Three Things Thursday: Early Christian Greece, Mineral Rites, and Jimmy Carter

I’m taking a real, honest to goodness vacation over the weekend. In fact, I’m going to vacation so hard that I’m not even taking a laptop! I reckon the last time that I vacationed without a laptop was in 2000 or 2001 when I was living in Athens.

To celebrate this unlikely situation, I’m going to offer a very short Three Things Thursday:

Thing the First

It’s pretty rare that I get genuinely excited about a new archaeological discovery and even less frequently that I get really excited about a discovery in the Late Antique Peloponnesus, but I was genuinely thrilled after reading Nikos Tsivikis’s recent article in the Journal of Epigraphical Studies 4 (2022), 175-197, titled “Christian inscriptions from a third and fourth-century house church at Messene (Peloponnese).” You can download it here.

This article provides some pretty solid evidence for a late-third century house church that continued in use into the fourth century. Tsiviki’s argument is grounded in both epigraphy and excavation evidence although the levels are primarily dated on the basis of numismatic evidence. The building is a modified urban villa in the city of Messenia and the inscriptions record the presence of a reader and then a bishop who provided a mosaic for the modified room.

Of course, textual evidence tells us that there were Christian communities in Greece from the first century AD, but archaeological evidence for pre-Constantinean Christianity in Greece has been pretty thin on the ground and comprised mostly of wishful thinking. In fact, there’s precious little indisputable material evidence for fourth century Christianity in Greece. This building will change that and provide the first archaeologically secure (at least to my knowledge) evidence for third (perhaps optimistically) or early fourth century (almost certainly) Christianity in southern Greece. This is exciting.

Thing the Second

I’ve been enjoying Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy (Baltimore 2019). I’m not finished the book, but I appreciate his efforts to trace the significance of the fossil economy from the oil fields to the hot yoga studio. His efforts to demonstrate the deep entanglement of fossil fuels and our modern world is perhaps not entirely unexpected, but Johnson offers very readable and highly “textured” (to use a word from the book’s blurb) descriptions of how fossil fuels shape our daily lives. Johnson weaves fossil fuels into the story of the Titanic, various efforts to understand the human equivalency of fossil fuel energy, and a brilliant comparative chapter that considers the difference between Lewis and Clark’s journey and our modern road system. I’m still working my way through his study of the reality TV series Coal and the modern novel.    

Years ago, my buddy and collaborator Bret Weber suggested that we write a paper or an essay that tracked a drop of oil from the well to the atmosphere. Because I’m kind of a jerk, I rolled my eyes and said something jerk-ish about that idea. Years later and after giving it more and more thought, I think it’s really brilliant. In fact, I think Johnson’s book provides an appealing model for how the life of that “drop” of oil could be traced through our system and how much “life” it provides.

Thing the Third

There are a couple cool things from North Dakota Quarterly this week. First, I’ve posted over on the NDQ a poem by David Starkey which will appear in a forthcoming collection from the author. It’s a pretty nice little poem that features a cigarette as a prop. As I say in my post, I like poems that feature things.

There’s also this blog post about the time that NDQ published some of Jimmy Carter’s poetry. For some reason the pages of this issue were scanned or processed out of order so you have to scroll back from the first page, but do check out Lane Chasek’s post here and follow his link to NDQ 60.1 where we feature four of Carter’s poems. Then scroll backward from the first poem to read the three others.

At 50: Fun at 50

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about Collaborating”, on Tuesday being Slow at 50 and on Monday, Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to how Ive been thinking about fun at 50.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the things I do to unwind, relax, and even (GASP) have fun. To be honest, I’m not very good at having fun and even worse an unwinding and relaxing. 

That said, I do recognize that finding a better balance between work and not-work is important for both my sanity and my health, and I have started to exercise more consistently and even take some time away from my laptop and phone. My effort to find ways to unwind has pushed me to think more about what it is that I actually like to do.

Reflecting on this kind of thing isn’t entirely natural for me. Part of the reason is that I get myself all twisted up when I thing about the what kinds of things are appropriate to enjoy in my sixth decade and what kinds of experiences are best left behind. For example, over the last four years or so, I’ve rediscovered my love for the sweet science. This restored interest has prompted a certain amount of soul searching, of course. I still do like sports — from college and professional football to the NBA and Phillies baseball, NASCAR and Formula 1, and, of course cricket — but I’m equally aware the sports are fraught and their entertainment value comes at a social and ethical cost.

