Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

Thanksgiving break is always an opportunity to slow down and be thankful for all the little things that make my life better. Historically, I dedicate Thanksgiving day to catching up on grading and taking a swing at the pile of books and articles that I’ve set aside to read “sometime.” Both of these tasks are pleasurable enough and remind me of the amazing privilege that I have both to teach and to read for a living. 

To start this celebration a bit early, I’m going to indulge in another favorite pastime and offer a little Three Things Thursday (albeit one day in advance):

Thing the First

As I continue to work to revise my book, one thing that I find both challenging and rewarding is re-writing the early chapters of the book so that they read more like the later chapters. One of the areas where I’m investing a good bit of effort are the little preludes that I include in each chapter. These preludes come before the … ludes… er… introduction and serve to connect each chapter to the two case studies that anchor the book: Atari and the Bakken. They also allow me to interject a more personal component to the book that connects the concept of the contemporary to the work of the archaeologist as an individual. 

Today I’m going to retool the short prelude to my chapter on things (that incidentally, will be the basis of a graduate reading class that I’ll teach on the topic next semester). As it stands now, I reflect a very common question that I get when someone learns that I’m an archaeologist: what’s the coolest thing that you’ve ever found? In my revision, I’m going to shift the focus to the moment that the massive excavator revealed the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill in 2014. In this moment, the games shifted from being low value trash to being high value commodities. In some ways, this moment restored the games to the position that they held in my childhood when as far as I can recall, the latest Atari game was among the first things that I ever wanted. In other words, I was able to witness the moment when Atari games acquired new value and a new context. This also pushed me to consider how things work in our society. 

Thing the Second

I’m finding it more and more challenging to manage the end of the semester rush. It’s not that I feel particular flustered or stressed, but I have come to really worry about my students who are clearly struggling at the confluence of the holidays, the end of the semester workloads, family, and first sustained stretch of winter with its cold, shorter days, and weather. This distressing situation has once again pushed me to think about student workloads and the current structure of our semester. 

As I begin to design my classes for the spring semester, I’ve started to think about two alternative models. The first one would be a model that splits courses over two semester. Each semester would have a 7 week class focuses on one major assignment. The grade would be recorded in the second semester. A course of this design would keep the course clear of the end of the semester exhaustion, stress, and busyness. Of course, if a student took multiple classes with this schedule, it would do little to alleviate the anxiety caused by competing responsibilities. 

Another model would be one that makes a 16 week course into a 12 week course by giving the students a week off every 5 weeks (i.e. 4 weeks of class and one week off). This course design would help students manage their workload better for my course during the semester and perhaps provide them with an alternative structure for better pacing their energy over the course of the semester.

Thing the Third

I’m really enjoying some of the recent scholarship on Cyprus. This week, I’ve read Catherine T. Keane’s “Ecclesiastical Economies: The Integration of Sacred and Maritime Topographies of Late Antique Cyprus,” in Religions 12 (2022?). Keane situations Early Christian architecture within its economic and social landscape with particular attention to the coastal location of Christian churches. This, of course, not only contributes my (very slowly) ongoing work at Pyla-Koutsopetria where a church stood on the coast and my work at Polis which has worked to be more attentive to the larger context for the two Early Christian churches in the local landscape. 

I was similarly pleased to discover Simon James, Lucy Blue, Adam Rogers, and Vicki Score’s article “From phantom town to maritime cultural landscape and beyond: Dreamer’s Bay Roman-Byzantine ‘port’, the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus, and eastern Mediterranean maritime communications,” in Levant 52.3 (2020), 337-360. I’ve just started to digest it, but it unpacks another coastal site that we’ve long known about, but have never seen published in a comprehensive or sophisticated way. The article by Simon James et al. looks to be a key step in that direction and the concept of a maritime landscape that is something other than a nucleated settlement is particularly appealing for a site like Koutsopetria which appears to have never developed any of the institutions that one might associated with a formal town or village.

It’ll take me a while to digest both of these rather recent articles, but I’m excited to try to apply some of these authors’ observations to my work on Cyprus.      

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

My blog is a bit late this morning because I was finishing an almost final draft of my paper on the Chrysochou Valley. It comes in just under the 6000 word limit (with the abstract and citations). I’m pretty happy with it. 

