Three Things Thursday: Fragments of the Future

An old friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t writing so much any more because writing with an act that assumed a future and he no long assumed that there was a future. At around the time he said this, he left academia and he and his partner left town. The entire sequence of events was not only depressing, but also convinced me that he was much smarter than I and academia (and our community) was going to be much the poorer for his and his partner’s departure. I really don’t know whether he writes any more and I’ve been a bit too nervous to ask.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the future. This summer, for example, I read (well, ok, I listened to) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020) and wrote about it here. I’ve been thinking a bit, on and off, about Afrofuturism and about how archaeology of the present exists in the space between a recognizable past and an anticipated future.

In the spirit of this musing, I offer three little fragments of the archaeology of the future here:

Fragment the First

One of the most interesting things about Sun Ra is his willingness to conflate the past and the future. For Ra this was a response to the excitement of the post-War moment when the potential of new forms of social and economic mobility met the dawning of the Space Age. At the same time, Ra understood that traditional forces in American society would continuously undermine and challenge whether Black people would have access to this new future.

This ambivalent attitude toward the future required Ra to both break with the traditional view of the Black past anchored as it was in their experiences of enslavement and legal, social, political, and economic marginalization. In the place of these experiences Ra imagined new pasts for Black people. He embrace of a wide range of Afrocentrist perspectives on the past allowed him to imagine Africa, and Egypt in particular, as the new foundation for both contemporary and future Black unity and power. His willingness to construct a new past that would allow Black people full access to a Space Age future may well represent an early and significant example of Laurent Olivier’s notion of presentism. For Olivier, presentism represents a view of the present that is no longer linear and is, therefore, no longer the product of the past. The break between the present and the past likewise allowed for the future to drift untethered from current existence. For Sun Ra this makes the future the domain of the impossible. Rationality, progress, and modes of change anchored in evolutionary or developmental ways of thinking no longer point toward a better reality in the future. This required a rewriting of the past and a reimagining of the present in ways that would support a future that could operate either outside the conventional limits of historical causality or despite these limits. The future because the space of the impossible.

Fragment the Second  

This week, while waiting for an evening meeting to start, I read a bit of Rebecca Bryant’s and Daniel M. Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future (2019) which has one fo the most accessible and compelling introductions to the growing interest in the future in the humanities and social sciences. Plus, both scholars have done work in the Mediterranean (Bryant on Cyprus and in Turkey and Knight in Greece). 

The motivation to explore an anthropology (history, archaeology, or sociology) of the future stems largely from the tensions between two attitudes toward the future. On the one hand, we hope that we are in a “late stage” of capitalism, nationalism, or modernism and that the next stage will somehow redeem the horrors that the main stage wrought (massive, global inequality, wars, and technologies with almost infinite capacity to destroy). On the other hand, we are increasingly come to realize that the paradigms established to take care of the future have made it difficult to imagine our way out of the looming existential crises fired by climate change, catastrophic inequality, and a limitless capacity for apocalyptic violence. In this context, there is a growing feeling that the future is foreclosed and that humanity or at least human society will invariably continue to amble toward its ultimate demise. 

It is hard to know what this means for disciplines like history and archaeology which perhaps emphasize the present as a lens through which to view the past more than the future. The 2019 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology offers a few visions of what an archaeology of the future could be, and as much as I like the articles there, I wonder whether we are open enough to new intellectual or discursive tools necessary to imagine a future that is increasingly impossible?

Fragment the Third

Yesterday on a boring treadmill run, I started the read Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (2021). I’ve made it through the first chapter and it’s beautiful and haunting. I will resist the temptation to try to talk about the book already (especially since Williams has a seemingly limitless capacity to surprise), but I will say that there is something profoundly archaeological about the book. Williams interest in things, places, and landscapes, her attention to entropy and site formation, and her ability to think about how the present will appear from the vantage point of a dystopian, but more or less banal near future. 

