Writing a Book and Slow Archaeology

One of the many downsides to the COVID pandemic is that I’ve had too much free time to thing. As a result, I’ve started not only to come up with new projects, but I’ve also come to second guess these same projects.

For example, this past week on a couple run and walks, I concocted a new book project, which I’ll unpack below, but I also started to wonder whether the world needs another book these days. As a tenured faculty member who is well and truly mid-career, I’ve struggled a bit to come to terms with my changing responsibilities both to my field and my colleagues.

We’re trained, of course, to read, write, and teach. In fact, most of us derive a good bit of pleasure from this routine. At the same time, most of us have become increasingly aware that reading, writing, and teaching are just one part of our larger social responsibilities as faculty members. We’re increasingly being called upon to give our frenetic keyboards a rest and listen. We’re becoming aware that when we speak, teach, write, and publish, we’re not just doing our jobs, but we’re also creating conditions in which other voices and perspectives will be less likely to be heard, read, and advanced. This is especially true as we move from early to mid-career status and our acquired skills and training often generate a kind of momentum of its own which allows us to produce scholarship, mould a classroom discussion, and acquire grants, publication opportunities, and audiences that often far exceed the value of our ideas. This creates a kind of obligation on our part to make sure what we’re doing is meaningful and not just the product of a well-conditioned routine and to examine our energies and commitments to determine whether our efforts really do make our field and society better. 

That being said, messing around with a book idea is a far cry from writing a book, and most readers will recognize that like so many ideas that bubble up from the COVID induced isolation, this one is probably best left in the idea box

Slow Archaeology: The Book

What if I wrote a book on “slow archaeology”? In some sense, this would be the ultimate vanity project. I’d be expanding an idea that I had five years ago and explored in a few articles. I’m under no illusions that I’m the best person to do this, but I’ll also admit that the idea seems really fun.

The book would be short (<50,000 words with references) and organized into two parts following an introduction.

Introduction: Slow Archaeology: This chapter would set out the historiography of the slow movement and seek to establish the intellectual roots of the slow movement in the larger critique of modernity, efficiency, and technological acceleration. This seeks to walk a fine line between conservative nostalgia and fantasies about the past (that inform so much of the slow food movement) and the most radical critiques of contemporary technology and our post-industrial world. In many ways, this introduction will allow me to return to formulations of slow archaeology presented in past publications, to respond to some thoughtful critiques, and, frankly, walk back some of the more ideologically fraught positions that I’ve found myself occupying.

More than that, it’ll frame the book as a good faith effort to infuse the discipline — and academic archaeology, in particular — with a greater attention to social critique. Slowing down pushes us to consider how our choices of technology, our organization of work, and disciplinary practice shapes not only the kind of information that archaeology produces, but also the kind of social relations that define our field.  

Part I: Slow Archaeology as Research

Chapter 1: Slow Archaeology in the Field.

This chapter would emphasize slow practice in the field. It’ll look at the technologies that have become our constant companions from GPS units to mobile phones, digital cameras, and, increasingly, tablet computers and consider how these technologies have changed the ways we view landscapes, survey units, stratigraphy, and most importantly, the organization of archaeological work. 

This will draw on my own experience in the field in Greece and Cyprus and leverage the growing body of work that draws upon ethnographic practices and historical research to understand the organization of archaeological labor in the past and the present.

Chapter 2: Slow Archaeology and Analysis

This chapter considers how slow archaeology can inform the tools that archaeologists have increasingly come to use for analysis. These took ranges from relational databases to GIS, computer aided illustrating tools, 3D imaging and manipulation technologies, and even the ubiquitous laptop or desktop computer.

The chapter will drawn upon my own experiences as well as projects like “The Secret Life of Data” project from the Alexandria Archive Institute and the work of folks like Costis Dallas and others who are working to produce an ethnography of digital practices. The goals is not to reject digital technology in analysis, but to argue for a more attentive set of practices in our use of digital tools.

Chapter 3: Slow Archaeology and Writing

This chapter would consider how a slow archaeology would shape the writing and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. Over the last 40 years, archaeologists have become increasingly attuned to how our forms of archaeological writing shape the arguments we make. This chapter won’t add much to this larger discussion, but will present an updated survey of recent efforts to explore more nuanced, complex, and affective forms of archaeological writing and presentation. 

Part 2: Slow Archaeology and the Academy

This chapter will look at three key areas of archaeological work through the lens of slow archaeology: professional practices, teaching, and publishing. The goal is to extend the basic critical principles of slow practice beyond the field work to publishing continuum and think about how both teaching slow practices and engaging in slow archaeology could shape a wider range of disciplinary practices in academic archaeology.

Chapter 4: Slow Archaeology as Professional Practices

This will be a grab bag chapter that considers things like graduate seminars, academic conferences, and even peer reviewing as places where various slow practices provide a  basis for critiquing academic archaeology. This chapter would argue that slow archaeology questions how archaeologists communicate with one another and the underlying practices and goals associated with supposed “merit-based” methods of advancement. To be clear, this chapter will consider how “generous thinking” can serve to undermine the persistent fantasy that the current set of disciplinary practices advance the best possible candidates to positions of leadership in our field. 

It will suggest that unconferences, collaborative projects, and greater efforts to engage with the community can challenge competitive models of advancement increasingly grounded in quantified methods for evaluating research and performance. In its place, slow archaeology proposes convivial practices that celebrate diversity, plurality of views, and egalitarian methods of creating new knowledge.

Chapter 5: Slow Archaeology and Teaching

Like the previous chapter, this chapter will develop conviviality as a mode through which to understand teaching at the university level (and ideally beyond). I’ve written a bit about this already without explicitly invoking slow archaeology, but I think my critique of technology and the “assessocracy” is consistent with my larger critique technologically-mediated and efficiency-driven archaeological practices. The emphasis here will largely be on the undergraduate classroom and I’ll lean on my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project as a case study.

