events that create what we see in the present. The result of this work is both an appreciation for the complexity of time and experiences as well as an emphasis on objects and contexts that co-produce meaning. 

Micah Bloom’s Codex, here expanded with a series of new essays, is about formation processes.The surging waters of the 2011 Souris River flood left the city of Minot coated in mud and strewn with debris and Bethany Andreasen’s contribution to this book provides a sweeping overview of those events. Micah Bloom’s camera, however, focused on the books that the river deposited across the landscape. Robert Kibler the work of the flood and Bloom’s work has produced hybrid that embodies both natural and human transformations. As Ryan Stander shows, each photograph echoes both the book-littered landscape of the post-flood Souris and the myriad photographic images that have gone before.

I became familiar with Blooks’s project during its installation at the North Dakota Museum of Art in May of 2015. Laurel Reuter’s essay provides a perspective on that event from her position as director of the museum. The exhibit combined his photographs with various approaches to dealing with the damaged and waterlogged books. Some approaches were archaeological and featured careful indexing, systematic photograph, and scientific precisions. Others approaches embraced a religious cast manifest in a neatly-arranged book cemetery commemorating each volume lost. As Brian Prugh’s essay notes, books are special objects. 

In many ways, formation processes also produce books. Thora Brylowe reminds us that books themselves emerge from natural processes mediated by human intentions. Sheila Liming’s essay reveals that books are always in the process of decomposition as both the physical objects and the ephemeral containers of ideas. Bloom’s lens presents the blurred words and water soaked pages and encourages us to recognize that the intent of the book is, as Justin Sorensen notes, part of what gives it meaning. Books are to be read, but even when they’re not readable, they still speak to us as artifacts. The meaning of the books in Bloom’s photographs compels us to take their materiality seriously and to recognize, using David Haeselin’s term, that they are constructed.

This book too was constructed in a very particular way. The contributors hail from around the U.S. and, as this brief introduction has shown, bring a range of perspectives from the fields of history, literature, art history, and criticism to Bloom’s work. These essays were copy edited by the students in David Haeselin’s writing, editing, and publishing course at the University of North Dakota. Micah Bloom supervised the design of the book with the help of Marissa Dyke at Minot State University. The book is published by Bill Caraher’s project, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with funding from both UND and Minot State University.

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

I am really excited to share Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto with the world. This small book emerged over the course of my graduate historiography seminar. The student authors, Peter Baganz, Yonca Çubuk, Nicholas Graves, Joseph Kalka, Matthew G. Marsh, Janet Wolf Strand, and Susanne Watt wrote, edited and compiled this little book in response to learning that our graduate program had been defunded and the current cohort of graduate students would be the last for at least a little while.

The book contains a series of essays that explore the intersection of the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota, the character of higher education in the 21st century, and the role of humanities and history, in particular, in the past and future of American life. The essays are sharp, critical, and do not shy away from controversy or provocation.

The work benefited from a round of public comments that served as a kind of peer review. You can see the comments here.

The work concludes with a sweeping call to action that embodies the arguments throughout the book:

  • Apply historical thinking to higher education policy decisions.
  • Recognize the relationship between higher education and community building.
  • Understand that the historical success of the American university as a means of promoting prosperity is not necessarily linked to job creation.
It’s free, it’s provocative, and it balances the immediacy of the the UND budget situation with the perspective of history and the past.

 

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Summer Reading List

Today is the last day of classes for the spring semester and I have to begin thinking about my summer reading list. I have something like 25 hours of travel in about week so that alone should be enough to get a good start on summer reading.

You can check out my past reading lists here: 2016201520142013, and 2011. 

My reading will fall into three categories, I think. First, I want to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, New York: 2140 and Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway.  

I also need to catch up on reading for two future projects.

For my little Introduction to Early Christian Archaeology project. This includes reading William Tabbernee’s edited volume, Early Christianity in Context and Bonna Wescoat’s and Robert Ousterhout’s 2012 volume, Architecture of the Sacred, Michael Peppard’s new monograph on Dura Europos, The World’s Oldest Church, and Ulrich Huttner and David Green’s Early Christianity in the Lycus Valley.

I also want to start to do some more serious reading for The Budget Project with some big picture books like Mary Douglas’s How Institutions Think as well as some classics like Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins and Jaroslav Pelikan’s 1992 reappraisal of Newman’s The Idea of a University. I’ll also check out some new stuff like Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy and William Rouse’s Universities as Complex Enterprises.

I also need to keep reading in some of my long-term and less well defined projects. For example, I should have read Thomas G. Andrews’ Killing for Coal on the Ludlow massacre and I should read Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s book on architectural improvisation called Adhocism and Mamoud A. El-Gamal and Amy Myers Jaffe’s Oil, Dollars, Debt, and Crisis.

I’d like to keep my fingers in a few other projects, including my continued work on slow, and read Ivan Illich’s work on conviviality, Tim Ingold’s Making, and Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain

Finally, I’ve had Thanasis Vionis, A Crusader, Ottoman, and Early Modern Aegean Archaeology on my reading list for three years! This will be the summer that I read and digest it. 

Shipping Containers

As a member of the Kostis Kourelis and Richard Rothaus reading collective, I was told to read Craig Martin’s little book titled Shipping Container in the Ian Bogost’s and Craig Schaberg’s Object Lesson’s series from Bloomsbury Academic. It was really good.

The book considered three things in relation to the container – their ubiquity, their standardization, and their impact on labor – as a way of using the container to unpack the hidden elements of consumer capitalism and globalization.

