Byzantium and the Public Sphere

In a couple of weeks, I head back east to the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at the Hellenic College Holy Cross to be on a panel of scholars who “use traditional and digital means to build a broader audience for the field inside and outside of the academy.” I suspect my blog caught their attention or a series of posts a couple of years ago on marketing my Byzantine history class to unsuspecting undergraduates. 

In these blog posts, I complained that the place of Byzantium in most “master narratives” presented to college students, limits how we can present the Byzantine Empire to an unfamiliar audience on campus. Some of these approaches are useful. In my very traditional history department, Byzantine history serves as another way to complicate what the students understand to be “the Western tradition.” To simplify this discussion (as I would present it to undergraduates unfamiliar with Byzantium), the Byzantine world has a Western pedigree: it represented the persistence of the Roman Empire, it was ruled and populated by “people of the book” (Jews, Christian, and Muslims), and it partook in familiar practices that ranged from Hellenic philosophy, to architecture, forms of literature, and political history. At my lowest points, I found myself saying: “Don’t worry, it will be far more familiar than the world of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin!” (Putting aside that these worlds were made up and featured, you know, dragons). In my best moments, I found that I could channel my inner Anthony Kaldellis

Appeals to familiarity, of course, only serve to highlight the things about Byzantium that are utterly unfamiliar. On a short flight this past month, I read over Averill Cameron’s slim volume titled Byzantine Matters. The book provides a useful, if incomplete view of trends in the field over the author’s influential career (or since the publication of Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State in 1969. More than that, her book is accessible and generally indicates some profitable lines of inquiry that challenge the traditional view of Byzantium as a theocratic despotism satisfied to simmer gently beneath the ponderous weight of Orthodox uniformity. This approach not only offers a way to open up Byzantium to questions that are profoundly Western (e.g. what was the relationship between church and state?), but also to urge students to see the study of Byzantium as a way to critique Orientalism and its view of unchanging, almost unthinking traditionalism. This may be a hook to ensure that “Byzantium belongs to all of us, and … belongs to mainstream history.” Lest we imagine that Cameron went all populist on us, she also calls for renewed attention to Byzantine religious writing (sermons, theological treatises, et c.) as works of literature. Nothing is likely to broaden the appeal of Byzantium more than combining the study of literature, with all its theoretical pretensions, with the study of theological texts which were probably bored the vast majority of the Byzantine world. That being said, this suggestion does follow her overarching argument for hidden complexity in the Byzantium world.

I don’t think that I was invited to this panel to share my penetrating understanding of Byzantine historiography, however. 

I think I’ll try to inject a few observations.

1. Blogging Byzantium. Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a constant presence of Byzantine bloggers on the web. In most cases, these blogs are pretty traditional, text-driven places. None of us have truly embraced the potential of social and new media although a few of the blogs feature videos from time to time.

There are a few exceptions. For example, there is Lars Brownworth’s 12 Rulers of Byzantium which started as a podcast and has expanded into a media empire featuring videos and a book. The Cry for Byzantium Twitter feed of Alexius I Comnenus pushes Byzantium into the social media sphere. The /r/Byzantine page on Reddit appears to be thriving.

The typical Byzantine Blogger, however, is pretty textual with the occasional image of a domed church or a map. There are, of course, a few panoramic views of Byzantine churches and a mishmash of mostly outdated efforts to create interactive maps of Constantinople or whatever. Generally speaking, scholars of Byzantium have stayed on the sideline of recent trends to create a more dynamic web. These kinds of projects require significant funding and, perhaps more importantly, a clearly-defined audience.

2. Byzantine Archaeology as World Archaeology. I need to work this into a fuller post at some point in the near future, but one observation that my buddy Kostis Kourelis made a few years back is that a meaningful subset of Byzantine archaeologists also do archaeology in their local communities. What brought this to mind was David Pettegrew’s recent work on mapping 19th century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the Greek community there. Kostis has been involved in my North Dakota Man Camp Project and various initiatives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he teaches. The willingness of archaeologists of the Byzantine world to engage in the archaeology of their local communities hints that Byzantinists are not as disengaged as our scholarly output might suggest. In fact, it suggests that some of the trends in Byzantine archaeology resonate with issues prevalent in world archaeology. For a discipline that almost takes a perverse pride in its idiosyncratic conventions, this is a significant revelation and offers hope for Byzantinists everywhere that our skills and professional interests can have a direct impact on local communities in North America.

3. Mash-Up and Convergence. Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about how our scholarly production – books and articles – rarely extend beyond their academic audiences and rarely enjoy lives outside of their final, published copies. The divergence between academic works and popular books could not be more stark as influential popular books often feed a growing participatory community engaged in fan fiction, form the basis for transmedia productions like films and video games, and spawn communities of commentators and critics. George R.R. Martin’s mostly-depraved Game of Thrones series of books and TV series is just the most recent and perhaps most visible example.