I know many people love to travel, but over the last few years I’ve grown increasing anxious as a traveler and tourist. In fact, I’ve found that the stress of traveling has wrung a good bit of pleasure from seeing different places and having new experiences. To be honest, I find that my general anxiety about new experiences more broadly has made me pretty content to travel well trod paths. And absent any pressing professional or personal obligations, I’m generally happy to stay at home. 

The COVID pandemic has, of course, cast a harsh light on the risks associated with traveling as well as various kinds of social gatherings. It is clear that COVID is with us for the long-haul despite a global eagerness to relax mask mandates and other policies designed to slow the spread of the disease. Thus, occasions that involve the gathering of people will remain fraught from individuals who have compromised immune systems or who feel constrained for political, religious, or cultural reasons to remain unvaccinated or unmasked. Air travel, for example, for anything but significant professional or personal reasons in these circumstances feels inappropriate or requires us to make compromises that involve jeopardizing the health and even lives of others. Of course, even something as simple as going to a restaurant or attending a ballgame or concert involves similar risks. This doesn’t even consider the environmental, economic, and political costs associated with travel and many forms of collective recreation. In short, we live in a world where our professional and personal lives are bound up with certain forms of privilege that find often expression in how we perform non-work activities.

I realize, of course, that not all forms of non-work activities necessarily involve invoking these forms of privilege. A quiet walk, watching the sun rise, a brisk bike ride, or even an afternoon on the front porch can provide an opportunity to slow down and recover from the hectic pace of life. But many of the popular examples of “experiences” that we are so eagerly sold in the media are ethically fraught on many levels.

I suppose as we get older, confronting this kind of moral and ethical calculus is unavoidable and it may just be that I’m being a contrarian, but I’ve become increasingly tired of the calls to celebrate experiences over other forms of dispersing capital in the name of relaxation or fun. In particular, there seems to be an argument that opposes experiences to things as the best way to realize our non-work aspirations. 

Maybe it’s the archaeologist in me, but recently I have come to the conclusion that I simply prefer things to experiences. A nice mechanical watch, a piece of stereo equipment, a decent or interesting car, a reliable bike, and even something as anachronistic a compact disk, brings me far more joy than a trip, a live concert, or even a good meal. Things, of course, are not free from many similar moral hazards as experiences, but I feel like the persistent specter of COVID has pushed us to consider the privileges associated with collective and shared experiences.

For me, then, the aesthetic joy that comes from holding a well-designed and ethically-manufactured watch (which needn’t be particularly expensive) brings me greater pleasure than travel. Listening to music on my stereo with a beer at home relaxes me more than the unfamiliar bustle of a concert. Driving onto campus in my completely unnecessary diesel pick-em-up truck which a crime against the environment (but I’d contend more a misdemeanor than a felony) is more fun for me than navigating a crowded restaurant or bar.

More than that, many of the things which I’ve come to treasure will move on after I’m gone (well, probably not my diesel truck) and I like to think that they carry with them some of the joy that they brought me. While I don’t think this kind of sequential and diachronic community can entirely replace the synchronic experiences of collective experience, but the very idea of it does make me feel part of something with just a little less risk in these complicated and morally fraught times.  

Teaching Thursday: Teaching Things

Next semester, I’m teaching a graduate course in the English Department on “things.” I haven’t taught a full-blown graduate class for close to a decade. It’ll also be an adventure because I actually don’t know any of the students in the class and I’m even less familiar with what they might know or what to talk about! 

I also have to admit that the class is a bit half-baked. It was based originally on a couple of chapters from the book that I’m currently revising on the archaeology of the contemporary world, but as I started to put my syllabus together things pretty quickly got out of control. 

The final syllabus will include some supplemental reading for each week and, of course, some information on assignments and the like. I’ll blog more about this next week, perhaps, but I’m going to try to make this class as open ended as possible in terms of class time, writing, and outcomes. 

For now, here is the “core” reading list. I’ll share the full syllabus when it’s done sometime next week.

Week 1: Thinking with Things
https://www.everythingisalive.com/

Week 2: Introduction to Things
Chapters from my book.
Hicks, Dan and Mary C. Beaudry, “Introduction: the place of historical archaeology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, eds. Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry, 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Week 3: Things and Literature
Tim Jelfs, The Argument about Things in the 1980s: Goods and Garbage in the Age of Neoliberalism. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018.

