Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little Hypothes.is comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Ceramics from Koutsopetria in Context

Last week, I asked for an extension on a blog post on the ceramics from the site of Pyla-Koutsopetri on Cyprus. My generous readers granted my the extension and, believe, I hope that you’ll find that you’ve been rewarded for your wait.

This is the final section in the first effort to prepare a draft of our work at the site of Koutsopetria in Cyprus which we excavated in 2009 and Dr. Maria Hadjicosti excavated in the 1990s. This excavation produced a significant assemblage of ceramic material that could be compared to a similar assemblage of material produced through intensive pedestrian survey of the plain. This comparison allowed us both to consider the excavated area in a larger context, but also to speak to the relationship between material below the plow zone and material on the surface.  

My earlier posts focused on the architecture and history of the site, so here is what we can say about the pottery: 

Despite being dominated by a Late Roman period building, the excavations at Koutsoeptria produced a robust assemblage of ceramics that speak to the long history of activity at this site. In this way, the excavation produced an assemblage that provides us with a useful comparative perspective on the data collected from the intensive pedestrian survey of this area and published in 2014. Among the most persistent critiques of intensive survey is that the relationship of the objects on the surface and those outside the plow-zone remains ambiguous hindering our ability to make functional arguments on the basis of artifact scatters (e.g. Sanders 2004). The formation processes and depositional history of assemblages in long-lived, multi-period sites set amid active and dynamic landscapes compound this further. At Koutsopetria excavations revealed how the persistence of residual material used in construction and floor packing, the cutting into earlier layers by later building and activity at the site, and hint at the effects of erosion and plow smear across the site created a diachronic surface assemblage. At the same time, the excavated assemblage revealed complexity that our sampling of the surface did not recognize. This complexity allows us to add meaningful detail both to our understanding of our survey assemblage and to an emerging ceramic signature present at historical period sites in the eastern part of the island.

Our discussion of the assemblage from Koutsopetria excavations relies upon two different excavation teams who sampled and analyzed ceramics based on two different strategies. During the 2009 excavations, we collected and analyzed all ceramics that were not tiles and sampled the tiles by type and extant part. It is unclear whether and how the excavation in the 1990s sampled artifacts from excavated contexts, but after excluding roof tiles from the samples, the excavation produced approximately the same number of artifacts (in 2009 we collected 3063 whereas in the 1990s they collected 3127) but much more artifacts by weight (2009 = 27778 and 1990s=82879) suggesting a more selective method of collecting ceramic material for analysis focusing on larger, presumably more diagnostic artifacts. Despite the disparity between the character of the two assemblages and the way in which they were produced, they are remarkably similar. From 2009, 68% of our material could only be assigned to the broadest possible category: Ancient Historic; from the 1990s this category of material was amounted to 59% of the assemblage by count.

The excavated area produced two discernible groups of pre-Roman material. There was a small assemblage of ceramics of Iron Age, Cypro-Archaic-Classical, and Cypro-Classical date which included coarse, medium coarse, and fine wares. These made up only a small percentage (far less than <1% by both number and weight) of the material from the excavated area and coincided with a similarly small number of artifacts associated with this period from the survey area generally. Most of this material is in secondary context and the fragments are quite small. The material likely entered into an excavated area from either Classical period activities along the base of the Vigla height where the survey documented a small concentration of Cypro-Classical age pottery perhaps from near an earlier findspot of the large, inscribed Cypro-Classical to Hellenistic period settling basin dedicated to Apollo Karaiates (Hadjisavvas 1993: 75–76, 83). Another possible location for Iron Age material is the site on the nearby Kazamas ridge or the earlier phases of activity at the fortified site of Vigla which may have been quarried for building material. During the Hellenistic period, the coastal plain saw greater activity, and this is reflected in the residual pottery from the Koutsopetria assemblage. Unlike Iron Age material which tended to be small fragments of fine wares, the material dated to either the Hellenistic period or one of the broader, related periods (Hellenistic-Early Roman or Hellenistic-Roman) tended to be larger and represent a more functionally diverse assemblage with the full range of coarse and medium coarse utility wares, amphora, kitchen wares, and fine ware. Of particular note was the long-lived (Archaic-Hellenistic) basket-handled amphora that appeared in excavated contexts and appeared both on Vigla as well as on the coastal plain. The link between these vessels and settling basin may hint at the importance of olive oil production in the area. The fine ware present was evenly split between Black-Glaze (21) and Color Coated wares (23), and this followed closely the division in the Hellenistic fine ware assemblage from the survey area suggesting that these may reflect the supply to the area during this period. The excavated assemblages did not produce kitchen or medium coarse wares that appeared in the survey although these artifacts did not appear in the immediate vicinity of the excavated area. The broader Hellenistic-Early Roman period, however, did produce a more robust assemblage. The challenge with more broadly dated material is that they tend to straddle the overlap between the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