Chapter 6: Slow Archaeology and Publishing

I’ve already developed many of the main ideas for this chapter in a paper that I submitted last fall titled: Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics. In a nutshell, this article proposes that changes in technology have allowed archaeologists to approach publishing in new and collaborative ways that can challenge the traditional role of publishers in our discipline. Like the other chapters in the book, this will chapter will demonstrate how slow archaeology is not necessarily anti-technology, but rather an approach to technology that allows for a more critical and ideally responsible (and egalitarian) approach to the discipline.

Conclusion: Toward a Slower Discipline

The final part of the book will look to the place of slow archaeology amid the changes taking place within the discipline of archaeology — from the casualization of academic labor, the rise of the assessocracy, and the pressure on our field to become more diverse, pluralistic, and responsive to a wider range of communities.

It goes without saying that slow archaeology will not solve all the discipline’s problems nor is it somehow above critique. Instead, I’ll suggest that slow practices have a place within our archaeological toolkit and offers ways to critique long-standing archaeological practices and create new ways of engaging with the public, students, and our peers.

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

I finished Christopher Witmore’s  Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I said last week, it was a great way to kick off my summer reading and a useful tonic for a summer without fieldwork.

This is the kind of book that will likely resist any kind of useful, formal review. It’s easy enough to note places where Witmore overlooked scholarship relevant to his larger arguments (e.g. Kostis Kourelis’s important 2007 Hesperia article, “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde” would have fit nicely into Witmore’s treatment of Corinth, for example, or Evi Karouzou’s 2014 monograph,  Les jardins de la Méditerranée: agriculture et société dans la Grèce du sud, 1860-1910, would have complemented and expanded his considerations of the agricultural history of the Corinthia and Argolid, or, finally, David Pettegrew’s observations on Kromna on the Isthmus of Corinth would have complicated Witmore’s analysis of that site). Likewise, it will also be convenient for a reviewer to observe that the routes Witmore took through the Northeast Peloponnesus overlooked certain areas like the Southeastern Corinthia, the Western Argolid, or the Inachos Valley. As a result, he overlooked the delicious abundance of souvlaki stands at the intersection of the old national road and old Peloponnesian narrow-gauge railway in the village of Myloi. There are, of course, little factual slips from time to time: the Athos canning plant near Nauplio (referred to in Route 18) is probably the former Kyknos canning plant.

None of this really matters, however, because the book is not meant to be an exhaustive history of the landscape of the Argolid and Corinthia. Instead, the book represents an unapologetically personal look at the region. This approach reflects Witmore’s commitment to the tradition of chorography which he offers as both a kind of critical commentary on the ancient writings of Strabo and Pausanias, the Ottoman period in the writings of Evlyia Celebi, the early modern works of Jacob Spon and George Wheler and the Expédition scientifique de Morée, and the modern period with the travels of Martin Leake, Edward Dodwell, and Gertrude Bell. Contemporary scholars, John Cherry, Alex Knodell, join Witmore from time to time as do various other Greeks, American students, and family members. At the center of the book, however, is Witmore and his interests, relationships, and restless feet guide carry the reader through the Greek countryside.

Chorography, if I understand it, challenges views of the landscape dominated by cartography, geography, and modern landscape archaeology which serves to create the homogeneous spaces of the modern map. If the lines and points of the modern scholar serves to measure and rectify space into some form of universally recognized pattern, the routes of the chorographer are embedded in the landscape itself and follow the contours of the land, the rhythm of the fields, and the often abrupt discontinuities between the present and a visible past. While archaeologists have often seen Witmore’s work elsewhere as overly (and maybe even oppressively?) theoretical, Old Lands serves as a critical and important corrective. Witmore’s goals are not to use the eastern Peloponnesus as at the basis for some kind of theoretical exegesis, but to offer this landscape as a kind of anti-theory (echoing, in some ways, the work of Peter Sloterdijk who appears frequently in his footnotes). For example, the landscape is not a text to be decoded or deconstructed. It is not a place to be unpacked, analyzed, compared, or abstracted. Instead, it’s a space to be experienced and encountered.  

At times (and as an avowedly selfish reader), I wondered how Witmore’s chorography relates to our modern and perhaps contemporary experience of tourism. His effort to defamiliarize a landscape well-known to archaeologists and scholars evokes the modern promise of the tourists gaze which seeks to bridge the gap between the everyday and the exotic. Witmore makes romantic a walk through an olive grove which represents one of the most banal and unremarkable experiences of time in the northeast Peloponnesus. Fishfarms, irrigation systems, terrace walls, dirt and paved roads, goat tracks, maquis, and even the annoying hillsides of Jerusalem sage take on a wondrous quality in Witmore’s work. But is this because these experiences are wondrous or because, in Witmore’s able hands, he is creating a wondrous experience for the reader in much the same way an able tour guide brings a landscape or encounter alive and something as banal as “Mexican Coke” becomes an invitation to an unfamiliar world. (This relates, of course, to my own work along similar lines here.)

Witmore’s work also nudged me to think a bit more about my idea of a “slow archaeology.” While most of my work has focused on “slow” as a challenge to our technologically mediated encounters with archaeological work, Witmore’s chorography with its attention to the details of experience and encounter feels like it occupies a similar space. The absence of any technology in Witmore’s work (other than the maps which he includes at the end) and the emphasis on the individual rather than the team of archaeologists, the procedures of data collection, and the methods of analysis, creates a view of archaeological practice that differs from the almost-automated routines of the intensive pedestrian surveys or of systematic excavation that so defined the archaeological landscapes of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

In this way, Old Lands offers a critique of contemporary archaeological practices, but doesn’t reject them. It also offers a new way to think about the field of Mediterranean archaeology. In recent years, Mediterranean archaeologists have pushed more archaeological practices that align more closely with our peers in “world archaeology.” This frequently involves more specialized training in scientific methods, the use of digital tools, and systematic approaches grounded in the literature of anthropological archaeology. Witmore doesn’t contest this, but by grounding his approach in chorography, he proposes an alternative that is no less grounded in the latest technologically mediated approach to the past, but is also explicitly aware of the experience of being in the landscape. 

