Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

Two Article Thursday: Immigrant Journeys in Sicily

For the last couple of years, I’ve had Emma Blake and Rob Schon’s “The Archaeology of Contemporary Migrant Journeys in Western Sicily” from JMA 32.2 (2019) on my “to read” list. Unfortunately, I didn’t even have a copy of the article “to read” it. Fortunately, a colleague came to my aid and I was able finally to read the article and read the very recent piece by Elizabeth S. Greene, Justin Leidwanger, and Leopoldo Repola in the most recent AJA on a similar topic: “Ephemeral Heritage: Boats, Migration, and the Central Mediterranean Passage.”

Both articles documented assemblages associated with voyages across the Mediterranean by migrants looking to enter Italy (and possibly Europe beyond). Blake and Schon look documented five assemblages located near the western coast of Sicily which suggest deposition by small groups of migrants who came ashore nearby. They likely traveled from Tunisia which is the closest point to the western Sicilian coast and, significantly, represented a long standing point of contact between the island and Tunisian coast. In fact, historically migrants cross back and forth for seasonal work and prior to 1990 a passport was not even required. Today, of course, things are different owing as much to changes in border regimes supported by Italy’s membership in the EU in the 1990s to more recent anxieties prompted by populist politics and fears of regional instability. 

Blake and Schon compared the assemblages found near the coast with assemblages documented by Cameron Gokee and Jason De León from the Sonoran desert left behind by migrants who risked the desperate crossing of this dangerous landscape. In some cases, the differences are pretty straight forward. Objects left behind in Sicily did not show the same efforts to camouflage their appearance as those in the desert. In other ways, however, the assemblages suggest similar strategies for migrants. For example, the assemblages showed the discard of clothing, water, and anything else that might indicate travel. They also included hygiene products such as deodorant and body spray that indicated efforts to fit into local society.

There were other somewhat unexpected patterns in these assemblages such as the relatively dearth of objects clearly associated with Tunisian origin (such as brands or labels that indicate a product could only be acquired in Tunisia). This speaks both to the globalized character of our material world where objects can cross borders and shed evidence for their origins in ways that humans struggle to do.

Greene et al.’s article focuses on a ship used to traverse the dangerous two day passage between Libya and Eastern Sicily. The document the ship after it had been intercepted by Italian border officials. Unlike the rather small assemblages documented by Blake and Schon the assemblage associated with the former fishing boat impounded in Sicily was expansive. It included not only clothing, food and drink, and objects like blankets, scarfs, and cushions adapted to the migrants’ journey, but also signs of discarded documents, modifications to the boat itself, and medical supplies.

As with the material found in the Blake and Schon assemblages, this material came from both Libya and a much wider area indicating how in the contemporary world goods move more easily across borders than humans.  

To be clear, neither of these papers is really about the material culture per se. Both papers show how the study of material culture has the potential to humanize the plight of migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to escape from even more perilous situations. The abandonment of clothes and objects not only marked a key phase of their trip but also a poignant one as they shed material indicators of the past in the hope for a better future.


As a side note, I was excited to see that that AJA had published an article that demonstrated how their new publication policies would work in practice. Historically, the AJA focused its interest the Mediterranean (broadly construed to include Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia) in the period from prehistory to Late Antiquity. Over time, most scholars have come to recognize that this was not a particularly useful chronological or geographical definition as a significant number of projects in the Mediterranean were diachronic in character and a scholarly interests even among those identifying as “Classical” archaeologists now regularly included comparative and interregional perspectives. 

This article represents the first, in my memory at least, that focused exclusively on the contemporary period and while the study area was in the Mediterranean heartland, it is easy enough to understand the context of his article as much more expansive. As a gesture to authors, this article is incredibly important because it shows that the AJA is not only ready to embrace the diachronic complexity of the Mediterranean, but also abandoned a periodization scheme that carried on a colonialist and, for many, racist legacy by isolating “Classical” antiquity as a period deserving particular attention. Obviously, this is position that was no longer tenable for the flagship journal of the Archaeological Institute of America in that it neither reflected the attitudes of its diverse membership nor the contemporary political landscape. I love that an article interrogating the human cost of the contemporary political landscape of the Mediterranean marked the editor’s more expansive reading of their editorial policy (which also reflects its expansion in May 2021) and look forward to the continued development of the journal in light of these new political and discipline commitments!

Decolonizing Watches

As part of my interest in time, I’ve also become interested in world of watches. The craft practices associated with the production and maintenance of watches, the history of types, calibers, and brands, the generally incremental approaches to technology, and the appeals to tradition make it an appealing, if commercial, antidote to rapid pace of change present in so much of society and culture in the 21st century.