As Byzantinists contemplate engaging the public sphere more fully, it might behoove us to consider the changing the changing state of popular media. How do we ensure that our books and articles become living, media entities that go beyond their utility to a small group of scholars? Do we push to make our work available in open access? Do we work harder to contribute to linked-data practices? How does our work interact or intersect with the larger media universe? 

To my mind, this is not simply about making our work known to more people, but making it more accessible to audiences who think about media in new and more dynamic ways. Books and articles are more than just forms of scholarly communication or instruments designed to get tenure, but simply aspects of an increasingly dynamic media universe that extends beyond the life of a publication, its physical or digital form, and goals of the academic author. How can Byzantine studies engage this world?

Adventures in Podcasting, Radio, and Dramatic Readings

This is a pretty exciting day at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Headquarters. 

My colleague, Richard Rothaus and I are pleased to release the first episode of our new podcasting adventure:

We are both pretty happy with the results, although we’ll certainly refine the sound quality and the flow of our banter a bit as we move forward. The current plan is to release a few podcasts a month and once we have a little gaggle of them, we’ll push them to iTunes and some other services. 

Here are the show notes from our first podcast:

Bill’s Blog:
Richard’s Blog: and

Timothy Gregory: 
Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia: 
Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS):

Mt. Oneion in the Corinthia:

Rough Cilicia Archaeological Survey Project:
Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project:

Kostis Kourelis, “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth, 1920s-1930s”:

But wait, there’s more!

Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I got some great press coverage by Emily Guerin from Inside Energy. We really happy with how this sounded. I’m a bit embarrassed about how excited I got when we pulled into one of our favorite workforce housing sites:

And because you read this blog regularly, you are eligible for a very special bonus track! 

Yesterday, my buddy Dimitri Nakassis posted a link to a brilliantly bizarre blog post that compared the Archaeological Institute of America (aka Archaeology in America) to the Islamic State. The post was so remarkable that I decided to perform a dramatic reading. I don’t do this very often, folks. What’s better is that this dramatic reading will be part of a (only slightly) larger project conjured by Andrew Reinhard. It’s going to be epic. You can download my reading of this post for a limited time here.

What if I Recorded a Podcast?

Some time in April (April is beyond the time I can imagine right now), I’ve been asked to contribute to a roundtable on Byzantium in the Public Sphere. More on this in the near future, but the prospect of contributing to a roundtable with some luminaries in the field has me mildly terrified. 

It also pushed me to think about what I do to make my scholarship and interest accessible to a wider public. This was part of the point this blogging enterprise when I started. As I thought about this, I felt drawn back to an idea pitched to be by Richard Rothaus months (maybe years?) ago: we should record a podcast. For a variety of reasons, I ignored it at the time. Then Andrew Reinhard produced a couple podcasts. These were so iconoclastic that, like MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, they are best admired from a safe distance.

I also had to good fortune to meet and spend some time with Emily Guerin who is a radio reporter for Inside Energy and worked on a story featuring me and Bret Weber out in the Bakken oil patch. We spent some time talking about podcasts, and I had to admit to rarely listening to them except, of course, the excellent Professor Footnote, which was more like radio theater than what I envisioned a podcast to be. But what did I know? 

Over the last few weeks, I started listening to podcasts largely because I got a little injury from running around the new year, and cut back on my mileage and intensity. As a result, I went from listening to music to listening to podcasts. Since one of my side interests on the web is technology websites – particular those related the cult of Mac, I started to listen to Mac related podcasts using Marco Arment’s lovely Overcast application on my phone. I was immediately struck by the informality of the podcasts produced by John Gruber, Marco Arment, and Jason Snell. These are not only good and more or less interesting podcasts, they are also conversational and, at least to casual listener, unstructured.

Well, anyone who has ever hung out with me for even a little bit (or read this blog) knows that I love unstructured, and it just so happens that Richard Rothaus is not afraid of the lack of structure either. So, sometime soon, we’ll very quietly release a pilot (or a first draft) of a podcast. We don’t have a name for it. We don’t have guests (at least right now). And we don’t really have a plan (ok, we have a bit of a plan). 

Anyway, since I’m traveling today, I thought I’d drop this little tidbit of news and see what people think. I think it is possible that people might enjoy a podcast talking about archaeology, late antiquity, the Mediterranean world, academia, and “things that Richard is interested in” (which is a topic so vast that I can’t even start to summarize it here). The hope is that we can find in conversation the hooks that bring an audience to Byzantium (broadly construed) or at least to an interest in the past.

