On Books and Blogs

This is the 1000th post on the New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. About 950 of them, I’ve authored and the other 50 or so were penned by my remarkable colleagues and contributors.

My average post length is about 300 words, which puts the entire endeavor at around 280,000 words or so. That’s a lot of words. These words have had about 145,000 page views and average around 1000 views per week. I think this is a sustainable clip for me as the author, and, I hope, for you as readers.  

I’ve posted a number of times on how blogging fits into my daily workflow and its benefit to me as a writer and scholar. It ensures that I write every day and smooths the transition from the jumbled nest of ideas in my head to (what I try to pass off as) linear arguments. As readers of this blog know, my posts tend to be messy and unedited and filled with inconsistencies, but I trust my readers to filter out what makes sense and what doesn’t and to cull the good from the posts here and discard the crazy. I hope, on the measure, that my posts produced more wheat than chaff.

If the threshing process is too time consuming, you can, of course, go right to the main coarse of bread. Yesterday afternoon we got the cover image for the book that I wrote with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore and a few other remarkable colleagues.

ARS21Cover

I love the cover image because it humanizes our work as archaeologist and stands in contrast to recent covers in the series which tend to focus on objects or buildings. It fits our volume because we spend many pages talking about the interaction between the human work of archaeology and analysis that this work produces. The invisibility of antiquity on the cover reminds the reader that archaeological knowledge is not out there waiting to be discovered, but is generated through the relationship between humans and the landscape. The presence of modern artifacts – electrical wires, metal signs and other features – highlights the diachronic nature of our survey work on Cyprus. All this is to say that the cover of our book shows that knowledge production is a messy process and this has fine parallels with the blobs of words that my dedicated readers frequently encounter here. I think this cover really makes our work stand out!

We’re optimistic that the book will available for Christmastime shopping (and everyone’s life is better with a bit of Koutsopetria!), and if it’s not available yet, you can always make it a Very Punk Archaeology Christmas!

I have a few experiments in mind for my online word-making projects in the next couple of weeks, so please stay tuned. And, while it goes without saying, thanks for reading! 

Fracking Made Personal

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading popular treatments on fracking. While in the Bakken I read Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land in anticipation of her visit to UND at the end of the month (more on that soon!). I then, while ambling about Amazon.com admiring Punk Archaeology, I bought Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking in Oxford University Press’s What Everyone Needs to Know series and picked up Russell Gold’s, The Boom as well for fun. (Ok, I also indulged my hobby of Late Antiquity and bought Jonathan Conant’s Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700, but I won’t talk about that book in this post.)

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I really want to write about Peters’ book, because in some way it’s the most interesting in presentation and the most relevant to any stray North Dakotans who might stumble on my blog, but Prud’homme, Gold, and Peters all do something similarly in their work. They begin with first person anecdotes about the boom. Gold talks about his liberal, aging-hippy parents being offered $400,000 by Chesapeake Energy to lease the rights for the gas under their rustic retreat in central Pennsylvania. Prud’homme finds himself at a public debate over fracking in New York City. Peters is on her way to be by her oil-loving father’s side at his death bed. For some reason, popular books on the oil boom and fracking demands a kind of first person intimacy.

I got to thinking about why these authors used this particular device to introduce their treatment of fracking. It’s not like fracking has been dehumanized in the mass media. The oil-smeared faces oil workers have already offered a human face of the industry, but these books seem to substitute a different face. They have replaced the dirty hands of the laborer with the soft hands of the journalist. Appealing to middle class ambivalence about fracking, the writer takes on the confusion of information confronting someone who might have oil stocks in their portfolio and appreciate their performance, but also have a twinge of guilt that perhaps profiting from petrochemical industry is not compatible with genteel environmentalism.

One of the key aspects of this bourgeois environmentalism are the attitudes of Gold and Peters toward private property. Peters, in particular, demonstrates a delicate ambivalence. On the one hand, she recognized the homesteading claims of her grandfather who tried to make a living from the difficult North Dakota soils. She admired her grandfather’s prescience in retaining mineral rights to his land and making leases to oil companies. Her childhood and environmentalism developed, ironically, from the conversion of these oil rights to property on the scenic St. Croix river and a lovely cabin. On the other hand, Peters knowingly trespasses on the St. Croix property after it was sold to reminisce about her childhood. Elsewhere in the book she was traumatized when she encountered an overzealous security guard at a fracking sand quarry. The final encounter in the book, which involved spreading her father’s ashes at a well site, was made more sweet when an oil field technicians at the well gave an impromptu tour rather than chasing the family away from the site. Despite his generosity, Peters made clear that the risk was there and the reader could only think of the earlier encounter at the quarry. In fact, a key tension throughout the book is the complexities of ownership whether of oil, property, or mineral rights, and the benefits and (ethical and emotional) risks associated with ownership.