At this point, I’m not sure whether the richly drawn setting for the story is merely a backdrop or whether it will serve as a character, but I’m intrigued and excited enough to move this book, delicately, from the “read for fun” to the “read for work” list. 

In short, stay tuned and I look forward to blogging about this book (and others) in the future.

Time and COVID (part 3)

A few months ago, I wrote a pair of posts on time and COVID. I reflected on the way in which working from home, not traveling to conferences, and being away from research sites has shaped our daily and professional realities. I also considered how the lag between COVID tests and their results created a kind of blurry present in which the situation, informed by empirical, scientific evidence, lagged slightly behind our daily experience. 

Today, some 10 months after those first two posts, I want to write a bit about how COVID has shaped my experience of time in another way. (This is absolutely influenced by my reading of Gavin Lucas’s Making Time: The Archaeology of Time Revisited (2021) this weekend.) 

This weekend, I was on a phone call with family members and I found myself uncontrollably impatient. The phone call was wandering from the point, people on the call were thinking out loud, and I was having trouble understanding whether this conversation would have any “actionable” results and what they could be. Needless to say, this did not make the conversation very enjoyable.

If this was the only time that I felt this impatience, I’d be willing to chalk it up to sibling relations which probably encourage all of us to regress a bit to our childhood roles. It’s not. At a faculty meeting a few weeks before I also felt impatient with my colleagues for no particular reason. The meeting was reasonable well run and no one was really wasting time. In fact, we had a pleasantly uncluttered agenda which gave us time to discuss some more complicated issues in a relaxed way. This is an opportunity that is all too rare in our department where we tend to be efficient to a fault. These two recent incidents have only reinforced a general feeling of impatience and of heightened time awareness.

To be transparent, I tend to be someone who is prone to a kind of exaggerated awareness of time. I collect watches, for example, and almost compulsively check the time on my computer screen, phone, and watch. I regularly note the time it takes to complete daily tasks from walking the dogs to my regular jogs, my drive to campus, and my writing and reading. Each book has a time per page rate that I note as I read and adjust over the first 20 to 50 pages to a representative average. I monitor carefully — almost compulsively— how long it takes me to grade a paper and then create a kind of rolling average that helps me understand how long grading midterms, for example, will take. I tend to be punctual and I like to do most tasks on time.

That said, I have always been able to control my fixation on time and relax into the moment during meetings, conversations, and various social encounters. Why was my control suddenly slipping?

It occurred to me that by working from home, the rhythm of work had increasingly intruded into the rhythm of non work. This isn’t the same as saying that work itself had intruded into non-working time or space. I feel like I’ve been able to manage my work/non-work balance fairly effectively during COVID (or as effectively as I ever have). Instead, what I’ve been encountering is the structure of work time invading the structure of non work time. 

It is easy enough to blame this on things like Zoom. On Zoom the meeting tends to start when the meeting starts and conclude when the meeting is over. In most meetings, even very efficiently run ones, there are opportunities for casual chit-chat or banter before and after the agenda. In my experience, most Zoom meetings lack the fuzzy starts and fuzzy ends because genuine social interaction via Zoom is stilted and uncomfortable. It’s hard to talk to the person “next to you” and inquire about their weekend or semester without it becoming the public epicenter of conversation. As a result, meetings get right to business and conclude when the agenda is over.

Efforts to use Zoom for more social get togethers was kind of fun at first, but then quickly disappointing. The time limits on non-institutional Zoom accounts meant that most social get togethers were “on the clock” and that was mostly for the best as the interactions often were just stilted and weird. These social uses of Zoom, however, did reinforce the structure of Zoom time, however.

