More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

My blogging plans for today involved another heroic swing at the slowly developing final chapter of my book manuscript. It has already developed to a series of nips and tucks and hardly anything worth blogging about. Maybe next Monday. Maybe.

Fortunately, I’ve also been working on a little essay about Christopher Witmore’s very recent book Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) for a forum type review in an archaeology journal. I posted about it a six months ago in a pair of blog posts here and here. Since then, I’ve re-read the book, thought a good bit more about it over the course of some long walks, and started to put together a rather flailing essay.

Here’s the first part of it (warts and all). I’ll post the second part tomorrow:

Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) is rather difficult book to review. It a personal journey through the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus, and, as such, it is sui generis, at least in the field of contemporary Greek archaeology. Witmore’s periegesis through the Corinthia and the Argolid, which he calls a chorography, follows the well-trod routes established by Pausanias, early travelers, and 20th century excavators and survey archaeologist. He treats these landscapes, however, with a distinctive eye that follows the ancient and modern things that he encounters into tangles of conversations, secondary literature, archaeological reports, and ancient sources. In this regard, his book inverts the conventional narrative technique in archaeology that so often starts with the ancient testimonia, early travelers, and modern scholarship and presents these works as context necessary for things to have meaning. Witmore’s approach, in contrast, locates the authors within in the landscape, rather than behind dusty tomes of past scholars and returns objects to their place within our lived experiences. Needless to say, Old Lands is particularly welcome at a time when many of us have been unable to travel to the Mediterranean because of the ongoing pandemic.

Witmore’s narratives are earnest and devoid of irony. In fact, its earnestness evokes the image of the “heroic archaeologist” who reassembles the past from their personal encounters with sites, objects, and contexts. To be clear, this is not meant to imply that Witmore seeks to play the role as a savior of a particularly worthy past, the discipline, or the contemporary communities which described (e.g. Cleland 2001, 2; González-Ruibal 2009, xx). Instead, Witmore looks back to traditions in archaeology that started with the learned traveler and continued with the the individual archaeologist as the revealer of the past and the producer of knowledge. The epithets associated with an excavator’s notebook — Blegen’s notebook, for example — center the individual agent in knowledge making, often at the expense of workers and colleagues. Witmore puckishly recognizes as much by noting the “here unmentioned” retinue of Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (##). This is not to suggest that Witmore’s colleagues go unmentioned. Indeed, he is dutiful in naming his companions, but these individuals always play bit roles to Witmore’s enthusiastic inquisitiveness. They are nearly as marginal as his footnotes which nevertheless demonstrate a nearly encyclopedic understanding of the vast scholarship on the northeast Peloponnesus. They function to advance the story, and their presence never lingers or distracts.

Witmore’s presence in the landscape also shapes his encounter with the diverse chronology of the northeastern Peloponnesus. This approach to the landscape locates the past not as hidden, buried, or requiring extraction and but as contemporary with the archaeologist. The past is superficial and requires selection, assembling, and sampling rather than discovery. In this regard, he parallels Rodney Harrison’s proposed “archaeology-as-surface-survey” (Harrison 2011) and draws inspiration from Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time (2011). As with intensive survey practices, it is impossible for the archaeologist to identify every object, artifact, sherd, or plant. Instead, the survey archaeologist stresses the relationships between the objects to create a surface that produces archaeological knowledge “in and of the present.” Witmore and most survey archaeologists are familiar with the abrupt disjunctions that occur when we document a sherd of Final Neolithic pottery next to a Late Roman amphora fragment amid fragments of modern plastic. The ghostly figures that appear alongside the survey team in the first page of Given and Knapp’s volume on the Sydney Cyprus Survey (2003) and the brief first person digressions that situate the modern reader in the landscapes produced in Pettegrew’s The Isthmus of Corinth (2018, ##-##) anticipate the diachronic, contemporary landscapes of Witmore’s book, albeit in less developed ways. Like the surface assemblages studied by Given, Knapp, and Pettegrew, Witmore’s book does more to reveal what we could know about the landscape than what we do know. As such, it presents a future archaeology rather than one anchored in a recovered past.