In a sense, then, the story of the oil boom revolves around a complicated American dream which recognizes property ownership – whether the Jeffersonian farm, the modern suburban retreat, or the urban condominium – as part of a package of rights derived from a particular reading of John Locke. Environmentalism, in contrast, appears to ask the individual property owner to resist the fullest expression of those rights for the common good. In some cases, the state intervenes as mediator between the rights of the individual and the community, but Peters’ book problematizes this relationship between the individual and property.

The first chapters of Prud’hommes and Gold’s book likewise articulates the oil dilemma facing Americans as they locate themselves between the arguing factions, competing narratives, and the conflicting myths of private property, energy independence, and progress. I’m no environmentalist, but I do worry that the emphasis on the individual story undermines the genuine power of collective action. By making the hard work to keep the oil industry safe and as environmentally and culturally sensitive as possible a distinctly middle class operation guided by a set of middle class expectations, we run the risk of minimizing the responsibilities of the state (as in the federal, state, county, and local governments) and the community (loosely construed as people who share space, resources, and social ties) to negotiate the complex interests of its stakeholders.

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Hellenistic Corinth

Over the last few weeks I’ve bee reading Mike Dixon’s new book: Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Corinth, 338-196 BC for a book review. As with so many of my plans, I had hoped to have a draft of the book review done by the end of September. It doesn’t look like that will happen, so instead, I’ll write a blog post that can serve as a rough draft of the review and to capture my impressions on the book before they get washed out by a million other little projects.

Dixon’s work on the Hellenistic Corinth was eagerly anticipated. His 2000 dissertation on interstate arbitration in the northeastern Peloponnesus became a convenient guide to the unpublished antiquities and general topography of the southeastern Corinthia. It was among the finest of a group of topographic dissertations focusing on the northeastern Peloponnesus in Greek antiquity. In this work he demonstrated that he was a conscientious reader of archaeological landscapes, and he brought this same care to his reading of the political landscape of the Hellenistic Corinthia.

There is much to like in this book.

First, it appears at a time when the Hellenistic world is enjoying a renaissance and the archaeology of Hellenistic Corinthia will get its share. The publication of Sarah James’ dissertation, the imminent publication of the Rachi settlement above the sanctuary at Isthmia, and David Pettegrew’s soon to be published monograph on the historical periods on the Isthmus, and even my own modest contributions to the fortification and topography of the Late Classical and Hellenistic Corinthia demonstrate the extent of scholarly interest in this period and this place. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Hellenistic period is the new Late Antiquity. 

Dixon’s book provides a single destination for the literary sources central to the basic narrative of the Hellenistic period at Corinth. This alone makes the book valuable to scholars of the Corinthia. Dixon’s argument that the Corinthian polis negotiated its relationship with its Macedonian rulers through the strategic deployment of eunoia, or reciprocal goodwill, is likely to attract critique, but it is consistent with how scholars like John Ma have understood the relationship between cities and Hellenistic rulers.

Dixon’s book is explicitly and almost exclusively political in scope, and he creatively weaves together the admittedly limited sources for the city’s political life throughout this period. At times, Dixon’s work feels a bit speculative. For example, his efforts to understand why Corinth did not return the actor Thessalos who had fled to Corinth after angering Phillip II for attempting to arrange a marriage alliance on Alexander’s behalf. Dixon offers several possible scenarios to explain why Corinth defied Phillip’s request despite having a Macedonian garrison there. Dixon proposes (albeit gently) that Thessalos could be a Corinthian and this accounted for his confidence in fleeing to the city. The reason for Corinth’s failure to comply and endangering eunoia with the Macedonian dynasty remains unclear, and Dixon’s speculation adds little substantive to his arguments. In fact, if more evidence existed for Corinth during this period, it would be tempting to reject the historicity of the Thessalos affair and the letter of Phillip as many scholars have and move on. In Dixon’s defense, he marks his treatment of this affair as speculative, and I tend to appreciate his willingness to explore the limited sources fully, but to others these red herrings may detract from his overall arguments.

More problematic in Dixon’s work is his tendency to read the behavior of the city as monolithic in its motivation. For example, I struggled to discern the strategy of eunoia from the goals of the Corinthian state. Even when a Macedonian garrison watched over the city of Acrocorinth, there must have existed factions within the Corinthian demos who sought not only different ends but also different means to these end. For example, in the complex political wrangling that involved Corinth’s relationship with the Achaean League and the political influence of Aratos of Sikyon, some of Corinth’s vacillating might reveal political factions within the city who had varied interests rather than the pivot of the entire city based on proximate military or diplomatic threats. 