The tendency to work from home invariably has led to work related activities, whether teaching or meetings or other scheduled things, abutting home time more directly. For example, I’ve been more and more willing to attend meetings on the weekends, not because I want my weekend interrupted by a Zoom call, but because for me weekends are a conveniently unstructured space that can easily accommodate an hour meeting (especially if it’s for something that I care about rather than a professional obligation). On a weekdays, I’ve noticed that the buffers offered by a commute or other transitional rituals have contracted or became unnecessary or inaccessible. As a result, the increasingly punctual routine of online professional interaction started, invariably, to structure non-work related activities as well. I realize that this might have been the pre-COVID reality for people who live busier lives than I do, but I only encountered this changing rhythm when the structure of my online COVID professional life inserted itself into the space of my non-work life. I suspect this has partly made me feel increasingly growing impatience with things that do not follow a well-ordered agenda. 

I wonder whether other people have felt like their sense of time has changed during COVID. Have other people felt like our days have become more relentlessly structure and activities previously allowed to wander have now become increasingly determined by the insistent arrival of scheduled events?

Has the ambiguity surrounding our present (exaggerated by the time lag between COVID test results and our face-to-face interactions and collective sense of security) led us to retake control by exerting more and more rigid schedules on our days? Perhaps this is also intensified by a sense of the future which seems shaped by the ebb and flow of the pandemic, the infection rate of COVID variants, and the effectiveness of vaccines, boosters, and social policies designed to mitigate its impact. As our sense of the present and future become blurry, we seek to hold onto all the more tightly what we can control. That means, Zoom meeting start on time and end on time and wandering conversations and lazy afternoons are best left for a situation where there is more certainty surrounding their costs.      

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 

Timescales

This weekend I finally had time to read Timescales: Thinking across Ecological Temporalities edited by Carolyn Fornoff, Patricia Eunji Kim, and Bethany Wiggin (2020). The book is exactly what I needed on a frigid weekend at the start of brutally cold week in the middle of winter. It also cut across any number of projects that have simmered in my brain for years often begging for more attention than my aging neurons can give them.

The book is a series of contributions that deal with the challenge of timescales in the context of ecological thinking about the Anthropocene. This summary, however, sells the book short. The contributions which range from conventional scholarly articles to more experimental pieces, summaries of theatrical performances, and artist statements, engage in meaningful meditations on the nature of time and time of nature, humanity, and existence. This emphasis on time explored the difficulties that we have juggling the multiple temporalities necessary to understand the seemingly catastrophic consequences of contemporary climate change. 

Jason Bell and Frank Pavia’s article encouraged us to explore pessimistic approaches to climate change studies. For the authors this involved bringing together scholars in the humanities and sciences without the expectation that they produce some kind of paradigm defining outcome. Bell and Pavia’s discussion of surf punk and oceanography did not result in a new way to understand the role of the sea in global climate studies. Instead, their article – suffused with “chitchat” – suggested that these kinds of inconclusive conversations initiated without even perfunctory optimism regarding outcomes offered a new way to engage with problems as intractable as articulating the myriad temporalities necessary to understand carbon life cycles, for example. How do we imagine a proleptic Anthropocene that will only be knowable long after the last human has departed? 

The connections between their call for pessimistic approach to transdisciplinary interaction has clear ties to my own interest in slow archaeology, but I had always insisted that slow archaeology was better way (or at least a more humane way) of achieving conventional results in archaeology. I wonder after reading Bell and Pavia whether an approach to slow archaeology that does not culminate in conventional archaeological knowledge, but instead values the process of collectively thinking through complex problems and the shared experience this engagement provides. Perhaps in its purest form slow archaeology is process for the sake of process and without the expectation of progress.

Other pieces that caught my attention were Mary Mattingly’s and Kate Farquhar’s articles on WetLand. Wetlands was a floating experimental garden, sustainable meeting place, and work of art docked on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Designed by Mary Mattiingly, the boat itself featured solar power, composting toilets and showers, a range of sustainable plants for food, and common spaces that hosted events, conversations, and other forms of public engagement. The goal of the boat was to bring attention to the Schuylkill River and its banks and wetlands which largely house industrial sites. In fact, the river is most frequently seen from highways and surface roads that run along its course or cross it around Philadelphia. The WetLand served as a way to bring people to the river as a place and to engage with the challenges facing this polluted, constrained, and often unpleasant waterway. The sinking of the WetLand in 2017 presents a tragic, but somehow suitable end to its role as a teaching and research site and perhaps suggests the recursive arc of time the river which constantly ingests new things which come to constitute its course, life, and flow.