In our test run last Sunday, we discovered that we both had good stories about things we did to make our advisor, Tim Gregory, mad. So that was fun. Hopefully, there is more to it than that. With any luck we’ll premiere this project in the next week or so, if we can master the technologies and editing necessary to sound both unstructured and polished. 

Stay tuned!

Booking at the Speed of Blog

This week, I’ve spent time doing two things (let’s say). One is reading Hartmut Rosa’s recent book on acceleration. The other thing is working on the final edits of the next book from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Visions of Substance.

Visions of Substance began its life about 15 months ago as a series of blog posts on my blog in a series called “3D Thursday.” The response to these posts was really good, with a few of the posts ranking among the most frequently viewed on my blog and attracting thousands of page views and a few academic citations to boot. I was pleased by how easy it was to publish substantial blog posts and to get ideas and practices, particularly in the fast moving area of 3D imaging in field archaeology.


Visions of Substance Cover

My goal as a publisher was to move this content into a book form. To do this, we invited the contributors to revise their papers and provide better quality images when necessary. Those inclined can see their work move from from the realm of the blog to the less ephemeral world of a digital and bound book.

This process was interesting to me for a number of reasons. First off, my hope is that the blog to book process continues the process of expanding the boundaries of “scholarly communication” to include the less formal space of the blog. Since the early days of my blog, I have made a little show of migrating it to a “paper ready format” as a light-hearted gesture in this general direction. I still don’t have the nerve to actually count my blog as part of my academic output, but it’s hard not to see it as part of my scholarly identity.

I also have become more and more interested in the publication process. I’ve long admired the Journal of Roman Archaeology for its austere and – let’s say – uneven editing; the spirit of the journal is captured beautifully in their website. I imagined it as a model of publishing efficiency as it dispensed with even the most basic formatting cues beyond footnotes, page numbers, and titles. My second love, has long been Hesperia, which subjects its authors to an arduous editorial process, exacting standards, and a good bit of design swagger in its presentation. Hesperia is – for an academic journal – sexy and it knows it. As some new to publishing, I realized that nothing I did would come close to Hesperia, but I could approximate a Journal of Roman Archaeology vibe. In fact, I think I could even do a tiny bit better than the JRA without succumbing to the need to actually take design seriously. This means that a respected academic template already exists for efficient publication with relatively little polish.

A colleague and I were chatting yesterday and we both noted how, in some point over the last half century, the correspondence or note has vanished as an academic genre. I recall Hesperia having published short epigraphic articles maybe a decade ago and I certain cite a few short notes in my own work, but as far as I can tell, few journals in the humanities continue to publish contributions under, say, 8,000 words. An editor once told me that it was because short articles took every bit as long as long articles to lay-out and edit, so it was more efficient to have 5 long articles rather than, say, 4 shorter notes and 3 longer articles. Book reviews continue to appear because, generally speaking, they are less editorially intensive (that is, they less editorial contact with authors and peer reviewers). I wonder if we can create a model for these think a streamlined publication flow that emphasizes public peer review through a blog like interface, and making the publication of notes no more intensive than a book review.

I’ve been thinking about the influence of speed lately. To return to Harmut Rosa’s book, he argues – and I’m simplifying greatly here – that acceleration and speed in late modernity have led significant and recognizable social change. (For a much better consideration of Rosa’s work in this context go here.) He is not the first to make these arguments, but he does summarize a vast swath of recent scholarship on the topic (and I’ll write more about this soon) and identifies the acceleration of the late modern world as the key instrument to social transformation. Among the many direct effects of speed, for Rosa and others, is its tendency to collapse space and distance, and, I might add, promote the creation of spontaneous communities around events that might otherwise exist in physical or intellectual isolation.

To apply it to our case here, Rosa’s concept of social acceleration explains how rapid publication has the potential for creating a sense of scholarly immediacy in print publications that we usually reserve for, say, the communal experience of academic conferences. Streamlined publishing from blog to book preserves some of the rawness of conference presentation (or blog post) while formalizing what might otherwise be ephemeral, informal interaction between academics. So as I work toward booking at the speed of blog, I have become increasingly interested in how publishing old-style, paper (or for that matter digital books) quickly based on academic ephemeral could make social and intellectual ties between academics more transparent and to localize, even if it’s just on a page, the liquidity intrinsic in the modern academy.

Tis the Season

Every year I have readers asking me whether the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World team can help with a last minute holiday gift.

Every year, I assure them that the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive is the perfect gift for anyone who wants to relive and savor the glory that is the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Blog on luxurious paper. Volume 5 of The Archive is now available in all of its digital glory. It is mostly free of obfuscating mark-up and html artifacts and perfectly ready for printing or binding at the book binder of your choice. I’d recommend binding it in soft, Corinthian leather. (Although I’d actually recommend against binding it, and instead printing it on 12.375 x 12.375 card stock and fitting it into a nice box).