While we lack the sources to confirm the existence of these factions, Dixon’s reading of the Corinthian politics assumes certain strategic understandings of power relations in the Hellenistic world. In recent years, the study of Hellenistic diplomacy and practical political theory has enjoyed renewed attention. My entrance into these debates came through Michael Fronda’s book on the diplomatic moves of Hannibal and the Greek cities of south Italy during the Second Punic War. Dixon’s book and arguments would have been stronger had he engaged some of this recent scholarship more fully to frame his work in a larger historiographic and theoretical context. Whether this would have revealed more nuanced readings of Corinth’s diplomatic history is difficult to know, but it certainly would have linked the history of this important city more clearly to ongoing discussions on interstate relations in the ancient world. 

I would have also enjoyed a more thorough treatment of archaeological work outside of the immediate environs of the city. Dixon’s dissertation and experience excavating at Corinth demonstrated his archaeological chops, and he dedicates a chapter to the archaeology of the Hellenistic period on the Isthmus. Most this chapter focused on major monuments and sanctuaries, and most of his critical engagement with recent archaeological work in the region appears only in his footnotes. For example, it would have been useful to understand how Dixon understood David Pettegrew’s recent skepticism toward the economic significance of the diolkos. I have also valued Dixon’s take on the various remains fortifications from the Late Classical and Hellenistic period throughout the Corinthia. Understanding the strategies employed by various Macedonian monarchs (and invading armies) to fortify or garrison the city’s chora might provide insights into how recognized Corinth’s military value in a regional context as well as their approach to protecting the city’s  economic foundation in the countryside.

In general, my desire for greater attention to archaeological detail and efforts to connect Corinthian diplomatic practices to ongoing discussions within the field reflect more my interest and the book that I’d like to see, than any shortcoming on Dixon’s part. 

Finally, (and I say this with the trepidation of someone who just published a book) I wish these Routledge books were better copy edited. While copy editing problems never obscured the meaning of the text, they were frequent enough to be distracting. Things like this, however, do not detract from the book’s over all value. It’ll be the first book on a new shelf in my library ready to receive the fruits of the impending Hellenistic revival.   

Punk Archaeology: The Book

I’m impatient. So, I decided to push the button and publish Punk Archaeology today. This is the first book published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. We’re so punk that we don’t really have a webpage.

That being said, we’re also so punk that we will release a book here for free.

Download it here or here.

I have one favor to ask. If this book is something that you think sounds cool, spread the word. Facebook it. Tweet it. Ello it. Tell everyone you know about it. Since this press has no budget, no staff, no offices (and you might suspect no editors…), I need my readers to serve as our marketing wing. Blow up the internet, please.

PunkA cover 1

Description:

Punk Archaeology is a irreverent and relevant movement in archaeology, and these papers provide a comprehensive anti-manifesto.

Acknowledgements:

This volume was made possible by a whole community of folks ranging from the relentless Andrew Reinhard who proofed this over and over and over again to Aaron Barth who put together the conference which produced these papers. The authors were great to work with except Richard Rothaus who insisted that we include his handwritten paper. (I kid, I kid). Support for the whole deal came from the Cyprus Research Fund, the Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University, the North Dakota Humanities Council, and the delicious beer makers at Laughing Sun Brewing in Bismarck. Administrators at the University of North Dakota are to be commended for raising their eyebrows politely and ignoring what I was doing.

This book would not have been possible without the efforts of Joel Jonientz who did the cover design and layout. I wish he was around to see the results. The book is dedicated to him.

NewImage

Other Details:

The print copy should be ready to go by the end of the week and available at Amazon. I’ll post a link to that. It should cost around $30.00, but look like a million bucks. Make sure to order copies for friends and families as well as university libraries and private collections.

Here are links to the papers being read at the conference on Soundcloud thanks to Tim Pasch, Chad Bushy, and Caleb Hulthusen for recording the event:

https://soundcloud.com/punk-archaeology-speaks

https://soundcloud.com/tags/punk%20archaeology

And listen to Andrew Reinhard’s soundtrack here:

http://www.soundcloud.com/charinos/sets/punk-archaeology

Here’s the book, folks:

 

Book Blurbs: Pyla-Koutsopetria and Punk Archaeology

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I’m not much of a book writing person. Most of my ideas can be most profitably explored at about 10,000 words. Every now and then, I figure out some idea or concept or gimmick that deserves more words, and over the next month or so, two of those ideas will appear in book forms. Of course, none of this would be even remotely possible without the collaboration of coauthors, editors, and colleagues. 

