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. 

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.