Remember that this is one of the few blogs that produces a printable archive every, single year. By proudly displaying this in your home, you place yourself both at the cutting edge of blog-to-book workflow, but also in a small group of people who can even pretend to know “what I’m on about.” 

This year The Archive is set in Akzidenz-Grotesk font (the cover pages are in Futura) and runs to over 700 pages. Lest you doubt the value of such a spectacular Christmas gift, I only need to remind you that these are 700 pages that might have been directed toward book projects, scholarly articles, teaching North Dakota’s next generation of bloggers, properly completing university mandate paperwork, or letters to the editor of the local newspaper. It runs to well over 140,000 words.

Finally, I broke with tradition this year and went with square pages (8.5 x 8.5, but easily expanded to 12.375 to 12.375) because I think of my work more as a concept album than a cohesive codex. In keeping with the them, I also created a cover because the Mighty Milo needs to be out front in any creative undertaking in this household. 

I have decided to exclude other people’s posts (o.p.p.) from this archive, in part, because some will appear in a separate, better edited volume, and because it would be too hard to explain to other people why I prepare an annual archive. I have also followed past practices and left out all of the images. It is just easier this way and I figured that it would fuel my readers imagination as they attempted to visualize whatever it was that I was talking about.

Blog Archive Volume 5 pdf

For this feeling nostalgic, copies of Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4 are still available.

Happy Holidays!!

Ello, Quietude, and the Social Media

Over the past few months, my social media presence has begun to overwhelm me. Maybe it was the election that pushed me over the edge. Maybe it’s because I’m on sabbatical this year and have more time to casually read my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Maybe it’s my growing attention to slowing down and the slow movement.

I don’t really know, but my social media life has started to bug me. I’ve found myself less and less patient hearing sound-bite sized political commentaries from well-meaning and thoughtful friends. I have struggled increasingly to distinguish between earnest political commentary, humorous political satire, and absurdist memes, and I worry that people who share these things have begun to lose track too. I also don’t like the sponsored content that is just intriguing enough to tempt me to clicking, but not substantive enough to hold my interest. Finally, I have begun to question the relationship between social media personas and real world personalities. I always figured that social media was a bit like a crowded bar where everyone is feeling good and playing their parts, but I’ve recently offended some people and have slowly come to realize that social media personas might be real people. The earnestness I see in Facebook or Twitter posting might not just be the kind of faux-earnest posturing that we’ve all used to enliven a conversation, tempt a colleague into conceding a flawed argument, or as a form of mocking approbation. I mean, it’s pretty hard not to laugh when someone I barely know tells me to “check my [insert privileged expectation here]” or recommends that I read some “post colonial scholars” or “consider the lilies of the field.”  

Ello A Simple beautiful ad free social network

Anyway, over the past few months it has really bugged me. Not quite enough to ditch Facebook and The Twitters, but enough to consider alternatives. It just so happened that last week I got an invitation to join Ello. Positioning itself as an alternative to Facebook, Ello is a new social network that is not (now) supported by advertisement, it does not share your personal data, and, from what I can tell, is sparsely inhabited. The layout is spartan and black-and-white. The interface is simple. The features are almost non-existent. I can post things and maybe make comments on other peoples’ posts. I think I can maybe even share things, but I haven’t really figured that out. There are also two levels of relationships on Ello: friends and noise.  The friend feed is more or less like Facebook, but less busy; people designated as noise have their posts relegated to a three column grid which somehow makes it easier to ignore.

The biggest advantage of Ello that I can tell is the clean interface complements an almost complete lack of activity. I can check it a few times a day and find nothing going on. No flame wars, no misunderstood posts, no pious statements of owning one’s private property that folks insist on posting in a public forum. In fact, Ello presents nothing at all.

I got to think about how much of our life is lived online and how our online personas serve as extensions of private lives, and I began to wonder whether it is time for a site like Ello that allows us a moment of peace, quiet, and reflection. The absence of advertisements, clutter, and, even, posts slows my day down just a bit and gives me a place for my online persona to catch his breath, refocus, and take stock. The first parallel that came to my mind for a site like Ello is Byzantine urban monasticism which presented islands of tranquil reflecting amidst the bustle of Byzantine urban life. The inhabitants of these monastic islands were engaged in the social, political, and religious conflicts in their day, but their homes in monasteries provided space of quiet reflection and safety from the chaotic outside world. I find, for example, that after a few posting on Ello (usually involving photographs of my dog) and a quick read of my virtually unchanging “noise” feed, I’m ready to return to the overwrought chaos of Facebook and reenter the fray. 