Slow Archaeology and Slow Media

This weekend, I read Jussi Parikka’s little book, The Contemporary Condition : A Slow, Contemporary Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture (Sternberg Press 2016). I had also started to think a bit about slow archaeology (again) because I had agreed to be on a panel on slow archaeology at the now-cancelled TAG conference. Finally, next month, I need to start working on a chapter that considers media archaeology for my little Archaeology of the Contemporary American Culture project. These three things sort of converged in my mind as I walked the dogs over the weekend.

These streams sort of coalesced into three proto-ideas.

First, when I first started thinking about and writing about slow, it was in response to calls for greater efficiency and speed that had become typical in digital archaeology (and in American culture more broadly). I figured that slowing down might offer a way to escape from the pressures of efficiency and automation during field work and return our attention to the things, landscapes, and experience of fieldwork.

Reading Parikka’s book, however, reminded me to think a bit more about Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence (2011). Nixon demonstrated that the idea of slow was not just an alternative to modern calls to efficiency but also could be applied to the violent results of our need for efficiency in the modern world. In this context, slow was a way to describe the process of environmental degradation, the breakdown of toxic chemicals, and the impact of these forces on the lives, in particular, of the poor. 

In this case, I started to wonder whether a slow reading of the material world would also allow us to see more clearly the slow violence of the contemporary situation.

The second thing that this brought to mind was the Alamogordo Atari excavation. It’s been over 5 years since we went to Alamogordo to watch a landfill get excavated in search for a “lost” cache of Atari games. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I learned from that experience. It seems to me that thinking about the Atari dig as an example of slow archaeology makes sense. The landfill itself slowed the decay of material preserving green grass clippings, newspapers, food, and, of course, the Atari games.

More than that, the Alamogordo landfill may have been the destination for a number of mercury-laced pigs. In 1969, Ernest Huckleby had accidentally fed some of his pigs with mercury treated grain, and his family, including his eight children and pregnant wife, at some of the pork. The results were horrific and with three of his children and a his infant son were seriously mentally impaired, rendered blind, and paralyzed. Mercury survived in the pigs which passed it onto the children where it caused havoc in their developing nervous systems. Three of the children never recovered full physical or mental function or vision. The photo of Ernestine Huckleby that appeared in National Geographic in the aftermath of this incident was gut wrenching. 

Alamogordo is also, of course, well known for being the largest town near the Trinity Test site where the atomic bomb was tested. Some 30 miles to the east of the town is the WIPP site where nuclear waste from across the US is being stored. The nuclear history of this corner of the American southwest offers another locus for both slow violence and for the attention of slow archaeology. 

(In fact, I’ve increasingly come to realize that my experiences at Alamogordo were almost a parody of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).)

Finally, I got to thinking more seriously about the source of the material in our digital devices (and for some of Parikka’s thoughts on this, I’ve begun to read his A Geology of Media (2015)). My initial thinking about a slow archaeology was as a kind reflexive practice. I wonder whether this could extend to more critical attention to the materiality of the tools that we use.

Often I think about an archaeology of archaeology which would consider the ways that archaeologists shape the landscape. For example, parts of the ancient city of Corinth are now buried beneath the backfill removed from excavating the Roman forum there. This same way of thinking, however, could extend to understanding the materiality of our digital (and analog) tools from the lithium ponds in Bolivia to rare earth mining sites in China and Australia, petroleum extraction and refining sites (for plastics) in the Middle East and the US, and various manufacturing centers with their global supply chains. It would also be valuable to think about the movement of our post-consumer and industrial waste which now is on a global scale. In short, a slow archaeology transformed into an archaeology of slow and slow violence could consider how our desire for efficiency and speed makes it all the more difficult to understand the gradual impact that our choices has on the earth. Moreover, the emergence of global supply chains which complicate the provenience of artifacts associated with archaeological knowledge making rely on the same speed that they themselves mediate. In fact, the instantaneous character of most engagements with digital tools works to obfuscate the complex processes, spatial contexts, and origins of the mediating technologies. A slow archaeology, with its attentiveness to the interplay between between archaeologists and their tools could bring some of the slow violence of contemporary society into view.  

Slow Archaeology and Privilege

This weekend, during a useful conversation about slow data and slow archaeology, Shawn Graham tweeted that he felt that slow data still evoked privilege and that “to be slow depends on a whole bunch of people hustling as fast as they can.”

Shawn’s a smart and thoughtful guy, and this conversation about speed in archaeology and privilege in archaeological practice is an important one. In fact, the more I thought about Shawn’s critique, the more I realized various facets of slow as privilege have appeared in conversations that I’ve had with any number of colleagues and collaborators over the past few years. In light of that that, I thought that maybe I should write up a blog post on it, in the hope that folks respond, clarify, and nuance what we mean when we talk about slow practices in archaeology. This isn’t meant to challenge Shawn’s critique, but to offer a counter point in the hope of starting a conversation.

I tend to see slow archaeology on a continuum.

1. Slow as Privilege. On the one end of this continuum, the slow movement represents a conscious rejection of “the cult of speed” that is so often associated with the modern world and our use of technology. The close relationship between technology and claims to efficiency is a hallmark of our accelerating present. There is no doubt, of course, that speed has democratized the flow of information. We now have access to more books, articles, and datasets than ever before. Big data (or at least large data) has solved problems (and allowed us to photograph a black hole!). Technology has streamlined archaeology and allowed field projects to produce more accurate, nuanced, and precise datasets and made it possible to share trenches, survey units, artifacts, assemblages, and buildings with collaborators almost instantly. These are good an important things and I have benefited directly from all of these changes in practice. 