It is, of course, easy enough to critique survey archaeology and books like this for what it has left out or remains hidden. There is a certain glee with which scholars discuss the excavations at Pyrgouthi tower in the Berbati Valley, for example, because standing Classical remains and Classical and Hellenistic sherds obscured a later, Late Roman phase that only became visible with excavation (Hjohlman et al. 2005; Sanders 2004, 165-166; Pettegrew 2010, 221-224). Similarly, it would be easy enough (and even vaguely gratifying) to critique Witmore for overlooking the Byzantine and Frankish periods in his perambulations. The twin poles of antiquity and the modern (and contemporary) create a landscape of light and shadow that makes the temporal discontinuities more abrupt and the ambiguities all the more salient. Witmore used this to good effect in his description of the First National Assembly of Greece which met in Hellenistic theater of Argos. This setting reinforced the view of the northern European Philhellenes that “the lot of contemporary Greeks was rarely illuminated outside the long shadows of Classical antiquity.” (##). A different narrative was possible. Prior to this meeting, the assembly had met in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin which stands a half a kilometer south of the theater. There they received a blessing from Orthodox clergy (Witmore, Rt 13). The walls of church which appears to date to the Middle Byzantine period contain numerous ancient blocks (Hadji-Minaglou 1980). Like the nearby church at Merbaka, the spolia grounded the church in antiquity (cf. Sanders 2015; Palalexandrou 2003) just as the church and the Hellenistic theater grounded the assembly in the Byzantine tradition of the Orthodox faith and the modern, archaeological Neohellenism. At the church of the Dormition, the ancient blocks themselves carry the weight of not only vaults from which the central doom springs, but also the connection to antiquity. In the place of the disjunctive friction between the ancient and modern worlds, this Byzantine monument offered a narrative where the Philhellenic shadows turn to grey.

Old Wine in New Skins: The University of North Dakota and the Great War

A few years ago, when The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota was just starting and when I was feeling my way forward as the editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I produced a little book as much as a design study as anything: The University of North Dakota and the Great War. The book was a reprint of nine articles published in North Dakota Quarterly between 1916 and 1919 that deal with the Great War. I set the book in Doves type which has just been re-released at around the same time. 

This past fall a colleague in the Department of English here at UND asked me whether we had ever produced a print version of the book. I admitted that we had not. He then wondered whether it would be possible to do this for a class he’s teaching on the literature of World War I. 

Six weeks later, we’ve prepared a print version of the book. I’ll release it over at the NDQ blog later this week and cross post with The Digital Press then as well. 

To be honest, it’s not my best work. There are some inconsistencies in the table of contents that will haunt me for a while (O.G. Libby versus Orin G. Libby?). I decided this morning that these reflect the historical place of the book in my development as a designer and publisher. I don’t have as clever an explanation for why I had to quickly upload a corrected cover to Amazon and revise the Amazon product description yesterday afternoon (ideally this will be live by noon-ish today).  

Anyway, warts and all, it’s here and available for anyone who wants it for the low, low price of $7.

As a little inducement to purchase this little book, the money raised by this little volume will support both the mission of The Digital Press and it’s role as the financial and production backstop for North Dakota Quarterly. In 2021, NDQ will embark on a rather ambitious new project: a book series. While we’re still trying to work out some of the details, our current plan is for the books to be published under their own imprint from The Digital Press and distributed by the University of Nebraska Press, the publisher of NDQ. The Digital Press will support production and the proceeds will contribute to the financial viability of both NDQ and The Digital Press.  

Of course, the best way to support NDQ is to subscribe, but if you’re looking for a less serious commitment with a historical flavor, grab a copy of the University of North Dakota and the Great War. If you looking for something more poetic, consider buying a copy of Snichimal Vayuchil, which is an experimental poetry workshop in bats’i k’op, or Tsotsil Maya, where writers create poetry in their own mother language and Spanish, sharing their work as a form of what they call relational poetry. 

Download it here or buy it in paperback here.

UND and The Great War COVER SINGLE FINAL 01

Digital Innovations in European Archaeology

This weekend, I read Kevin Garstki’s little book Digital Innovations in European Archaeology, which is part of the Cambridge Elements: The Archaeology of Europe series.  When I described it as “little” it is literally only 90 pages, but these are pages as dense with ideas and citations as they are easy to read. This is a rare feat for any book and true t the idea that this work is elemental for anyone interested in digital practices in archaeology.