Appeals to tradition, craft, and even technology are certainly part of the strategy that the watch industry uses to sell their products. In general, these complement another array of white, masculine, tropes used in contemporary efforts to market watches. I’ve loosely clustered these into four categories. Some watches – like the Rolex Submariner or Explorer, the Blancpain Fifty fathoms, the Omega Seamaster, Breitling Emergency, or Longines Conquest – evoke the adventure of scuba diving (especially the various watches associated with Jacques Cousteau), mountain climbing, polar exploration, or even space.  Other watches are military inspired: various Panerais (of Rambo fame!), the iconic IWC Pilot watches, the famous Cartier Tank (in a vague, but historical way), field watches from Hamilton and others brands, and various models based on the requirements of military contracts. There is a category of watches associated with motor racing, including the famous Rolex Daytona (associated with Paul Newman), the Omega Speedmaster, and the various (now TAG) Heuers with names like Monaco, Carrera, and Camaro. Finally, there is the category of slim, subtle, and elegant dress watches which largely seem to follow the design vocabulary set out by Patek Philippe with their early 1930s Calatrava. With subtle nods to the contemporary Bauhaus movement, these watches wore their mechanical precision in their design and reflected the values of a “sharp dresser.” These categories overlook, of course, the wide range of practical watches designed for specific functions or tasks such as maintaining rail schedules (e.g. the Omega Railmaster), flights over the poles (iconic Universal Polarouters here), work around magnetic equipment (my favorite watch of all time, the Rolex Milgauss), or jumping second watches designed for doctors.

This litany of watch types and examples provides a framework for contemporary efforts to market these watches which generally draws on the heroic (and in some cases legendary) origin stories of these brands and models. As a result, the watch industry exudes white, privileged, European, masculinity laced with colonial narratives of conquest, martial prowess, aristocratic risk taking, and scientific progress and precision.

[I recognize, of course, that the very concept of the watch and the need for precision timekeeping is also manifestation of colonialism, so it’s hardly surprising that watchmakers embrace these colonial motifs in such a traditional industry.]

Of course, not all watch brands are Swiss and European. Over the last fifty years, three of the largest watch brands in the world are Japanese – Casio, Seiko, and Citizen – but in many ways these brands follow the model set out by the European (and to a lesser extent American) industry and produce watches that fit into these categories. What is interesting, of course, is that these brands (and I’m more familiar with Seiko and Casio than Citizen), engage in a distinctive strategy of colonial mimicry. The design of Japanese watches evoke those of the major European brands while at the same time subtly expanding the vocabulary of design to accentuate the precision of Japanese manufacture. For example, Taro Tanaka insisted that the crystals of Seiko watches should not distort the dials and the cases themselves should embrace planar, geometric forms both to reflect the light and to evoke the precision of the watchmakers craft (for more on this go here). These standards both drew upon Swiss standards of precision and accuracy, while also developing a distinctive “grammar of design” that defines the brand even today. The use of distinctly Japanese forms in Seiko watches, such as the use of enamel or the “snowflake dial” that imitates Japanese rice paper, creates an identity for this Japanese watch maker that mimics European horological traditions in a distinctly Japanese way. The cult-like rise of Casio G-Shock watches which drew upon the long-standing traditions of rugged military watches as well as Japanese street culture similarly demonstrates how Japanese watchmakers mimicked European traditions while at the same time defining their practices in ways that evoke Japanese culture both for their domestic audience as well as the global consumer.

[As an aside, I want to acknowledge the presence of watchmaking traditions in China, especially the interesting story of the Seagull ST19 movement, and in India where HMT Watches emerged as one of the largest manufactures of watches in Asia using the almost bullet-proof HMT  020 (and the upgraded 0231) movement (which is basically a version of the Citizen’s venerable 0201 movement from the mid-1960s) that HMT manufactured until 2016 when the Indian Government closed the company down.]

Over the last two decades, watchmaking has further proliferated through the emergence of “microbrand” watches. These brands tend to produce watches in small batches using mass-produced movements in distinctive cases. I own a few myself from Zelos (Singapore), Dan Henry (Brazil), and Unimatic (Italy). The rise of microbrands depended in part on access to low cost manufacturing in China which often takes advantage of surplus capacity at factories which also produce European and Japanese watch cases, movements, dials, and bands. The watch movements used by microbrands come from Seiko, Citizen (Miyota), or ETA (which are produced by the Swiss watch conglomerate Swatch Group) as well as some other clones of these well-known and trusted movements.

