Three Things Thursday: Roads, Books, and Things

Thing the First

Last week, I read a rather well executed article by Alvise Matessi titled “The ways of an empire: Continuity and change of route landscapes across the Taurus during the Hittite Period (ca. 1650–1200 BCE)” in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 62 (2021).

The article does exactly what it says in the title: it analyzes the routes through the Taurus mountains during the Hittite period. The method is as (relatively) simple as it is compelling. The author generated Least Cost Corridors through the area on the basis 90 m DEMs and compared these corridors to the location of Hittite settlements and landmarks. While I’m not terribly interested in his conclusions per se, this approach struck an intriguing balance between the presence of longer term routes through the region (defined in large part by topography) and short term shifts within these larger patterns. 

My colleague and collaborator Dimitri Nakassis sent this along to me with the intent to get us thinking a bit about how patterns of movement across the Western Argolid reflect a similar tension between longer term routes through the region and more narrowly historically defined variation that might be visible at the scale of our intensive survey. In fact, an article on settlement and the Early Modern road network in the region that we published earlier this year offered a nice, if less sophisticated, example of how two different patterns of movement across the region intersected. The main corridor through our survey area followed the route of the Inachos River, but at various periods other routes including those that crisscross the region perpendicular to the river’s path, were significant and remain visible in organization of settlements in the Western Argolid     

Thing the Second

I’m starting to pull together my annual summer reading list. This list is mainly aspirational (at best) and at worst hangs over my head all summer (an into the fall) as as a reminder of my lack of discipline.

Right now, I’m trying to develop the part of my summer list that will deal with the music and context of Sun Ra. It’s for a post-book project that’s just starting to simmer. This weekend, for example, I started to read Anthony Reed’s Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021) which is a challenging read (and vaguely reminds me of my buddy Paul Worley’s Telling and Being Told (Arizona 2013)  which focuses on orality and performances in Mayan literature), but it evokes many of the artists and musicians that I want to understand better. I’m also eager to tuck into William Site’s new book Sun Ra’s Chicago (Chicago 2020) which I hope will expand my understanding of Ra’s early career and formative influences in that city.

To balance these more recent books, I also plan to read some classic works that unpack the history of jazz (especially the kind of avant-garde creative music with which Sun Ra has been associated). I’m familiar with works like Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra and Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (Texas 2016), but I need to familiarize myself with works like Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke 1999) which is a bit of a touchstone for later scholars working both Sun Ra and jazz. 

Along similar lines, I need to read a bit more seriously on Afrocentrism, particularly in a mid-century American context. I have Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verson 1999) on my “to read” shelf  as well as Wilson Moses’s Afrotopia: the Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge  1998), Clarence E. Walker’s We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (Oxford 2001), and Algernon Austin’s Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century (NYU 2006). 

At the risk of a bad pun, I’m jazzed!

Thing the Third

The final thing is about things. This weekend, I aim to retire my long-serving MacBook Pro laptop. There was a time when I upgraded computers every year or so and this prevented me from developing much of a sentimental attachment to chunks of plastic, silicon, glass, and aluminum. This laptop, however, has served me well for almost five years. In fact, it’ll serve out the rest of its day doing light-duty file serving and storage. 

Last year, I traded in my beloved 2004 F150 for a newer truck. It’s a cliche to say this, but it happened so fast. One day, the truck and I were inseparable, and the next, it was sitting in the back lot of a car dealer.

I know its crazy to assume that things have feelings, but I also think a good bit about how our long term attachment to things like cars, laptops, watches, and homes creates an attachment that is both irrational and real.

How should I retire my laptop? Or trade in a beloved truck? Or gently allow a treasured watch to fall out of my weekly rotation? 

Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony or moment recognizing the bond and at least allowing for the slimmest possibility that the connection between a thing and myself is mutual?  

New Book Day: Visualizing Votive Practice

It’s my favorite day at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: NEW BOOK DAY.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce the publication of Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3DModels by Derek B. Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Kevin Garstki, and Michael Toumazou.