The concept of WetLand is far beyond anything that I could imagine for Grand Forks, but I’ve been thinking more and more about engaging the Red River and its surrounding landscape in a more constructive way. The Red River lacks the industrial character of the Schuylkill, but one could argue that like the Schuylkill (and perhaps even more saliently) it defines not only our landscape, but also our community. The Grand Forks Greenway, which lines the banks of the Red River, embodies some of the same characteristics a WetLand. The Red River flood walls serve to delineate the wilds of the river from the city, land from the river’s course, and public from private space. Of course, they are also permeable and imprecise. The Greenway itself, for example, is not wild in any conventional sense, but the product of the flood mitigation strategies. The flood walls which constrain the flow of the river do not hamper the flow of people, sewage and rain, traffic, or even animals. Like WetLand, the Greenway could serve as a laboratory to consider the different flows of time from the post-glacial course of the river to the various sedimentary records of its annual floods, the rise and eventual removal of the riverside neighborhood of Lincoln Park, and the ongoing, seasonal and perennial vegetation along the river’s banks.   

Ömür Harmanşah’s article on deep time percolating into the present brought back to mind his compelling archaeological vision of the passage of time. I’ve encountered Ömür’s thinking in the past and even engaged with it in some casual papers on my research in the Bakken oil patch (you can read them here if you want). The notion of deep time forcing its way into our contemporary world is compelling in part because it offers such a literal metaphor for the flow of oil—itself a product of millennia-long processes—  into the present and the interplay of the deep, geological time of the subterranean strata of the oil patch and the contemporary life of communities, watersheds, and economies forces us to engage with the complexities of temporal rhythms mingling in unexpected and incommensurate ways.

The massive timescales involved in our imagining of the Anthropocene likewise intersect with our daily lives, governmental policies, and, of course, objects ranging from plastics to the technologies of hydraulic fracturing, deep reinjection wells, and the residual radioactivity of the earth itself. 

The book contains far more than my casual comments here suggest and deserves a close reading by anyone interested in the temporal challenges the shape how we imagine our future.

Time and COVID (again part 2)

Yesterday, I expanded a bit on some thoughts concerning how the COVID pandemic has shaped my professional sense of time. Today, I want to think a little bit about how COVID has shaped our collective sense of time. Again, these ideas are not fully formed and in a perfect world, I’d have more time to think about these things and maybe shape them into some kind of article.

In any event, this is not a perfect world and this blog is not a perfect medium, but I’m going to write anyway and leave it up to you whether you want to read it or not.

Part of the frustration that so many people have encountered surrounding COVID is temporal. Not only has COVID disrupted daily routines that have for a century contributed significantly to the spaces of work and private life, the experiences of travel and distance, and our understanding of social and political relationships, but it has also disturbed our sense of the present. 

The main way that this is possible is in the delays inherent in our encounters with the virus. On a day-to-day level, we encounter these delays whenever we look at the myriad daily dashboards that report COVID testing results. We are aware that these results represent not the situation on the day on which various organizations report and tabulate their test results, but several days earlier when they administered the tests. There is, however, a certain dissonance between the daily numbers and the process of testing and processing the tests that means the numbers on any particular day serve as an imprecise proxy for the present situation.

Making things more temporally murky is that exposure to the virus will not immediately result in a positive test. There seems to be an incubation period between exposure and having enough viruses in your system to trigger a positive result. This makes the daily results even more complicated to understand as they represent individuals who have tested positive over a span of time, probably a few days, and who were exposed to the virus over a span of time. The “point data” that the daily test results seem to imply (recognizing, of course, that most dashboards also present data as rolling seven and fourteen day averages) represents not a moment in time, but a complex amalgam of processes, events, and situations.