This post was prompted in some ways, by a comment on a microrband Facebook group that noted how many Seiko movements are now manufactured in Malaysia. The commenter mentioned this both to imply the Malaysian manufacturing standards were not as high as Japanese or Swiss standard, but also to note that Malaysian workers do not have the same protections that Japanese or European workers do. In the “conversation” (let’s say) that followed people complicated the issue further by pointing out that many Swiss brands manufacture parts of their watches in China, for example, where worker protections are often far less than in, say, Europe or the U.S. The use of manufacturing facilities in China, Malaysia, or elsewhere reflects global economic realities that both make microbrands possible and maintain profit margins for Swiss, Japanese, and American watchmakers. The idea of a watch being “Swiss Made” is little more than a marketing strategy designed to suggest quality and traditional practices which may or may not reflect the actual processes that actually produced the watch. Microbrands, interestingly enough, tend to be more forthright than the major Swiss or Japanese brands, as to where their watches are made often investing a good bit of time and energy into demonstrating that they have quality controls in place to ensure that their movements, cases, and dials maintain a certain standard even if none of them are produced “in house” (see for example, Nodus or Halios). In some sense, this transparency of manufacture offers another example of colonial mimicry where the microbrand assures the customer of the quality, while also locating the watch’s production within a global supply chain that nevertheless requires another degree of in-house quality control.

The transparency of microbrands stands in contrast to their marketing which continues in the traditional European tradition of a rugged colonial masculinity. In fact, many microbrands specialize in dive watches (e.g. Zelos or Helson) or field watches (e.g. Unimatic or Hemel) or watches with automotive themes (e.g. Straton or Autodromo)  or combinations of these types. What has intrigued me, however, is not their adherence to the canonical types associated with European watchmaking, but the potential for their concern with transparency of production to open a new area for watchmaking as a field. Could microbrands introduce a decolonial watch that leverages the transparent supply chain to insist on ethical manufacturing of watch components, that embraces a designs that challenge the traditional of colonial masculinity, and that appeal to consumers who want to see watches (and time) in a more global perspective? What would such a decolonizing watch look like? Could it represent more than than the dense and ambiguous language of colonial mimicry and embrace a distinct set of production, marketing, and horological values on its own grounds?

Lots to Read, just not here

These are busy days here in North Dakotaland. I’m working on the massive introduction that David Pettegrew drafted for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, putting the finishing touches on the paper version of Eric Burin’s Picking the President, maintaining some momentum on Codex, and trying to keep an eye on the news, navigate budget issues on campus, and generally remain sane.

The upshot of this is that I haven’t anything to write about today on the new blog. But fear not, if the constant flow of worrying news in your social media feed isn’t enough to get your restless eyes consuming words, go and check out what my long-time collaborator Richard Rothaus has to say in his review of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America  Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, editors. (North Liberty, Iowa: Ice Cube Press, 2016) posted on the North Dakota Quarterly page. This book definitely has a place on our “Bakken Bookshelf” next to the Bakken Goes Boom and my forthcoming The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) as well as recent Bakken classics like Lisa Peter’s Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minneapolis 2014) (my review here) and After Oil from the Petrocultures Research Group (my thoughts here).

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point to my other professional commitment, Eastern Mediterranean archaeology, and thank Susan Ackerman and the staff of the American Schools of Oriental Research for making a clear statement on recent moves my the new administration to hinder the movement of people – including numerous ASOR members – from countries where we have experienced hospitality, collegiality, and friendship. She and her staff also voice their support for both the NEH and the NEA which are at risk of defunding.

Please take the time to read the full statement by Prof. Ackerman and the ASOR staff and check out Richard’s review of Fracture. I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled blogging soon!

Three Unrelated Things: the Homeshow, Lemonskinheads, and the UND Writers Conference

Sometimes I get a backlog of blog ideas and I realize that it makes more sense to push them out in a disjointed post than to wait for some opportunity to expand each idea into a individual posts. I realize that this violates a rule of writing which states that writers should give their ideas room to stretch out and not cram too many thoughts together in one place. I’ve never been good at that.

So here are three unrelated things combined in a single post: 

1. The University of North Dakota Writers’ Conference starts today! If you spend any time at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, or in North Dakota, you know about the Writers Conference. In fact, if you know anything about UND at all, it’s likely to be their long tradition of hosting one of the great writers’ conferences in the U.S. As people might recall, the Writers Conference was almost sacrificed to budgetary priorities advanced by careerist administrators looking to prove that they’re tough enough to stand up to faculty and make “hard choices.” Fortunately, the community and donors rallied to save the conference. 

This year the theme is “The Other Half” and will feature women writers who write about gender and race. But as always, the Writers Conference is more than that, it is an opportunity to hear writers talk about their craft. The lunchtime panels are completely enthralling and well worth sacrificing a lunch hour! So go and check it out this week! 

