Time and Archaeological Legacy Data

With the ASOR annual meeting not even begun, I’m already being gently nudged to think about my paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in January. Fotini Kondyli and Jon Frey have organized a panel on legacy data in archaeology, and according to the abstract that I wrote a few months ago, my paper will talk about flow and how scrutinizing the concept of flow can help us understand the archaeological argumentation and narrative.

Here’s my abstract

The more that I’ve thought about this paper, the more the first couple of lines in the abstract have stuck with me: “The notion of legacy data is an artifact of contemporary digital archaeology. Archaeologists define legacy data as information that is incommensurate with contemporary digital practices and standards.” 

This got me thinking about how legacy data fits into our notions of archaeological time. It seems to me that archaeologists generally have three notions of time in mind when they do their work. They tend to function in slightly different ways and can accommodate each other n varying ways.  

1. Archaeological Time. This is the basic framework for most archaeology. It assumes that the object of archaeological study is in a different time from that of the archaeologist. It allows us to see a past as “the past” and to think about what we do as “objectively” in the sense that it is fundamentally separate from who we are. The division between our time and archaeological time historically has tended to frame our object of study as part of the not-modern or pre-modern world. It’s not just the past, but a past that is distinct enough from the present to represent something discrete and worth studying through archaeological methods.   

2. Methodological Time. Methodological time represents the modern assumption that archaeologists are constantly improving our methods and practices. As a result, the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the present is better than the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the past. The best example of this kind of time is in the name of the SAA’s journal of archaeological methods: Advances in Archaeological Practice. Archaeological science, archaeological methods, and archaeology in general advances to produce a better, clearer, or improved view of the past.

3. Ethical Time. I am still attempting to understand completely what ethical time is an archaeologist. It manifests itself most frequently in debates over the repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists understand, of course, that returning say a Greek or Egyptian artifact to the modern nation of Greece or Egypt does not under any systematic understanding of the word “repatriate” return an object to the same people or state or even cultural entity that existed in the past. We are not returning an object to ancient Greece and in some case, like the Parthenon Marbles, we’re not not even proposing to return an object to the same political entity from which they were taken. This is particularly complicated for debates over the repatriation of artifacts to say, Lebanon, from Turkish museums. In many cases, these objects became part of these collections when Lebanon or Syria were part of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman state no longer exists. At the same time, the post-Ottoman nations of Lebanon and Syria have claims to their pre-Ottoman past in the service of modern nation building and in the construction of narratives that produce a meaningful past to communities living in those areas.

This is a complicated time to understand as an archaeologist and unlike the more or less linear time of archaeological methodologies or the fragmented time, stratigraphic time of the archaeological past, ethical time in archaeology tends to be recursive, spiraling, and grounded in contemporary commemorative practices that many scholars will argue emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a counterpoint to the dour rationality of historical thinking that so often seems to contravene the work of nation building.

(4. Material Time? One could argue that archaeologists are increasingly coming to recognize material time especially as we have come to address the “material turn” in historical and archaeological thinking. This time reflects the varied ways in which material change and how we understand the persistence of particular material as fundamental to shaping the archaeological record. This is different from archaeological time because it recognizes that objects carry with them a multiplicity of times that allow them to exist both in the past and in the present.) 

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Legacy data itself exists at the intersection of methodological and ethic time in archaeology. On the one hand, much of the conversation concerning legacy data – or publishing the results of past archaeological work – is grounded in the ethical assertion that because archaeology is, in some ways, “destructive,” (or perhaps better, involve “recontextualizing” material) we have an obligation to justify the recontextualization of this material through publication. Unpublished material, even if it remains secure in a storeroom, is no different than looted material in that its context is not made understandable. By publishing our work, we recontextualize material and “restore” it to a particular kind of time. This has nice parallels to the work of archaeologists to repatriate finds and restore these objects to a chronological and political context that benefits (generally speaking) a colonized community’s ability to produce a meaningful historical and commemorative narrative for their own society.    

