Three Things Thursday: Digital Utopias, Poetry, and Everything is Fine

It’s the last Thursday before the last weekend before the start of classes. It feels rather momentous as we brace ourselves for the COVID-inflected start to the 2020-2021 academic year.

In an effort to preserve a sense of normalcy, I though it appropriate to drop a Three Things Thursday. A little alliteration never goes astray when your grasping at the new normal.

Thing the First

A few months ago, David Haeselin, a co-conspirator and buddy of mine made the observation that writing was a utopian project. It assumes readers, expects some kind of mutual understanding, and engages in  shared world building. (As I sit down to write this post, I also wish that I had read my friend and colleague Mark Jendrysik’s new book Utopia, rather than just congratulating him for it over social media.)

Recently, for various reasons, I’ve gotten to think that the kind of digital archaeology that I practice which focuses on the recording of information in the field through to the publishing of archaeological data in an open and granular format, is also a utopian undertaking. If I had more of the “little grey cells” I might be able to expand this observation somehow into a full blog post, if nothing else, but right now I’m content to offer it as a half-baked thought on a Three Things Thursday. 

I think our assumption and hope that we can record what we do in the field in a way that is useful in the future and, actually more than that, used in the future recognizes shared values between the present and future. Even a casual reader in archaeological methods and theory recognizes this view as a bit naive, but the hopefulness of this view perhaps lends a bit to what Shawn Graham and others have called the “enchantment” found in digital archaeology

Thing The Second

On Tuesday, The Digital Press released a new book titled, One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920. You can read about the book in more detail here. Since then, quite a few people have visited the book’s page at The Digital Press website and this, of course, is exciting. 

What has been a little disappointing is that most people aren’t taking the time to download the book. This, on the one hand, is understandable. The title and description reads as something intended for a fairly narrow audience. But I want to encourage anyone interested in US history, African-American history, or – and perhaps most importantly – public history to check out this volume! Or at very least read this poem. The book is free!

In the sane spirit, I would also encourage you to check out the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19. This project has commissioned 19 new works by women composers that debuted with the Philharmonic in February just before COVID-19 disrupted our world.

What I didn’t realize was that the Academy of American Poets also contributed to this project by commissioning 19 poems by women writers. You can read and listen to the poems here or download the 19-page book here.

Thing The Third

Like many people, I’m struggling to wrap my head around the upcoming semester, the risk associated with COVID-19, and the looming budget challenges facing my institution and our college in particular. 

To help me deal with this, I’ve adopted a new motto for the fall 2020 semester and I plan to produce some kind of poster or sign celebrating it over the weekend. 

The motto is:


Stay tuned.

Five Questions on Being a Digital Archaeologist

Last week (or maybe two weeks ago?), Shawn Graham asked a number of us to produce short recordings for his Digital Archaeology class at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve been turning the questions over in my head on my afternoon walks, but, for some reason, I’ve been reluctant to do actually do the recording.

It seems like a good idea to write up my answers now as a bit of a nudge…  

1. Who are you and what are you currently working on?

My name is Bill Caraher and I’m currently working on a few project including the preliminary report of 5 or 6 years of field work in the Western Argolid with the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP), the final publication of some excavations in eastern Cyprus concluded in 2012 with the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP), and a long-term publication project at Polis Chrysochous in western Cyprus as part of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition. These projects are all very data centered in that our analysis draws directly from our databases and GIS and have data publication as part of their priorities. 

I’m also writing a small book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience and some very local CRM projects with my wife who is the local Historic Preservation Coordinator

I am the publisher and director at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and the editor of the literary journal North Dakota Quarterly

2. How did you get started in digital archaeology?

I came to archaeology quite late in my graduate school career. In fact, I’ve never even taken an archaeology course at any level and didn’t do my first fieldwork until after my MA. In an old school way, pre-professional way, I am completely “field trained.”