2. The Home Show. This past weekend, my wife and I went to the Grand Forks Home Show. I’d never been to such a thing! Apparently the purpose of the home show is to show off various ways to improve, change, or repair one’s home. According the local newspaper, over 150 vendors rented booths at the show and thousands attended. As an archaeologist with an interest in the contemporary world, the Home Show fascinated me. Here in one place was an example of many objects that might appear in an archaeological assemblage from a modern home. There were three or four booths showing off cook pots, for example, and we know from our experiences in Bakken that cookware is often left behind when a temporary settlement is abandoned. There were two or three vendors showing off windows, which if our home is any indication, are a common object set aside in provisional discard even when they have been replaces (and can, in the right hands, be the objects of salvage). There were several firms advertising landscaping services by elaborate displays. Because the materials in these displays are relatively low value and designed for a particular space, they tend to persist at a place and accumulate traces of earlier landscaping efforts. Unsurprisingly the vendors at the show were almost all men, suggesting that the materiality of the home and its immediate environs continues to be something constructed (in a physical sense) by men even if the gender balance between the visitors appeared more even.

3. The Empire Theater and Usama Dakdok. Last week, the anti-Muslim speaker Usama Dakdok came to Grand Forks. He was brought to town by one or another conservative evangelical church and sponsored by the local conservative Christian radio station. Dakdok is know as an inflammatory speaker and leverages his Egyptian heritage to purport inside information about Islam to help Christians convert their Muslim neighbors. His talks have a pseudo-academic structure where he presents his “more authentic” translation of the Quran and compares it unfavorably – apparently almost at random – to passages in the Christian Bible. Whatever one things about Christian-Muslim relations, Dakdok provides very little substance and considerable fuel to already enflamed audience who fear the imminent arrival of ISIS type militants, Sharia law, and anti-Christian pogroms in their small town. 

His reputation proceeds him, of course, and in many communities he struggles to find a venue to spout his venom. This has apparently allowed him to play the victim and to demonstrate the urgency of his message. The grand plot against God-fearing Christians is already well underway, because his truth is being suppressed. As a few of my colleagues pointed out, this kind of rabble rousing has a long history in American political life where conspiracies, secret knowledge, identity politics, and playing the victim often combine to fuel the fires of hatred. 

In light of this situation, I expressed disappointment that the Empire Arts Center (our local early 20th century movie house turned to an arts center) agreed to host a speaker like Dakdok and suggested to some colleagues that the Empire Arts Center might no longer be a great venue for, say, a lecture series organized by the International Studies program to explore ideas of global diversity. Two things made our conversation all the more emphatic. First was a confused Op-Ed piece in the Grand Forks Herald which somehow celebrated the Empire Arts Center for allowing hate speech in its venue as an important opportunity for the community to consider Dakdok’s views as a valid contribution to a global conversation on religious difference. Second, with the appearance of some anti-immigrant graffiti directed at Somali immigrants in town, the Herald cautioned us from jumping to conclusions and claiming that our community has a race problem. Ironically, if the views expressed appeared in a venue like the Empire rather than on the wall of a local strip mall, then, according to the Herald we should celebrate the vitality of civic conversation: “Some claim Dakdok’s speech was beyond the pale. But a big reason for the United States’ world leadership and enormous strength is the fact that we trust debate — not repression — to resolve political quarrels.”

The upshot of our conversations is a meeting with the folks at the Empire, mediated and facilitated by a city council member and some fine folks at the University of North Dakota. We do not want to damage the Empire as a civic institution because it’s a great venue, a good partner, and an asset to the community, but we do want to make sure that we expect more them. It’s not that we’re angry, we’re just very disappointed.

One good thing to come out of all this is that I discovered calling Usama Dakdok, Evan Dakdok is pretty fun (for me). It’s a mash-up of Dakdok with the drug-addled lead singer of the Lemonheads, Evan Dando. Evan Dakdok is the frontman of a band called the Lemonskinheads. So that’s fun.


Indigeneity and Western North Dakota

Thanks to Dimitri Nakassis, I enjoyed reading Daryl Stumps contribution to Current Archaeology: “On Applied Archaeology, Indigenous Knowledge, and the Usable Past.” This article sets out to document the various ways in which “indigenous knowledge” has influenced archaeology. Stump identified three types of indigenous archaeological knowledge: applied archaeology, usable archaeology, and hybrid archaeology. These three approaches represent ways to integrate “indigenous knowledge” into archaeological research. The first approach sees indigenous knowledge as a way to influence the development of policy or to produce knowledge that can be applied to contemporary situations in a direct way. The second approach, according to Stump, represents indigenous knowledge mitigated by “modern” Western epistemologies to correct for understandings that are inconsistent with current academic knowledge. Finally, he introduced “hybrid” forms of knowledge that brought together indigenous knowledge and modern knowledge without – necessarily – privileging one or the other. Stump argues that hybrid forms of archaeological knowledge have failed to produce anything that is convincing or productive. In effect, bringing together two different epistemological positions has not moved the discipline forward.