The Hellenistic-Roman and Hellenistic-Early Roman assemblage from Koutsopetria made up just over 5% of the total assemblage from Koutsopetria. The assemblage is diverse and includes coarse and medium coarse utility wares, amphora, kitchen, and fine wares. The comprehensive character of this assemblage is consistent with finds from the survey area, but likely reflects the slow spread of settlement on the coastal plain over the course of the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. Material from these long periods includes long-lived Rhodian type amphora, cooking pots, and fine wares types that persisted even Eastern and Cypriot Sigillatas replaced color-coated wares on local tables.

During the Early Roman period, the diversity and quantity of material from the site expands and this parallels neatly the expansion of material from this period in the survey area. The most significant distinction between the assemblage produced from excavation and survey does not appear to the be presence of Early Roman and Roman material, but the assemblage produced from excavation proved significantly more diverse. The excavated assemblage produced no examples of cooking pots or utility wares save a handful of Koan-type amphora, which were likely produced on the island. Some of this is the result of certain artifact types being shifted into broader categories. For example Rhodian amphoras which we identified as predominantly Early Roman in the survey, were dated Hellenistic-Early Roman in the excavation. The appears to be also the case for kitchen wares which were more commonly dated to the broader Roman, Hellenistic-Roman, or Hellenistic-Early Roman periods. As a result, fine ware represented the Early Roman period in the excavation. The most striking difference between the survey assembalge and the excavation assemblage is that Cypriot Sigillata comprised 28% (n=21) of the Early Roman fine wares from the survey, but only 4% (n=3) from the excavation. Other Early Roman fine wares – largely less diagnostic fragment of red slips – consisted of 27% of Early Roman fine wares from the survey (including a fragment of Arretine ware and Eastern Sigillata B) and 55% from the excavation. The remaining sherds were the common Eastern Sigillata A, but the excavation revealed six subforms (Form 19, 37, 38, 44, 65, and a lagynos) whereas the survey only produced a single recognizable subtype Atlante Form 4. It is worth noting that the 2009 excavations produced a small piece of Roman glazed pottery likely dating to the Early Roman period, but quite unusual and without parallel at sites in the region. The absence of Cypriot Sigillata from the excavation is consistent with relatively rarity of this type of Early Roman fine ware. At the nearby site of Panayia-Ematousa, near the modern village of Aradipou, Cypriot Sigillata accounted for only 8.8% of the total fine ware from the site. The absence of CS from the western part of the island may reflect the flow of ceramic materials from east to west with Eastern Sigillata entering the eastern part of the island from Levantine ports and CS circulating from the western production area. The majority of this material appears in secondary contexts, particularly in floor packing or fills, that reflect early patterns of activity in the area.

The broadly defined Roman period at Koutsopetria captures some of the transition from Early to Late Roman activity at the site. Like many places on Cyprus, the 3rd and 4th centuries are poorly represented in both the survey and excavation assemblage at Koutsopetria. The excavation, for example, produced no “pinched-handled” amphoras or forms of CRS or ARS with well-established 3rd-4th century dates. . There are a number of long-lived types of pottery that appear in the broadly dated Roman assemblage that might hint at at “middle Roman” activity at the site. For example, there are African Red Slip sherds that can be assigned to no specific type which makes it impossible to exclude the possibility of early forms existing at Koutsopetria, but no specific evidence for those early forms appeared. Among the range of undiagnostic coarse and medium coarse wares in Roman fabrics, the presence of a small number of long-lived micaceous water jars (Middle Roman 3 amphora) which appear from 1st to 6th century AD offer a glimpse of the middle Roman centuries. The presence of Roman lamps and cooking wares make clear that the coastal plain of Koustopetria was a settlement during the Roman period.