As a result, when I started working around archaeologists on Tim Gregory’s various projects in the Corinthia, I was drawn to work for which I had some degree of competence (i.e. not necessarily fieldwork!). Because my parents were computer people (my father has patents on digital “notebooks” for research) and my mother taught programing at the college level and worked in bio-informatics, I can’t remember not having a computer in the house. I don’t have any formal training or expertise for computer work or programing — for example, I’m not much of coder and I never really call myself a “digital archaeologists” — but I don’t fear computers and generally feel comfortable following directions and using most off-the-shelf computer programs for their intended purposes. More than that, as much as I love field work, I don’t really have any discernible expertise as an archaeologist. In other words, by putting me in front of a computer and tasking me to keep track of stuff, a project isn’t losing a key member of their field team or depriving the project of hard earned field expertise.

As a result, I took pretty quickly to working with Microsoft Access, ESRI ArcGIS, and various more specialized applications used for data capture and processing (various pieces of Trimble software, Agisoft Metashape, et c.). I also have a bit of knack for digital “workflow management,” and while I’m not a detailed person, my long experience with computers has made it relatively easy to think systematically.

As a result, when I went on my first archaeological projects (the Ohio State University excavations at Isthmia and the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS)), I gravitated to computer work because I thought that maybe I could be helpful there. Fortunately, the folks doing computer work for EKAS — Richard Rothaus and his cadre of GIS-trained graduate students — were super welcoming and walked me through various programs with unbelievable patience and generosity. 

As EKAS field work wound down, I become more and more interested in how the data worked and how I could use GIS and databases to support field work (and how these programs shaped what we could and could not document in the field). As I did some independent fieldwork, I leaned on what I had learned at EKAS to document and interpret features and finds (for example, here). I also began to work with colleagues to used our digital tools to analyze the material from our survey work at EKAS (for example, here). 

When I started my own small project on Cyprus in 2003 (the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project), I took a leading role in designing the databases, GIS, and digital workflow, although much of this was adapted from my previous experiences in EKAS. I also started a more digitally mediated project at Polis where we worked to build data structures that would allow us to query and analyze over 20 years of intensive excavation at the site. Finally, in 2014, I started to work with the folks at WARP to help with their data workflow.

At this point, I realized that the average archaeology graduate student had more experience using digital tools than I did and mostly what I was doing was workflow management rather than actual digital archaeology in any computational sense. I was perhaps slightly more savvy in dealing with the kind of big, structured datasets that archaeology produced, but, in the end, I was a dinosaur compared to their more agile ways of thinking with data and familiarity with the latest tools and techniques.  

3. What is the biggest challenge facing digital archaeology at the moment?

I’ve thought about this a good bit.

At first, I wanted to suggest that whatever center “digital archaeology” once existed, I’m increasingly inclined to say that it has currently dissipated. As a result, we’re not really dealing with “digital archaeology” as a field any longer, but “digital archaeologies” which cover a vast range of technologies, techniques, approaches, attitudes, and skill sets. For example, what Shawn does with agent-based-modelingAndrew Reinhard does with archaeogaming, or Maurizio Forte does at his DIG@Lab is pretty different from, say, the work of Eric and Sarah Kansa at Open Context or work to refit legacy data to contemporary problems, or data collection in the field. This isn’t to imply that one type of digital archaeology is better than the other or that one is “real digital archaeology” or whatever, but to suggest that whatever big tent digital archaeology could be, the field is highly disparate at this point with many subfields and approaches having developed specialized bodies of literature and discussion. One wonders whether digital practices are now so diverse that many of them are largely incommensurate. In other words, perhaps the biggest challenge facing digital archaeology is determining whether “knowing it when you see it” or archaeological work that involves computers (i.e. Colleen Morgan and Stu Eve’s famous “we’re all digital archaeologists now”) remains enough to support the concept as meaningful in theory and practice. For more on this read Jeremy Huggett for more (and frankly better) thoughts on this.  

I then considered to talking about my own efforts to think about digital archaeology. I proposed the concept of “slow archaeology” as a way to think critically about digital practices. My ideas have evolved a bit over the last five years or so (read their latest iterations here), but they center on a concern for the impact of digital practices on the shape of archaeological labor. In other words, I consider how digital tools shape archaeological thinking and seeing from the survey unit and trench side to the lab and laptop. This felt odd solipsistic (and more than that, I know that Shawn and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on this). It also is a pretty narrow view of what digital archaeology and even archaeology means in practice. 