Here’s the abstract:


This contributionconsiders the long Late Antiquity in the areas of EF2 and EF1 at the site ofPolis (ancient Arsinoe). By exploring the fuzzy edges of our chronologicalunderstanding of the Roman and Late Roman periods on the island, this articleexpands the length of Late Antiquity. The changes in the area of EF2demonstrate that the work of lengthening Late Antiquity on Cyprus may beginwith exploring the Romanization of the urban landscape in the century after apossible 2nd-century earthquake. At the same time, the ever later drift of ourceramic chronologies has required us to decouple episodes of destruction,abandonment, and recovery from major historic events such as Arab raids orbroader narratives of decline. The comparison of the ceramic assemblage fromthe small suburban site of EF1 to that associated with the second phase of theSouth Basilica suggests that the reconstruction, expansion, and elaboration ofthat building may well date to 8th century. This suggests that patterns ofurbanism established sometime after the 2nd century AD continued for over fivecenturies along the northern edge of the city of Polis. 

And here’s the paper itself.

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started to put some words on the page for a guide book to the excavations at Polis on Cyprus that Joanna Smith is spearheading. I focused on the site EF1 on Tuesday and today, I thought I would take a swing at the somewhat more formidable task of describing the neighborhood of the South Basilica. This also dovetails with my July writing project which involves turning my “The Chrysochous Valley in the Long Late Antiquity” paper (here’s a PDF) into an article.

So here goes:

In the sixth century, the South Basilica come to dominate the district known as EF2 on the basis of the Princeton excavation grid and it continues to be the most prominent structure visible in this area today. Originally constructed as a three-aisled basilica with three eastern apses and a wood roof. Fragments of mosaics found during excavations suggest that the apses likely had light catching mosaic decorations. The walls of the central nave stood higher than those of the flanking aisles and almost certainly had windows that bathed the central nave with light and both decorative and figural wall painting. 

The church underwent a series of modifications over the course of its six hundred years of existence. The most significant adaptation occurred in the 7th or early 8th century when it received a narthex to the east and porch that ran along the entire south side of the building. Originally, a series of arched opening supported the south porch which joined the narthex in the square annex room visible today to the south of the narthex. At the same time, the wood roof was replaced by barrel vaults supported by series of buttresses that are visible along the walls of the center aisle. The area between the south porch and the road was an open courtyard that stood atop a two meter deep fill of rubble which served as a drain designed to prevent the flow of water down the hill from undermining the church’s walls. It may be that the downslope flow of waters against the south wall of the church caused damage to the first phase of the church and led to the construction of the barrel vaulted second phase. Whatever the cause, it is notable that barrel vaults, narthexes, and south porches remain common features in the churches on Cyprus. 

At some point in the building’s history, the church itself and the surrounding area becomes a burial ground. The three well preserved burials stand in the south aisle of the church. These burials likely represented individuals with either a close connection to this particular church or status in the community or the ecclesiastical hierarchy. One of these individuals was buried with a decorated bronze cross suspended from a bronze chain. These burials may be the earliest around the church. The next few centuries saw over 150 interments to the south, east, and west of the church and these individuals represented a cross-section of Late Roman and Medieval Arsinoe. The burials are notable for the presence of personal effects especially stone pectoral crosses that marked out the piety and faith of the deceased.

The Medieval history of the building remains less clear. It appears that at least part of the western side of the church collapsed by the 11th century. It may be, however, that the central nave continued to stand and function as a truncated cemetery church for another century or so.  

The church building was not the only Late Roman and Medieval buildings in the area of EF2. To the south of the church stand the so-called “Southeast Rooms.” The earliest phase of these rooms appears to predate the basilica and might date to the 3rd or 4th century. They were modified in the 5th or 6th centuries and the large room was divided into two smaller rooms that appear to open onto the east-west road to the south of the basilica. These rooms were destroyed and covered with the cobble fill as part of the second phase of the South Basilica.

To the west of basilica on the west side of the north south room stood a small well house. This building appear to be contemporary with the basilica and is part of a larger transformation of this area in Late Antiquity. Fragments of mosaic found in the well itself indicates that the apsidal shaped well-house was probably covered by a half-doom decorated with mosaic. That and its elegant shape suggests that this building was an attractive contribution to the neighborhood of the church. The water from the well and the arched south porch of the church offered a welcome site to travelers entering the city from the coastal road.