It is also available this week for FREE. Go here to download it. And while you’re at it, consider downloading this book’s close cousin: Visualizing Votive Practice by Derek Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Michael Toumazou, and the very same Kevin Garstki!

At 90 pages, it does seem very useful to review the volume. After all, you can grab a copy for free and read it on a lazy holiday afternoon. I will highlight four things that I found compelling in the volume and which would make it a great little book for a class on digital archaeology.  

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[If you click on the images in this piece, they’ll take you to the data behind them which is drawn from a simple text analysis of Garstki’s book!]

First, Garstki has a knack for identifying areas where challenges exist in our use of digital technology in archaeology. As you might expect, the book begins with an assessment of digital technologies associated with field practices. It was gratifying to see my work on slow archaeology make a cameo in the book and for Garskti to think carefully about the way in which our enthusiasm for the efficiencies gained through the use of digital tools can sometimes obscure the way in which various kinds of digital data collected in the field can shape our analysis. Unlike my sometimes overwrought critiques, Garstki is more balanced, thoughtful, and practice-based in his assessment of the use of digital tools in the field. We need to be attentive to situations when digital tools become technological “black boxes” (in a Latourian sense), but also realistic about the benefits that will come from our ability to collect more data more quickly.

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Garstki is also clear and thoughtful in his discussion of the fate of our digital data. He highlights the ongoing challenges associated with copyright, openness, and ownership of digital data. On the one hand, he is clear that you can’t copyright data. On the other hand, he recognizes that archaeological data from 3D scans to geographic information is connected to real world concerns about cultural property, heritage, and community. It is now commonplace, for example, to obscure the specific location of certain sites not only as a way to acknowledge cultural sensitivities of communities, but also to protect vulnerable sites from looter or others who might want to do them harm.

Issues surrounding the ownership and use of 3D models, on the other hand, remain a bit less clear. As Garstki notes, from a legal standpoint, a 3D model, like a photograph, is not the same as the object and is not subject necessarily to the same limits on the circulation and display of these objects. 3D images become even more complicated in that we have technology to produce highly accurate models from artifacts. In fact, these models might contain more information than is visible on the object itself (e.g. multispectral data or scans that capture microscopic details). As digital surrogates for objects become more common, the prospects for a kind of digital colonialism looms. It is already possible to store and disseminate collections of digital surrogates at a far lower cost than what is necessary to store and curate the physical originals. These digital scans are on the verge of supporting sophisticated and robust analyses. It is concerning to imagine a near future where repatriation of objects is not an acknowledgement of a destructive and alienating colonial legacy, but a cost saving measure which burdens the countries of origin with the expense of storage and curation while preserving the benefit of access to the object through digital means. 

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Garstki also acknowledges the opportunities and challenges associated with using the web and social media for outreach. It is one thing to share 3D images of objects as a way to expand access to these objects, but another to create a meaningful interpretative space for these objects on the internet. The increasingly politicized character of social media, for example, has increased the personal and professional risk for any scholar looking to engage a wider audience. This reality offers a useful counter point to the growing calls for public scholarship in archaeology and the humanities and social sciences more broadly.

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Finally, no publication on digital archaeology is complete without a discussion of “big data.” The term has become synonymous with unlocking the untapped potential of digital information, but also has become associated with the risks of digital overreach. The growing recognition that archaeological data requires robust metadata and should follow standards that support linked-data protocols supports a vision that encourages big data approaches to archaeological knowledge making. While our datasets might seems too small to qualify as big data, the tendency of archaeology as a discipline to produced standardized and formally organized information means that the quantity of structured data available in our field is particularly high. At the same time, the examples of analysis driven by large, multisite, structured data remains relatively few suggesting that the big data revolution in our discipline is still on the horizon. In short, the potential of a data driven digital archaeology on a regional or trans-regional scale remains untapped.

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As you probably can guess, I’m a fan of this little book. It’s an cutting edge assessment of digital practices in archaeology that has obvious value in the classroom, but is also thoughtful and at time provocative enough to engage even a seasoned scholar in the digital archaeology scene. Check it out! 