In an effort to avoid consuming my own tail (let’s say), I think I should propose that the greatest challenge facing digital archaeology/archaeologies at present is the continued need for sustained ethical reflection. While this applies to all archaeology, of course, I think that digital tools present distinct challenges. In fact, I would even propose that if digital archaeology has any center, it is in a shared ethics of practice. This could means a wide range of things, but I worry about this stuff the most:

1. How do digital tools and digital practices reproduce hierarchy within the discipline?
2. How have digital recording practices challenged ideas of heritage, ownership, and stewardship in our field?
3. How do digital practices reinforce colonial relationships and support claims to universalism?
4. What are our responsibilities toward digital ephemera and archival standards in everyday practice?
5. What are the ethics of open access in practice?
6. How do we understand critically the relationship between private profit and public good in the digital tools that we use?
7. What are the ethics of digital workflows and efficiency?
8. What are the ethics involved in selecting the material technologies that we use in the discipline?
9. How do we understand and critique the asymmetries in funding associated with digital innovation?
10. How do we critique the very concept of innovation in our field?  

These issues are obviously overlapping and complex, and many of these issues have already attracted sustained and careful attention. At the same time, I think that we need to do more to consider how digital archaeologies are shaping the ethnical landscape of archaeological practice. 

4. What drives you up the wall about how digital archaeology is currently received/perceived in the profession? (Alternatively, what are you currently trying to learn in digital archaeology OR have you had any glorious failures, and so please describe.)

I usually don’t get easily perturbed by how others see me or my work, but I do worry that the public (and to a larger extent my less digitally focused colleagues and university administrators) continue to see digital archaeology as a field centered on innovation (or, if this was 2006 “disruption”).

Of course, if you’ve read this far into this post, you will realize that I am guilty of this as well. In fact, my call for greater ethical scrutiny in the field assumes that somehow digital technology has made digital archaeology different from “analogue practice” and requires renewed critical attention. 

At the same time, I get annoyed by the lack of interest and support for the small-scale iterative and adaptive practice that make technology work for archaeologists on a day-to-day level. Having read for any number of national grants over the last decade, it’s amazing how even among critical and thoughtful specialists in our field, we tend to be drawn to the projects that promise to re-invent the wheel at the expense of projects that seek to improve, modify, adapt, or reuse existing technologies to address new challenges. 

5. What fills you with hope about the field?

I often feel like digital archaeology (and digital humanities, digital history, and digital practices in general) encourage a kind of attention to day-to-day practices that non-digital versions of archaeology, humanities, history, and the like tend to approach as settled. For example, in my corner of archaeology, there’s relatively little discussion about how one excavates or analyzes finds. That is to say, we don’t talk much about troweling techniques, how we discern different strata in the field, and what we do determine and describe the shape, fabric, color, and function of ceramics during artifact analysis.

Digital archaeology seems to have pushed us to think more critically about the little things that we do to create archaeological knowledge. Critical attention to digital tools has encouraged us to think more about how we produce an illustration, how we move about a landscape, and how we see architectural changes and strata. It may be that new technology will not radically change these practices in the long run, but it certainly feels like they’re receiving greater critical scrutiny these days as they intersect with an expanding range of digital tools.

Maybe this is really what Morgan and Eve meant when they said “we’re all digital archaeologists now?” It doesn’t mean that we’re all on the bleeding edge of digital practices in our discipline or even regularly using technology in our practice, but that the emergence of the digital has made our past practices “analogue” and opened them to new forms of critique and reflection.

The Enchantment of Digital Archaeology

It should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of Shawn Graham’s work. After all, my press not only published his previous book, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays, but also collaborates with with him to publish the paper version of the journal EpoiesenShawn was also among the first scholars to push back against my ideas of a slow archaeology and his critiques have continued to influence my current work.

I was pretty excited to read his latest book, An Enchantment of Digital Archaeology, which appeared as the first volume of Andrew Reinhard’s new Digital Archaeology: Documenting the Anthropocene series from Berghahn Press. The book is short and good, and I’d encourage anyone who is interested to read it. Shawn argues that digital archaeology can enchant by engaging the practitioner in the act of creating new knowledge largely through the media of agent based modeling. These digital models – primarily developed on the Netlogo digital modeling platform – allow archaeologists to create programs that allow them to test hypotheses by bringing their models to life. The practice of “singing” (i.e. fr. chant) these ideas to life on the screen foregrounds the creative and generative aspects of digital archaeology and emphasizes their relationship to craft as opposed to the industrial practices that I developed at the core of my calls for slow archaeology.