IMG 2407

So, for those of you who are getting overwhelmed by the ambiguity and clutter of Facebook or Twitter, I highly recommend Ello as a peaceful alternative. If you need an invitation, drop me a line. The only thing I ask is that you not disturb my quietude. 

On Books and Blogs

This is the 1000th post on the New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. About 950 of them, I’ve authored and the other 50 or so were penned by my remarkable colleagues and contributors.

My average post length is about 300 words, which puts the entire endeavor at around 280,000 words or so. That’s a lot of words. These words have had about 145,000 page views and average around 1000 views per week. I think this is a sustainable clip for me as the author, and, I hope, for you as readers.  

I’ve posted a number of times on how blogging fits into my daily workflow and its benefit to me as a writer and scholar. It ensures that I write every day and smooths the transition from the jumbled nest of ideas in my head to (what I try to pass off as) linear arguments. As readers of this blog know, my posts tend to be messy and unedited and filled with inconsistencies, but I trust my readers to filter out what makes sense and what doesn’t and to cull the good from the posts here and discard the crazy. I hope, on the measure, that my posts produced more wheat than chaff.

If the threshing process is too time consuming, you can, of course, go right to the main coarse of bread. Yesterday afternoon we got the cover image for the book that I wrote with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore and a few other remarkable colleagues.


I love the cover image because it humanizes our work as archaeologist and stands in contrast to recent covers in the series which tend to focus on objects or buildings. It fits our volume because we spend many pages talking about the interaction between the human work of archaeology and analysis that this work produces. The invisibility of antiquity on the cover reminds the reader that archaeological knowledge is not out there waiting to be discovered, but is generated through the relationship between humans and the landscape. The presence of modern artifacts – electrical wires, metal signs and other features – highlights the diachronic nature of our survey work on Cyprus. All this is to say that the cover of our book shows that knowledge production is a messy process and this has fine parallels with the blobs of words that my dedicated readers frequently encounter here. I think this cover really makes our work stand out!

We’re optimistic that the book will available for Christmastime shopping (and everyone’s life is better with a bit of Koutsopetria!), and if it’s not available yet, you can always make it a Very Punk Archaeology Christmas!

I have a few experiments in mind for my online word-making projects in the next couple of weeks, so please stay tuned. And, while it goes without saying, thanks for reading! 

Another View of Ghost Towns, Process and Product

My colleague Prof. Cindy Prescott generously offered this response to the my conversations with Troy Larson. 

Bill’s previous blog post and Troy’s response raise interesting questions about intellectual property and the relationship between academic and public history. Many researchers in the hard sciences worry constantly about being “scooped.” Historians (and people in the humanities in general) tend to worry far less about this, since we tend to be pursuing lines of inquiry that interest each of us individually, rather than all working toward common goals or on common problems (say, curing cancer). And the nature of historical research and publishing also means that the timeline is much slower — which is perhaps made possible by the fact that we’re less likely to be trying to beat each other to publish the same material.

Academic historians have traditionally staked a claim to their chosen research topics at conferences, which (sometimes) have a shorter lead time than do historical journals, let alone coveted monographs. But in my experience, historians generally value conference presentations for the opportunity that they represent to receive feedback from knowledgeable people who can help us to hone our arguments, more so than as an opportunity to stake a claim to a particular topic. Thus you are willing to share your database, because you believe that other trained scholars will bring their own perspectives to bear on that data and produce interesting arguments that enhance, challenge, or perhaps refute your findings. As an academic historian, you are free to welcome such challenges and refutations, precisely because you have already received the substantial benefit of a Ph.D. diploma and a tenure-track job on the basis of your interpretation of the data.

Likewise, I published a book based on my dissertation that will never make me a single cent, and I’m OK with that, because I didn’t write it to make money. I wrote it so that I could get and keep a job at a university. And I would gladly share the database on which I based part of that book — should it be useful to anyone else without me having to go back and bring order to my crazy notes — because I’d welcome different interpretations of that data. The worst that would happen to me is that someone might publish something that refutes my book and discourages people from buying the remaining stock of my book before it gets remaindered. Either way, I’m not getting any cash out of the deal, and it wouldn’t take away my tenure.

Blogs and other internet materials raise these questions precisely because they welcome engagement by the general public, who do not operate within the terms of academic scholarship. As I understand it, Troy Larson has been willing to share his images and ideas online not only because he’s generous, but also because he seeks to benefit from sharing them with an audience in much the same way that an academic traditionally has benefitted from presenting at academic conferences: (1) he gains an audience for an intended publication, and (2) he gains information and perspectives from others that will strengthen that publication. An academic historian wants very similar things, but ultimately seeks different long-term benefits. Academics, then, can afford to be more generous with data than can public scholars. As faculty at a public university, we’re essentially being paid to do so.