One of the most fun parts about getting a book together (you know, more fun than page proofs or sorting out that one last figure that requires attention!) is writing and receiving little blurbs that are used for marketing new books. 

My coauthors and I wrote the little blurb for Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town. American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Report Series Number 21:

Pyla-Koutsopetria I presents the results of an intensive pedestrian survey documenting the diachronic history of a 100 ha microregion along the southern coast of Cyprus. Located around 10 km from the ancient city of Kition, the ancient coastal settlements of the Koutsopetria mircoregion featured an Iron Age sanctuary, a Classical settlement, a Hellenistic fortification, a Late Roman town, and a Venetian-Ottoman coastal battery situated adjacent to a now infilled, natural harbor on Larnaka Bay. This publication integrates a comprehensive treatment of methods with a discussion of artifact distribution, a thorough catalogue of finds, and a diachronic history to shed light on one of the few undeveloped stretches of the Cypriot coast.

I’m also on the verge of releasing my first book as publisher: Punk Archaeology.  

Punk Archaeology Cover

The process has been a bit slower than expected, but I invited some sympathetic voices to provide some short perspectives on the book.

The first is from Brett Ommen, hobo academic:

The <Punk> of Punk Archeology exists as acipher, an empty signifier. The value of this volume lies in its commitment to variously loading <punk> with meaning based on the epistemic uncertainties that mark human civilization and its study. This volume traverses the supposed rules of theory and praxis, of art and science, of conservation and change, of information and meaning by way of the unruly <punk>. <punk> helps these authors locate their work and our world, not because it functions as a particular concept but instead because it refuses any particular mode of divination. As such, Punk Archaeology offers all academic fields a lesson for utilizing the anarchy of the cipher to negotiate the perils of disciplinary rigidity.

The second is from photographer, geek, and author Kyle Cassidy:

Archaeologists are at home in the dirt. They start the season respectably enough, in khaki’s and sensible shoes, but after four weeks of living in a tent and sifting rocks for bits of bone all day they’ve stopped shaving (if they ever did to begin with), possibly eschewed grooming altogether and no longer resemble anything you’d expect to see in the front of a classroom. When an archaeologist needs to get a wheelbarrow of backfill across a trench, they build a bridge out of whatever’s lying around; they do it this way because they’re in the middle of nowhere and they know the swiftest way between point A and point B is to do it yourself; because the coyotes aren’t going to do it for you and the board of trustees isn’t going to do it for you. This DIY attitude is how they manage to transport & house two faculty members and five grad students in Syria for three months for less than one lab in the med school’s spent on glassware during the same time period.

Archaeologists rely on themselves because they have to. They are the cassette tapes of academics; played through one speaker, loudly, and full of passion, blasting a song that so many people can’t understand the words to, but are moved by experiencing. Punk Archaeology is filled with this music: In Richard Rothaus’ “Punk Archaeoseismology”, scientists try to understand the destruction of a town 1,600 years ago by racing to  Güllük, Turkey the day that it sinks into the sea, killing every single inhabitant, during a terrible earthquake. It is as personal and visceral as any Xeroxed Zine because it is ultimately about science poured from the crucible of very personal chaos. Colleen Morgan’s account of continually explaining her tattoos to workers is an explanation for everyone in the sacrifices we all make to identify our tribe. Kostis Kourelis’ singling out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s unheralded place in the creation of Punk and New Wave reminds us of Philadelphia, Turkey and it’s likewise mostly forgotten place in Byzantine history — archaeologists know better than most anyone else that kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall and the small things that are meaningful to us now won’t even be footnotes in eighteen hundred years unless someone tracks them down.

This book is about archaeology, and more than that, it’s about music, but when you peel back all the power chords, the distorted guitars, the sweat, the frenetic drums, Ramone’s stickers and the cheap beer, most of all, this book is about trying to fit broken pieces together to make sense of a world in which you are constantly reminded that everybody dies in the end, because you’re looking at veritable mountains made up of their triumphs, their failures, and their very bones.

Collecting and Listening

As a member of Kostis Kourelis’ book club, we were encouraged to read Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price (2014). The book describes the remarkable world of 78 rpm record collectors. 78 rpm records were produced largely before the war (although they were made until the 1960s) and usually contained pop music, “race music” (including blues and jazz that were marketed largely to an African American audience), and “ethnic music” that was not widely played on the radio. The discs themselves measured 10 inches across and were usually made of  a hodgepodge of unreliable materials that allowed for the fledgling recording business able to produce and circulate music quickly. Most of the masters for these cheap records are lost and in many cases the only recordings that we have of prewar pop music exist on the handful of poorly manufactured discs held dear by collectors.

