Tomorrow I’m giving a talk in a colleague’s class on punk archaeology. This is a nice chance to think a bit about punk archaeology again and try to find a way to articulate what it was that we were thinking to a new audience. As with so many things in archaeology and life, it’s easier to understand what punk archaeology is or was in hindsight than it was at the time, and this talk will give me a chance to pull some things together.
First, since this is a class of undergraduates many of whom will have been born in the 21st century, I think it might be useful to try to define what we meant when we thought about punk as a musical form, as a loosely defined cultural movement, and as an approach to music and life. I will do what I can to situate punk music in the post-industrial city and working class suburb and exurb and in the tumultuous economic and social transformations taking place in the post-war West. This helps, then, to make sense of the anti-consumerism that is part of the punk aesthetic, the tendency of punks to accentuate generational, ethnic, and class divides, and their general skepticism toward the new world order emerging during the Cold War. A certain tendency toward anarchism, for example, reflected a jaundiced view of the promises of democracy and capitalism (as opposed to communism, in a Cold War context) among punks who only too willing to point out the cynical limits of the political, social, and economic promises of western freedom.
With this as a background on punk as a movement, I will then propose that punk archaeology focused on three things.
First and in the most basic way, punk archaeology is the archaeology of the punk movement and while these efforts remain in their infancy in the US, the work of guys like John Schofield in the UK who has worked on sites associated with the Sex Pistols.
In a broader sense, there is “punk adjacent” work being done on the archaeology of music venues in Detroit, at activist sites like the Burning Man festival and Occupy Wall Street, and in among the homeless who have struggled to maintain access to public space in the face of increased private interests. While none of these projects are articulated clearly as “punk archaeology” they share a growing interest in archaeology’s ability to reveal the inner workings of popular culture, to celebrate dissident and marginal groups, and to critique the reliance on economic and social inequality upon which outward expression of freedom and prosperity depends.
Second, as punk archaeology emerged from a group of scholars who primarily worked in Classical and Mediterranean archaeology. Historically, Classical archaeology was deeply invested in the larger colonial project of tracing the essential characteristic of “Western Civilization,” with all the associated assumptions of superiority. This led to a tendency to celebrate certain periods in Mediterranean archaeology – particularly the Bronze Age and “Classical Antiquity” – as well as certain kinds of materials – particularly those associated with elite and urban life.
Those of us drawn to punk archaeology tended to have an interest in undermining this paradigm in Mediterranean archaeology (and, to be clear, we were not alone in this!). In fact, we tended to study periods that fell to the margins of the dominant interests in Classical archaeology and this contributed to our own marginal status in the discipline of Mediterranean archaeology more broadly. Thus, we envisioned punk archaeology as contributing to the larger project of critiquing the dominant paradigms and priorities in our field.
Finally, punk archaeology had an explicitly methodological component. Punk embraced do-it-yourself practices and often rejected the ready-made solutions offered by commodified culture. Punk archaeology embraced the spirit of this by publishing our own book and developing a collaborate publishing platform (The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota), by critiquing the growing emphasis on commercial technology in archaeological practice (slow archaeology), and by celebrating ad hoc practices developed on the fly to document dynamic and active contemporary sites (North Dakota Man Camp Project). In this regard, it overlaps with community and public archaeology
With this as a rather lengthy introduction, I thought I would then introduce four case studies that show how I’ve thought about punk archaeology in practice.
First, I’ll introduce book, Punk Archaeology, and discuss how its publication led to the founding of the open-access press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and some reflections on the nature of publishing as part of the research process in the discipline of archaeology.
Second, I’ll introduce slow archaeology as a methodological critique associated with punk archaeology. As readers of this blog know, slow archaeology tends to see the need for efficiency, speed, and technological innovation in archaeology as a sign of its growing dependence on private sector influences – particularly development, evidence for the modern origins of the discipline, and a certain amount of ambiguity regarding the way in which archaeological practices contribute to knowledge making.
Third, I’ll talk a bit about how the North Dakota Man Camp Project developed both as way to document the ephemeral world of an oil boom (and provide critical perspectives grounded in the material culture) as well as how our methods developed organically on the ground through interviews, photography, video, and revisits. I’ll talk a little bit about our books, some of which are open access, and one of which, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, takes an unconventional approach to thinking about the Bakken as an archaeological site.
Finally, I’ll introduce a weird little anecdotal conclusion which looks at an archaeology of the jazz musician Sun Ra. This will consider how thinking about the intersection of music and archaeology opens the door to new ways of thinking about our past and a more expansive view of our discipline. The alternative archaeology of Sun Ra, which is easy to deride and dismiss, reflects the deft re-interpretation of early 20th century archaeological narratives, filtered through mid-century anxieties about race, the Cold War space race, and the growing commodification of popular music and culture. In this context, the study of Sun Ra from the perspective of punk archaeology reveals an artist, thinker, and musician whose work reminds us that archaeology, for all its disciplinary commitments and methodology, only offers a narrow window onto the past. Combining archaeology with activism, social critique, literature, art, and MUSIC expands that window into the past and makes it more vibrant and meaningful.