Various virus protocols recognize temporal imprecision of a positive test and typically reflect a conservative approach temporally to preventing the further spread of the virus. Thus quarantines are five or ten days anticipating the variability in time surrounding a positive test. If the modern world reflects a growing interest in precision and efficiency, the temporal world of COVID is maddeningly imprecise and inefficient. If we tend to think about the present as a point where the past and the future intersect, the COVID virus has created a much more blurry sense of the present that represents both the past and the future.

(I would love to think about the blurry present of COVID in the comparison to the speed at which capital moves in contemporary financial markets and were billions of dollars in value can appear or vanish in moments leaving increasingly precarious worker dependent upon rather imprecise (at least from a temporal standpoint) proxies for understanding the viability of their employment and livelihood.) 

Of course, this blurry present generates a fair degree of anxiety because most of us struggle to understanding the chaotic experience of multiple simultaneous temporalities. The roll out of the COVID vaccine seems to also create a sense of confusion as not only is manufacturing a slow process, but the distribution of the vaccine appears destined to proceed at different rates among different populations. Putting aside the remarkable achievement of developing a vaccine and beginning to distribute it at scale in the matter of months, it seems like the uncertainty surrounding access to the vaccine is causing as much concern as its efficacy or its safety. 

I wonder how much of this concern relates to the sense that our already blurry present is prolonged as we wait to understand when we will have access to the vaccine. Moreover, some parts of the population who are already being vaccinated must have started to live in a time defined by a notable different sense of the present. It is no longer defined by the blurry imprecision of daily test reports, but by the relatively secure familiarity of pre-COVID routines. 

It’s interesting that many of the popular depictions of pandemics emphasize the perils of a fast moving disease that would kill its victims both consistently and quickly. COVID appear to be fast moving, but its massive death toll only reflects one aspect of its impact on society. I would argue that the uncertainty surrounding its spread and the temporal imprecision of the instruments that we have at our disposal to understand its impact on our communities have had their own distinct impact on our world and lives.

Time and COVID (again)

Last Thursday, I posted a short “two things Thursday” where I mentioned that I had been thinking about time “in the time of COVID.” This is an extension of my interest in slow archaeology, in particular, and the role of both digital and modern (or better industrial)  processes in shaping our experiences of time and space in archaeological practices.

It occurs to me that the COVID pandemic has produced a prolonged meditation on time in contemporary society (whatever other tragic impacts it has had on us personally and our worlds). As an archaeologist, I have a professional interest in time and its materiality and if I had time (heh, heh) and the kind of sophisticated necessary to negotiate its theoretical and conceptual situation, I would write an article on time and COVID. Since that seems just too hard these days, I’ll write a blog post.

Time, Place, and Work 

In my daily life, I’m one of the annoying early risers who is often on my way to my on campus office by around 6 am. Today, I’m sitting in my home office and writing these words at 5:54 am. It’s early, but I have coffee that I made in the kitchen and have had a light breakfast which I pulled from a box in our pantry. I feel like my work day has started and I’m writing this blog. 

As an academic, it’s not too unusual for me to work from home. During my sabbatical year, for example, my routine was almost identical to what I do these days. But most of the time, I spend more than half my work week in my on campus offices. My day is punctuated by my short commute, where I listen to music, organize my thoughts, and either compress for work or decompress on my way home. I rarely work at home in the evenings.

Under COVID, I do go onto campus, but only to teach on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I don’t spend time in my campus offices which are largely reduced to storerooms for research material. I prep my courses at home, grade at home, do what passes as research and service at home, and write at home.

The slow archaeologist in me recognizes that this is not just a spatial shift, but also a temporal one. By working from home, my day is not punctuated by the industrial/post-industrial habit of going to work and its accompanying commute. As a result, work is just a bit closer to life, both physically and temporally. In this way, the COVIDs have shaken the division between work and private life that became such a benchmark for participants in the industrialized economies. I’ve found that it has also encouraged me to reflect on what parts of my work world bring joy to my personal life and draw me back to doing work that might otherwise be defined by a separate spatial and temporal rhythm.