The well-house and basilica marks the transformation of this area from being an industrial suburb of the city to a more monumental space. This transformation likely began with the construction of the quadrafrons arch at some point after the second century. The construction of the church marked would have marked Polis out as a Christian city and advertised the power of its bishop, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the Christian community. The subsequent growth of the cemetery demonstrated that the practice of burying the dead outside of the town’s center continued from antiquity and the significance of this Early Christian monument persisted for nearly a half-millennium. 

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 1)

One of this summer’s projects is to write up a few sections that contribute to a new guidebook for the site of Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. The site is currently undergoing adaptation to accommodate visitors in a more structured and informed way and the site guide will be part of this larger undertaking. Fortunately, we have a great writing team and I’ll collaborate with Scott Moore and Amy Papalexandrou to describe some sections of the sites and Joanna Smith is gamely marshaling others to bring this entire thing together.

This morning, I thought I’d prepare a draft describing the site of EF1. It’s a fun challenge because not only is it visible from the main road connecting the village of Polis to a popular beach, but it also is only partially excavated and its function is uncertain. Fortunately, I only need to produce 850 words so this is not a major component to the guide, but since it is a site that attracts some curiosity (and one that my colleague Scott Moore and I have worked on lately), I want to try to introduce casual visitors to the complexities of archaeology at Polis.

So here goes:

There are a small pair of rooms situated on the east side of the road from the village of Polis to beachside camping site. The site is known as “E.F1” based on its designation in the Princeton excavation grid system and it stands on the edge of the coastal ridge overlooking the flatter plains and the sea. It seems possible that an ancient road ascended from the coast in this area. 

The walls visible at the site represent three different Late Antique phases dating to the 6th and 7th centuries. The remains of a doorway facing the road is part of the earliest phases at the site and probably dates to the 6th century AD. It provides access to an east-west hallway that is visible to the east of the door, but is now interrupted by a later, north-south wall. 

The north-south wall is part of the second phase at the building as is the east-west wall visible on the northern side of of the site. A doorway preserved in this wall stands at a significantly higher elevation than the door near the road indicating that it is almost certainly later. It appears that the drain running through the eastern part of the building dates to this phase as well. The presence of a drain here suggests a renewed interest in controlling the flow of water down the coastal ridge and hints at changes to water management in the ancient city upslope. It may be that erosion at the site led the builders to reinforce the structure by thickening the walls. A similar strategy of wall thickening is visible at the South Basilica and in Medieval churches throughout the area. Despite these efforts, it appears that the building collapsed at some point in the 7th century. It may have been already abandoned as the drain was clogged with debris and a layer of rubble, including a well-preserved glass window, covered floors that were largely devoid of artifacts.   

With few artifacts associated with the building’s use, it is difficult to understand its function in antiquity. The excavators found a significant quantity of slag during their excavations that they originally speculated might reflect an industrial function for the building. Most of this slag, however, appeared in the lowest levels of excavation and probably represents industrial activities in this region prior to this building’s construction. In fact, early maps of the area show a “heap of slag” that likely dates to antiquity and the presence of workshops in Roman levels surrounding the South Basilica likely accounts for the presence of industrial debris in the area. Of course, this does not provide us with any particular insights into the function of the Late Roman phase of the building. The well-preserved window glass and the nicely designed doorway, however, hints that these rooms may have been part of a domestic structure which would have been well-situated to catch seas breezes and to have a clear view of the coast.

At some point after the building’s abandonment and collapse, a woman was buried along the south side of the site immediately to the east of the large north-south wall. She was buried with a lead sealing inscribed with the name Stephanos, a local aristocrat known from other seals dating generally to the early 8th century. The sealing presumable sealed a document of some importance to the deceased and since the seal must predate the burial, it suggests a mid-8th century date for the abandonment of the site. It may be that this burial along with those surrounding the North and South basilicas mark the transformation of the northern side of the city into a cemetery precinct. 

WARP 2021 Study Season

The 2021 WARP study season starts tomorrow. This means three things.

First, it means DATA. Like many contemporary archaeological projects and certainly most contemporary surveys, WARP produced a ton of data from its four seasons in the field and three study seasons. Despite spending some quality time with this data each year, it remained a bit provisional as our finds data was refined and updated and our survey unit data was polished. Moreover, as we digitize and analyze maps, we continue to produce more data that can inform our larger analysis. In short, this means a season of sitting in front of my laptop and crunching numbers.

Our biggest goals this season is to determine the main factors that impact artifact recovery rates from our survey area and then attempt to determine whether the variables impact recovery rates in the same way for artifacts from every period. 