You can download the book for free here.

This book is particularly meaningful to me not only because it was the most complex and ambitious book that The Digital Press has published, but because it has a connection with my earliest days doing archaeology on Cyprus (nearly 20 years ago!). 

When I was fresh out of graduate school and working with Scott Moore and David Pettegrew to get the Pyla-Koutospetria Archaeological Project started on Cyprus, we were trying to understand the practical and political realities of doing work on the island. The team that helped us the most was from the Athienou Archaeological Project. In our first year of field work they showed genuine interest in our work, lent us tables and equipment, and gave us good advice on navigating the political side of doing work on Cyprus. While generosity isn’t uncommon among archaeologists working on the island, their collegiality, good cheer, and support made my transition from field work in Greece to work on Cyprus immeasurably easier.

Of course, this book stands on its own as a significant and innovative work of scholarship. It went through rigorous peer review, received high quality professional copy editing, and abundant, sustained attention from its authors. In some small way, it is also  a gesture of appreciation for the support that I received years ago when I was just starting out on Cyprus.

Here’s the press release and download link. It’s free, open access, and pretty great.

VVP banner rev

Visualizing Votive Practice uses 3D images embedded directly in the PDF to present a significant new group of terracotta and limestone sculpture from the sanctuary of Malloura on Cyprus. By combining traditional features of an archaeological artifact catalogue with the dynamic possibilities of a digital book, these fascinating objects come alive on the page. The book also includes thousands of hyperlinks that invite the reader to engage with objects at the world’s greatest museums, explore previous scholarship, and engage the content in new ways. Visualizing Votive Practice provides an important discussion of the theory, methods, and practices that produced the 3D images in archaeology. It is available as a free, open access, download.

Derek B. Counts, Professor and Chair of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, describes the thinking behind the book “we wanted to challenge traditional approaches to publication and leverage open, digital platforms to provide better access to our research but also connect that research with a wider network of information.”

As Kevin Garstki, Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Global Religions, and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, explains, “The book builds upon the available platforms for sharing 3D models and combines them with important archaeological context that makes them more than just “pretty” models on a computer screen but actual research tools.”

VVP cover final rev

The site of Malloura on the Mesaoria Plain on Cyprus is significant in its own right. Erin Walcek Averett, Associate Professor of Art History and Classical & Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University, notes “this sanctuary is one of the few religious sites to be excavated scientifically and provides a wealth of information on changing Cypriot religious practices from the Cypro-Geometric through Roman periods (ca. 8th c. BCE to at least the 4th c. CE). From terracotta warrior figurines to limestone statues of Cypriot Herakles, this  votive assemblage enriches our understanding of the cult and ritual habit at  the site.”

The book also relies on the Alexandria Archive’s Open Context digital, archaeological publishing platform. Each object in the book is linked to a permanent digital version on the web allowing future researches to link to a specific artifact and for the catalogue to expand and develop in the future. Eric Kansa, Open Context’s Program Director explains that the digital publication of these artifacts “allows for continued expansion of the collection, as well as the addition and association of other related archaeological materials—such as the ceramic vessels, coins, and animal bones– facilitating exploration and reuse of the ever-growing collection, even for purposes not currently recognized in the context of the Visualizing Votive Practice publication.”

William Caraher, the director at the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, remarks “Open access books such as Visualizing Votive Practice shows the potential to combine rigorous peer review and innovative collaborative publishing practices. Scholar-led publishing is not the only future for academic publishing, but works such as this are starting to make the case for it being a viable and significant alternative to traditional academic and commercial publishers.”

VVP cover final face light

The Mezzanine and Kipple

Last year, I was obsessed (or at least very interested) in Philip K. Dick and his view of the material world and archaeology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he introduces the word “kipple” to describe the proliferation of useless objects that reproduce in the absence of human presence. For Dick, kipple was the side-effect of useful actions that produced useless objects. Opening a stick of gum produced the useless gum wrappers, reading a newspaper produced a day old newspaper, and drinking milk produced an empty milk carton.