(As an aside, Shawn’s view of enchantment in his models reminded me so much of Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. which I blogged about a couple years ago here.) 

Instead of offering a review (which would be premature anyway as the book has just appeared), here are a few thoughts:

1. Big Tent Digital Archaeology or Digital Archaeologies. A few years ago, there was a good bit of talk about big tent digital humanities (which Ethan Watrall connected to digital archaeology). The gist of this conversation is that by expanding the definition of digital humanities, we also open the field to a wider range of voices and participants. There was (and perhaps to some degree continues to be) concern that digital humanities has become rather narrowly defined with perhaps too great an emphasis research questions of particular interest to scholars of literature and a fairly narrow set of tools and practices associated with producing digitally mediated critical editions, various forms of distant reading, and public facing corpora of historical sources. While this critique may seem outdated today, the debates surrounding the “big tent” digital humanities almost certainly nudged the nascent field to embracing a wider range of digital approaches under its purview.

Digital archaeology has perhaps avoided a small-tent mentality, although it would be fair, I think, to discern the clear emergence of certain communities of practice in the field. That being said, it might well be time to think about digital archaeologies rather than digital archaeology. 

Shawn’s book, for example, focuses heavily on the development and use of agent based modeling and the enchantment he experiences watching his ideas come to life in the interaction between agents in these digital mediated environments. This is intriguing work with applications that go well beyond the analysis of Roman brick stamps (which were the focus of his dissertation) or patronage systems in Roman Italy. One could imagine applying agent based models, for example, to Justin Leidwanger’s recent work on the Roman maritime economy and the distribution of amphora or Roman fine wares.

At the same time, this application of digital practices in archaeology is quite a bit different from the kinds of issues explored in Averett, Counts, and Gordon’s 2016 book, Mobilizing the Past which really emphasized the use of digital tools in field practices. It is also distinct from the brilliant work done by the Gabii team in producing a dynamic publication of a Middle Republican House or the work of Maurizio Forte and his DIG@Lab to create immersive archaeological environments. This is not to say that all these approaches can’t create the sense of enchantment, and the goals of digital heritage practices often seek to do just that, but rather to suggest that digital archaeologies embrace a wide range of practices, goals, and genealogies from the magical to the mundane.

2. Models and Meaning in Archaeology. Making and defining archaeological knowledge is difficult and the digital environment offers a way to think about how and what we know about the past as a product of the tools and practices that we use. In some ways, the key to Graham’s book is understanding that his idea of enchantment depends upon his view of archaeological knowledge making and this, in turn, is grounded in his reading of R.G. Collingwood. 

Collingwood, an archaeologist, historian, and philosopher famously argued that all history is the history of thought. The work of the historian was to rethink past thoughts and communicate these thoughts to other people. The historian’s work at explaining the past, then, depends upon their ability to articulate in a critical way their own thoughts. These critical articulations, mostly structured as formal arguments that make visible the reason why a historian thought in a particular way, are the objects of historical knowledge. Historians cannot debate what happened in the past, because this is something that is fundamentally unknowable, but we can debate what historians think happened in the past. 

Graham’s agent based models are, if I understand correctly, the basic unit of archaeological thought. They represent his ideas about the past brought to life and attention to the variable and code around which he structured the models offer a way to critique Graham’s thoughts. The models are arguments and the enchantment that Graham experiences in producing these models is parallel to the enchantment a historian feels in spelling out their view in text.

3. Digital Archaeology and Work. Graham has long taken issue with my concept of slow archaeology as a counter weight to the discipline’s growing dependence on digital technology and practices. He rightly points out that coding is a creative process and parallels the kind of craft practices that I connect to slow work in the field. This makes sense; after all WordPress has long reminds us that “code is poetry” and few of us would argue that writing poetry is industrial labor. 

I’ll gladly concede that the production of robust and carefully constructed datasets, thoughtfully designed maps, agent-based models and even the digital involved in creating and publishing books has closer parallels to craft than to industrial practices. In fact, I’ve been pretty convinced by Colleen Morgan and Daniel Eddisford’s argument that single context recording, in which an archaeologist is responsible for bringing together all that is knowable about a single context is an open area excavation, represents a the basis for a creative, anarchist praxis in our field.