1. Ubiquity. By far, the most compelling aspect of Martin’s book how he presents shipping containers as a key part of the ubiquitous networks of modern capitalism. Moving constantly from factory to ship to truck to store, shipping containers are like Michel Serres’s angels, coursing the globe delivering goods. They are permanently ready, stacked in ports or atop container ships, to discharge their responsibilities and to support to global flow of capital (and here, he evokes David Harvey’s various works and, of course, Allan Sekula’s Fish Story). 

Of course, they’re also ubiquitous in re-use as offices, storage units, and modular housing. These functions fall outside of their primary use, but, at the same time, hint at their ubiquity. They are so common that a few pulled from circulation whether through formal or informal means has no impact on the functioning of the system in general.

2. Standardization. The standardized size of shipping containers was key to their adoption by shipping companies and ports. Martin does a nice job discussing how the shipping container rose to prominence historically and replaced the improvised methods for stowing gear upon ships that had persistent for centuries. By offering a standardized sizes for loading, the container because the basic unit for moving goods both onboard ship and ultimately onto trucks or rail for distribution. For Martin, the packaging of goods upon a ship – traditionally the expertise of the longshoreman – gave way to the stacking of shipping containers by standardized equipment. The rise of the shipping container marked the the decline in the craft of stowage, but more importantly it marked the standardization of space.

The size and shape of the shipping container influenced the movement of goods, their shape, how they are packaged, their various states, and how they are sold. In other words, this largely invisible, if ubiquitous, form and its standardized measure shapes how we experience our larger material surroundings.

3. Labor. While it is increasingly common to read about objects as agents that exert a symmetrical force upon human actors. Martin was not particularly interested in such formulations and focused instead on the human costs of standardization. He examined the changing role of the longshoreman who went from expert in stowage to operator of a crane with a largely automated coupling device that attached to the shipping container. This is not to suggest that a certain amount of technical knowledge and experience goes into loading and unloading a containership (or, presumably, loading and unloading the containers themselves), but that this labor is substantively different from that of the traditional longshoremen’s role. Labor represents main lens through which Martin considers the size and function of containers ultimately shaping human actions.

4. Afterlife of Containers. One of the things that Martin does less with is the afterlife of shipping containers. On the one hand, he describes how their human scale makes them suitable for a range of terrestrial functions from storage to habitation. In fact, the book starts with Martin writing about containers in a shipping container turned into artist studio at some lakeside retreat. The conclusion returns to the various forms of adaptive reuse and adhocism involving shipping containers. 

At the same time, the book does little to explain how shipping containers actually function as angels in the distributed system capitalism. Once they deliver their message, where do they go? What happens then? How does a shipping container carrying South American mulch to Grand Forks, ND find its way back to a port or even a redistribution point to continue on its way? Who owns shipping containers? Who takes the loss when a container becomes an adhoc storage room at a construction site or falls from a ship in transit?

A few years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book on shipping pallets for the Object Lesson series. My proposal was rejected (maybe declined is a better term) because Martin’s book on shipping containers was already in the works. The difference between our books lies in their area of emphasis. My interest was in the afterlife of shipping pallets. Once they have served their primary function as a platform for goods, what happens to them and where do they go? How do individual pallets find their ways into suburban basements, into rural sheepfolds, and into improvised furniture? 

I think Martin’s emphasis on standardization has much to do with the utility of shipping pallets both in their primary function and in their afterlife. In fact, Martin suggests that shipping containers in some ways have made pallets obsolete, but I would contend that the relationship between the two objects has given pallets ongoing importance. After all, a shipping container of standard size is 8 ft wide and most standard pallet sizes fit within this size container with a minimum of wasted space. Their standardized dimensions then contribute to their utility as building materials forming neat walkways, 4 ft. high fences, and lining up neatly in garages, big box store aisles, and basements. 

If shipping containers provided the size, the forms of movement, and the efficiency to activate the seamless flow of global capital, then the byproduct of this efficiency is a kind of flourishing of adhocism structured around containers and pallets organized around their standard dimensions and sizes. 

More Mobilizing the Past

With all the exciting new stuff happening at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I’ve let some updates on (slightly) older projects slide. So here’s a bit of an update.

Copies of Erin Walcek Averett, Derek B. Counts, and Jody Michael Gordon eds., Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: the potential of digital archaeology (2016), went out to reviewers this winter and the first reviews are coming in. Benjamin Ducke of the DAI in Berlin offered a largely positive review of the book for the German journal Archäologische Informationen here. He concludes by saying that while “Zu den inhaltlichen Mankos einiger Beiträge gehören der kaum hinterfragte Einsatz proprietärer Software und Serverdienste zur Datenprozessierung und -speicherung, welche einer Blackbox gleichkommen, sowie eine zu autodidaktische Herangehensweise bei der Suche nach technischen Lösungen,” Mobilizing the Past “repräsentiert den Stand des Wissens am Übergang zur Phase der vollständigen digitalen Dokumentation archäologischer Feldarbeit. Since this is what the authors really set out to do from the start, we’re pretty happy with that assessment.

The editors of Mobilizing the Past funded the conference and the book through a NEH grant, for which they have written a final report. Read alongside Ducke’s review, this report confirms the fundamentally practical motivations for the conference and accounts from the practical character of many of the papers. When I decided to publish this book, I regarded this as a good thing because it offered a state-of-the-field (Stand des Wissens) perspective which will give it longevity as both a historical document and a critical reflection on a moment of particularly creative and accelerated change in field practices.

Finally, the book has been downloaded over 1500 times and we’ve sold a steady number of volumes in paper as well. Interestingly, the numbers for this book are almost identical to The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016).

Download a copy of Mobilizing the Past here or buy it in paper here.