I’m intrigued by your comparison to borrowing from someone else’s class syllabus. For all that we insist on intellectual property rights to our teaching, I think that most academics will willingly share the reading lists for their classes. Indeed, we tend to borrow from one another’s reading lists, seeking the tried-and-true rather than to be cutting edge in terms of reading assignments. I suspect most college instructors would be somewhat more hesitant to share their lectures or active learning assignments, but even these we are more willing to share freely. We tend to think of teaching as a more collaborative experience — perhaps because no one is going to publish my lesson plans or give me tenure on the basis of those lesson plans. But perhaps more importantly, it’s because even someone who had my lecture notes would still have to stand up and deliver that lecture — and it would sound and look different from what I deliver in class.

I think that intellectual property concerns get raised far more often — and appropriately so — when it comes to the realm of online teaching. While a grad student could certainly deliver a lecture drawn from my lecture notes in their own course, that feels different to me than having someone else launch an online course using lectures that I had typed/videotaped/tegrity-ed. Because then they’re not just delivering a lecture based on my content (which in turn is based on information drawn from mainstream textbooks and materials). But my personal objection would come less from their cribbing of my ideas (which I had quite appropriately gathered from published sources in the first place, and in which I generally am not trying to make an original argument), and more from the sense that they are cheating and stealing my work. In other words, my objection comes not from them borrowing my content, but from them using my hard work without me benefitting. Why this is OK when sharing lesson plans but not OK when copying lectures, I’m not entirely sure – especially considering that I generally dislike lecturing, and am far more invested in, and am more proud of, my active learning assignments. I suspect that it is because I tend to view sharing ideas/plans for active learning assignments as part of the larger project of intellectual exchange that is one of my favorite parts of a career in academia (and that sharing tends to strengthen my other favorite part of an academic career: having an impact on student learners). But to copy a lecture wholesale feels like stealing or outsourcing my work (something that might allow the university to replace me and my tenure line with a cheaper teaching assistant or adjunct), rather than engaging in an intellectual exchange. I suspect that non-academic researchers like Troy Larson, who are depending on their information-gathering to make a living, would see someone else using their database more like I would look at someone else delivering my pre-recorded lecture content – particularly if the people using the data are supported by a larger structure such as a public university. While I am fearful of having my material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who would teach for cheaper (a grad student or adjunct instructor), Troy Larson appears fearful of having his material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who might be far better paid, but whose paycheck is primarily supported by their other services to a large research university.

Ghosts Towns, Process, and Product on the World Wide Web

I had originally intended to write about the local humanities this morning, but I was distracted by an interesting little discussion on the internet. A local author, Troy Larson, took issues with a website produced for a class offered by Tom Isern, a historian at North Dakota State University. Tom had designed the class, as far as I can recall, to produce a catalogue of North Dakota “Ghost Towns”. Troy Larson is the local expert on North Dakota Ghost Towns and has published a couple of coffee table books on the subject and maintains a remarkable blog called Ghosts of North Dakota. By all means, go and buy his book and surf his blog. They’re both pretty cool things.

Update: Troy has responded to my post here, and, better still, included a link to his original thoughts on the issue here with screen shots.

The website prepared for Tom’s class had a list of ghost towns on it with a series of links to Troy’s blog. From what I gathered, these links were designed to get students started on Tom’s larger ghost town project. In general, Troy has dedicated his blog to photographs with very short historical sketches of the towns with a bit of census information and some notes about local postal service. Most of this information is available in one way or another on the internet. In many cases former and even current residents of these towns make comments on Troy’s blog. In short, Troy’s blog is one of the best points of departure for research on small places in North Dakota. 

The kerfuffle began when Tom’s class page pointed to Troy’s blog as a point of departure for student research on ghost towns. Apparently, the goal of Tom’s class was to produce a book or part of a book on abandoned places in North Dakota. From what I understand that goal has not been achieved yet so there is no final product. The internet, as this blog is ample evidence for, provides access to process, however, and Troy objected to the process that Tom’s class was using to start their research. And then this all hit Facebook and got pretty exciting for a couple of days. 

This is an interesting problem on two levels. First, it demonstrates two fundamentally different ways of viewing information made available on the web. Troy naturally feels protective of the work he has invested into an impressive resource that he generously made available on the web. I can’t really say for sure what Tom’s motives are, but I suspect they were similar to mine when I created an index to my History 101 class that consisted entirely of links to Wikipedia. If a resource is available on the web, I feel pretty comfortable deploying it for whatever schemes or goals I have in mind. (Tom is a sometime reader of this blog and is known to have a wry smile about many things in life, so maybe he’ll post a comment).  