Second, it means DISPLACEMENT. Some of my fondest memories of archaeological work do not involve toiling in a trench or slogging through another field looking for sherds. They don’t even involving hiking up a mountain and the rush at “discovering” an undocumented or unpublished fortification. Some of my favorite memories of doing archaeological work involve sitting at my laptop in the tiny room underneath the Marinos house in Ancient Corinth, crunching EKAS data with David Pettegrew. I also have fond memories of working on Polis data on Cyprus while sitting in the Polis storerooms or in the main room of our little apartment in the village.

In both of these cases, we had the ability to go out the door and wander around the excavation area or go and check out a particular unit, situation, or view. I’ve never been one for aimless driving around or hiking or other random outdoorsy activity that I don’t perceive as having a clear goal in mind. I do enjoy, however, checking things out and revisiting sites or scrutinizing problems at a site or in the landscape. The dialogue between the data and sites and landscapes ensures that the data remain tied to experience. In fact, I often think of data that we take with us into the field (either in our minds or quite literally when we check a measurement or test a hypothesis) as embodied data. These data are data that blend seamlessly with the sites themselves.

Of course, this year, like last, we can’t do that. I’m feeling a distinct sense of displacement from the field and it reinforces my idea that data as data, set adrift from a sense of place, loses something significant. 

Finally, no study season can happen without DONUTS. Tomorrow is National Donut Day. My plan is to make a donut pilgrimage to Sandy’s Donuts in Fargo to mark the official start of the WARP study season. 

Narrating History

This weekend I spent some time exploring the city-state of Ravicka, which is the center-piece and setting for Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series of books. These books are really remarkable and as close to reading a dream as anything that I’ve ever read. The settings and characters shimmer in the yellow light of the city-state and flicker in and out of focus, situations are ill-defined, but luxuriously detailed, and the plot is often unresolved and indistinct. In fact, Gladman remarks in the afterword to Houses of Ravicka, that readers tend to assume that the author knows how the plot of a book will resolve. This shapes how we read a book, understand its structure and organization, and anticipate its resolution.

The stories that Gladman tell do not resolve themselves easily. Often the plots are almost impossible to trace amid the dream like oscillations, temporal  and spatial leaps, and lapses and gaps. This does not make these books frustrating, but is part of their allure. In fact, the imaginary city-state of Ravicka with its unusual customs, strange language, and shifting topography offers a remarkably realistic encounter with the past. The places and events of Ravicka fail to resolve in either detail or plot. Archaeologists, at least honest ones, know this situation well.

These books remind me of some recent conversations with my fiction editor at North Dakota Quarterly, Gilad Elbom. He bemoans the current state of fiction that all too often models itself – consciously or not – on popular media particularly televisions and films. Attentiveness to detail and setting, consistency of characters, and a resolving plot characterize so much contemporary fiction which seeks to tie together  the strands of the story into a tidy package (perfectly appropriate for contemporary attention spans, formats, and media diets). In many ways, the kind of fiction that Gilad decries is the opposite of what Gladman writes. 

The significance of Gladman’s work and Gilad’s critique for historians and archaeologists is that it reminds us that there are alternatives to the prevailing forms of narration and emplotment. I have begun to think that these alternatives are particularly important for our 21st century world.

Recently, conversation on social media about conspiracies theories has fascinated me. There seems to be a prevailing, but largely misguided view that a more rigorous presentation of facts will somehow subvert the power of conspiracies. I suspect the problem, however, is not with facts, but with our predilection for certain kinds of narrative. Conspiracy theorists see their world as one where disparate plot points resolve themselves into a narrative arc that is not only consistent, but also predictable and understandable. This consistency, despite the often unrealistic premises upon which it is based, lends a kind of veracity to the conspiracy theory. This veracity does not come from its similarity to our lived experiences (which rarely resolve themselves at all and often elude our ability to discern detail and recognize consistency, but rather from its similarity to forms of emplotment found in the media and, more importantly, in how we present history.

I’m not the first to observe efforts to emplot conspiracy theories and history according to popular modes of narrative. In fact, Hayden White wrote a massive book that essentially argued the same thing. More than that Kim Bowes, in her recent article on the Roman economy, noted that the recent vogue for big books often sought to explain long term historical trends — the rise of the state, the dominance of capitalism, the emergence of “the West,” the fall of the Roman Empire — as the products of single causes which range from climate change to disease, political instability, or technological innovation. Even the most casual observer of history recognizes these kinds of big books, typically written by men and offering big explanations for emergence, rise, decline, and collapse. These books, as Bowes notes, often massage data to fit their models and often rely on circular reasoning to advance their grand claims that nevertheless appear compelling to many readers.