On Short Books

This weekend, I have a pair of short books on my reading list. One is Sheila Liming’s Office, a contribution to the Bloomsbury’s Object Lesson series, and the other is Kevin Garstki’s Digital Innovations in European Archaeology in the Cambridge Elements series. Both books are short, with Liming’s book officially listed at 152 pages and Garstki’s at about 90. My guess is that neither book is over 30,000 words.

These two slim volumes got me thinking once again about the sudden increase in the number of short book series. I remember when Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series appeared in 2003 and thinking that the idea of short books dedicated to iconic albums was brilliant. I’ve probably read four or five of them and at $10-15 a pop, I never feel like there’s too much of a commitment of time or money to take a risk on one. Like the Object Lesson series, the 33 1/3 books came in such a nice size (approximately 4.5 x 6.5), shared common design elements, and were typeset for easy and comfortable reading in a single sitting.

The convenience and elegance of small books notwithstanding, I’ve started to think a bit more about the place of small books in academic publishing (and whether publishing small book series might be a fun thing for The Digital Press). 

The Long Article

As editor of the Annual of ASOR, I annual book series dedicated to archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and Middle East, I often receive inquiries from authors with manuscripts that are too long to be an article and too short to be a stand alone volume. Historically, we have found ways to bring together manuscripts on similar topics and publish them together even if they’re not strictly speaking related. This is a generally unsatisfactory compromise. 

Despite the proliferation of journals, it would seem that the basic form factor of the article (8,000-15,000 words) remains more or less the same. A few journals, notably in my field Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, will publish longer articles especially if they are site reports. Many other journals, however, will not. I suppose the interest is in allowing room for a range of contributions in each issue or volume. This makes sense, I suppose, if we live in a strange world where readers consume issues of volumes front to back. In reality, articles tend to travel on their own in digital form or consumed without much attention to the rest of the issue. From the viewpoint of the consumer accustomed to disaggregation, the length of the article doesn’t really matter. It might, then, have more to do with preserving space for multiple contributors in each volume and avoiding backlogs of articles and the like. This makes sense only inasmuch as journals exist to serve their contributors (and advance their careers and the like) more than their readers who I suspect care more about the quality and relevance of an article than its length. Provided that a journal didn’t start to publishing on a few very long articles in a year (and thereby undermine the diversity of content), there doesn’t seem any real reason why journals could not publish 20,000 or even 30,000 word articles that meet their standards. In fact, it’s sort of appealing to imagine an academic journal that would publish longer and shorter (say <5,000 word pieces) each volume in much the same way that a literary magazine might publish a novella, a 3-page essay, and a 10-line poem. I could even imagine that longer articles would offer some efficiencies in review, editing, and production. 

Edited volumes likewise tend to favor shorter (5,000-8,000 word articles) or at very least a kind of uniformity in length. This decision seems arbitrary to me, but I do appreciate the aesthetic interest in a kind of symmetry of content.

As a result of these standards, long articles many of which would be nice, small books, find themselves without an appropriate venue. I suspect many long article find themselves inelegantly compressed to meet length standards or worse still blown up into marginal monographs. The academic monograph can be as short, I suppose, as 50,000 words, but, as a friend once told me, most serious monographs are over 80,000 (or 250 odd page of text). In other words, there is a vast chasm between the longest article likely to appear in a typical journal and the shortest academic book.

Reading Habits

I also wonder whether our reading habits have changed significantly over the last 20 years. In my life, I have room for about one long book (>400 pages) per year. It’s not that I don’t find some long books compelling. I often do, but I rarely have time to commit four or five sittings to a single volume on a single topic. Like most scholars my research time is limited and my interests are diverse. Reading a long book is risky. It takes time away from reading other scholar’s work, exploring diverse perspectives, and writing. This isn’t to suggest that no long books would reward the risk of sustained engagement, but as most academics find more and more pressure on their time, it is hard to find the potential of a long book appealing.

It seems likely that the pressures of academic life has also led most scholars to focus more narrowly and spend less time worrying about “big picture” issues that longer book tend to explore. In other words, the era of the long book might well be over. 