At the same time, I think there are elements of scale that make these practices enchanting. After all, not all digital practices in archaeology involve the integration or construction of complex models or datasets. Most of what slow archaeology critiqued was the use of digital tools in the field to collect bits of data. Unlike an agent based model, these bits of data are not complete archaeological thoughts. A photograph used to make a structure-from-motion 3D image, for example, might not even be recognizable by a human viewer as representing a particular object or landscape. The photograph only makes sense in the computer-mediated context of a 3D model generated by software like Pix4D or Agisoft Metashape. The same can be said for entering data into a database in the field or filling out a form. In isolation, a check box or even a short description does not produce a sense of enchantment and, following Collingwood, these are not complete archaeological or historical thoughts. 

I’d argue that this kind of digital archaeology, the work that anticipates Graham’s enchanting models, has more in common with the fragmented work of the assembly line and industrial practices than the integrated work of craft. That the collector of digital data, especially at scale, is rarely the individual responsible for the integration and interpretation of the data reinforces the relationship between fragmentation of digital archaeological work and the organization of archaeological labor. Slow archaeology, in this context, is very much consistent with Graham’s calls for enchantment, but it also offers a more cautionary note that encourages us to see the potential for enchantment alone as only part of a larger system of digital practices in our field that both draw upon longstanding forms of archaeological organization and intensify their effects. 

4. The Future of Digital Practices. Shawn, of course, recognizes that not all digital practices lead to enchanting outcomes and that not all forms of enchantment are inherently good. If the first half of the book involves enchanting models, the final chapters considers how the creation of models from massive unstructured, human-language datasets opens the doors not only to viewing how computers create structure but also on the limits of computational methods for reproducing the thoughts that we think about the past.

Shawn presents a number of examples of plausible texts produced from the autonomous analysis of historical documents. The plausibility of these texts rests on our ability to understand the context of the original documents and the style of writing and kinds of thinking that Flinders Petri, for example, might offer.

This plausibility, however, also makes the potential of this kind of technology seductive. By divorcing bit of text from their specific context and reordering and remixing them in new ways, he reveals how the fragmentation of digital data can divorce the fruits of archaeological work from individual actors, spatial and relational contexts, and relevance grounded in a sense of place. It appears that the affective potential of digital enchantment can also obscure and complicate how we understand the past.

As the code for NetLogo agent based models in the appendices of the book demonstrate, digital work requires transparency. 

5. Style. Finally, the book is written in Shawn’s honest, informal, but nevertheless precise style that should be familiar to anyone how has read his blog or Failing Gloriously. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly fits the goals of this book and has contributed to Shawn’s distinct place in the field of digital archaeology. 

Failing Gloriously Recognized!

It’s with great pleasure that we recognize that Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays won a Digital Humanities Award for 2019. It is fitting, of course, that it won the award for the category of “Best Exploration of DH Failure.” We’re excited to refer to this book as “award winning Failing Gloriously” and to celebrate that, once again, Shawn Graham is an “award winning author and digital humanist.” 

On the one hand, as the organizers of the DH awards acknowledge, these honors are decided, in part, by popular voting so they are a kind of digital popularity contest designed as much to raise awareness of all the great DH work going on these days as to point out interesting and potentially valuable work.

On the other hand, it is always great to get recognized. As we’ve said all along, Shawn’s book was as much a personal essay as a treatise on failure. It took a good bit of courage to write and let us publish this book. Kathleen Fitzpatrick observed as much when she said, “Sharing these stories of failure is a radical act, a generous act, one that requires a willingness to be vulnerable so that others can learn from your failures.”

We hope the by winning this award Shawn’s book get a wider audience because, as Quinn Dombrowski noted in her review of the book, “There is much more work that needs to be done, on many fronts, to encourage, support, and reduce the personal risk associated with thoughtful analyses of failure, for everyone” 

Shawn’s innovative work was also recognized in the “Best Use of Digital Humanities for Fun” category for “A Song of Scottish Publishing, 1671-189” and “Making Nerdstep Music as Archaeological Enchantment, or, How do you Connect with People Who Lived 3000 Years Ago?” with Digital Press author Andrew Reinhard and Digital Press collaborator Eric Kansa.