When these grand models refuse to coincide neatly with the specific situation at one site or another, we often casually recognize this as the kind of variation that might be expected from any grand model (or, paradoxically as an exception that proves the rule). Thus the details that often refuse to cooperate with any kind of plot simply drift to the side as problematic and irreconcilable with the existing narrative. Gladman’s Ravicka series, particular the first novel, Event Factory, is suffused with this kind of detail. In fact, the entire book consists of details that are in some ways irreconcilable.  

Our tendency to explain away details that we can’t reconcile to our grand narratives is not simply a characteristic of big history and archaeology, but also, unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories. When an abundance of irreconcilable details appear, we sometime find ourselves needing to revise the narrative to accommodate them. That said, we rarely question the need for these kinds of narratives in our scholarship or in our media. 

In fact, we still crave these narratives in our popular media. We want the grand stories characteristic of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Lord of Rings, and Larry Potter. We want them so much that we overlook the inconsistencies and fixate and develop details that the authors are constantly resolving into their grand narratives as if to convince us that their worlds are real.

Of course, we do this as historians and archaeologists as well. I keep thinking of my efforts to understand the archaeology of Polis on Cyprus, for example, and the desire to align it with the narrative of Late Roman decline on the island (or, as often, demonstrate that it somehow subverts that narrative). The challenge that I can’t help thinking about now is that my dependence on this narrative (and the assumption that it’s authors know how the story ends) contributes to a view of the world that resolves as conspiracies and popular media does rather than what reflects our lived experiences. 

Maybe archaeologists and historians would be well served to read more works like Renee Gladman’s and think about not only the media that we produce but what we consume as well.  

Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

This morning, rather early my time, I’ve started to attend a conference on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity where I’m giving a paper later this morning.

The line up is impressive and I’m looking forward to getting up to date on a range of people’s work on Late Antique Cyprus.

My paper seeks to weave together some of the latest material from the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria and our recent work on Polis (ancient Arsinoë). For close followers of our work on Cyprus, this will likely feel summative rather than distinctly significant. At the same time, I do like to think that the paper shows some small, incremental, refinements in our analysis of the city of Arsinoë at the end of Late Antiquity. 

You can read the program or enroll in the conference here.

You can read my paper here.

Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

Next week, I was supposed to head to the UK to give a paper at a conference dedicated to the long Late Antiquity on Cyprus. For coronavirus reasons, the conference has been rescheduled for January 2021. You can check out the program(me) here.

Whatever I write for that conference will likely be a bit different from what I’ve prepared for the March 18th conference. In fact, with some summer field seasons likely suspended, I suspect an outpouring of new work of a more synthetic character or drawing on legacy or unpublished data. While this might not occur in time to be included in my paper, I hope that it will make the conference next January a richer and more dynamic experience (as well as a safer one) for everyone involved!

Here’s a link to the paper that I would have given next week. It lacks citations and images, but the content is more or less all there, and I think it’s a pretty good “state of my thinking” (such as it is) on the long late antiquity on Cyprus.

Legacy Data, Digital Heritage, and Time

Over the last couple of weeks, I continue to think about the role of legacy data in archaeology. This is for a paper that I’ll give next month at the annual Archaeological Institute of America. I’ve started to work through my ideas here and here.

At first, I imagined that I’d give a fairly routine paper that focused on my work with notebooks at the Princeton Cyprus Expedition at Polis on Cyprus. As readers of this blog know, a small team of us have worked to analyze over 20 years of excavations at Polis and to move the data from a largely analogue, notebook system, to a relational database that we can query. This has not only allowed us to understand the relationship between the excavation, ceramic assemblages, and architecture, but also moved us toward a secondary goal of publishing the data from Polis.

At the same time that I was working on this stuff, I was also continuing to think about time and archaeology and reading some recent works including Marek Tamm and Laurent Olivier’s Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism (2019) as well as some turn of the century works like F. Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2015). These works consider the changing nature of time and heritage in archaeology and argue that emergence of the contemporary “heritage industry” particularly after 1989 (and September 2001) demonstrates a changing notion of time in which heritage largely serves the various needs of the present. This contrasts to an earlier regime of time which emphasized the past as evidence for progress into the future. It was interesting that the Tamm and Olivier book includes no sustained discussion of how the changing regimes of time influence the use of digital tools in archaeological practice.