Slow archaeology, of course, can present a challenge both to how we produce archaeological information and the kind of archaeological information that we produce. For a recent small project, I kept notes in field notebook rather than on my laptop. These notes are harder to share with other people, more difficult to organize into standardize datasets, and resist efforts to render them interoperable with other forms of information collected by the project. For example, its hard to link my notes to photographs or video taken by the project or with spatial data. To make this happen, someone (probably me) will have to hustle and produce a concordance and at very least scan the notebook pages (and probably transcribe them). In effect, my decision to use the archaic practice of a handwritten field notebook has made my data less accessible and less useful to analysis at scale. This was an unapologetic act of privilege; it was my project, my research questions, and those shaped my field practices. 

At the same time, I do recognize that my notes now represent the best record of two buildings on campus that were destroyed. I have effectively gained possession of these building, their material history, and at least part of their memory by my slow practices. Whatever benefit that I gained by taking notes by hand, it was only a benefit to me (and indirectly to my students with whom I shared my observations verbally during our work). In some sense, my insistence on slow practice abused the opportunities of access and the luxury of time to conduct field work. In the end, whatever I learned by slowing down and taking handwritten notes came at a cost. To balance the cost of this process with the benefits to the community, I’ll have to make my notes not only available but accessible. This is slow archaeology as privilege. 

2. Slow as Process. I regularly tell my students that the “perfect is the enemy of the good” by which I mean that you can spend a good bit of time trying to perfect an assignment to very little benefit in terms of grades or learning. After all, there’s nothing higher than an “A” and time and energy are finite resources. 

For me, slow work often involves writing and reading. A few times a year, I read something really hard. It might be a novel or a book that draws on a complex and densely articulated theoretical apparatus. I’m not good at “the theory” nor am I good at reading and understanding fiction.

I do it anyway and it is a sign of privilege.

A book that takes me a month to read and digest means that three or four other books aren’t read. Time that I spend with fiction and poetry – especially in my capacity as the editor of North Dakota Quarterly –  is time that I’m not spending with archaeological literature not to mention writing and analyzing archaeological data. 

I’m not suggesting that all data analysis is somehow “fast” or less demanding intellectually or practically, but like writing and reading, some texts and tasks are inherently faster than others. Writing a dense and thoughtful and challenging argument should take more time than a formulaic site report. This is not a value judgement. The former could be an ephemeral meditation on the theory du jour, whereas a careful site report might produce new knowledge for generations.  A slow laborious argument might, in fact, be gibberish and reading a complicated and demanding text may produce very little real knowledge. Slow work entails a risk and a commitment to processes that are not easily mediated through technology. Slow writing and reading is painful. As such, we always need to question whether we should read a book or article, apply a theory, or commit to writing a demanding or complex sentence, paragraph, or text. 

A classic example of this kind of slow work comes in the form of analyzing legacy projects. Reading notebooks, building stratigraphic and chronological relationships, and extracting meaning from tangled and often problematic bodies of data is a kind of slow practice. While there is no guarantee that a new excavation or survey will early produce significant new knowledge, a project starting with a blank slate presents a better opportunity to implement more efficient ways to acquire, organize, and analyze archaeological information. Other people’s data introduces other people’s problems.    

To be clear, fast archaeology, fast reading, and fast writing are not necessarily easier or more efficient, but they are grounded in practices that recognize efficiency as a desirable outcome of the process that produce new archaeological knowledge as a result. Spending hours checking formatting on a bibliography might be oddly satisfying, but it only rarely transforms the meaning or value of a text (although see here…). Spinning dense and theoretical texts, reading novels and critical works, and working through legacy data is slow practice, but, the cost benefit for this kind of work remains a bit hard to assess. It is hard to deny that there is something satisfying from recovering data from a challenging past excavation, understanding the complexities of theory, or composing a clever argument, but the value of this work for the larger project of archaeology is less clear. The pursuit of the personally perfect might well alienate the greater good. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the value of wading through hard prose or legacy data.

3. Slow as Value. If slow practices do have value outside the realm of personal privilege, it most certainly exists as a way to recognize the value of work in communities that do not have our level of access to technology and accelerated modernity. At a conference a few years ago, a participant quipped that if you didn’t have the resources to afford digital tools – like iPad and the like – for the field, perhaps you don’t have the resources to conduct good archaeology. To be clear, the participant made this comment off the cuff to stimulate debate rather than as a pointed critique.

At the same time, it is now a common requirement in most grants that projects have data plans. This requirements make clear that digital tools and techniques are increasingly baked into the very fabric of archaeology. Digital practices, however, cost money. Producing and archiving data costs money. And, digital approaches are frequently embedded in particularly methodological and theoretical perspectives. These methods and theories, however, are no more universal than the resources necessary to support their implementation. A small salvage project might use paper notebooks. Forms of indigenous archaeology might employ practices that resist efficient, public, and streamlined recording (e.g. the culturally sensitive practices associated with the excavation of human remains). These practices are not intentionally “slow” in the way that I used a paper notebook to document buildings on UND’s campus, but they share with slow a kind of resistance to accelerated modern practices.

Of course, Shawn is right that extracting data from these kinds of projects will require more hustle, but this kind of slow practice doesn’t map as easily onto the landscape of privilege. In fact, we should recognize that digital tools and their complicity in creating our modern desire for efficiency, interoperability, and transparency represent privilege as well in many part of the world. A slow archaeology can contribute to a decolonial archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and an anti-modern archaeology that expands the access to sophisticated tools for documenting our material past that are not bound up in the commodified, capitalist, and colonial practices of contemporary technology. 