The Late Roman period is the most abundant from both the survey and excavation. The utility wares and amphoras from the excavated contexts are largely identical to those found in the survey. Late Roman 1 amphoras are predictably common in both contexts. The excavation also produced a small number (n=10) of Late Roman 2 amphora from the Aegean and Palestinian amphora (n=2 [check this]). The assemblage produced a significant quantity of kitchen ware sherds including a small number of rather late Dhiorios ware cooking pots that are likely the latest artifacts from the excavation and have comparanda from the survey of the coastal plain. As with most other periods, the fine ware from the Late Roman period provides the best opportunity to reflect on the diversity of material from our site. The two dominant categories of Late Roman fine ware were African Red Slip and Cypriot Red Slip with the former accounting for 48% of the Late Roman fine wares by count and 38% by weight and the latter being 44% by count and 53% by weight. The remaining 10% is made up of Phocaean ware and other rather less diagnostic Late Roman fine ware. It is notable that African Red Slip is significantly better represented in the excavated assemblage than in the survey assemblage. In the survey, ARS accounted for 17.4% of the Roman period fine ware whereas CRS accounted for 42.5% of the same total. The diversity of the two assemblages, however, speaks to their fundamental similarity. There are no ARS forms present in the excavated material that were not also present in the survey with ARS Forms 61, 67, and 105 appearing in both contexts. Likewise the CRS forms reflect the more common types CRS9 and CRS11 as well as the less common CRS8. Phocaean ware appeared in two forms PWH 10 and 5 and the very common PHW 3 was largely absent with only 1 possible example of that form. The presence of substantial quantities of African Red Slip pottery in the excavation assemblage supports two general impression from our survey. First, our local Late Roman fine ware assemblage was dominated by African Red Slip and Cypriot Red Slip suggesting that the site had ties both to regional production centers and Mediterranean wide trade networks. The small quantities of PHW in the excavated area does little to challenge the distribution of this type of pottery at the base of Mavrospilos and Kokkinokremos along the Late Roman coastline and coastal road. We have argued elsewhere that this concentration may mark the presence of warehouses associated with the site’s role as a emporion (Caraher et al. 2014, 295).

There is no compelling evidence for post-Roman material from the site aside from 2 fragments of early modern roof tiles. This is consistent with the distribution of the small quantities of later material in the survey which tend to be concentrated in units adjacent to the small Ottoman/Venetian coastal battery some 300 m to the east of the excavated area. The two tiles are likely the result of plow smearing, local road building, or even intruded during the excavation process rather than a reflecting evidence for a distinct later activity at the site. While it remains possible that some of the assemblage datable to nothing more narrow than Ancient Historic could include later material, it seems more likely that post-Roman activity on the coastal plain was limited and did not directly involve the collapsed church building.

Context in Archaeology

It’s the time of year when I frantically try to finish reading various articles with 2016 (or 2015) publication dates so I can feel vaguely up to date in my diminishing awareness of my field and my discipline. It’s a sham, of course, as readers of this blog know, but a largely pious sham.

As part of this flailing, I took bizarre pleasure in reading James Whitely’s response in the JMA to Robin Osborne’s 2015 article in the same journal. The response was chippy but in a largely fun way and Osborne’s response to Whitley was equally entertaining. Both scholars, both offered some evidence for mutual respect and managed to talk past each other. In the process, though, it did make me think:

1. Academia as Theater. The debate between the two appears largely to be a kind of edu-tainment. Osborne’s article is intentionally hyperbolic, designed to nudge archaeologists into recognizing that objects in museums have contexts that remain relevant for historians and scholars of the ancient world. In places, Osborne is over the top, but surely this is puckish response to equally exaggerated anxiety expressed by archaeologists over objects without provenience which is so frequently presented to rooms full of nodding archaeologists. Whitley can hardly disagree with Osborne’s claims, but takes issue with his emphatic tone, and this gives him an opening to reassert the priority of archaeological context. Well, that’s fine, and whatever liberties Whitley takes with Osborne’s argument seems designed to provide his response with a spirit of entertaining bar-room banter rather than to make a solid scholarly point. Even casual readers of ancient history and archaeology know that both Osborne and Whitely are fine scholars and both value the myriad contexts that shape our reading of objects. Moreover, the JMA readership, who tends to be theoretically and practically savvy, are aware of this. (If this debate was playing out across the pages of a journal with a slightly broader audience – perhaps the AJA – it would have the appearances of a more sincerely scholarly enterprise)