Nicholson Baker offers a different perspective on kipple. In The Mezzanine, Baker details a single moment in the life of the narrator as he as ascends the escalator to his mezzanine level office after his lunch break. The narrator contemplates his varied intersection with people, but more importantly objects which led him to be ascending the escalator with a small bag containing shoelaces purchased at a nearby CVS.

For the narrator, the inaction with objects proceeded along three lines – and these lines more or less echo how archaeology of the contemporary world (and perhaps all archaeology?) engages with objects. For Baker, some objects are merely functional. For example, his broken shoelace (and the one that had broken two days before), demonstrate the relentless pressure of consistently and repeated actions. These actions are not specifically or narrowly defined. For example, it remained unclear whether the shoelace broke because of how the narrator tied his shoes or how the shoe was designed and flexed during walking. Objects in the narrator’s life likewise seem both to resist and to accommodate human interaction from vending machines to drinking straws, and the affordances offered by these objects, in due course, shape human actions. At one point the narrator contemplates whether there was a quantifiable way to understand how his two laces broke within a day or two of each other. Elsewhere, he considers the periodicity of thoughts to determine how frequently he would need to think about a particular things or topic for it to be “often” or “rarely.” The idea of quantifying regular actions is hardly foreign to archaeologists.  

There are also objects that have greater ritual significance for Baker. While these objects are indistinguishable from other every day objects, they nevertheless carry special significance for the narrator. For example, the narrator’s tie evoked his father’s tie collection draped over the door knobs in his childhood home. The narrator’s shoes reminded him that his parents bought him those shoes before his first day at work. Ritualized acts from tying his tie to lacing his shoes let loose a stream of memories that connected him with his childhood and other individuals. In another passage, the narrator contemplates the little rituals associated with riding the escalator from the technical character of the escalator itself to how you place your foot when you step onto it. The connection between objects, routine acts, and specific memories mark the intersection of ritual and the mundane objects of the contemporary world.  

The narrator’s ride up the escalator (and his long meditation on the escalator and on every day life in his office) provides a compelling context for his reflection on objects. The narrator recognizes this, of course, and the mundane character of the act of riding the escalator to a middle class job provides a backdrop to his reflections on the nature of things. At one point the narrator notices how even the messy hulk of a trash truck barreling down the highway has particular beauty when set against the blue sky. The rusted form of a railroad spike takes on a different meaning and appearance when set on the swept floor of a garage.

Baker’s work reminded me of the importance of context, ritual, and routine in the material world of contemporary society. The mundane and banal world of everyday, “office life” of the narrator is no less materially rich and significant than ritual life of the premodern world or places set aside for our engagement with the sacred. 

The Matter of History

I really enjoyed Tim LeCain’s first book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (2009) and that made me particularly excited to read his newest work The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). LeCain pulls apart the recent interest in materiality in history and situates it as a response, in part, to the growing dissatisfaction with so-called constructivist views of the past. These views, championed by critical theorists of the 1970d and 1980s, “marginalized matter” by viewing the world as a cultural construct established by a dense network of relational ontologies. While this remains a tremendously influential method for understanding texts, historians and archaeologists have typically approached these ways of thinking with a bit of ambivalence. After all, historians and archaeologists build arguments from evidence and, as a result, view these pieces of evidence as somehow being sufficiently essential to support our arguments for a real past. 

For LeCain, this view of the past as real opens the door not to some kind simplistic epistemology that sets the past up as a kind of immutable reality to be mined by the historian for facts, but rather provides space for the place of matter – in all its myriad forms as objects, animals, buildings, landscapes – in our understanding of the world. For LeCain, the matter of history is quite literally matter itself. By allowing matter space in the world of the historian, LeCain recognizes that humans are material and the materiality of both human things and non-human things constrains and enables humans to act. 