On the other hand, legacy data presents a problem for archaeologists’ sense of methodological time. Because we have tended to see our discipline as always advancing toward new ways of recovering the past and contributing to the present, legacy data is often seen as flawed or, worse still, obsolete. Our field continues to privilege new projects, especially for the career advancement of early career scholars, at the expense of the long and frequently compromised grind of legacy projects.

My work at Polis is a great example of how legacy projects force us to think in three times at once. On the one hand, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition was probably the last major American excavation in the Mediterranean not to employ a stratigraphic system in excavation. Instead they dug in levels and passes which may or may not have been stratigraphic. They also regularly ignored “last in, first out” and had multiple contexts open at the same time. 

It is possible, of course, to restore some sense of stratigraphic control to the excavation because many of the excavators understood the concepts of formation and depositional processes. Moreover a simple application of the rules of superposition still apply allow us to broadly understand that lower levels are earlier than higher levels whenever we can safely assume some kind of controlled of systematic deposition. With a few basic understandings cobbled from the methods of contemporary archaeological work, we can start to reconstruct the past at the site of Polis. 

Moreover, this offers us an ethical way to recontextualize the excavated material at the site. The value of this material is that we can make it speak through contemporary methodological expectations to the past. 

Finally, we might even argue that our work to address the legacy material from Polis has pushed us to think about how various kinds of legacy data exist within their own material worlds. We started with the paper notebooks produced over the course of excavations at the site and the artifacts from the dig dutifully stored in wooden trays and paper boxes. We then converted these artifacts into digital objects in databases which allowed us to recombine them in new ways. We’ve also started to think about how to publish or at very least archive our digital data in ways that ensures that they are more widely available than paper copies of records and artifacts in storerooms. We also anticipate, in some way, that our digital artifacts might last longer than the paper records produced by the site. The time of the varying materials shape our strategies. 

Obviously all these ideas need further refinement and expansion, but there will be time for that…  

Environmental Determinism and Causality in Archaeology

This weekend as I descended into a seasonally appropriate panic about how little I had accomplished, I read the most recent discussion in Archaeological Dialogues on environmental determinism and causality in archaeology. Like most archaeologists, I’ve struggled to understand much less integrate the flood (see what I did there?) of regional and global climate data into the archaeology of particular places in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’ve recently read work by Sturt Manning and Katie Kearns on Cyprus and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, and James Newhard on Anatolia and started to think a tiny bit about environmental data might speak to issues like urban change in Late Antiquity, the nature of insularity, and agricultural and settlement patterns in the Western Argolid.  

Connecting how we understand environmental data to how we produce archaeological arguments pushes us both to think about temporality (and the multiple scales of time that shape archaeological knowledge) and, as the articles in Archaeological Dialogues foreground, causality. There’s a temptation to connect environmental changes to social, economic, and political change in the archaeological record. This, of course, maps on nicely to recent discussions on the impact of climate change in the 21st century. As Bruno Latour and others have suggested, the ancient and modern challenge of associating environmental changes with political changes is that it rests on the dichotomy between the natural and the human. Recent, and to my mind more subtle and thoughtful, work has emphasized the blurred lines between the natural, the social, the political, and the culture. As a result, arguments for causality that see one variable – say climate change – directly transforming another – say political or economic relationships – tend to be problematic. Contemporary commentators, for example, have proposed alternately, that the poor will bear the burden of modern climate change more than the rich; others have suggested that the poor may well be more resilient than the wealthy when faced with ecological and environmental instability. As Amitav Ghosh sagely noted, in the 21st century, the poor are already experiencing the future. This observation nicely complicates the idea of progress that seems to reinforce the linear ideas of causality. 