Week 4: Things in Thought
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke 2010.

Week 5: Things and Agency
Bruno Latour, Aramis or The Love of Technology. Translated by Catherine Porter. Harvard 1996.
Severin Fowles, “The perfect subject (postcolonial object studies)” Journal of Material Culture 21.1 (2016), 9-27.

Week 6: Consuming Things
Daniel Miller, Stuff. Wiley 2010.

Week 7: Things and Archaeology

Bjørnar Olsen, In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. Lanham: Altamira, 2010.

Week 8: Nature

Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Anthropology Beyond the Human. California 2013

Week 9: Things and History

Timothy LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2017

Week 10: Religion and Things
Maia Kotrosits, The Lives of Objects: Material Culture, Experience, and the Real in the History of Early Christianity. Chicago 2020.
Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe, “Introduction” in Sauer and Bledsoe (eds.), The Materiality of Middle English Anchoritic Devotion. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press 2021.

Week 11: Media Things
Jussi Parikka, The Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
William Basinski, Disintegration Loops: https://youtu.be/Ha6LtRkqMpk

Week 12: Broken Things and Ruins
Shannon Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago 2013

Week 13: Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s Gum. Faber & Faber 2021.

Week 14: Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re.Press 2008.

Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

Thing the Second

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

Three Things Thursday: Roads, Books, and Things

Thing the First

Last week, I read a rather well executed article by Alvise Matessi titled “The ways of an empire: Continuity and change of route landscapes across the Taurus during the Hittite Period (ca. 1650–1200 BCE)” in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 62 (2021).

The article does exactly what it says in the title: it analyzes the routes through the Taurus mountains during the Hittite period. The method is as (relatively) simple as it is compelling. The author generated Least Cost Corridors through the area on the basis 90 m DEMs and compared these corridors to the location of Hittite settlements and landmarks. While I’m not terribly interested in his conclusions per se, this approach struck an intriguing balance between the presence of longer term routes through the region (defined in large part by topography) and short term shifts within these larger patterns. 

My colleague and collaborator Dimitri Nakassis sent this along to me with the intent to get us thinking a bit about how patterns of movement across the Western Argolid reflect a similar tension between longer term routes through the region and more narrowly historically defined variation that might be visible at the scale of our intensive survey. In fact, an article on settlement and the Early Modern road network in the region that we published earlier this year offered a nice, if less sophisticated, example of how two different patterns of movement across the region intersected. The main corridor through our survey area followed the route of the Inachos River, but at various periods other routes including those that crisscross the region perpendicular to the river’s path, were significant and remain visible in organization of settlements in the Western Argolid     

Thing the Second

I’m starting to pull together my annual summer reading list. This list is mainly aspirational (at best) and at worst hangs over my head all summer (an into the fall) as as a reminder of my lack of discipline.

Right now, I’m trying to develop the part of my summer list that will deal with the music and context of Sun Ra. It’s for a post-book project that’s just starting to simmer. This weekend, for example, I started to read Anthony Reed’s Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021) which is a challenging read (and vaguely reminds me of my buddy Paul Worley’s Telling and Being Told (Arizona 2013)  which focuses on orality and performances in Mayan literature), but it evokes many of the artists and musicians that I want to understand better. I’m also eager to tuck into William Site’s new book Sun Ra’s Chicago (Chicago 2020) which I hope will expand my understanding of Ra’s early career and formative influences in that city.

To balance these more recent books, I also plan to read some classic works that unpack the history of jazz (especially the kind of avant-garde creative music with which Sun Ra has been associated). I’m familiar with works like Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra and Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (Texas 2016), but I need to familiarize myself with works like Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke 1999) which is a bit of a touchstone for later scholars working both Sun Ra and jazz. 

Along similar lines, I need to read a bit more seriously on Afrocentrism, particularly in a mid-century American context. I have Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verson 1999) on my “to read” shelf  as well as Wilson Moses’s Afrotopia: the Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge  1998), Clarence E. Walker’s We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (Oxford 2001), and Algernon Austin’s Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century (NYU 2006). 

At the risk of a bad pun, I’m jazzed!

Thing the Third

The final thing is about things. This weekend, I aim to retire my long-serving MacBook Pro laptop. There was a time when I upgraded computers every year or so and this prevented me from developing much of a sentimental attachment to chunks of plastic, silicon, glass, and aluminum. This laptop, however, has served me well for almost five years. In fact, it’ll serve out the rest of its day doing light-duty file serving and storage. 