The point of this debate, I suspect, is to entertain JMA readers and perhaps to stimulate a bit of barroom conversation of its own. The lack of careful, academic editing, in fact, gives the exchange a kind of bloggish feel. Whitely for example, is allowed to misrepresent Osborne’s argument in a basic factual ways (e.g. his claims that Osborne offered arguments based on the idea of “object biography” which is a phrase (and concept) that Osborne does not use; likewise Whitely’s critiques of Osborne’s reference to partage which were strangely decontextualized and misunderstood. Osborne responds to both of these points in his response to Whitley’s piece, but this also has a kind of fish-in-the-barrel feel to it. These are not serious conversations grounded in the theoretical or practical issues at stake, but playful banter between two senior scholars knowingly tweaking the other. If a more junior scholar – or a graduate student – made similar claims about Osborne’s article, the review and editing process would have surely called them out.).  

That being said and since this is a blog, I do feel like it is worth thinking about a few of the issues – however superficial they might be – that Osborne and Whitley spar over.

2. Context in Archaeology. One of Whitley’s most bizarre critiques of Osborne’s work is that Osborne claims all contexts are equal. Whitley sees this as a move toward a kind of relativism “where the significance of an object depends on its latest context?” and accuses Orborne (with an ironic twinkle in his eye, I’m sure) with not understanding how archaeologists use the word context.

I have admit that I’ve fallen into this same trap. At a recent ASOR panel on object biography, I was baffled by a participant repeating – mantra like – that an object without context is meaningless. Of course, this well-meaning archaeologist was talking about archaeological context, but, as Osborne notes, context (such as we continue to use that word in our post-Foucaldian world) is really relevant to the kinds of questions we ask of objects. There are plenty of contexts that are not archaeological that give objects meaning. Whitley’s hand-wring about a descent into a kind of amoral relativism would seem to almost prove Osborne’s point.

3. Archaeology as Context. Of course, as a field archaeologist, I recognize that archaeological context (that is in a proper sense) is significant and when doing field archaeology maintaining context is our pre-eminent concern and priority. In fact, I’d argue that the goal of field archaeology is to produce contexts that extend across materials – object assemblages, features, architecture, sites – and methods and methodology. If the last 30 years of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean has taught us anything it is that methodology offers as much a context for archaeological knowledge production as stratigraphy (and, in fact, methods and stratigraphy are co-dependent). A useful expansion of the concerns expressed by Whitley would extend to methodology which has not been as strong focus among excavators as a among survey archaeologists.  

4. Technological Contexts. In fact, I think that relatively naive attitudes toward methods among excavators has fueled the recent trend toward technological solutionism. My buddy Dimitri Nakassis posted a nice review of a little gaggle of articles in the BICS on his blog yesterday. In fact, this post reminded me to read Whitley’s article and to consider how the privileging of excavation contexts in archaeology has led to particular attitudes toward technology in our field. In one of the best-known, recent articles on the use of technology in excavation the authors playfully revised the age old archaeological mantra: “Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice.” The tension between the role of archaeology in producing context (through methods) and destroying context (through the removal of sediment and strata and objects) has fueled an optimistic new generation of scholars who look to digital tools to bridge the gap. This hope for ever increasingly resolution in empirical knowledge is not bad, of course, except when it loses track of the big picture: archaeological contexts are created by the archaeologist in the service of particular questions about the past. 

5. Professional Contexts. Part of Osborne’s larger point in his article is that museum collections remain a relatively untapped resources especially for students and early career scholars. Whitley, in response, urges students and scholars to get more field experience, start and participate in field projects and to avoid the current vogue for theorizing at the expense of getting dirty. This is fine advice, but the realities of doing field work are more complex than just disciplinary trends. Field work is expensive, permits are difficult to acquire, and there is real risk (at least at American universities) for junior scholars planning to publish results from an excavation or survey as a contribution to their tenure packet. This is to say nothing of the political and social issues that shape fieldwork opportunities in the Mediterranean world.

In other words, there is a distinct professional context to archaeology and, in many ways, these pressures – much more so than a predilection for theory or a dislike for dirt – shape how archaeologists engage in knowledge production. It is disappointing that even in this playful barroom banter, two preeminent, senior, male scholars overlooked this key aspect of archaeological context.