To be completely honest, my slow practices drift back and forth across this continuum (as my recent article in the EJA probably demonstrates; go here for a preprint). I can be slow because I’m a guy, in a tenured position, who is reasonably well compensates. I don’t often work in front of the bulldozer or need to top off my CV to keep my career afloat. I can indulge in bogging down (as may many slow and stalled projects demonstrate), I can destroy the adequate or even good (enough) in a flailing pursuit of the impossible. I often indulge in process without immediate regard for product.

That being said, I also think that slow practices remain valuable. They allow us to engage difficult texts, articulate complex ideas, and reclaim discarded or marginal information. They also push us to recognize the intersectionality of privilege. What might be a concession to an accelerating world in one situation, might be an aspirational or even inappropriate use of technology in another. Slow archaeology provides a space to critique our own practices and to consider their limits.  

Concluding Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology and the Archaeology of Care

Today I need to put the final revising touches the article that I submitted a couple of months ago to the European Journal of Archaeology as part of a section on digital archaeology. You can read the original here.

One of the critiques of my paper is that the conclusion is a bit weak sauce (my language not theirs). In part, that’s by design. I don’t want to dictate how people use digital tools in their archaeological practice. The issues are complex and projects, pressures, and perspectives are diverse.

On the other hand, I do want archaeologists to think about how digital tools change the relationship between the local and the global, the individual and assemblage, and archaeological work and efficiency. I’m not sure that I communicate this very well in the conclusion, but here’s what I say:


Ellul and Illich saw the technological revolution of the 20th century as fundamentally disruptive to the creative instincts and autonomy of individuals because it falsely privileged speed and efficiency as the foundations for a better world. The development of archaeology largely followed the trajectory of technological developments in industry and continue to shape archaeological practice in the digital era. Transhuman practices in archaeology reflect both long-standing modes of organizing archaeological work according to progressive technological and industrial principles. The posthuman critique of transhumanism unpacks how we understand the transition from the enclosed space of craft and industrial practices to the more fluid and viscous space of logistics. In short, it expands the mid-century humanism of Ellul and Illich offers a cautionary perspective for 21st century archaeology as it comes to terms with the growing influence of logistics as the dominant paradigm of organizing behaviour, capital, and knowledge.

An “archaeology of care” takes cues from Illich and Ellul in considering how interaction between tools, individuals, practices, and methods shaped our discipline in both intentional and unintentional ways. If the industrial logic of the assembly line represented the ghost in the machine of 20th century archaeological practices, then logistics may well haunt archaeology in the digital age. Dividuated specialists fragment data so that it can be rearranged and redeployed globally for an increasingly seamless system designed to allow for the construction of new diachronic, transregional, and multifunctional assemblages. Each generation of digital tools allow us to shatter the integrity of the site, the link between the individual, work, and knowledge, and to redefine organization of archaeological knowledge making. These critiques, of course, are not restricted to archaeological work. Gary Hall has recognized a similar trend in higher education which he called “uberfication.” In Hall’s dystopian view of the near future of the university, data would map the most efficient connections between the skills of the individual instructors and needs of individual students at scale (Hall 2016). Like in archaeology, the analysis of this data, on the one hand, allows us to find efficient relationships across complex systems. On the other hand, uberfication produces granular network of needs and services that splinters the holistic experience of the university, integrity of departments and disciplines, and college campuses as distinctive places. This organization of practice influences the behaviour of agents to satisfy the various needs across the entire network. The data, in this arrangement, is not passive, but an active participant in the producing a viable assemblage.

Punk archaeology looked to improvised performative, do-it-yourself, and ad hoc practices in archaeological fieldwork as a space of resistance against methodologies shaped by the formal affordance of tools. Slow archaeology despite its grounding in privilege, challenges the expectations of technological efficiency and the tendency of tools not only to shape the knowledge that we make, but also the organization of work and our discipline. The awareness that tools shape the organization of work, the limits to the local, and the place of the individual in our disciple is fundamental for the establishment of an “archaeology of care“ that recognizes the human consequences of our technology, our methods, and the pasts that they create.

Punk, Slow, and the Archaeology of Care

This weekend, I received the reviewer reports for an article that I toiled on for over 6 months. They were generous and thought provoking reports, which is basically what you want from your peer reviewers and pushed me to make some of the operating assumptions behind my call for both a slow archaeology and an archaeology of care more obvious. 

In the spirit of getting my thoughts together, I thought I’d share some of the critiques and my responses to them. As with any article, the challenge is to incorporate critiques without unbalancing the article or adding another 1000 words to an article that is already at the maximum length. At the same time, I feel like my reviewers offered honest critiques that will make my article stronger in the long run and any efforts to incorporate them will make the piece better.

So here’s what I need to work out:

1. Punk, Slow, and Archaeology of Care. One thing that the reviewers found a bit unclear is the relationship between punk archaeology, slow archaeology, and the archaeology of care. This is, in fact, something that I’ve struggled a bit with over the past few years and while I wanted to understand the development of my own thinking, I was also concerned that being too explicit about this was unnecessarily solipsistic. In the end, I need to include at least a paragraph explaining how the concepts relate. Here’s what I’d like to say (if words and length were no object):