Last year, I traded in my beloved 2004 F150 for a newer truck. It’s a cliche to say this, but it happened so fast. One day, the truck and I were inseparable, and the next, it was sitting in the back lot of a car dealer.

I know its crazy to assume that things have feelings, but I also think a good bit about how our long term attachment to things like cars, laptops, watches, and homes creates an attachment that is both irrational and real.

How should I retire my laptop? Or trade in a beloved truck? Or gently allow a treasured watch to fall out of my weekly rotation? 

Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony or moment recognizing the bond and at least allowing for the slimmest possibility that the connection between a thing and myself is mutual?  

Waste Siege

This weekend, I read Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s recent book Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (2020). It’s a pretty remarkable book that documents the role of waste in the life of Palestinians and the role that it plays in the way various authorities exert power in Palestinian territories. Her work is based on years of ethnographic work in Palestine where she got to know people from all walks of life, social positions, and responsibilities and situates their experiences at the intersection of the growing field of discard studies and the anthropology of infrastructure. Because this is at the periphery of what I study, I can’t really offer a thorough or critical review of the book, but I found so much of it useful to think with, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least highlight a few areas where Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s approach influenced stimulated my own thinking.

1. Waste and Violence. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the book was Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s argument that the control over waste constituted a key element in the political relationship between Palestine and Israel. While I had understood superficially the complex network of jurisdictions that made up Palestinian territory, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrated the way that various authorities tasked with managing and governing these jurisdictions used the flow of waste – from waste water to construction waste and household trash – to exert control over the lives of Palestinians living there. Not only does Israel prohibit the exporting of most waste from Palestinian Territories, but they also control in many cases the development of infrastructure designed to handle waste effectively. This level of control over the movement and flow of waste informs the the richly detailed case studies presented in the book which consider both macro level issues, such as the complexities associated with efforts to build waste-water treatment plants and landfills, and personal issues such as the impact of construction debris which cannot be removed from isolated settlements on the lives of residents. True to its title, Stamatopoulou-Robbins makes a compelling argument that the control over waste (as well as its attendant infrastructure) represents a major aspect of Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians.   

2. Waste and Value. One of the most interesting aspect of Waste Siege was that despite the overtly political aspects of the control over waste in Palestine, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrates that Palestinians nevertheless continued to exert agency in certain aspects of how they deal with waste. For example, she documents the role of rabish, used goods imported (and often smuggled) into Palestine from Israel and re-sold, in Palestinian consumer culture. While Palestinians continue to value the practice of shopping and acquiring new things as a way to shape their identities, the perception (and to some extent, reality) that most of the new goods available to Palestinians are of suspect quality hangs as a specter over their consumer culture. Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues that because Palestine cannot control its imports, that poor quality goods (often associated with China) are dumped on Palestinian consumers. In contrast, Israeli control over their own ports and import processes appears to ensure that Israeli consumers have access to better quality goods. Whether this is true or not (and it is clearly more complex than this simple summary implies), it adds value to rabish goods imported from Israel despite a persistent cultural bias against buying used things and a distaste for purchasing goods cast off by Israelis.

Stamatopoulou-Robbins also explores the prohibition against discarding bread which Muslim and Christian Palestinians consider a religious offense. This results in bags of bread being tied to the outside of trash tips and any other convenient, semi-public place from fences to window grates and tree branches. By doing this, Palestinians make the discarded bread available for the needy or anyone else who might have a use for it. At the same time, it is clear that the supply of discarded bread exceeds the need for it and this results in any number of subtle ways through which bread enters the waste stream.

3. Waste and the Environment. Stamatopoulou-Robbins is likewise compelling when she discusses the role of solid waste treatment and the politics of the environment in Palestine. Because Israel has made it very difficult for Palestinian authorities to develop their own waste treatment infrastructure, they either dispose of waste and waste water in the ground, which threatens what water table, or release it toward Israel in surface flows which prevents Palestinians from reclaiming and reusing waste water for agriculture. Israel’s control over the fresh water infrastructure, including prohibiting wells in much of the territory controlled by Palestinian authorities, means that Palestinians must rely on Israel for water, but the lack of adequate sewage treatment (and persistent barriers to its development among the overlapping and competing jurisdictions present in Palestinian Territories) means that their practices nevertheless influence access to clean water in the region. The balance between using the flow of waste as a source of control (and even resources) and the need to protect access to fresh water for Israelis and Palestinians alike has nudged both sides toward efforts to create infrastructure the accommodates the realities of the environment. This kind of negotiation offers a particularly tangible example of how infrastructure and the environment function as agents in political negotiations and complicates the how the waste siege impacts both communities.