This is all the more striking because the Hartog’s change in the nature of the past maps loosely onto our embrace of digital technology to facilitate to documentation and analysis of archaeological field work. One might argue that older techniques of documentation with their dependence on paper sought to create an archive that was designed as much for the future as for the present. We anticipated more sophisticated ways of analyzing our work and sought to document our practices, methods, and assumptions as carefully as possible. The practice of carefully archiving one’s field notes – typically on site – was fundamental to our notion of responsible excavation.

More recently, digital tools become a key component to documenting field work. Archaeologists have produced what Andy Bevin has called a “digital deluge” of data from our surveys, excavations, and research projects. The need to archive this data has remained significant, but, at the same time, there’s a growing quantity of “legacy data” that past projects have accrued. The concept of legacy data demonstrates an immediate awareness of the division between past data practices (whether digital or not) and contemporary needs. The expanding discourse on data preservation practices, archival format, and “best practices,” “standards” and meta-data traces our anxieties in the face of rapidly changing technologies and protocols. The fear, I’d suggest, is less about the future of our data and more about its present utility. This follows the increasingly blurred line between the archiving of data and its publication. The potential for re-use in the present has shaped much of the conversation about legacy data.

Legacy data, however, is about more than just reuse in the present. In fact, the formats, tools, and technologies that made data collected in the past useful in the past remain a key element to understanding how digital data came to be, how it was encountered, and how it was interpreted. The details about data how a project produced or collected – or the paradata – remain significant, but more than that, the technologies used to produce, store, and analyze data in the past are fundamental to understanding archaeological practice.

Scholars of video games, of course, already know this. Rainford Guins in Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) for example, has considered the role of the arcade, the video game cabinet, the art present in a video game cartridge, and the design of the video game console as well as its place in the home. For Guins the game code is just part of the video game as a cultural artifact. He documents the challenges associated with preserving vintage arcade games and the balance between allowing the games to be played and the wear and tear of regular use on cabinets, controllers, and increasingly irreplaceable CRT monitors. The impulse to preserve “legacy games,” if you will, allows us to make sense of these objects as complex cultural artifacts rather than simply vessels for digital code.

In an archaeological context, then, legacy data is about more than the code or the digital objects, but also about the range of media, technologies, tools, and practices that made this data possible. Our interest in the utility of digital data risks reducing digital heritage to an evaluation of present utility. If, as Roosevelt et al. famously quipped “Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice,” we might also argue that our modern impulse to digitize or adapt legacy data is a destructive practice, “Digitization is Destruction.”

This isn’t to suggest that we stop engaging legacy data as important sources of archaeological information or that we only engage it using 30 year old IBM PC with a SCSY port Zip drive. Instead, I’m suggesting that our approach to legacy data gives us a useful way to reflect on the changing notion of time in archaeological practice and perhaps even speaks to the complicated relationship between archaeology and heritage practices.

Time and Archaeological Legacy Data

With the ASOR annual meeting not even begun, I’m already being gently nudged to think about my paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in January. Fotini Kondyli and Jon Frey have organized a panel on legacy data in archaeology, and according to the abstract that I wrote a few months ago, my paper will talk about flow and how scrutinizing the concept of flow can help us understand the archaeological argumentation and narrative.

Here’s my abstract

The more that I’ve thought about this paper, the more the first couple of lines in the abstract have stuck with me: “The notion of legacy data is an artifact of contemporary digital archaeology. Archaeologists define legacy data as information that is incommensurate with contemporary digital practices and standards.” 

This got me thinking about how legacy data fits into our notions of archaeological time. It seems to me that archaeologists generally have three notions of time in mind when they do their work. They tend to function in slightly different ways and can accommodate each other n varying ways.  

1. Archaeological Time. This is the basic framework for most archaeology. It assumes that the object of archaeological study is in a different time from that of the archaeologist. It allows us to see a past as “the past” and to think about what we do as “objectively” in the sense that it is fundamentally separate from who we are. The division between our time and archaeological time historically has tended to frame our object of study as part of the not-modern or pre-modern world. It’s not just the past, but a past that is distinct enough from the present to represent something discrete and worth studying through archaeological methods.   