The creation of an indigenous group usually involves a kind of “othering” where members of the colonizing west identify a group as not like them. In most cases, this is complemented by the group themselves identifying as existing prior to the colonial engagement, possessing different values, and usually having certain claims to local rights (that are spatially and temporally defined).  

Can we imagine the Western part of North Dakota as having a kind of indigeneity to the kind of knowledge that they produce? The longterm residents and new comers to the region conform to some of the standards of indignity. They both suffer from the colonial encounter at the periphery. This means that they are physically, socially, and economically displaced from political power and have little influence over their engagement with global capital. The residents of the area tend to define their knowledge according to “before the Boom” and “since the boom”, and those “longtime residents” view the “before the boom” past with romantic nostalgia grounded in traditional knowledge. This created a sense of entitlement among these residents to certain claims to land, development, and the regions future. In fact, there is a strong sense of regionalism among the residents of this periphery.

Some of these characteristics extend to the new residents of western North Dakota as well. While some of the newcomers to the Bakken boom were permanent residents elsewhere, there is also a group of migrant labor associated with oil production who move from one area of production to the next following the flow of global capital around the world’s peripheries. This group has its own body of traditional knowledge, sense of identity, and life ways designed to accommodate their migrant lifestyles and dangerous work.

I recognize that defining these groups as having a kind of indigenous knowledge that I’m distorting the political intent of this discourse. On the other hand, the political stakes involved in natural resource extraction transforms the positions of local communities. These transformative pressures form along the fissures created by the needs of global capital and the extractive industries and the desire of local communities to benefit from this while at the same time preserving their way of life. The differing expectation of the two groups often leads to the kind of epistemological disjunctions that we do not expect within the supposedly unified “western” discourse. Even something as simple and direct as statistical appraisals of the impact of the oil boom find little consensus among the various groups invested in the process.

To return, then, to Stump’s article and critique of hybrid approaches to archaeological knowledge, we can suggest that the North Dakota Man Camp Project offers an instructive case study. We have collected dozens of interviews with residents of the man camps that represent a range of ideas, arguments, and perspectives on the Bakken boom. At the same time, we have collected archaeological data from the camps themselves to offer a perspective filtered through the kinds of empirical observation associated with disciplinary knowledge. The creation of a multifocal dataset that reflects both local knowledge and our own “universalizing” disciplinary knowledge provides a kind of hybrid perspective that Stump imagines is hardly possible. While we can argue that our disciplinary knowledge and the indigenous knowledge produced through interviews draw upon the same basic epistemologies and are therefore compatible or at least open to critique by the same basic criteria of usable or applied archaeological knowledge. I’d argue, however, that the political realities of the extractive industries and the colonial encounter that these creates produces an environment for the kind of indigenous “othering” that archaeologists have recognized in a global context.  

The temporal dimension of indigenous knowledge is particularly apparent in Stump’s article. Our project has sought to engage perspectives offered by the “archaeology of the contemporary past”. The idea of the contemporary past locates the archaeologist’s work in the same time as the material that they study. Harrison has used argued for replacing the metaphor of excavation where the archaeologist “uncovers the past” with that of survey archaeology where archaeologists and their material exist on the surface at the same time. Our work in the Bakken recognizes that the archaeologist and the residents of the Bakken occupy the same taskscape. In effect, there is no temporal displacement associated with the indigenous knowledge produced by long time residents of the Bakken, “new North Dakotans” who have come to work in the patch, or our archaeological knowledge. By undermining the idea that indigenous knowledge is allochronistic (that is that the indigenous group’s knowledge does not share the same time as the ethnographer or archaeologist), we can create a space for genuinely hybridized knowledge that destabilized the idea that disciplinary archaeological knowledge has particular authority.

Practically, this approach has tremendous value for the kind of research that we’re conducting in the Bakken. There are numerous voices in the conversation about the activities in the Bakken. They each represent a legitimate kind of knowledge (global capital, archaeological, local, industrial) grounded in economic, social, and cultural expectations because these various forms of knowledge represent forms of political power. Giving voice to the various political positions present in the Bakken recognizes the debate and the authenticity of the various claims by stakeholders. 