While this might sound like the fairly heady (if increasingly typical) and philosophical stuff circulating widely in the world of new or neo-materialists, LeCain grounds his commitment to empiricism in a series of compelling case studies that range from the fate of long-horns in the Deer Lodge Valley in Montana when confronted by the polluting smoke of a smelting furnace to the role of the silkworm in modernizing Shimotsuke Japan. LeCain’s arguments develop from his significant understanding of copper mining and smelting on a global scale. In both Montana and Japan, the expansion of copper production compromised local agriculture and sericulture by introducing sulfur, arsenic, and other heavy metals into the local ecosystem. The conductive properties of copper were vital to the electrification of the modern world and advancing the ambitions of Japan on a regional and ultimately global scale. By interweaving humans, animals, industry, chemicals, and even the very much elemental cooper and downright molecular quality of electricity, LeCain works to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between aspects of the world frequently divided into categories of “nature” and “culture.”

Butte MT Berkeley Pit April 2005 Composite Fisheye View

Historians are nothing if not practical in their approach to the past. By challenging the divisions between the natural and the culture in our world, LeCain not only offers a compelling critique of the once-pervasive constructivism, but also establishes the practical value of the new materialism for historical work. Over the last decade, this critique has frequently come from scholars eager to recognize the agency of things. In many cases, this has resulted in making things oddly human with biographies and agency that frequently do little more than present the “life of things” as a superficial reflection of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. As a result, we avoid dealing with the “thingness” of things, but slotting them into an existing ontology that is ultimately derived from the very nature-culture division that we’re seeks to subvert. LeCain’s book avoids this common challenge in talking about things by both recognizing the humanity of humans as vital for understanding the world (there is, after all, a limit to our powers of empathy; it is pretty much impossible to feel for a hammer or an atom of copper), but not as something that exists outside the world. Things of all kinds – from silkworms and longhorns to arsenic – are allowed to thrive in LeCain’s narrative, but they do not bear the burden of a concept of agency built upon an assumption of human dominance of the material world.    

Instead, LeCain might be accused of limiting, in a cautious and deliberate way, the agency of humans in their control over the world. His book starts with a discussion of the symbiosis between various gut bacteria, mineral resources, and the long trajectory of human evolution to recognize the place of humans within a world that we frequently set aside as “natural.” He then engages R. G. Collingwood’s critique that all history is the study of thought (and thought is manifest, in part, in human action) and not the study of the unthinking material world of nature and things. LeCain’s book is in many ways a response to Collingwood’s views. He demonstrates that the division between the material and the human is illusory because we cannot separate thinking about things from thinking with things. If Collingwood celebrated the transcendent and even disembodied human mind as the locus of history, LeCain returned the mind to both the body and its place in the world. In his hands, this proposition seems less of a radical explosion of centuries-old divisions between mind and matter and more a commonsensical reminder of the real task of the historian is to unpack the complexities of human action in the world. 

Bricolage and Performance

I was intrigued by Katy Soar and Paul-François Tremlett’s recent contribution to the World Archaeology issue on counter-archaeologies. They examine the material culture and space of the Occupy Democracy demonstration in London in 2014 and the “Disobedient Objects” exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum during the same year. 

For the authors “protest objects” represent both embody Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage to describe the opportunistic re-use of everyday objects as objects supporting protest. Tents, camp chairs, banners, tarps, and other objects drawn from everyday life become protest objects when situated in relation to both political spaces (in this case, the Parliament) and amid a particular set of performative gestures. The protesters used these objects to perform their critique of democracy (or whatever). The police and “heritage wardens” tasked with keeping the area around Parliament “authentically heritigistical” (or something of that sort) performed their critique of the demonstration by removing and destroying these objects. In short, the relationship between the diverse assemblage of objects associated with the Occupy Democracy protests in London and a range of performative gestures create meaning.

The nearly contemporary exhibit of “disobedient objects” at the Victoria and Albert transformed these same objects into artifacts of the protest. Severed from the immediacy of performance, the objects nevertheless served to evoke the spirit of the Occupy movement by standing in for the absent performative relationships that gave them meaning. At the same time, the exhibit succeeded in “othering” these objects by locating them within the foreign performative confines of the experience of the museum. For the authors, this exhibit transformed the tradition of museum display at the Victoria and Albert from one based on the formal qualities of an artifact to one based on its use. The museum offered a hybridized perspective that relied on the utter banality of the “disobedient objects” to highlight meaning generated through their performative context.