To be clear, I recognize that this is a particularly male (and privileged) way of understanding the work/life divide and that many of my colleagues have long blurred the line between work time and private time as they juggled personal responsibilities and their jobs. I have the luxury of an office on campus, a relatively uncomplicated private life (without children or elder care and with a supportive partner), and a job that lends itself to fairly conventional rhythms (I only teach one night per week, for example). At the same time, I do think that my privileged position is both representative of a particular set of social expectations (judging mostly from the portrayal of working routines in the media) and not that uncommon among my colleagues.

The elimination of the buffer between work and private life is both spatial and temporal.    

Time and Travel

This week, I’m to attend a conference in the U.K. Of course, I won’t be traveling there in person and like most of the participants, will attend via zoom from my home office. The conference will start early in the morning and on the first day will begin before 6 am in my local CST. This minor inconvenience, however, pales in comparison to the disruptions that would have occurred had I need to travel to UK to present my paper. The trip alone would have been at least 12 hours through airports and on flights and then an additional 2 or 3 in the UK via trains, shuttles, and taxis. It would be possible, of course, for me to work on the flight, but since most flights to Europe from my part of the world are overnight, it’s not particularly likely that I would get anything substantive accomplished.  More than that, jet lag would have caused me to lose hours on my return to the US (not to mention my impaired performance at the conference itself). The three day conference would have effectively disrupted a week of teaching and research time. 

By attending via Zoom, I will certainly “lose” a few mornings this week to attend the conference, but this is a comparatively minor disruption (and undoubtedly a productive one as I’m sure that I’ll gain more than I lose from attending the conference!). 

On the one hand, it is tempting to imagine that the Zoom conference could be the way of the future for academic meetings. Saving in time (not to mention money) would open these meetings to individuals whose responsibilities make it impossible to take a week off to attend a meeting. They also offer a simple and more public way to make more visible the workings academic knowledge making.  

The Zoom format would also temper the social and professional anxieties associated with face-to-face conference and the tedium of stilted small talk, but also mitigate the dead time between papers, before and after sessions, between the hotel and venue, and necessary to find a restroom on an unfamiliar campus, to secure a meal in an unfamiliar city, and to demonstrate socially appropriate interest in a new or different place. While this dead time can be part of the fun of academic meeting, it is also part of the temporal disruption that marks professional travel. Even the most efficient traveler encounters this dead time that feels to me to be particularly resistant to being reclaimed for a professional or personal purpose.

Part of me has speculated that the temporal disruptions and dead time associated with academic meetings and professional travel is the way in which space pushed back against the relentless pressure of time to compress its dimensions. You can travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours now, but you can’t avoid the delays with finding a bathroom in an unfamiliar place or the disruptions associated with ordering coffee in a foreign language, locating the appropriate adapter for an electrical outlet, or entertaining the questions from a well meaning host about the weather “in Dakota.”

Time and the Site

As an archaeologist who works regularly in Greece and Cyprus, I have produced a nice set of well-trod paths that allow me to reduce a certain amount of the dead time associated with travel. More than that, over the last two decades, I have collected a massive quantity of “raw” data from the field much of which still requires analysis and interpretation. As a result, I have the luxury (and the privilege) to stay home and do archaeological work without actually visiting the sites themselves. More than that, I don’t anticipate getting back into the field until the summer of 2022, at soonest.

This luxury is the product of our increasingly digital world, of course, where field work involves recording our encounters with artifacts, our experiences in the trench or survey unit, and our impressions of the landscape and place in digital media that are easily transported and accessed from nearly anywhere in the world with a power supply and internet connection. 

In this situation, our distance from our sites may not necessarily disrupt our ability to produce new knowledge, but I do wonder whether the character of the knowledge that we produce changes when our work is displaced from our sites and landscapes for a prolonged period of time. Does our data expire not because it is no longer readable or understandable, but because it becomes less meaningful with time outside of its local context.