Joy Williams, Islands, and Time

While on Cyprus this summer, I re-read Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978). Most of the book is set on a mysterious island off, perhaps off the coast of Georgia (but it doesn’t really matter), where Pearl is drawn first by a mysterious man. When he dies a tragic death after they have a son together, she lives out her life on the island in an alcoholic haze. She is surrounded by children who are being raised by her husband’s brother and have largely free rein over the island. In the end, the children and Pearl’s son change and take over the island by reverting to their primordial states. The book is complex, dynamic, and worth reading.

It is also about an island. 

As I think about an island archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus, it’s hard not to think about island in the popular imagination. Jody Gordon’s recent contribution to an island archaeology of Cyprus in a special issue of Land cites Jules Verne’s description of the port at Alexandria as a fictional exemplar of the networked world of ports and islands in the Mediterranean. Williams’ island is the opposite of this. It’s isolated and connected to the mainland (and to the mundane world of reality) by a single boat and a dock almost completely devoid of cosmopolitan bustle.

The isolation of Williams’ island slows and distorts time. The children revert to a beastial, primordial past amid buildings chocked full of artifacts from the days of the island’s founding settler. To make this connection between time and place more clear, the book begins with Pearl drinking gin-and-tonics in a nondescript hotel bar which embodies the character of 20th century non-places as deeply as the island represents a place with its own time, past, and present. 

The leap from Williams’ fictional island to real islands is easy enough. Marshall Sahlins’ Islands of History offers a perspective on how island communities manipulate time and history to understand and construct their world. I don’t have any idea right now how to use these ideas to understand the island archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Re-reading Williams and thinking about my abstract, however, has made me consider that maybe the idea of historical contingency has less to do with a linear concept of archaeological or historical time that exists on island, on mainlands, in texts, and in material culture and more to do with the distinctive flow of time on Cyprus. In other words, maybe island archaeology has more to do with how time (and ultimately history) works on an island and less to do with how islands speak to history and time beyond their shores.  

Continuity and Discontinuity: Rome and Greece

This weekend I read a couple of cool recent articles on Roman Greece: Anna Kouremenos “Ρωμαιοκρατια ≠ Roman Occupation: (Mis)perceptions of the Roman Period in Greece” in Greece and Rome 66.1 (2019) and Sarah James’s “The South Stoa at Corinth: New Evidence and Interpretations” in Hesperia 88.1 (2019).

Kouremenos’s article looks at how museums, in particular, depict the Romaiokratia or the Roman period in Greece and suggests that not only does this run counter to prevailing scholt early attitudes toward the Roman period in the East (and Greece), but it reflects an approach deeply rooted in the Greek national narrative that understands it as yet another imposed discontinuity between the modern and the Classical era. James’s article is more technical and presents the results of her excavations in 2015 beneath a Roman period mosaic floor at the South Stoa at Corinth. These excavations produce more evidence for the dating of the South Stoa as well as the phases of activity in this area more broadly.

The issue of continuity and discontinuity remains a topic of fascination for archaeologists and historians alike. The notion that the Roman period, in some way, marks a break in continuity in Greek history has deep roots in both national narratives of Greek history as well as archaeological narratives that sought to distinguish the Greek from the Roman and inscribe value judgements on the two periods.

Kouremenos’s article demonstrates how this discontinuity has shaped national narratives (and vice versa) where continuity with a pre-national past serves to define the character and potential of the national community. James’s article offers a more detailed and site specific approach. She notes that the Roman period mosaic far from destroying or producing discontinuity with the Greek past of the South Stoa, actually preserved Greek levels beneath it. At the same time, the construction of the South Stoa and the careful layering of floor packing and subfloor preserved evidence for earlier, pre-South Stoa, activity at the site. More than that, James suggested an alternate explanation for what appeared to have been evidence for the burning of the South Stoa during the Roman sack of the city in 146. The blackened roof tiles might have been caused by their proximity to iron nails and water in post-depositional contexts rather than the destructive fire caused by the Romans. 