This move by the museum (and this article) to re-contextualize these disobedient objects in a way that allows for their investigation and interrogation reminds me a good bit of what I was trying to do with my tourist guide to the Bakken. The modern space of the museum, the academic article, and the tourist guide provides a performative context for objects that both re-presents some aspect of their original performance as well as opening up those relationships for examination. To my mind, this move is fundamental to modernity and echoes, for example, our ability to both be part of “nature” and to isolate it for study.  

The banality of the objects used by the demonstrators and their transformation to protests objects and then, through re-exibition at a museum to disobedient objects, likewise informed my ongoing study of everyday objects used in construction of temporary domestic space in the Bakken. Shipping pallets, cable spools, camping chairs, gas grills, scrap wood, and generators contribute to everyday life in the Bakken through a network of performative relationships and other objects. By locating the research – as tourist – within this network of relationships (that in some ways define dwelling), we acknowledge the artifice of our gaze as part of the world that defines and recognizes these objects.


Three Good Reads

There has been a pretty entertaining and perhaps useful conversation about the future of Classical archaeology over the last few weeks and the blog posts and chat across social media and email has prompted me to read some things that I wouldn’t otherwise. (For a start on that, check out Dimitri Nakassis’s two part blog series here and here.)

First, check out Severin Fowles, “The Perfect Subject (postcolonial object study)” in the Journal of Material Culture 21.1 (2016). Fowles argues that the recent shift to objects as the focus for study in anthropology (but this could be expanded across the humanities and social sciences) is really a response to growing anxiety that speaking about and for other people (whether formally colonial or simply colonized by our academic gaze) has become ethically challenging. The article is a compelling critique of our recent fetishization of stuff.

Then, check out Susan Pollock’s “The Subject of Suffering” from American Anthropologist 118.4 (2016). It was the Patty Jo Watson lecture AAA annual meeting. This article circulated as we discussed the need for a new sense of ethical responsibility in Classical archaeology. Pollock argues that one aspect of this is the archaeology of suffering. In her discussion of the archaeology of a Nazi era site she emphasized the unexpected impact of objects associated with abject human suffering in her excavations and how this challenged long held ideas that archaeology should be objective, detached and scientific. It is an interesting contribution to our recent thoughts about an archaeology of care.

From the same volume of American Anthropologist, check out Mark D. Flemming’s “Mass Transit Workers and Neoliberal Time Discipline in San Francisco”. Flemming riffs on E.P. Thomspon’s well-known 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” as he explores the plight of mass transit workers in San Francisco arguing that the city supported by local citizen groups used attitudes toward race, a widespread view of civic employees as unproductive, and unrealistic schedules to undermine organize labor. The result is more short-term and part time workers in the San Francisco mass transit system who do not receive the benefits as full-time union workers. For Flemming, this case study reflects a wider transformation of labor, time, and work-discipline to accommodate a set of neoliberal values that further commodify and fragment human labor. 

And, if you still need something to read, do check out the free download of our 2014 book in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series, Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town that I edited with my friends David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. Here’s a link to download the book. Every download makes a puppy smile!

Philip K Dick and Archaeology

I’m beginning to think a bit about this crazy ASOR paper that I proposed last spring for the final installment of the session on object biography. My role in the session is to consider how technologies impact our ability to think of the life history of objects. To do this, I decided to think about the future of archaeological objects (both objects under study and objects that we use as archaeologists) and trace the fuzzy line to an archaeology of the future.

Here’s a first draft:

When I wrote my abstract for this session, I was thinking of William Gibson. For example, I indulged Gibson’s recent tendency to name everything, taking a cue from the cue from what Frederic Jameson called “postmodern nominalism.” Of course, naming things in our hyper commodified culture associated by Jameson and, surely, Gibson as well with the reach of global capital. At the same time, we recognized – as did Kopytoff – that objects can shed their status as commodities when they enter our world as artifacts. As artifacts, they go from being general types to things that have meaning in a singular way – a process Kopytoff calls singularization. Singularization transforms the commodity into something that has a life that can be narrated as a biography. 