In fact, much of my academic career has been dedicated to creating resources that I hope other people will do more with than I have. For example, I included a catalogue of over 200 churches in my dissertation, and it is available for free for download via Ohio State’s library catalogue. I fully (and optimistically) expected someone to use my catalogue to produce their own studies of Early Christian basilicas in Greece. In fact, I think the enduring value to my work is probably not the analysis (which will always represent strains of thinking grounded in a particular time and place), but the catalogue, which will hopefully represent a resource for the next generation of scholars. David Pettegrew and I have made available a photographic catalogue of houses at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and our data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus.

From what I understand, and please Troy correct me here, is that Troy objects to his project being used as a sources of data for another similar project. Since the internet provides a kind of transparency of process, he was able to see how another group was using his “data” and object prior to the appearance of a final product that may or may not compete with his work. 

Much of the debate on Facebook centered around matters of etiquette. Troy was particularly put out that Tom did not ask for permission to use his content as a point of departure for his class. I’ve had a few scholars ask for permission to use my dissertation catalogue, but this is hardly necessary.

Perhaps a better point of comparison is that I ask people who read and cite my working papers to ask permission by including in bold across every page: “Do Not Cite Without Author’s Permission.” This is largely because most working papers get updated regularly and a more current copy of a paper might exist or the paper gets published and a more stable citation exists for the same content. I suppose Troy could ask people who want to use his content or link to his page to ask permission, but I am not sure that this would do anything but limit the reach and audience of his work.  

The debate is still simmering on Facebook as I write this post and with any luck Troy and Tom will comment here to clarify their positions. What interests me the most is seeing how the relative transparency of the internet has created new social expectations. I think back to my largely pre-internet graduate school days where certain resources like A.H.M. Jones’ Later Roman Empire (1964) or well-acronymed Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium served as guides for many issues in the Late Antique world. Neither Jones nor Khazdan could know, of course, if we were using their work and its hard to avoid the idea that many recent books and encyclopedias on these topics used the exhaustive efforts of Jones and Khazdan as a guide. I wonder whether Troy would have felt different had Tom used a paper syllabus and assigned copies of Troy’s books as a guide for his class? Would Troy have ever even known?

I also wonder whether the relatively small and tight nit community of scholars interested in North Dakota also played a part in how this particular controversy took place? It seems like Troy was particularly offended that Tom didn’t ask or contact him before linking liberally to his blog. The courtesies, much like waving on a lonely rural road in North Dakota, are the kind of thing that happens regularly in small communities where people know one another and both Tom and Troy live in Fargo. I wonder whether Troy would have felt the same way if Tom was a professor at, say, the University of Texas or University of Queensland in Australia?

Finally, it is interesting that some of the rhetoric (and I’ll ask Troy to clarify this, if he thinks I’m mischaracterizing him in any way) is grounded in the difference in how academics and non-academics see resources made available on the web. As we academics explore small, privately produced collections  on the web (many of which are curated by antiquarians like Troy), we will have to think more carefully about how we use these resources both to respect the significant investment of time and energy that they involved and to transfer their value effectively to an academic context.

I’m reluctant to see either Troy or Tom in the wrong here, but this little controversy (by the standards of the internet) reminds us how far we are from understanding how this media works even after in the 25th year of the World Wide Web Era. 

Contributing to the Media Circus

I’ll admit to being somewhat overwhelmed by the media attention surrounding the excavation of Atari games in the New Mexico desert. At the same time, I couldn’t resist contributing to it.

First, here is an interview I did yesterday that focused on the punk archaeology movement. In the last segment, we talk about the Atari dig.

And here is something the University of North Dakota’s College of Arts and Sciences staff writer put together for their newsletter:

Digging Atari

When the words Atari and archaeology appear together, one usually thinks of such iconic video games as Pitfall! or Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is almost impossible to think of the Atari console itself or games designed for it as archaeological artifacts. At the end of April, however, Prof. Bill Caraher from the Department of History, the Working Group in Digital and New Media, and the global Punk Archaeology Collective, headed to Alamogordo, New Mexico to excavate the famous Atari graveyard from the city’s old landfill.

According to the urban legend, the Atari corporation buried millions of returned, damaged, and even new games in the Alamogordo city landfill to hide massive losses incurred in 1982. The most famous object in this lot was the ill-fated E.T. game which some critics have rated among the worst video game ever. Atari dumped the games in Alamogordo both to hide poor selling, damaged, or returned games from investors, but also because the Alamogordo landfill owners offered company a good deal not far from their El Paso distribution center.