To be clear, the goal of James’s article was not to argue for continuity or discontinuity on a grand scale but to provide a nuanced analysis of the history of a well-known building using new evidence. At the same time, her work offers a compelling way to think about the interplay between archaeological evidence and historical arguments. The persistence of aspects of the Greek phases of the stoa into the Roman period and the interplay between the Roman mosaic floor’s preservation and the earlier levels beneath are reminiscent of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s interpretation of the relationship between the destroyed and buried “House of the Rising Sun” hotel in New Orleans and a later parking lot. The sinking and relatively uncompacted levels of the destroyed 19th century hotel caused drainage and subsidence problems with the 20th century parking lot. The parking lot and its infamous predecessor might appear offer a model of discontinuity in site function and significance, but the former continued to exert its influence over the latter. In the same way, the interplay between the Roman mosaic floor and earlier construction phases in the South Stoa effectively made the Greek period visible and made possible arguments for continuity between the Greek present and pre-Roman periods. In other words, the Roman past whatever discontinuity it provides narrative of Greek identity plays a key role in this case in allowing those arguments to occur.

Assemblages, broadly construed, do strange things with time. They make both discontinuity and continuity visible and possible. While we tend to define assemblages in archaeology according to depositional context, it is clear at sites like the South Stoa that the sequence and character of deposition is deeply embedded within earlier and later activities at the site. The residual character of earlier period material in the South Stoa assemblages and the role of later periods including the early 20th-century valuation of a Roman mosaic produced conditions in which arguments for time are possible. Whatever distain exists for the Roman period material in the popular Greek imagination, this material often preserves traces of earlier periods. The chronological continuity of archaeological and depositional time (exemplified by the clunky utility of the Harris Matrix) complicates and provides a foundation for cultural arguments for discontinuity. 

Decolonizing Watches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporaneity, Objectivity, and Narrative

Over the last few weeks I’ve been letting my first draft of an article on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation simmer in the back of my head, and it has really benefited from the comments of my colleagues and friends! The article had some problems, including a bit of a weak focus which made it read like I was trying to do and say everything at once. Like a squirrel on a treadmill, I flailed about making a little progress and then being flicked this way and that without much in the way of control or a plan. 

Over the weekend, I was churning the ideas around in my head and realized that one of the problems with this article is that I was struggling to wrap my head around the concept of contemporaneity in archaeology. I suggest that one of the intriguing aspects of working on the Atari excavation is that we were essentially contemporary with the objects that we were excavating. This created an interesting tension between our tendency in archaeology of the contemporary world to de-familiarize the objects of our study and the tendency to recognize that archaeology of the contemporary world should and does speak directly to the personal experiences of the archaeologist. In the Atari excavations this was on display as the excavator ripped through the layers of the landfill to produce a clearly defined stratigraphic context for the Atari games and thereby transforming familiar fragments of our childhood to the unfamiliar status as archaeological artifacts. At the same time, our interest in the games and almost giddy fascination with being on site during this historic dig was tied to our shared experiences with Atari games and this familiarity was shared by the filmmakers who funded and produced the story of the excavations.

Fortunately, there has been some really good work on this over the past decade on the challenge of contemporaneity from smart people: Gavin Lucas, Rodney Harrison, and Michael Shanks. As Gavin Lucas has noted, archaeology developed its current view of the past as being non-contemporary with the present in the 19th century as part of its development of archaeology as a modern discipline and a distinctly modern way of viewing the world. For archaeologist, the study of the past became the study of periods, places, objects, and traditions that are distinct from modernity. Lucas connects this to a parallel development by anthropologists like Edward Tyler who documented traditional folk practices that persisted into the contemporary world and dubbed them “survivals.” Archaeology, in this context, became the study of objects that are in our world, but not of our world. 