Publisher Economics

The struggles of the academic monograph are well known. They’re expensive to produce, generally have small print runs, and reduced library budgets have cut deeply into their typical market. To make up for declining sales and tight margins on academic monographs, many larger publishers have invested in more commercial book series. The most common examples of this is the proliferation of “Companion” and “Handbook” volumes designed for libraries, but also suitable for disaggregation and sale through online subscriptions. 

Short books would seem to be the opposite of these larger projects, but in some ways, they may be their complement. If large companion and handbook volumes are meant for generalist collections at libraries and digital subscription, small books sold at low prices are clearly intended for individual readers to consume in paper rather than digital form.

The economies come from presumably greater sales volume, standardized production workflow, and series wide marketing campaigns. That these bite-sized books fit into our hectic reading lives is a bonus. Most of these books, however, have not really found a place within the academic ecosystem yet. Of course, short books that appeal to a general audience are much more likely to find a market among the interested reader than, say, a short book that is a long article on a specialized topic. At the same time, these volumes might share some of the efficiencies in production and marketing.

~

Maybe we’re not on the verge of a new wave of short academic books, but if someone were to propose a series of short specialized volumes, I’d want to have that conversation.

 

Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life. 

Review of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities

I generally enjoy writing book reviews, but for whatever reason, I haven’t been invited to write very many in recent years. As a result, I tend to get pretty excited when I am asked to write a review and almost immediately start to fret about how I can be thoughtful, fair, critical, and constructive. 

This fretting inevitably leads to the fussing with whatever draft I manage to concoct for weeks and weeks and second guessing even the most banal observations. The only thing that prevents me from spiraling into some kind of intellectual lock up is the need to get the review off my desk before it is no longer relevant.

Here’s a link to a review that I’ve more or less finished of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities. If you’re interested in the development of a review from a rough draft to a somewhat more polished final version, you can check out my preliminary draft here.

Martin Devecka, Broken Cities: a historical sociology of ruins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 184 p. ISBN 9781421438429. $34.95. 

Look for the final version wherever you find fine reviews on the interwebs.

Archaeology on Campus

This weekend, I read Russell K. Skowronek and Kenneth E. Lewis’s ten-year-old Beneath the Ivory Tower: The Archaeology of Academia (2010). It is an edited collection of articles that deal with excavations on American college campuses. The book is very solid and while it does not contribute much to the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, it does help situate archaeological work on college and university campuses in a broader context.

Here are a few thoughts on this book that will contribute to my ongoing chapter writing:

1. College Archaeology and Historical Archaeology. I was aware of many of the campus archaeology projects presented in this volume, but, in many cases, I did not realize how long-standing this work was. In fact, campus archaeology is essentially as old was historical archaeology itself with important projects at Harvard and the University of South Carolina beginning in the 1970s just as historical archaeology itself was finding its footing in the US.

I was a bit surprised, however, that despite being contemporary with the emergence of historical archaeology, the studies presented in the volume seem not to engage much (or at least explicitly) with Orser’s famous “haunts” of capitalism, colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. Of course, one could easily enough argue that the campus itself is so saturated with these four elements of contemporary society that explicit references to these themes would be insultingly redundant. That being said, it is interesting to me how little the articles in this book engaged the larger issues at play in historical archaeology (in contrast, say, to the work of Laurie Wilkie in her The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (2010) published the same year.)  

2. As Public Archaeology. Excavations on college and university campuses have produced excellent opportunities of public archaeology. The visibility of campus excavations, the long-standing interest in campuses as places of memory (see below), and the interest in tradition and history that supports many aspects of campus life, positioned archaeological work as a natural extension of the kind of public history that already saturates college and university life.

It is hardly surprising that many of the excavations featured in this book took place on campuses that take particular pride in their “antiquity”: Harvard, William and Mary, UNC, and Michigan State. The interest in the early days of these campuses (even if the excavations failed to produce “Thomas Jefferson’s lost pocket watch”) complemented and amplified existing historical claims and arguments for persistence and venerability that characterize so much university “boiler plate” marketing material.

It may well be that good archaeology makes good marketing.    