“We landed in El Paso and checked out the completely nondescript building where the games originated. It’s not a box factory, but in the early 1980s it was a distribution center for Atari. It reminded us straight away that culturally significant objects from the late 20th century will not necessarily originate in the hands of crafts people or exotic locales. These are consumer goods, made in anonymous factories, and shipped through boxlike warehouses,” Caraher noted, “We wanted to locate these objects in their social context from the start. These are not exotic.”

For a shockingly large number of retro-video games enthusiasts and nostalgic 40somethings, the games nevertheless had meaning. The 2014 Atari Expedition was an extension of a documentary film directed by Zak Penn which sought to to determine the fate of the Atari burial ground. The documentary is scheduled to appear this year on Microsoft’s Xbox platform. Caraher was part of an archaeological team coordinated by Andrew Reinhard and was joined by Bret Weber from the Department of Social Work, and archaeologist Richard Rothaus (NDSU). They were joined by Raiford Guins from Stony Brook University, one of the foremost video game experts in the world. They spent four days in the New Mexico desert offering archaeological perspectives to the documentary film and recording the finds and excavation process.

“Our goals,” Caraher said, “were somewhat different from the guys making the documentary. We were there to record what was happening in as detailed way as possible. They were there to make a movie.”

For Caraher and Weber, the work in New Mexico was an extension of their interest in the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken. Since 2012, they have co-directed the North Dakota Man Camp Project which explores the material and social environments of North Dakota’s so-called man camps. Like the Atari dig, the NDMCP takes the material culture of the last 30 years seriously as a way to explore social, economic, and political relationships that traditional ethnographic and historical practices over look. Both projects emphasized not only the recent past, but also privileged the production large-scale photographic archives as the primary form of data collection.

“The Atari project was a great opportunity to see the excavation of a landfill which can tell us as much about an American community as the traditional texts of historians. So we were interested in documenting the landfill as much as finding the games,” Caraher said.

The games, however, told another story. While Caraher and the archaeology team will wait for the documentary to appear to disclose all that they found, he can say that the Atari assemblage is unique in the history of archaeology. The rapid pace of life at the end of the 20th century moves objects from pride of place in our house to archaeological contexts at an alarming rate. Just as the oil companies have promised to leave the western North Dakota landscape without a trace, we purge our house of outdated technology and send it to landfills at the edge of town, and bury it away from human sight and memory.

The archaeological recovery of objects cast aside by consumers casts them in a new light and gives them new value. Caraher and the archaeological team were as interested in the way that archaeological excavation transformed these once discarded games into object of desire.

“While most of what we excavated has become property of the city of Alamogordo and the production company, we have worked with city to identify objects from the dig that would communicate the story effectively in a museum context,” Caraher says.

The project also captures some of the spirit of Punk Archaeology. Caraher and Reinhard were key players in the formation of the Global Punk Archaeology Collective and both see the Atari dig as part of that movement. Punk Archaeology emerged as a movement that celebrated the flexible “Do It Yourself” (DIY) spirit flourishing among archaeologists. It also emphasized the process of taking every day objects and placing them in new contexts.

“Punk rockers frequently challenged how we see the world by taking every day objects – like safety pins – and turning them into jewelry or taking perfectly good blue jeans and ripping holes in them. These acts are senseless, but they show how the presentation and use of objects defines their meaning,” Caraher explained.

The Atari E.T. excavation was covered widely in the media and the archaeologists had to work with both documentary filmmakers, who funded the project, and contractors, city officials, and members of the media. The result was a complex web of priorities and activities at the dig site. At times, the archaeologists were excluded from observing excavations because of safety concerns. The landfill was unstable and posed challenges to the massive excavator used to dig over 20 feet below the surface to exhume the games. To make matters more complicated, the entire crew was battered by 40-60 mph winds on the days of excavation that whipped desert sand across the landfill making it nearly impossible to document finds in the field. The production team had their own priorities. At times, they withheld information from the archaeologists to create suspense in the documentary.

His students were particular eager to hear about the dig on his return.

“The students, of course, got the uncensored story, and it provided me with a chance to introduce students to the punk archaeology movement and make them more attuned how our interaction with objects – even mundane ones like Atari games – create value in the world. If I can encourage students to think about how their relationship with objects through the absurd example of the Atari dig, then I think I’ve started to get them to think about their world and how capitalism works in a bit of a different way.”

The scholarly results of the Atari dig will appear over the next year or so while Caraher is on sabbatical, but he has already contributed to an article to appear on the The Atlantic’s webpage and will contribute to an article for Archaeology Magazine as well as more scholarly publications.

“I’ve never worked in an environment like the Atari dig or on material like that which we found in our excavations there. We’re excited to prepare some academic publications that document both the results and our experiences on a project like this.”