2. Methodological Time. Methodological time represents the modern assumption that archaeologists are constantly improving our methods and practices. As a result, the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the present is better than the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the past. The best example of this kind of time is in the name of the SAA’s journal of archaeological methods: Advances in Archaeological Practice. Archaeological science, archaeological methods, and archaeology in general advances to produce a better, clearer, or improved view of the past.

3. Ethical Time. I am still attempting to understand completely what ethical time is an archaeologist. It manifests itself most frequently in debates over the repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists understand, of course, that returning say a Greek or Egyptian artifact to the modern nation of Greece or Egypt does not under any systematic understanding of the word “repatriate” return an object to the same people or state or even cultural entity that existed in the past. We are not returning an object to ancient Greece and in some case, like the Parthenon Marbles, we’re not not even proposing to return an object to the same political entity from which they were taken. This is particularly complicated for debates over the repatriation of artifacts to say, Lebanon, from Turkish museums. In many cases, these objects became part of these collections when Lebanon or Syria were part of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman state no longer exists. At the same time, the post-Ottoman nations of Lebanon and Syria have claims to their pre-Ottoman past in the service of modern nation building and in the construction of narratives that produce a meaningful past to communities living in those areas.

This is a complicated time to understand as an archaeologist and unlike the more or less linear time of archaeological methodologies or the fragmented time, stratigraphic time of the archaeological past, ethical time in archaeology tends to be recursive, spiraling, and grounded in contemporary commemorative practices that many scholars will argue emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a counterpoint to the dour rationality of historical thinking that so often seems to contravene the work of nation building.

(4. Material Time? One could argue that archaeologists are increasingly coming to recognize material time especially as we have come to address the “material turn” in historical and archaeological thinking. This time reflects the varied ways in which material change and how we understand the persistence of particular material as fundamental to shaping the archaeological record. This is different from archaeological time because it recognizes that objects carry with them a multiplicity of times that allow them to exist both in the past and in the present.) 


Legacy data itself exists at the intersection of methodological and ethic time in archaeology. On the one hand, much of the conversation concerning legacy data – or publishing the results of past archaeological work – is grounded in the ethical assertion that because archaeology is, in some ways, “destructive,” (or perhaps better, involve “recontextualizing” material) we have an obligation to justify the recontextualization of this material through publication. Unpublished material, even if it remains secure in a storeroom, is no different than looted material in that its context is not made understandable. By publishing our work, we recontextualize material and “restore” it to a particular kind of time. This has nice parallels to the work of archaeologists to repatriate finds and restore these objects to a chronological and political context that benefits (generally speaking) a colonized community’s ability to produce a meaningful historical and commemorative narrative for their own society.    

On the other hand, legacy data presents a problem for archaeologists’ sense of methodological time. Because we have tended to see our discipline as always advancing toward new ways of recovering the past and contributing to the present, legacy data is often seen as flawed or, worse still, obsolete. Our field continues to privilege new projects, especially for the career advancement of early career scholars, at the expense of the long and frequently compromised grind of legacy projects.

My work at Polis is a great example of how legacy projects force us to think in three times at once. On the one hand, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition was probably the last major American excavation in the Mediterranean not to employ a stratigraphic system in excavation. Instead they dug in levels and passes which may or may not have been stratigraphic. They also regularly ignored “last in, first out” and had multiple contexts open at the same time. 

It is possible, of course, to restore some sense of stratigraphic control to the excavation because many of the excavators understood the concepts of formation and depositional processes. Moreover a simple application of the rules of superposition still apply allow us to broadly understand that lower levels are earlier than higher levels whenever we can safely assume some kind of controlled of systematic deposition. With a few basic understandings cobbled from the methods of contemporary archaeological work, we can start to reconstruct the past at the site of Polis. 

Moreover, this offers us an ethical way to recontextualize the excavated material at the site. The value of this material is that we can make it speak through contemporary methodological expectations to the past. 

Finally, we might even argue that our work to address the legacy material from Polis has pushed us to think about how various kinds of legacy data exist within their own material worlds. We started with the paper notebooks produced over the course of excavations at the site and the artifacts from the dig dutifully stored in wooden trays and paper boxes. We then converted these artifacts into digital objects in databases which allowed us to recombine them in new ways. We’ve also started to think about how to publish or at very least archive our digital data in ways that ensures that they are more widely available than paper copies of records and artifacts in storerooms. We also anticipate, in some way, that our digital artifacts might last longer than the paper records produced by the site. The time of the varying materials shape our strategies. 

Obviously all these ideas need further refinement and expansion, but there will be time for that…