3. The Limits of Text. Most universities have histories that trace the develop of the institution and the associated “great” men and women who guided the schools through their formative years. In general, these histories emphasize key institutional developments – curricula, faculty accomplishments, campus construction, and founding of new divisions and programs – which are frequently well documented in university archives and annual publications.  

Less common are sources that shed light on student life. In some cases, this is because student life was varied and dispersed and more susceptible to the occasional glimpse than the sustained view. In other cases, student life, and the private life of campus in general, took place intentionally outside of public view in ways that were consistent with the rise of respectable bourgeois values across American life. Campus archaeology has shown a particular interest in the private aspects of campus life especially when they contradict the sanitized public documents presented in institutional history or complicate views of institutional history.  

4. Campus and Memory. Most university campuses serve as places of memory for students (and even some faculty) as a result documenting changes to campus over time becomes more than just an exercise in historical work. Campus archaeology has the opportunity to contribute to memory work by preserving layers of campus experiences even as the university campus undergoes consistent adaptation (see below). 

Most university campuses are festooned with monuments to real or imagined pasts. Memorials to departed students, member of the university community, administrators and leaders emphasize the persistence of the university campus. Campus excavation, in this context, offers a performative confirmation that the past matters and institutions will remember.

5. Documenting Adaptation. Of course, the counterpoint to the campus as a place of memory is the campus as a dynamic landscape continuously adapting to the new needs of the community and the institution’s mission. 

The excavations presented in this volume reveal campuses in almost constant flux and made clear that the adaptation of campus buildings did not always reveal itself in the formal textual record of the institutions. Much like the history of the private life of the campus community, the history of a campus in flux runs counter the prevailing trends in the institutional record which tends to emphasize the persistence of campus structures, spaces, and traditions.

The tension between memory and practice complements the tension between tradition and progress that stands at the center of the post-secondary mission.   

Three Things Thursday: Ruins, Books, and the Quarterly

Things are a bit busier than usual these days, so I thought I’d share some of the stuff rattling in my office with a little Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I’m pretty sure that I won’t write it, but someone should really pull together a review essay on recent books about ruins. I’m hoping to finish a short review of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities (2020), which I’ve drafted here, and a few weeks ago, I read and enjoyed Filipe Rojas’s The Pasts of Roman Anatolia (2019). I read and found useful parts of Simon Murray’s 2020 book, Performing Ruins, which stands at the intersection of archaeology, drama, and social critique. It wouldn’t be difficult to add Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling new edited volume Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene (2020) or the massively collaborative Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices (2020) volume to the list. Lynn Meskel’s  A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (2018) fits the theme on the basis of its title alone (I’ve blogged about it here) and Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) would fit into a larger conversation about ruins and ruination as well. Finally, Susan Stewart’s book, Ruin Lessons (2020) has been languishing on my “to read pile” for most of the year and I just need to suck it up and read it.

Obviously not all of these books consider ruins in the same way which perhaps makes a kind of comparative review a bit awkward. On the other hand, the range of different approaches to ruins could make a kind of oddly compelling essay in the right hands. 

Things the Second

It’s always great to get some media coverage for a book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This week the Williston Herald published a nice interview with Kyle Conway about Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. One thing that struck me about this article is that not only did it do more than just rely on the book’s press release, but it also — and perhaps more importantly — drove traffic to the book’s webpage. More than that, this traffic resulted in downloads. For an open access press like mine, downloads are a pretty precious commodity because they mean books are getting into people’s hands.

The Digital Press is also excited to announce that One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920 is now available from The Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Proceeds from the books sold there will go to support the maintenance of the Commonwealth Monument. If you’re thinking about buying this remarkable little book, now is a great opportunity to buy it and make a difference.

Finally, over the past six months, Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2018) has become a surprise best seller for The Digital Press. Following on this success, Dr. Burin was invited to host one of Humanities ND’s “Brave Conversations” about the electoral college. The event is online and, frankly, a bit pricey at $50 for a non Humanities ND member, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it! You can check it out here.

Thing the Third

This time of year is, for the foreseeable future, NDQ time. This means I spend hours processing contributions to the Quarterly, organizing paperwork, and putting the volume into some semblance of order. I detailed my process here.

What makes this all tolerable is that I also get a chance to spend time again with our accepted submissions. This means re-reading the poetry, fiction, and essays that make their way into each issue of the Quarterly.