In many ways, punk archaeology was a naive predecessor to slow archaeology. My reading of punk archaeology celebrated the performativity of archaeological practice and the do-it-yourself approaches to both in-field and interpretative problems. Adapting off-the-shelf software to archaeological purposes created subversive and critical opportunities for the discipline and pushed back against a view that structure of the tool, of process, or of method should dictate the kind of knowledge that we produce. Moreover, my interest in punk and archaeology shaped by critique of technology. The proto-cyberpunk and cyberpunk dystopias of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and John Shirley informed a skeptical and and anxious reading of technology which, in turn, motivated a call for slow archaeology. Slow archaeology sought to articulate the subversive impulse in archaeological practice by aligning it with various anti-modern “slow” movements that have appeared in 21st-century popular culture (e.g. slow food). While the slow movement has endured criticism of its privileged character of the popular slow movement, these criticisms have tended to focus on the consumerist luxury of slow products, slow time, and the social, economic, and political cost of inefficiency. In response to this, I have suggested that slow practices in archaeology are not a privileged indulgence of the white, tenured, grant funded, and secure male faculty member, but part of a larger conversation in archaeology that emphasizes a more human, humane, reflexive , and inclusive discipline. My colleagues and I have described our interest in this conversation as “the archaeology of care” which seeks not only to understand how our archaeological methods, particular the use of technology in the field, shape the structure of the discipline and produce the potential for both social conditions in practice and knowledge of the past that dehumanize individuals.  

2. Transhumanism and Posthumanism. One of the things that I totally botched in my paper was understanding the complexities of trans- and post-humanism. The latter represents a rather expansive and dynamic field from Donna Harraway’s cyborgs to the bioethics of Joanna Zylinska and the assemblage theory of Manuel DeLanda. My paper doesn’t engage much with post-humanism largely because my interest and the object of my critique involved field methods, technology and social organization in the discipline. It would be superficial to argue that post-humanism doesn’t address the relationship between technology, society, and knowledge production. It does, but transhumanism more frequently foregrounds the practical relationship between digital technology and social “progress.” This has parallels with arguments within the archaeological discourse (that I cite in the article) that celebrate the potential of digital tools and practices to increase efficiency, resolution, and the dissemination of archaeological knowledge. 

I do, of course, recognize that certain strands of technological solutionism from transhumanism are relevant for an understanding of posthumanism and, perhaps more importantly, vice versa. I try to recognize this through my reference to several scholars who have been associated with posthumanist thinking (Bruno Latour, Anna Tsing, and Gilles Deleuze), but their work isn’t really the object of my critique. More than that, it would be irresponsible to attempt to critique their work (which obviously informed what I argue in my article) in 6000 words. I would do well to acknowledge this.

3. Slow and Privilege. I’m not gonna lie. This critique stung me the most. On the one hand, I can’t help but feeling that some of it represents my own failure in making the case that knowledge produced through  a“slow” approach to archaeology needn’t take longer or be incommensurate with traditional archaeological practices. And, I certainly never meant to suggest that slow practices in archaeology produced “better” or “truer” knowledge. I’d like to think that slow practices and embodied knowledge and reflective reactions to our place in the landscape, the discipline, and our work produce meaningful knowledge (and I try to show that in my little book: The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape.) 

The one thing that bothers me the most is that by seeing “slow archaeology” as privileged, we are effectively normalizing the industrial methods that define mainstream “disciplinary” archaeology. On the one hand, I appreciate the argument that industrial archaeology is democratizing and part of a process of professionalizing of archaeology, by rendering the knowledge produced by archaeologists “scientific,” “impersonal” and “objective.” To my mind the impersonal nature of certain kinds of archaeological knowledge is at least partly to blame for those who obscure the work of all but a few individuals on a project (and creating a divide between data “collectors” and interpreters). In other words, the way I conceived of slow archaeology was as the basis for a less professional, but more inclusive archaeological practice. In fact, taking the time to allow for individuals to reflect on the experience of archaeological work, to inscribe their experiences in more idiosyncratic and less standardized ways, and to resist the accelerating urgency of more efficiency, more technology, and more data to my mind is a more humane and more human approach to understanding the past.   



Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: Prepublication Draft

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been struggling with an article that comes from a paper that I delivered at this fall’s European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting. The paper brings together a number of different strands of thinking and the broader concept of transhumanism to speak to the potential implications of a digital archaeology.

For those of you familiar with my work, much of this will seem familiar, but I also hope that I’ve added some nuance to my thinking incorporated the works of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Gilles Deleuze.  

The paper is also punk rock. It’s rough. The ideas are not fully formed and sometimes it will read like a concept album that was scrapped during production and then released anyway, because no one really gets concept albums anyway. Other times, it’ll read like a dystopia fueled by a teenager’s fascination with Philip K. Dick. The only thing I will stand by, however, is that this article is honest. It represents my thinking at this moment in time with its inconsistencies, feedback, and distortion. 

I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll get back to these topics in such a focused way (if ever), but if you want to know how punk archaeology and slow archaeology turn out … download the paper here.

Five Minute Version of “Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care”

Because one of the panels that I’m on at the EAA meeting has pre-circulated their papers, they’ve asked us just to give 5 minute versions of our ideas.

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As you might expect, the ideas in my paper have continued to develop since I wrote it in July and it was pre-circulated in August, but I think the major contours of the paper remain more or less intact.

Here’s my effort a sub-5 minute summary.

This paper is an expression of anxiety more than anything. I’m particularly anxious about the growing role of digital tools in archaeological work both in the field and during the analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. 

My paper considered the role of digital tools and processes particularly through the lens of archaeological practice (punk archaeology) where technology has expanded the range of human perception, memory, organization, and analysis. While my arguments were rather diffuse, I pursued a line of thinking that began with a consideration of two mid-century Christian anarchists, Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, who argued that technology, and modernity more broadly, have undermined the organic creativity of conviviality by emphasizing efficiency and convenience in the name of human interaction, embodied knowledge, and a respect for place. It is hardly surprising that these anti-modernist thinkers would offer a potentially useful critique of the modern discipline of archaeology.  