Download Failing Gloriously for free or grab a paperback for $9 via Amazon!

Slow Archaeology and Slow Media

This weekend, I read Jussi Parikka’s little book, The Contemporary Condition : A Slow, Contemporary Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture (Sternberg Press 2016). I had also started to think a bit about slow archaeology (again) because I had agreed to be on a panel on slow archaeology at the now-cancelled TAG conference. Finally, next month, I need to start working on a chapter that considers media archaeology for my little Archaeology of the Contemporary American Culture project. These three things sort of converged in my mind as I walked the dogs over the weekend.

These streams sort of coalesced into three proto-ideas.

First, when I first started thinking about and writing about slow, it was in response to calls for greater efficiency and speed that had become typical in digital archaeology (and in American culture more broadly). I figured that slowing down might offer a way to escape from the pressures of efficiency and automation during field work and return our attention to the things, landscapes, and experience of fieldwork.

Reading Parikka’s book, however, reminded me to think a bit more about Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence (2011). Nixon demonstrated that the idea of slow was not just an alternative to modern calls to efficiency but also could be applied to the violent results of our need for efficiency in the modern world. In this context, slow was a way to describe the process of environmental degradation, the breakdown of toxic chemicals, and the impact of these forces on the lives, in particular, of the poor. 

In this case, I started to wonder whether a slow reading of the material world would also allow us to see more clearly the slow violence of the contemporary situation.

The second thing that this brought to mind was the Alamogordo Atari excavation. It’s been over 5 years since we went to Alamogordo to watch a landfill get excavated in search for a “lost” cache of Atari games. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I learned from that experience. It seems to me that thinking about the Atari dig as an example of slow archaeology makes sense. The landfill itself slowed the decay of material preserving green grass clippings, newspapers, food, and, of course, the Atari games.

More than that, the Alamogordo landfill may have been the destination for a number of mercury-laced pigs. In 1969, Ernest Huckleby had accidentally fed some of his pigs with mercury treated grain, and his family, including his eight children and pregnant wife, at some of the pork. The results were horrific and with three of his children and a his infant son were seriously mentally impaired, rendered blind, and paralyzed. Mercury survived in the pigs which passed it onto the children where it caused havoc in their developing nervous systems. Three of the children never recovered full physical or mental function or vision. The photo of Ernestine Huckleby that appeared in National Geographic in the aftermath of this incident was gut wrenching. 

Alamogordo is also, of course, well known for being the largest town near the Trinity Test site where the atomic bomb was tested. Some 30 miles to the east of the town is the WIPP site where nuclear waste from across the US is being stored. The nuclear history of this corner of the American southwest offers another locus for both slow violence and for the attention of slow archaeology. 

(In fact, I’ve increasingly come to realize that my experiences at Alamogordo were almost a parody of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).)

Finally, I got to thinking more seriously about the source of the material in our digital devices (and for some of Parikka’s thoughts on this, I’ve begun to read his A Geology of Media (2015)). My initial thinking about a slow archaeology was as a kind reflexive practice. I wonder whether this could extend to more critical attention to the materiality of the tools that we use.

Often I think about an archaeology of archaeology which would consider the ways that archaeologists shape the landscape. For example, parts of the ancient city of Corinth are now buried beneath the backfill removed from excavating the Roman forum there. This same way of thinking, however, could extend to understanding the materiality of our digital (and analog) tools from the lithium ponds in Bolivia to rare earth mining sites in China and Australia, petroleum extraction and refining sites (for plastics) in the Middle East and the US, and various manufacturing centers with their global supply chains. It would also be valuable to think about the movement of our post-consumer and industrial waste which now is on a global scale. In short, a slow archaeology transformed into an archaeology of slow and slow violence could consider how our desire for efficiency and speed makes it all the more difficult to understand the gradual impact that our choices has on the earth. Moreover, the emergence of global supply chains which complicate the provenience of artifacts associated with archaeological knowledge making rely on the same speed that they themselves mediate. In fact, the instantaneous character of most engagements with digital tools works to obfuscate the complex processes, spatial contexts, and origins of the mediating technologies. A slow archaeology, with its attentiveness to the interplay between between archaeologists and their tools could bring some of the slow violence of contemporary society into view.  