My excitement usually gets the better of me and I begin to share some of the content from the issue on the NDQ blog. This morning, I shared two of John Sibley Williams’ poems. Go and check them out here.

Book Project: Work Force Housing

At the height of this spring’s COVID season, I got very restless and started to work on a little book project involving the photographs and video that we had captured in the Bakken oil patch over the five years (or so) of the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

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I then submitted it to a “dream press” and I found out this past week that they would not publish it. This is hardly unexpected and not even disappointing.

But now, I need to figure out what to do with this manuscript, if anything.

You can check out the book here, if you want.

Any thoughts on a publisher who might consider a book like this would be very much appreciated (or if you are publisher and think this sounds cool, do drop me a line!).

Here’s the little introduction:

This volume is an experiment.

The initial goal was to collect images and interviews related to our study of Man Camp 11 as part of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. Our team returned to this camp over 10 times from 2012 to 2018 and documented its changed through interviews, notes, drawings, and photographs. This work traced the life of the camp from a newly organized RV park to a bustling neighborhood of improvised housing and finally, to a sparsely occupied ghost town of abandoned RVs and empty lots. Over this time, the camp also saw multiple owners, multiple managers, maintenance challenges, new policies, lawsuits, and changes in reputation.

The images and interviews in this volume also communicate our own movement through the space of the camp. This is particularly true of Richard Rothaus’s video which we sampled into a series of stills and arranged vertically or horizontally one the page. The other photographs in the volume also capture the varied approaches to documenting the RVs and buildings and preserve both the movement of the individual photographer and the relationship between objects in the camp.

This is obviously a work in progress. We have yet to determine its final state. We can, however, state what we don’t want this volume to become. It is not going to present a single, final statement on this camp. The images and interviews here will not serve as illustrations or evidence for an argument that we formally articulate. It is not meant to be a single statement or summary or final word on our research.

Maybe it can serve as a start to something else.

William Caraher
Grand Forks, ND
May 4, 2020

 

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Broken Cities

This weekend, I read Martin Devecka’s short book titled Broken Cities: A Historical Sociology of Ruins (2020). I’m to write an academic review of it in the next few weeks and I usually find it easier to start with some casual observations here on my blog, which I then refine and formalize into a review.

So here goes:

The last decade has seen a bumper crop of books on ruins. Susan Stewart’s recent book, Ruins Lesson, as one very recent example, traces the Western fascination with ruins from the Renaissance to the T.S. Elliot’s view of the WWI landscapes of France. The Ruin Memories Project (and resulting volume) explored the multiple manifestations of the modern ruin and its personal, social, and political meanings. Hein B. Bjerck, Bjornar Olsen, Elin Andreassen stunning volume on the ruins of the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago reflects on the (non-)place of ruins in our hypermodern world in a way that complements Felix Ringel’s study of the former East German model city of Hoyerswerda which after German reunification fells into steep decline, forcing its residents to negotiate life among the ruins of its once idealized (and ideological) urban fabric. The prevalence of ruins in our cultural life and our challenges to come to terms with decline, decay, and collapse framed Caitlyn DeSilvey’s brilliant, Curated Decay, which offered strategies for the cultivation and curations of buildings, objects, and places during the often slow process of ruination in the contemporary world. The interest in ruins is not simply an academic concern; it parallels a popular interest in “ruin porn.” As any number of commentators have observed, our attraction to ruins reflects our fears of the failure of capitalism, the fragility of democracy, the inevitability of, climate change, and the persistence of war as well as long-standing personal anxieties about death, physical and mental decline, and forgetting. That this fertile, expansive, and diverse conversation would prompt another book on ruins is hardly surprising.

Devecka’s contribution offers four case studies on ruins: Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Medieval Islam, and in the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Unlike many recent works on ruins which look to ruins themselves or depictions of ruins in art, Devecka’s book focuses on the role of ruins in texts. Perhaps as a consequence of that decision, his book emphasizes the ruins of cities, rather than specific buildings, monuments, or landscapes. He argues that ruins had significantly different meanings in each of these situations. While this observation is unremarkable, his careful reading of select texts from each context does offers intriguing insights into the diversity of perspectives on ruins.