The second point I try to make, then, is that Ellul’s and Illich’s critique aligns with a recent strand in the discussion of digital tools in archaeological practice. Digital tools represent improvements in efficiency and accuracy, as well as the transparency and portability of digital (or digitized) archaeological information, but often rely on the fragmentation of archaeological knowledge into streamlined and integrated workflows. These practices, however, are not particularly surprising considering the significance of the assembly line on the organization of archaeological work where the regimented adherence to methods and procedures incrementally build new knowledge. The term “raw data” is analogous to “raw materials” that form the basis for industrial production. The influence of a modern, industrial approach to archaeology presents a counterpoint to archaeology as craft (and slow archaeology). 

Finally, and this point did not appear in the paper that I precirculated, I suspect that the mobile, modular, and granular nature of digital data anticipates a shift away from the assembly line and toward a very 21st century form of industrial organization: logistics. The assembly line manufactures a valuable product, whereas logistics involves the streamlined and decentralized distribution material, services, and goods that produces values through their relationship across space. These are both transhuman forms of producing value, but the former tends to structure the relationship between humans and machines in a linear way organized around a particular place, and the latter attends to a diffuse and decentralized relationship between objects, movement, standardization, while challenging or even just overwriting the notion of place and relationships that have long remained important to our idea of community and disciplinarity.

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The goal of my paper is to offer a more focused critique of the role of recent digital trends on the rhetoric, structure, and organization of archaeological practice, and to attempt to articulate some of the risks associated with these trends not just to the knowledge that we produce but to the kind of discipline that archaeology wishes to become. 

Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies

I’m jet lagged and a bit crowd addled here in Barcelona, but I wanted to share Colleen Morgan’s blog post on the panel to which I’ll be contributing this week at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting. 

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My paper is rough and like everything, always in the process of being revised, but my hope is that between listening to what the other panelists say and reading their papers, I’ll have something worthwhile to contribute (and even if I don’t, I feel pretty confident that I’ll get something out of the meeting.

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Go here to check out the panel.

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Revised Draft

Over the last week or so, I’ve continued to iterate on the paper that I’ll deliver at EAAs next week. Like all conference papers (or at least all of my conference papers), it’s a bit too much of everything and not enough of what matters resulting in it being a pile of “meh.”

That being said, the complete draft that I pushed out a couple weeks ago was also too long and diffuse. So while its flaws should still be apparent (and my apologies to all those who provided comments and tried to convince me to make it better), but it will at least be a bit more focused.


Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

William Caraher
University of North Dakota

Rough Draft of Paper for the European Archaeological Association Meeting
Barcelona, Spain
September 4, 2018


My paper today is an effort to identify some of my own anxiety related to transhumanism in archaeology by thinking about technology in archaeology in an expansive historical way. This will, of course, run the risk of making my generalizations easy enough to dismiss with examples from actual field practices or implementation. My hope is that exceptions to my vision of the future of archaeology will provide reasons for optimism grounded in an advanced state of critical engagement with the way that digital tools are shaping the discipline. At the same time, I do think that long trajectory of digital practices in archaeology (and in our transhuman culture) remains unclear as folks like Jeremey Huggett have recognized (Huggett, Reilly, Lock 2018).

The title of this paper reflects some of my earlier efforts think broadly about archaeological practice. In 2014, I published a collection of reflections on “punk archaeology” (Caraher et al. 2014) which offered a view of archaeology grounded in radical and performative inclusivity, and, this formed some of the backdrop for a pair of articles on slow archaeology (2015, 2016) that juxtaposed the “slow movement” with a particular strand of scholarship that celebrated the increases in efficiency, accuracy, and precision associated with digital field practices. While both efforts have received substantive and thoughtful critiques that have demonstrated the limits to these analogies (archaeology is LIKE punk or LIKE the slow movement; see Richardson 2016; Graham 2017), I still hope that they offer some useful perspectives on the relationship between how archaeology produces the past in the present.

My interest today is to trace some of the threads proposed in these earlier efforts while focusing in particular on how digital tools and techniques intersect with new approaches to archaeological knowledge and disciplinary practices. In particular, I’d like to try to argue that our interest in efficiency in archaeological work has contributed to a view of archaeological practice that draws upon logistics as a model for a distributed knowledge making.

Ellul and Illich

My point of departure for this paper are two mid-century Christian anarchists, Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, who wrote critically on the rise of modern institutions and technology. Without over simplifying and eliding their different perspectives, both men saw the shift toward modern practices as profoundly disruptive to traditional values which supported embodied practices that shaped human communities.

Ellul’s is perhaps the more intriguing for any consideration of archaeological practice. He suggested that the rise of rationality and technology and its distinctive form of “technique” severed the careful attention of the individual from work itself (Ellul 1964). In its place emerged practices which, in the modern era, followed the logic of efficiency. While scholars have noted the ambiguities and limits to Ellul’s definition of efficiency (Wha-Chul Son 2013), his relationship between technique and efficiency anticipates recent understandings of technological agency that view human autonomy and individual choices as part of a distributed relationships between humans and their tools. The quest for efficiencies remains in Jennfier Alexander’s words, “an iconic mantra in the high-tech industries,” and a key consideration for how archaeology is organized and uses tools (Alexander 2008).

Ivan Illich shared many of Ellul’s concerns and proposed that modernity, technology, and the state disrupted the conviviality that existed in the premodern world and among premodern societies (Illich 1975). For Illich, conviviality represented the opposite of modern productivity (with its interest in speed and efficiency) and emphasized the free, unstructured, and creative interaction among individuals and with their environment. For Illich, like Ellul, the use of technology does not result in a society freer, but one that is increasingly bereft of the conditions that allow for creativity as the need for efficiency and speed create a kind of dominant logic in practice.