Three Things Thursday: The Perfect, Photography, and Big Data in Archaeology

It feels like I have a ton going on right now (although I’m sure it’s not nearly as much as other people do on a daily basis!). I’m finishing a paper that I’m scheduled to give in a couple of weeks in the UK (coronavirus permitting), I’m working on a chapter for my book, and I’m getting a couple of books and a journal issue off the ground. As a result, I’m more scattered than usual. So here’s a little sampling of the things occupying my brain.

Thing the First

I’ve been meaning to write a long blog post on the recent Journal of Field Archaeology supplement on big data in archaeology. To cut to the chase: I really like it. It balances the potential of big data with some very incisive and thoughtful critiques. Jeremy Huggett’s piece continues his long standing project of a critical digital archaeology, for example, and urges archaeologists to pay more attention to the underlying structures that shape digital data. In particular, he suggests that archaeologists be more explicit in how they clean, integrate, and organize datasets from various sources. Mark McCoy’s critique of the site as an organizing concept in the effort to integrate and analyze big data at the regional or transregional scale connects how archaeologists interpret big data to one of the most basic debates in field archaeology: the definition of the site. Neha Gupta ,Sue Blair, and Ramona Nicholas discuss the rules governing big data in Canada and how these rules create challenges for indigenous communities when they seek to use, create, and control the flow of sensitive or culturally relevant data. They emphasize the role of crown copyrights in limiting access and use of data in ways that do not always work to the advantage of indigenous groups. Morag Kersel and Chad Hill demonstrate how drone imagery and the careful curation of data can link archaeologists with cultural institutions to mitigate and document illegal digging in Jordan. There are other articles, most of which I really liked, but one more deserves a little additional attention. Allison Mickel’s piece explores the relationship between big data and communities using case studies from Turkey and Jordan. The disconnect between the two and local knowledge and big data knowledge is striking in her case studies and her work – here and elsewhere – is a great reminder of the limits to our data driven world.

Thing the Second

I’ve started to read a bit about photography and archaeology. I think I had been keeping this topic at arms length because it seemed both theoretically daunting and massively complex. Yesterday, I got drawn into Lesley McFadyen and Dan Hicks’ edited volume, Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity, and Archive (Bloomsbury 2020) which sucked me in through Dan Hicks’ thoughtful and compelling discussion of time and photography in archaeology. First, he critiques Representational Archaeology which understands archaeologists as assembling persistent fragments of the past into compelling archaeological arguments and proposes a visual archaeology which emphasizes archaeology as a “complex of transformation.” Instead of archaeology assembling or revealing or producing the past, a visual archaeology recognizes the role of the archaeologist and technology in making the past visible. He’s quick to stress that this doesn’t mean making the occluded or hidden visible, but rather creating a distinct vision of the past produced through our discipline’s methods and techniques. 

This not only foregrounds the contemporaneity of the archaeologist with what they see and document (which is very much in keeping with how I’m trying to think of archaeology of the contemporary world), but also reinforces the view that photography is not a kind of documentation or a method used by archaeology, but in some ways IS archaeology as much as archaeology is documentation of the past.

Thing the Third

One of the things that I’ve worked on refining recently is the ability to apologize. As the fourth issue of North Dakota Quarterly goes into production this week, I am once again left with things that have slipped through the cracks or just aren’t quite right. I’m bummed that the issue and the process of production won’t be perfect. Many people won’t even notice the imperfections or little problems that linger. I’m not a perfectionist as any reader of this blog undoubtedly knows, but I find that my desire for the really good is much higher when I’m dealing with other people’s work.

Three Things Thursday: Digital Stuff, Underworld, NDQ

It’s been one of those weeks where nothing seems to get traction. From Monday at the keyboard to Tuesday in the classroom, Wednesday amidst articles and books, and now it’s Thursday and I have so very little to show for it. 

As a result, I’m back to doing another Three Things Thursday, which I suppose are fine for what they are, but aren’t really the kind of blog posts that I like to write. They’re just stuff, but I guess when life gives you stuff, make a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed reading Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Glenn Wharton “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility” in Public Culture 32.1 (2020), 215-245. You can read it here.