For more on my research in the Bakken Oil Patch with the North Dakota Man Camp Project, go here.


This post is a bit overdue, but I couldn’t resist the urge to comment on Norman Etherington’s article, “Barbarians Ancient and Modern” in the February volume of The American Historical Review (116 (2011), 31-57).  Etherington compares debates over the role of migrations called the mfecane in southern Africa to the invasions of Rome’s northern borders in the 4th to 6th centuries.

Etherington is particularly interested in considering how scholars of southern Africa could use Walter Goffart’s theory of accommodation in the Late Roman West to reflect on the controversial invasions of that region in the early 19th century. Goffart’s Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation argued that the so-called invaders of the Late Roman state were, in fact, groups who had enjoyed a long period of cultural, social, and political interaction with the Roman state and were nearly as Roman as the Romans themselves. Moreover, he undermined various longstanding efforts to identify these groups as belonging to particular identifiable ethnicities, claims that these groups represented vast quantities of displaced people, and arguments for the role of so-called “barbarians” for the destruction of the Late Roman state.  While not all scholars have accepted Goffart’s arguments, they have continued to be a significant point of contention in arguments for the collapse of the Roman empire in the West.

The significance of these debates for scholars studying southern Africa stems from the value judgments associated with scholarly views of “barbarians” and arguments for ethnogenesis which tend to see migrations as being based upon or leading to the formation of identfiable (typically modern) ethnic groups. Apparently the practice of using oral accounts to identify (and ultimately vilify) groups as the Zulu, for example, during the period of the mfecane movements in southern Africa has clear parallels with Roman and modern practices of identifying the Goths, the Vandals, and even the Huns on the basis of problematic ancient literary accounts.  Modern scholars steeped in 19th century ideas of ethnicity, nationalism, and colonialism read ancient texts and oral histories as confirming their own views of ethnogensis in both Africa and antiquity.  These views, then, served to justify colonialist practices in southern Africa just the same way that modern (and ancient) readings of ethnicity in the Late Roman West served as foundation myths for modern nation states.

While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of the controversies involving the so-called “Slavic invasions” of Greece in the 6th and 7th centuries which have played such a key role in the construction of periodization schemes for the Late Roman East and arguments for the persistence of a Greek ethnic identity through time.  The parallels between this narrative and the better known narratives involving the “fall of Rome” in the western part of the Late Roman Empire are obvious.  I wonder what role periodization played in the reading of the mfecane in South Africa? Historical periodization often depends, particularly in a colonial context, on identifying the arrival of one group and the displacement of another. In other words, ethnicity, ethnogenesis and periodization have a clear points of interdependence which are all the more striking in the context of the colonial encounter.

This article also provided me with food for thought when I realized how influential arguments for the end of antiquity have been for the genesis of modern nation-states in Europe, for the architects of the colonial encounter abroad, and for more recent scholars who have sought to understand the colonialization process. In the 19th century, administrators and scholars attempting to understand the migrations and bloodshed associated with the mfecane in South Africa looked to the Late Roman invasions for points of comparison. The flurry of relatively recent activity in the fields associated with Late Antiquity has called into question not only the foundations for the “modern” West, but also the basic interpretative paradigms used by contemporary Western scholars (or in fields indebted to Western epistemologies) to understand the past in a colonial context.

Hybridity in Byzantine Archaeology

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking about hybridity in Late Antique and Byzantine material culture for the past 4 or 5 years.  I started to try to articulate some of my conclusions in 2008 and in a stalled paper that I presented a few times, tried to develop into an article, and then left half-formed deep in some corner of my hard-drive.

More recently I’ve decided to write up a short article on the topic for a volume that I’m editing on Method and Theory in Byzantine Archaeology.  While I have some of the basic ideas pulled together, I have only managed to erect a very basic framework for my observations.

Byzantine archaeology deserves to engage the ideas of hybridity in a more theoretically robust way because discussions of cultural exchange are already so central to how we understand the significance of Byzantium in the greater narrative of national, Western and even World history. As many scholars have seen Byzantium as sitting outside the master narrative of the West – with its emphasis on earlier cultures representing clear stages in a development toward our modern world, Byzantine culture appears as a static and potentially inert body of cultural characteristics that functioned primarily to absorb features from other societies and pass them on.

As such hybridity in the discourse of Byzantine archaeology manifests itself in two mains ways:

1. Byzantium as Colonizer. As the Byzantine State sought to project authority across the Eastern Mediterranean, it refracted into a myriad of region styles as the practices of the Byzantine capital projected against the traditions, resources, and requirements of “local” practice. Like so many interpretative paradigms established to evaluate the limits and extent of an imperial power’s influence, the question of regionalism and regional styles in Byzantine architecture, art, and decoration has become an important avenue for understand both the character of the so-called “Byzantine commonwealth” and the significance of the capital and its patrons as producers of cultural and political power.