In the first chapter, Devecka argues that in Classical Greece, the kind of persistent ruins that have characterized so much of our contemporary imagination were impossible. In Classical Greece, even ruined cities were rebuilt and reoccupied and their institutions, religious sanctuaries, and public spaces revived. The results of the Persian sack of Athens marked only the most vivid example of this kind of recovery. Despite this reality on the ground, Herodotus, Thucyides, and Isocrates, paradoxically, used the threat of permanent ruination as a way to articulate the short-term economic, political, and physical pain of destruction. A reader is left wondering how the evidence for the reuse and commemoration of the Persian sack of Athens in the architecture of the Classical Acropolis would have strengthened and complicated his nevertheless compelling reading of contemporary Athenian texts.

Chapter two considers the role of ruins in Roman imperial literature from the age of Augustus into Late Antiquity. Devecka saw Roman attitudes toward ruins as part of a complex dialogue with their imagined Trojan past and a potential future for Rome itself. Just as Vergil’s Aeneas abandoned the ruined Troy, so Romans feared that Rome itself would succumb to ruination in the future. This created a tension between possibility of abandonment and the desire to preserve and protect Rome which emphasized the expectation that communities and individuals stayed in one place to avoid permanent ruination and possibility of movement within the Roman Empire. This tension became all the more pressing in the 5th and 6th centuries when the ruination of Rome became a real possibility and Late Roman authors returned earlier imperial themes. Devecka argued that the potential of movement in the Roman world and Aeneas’s flight from Troy allowed individuals to imagine abandoning a ruined Rome while still being Roman.

Medieval Islamic attitudes toward ruins reflected their ambivalence toward previous non-Muslim states throughout the Near East. The presence of ruins throughout Muslim lands provided an opportunity to address concerns about Qur’anic originality. Ruins made clear the relationship between Islam and earlier monotheistic faiths, while also providing the basis for an interpretation of this relationship that emphasized primacy of Muhammed’s revelation. Because ruins offered a more fluid basis for interpretation they served a key role in helping Islam overcome the “double bind” of Qur’anic originality and its debt to Judaism and Christianity. The ambivalence toward ruins persisted throughout Medieval Islam with the ruins of earlier states representing both the evidence for the strength of dominated foes and their decadence. As a result, Muslim rulers tended to found new cities and neighborhoods and avoid reusing material from earlier ruins. This created a landscape of ruins as each successive ruler sought to establish their own place and leaving as ruins previous buildings, cities, and neighborhoods.      

The final chapter of the book considers the role of ruins in the destruction of Tenochtitlan at the hands of Hernán Cortés in 1521. Devecka argues that Cortés destruction of the Mexica capital not only reflected the incommensurability between European views of conquest and those of the Mexica but also a creation of ruins that Europeans increasingly associated with barbarism. The preservation and reuse of Muslim buildings after the 15th century Reconquista in southern Spain stood in stark contrast to the destruction of Tenochtitlan by Cortés and his soldiers. As a result, Cortés and his successors went to some length to justify their actions and to diminish the status of the Mexica city, even after initially celebrating the size and wealth of Tenochtitlan as a way to increase the significance of his invasion. The long shadow of this pivot contributed to diminish the size and monumentality of Mesoamerican civilizations and to rank them as inferior to those of Europe.

Devecka eschews a formal conclusion and instead offers an epilogue where he considers how attitudes toward ruins have changed over time. If ruins tend to reflect the spatial fix of empire and the reach of their political, social, and cultural hegemony, the more recent the empire the more historically distant ruins are. If they represented an immediate risk to Classical Athenians and, in Late Antiquity, the reality of a vulnerable Rome. In Medieval Muslim culture, ruins represented an past made obsolete by the Qur’an or the contemporary situation; for Cortés, the ruins of Tenochtitlan represented the remains of a civilization understood as being far less advanced than Europeans. Today, ancient and modern ruins alike become an “icon of pastness” both situated outside of the present and incommensurate with the future.  Devecka’s epilogue challenges such an essentialized view of ruins. He urges us to recognize in the different attitudes toward ruins in the past, the potential for different views of ruins in the present.