In the three previous object biography sessions, the papers have generally focused on the life of these singularized things and have paid particular attention to the objects that archaeologists study or recover. In this context, there was significant concern for authenticity and the reality of archaeological artifacts.

In contrast to that, I’ve tended to reflect on the tools that archaeologists use and tried to understand how these objects intersected with the objects that we study. As technology has taken on a more central role in archaeological practice, archaeologists have embraced any number of branded, commodified, interchangeable tools. If archaeologists in the 1970s prized their trowels, today digital cameras, iPads, laptops, and branded software join traditional field gear as vital for the archaeologists work. Archaeology has been even more enmeshed in the commodified world of Gibson where products and brands intersect with archaeological things.

As I thought about this, I was drawn to the novels of Philip K Dick particularly as interpreted by Bill Brown in most recent book Other Things. Brown emphasizes what even the casual reader of Dick’s novels knows:  time and authenticity are central concerns for the author as he explores the future of the past. In Time Out of Joint, the idyllic surroundings of a 1950s American town slowly falls apart when the protagonist discovers a cache of magazines describing an alternative present that appears every bit as real as his surroundings. In Ubik, objects drift in and out of chronological focus in a netherworld between life and death. In The Galactic Pot-Healer, Dick contrasts the deeply-fulfilling, artisanal work of a pot-healer who repairs damaged ancient vessels, with the emptiness of modern existence. Authenticity plays a role in many other Dick novels as well. 

The tension between the commodified world of “named things” and the archaeological world of singular things gives birth the potential of object biography. I’m curious about whether this tension also provides us with insights into the issues of authenticity and time that frames both what we study (i.e. the authentic and singular) and the tools we use (the commodified, ephemeral, and inauthentic).  

Archaeological Context

I read with some interest an article by Robin Osborne in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 28.2 (2015) titled “De-contextualising and Re-contextualising: Why Mediterranean Archaeology Needs to Get out of the Trench and Back into the Museum.” 

The title is certainly provocative, and I was ready to disagree vehemently with much of what he said. Of course, conventional archaeology (and I am a conventional archaeologist) establishes the dominant context for any artifact. The place of an object within an archaeological assemblage establishes the all important provenience for a find, has the best potential for establishing a chronological context for the object’s deposition and offers key clues for the object’s function. Moreover, the trench or the survey unit offers a space for the object to work with other objects to establish the function and chronology for levels, buildings, events, spaces, and places. An artifact without provenience sitting on a museum shelf or in a storeroom somewhere has less of a chance to do any of this archaeological work because it lacks proper archaeological context. Finally, the primacy of archaeological context has taken on an ethical dimension. The unprovenienced artifact, frequently purchased on the antiquities market, represents the destruction brought about by looting, illegal, and undocumented excavations, which leads invariably to the monetization of heritage and the loss of vital historical knowledge about the past. In other words, archaeological context is where an object does the most work, makes the most meaning, contributes the most to our understanding of the past.

Osborne knows this, of course, and his scholarship throughout his career has shown great sensitivity to archaeological context and archaeological knowledge. At the same time, he recognizes that unprovenienced artifacts tend to be more accessible to scholars and frequently line the shelf of small museums – especially those at universities – around the world. For Osborne, these museum collections represent untapped resource for understanding the ancient world (and the blame for this rests largely on the shoulders of archaeologists who have privileged their methods to the exclusion of other approaches to objects). He then goes on to demonstrate how small collections of objects often invite greater scrutiny of details and offer the kind of limited and bounded assemblages that provide foundations for generalizations that other scholars can test with other groups of objects elsewhere. There are shades of a “slow archaeology” here which rewards the careful, patient, and critical scrutiny of an object over the collection of masses of data. 