Illich’s and Ellul’s critiques of technology fit only awkwardly with much recent scholarship, of course. Efficiency itself has become increasingly regarded as a problematic term deeply embedded in practice and the coincidence of human and material agency (e.g. Shove 2017). Bruno Latour and others have demonstrated that any effort to unpack the complexity of energy in any system — social, mechanical, environmental, et c. — requires abstract acts of purification that define and separate energy and effects from their complex network of entangled relationships and practices (Latour 1993; Shove 2017, 7-8). This greater attention to the interaction between individuals and objects has provided a compelling theoretical framework for understanding the interplay of technology, tools, objects, and agency in the construction of archaeological knowledge.

On the other hand, this work has only just begun. A recent conference and publication dedicated to digital tools in field work, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, was laced with discussions of efficiency and workflow in digital practices. Among the most widely cited and read articles from Journal of Field Archaeology is Christopher Roosevelt’s (and team) thorough presentation of the digital workflow from their project in southwest Turkey.

What remains less developed is a conversation on the impact of digital tools on the organization of archaeological practice (although see Pickering 1995; Taylor et al. 2018), the nature of archaeological skills and expertise, and issues of archaeological preservation and publication (Huggett 2017). In fact, changing views of agency have created new views of ethics in archaeological practice as well as in the social organization of discipline (e.g. Dawdy 2016). Perhaps this entangled view of the world gives the work of Illich and Ellul new relevance for archaeologist concerned with the social issue of disciplinary practice across the field.

Transhumanism and Disciplinary Practice

As the organizers of this panel know well, transhumanism offers a way to consider the interplay between the individual, technology, practice, and performance (e.g. Haraway 1984) in archaeology. It also offers a roadmap to anticipate the social and disciplinary implications of new approaches to producing archaeological knowledge. Indeed, for most of the later 20th century archaeologists have embraced methodology and seen knowledge making as an explicit relationship between particular techniques, tools, and situations. In this way, archaeological work does not end at the limits of our bodies, but extends reciprocally through technology, techniques, and social organization to create the hybrid space of archaeological knowledge making.

The dense interdependence of tools, techniques, methods, and individuals embodies a transhuman archaeology that shapes the social organization of archaeological practice. Digital technology, for example, whatever its integrative potential, relies, in part, on the industrialist and Taylorist approach of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones with the goal of final publication at the hands of a project director. However, unlike the relatively linear progress of Taylor’s assembly line which emphasized a rather immediate relation between the body of the worker and the object of work, digital practices embrace efficiency through the distributed logic of logistics (Cowen 2014). These transhuman networks depend both upon distributed assemblages of tools and technologies as well as interchangeable media which allows for information to move and be aggregated in different ways. As such, digital practices continue the fragmented work of the assembly line but emphasize new efficiencies by facilitating the distribution of work, knowledge, and information in non-linear ways. Streamlining the archaeological “workflow” mitigates differences in experience and expertise among specialists and facilitates new combinations of archaeological information.

As one example, Open Context provides a platform for the highly granular publication of archaeological data, which allows archaeologists to establish a stable URI for each artifact. The allows for artifact (or strata or survey units or photographs) to be shared, linked, combined, and remixed in different ways, and also highlights the pressures and potential to fracture and fragment digital data. Another example, various crowd-sourced research projects (e.g. Sarah Parcak work) have likewise shown how digital tools allows for fragmented bits of knowledge to be marshaled to address complex archaeological problems. Digital mediation in these contexts allow for the collecting of archaeological information from an unstructured cluster of participants. Obviously the use of crowdsourcing, where a large community acts as a kind of mechanical turk, is not ideal for all forms of archaeological knowledge making, but where is it applicable, it does present a distinct form of deskilling. With the increasing mobility of archaeological information, ease of integrating diverse collaborators, and granularity of specialization, the social impact of these kinds of systems on the disciple remains unclear.

I’m tempted to see that shift in the organization of archaeological practice from one based on the assembly line to one grounded in logistics parallels contemporary thinking in archaeological ontologies that see relations and assemblages as producing meaning. Just as an approach to archaeology grounded in assemblages of individuals, objects, places, and pasts, has produced new and hybridized ways of understanding the past in the present, so the distributed character of digital practices and their reliance on computer algorithm or software introduces distinctive logic of practice to field work and interpretation.


If Ellul and Illich saw the technological revolution of the 20th century as fundamentally disruptive to the creative instincts and autonomy of individuals because it falsely privileged speed and efficiency as the foundations for a better world, then this same strain of reasoning in archaeological practice should give us pause. My conclusion is a call for an “archaeology of care” that take cues from Illich and Ellul in considering how interaction between tools, individuals, practices, and methods shaped our discipline in both intentional and unintentional ways.

I’ve been concerned by a process that Gary Hall has called “uberfication,” which he has applied to changes in higher education in the United States (Hall 2016). The Uberfied University uses data to map the most efficient connections between the skills of the individual instructors and needs of individual students at scale. To be clear, this is a dystopian vision rather than an actual plan, but it reflects larger trends on public and private sectors which see the analysis of data as the key to efficiency within complex systems. It likewise relies on the ability not only to link individual agents to particular needs but also on the network’s ability to shape the behavior of agents to satisfy the various needs across the entire network. The data, in this arrangement, is not passive, but an active participant in the shaping the entire assemblage. It’s logistics.

The issue, of course, isn’t the existence of the assemblage; in fact, our recognition of the assemblage is what makes both its existence and its critique possible. What causes me anxiety is that the tools and techniques available to the transhuman archaeologist are as embedded in archaeological practices as they are in the logic of capital, efficiency, and modernity. The performative context of archaeological practice, whether “punk” or otherwise, offers the space for critical engagement. “Slow archaeology,” despite its grounding in privilege, nevertheless offers an ideal archaeological future that challenges the expectations of efficiency. Finally, an “archaeology of care” is my term for an approach to the discipline that embraces human consequences of both our methods and the pasts that they create.