The observations that I offer here only scratches the surface of this nuanced and sophisticated book and probably doesn’t do Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s research or the wider body of literature that she engages justice. At the same time, having dipped my toes into discard studies in some of my own work, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than Waste Siege. Check it out!

Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life. 

Three Things Thursday

Thursday mornings have become exceedingly hectic with me teaching a class in old Montgomery Hall at 8 am and it also being the customary day for NDQ to post its weekly blog.

That being said, I always can find time for a few things on a Thursday morning.

Thing One

One of the coolest things about Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is its impressive vaulted plaster and wood framed ceiling. The vaulted ceiling stood two storeys about the dining room in the original configuration of Montgomery Hall and when this room became the main reading room on campus, it conveyed a certain monumentality to the space.

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 14 39

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 16 14

Today, the acoustic tiles obscure the ceiling and a floor level divides the open expanse of the reading room and the dining hall. It nevertheless peaks through in places.

IMG 4642

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Thing Two

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m assigning something that I wrote for a class. Needless to say, I’m nervous. When I first got to UND, the university was preparing to celebrate its 125thaversary (which they oddly called something like there quinquasexatecentennial or some such pretentious nonsense). At this time, a decree went out from the President of the university that all the world … or every department should update their history. I offered to write the history of our department and now, after years of sort of hiding from it, I’m asking students to download and read two chapters to understand the early history of our program.

You can read it here, if you’d like, and I think that the early history of history at UND is pretty interesting. It speaks not only to the emergence of history as a professional discipline outside of the major universities (Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ivy League) as well as the first efforts to study the history of the state of North Dakota in the early 20th century and the organization of archives and seminars on the history of the state. It also gives an idea of how professors negotiated their place among the small town bourgeois of Grand Forks.

Thing Three

I really want to talk about some projects and make some updates concerning The Digital Press, but nothing is quite ready to announce. For example, Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018 is in page proofs.
Sebastian Heath’s DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean is almost through layout. Derek Counts, Erin Averett, and Kevin Gartski’s Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3D Models is in final pre-production review and will go to the copy editor this spring. Rebecca Seifried and Deb Brown’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is back from positive peer reviews and out to authors for revisions.

I’d love to announce a new collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly that involves two translated books which will appear under a new imprint (possibly something like the North Dakota Quarterly Press).

I’m also dying to talk about Sun Ra.

But nothing is ready to announce yet, but stay tuned. Stuff is in the works and I hope people will like it.

Three Things Thursday: Digital Stuff, Underworld, NDQ

It’s been one of those weeks where nothing seems to get traction. From Monday at the keyboard to Tuesday in the classroom, Wednesday amidst articles and books, and now it’s Thursday and I have so very little to show for it. 

As a result, I’m back to doing another Three Things Thursday, which I suppose are fine for what they are, but aren’t really the kind of blog posts that I like to write. They’re just stuff, but I guess when life gives you stuff, make a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed reading Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Glenn Wharton “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility” in Public Culture 32.1 (2020), 215-245. You can read it here.

Rubio and Wharton explore the challenges associated with born-digital art. These range from questions about what exactly a museum acquires when they acquire a piece of digital art. What constitutes their exclusive rights to a work of art? The files? The technology? The hardware? And how do these exclusive rights intersect with other rights expressed by hardware, software, and even other content makers? 

More complicated still is how to preserve a work of digital art. What constitutes preservation when even updating the format of a work so that it’ll continue to function as intended constitutes changing the underlying code as well as the media in which a work is displayed or experienced (think about the demise of CRT televisions or the improvements in video projectors, the capacity to playback uncompressed audio and the like). 

Obviously this article summarizes a bunch of scholarship and they’re not the first to observe this, but, on the other hand, it’s a great piece that has implications for how we think about archaeogaming, media archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m going to check out Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (Chicago 2020) this spring.

Thing the Second

I have to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It’s super long (800+) pages and its reputation makes it pretty intimidating and I have to admit that my motivation to read it is as much because I should read it as because it will add any particular nuance to what I’m working on. 