Giorgio Buccellati, in a rather different context, referred to archaeology as the study of “broken traditions.” In other words, our unfamiliarity with archaeological artifacts is what allows for the archaeological process to construct meaning. For Buccellati, the first step in resolving this unfamiliarity is distinguishing between the objects emplacement and deposition. The former includes the physical context of an object, its relationship to other archaeological and natural objects and requires careful description. The latter involves the analysis of the object’s emplacement in terms of site formation. In short, the former treats the object as contemporary with the archaeologists, and yet unfamiliar, whereas the latter recognizes the object as part of a broken tradition that requires inference and argument to restore. 

Contemporaneity in archaeology, in various ways, plays a role in our ability to perform archaeological analysis. The contemporaneity of an object allows for us to describe its emplacement in detail, but at the same time, this description produces archaeological knowledge only when the object is part of a broken tradition that renders it outside our contemporary world. Archaeological objectivity, in this context, then, requires this bifurcated view: the object is both familiar and unfamiliar, contemporary and disconnected. 

Archaeology has tended to resolve this tension by appeals to comic modes of emplotment (and here I’m relying on Hayden White’s famous study of history, Metahistory). In comic modes of emplotment, fragmented and disrupted situations find ultimate integration and resolution. We tend to rely on organicist arguments that sees the fragments of the past as generating meaning from their restoration into a larger, more complex, whole (and as a result tends to rely on synechoche as the dominant trope). To be more specific, most archaeological monographs start with some kind of overview of the history, topography, or landscape of the site. They often take into account the contemporary situation of the area or site under study. Describing and analyzing the site involves the “destructive” aspects of archaeological work such as excavation, violent acts of mapping, and even breaking the landscape into pixels, bits, and bytes, but lest we despair that the initial (and contemporary) landscape is lost for good, archaeological monographs almost always conclude with a chapter that restores the fragmented landscape to a new, better, more complete whole.

To return then at the Atari excavation, by understanding the tensions between contemporaneity and narrative, the various ways of seeing the excavation of the Alamogordo landfill come into alignment. The traditional forms of archaeological narration require this tension between the objects presence in our contemporary gaze and a parallel recognition of the broken tradition that defines archaeological practice. These ways of seeing are resolved by appeals to comic forms of emplotment which produces landscapes that restore continuity between the past and present. For the Atari excavations, this involved both the recovery of the Atari games and affirming of the urban legend as well as the offering a sense of closure to the story of Howard Scott Warshall, the designer of the oft-critiqued E.T. game, who, like the lovable alien in the film finds his ways home.

Revenge of the Analog

Over the holiday break, I read David Sax’s Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (Public Affairs 2016). It’s a popular book and Sax is a journalist who write on culture and technologies for a range of periodicals. His book is was intriguing to me not because he has an answer to why there is a persistent interest in the analog (or at least a simulacrum of the analog), but because he identifies a number of seemingly incongruous places where the “analog” practices appear to running counter to the prevailing trends of digital life.

In some ways, his book has parallels with recent popular move toward the “slow moment” as a antidote to the speed of life (and particularly capitalism) in the contemporary world. At the same time, Sax is clear that the analog isn’t a challenge to capitalist practices. In fact, one of his examples in Shinola which is a Detroit based company that specializes in luxury watches, leather goods, bikes, and, now, turn tables (of course). Another example is Moleskine notebooks which he recognizes as both a practical tool for members of the “creative class” as well as deliberately crafted corporate product. While the small time book seller appears in the books pages as does the owner of vinyl pressing factories and entrepreneurs looking to profit on the resurgence of film, these figures aren’t marginal or radical figures looking to scratch out a living at the margins of the global economy, but rather figures who recognize the potential to find profits among communities who embrace technologies and experiences that run counter to prevailing trends in our digitally mediate world.