This is all great and offers us a nice reminder that archaeological context represents but a single lens for understanding objects. More than that, though, I wonder if Osborne has in his sights a larger critique of context as a way of understanding the relationship between an object and its place in the wider world. In other words, if you argue that every object has a context and the relationship between other objects, various disciplinary methods and intellectual approaches define this context, then I think the term context becomes meaningless. (And this is not really my observation, but Foucault’s). It is inevitable, of course, that when we stop privileging context – any context – as the foundation for an object’s value, we will cast ourselves adrift amid a sea of endless relationships between objects. At the same time, Osborne’s article, whatever we think of the particulars, reminds us that contexts have a context and a critical scrutiny of an object’s in its place always presents an opportunity for the production of knowledge. 

Objects and Artifacts

Saturday was the deadline for submitting papers to the 2015 American Schools of Oriental Research conference. It dawned on me while I watched the big countdown clock, that I hadn’t given a conference paper in a few years so I put together an abstract for a workshop at the ASOR meeting in Atlanta next November.

The workshop is the second in a series that focuses on object biography. Here is the call for papers:

Object Biography for Archaeologists Workshop II: The Object as Magnet

Chairs: Rick Hauser, IIMAS The International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies and Nancy Serwint, Herberger Institute for Design & the Arts

Far from being inert and passive, the objects we excavate have a dynamic identity and significance not always noted in the record, but that must be recounted if we mean to set down the full description of any one item. As became abundantly apparent from papers presented in Year One of our workshop series, an object can take on new meaning and have multiple lives, affording the archaeologist opportunities to establish connections and parallels that extend far beyond field note or catalog description, enlarging the purview of interpretation and enlivening academic debate across disciplines. In Year Two, we aim to explore “The Object as Magnet”—through what agency objects modify their essence and accrue meaning, drawing unto themselves traces of varying states of existence and permutations of being. We particularly welcome imaginative proposals that consider object multivocality; and case studies that explain how the life history of objects becomes entangled in a web of transnational meanings across cultures in legal, ritual or mortuary context. We aim, in short, to explore the “enchantment” we experience when we encounter the archaeological object.

And, here is my abstract:

Objects, Clones, and Context

The first year of the Object Biography workshop demonstrated the “multiple lives” and meanings that an object can enjoy as it moves from ancient contexts into our modern world. In general, these papers recognized how the physicality of an object reinforced its integrity by introducing the metaphor of the object as magnet for meaning and experience.

This paper looks to the digital objects that archaeologists produce, clone, and reproduce endlessly across media, time, and space. 21st-century archaeological projects rely on database objects, 3D objects, and textual objects to construct distinct archaeological realities. The digital environment demonstrates how artifact can exist in multiple places and serve multiple functions simultaneously. These digital clones require different kinds of care in their maintenance, use, and archiving, but they are no less vital to the archaeological endeavor.

The difference between digital objects and physical artifacts reveals the complex role that materiality plays in archaeological discourses. Only through engaging with the social, economic, and disciplinary situation of these objects can archaeologists come to unpack the character and significance of our enchantment. The appearance of an artifact in a museum, in a database, and in a print publication (or even on the antiquities market) represent distinct forms of entanglement with materiality that complicates the notion of a single archaeological object. The elusive character of digital objects provides a convenient point of departure for interrogating the dynamic role of the artifact within our discipline.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been fooling around with objects and artifacts for the last couple years. Some of this has come from my interest in slow archaeology which focuses on the relationship between archaeologists and their various objects of study. Some of my interest has come through punk archaeology which, among many other things, seeks to defamiliarize the viewer from their modern material world. And, finally, some of this comes from my interest in digital practices in archaeology which have the potential – as this very recent article makes clear – to disrupt how we think about the physicality of archaeological artifacts.