On Cyprus, the juxtaposition of imported Proconessian marble columns at the basilicas of Ay. Georgios – Peyias and the limestone vaulting at the nearby and contemporary basilicas at Polis reflects the interplay between the wider Aegean world and local traditions. The limits to how far external traditions could penetrate the Cypriot landscape and how they influenced the development of local “regional” styles of building, for example, not only forms a key debate among contemporary archaeologists, but also represents a tool for recognizing Byzantine culture. The hybridity of the Byzantine periphery required scholars to define the essential characteristics of the Byzantine capital, identify “the other”, and make arguments for how the two responded to one another in a colonial encounter.


2. Byzantium as Colonized. With the arrival of the Crusaders in the East, the Byzantine state had to endure a period of colonization by Western Frankish powers.  Scholars have already applied the term hybridity to the results of this period of intense cultural contact. While scholars have yet to apply this term with its full post-colonial coloration, they have nevertheless recognized the contact between two essentialized cultures – the west and Byzantium. The resulting hybrid which sought to deploy features associated with both cultures in a strategic way, formed the foundation for the Late Byzantine cultural flourishing and exerted significant influence on the development of West.

The instability of the Fanco-Byzantine hybrid and its threatening position in relation to our own cultural expectations has rarely been engaged explicitly. Implicitly, however, our inability to understand, for example, the “Byzantine” church at Merbaka which may have been built by a local (albeit idiosyncratic) Frankish aristocrat, likely represents an intense discomfort associated with the fluid nature of identity in societies deeply invested in dynamic, hybrid, forms of expression.

These two features of Byzantine culture do not stand as independent past realities, but already exist as core features of the discourse in Byzantine archaeology. The place of Byzantium outside of the master narrative of the West contributed to efforts to essentialize Byzantium (and associate it with the Oriental “Other”). This facilitated efforts to consider Byzantine material culture as capable of producing hybrids with both regional styles and the styles of the “colonizing” West.

The added complication to this is the position of Byzantium as a contributing component of Greek nationalism, for example. In this context, Byzantium is bot

A new semester and a new year…

The new semester begins tonight at 5 pm (or something). This is my first semester with tenure which I officially received on August 15.  It felt a lot like my team winning the World Series (which I have experienced) or the Super Bowl.  I woke up the next day expecting things to be or feel different and then was disappointed when they were the same. My coffee tasted the same, the sky looked the same, my office did not become larger or smaller.

And my teaching and research loads did not change either. So here’s my fall semester:

1. Two old classes. I’m teaching two classes that I’ve taught every semester for the past four years. I love the routine, the opportunity to tweak the classes minutely and judge the results the next semester, the battle with boredom of going through the same material each semester (which I liken to acedia, a kind of monastic boredom), and the chance to compare students in very similar situations. And I often think of it as a kind of cricket match (as I watch Sachin Tendulkar in what is likely his last at bat in England). The patience to do the same thing over and over, but also the flexibility to adjust to variables and changes. The two classes are: History 101: Western Civilization I (online) and History 240: The Historians Craft, which is the required course for our majors.

2. A new class. I am also teaching a new class of sorts. I am teaching a digital and public history practicum. This course will focus on developing a boutique-y collection of digital artifacts to celebrate the Chester Fritz Library’s 50th Anniversary (The Fritz @ 50: 1961 to 2011).  I have a class of four diligent but inexperienced graduate students, some good allies in the Department of Special Collections, a Gigapan, a brilliant tech advisor, and a bunch of good will.  Like my effort in the Spring, our goal is to produce a small, well-curated digital exhibit, for the library using off the shelf components as much as possible.

3. Got Papers? I have somehow committed to four (?) conference papers this fall and winter. I have no idea how this happened. I’ve posted a rough draft of the first one here already. I’ll be giving “Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean” at the International Anchoritic Society Conference here in Grand Forks. At the American Schools of Oriental Research Conference, I’ll be (co-)authoring a paper on our ongoing work at the site of Pyla-Vigla on Cyprus. (I might also be involved in a paper on my work on Polis at this conference, although this is not at all clear). Finally, in January I’ll be giving a paper with David Pettegrew at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting titled “Producing Peasants in the Corinthian Countryside“. This paper will draw on our decade old survey data from around the Corinthia.  (To make my life easier, I’ve decided not to actually attend ASOR or the AIA.)