Sax’s classic example of this is recent resurgence in vinyl records. He looks beyond audiophile arguments for the superior sound of vinyl (which may be valid, but only at price points way beyond the means of the average vinyl record buyer), and considers the rituals associated with the use of vinyl. The removing of a record from its dust cover, the cleaning of the surface, the placing of the stylus on the grooves and the endless fussing with tracking, tone arms, and cartridges. Even the need for separate components and cables and space for the records and the gear involves a spatial commitment to the experience of playing music that goes beyond what is required for digital or streaming music. In other words, the analog, at least for Sax, is physical. Books require bookstores, records encourage record stores and vinyl pressing factories, and film requires bulky manufacturing plants. Sax explores the world of board game cafes, the Detroit based workshop of Shinola watches, and cafes of Milan during fashion week where cognoscenti sip Peronis and sketch notes in their Moleskine notebooks. 

This link between spatiality and the analog while not explicit in Sax’s book got me thinking about my own ill-defined anxieties concerning the growing role of digital practices in archaeology. Increasingly, I have started to recognize that digital practices offer archaeologists ways to de-spatialize both their practices and their objects of study. High resolution digital models, for example, take up virtually no space and can move without particular ceremony or ritual from one computer to the next instantly. The modern digital storeroom is distributed across multiple computers, servers, and disks and is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  The analog, in contrast, whether it’s a physical notebook or an object or a site, is explicitly spatial.

This spatiality gives archaeologists, national governments, and communities a sense of control and command over their objects of study. The analog world described by Sax is one shot through with these moments of control and possession. We can hold a vinyl record, destroy a Moleskine notebook, and watch chemical entropy slowly transform a prized photograph. So perhaps our desire for the analog has more to do with our desire to hold and control and act as physically defined agents in a world increasingly mediated by elusive digital data and technologies and seem to dance just beyond our grasps.

Philip K Dick and Archaeological Futures

I have this mediocre idea of reading a bunch of Philip K Dick and then using it to think about the future of archaeology. Bill Brown’s recently sweeping study of things in literature spurred my interest in Dick’s work and particularly his concern for the relationship between objects and things. Since this reading is for a paper that I am scheduled to give toward the end of November at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in a panel on object biography, I thought that anything I could do to complicate the idea of objects having a biological trajectory through reality would make my paper an interesting contribution. 

This weekend, I made my way through Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959). The main character in the novel lived in a town constructed to appear just as it was in 1959. In fact, he was not aware – at least consciously – that the year was not 1959, but 1998, until he discovered some buried magazines that described events and people with whom he was not familiar and started to discover slips of paper labeling the location of objects in his complex stage-managed surroundings. This provided material evidence that complicated his present by simultaneously providing glimpses of the real 1959 and the construction (literally!) of his own reality and led the main character to question the authenticity of his own surroundings. The tension between the present constructed to accommodate the main character who – as if anticipating the plot of Enders Game – played a newspaper strategy contest daily which allowed the world government to destroy incoming nuclear missiles fired from the moon. The reconstructed 1950s town represented a kind of delusional utopia constructed to manage the main character’s anxiety and the pressures of protecting the world from nuclear catastrophe. Dick’s work creates a tension between the perfect town with its past and the complicated, messy, and dystopian reality of the year 1998 with its real past.

In 200 pages, Dick offers a clever (and untheoretical in his particular way) perspective to the idea that time and things have a uncomplicated relationship. Pasts and presents exists simultaneously and in incompatible ways as archaeology offers glimpses of both unrealized futures (and presents) as well as impossible pasts. For the characters in the Dick novel, time does feel out of joint, but it speaks to a more disjointed experience of reality that archaeology encounters on a regular basis.

Our obsession with chronology and dating, in this context, is about trying to put time back into joint and to putting the world into an order that is recognizable and that makes sense. Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint, challenges us to wonder whether the 1950s town of the main character with its superficial consistency and manufactured is out of joint or the ostensibly more authentic reality of 1998. 