Rubio and Wharton explore the challenges associated with born-digital art. These range from questions about what exactly a museum acquires when they acquire a piece of digital art. What constitutes their exclusive rights to a work of art? The files? The technology? The hardware? And how do these exclusive rights intersect with other rights expressed by hardware, software, and even other content makers? 

More complicated still is how to preserve a work of digital art. What constitutes preservation when even updating the format of a work so that it’ll continue to function as intended constitutes changing the underlying code as well as the media in which a work is displayed or experienced (think about the demise of CRT televisions or the improvements in video projectors, the capacity to playback uncompressed audio and the like). 

Obviously this article summarizes a bunch of scholarship and they’re not the first to observe this, but, on the other hand, it’s a great piece that has implications for how we think about archaeogaming, media archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m going to check out Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (Chicago 2020) this spring.

Thing the Second

I have to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It’s super long (800+) pages and its reputation makes it pretty intimidating and I have to admit that my motivation to read it is as much because I should read it as because it will add any particular nuance to what I’m working on. 

To be more clear, Underworld is situated at the intersection of the American West, garbage, and critiques of consumer culture. My current delusion is to just commit myself to reading this book over a single week. In part, because I need a break from the grind of writing right now. I’ve been working on a chapter for the last month and for some reason writing is feels like it’s making me think deeper and deeper into my own way of thinking (rather than helping me expand how I understand something).

I also need to re-read (or finish reading) Mike Davis’s City of Quartz which is also a bit longer than I usually like to read. Retraining myself to understand the American West is hard, and for whatever reason, it’s taken my a long time to realize the writing the kind of cultural history that I want to write will involve reading broadly as well as deeply. When writing makes me sink deeper into narrow ways of thinking, I’m going to have pull back from writing to read to make sure that I don’t get too sucked into the murk of my own way of thinking. 

Thing the Third

More reading, but this isn’t as daunting. Today I posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a short story by Jim Sallis called “Scientific Method.” You should go and check it out. It’s less than 1500 words. 

What’s cool to me (being a total novice to editing a literary journal) is Sallis was first published in NDQ in 1983 and then in 1985 and in the 1990s. His essay “Making up America” from 1993 is really great too (and connects to my efforts to think about the archaeology of the contemporary American West). You can read on his site or from the NDQ archive:  “Making up America.” 

I’ve added Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels to my summer reading list. There’s something comforting about noir.

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

2020SCSProgram 2 3 pdf 2020 01 06 08 23 55

The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.

Three Quick Things on a Snowy Monday

The sound of snowblowers woke me this morning because despite everything in town being closed someone just had to remove the snow at 6 am. 

Since I’m up and at my laptop, here are a few quick things for over the new year holiday.

First, I’ve finished the paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting next week on legacy data. I struggled with this paper a good bit because I tried to wed my practical experience of working with legacy data to my somewhat underdeveloped interest in time. The results were predictably messy, but I feel instinctively like this line of thinking is heading somewhere. Here’s the paperHere’s the abstract to the paper. I’ve posted ideas (with a little help from my friends) here, here, and here and a draft here.

Second, I’ve started to do layout on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in
North Dakota, 1958–2018 edited by Kyle Conway. A few years ago, I had this idea of a “Bakken Bookshelf” which would include links to significant books on the Bakken. At the center of the “bookshelf” would be a trilogy of books: The Bakken Goes Boom, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (from our friends at NDSU Press), and, now, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust. I’d like to think that these three books – whatever their limitations – form the cornerstone for any academic engagement with the Bakken oil boom.

More than that, these three books provide a nice testimony for why regional presses matter. As far as I can tell, there has been no book length academic publications on the social conditions, history, and experience of the Bakken oil boom published outside the Northern Plains. Without NDSU Press and The Digital Press (and it’s predecessor, The University of North Dakota Press), the Bakken would have received far less scholarly attention. For a bit more on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust go here.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I took a flyer and bought a novella published by a small press, Soft Cartel Press. The book, Craig Rodger’s The Ghost of Mile 43 is bizarrely wonderful, and if you have the time to read its 80 some-odd pages, you should. The narrator writes with the stilted diction of film noire voice over (which for better or for worse, serves the plot just fine), but the descriptions of abandonment are really quite remarkable. In fact, the entire book stands more as a meditation on the abject and the archaeological than as a vehicle for a narrative (much less a plot).