In fact, Petrusich argued that collectors of prewar 78s attracted the attention of folk and blues artists starting in the 1960s (and Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music was often their introduction to music recorded originally on 78 rpm discs) and spurred the popular revival of these genres. This connection to 78s  has continued to attract the attention of Jack White and a handful of other oldey timey music fans. 

I won’t review this wonderful book, but I do want to use it to make a few little observations about how we listen to music (and some of my comments relate to my interest in recent trends among audiophiles).

1. Authentic Sound. One of the most remarkable things about the survival of 78 rpm records is the incredibly poor quality of many of the prewar discs. First off, the record labels made these discs of schellac which was a rather fragile and inconsistent material that did not lend itself to consistent pressings. Compounding matters is that up until 1924 or so, recordings were made by the “acoustical” method. That is, the performers played into a horn that amplified the sound enough to move a cutting stylus across a master cylinder of wax. These recordings could not capture the same sonic range as later electrical recordings made into microphones, but are more coveted by collectors. The inconsistent character of shellac discs, however, continued to compromise quality at playback as did the tendency to press records that did not play at precisely 78rpm and used various frequency response curves idiosyncratic to particular labels.

As a result, the sound from 78rpm discs might be described as inconsistent, but to some extent the sound we hear from them defines an era of recorded music. There is an undeniable authenticity that audiophiles, in their relentless pursuit of perfect sound, tend to overlook. Recent debates about the LP revival, for example, tend to focus on the idea that LPs sound BETTER than the compressed sound of mp3 recordings so popular with “the kids these days.”

At the same time, it is hard to deny that our compressed-to-distortion mp3s are the authentic sound of  music for this generation just as the crackling, warped, and distorted sound of relatively inexpensive 78s was the sound of recorded music prior to the war. I’ll admit that I’m not a LP guy and, in fact, I find the sound of digitized 78s difficult to enjoy. At the same time, I’m not as mortified by the sound of MP3s, as say, Neil Young or other audiophiles. While I still prefer a CD or even a high-resolution download, reading Petrusich’s book has reminded me that there is something undeniably authentic about both 78s and mp3s.

2. The Song. One of the great tropes in the audiophile press is how the kids these days don’t have the patience for long-playing records or even albums. They just want the poppy singles, loaded onto mediocre sounding portable mp3 players (so called “iPods”), and lasting no more than 3 minutes. In fact, some argue that they simply don’t have the attention span for a LP.  This, of course, is crazy as these same young music consumers can watch movies, the NFL, and go out to concerts in healthy numbers and all of these things last for longer than a single song. 

More than that, the LP era was an aberration in how we listen to recorded music. The 78 era, lasting from the late teens to the World War II, was all about 3 minute singles. And the average listener couldn’t afford to sit still for too long because once the song was done, they have to get up and flip over the 78! Perhaps our short attention span for recorded music is the norm, and the LP generation was, in fact, a group not only too lazy to get up and flip over an album, but also dulled their music senses by subjecting them to endless, pointless, mediocre b-sides on long-playing records.

3. Rituals of Listening. One of the great aspects of Petrusich’s book is how she describes these 78 collectors listening to their prized possessions. None of these guys (and, yeah, they’re almost all men) hesitated at all to PLAY their records for the author. More than that, almost all of them clearly enjoyed hearing the music. They tapped their feet, squirmed in their chairs, fell into trances, gestured in the air, and generally reveled in the listening experience. They felt the intensity of these authentic listening experiences.

More than that, once they began to listen to 78s, they listened to more and more. The records flew off their shelves and onto their turn table. More than once the author had to extract herself from an emotionally draining listening session before her host was done spinning records. 

I found her descriptions of these events to be among the most compelling parts of the book. The way these seasoned collectors still found something invigorating in these poorly produced singles reminded me of enduring power of simple rituals.

It also made me want to go and put a CD in my ole CD player (a 1992 vintage Nakamichi CD4), warm up the tube amp (a very recent Audio Research VSi60), and listen to my big Zu Omen Defs with their old school full-range drivers. 

Trash, Pollution, and the Rural World

I have really enjoyed getting back into some scholarly habits the past couple weeks. I have even engaged in this primitive activity where I open a bound stack of paper and read the words, in order, written on each. I’ve heard that some scholars call it reading.