In fact, my paper seeks to challenge the view that physical artifacts matter in 21st century archaeology. Almost any practicing archaeologist recognizes that most of our time is not spent fondling tenderly some ancient object, but pouring over digitized, aggregated, and pixelated data. As a result, the fundamental experience of archaeological discovery has moved from the trench side or survey unit to the laboratory, library, or office. This is not suggest that we don’t need ancient artifacts to do our work, but rather to point out that any search for agency in the networks of meaning that link archaeologists (or the general public) to artifacts should focus as much on the media through which artifacts acquire meaning as the physical reality of the artifact themselves. By focusing on the media through which artifacts manifest themselves in archaeological work, we can bring new attention to the objects that make archaeological knowledge possible. Frequently, the objects that produce archaeological knowledge are computers and various portable, data collectors (cameras, GPS units, 3D scanners) that serve to articulate ancient artifacts in various contexts meaningful to the archaeologists gaze. 

Objects, History, Conflict: Cyprus, Atari, The Bakken

This has been a hectic week, but I did have the chance to get a little bit of reading done. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Bryant’s recent article in American Ethnologist 41 (2014), 681-697 titled “History’s Remainders: On Time and Objects After Conflict on Cyprus.” 

The article looks at objects looted, left behind, and sometimes returned after the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots in the 1960s and 1970s. The displacement of families from their homes on both sides and the occupation of new homes whose residents were displaced created a series of object biographies that traced the outlines of the conflict itself. Necessity often compelled Cypriots to loot commodities from the homes of their displaced neighbors during lulls and in the aftermath of the conflict. These objects represented the spoils of the conflict and rarely had lasting emotional value. These Bryant refers to as “remainders” whose everyday – mundane – existence communicated an uncanny quality for both the current and past residents of Cypriot homes. Their familiar, yet ambiguous and displaced existence, evoked a disturbed sense of home and belonging (from the belongings).

Bryant called “remains” objects that had clear and intimate connections to the home’s previous owner, and these objects tended to have less ambiguity and be treated with greater respect. Bryant describes photographs, dowry chests, and wedding gowns that evoked the shared humanity of both the resident and displaced “other”. In some cases, these objects were destroyed by the new residents who made efforts to suppress the humanity of their displaced adversaries. In other cases, these objects were preserved or even returned their displaced owners as a gesture of shared humanities.

Both remains and remainders carry with them the burden of history and objects often represent conflict both in a tremendously immediate way and through their complex associations with past events. This emphasizes the temporal character of these objects and their potential both to create a sense of belonging in history and to generate anxiety about an uncertain future. 

At the same time that I was digesting this complex and compelling article, I was following the auction of the games from the Atari landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Without trivializing the history of objects and experiences of people on Cyprus, these games also emerged through a moment of conflict and continue to carry the ambiguous potential of an uncertain future. For some, these games represent the folly of our hyperactive media cycle which can impart value almost instantly and withdraw it almost as quickly. They also invoke the tumultuous history of the gaming industry in the early 1980s. The history of these games, then, rests at the intersection contemporary media culture and the fragile economy of the early 1980s.

Today, I’m heading out to the Bakken oil patch one more time with an updated draft of my Tourist Guide in hand. I’ve been thinking a good bit with Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist (1976). He argues that one of the goals of tourism is to unify the fragmented world of modernity and the subvert the alienation so characteristic of the modern world. This is particularly the case of tourism focused on industrial sites, factories, and the like. The position of the tourist, above and outside of the fragmented experience of industrial labor, allows them to understand the universe of work and the production of objects as all part of the same experience. Rebecca Bryant regarded objects as uncanny owing their ambiguous relationship with time. Tourism must produce a similarly uncanny encounter with the world as the tourist stands outside of the fragmented temporal rhythms of everyday industrial life, but nevertheless still in contact with this experience and its products.

The temporal displacement encountered through tourism and through objects associated with conflicts, the fickle whims of the media, and booms (like the Bakken) makes for a good topic for reflection recently as I spent time in various timezones and observe the world from and increasingly distant and detached perspective. Strolling through airports, truck stops, or streaming by outside a car window has given me pause to consider whether the “unified” world view has any more relationship to our lived experiences than some cheaply made “souvenir”  from an airport gift shop.