To be more clear, Underworld is situated at the intersection of the American West, garbage, and critiques of consumer culture. My current delusion is to just commit myself to reading this book over a single week. In part, because I need a break from the grind of writing right now. I’ve been working on a chapter for the last month and for some reason writing is feels like it’s making me think deeper and deeper into my own way of thinking (rather than helping me expand how I understand something).

I also need to re-read (or finish reading) Mike Davis’s City of Quartz which is also a bit longer than I usually like to read. Retraining myself to understand the American West is hard, and for whatever reason, it’s taken my a long time to realize the writing the kind of cultural history that I want to write will involve reading broadly as well as deeply. When writing makes me sink deeper into narrow ways of thinking, I’m going to have pull back from writing to read to make sure that I don’t get too sucked into the murk of my own way of thinking. 

Thing the Third

More reading, but this isn’t as daunting. Today I posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a short story by Jim Sallis called “Scientific Method.” You should go and check it out. It’s less than 1500 words. 

What’s cool to me (being a total novice to editing a literary journal) is Sallis was first published in NDQ in 1983 and then in 1985 and in the 1990s. His essay “Making up America” from 1993 is really great too (and connects to my efforts to think about the archaeology of the contemporary American West). You can read on his site or from the NDQ archive:  “Making up America.” 

I’ve added Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels to my summer reading list. There’s something comforting about noir.

Ephemera

I’ve been thinking a good bit about ephemera lately and how to distinguish between things that should be kept and cherished and things that have value in the moment, but there’s no particular reason to keep them in our lives and world. I always think of newspapers and magazines as ephemera. They are useful to read on a lazy Sunday, but are best kept (and slowly altered and recombined and sifted) in our memories than on the end table in the living room or in a stack near the most comfortable chair in the house.

A few things promoted me to think about the ephemeral.

First, one my goals for North Dakota Quarterly was to make the entire run of the journal available on various online platforms. The idea is that people could delve back into the Quarterly and find overlooked gems or return to reflect on an essay or story. To that end, I’ve linked to a bunch of the NDQ archive online and made it available via the HathiTrust, the archives has seen a good flow of traffic, which is heartening, but only about 5% of the visitors click through. 

One of the things that I’ve come to realize about little magazines is that they have an ephemeral quality to them. The desire among some members of my editorial board to produce NDQ in paper was grounded not in the persistence of the medium, but, in someways, in its ephemerality, in parallel with magazines and newspapers, compared to the easy persistence of digital formats. 

Second, I read a few posts lately about the carbon footprint of websites and the emerging low-tech green web. I’ve toyed with the idea refashioning my blog as a static site. This is partly because static sites are lightweight, quick to load, and widely compatible with even the most simple devices and use less energy. I also wonder whether I a very lightweight static site would complement a version of my blog where I produce a single post per day and that post to overwrites the previous days post. This would create a more ephemeral quality to my web writing. The ideas and text would be accessible for a day and then vanish (or move onto a more permanent home in an article or a conference paper or something else).  

An experiment like this would both be liberating for me (as I could be more provocative when I am less worried about the archive of my site being easily accessible forever), but I also could write more in the moment with less responsibility to trace some kind of coherent arc of thought.

Less selfishly, it would also celebrate the vibrancy of media ephemerality not as producing idea that don’t persist, but as a way to create ideas that only persist within the person who reads them and are not burdened by reference to a particular text. 

Finally, I started think more about the tension between possessions and things. The idea that we possess a thing implies its persistence. An embrace of the ephemeral, on the other hand, privileges the momentary utility of an object. As various popular voices have urged us to minimize our possessions and maintain a trim and tidy personal space, it seems to me that they’ve drawn greater attention to the value of ephemeral objects that are useful and then passed on or discarded once they’ve served their immediate purpose. On the one hand, this might create a world where there are fewer things encroaching on our space. On the other hand, personal austerity rarely is possible without access to a wide range of services and objects that are ready to use, but also at arm’s length. Useful and ephemeral things appear in our lives and disappear back into the margins when their purpose is fulfilled. (I’ve argued, playfully, that pickup trucks are like that. Despite being a symbol of bourgeois excess, they are often useful, and truck owners often share their vehicles with a community of friends and neighbors who, for various reasons, do not want to burdens of truck ownership.)