I was pretty excited to read some of the contributions to the Stephanie Foote’s and Elizabeth Mazzolini’s little volume called Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Culture, Social Justice (MIT 2012). The book collects a series of articles on the history of trash, waste, and rubbish, and grounds them, to varying degrees, in the cross-disciplinary nexus of material culture studies and critical theory. The book, however, avoids being too theory laden and manages to speak to practical issues as much as conceptual ones. This practical edge reflects a particular strength of recent work on the history of trash and discard.  

The article that caught my attention most in the volume was Phaedra Pezullo’s “What Gets Buried in a Small Town: Toxic E-Waste and Democratic Frictions in the Crossroads of the United States.” She looks at the politics surrounding the discard of PCB in Bloomington, Indiana and locates her treatment in a larger consideration of rurality and pollution in American (although arguably also in global) history. Marginal places, like the rural west (e.g. North Dakota or Alamogordo, New Mexico) become the settings for morally ambiguous practices. It is hardly a leap to apply many of these paper to my recent research in the Bakken Oil Patch in sparsely populated western North Dakota or role in excavating Atari games from a landfill at the edge of a small town in New Mexico. 

In fact, the long Western tradition of sparsely populated, “wild” places as the source of various kinds of corrupting influences (from the so-called Germanic hordes who supposedly destroyed the Roman world to the uncivilized “wildlings” in the Game of Thrones) has provided a context for activities that would be far more problematic in the more densely built up core. The willingness to treat the periphery in a different way also captures the binary logic of Western colonialism where behaviors and attitudes unacceptable in the core meet with ambivalence in colonial places.

This process of internal colonization follows the rough and irregular edge of a rural-urban divide across the United States. Pollution caused by extractive industries in, say, the Bakken Oil Patch in western North Dakota, is simply the “price of progress” for residents of the core and for small communities who see sacrifice as a road to deeper integration with the core and access to economic and political power. In Pezullo’s study of Bloomington, Indiana, the social, economic, and political power of companies like Westinghouse helped to protect the use of PCBs in manufacturing in Indiana even as the risks became visible and known to the community. The absence of strong counterweights to wealthy and powerful corporate interests pervades the Bakken as well.  

Pezullo’s observations on pollution in rural America could likewise be applied to the dumping of thousands of unsold and returned Atari video games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This moment in time reflects the “remoteness” of Almagordo from the prying eyes of shareholders. The presence of White Sands missile range nearby only reinforces the suitability for this sparsely populated stretch of rural land for activities set apart from the settlements and interests of most Americans. 

The next paper in the book looked at the discard and collection of trash on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Further chapters considered the pollution present in minority neighborhoods impacted by hurricane Katerina in New Orleans. Most of the papers considers the social construction of discard practices and pollution as mediated through varying degrees of economic and political remoteness. For anyone interested in grasping better how trash fits into our modern (and arguably premodern) world, the studies contained in this volume are valuable reads. 

The Archaeological Life of Contemporary Objects

As I continued to read around in the field of the archaeology of the contemporary world, I have become fascinated by the huge body of work on the everyday objects. Much of this work is not properly archaeological or even scholarly, but it points to some kind of abiding archaeological tendency in the way that we engage everyday life.  

Over the winter break, I perused Jonathan Olivares’ design taxonomy of office chairs and Lyle Owerko’s engaging work on the boombox. Both books focused on locating the objects in a larger social context. Olivares’ work, true to its roots in design, documented the development of the office chair through time, presented a technical vocabulary for the common features in office chairs, and provided some broad historical notes on the changes in the office chair’s shape and features. The book is filled with lavish technical illustrations with comments on both design and materials. As any good taxonomy, this book would allow a non-specialist to identify and describe a chair in an office setting. If we follow the author’s preface literally and understand the chair as a marker of status in the office environment, his guide would allow someone unfamiliar with an office environment to recognize the social hierarchy in place. The chairs also provide a way to consider the effects of Taylorism and efficiency studies on the office environment. The chair became a productivity tool as well as an object of status.  