On Booms and Peripheries

In my efforts to revise a recent article for a well-respected journal, one of the peer reviewers suggested that the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota might not fit a traditional definition of a global periphery. Of course, this reviewer is right. When we think about the periphery we think about radically disenfranchised populations, very low levels of local capital, and a cultural and social institutions that are often ill-suited to negotiate on equal footing with  the political, economic, and technological power of the core. After all, the Bakken is part of the United State which is universally regarded as a core. Within the United States, however, we might be willing to regard the Bakken as a peripheral region comparable to Alaska or parts of the desert southwest.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that the idea of global periphery might be increasingly tied to the speed of global capital instead of the location of global capital. It is hard to avoid the conclusions that the state of North Dakota and the communities of the Bakken region have struggled to embrace the opportunities presented by the tremendous concentration of people and capital in this region. Part of that struggle has been the difficulties associated with adapting public (and private) institutions to sudden change. 

Housing provides a good case study for this. The rapid ebb and flow of population and capital in the region outpaces the ability of the housing market to expand and contract without hemorrhaging profits. As a result, housing starts have tended to lag behind the boom in an effort to suss out its trajectory and minimize risk. For individuals who have come to western North Dakota to work in oil and oil related industries, however, the lack of housing means that they need to provide their own accommodations. Readers of this blog know that this has resulted in the growth of workforce housing sites colloquially known as “man camps.” The reluctance of the housing market to accelerate at the same speed as extractive industries has a knock on effect in the region. Communities have found it difficult, if not impossible to provide either long term housing for social service providers, teachers, and law enforcement, or even short term accommodations for state employees with grants to document the boom. State salaries and rates for accommodations lagged far behind the growing cost of living in the Bakken and state officials were slow or just unwilling to risk of action. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the slow response of the state in this region is not simply political but systemic. 

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Housing inventories, salaries, and the actions of state institutions are relatively slow to adapt to the needs to extractive industries. Extractive industries, ever vigilant of the price of commodities, labor, and technology on a global market, have become increasingly able to deploy or withdraw resources on short notice, on a global scale in the pursuit of profit. Their ability to function quickly on a global scale suggests that traditional spatial peripheries are vanishing as particular forms of capital, labor, and technology can now appear in nearly any location around the world. This is a “realtime” manifestation of the increasingly decentered financial markets which depend less managed systems associated with the traditional core, like the New York Stock Exchange, and, instead, operate continuously in distributed, digital worlds. So, if a core does exist, it is not a spatially defined one, but rather a system of links, processes, expectations, and operations that allows one set of resources to outpace others in order.

It is worth contemplating whether the speed of these extractive industries is a response exclusively to the global market for these raw materials or also served as a strategy to avoid potentially costly or complicating entanglements with localized forms of authority. In fact, it seems like the traditional dichotomy of core and periphery has been overtaken by the dichotomy between fast global and the slow local. These two phenomenon are not characterized by their respective spatial extents, but rather by their velocity. 

At the end of last year, Jo Guldi and David Armitage published a slim volume called the History Manifesto. I blogged about it here. The argument that they make is the historians have to once again embrace the challenge of big data to study large-scale, long-term, and often slow moving, phenomena. Clearly they appreciated the global scope of much history in the modern era and the need to develop skills and discourses that accommodates history on an unprecedented scale. As I’ve thought more and more about their book and our work in the Bakken, I’ve wondered whether a history of global phenomenon is possible for our contemporary era. The speed and scope of events like the Bakken boom almost certainly taxes the tools that historians have at their disposal. In fact, historians have largely relied upon physical, spatial structures to focus our research. Even as we have worked to pay increased attention to events at the periphery (and embraced the contingency of the countryside), we’ve continued to rely on the resources of the core to guide our work as the core preserves archives, political texts, and economic data upon which big history can be constructed. With the rapid pace of a globalized work and the decentering of capital, decision making, markets, and data (distributed data!), the historians gaze has to both expand to capture “the ghost in the machine,” but to focus in order to describe sequences of events that occur so quickly as to approach simultaneity. 

A new semester and a new year…

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. And the other stuff:

So it should be a fun semester!!!