I also wonder whether the speed of our analysis will compromise our experience of the landscape, the trench, the site, or the artifact. How much does our memory of how a piece of data came to exist shape what it means? How much of our data is less a surrogate and more of a mnemonic for an experience or encounter that will fade with time?

Two Things Thursdays: COVID Time and Cyprus in Long Late Antiquity

There’s a lot going on the world right now. Between COVID, the events in Washington, the annual AIA/SCS meeting, and another pandemic inflected semester, there are plenty of things that are causing me some worry.

I also wonder, though, whether these things might also influence some new ways of thinking.  I guess that is one theme behind todays “Two Thing Thursday”:

Thing the First

I’ve been thinking a bit about COVID time. What follows here are some fragments of ideas.

Initially, I wondered whether the COVID pandemic has caused time to slow down for some of us. My own schedule has become no less dense with projects and activities, but as the COVID pandemic has drawn on, I feel far less urgency to complete tasks by externally or self imposed deadlines.

It’s curious how the lack of travel during the COVIDs (and the impossibility of planning for future travel) has encouraged me to live much more locally. There’s something about how my constricted horizons of home, local park, neighborhood, and office have created a new sense of routine that blurs temporal markers that depend on the unfamiliar or exceptional to create a sense for time’s passing.  

I’ve also found that Zoom time feels much slower than face-to-face time. Perhaps there are fewer opportunities for distracting pleasantries or that it is easier to become distracted while Zooming and this causes any sense of urgency to dissipate. But Zoom time is also far more immediate than visiting a friend in their home or walking to another building for a meeting, much less traveling to another city or country for an academic conference. 

I was also struck by the sense of futurity that the COVID pandemic has created. The lag between events – the Sturgis motorcycle rally, the arrival of college students in town for the start of a new semester, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, individual COVID exposure – and the report of the virus’s spread or a positive test seems to create this kind of temporal lag or this sense of borrowed time full of dreadful anticipation.   

It also feels similar to the gap between President-Elect Biden’s victory in November and his inauguration on January 20th. There’s a sense that we’re living in this strange buffer time between the moment where we understand what the future will hold and our experience of the future. Maybe it’s a bit like purchasing something online and receiving it in our mailbox?

At the same time, I’ve been struck by the sense of urgent frustration that contemporary society has created for itself. Maybe the gap between knowing and experiencing is the cause for this. The timelines for receiving the COVID vaccinations, for example, seem to be almost unrealistic. Not only were the vaccines developed at an unprecedented pace, but there is realistic hope that a meaningful percentage of the world – the entire world – could have access to this vaccine in the space of a few years. This seems amazing to me, but for many people, even this accomplishment is not enough. Any delay in getting the vaccine is marked as a failure that prolongs the state of uncertainty between any potential contact with an infected person and the results of a test. (This all being said, I do get that there is a difference between friction inherent in our system and poorly executed plans, incompetence, and colonial priorities.)

Anyway, COVID time seems palpably different from pre-COVID time. Maybe the exaggerated and uncertain experience of the gap between the present and the future requires us all to feel like we’re late and that this sense of lateness is heightened by the tension between a scientific sense of inevitability (e.g. the second wave, the surge, super spreader events) and the unsettled temporal rhythms of the present.  

Thing the Second

This is related, somehow, I think. Next week, I’m participating in a conference on Cyprus in Long Late Antiquity. It’s being hosted (via Zoom) by Oxford University and the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and the Cyprus High Commission in London.

You can check out the line up here. And you can read my paper here.

2021Poster A5 flat

I wonder if the sense of a long late antiquity will resonate with our sense of an unstable present in some way. It evokes for me the kind of pregnant time that resists slipping entirely into the future. While I realize that projecting our experience of time into the past is fraught, I can’t help feeling that we’re living in long-2020 these days rather than in 2021.

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. 

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.) 

~

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.