Owerko’s Boombox project is a different kind of book. He provides little in the way of technical details, descriptions, or taxonomy. Rather than elaborate illustration, the core feature of the book is the series of remarkably detailed photographs of certain iconic boomboxes of the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs are large and sufficiently detailed as to reveal wear patterns, damage, and identifying characteristics of each boombox. You can get an idea of his photographs on his website. The detail is such that one can see the the various plastic parts that give the exterior of the boombox its complex and overwrought aesthetic. The part show the kinds of wear that reflect use. The bent “pause” button on tape controls reflected the common practices of pausing tracks to cue up the next song or even using it to freeze the music for the second to syncopate a groove or, in the most skilled hands, to loop it. Broken handles show the limits of these device’s portability and the practice of adding more flexible shoulder straps. The worn plastic faces preserve signs of how the boombox rubbed against fabric in transport with chips and dents reflecting less forgiving contacts. These battle scars complement stickers and homemade repairs to provide a roadmap to each object’s biography.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to conversations about boomboxes and their place within the “urban underground” of the late-20th century and photos of the boomboxes in use. While I’ll accept Olivares’ notion of the office chair as status marker in a traditional office context, I’m skeptical of Owerko’s more romanticized idea of the boombox as a markers of the urban underground. After all, what made the boombox great was that it was ubiquitous. Get any group of American “Generation Xers” together and almost all of them will talk about boomboxes. These are kids from the cities, from the ‘burbs, from rural areas, rich, poor, or middle class. The boombox was not iconic of some kind of subversive underground, but of the democratizing consumerism of the middle class. Maybe it’s best to say something like the appearance of the boombox in certain settings had a destabilizing effect on the expectation that common material possession would create a cohesive middle class identity. But this does not make a catchy title.

Finally, the books are not archaeological monographs or even properly exhaustive studies (although Olivares’s work is close), but windows into the life and times of objects. As archaeologists explore the contemporary world more and more thoroughly, these kinds of non-scholarly collections will start to assert greater value just as, two centuries ago, non-systematic, “amateur” collections of ceramic objects, fossils, or other artifacts became the framework for the first generation of great museums and collections. 

Landscape and History in the Maeander Valley

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a good bit about how to approach studying a region. At the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I’ve worked with my colleagues to write the archaeological history of a microregion on the basis of intensive pedestrian survey. I’ve stood by and watched my buddy David Pettegrew bring together a century of excavations, survey, and texts to write the history of the Corinthian Isthmus. This next year, I embark on a project that will hopefully write the history of the Western Argolid. While the site is not dead, regions are where it’s at.

So it was with some excitement that I tucked into Peter Thonemann’s book: The Maeander Valley: A Historical Geography from Antiquity to Byzantium. (Cambridge 2011). This book was beautifully written, sweeping in scope, and conservative in approach. This final point is not necessarily a criticism.

1. No Theory. The book was almost completely devoid of explicit appeals to theory. The was no discussion of place and space, of place making, or phenomenology or any other late 20th century method of conceptualizing the contemporary encounter with the past. I’ll concede that the lack of theory was jarring, at first, but I soon got over it. In place of theory, the book is filled with careful descriptions drawn from the careful reading of a historical landscape through personal experience and historical texts. At no point in the book do you feel like the author is not intimately familiar with the Maeander Valley. (Thonemann shows his hand a bit more in the epilogue where he appeals to H. Lefebvre, Harvey, and others.)

2. No Archaeology. The books makes almost no explicit appeals to archaeology despite the presence of several long-standing excavations with Miletus and Priene being the being the best known. Throughout the book, Thonemann keeps archaeology at arms length appealing to it selectively such as when he notes the limits of archaeological evidence in documenting settlement change between the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the neighborhood of Miletus. Archaeological evidence is better, he argues, at showing activity in the countryside than explaining the nature of that activity or its causes. 

More interestingly, he provides little specific discussion of the results of excavations or survey. There is precious little on the details of ceramic chronology, the typology of fortifications, or the distribution of small scale artifact scatters documented by intensive survey. This is probably a weakness of the book, but his use of textual sources compensates for it in a substantial way.

3. Nature and Culture. The book does a remarkable job interweaving the nature of the Maeander River with the reception of this defining feature in the landscape. The discussion of the relationship between the river’s wandering course and its depiction on coins and in art was to be expected. What was more engaging was his treatment of the way in which folks living, exploiting, or moving through the valley floor interacted with the more substantial settlements on the slopes. Thonemann described the symbiotic relationship between, for example, the Turkish herders who brought their flocks in the valley in the 12th century and increasingly fortified Greek settlements on the valley slopes, and between pastoralists and cultivators in antiquity. The two communities negotiated agreements that ensured herders had access to grazing land and provided manure and weed clearance for agricultural fields. This is but the most simple of Thonemann’s examples of how the river, the valley, and communities interacted.

4. Diachronic and Dynamic. The most remarkable thing about this book was its diachronic scope. Thonemann is as comfortable talking about the sources of a Byzantine estate in the Maeander delta as presenting the complex prosopography of Roman period elites in the various ancient communities throughout the valley. Moreover, his use of these sources demonstrates a genuine understanding of the differing political and social contexts of these statements and the valley in these periods. In other words, Thonemann manages to study the valley in a diachronic way that does little to flatten the dynamism of the region in varying historical circumstances. This is not simplistic ethnohistory that searches for parallels in different periods to support a kind of environmental determinism. Thonemann’s comfort with Byzantine sources is particular commendable. 