4. Publication Projects. I also have four ongoing publication projects. The first and most pressing one is to shape my paper, “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth” from the Corinth in Contrast Conference into publication shape. I’ve received really good feedback from the editors of a volume that will come from this conference, and now I need to take it all in. I also need to push into final form my short encyclopedia article on Early Christian Baptisteries. I’ve also (more or less) committed to writing up a piece on post-colonialism in Byzantine Archaeology.  This will develop from a paper I wrote years ago, with every intent of publishing, and gave at a working seminar at the Gennadius Library in Greece. The last publication project involves the results of our survey on Cyprus. We have finally decided to publish the results of the survey aspects of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Survey separate from the results of our excavations at the site. We have a completed draft of this manuscript more or less prepared and have submitted a book proposal to the American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports Series.

5. And the other stuff:

So it should be a fun semester!!!

Anchorites in Grand Forks

The conference website is up, so it must be official! The University of North Dakota will host the International Anchroitic Society conference this fall (September 16th-18th).  In my effort to shatter a personal record for conference papers in a single semester (my personal best is 4), I have submitted an abstract for consideration at this conference.

Also, the Cyprus Research Fund is one of the sponsor (check us out on the sponsorship page!). It seemed like a really good thing to have Cyprus Research Fund support this conference as the Cypriot St. Neophytos ranks high on any list of dedicated anchorite saints.


So here is my hastily written abstract. If you can make anything of this, I hope you can see my shift from an interest in space (e.g. my work on St. Theodore of Kythera, in particular) to an interest in time (e.g. my recent reading and comments on Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty.)  The paper has not been accepted and the abstract is a bit on the raw side, but it is not dissimilar to some ideas that have been contemplating lately.

“Margins of Space and Time in Hagiography of Middle Byzantine Greece”
Abstract for the 2011 International Anchoritic Society Conference

The early Middle Byzantine Era in Greece is a dynamic period in both the history of the region and in the literature of Byzantine monasticism. In general, scholars have argued that this period saw a shift from individualized asceticism to practices oriented around more coenobitic forms of monasticism. At the same time, the region of Greece and the Aegean witnessed significant shifts in population that produced new areas of wilderness in which various monastic vocations could engage. The activity of Arab raiders in the Aegean depopulated islands making them into deserts, coastal regions went from being literally liminal to politically liminal, and geopolitical shifts re-opened for Christian settlement territories abandoned as too exposed to the Muslim raids.

This paper looks at several locally produced saints’ Lives from the Aegean basin and considers the role of the wilderness and liminality in the interplay between Byzantine monasticism and Byzantine society. In particular, this paper will argue Middle Byzantine hagiography from the Peloponessos played a key role in the re-occupation and appropriation the margins of both space and time. Unlike better-known saints associated with the Imperial capital of Constantinople, the lives of more obscure and often neglected local saints, like St. Nikon, St. Luke of Steiri, St. Theodore of Kythera, and St. Ioannis “the Stranger”, engaged a local landscape at a moment when Byzantine institutions were undergoing a significant change.

Spatially, the middle Byzantine saint – through their authors – sought to re-center the profane world by traveling out into the wilderness. By focusing their sacred activities in the margins, the Byzantine saint created a spiritual counter-weight to the populated centers of institutional authority in the towns and cities under Byzantine control. The demographic, political, and economic changes of the so-called Byzantine Dark Age and the revived fortunes of the Byzantine state and local communities stimulated the need to reinforce social and institutional centers. Sacred margins implied profane centers and bonded human to the divine by spatializing this fundamental Christian duality.

The authors also discovered in these liminal spaces evidence for the margins of local time. Local saints wandered not only the depopulated spaces beyond the edge of local settlement, but also among the ruins left by the earlier inhabitants. By setting their sacred dramas among these earlier buildings, largely in ruins, the authors and their holy men and women marked out not only the end of inhabited space but also the edge of the present. The visible remains of past prosperity reminded local residents of the disruptions of 7th and 8th centuries and located the sacred world of the saint on the ragged edge of the local present. Reclaiming the ruins of the past for the present re-established local continuity and like the monastic occupation of the wilderness, re-centered the profane world through contact with the sacred.

By focusing largely on local saints, this paper is able to contextualize the efforts of those authors in a specific time, place, and historical circumstances. In these narratives, holy men and women incorporate the margins into a renewed Byzantine landscape by appropriating it for the sacred center. The profound division between sacred and profane in Byzantine Christianity paralleled the distinction between the wilderness and the reviving profane centers of Byzantine society, economy, and administration. The activities of local saints to reclaim the margins for the sacred landscape reinforced profane centers by establishing the limits in time and space of their opposite.