5. Margins, Borders, and Frontiers. This summer I’m going to work in a valley at the very edge of Argolid territory. One of the issues that we will investigate is how these areas at the edge of a polis relate to the core and to the neighboring regions. Thonemann’s treatment of these issues through time in the Maeander Valley and argued that even the most seemingly obvious natural divisions between regions rarely reflected the political or cultural borders actually present. Thonemann argues that imperialism, more than anything else, shaped the territory of the Maeander Valley starting in the Attalid period and then continuing into the Roman and Byzantine period. These borders had less to do with the longstanding social practices in the region and far more to do with landscapes of control which the dominant settlement pattern often attempted to defy. Any natural boundaries persisted only because they received cultural affirmation.  

Finally, the book begins with a paraphrase of Marx and ends with references to Engels and E.P Thompson. That alone makes it worth reading.  

Writing the past in photographs

I spent some quality time this weekend with Fotis Ifantidis photo essay: archaeographies: excavating Neolithic Dispilio (Archaeopress 2013). The book’s title refers to the practice of writing (graph) the past. The author’s work has fascinated me for several years and his interest in photography contributed to my own effort (in collaboration with Ryan Stander) to bring together images and texts from my project on Cyprus. Ifantidis book present photographs taken during the excavation of the Neolithic site of Dispilio in northern Greece. The site, outside of the medieval town of Kastoria, has been a model for innovative practices in reconstruction, documentation of visitor experiences, and archaeological practices. Infantidis work is just the lastest product at this site.

I am hardly qualified to comment on the formal character or technical merit of the photographs other than to say that many of them are visually arresting. The imagery did capture the process of archaeography. A number of the photographs captured the relationship between the individual archaeologists and their field context. Infanidis does this in a number of different ways: he depicts expanses of soil with the archaeologists in the foreground. Tools, hands, and the site are situated in contrasting foci challenging the viewer to consider what is the most important object in the scene. In other photographs, stacks of excavation equipment, laboratory scenes, and artifacts in storage bags provide place the contemporary archaeologist and the archaeological context in the same frame emphasizing the continuity between the modern researcher and the Neolithic.

Infantidis manipulates scale as well as focus. Many of the shots are cropped to feature long (horizontally or vertically) shots of earth, scarps, and landscapes locates the archaeologist at a smaller scale than the objects that they study. The manipulation of scale in these photographs contextualizes the archaeological project in the tension between the archaeologist and the context of excavation. A similar approach occurs with the Neolithic objects found in the excavation. The archaeologists hands, eyes, and tools connect the ancient objects to the modern humans. Infanidis interest in personal adornment shows through in photographs that feature either the jewelry of archaeologists or the archaeologist in relation to decorated objects. Contextualizing decoration and adornment in human terms provides, at very least, a useful reminder that individuals existed in antiquity even if they’re were realized as they are today. The tendency cut off the faces of individuals in the photos or to keep their faces and bodies out of focus, problematizing the relationship between the individual, the archaeology, and the object.

(I have become fascinated by including dramatic skies in my photographs of North Dakota and then cropping these to force the viewer to engage the scale of the sky here. See here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here or in a more Infantidis-like way here.)

The book lacks texts other than a very brief (<250 word) introduction. This seems appropriate for a work that focuses on the excavation of the Neolithic. The absence of text pushes the viewer to look for arguments in the images and objects. The viewer becomes the reader of the text and puzzles out the juxtaposition of archaeologist, site, and objects to tell the story of excavations at Dispilio. Like the site itself, however, the story is not linear or cohesive, but made up of parts isolated on the page and only rarely connected through certain overlapping (stratified?) contexts. The broken (but remarkably well-preserved) wood posts, the dimpled ceramic vessels, the modern hands and tools of the excavators, and the disjointed scenes of the workrooms and everyday life on a dig provide fragments of a narrative that the viewer can only generalize. 

The use of black-and-white photographs gives the book a clean, modern, dramatic feel and this was surely the intention of the author. On the one hand, black and white photography has long played a role in archaeological documentation and it long helped to manage printing costs of publications. The black-and-white images also ensure that the focus is on the contrasts both in a technical sense and in the tension between the archaeologist and their context.  On the other hand, I can’t help but thinking how color remains central to the archaeologists world. The fabric of ceramics, the glint of a “foreign” object in the trench, and the color of soils (not to mention the contrast between the sea, the sky, the mountains, and vegetation) are fundamental to the experience of archaeology and our experience of the past. Maybe Infantidis’s point is that by writing archaeology we render the dynamic into a world of contrasts.