Writing Wednesday

The first Wednesday after spring break is always the first Wednesday of the University of North Dakota Writers’ Conference. As usual, it has a cool poster.

WCPoster 2017

It also gives me a chance to think explicitly about writing for a little while. It’s great to see writers talk about their ideas and how their creative processes work. This is something that happens all too infrequently on a college campus where most people (who aren’t devoting all of their time to worrying about the budget) are focused on doing work rather than talking about how they do their work. 

So, on my drive onto campus this morning, I got to thinking a bit about writerly things. Here is what I thought about:

1. Writing an Introduction. My buddy David Pettegrew and I are editing the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. As part of this project, we’re writing the introduction which both frames the 250,000+ word volume and the field of Early Christian archaeology for an audience that might not be familiar with this sub-field. After puttering around on the introduction for a few weeks, we decided just to write and see where things went. We produced over 25,000 words in about two months. This will become a draft of a small book on Early Christian archaeology (we hope) and we’ll compress it down into 8,000 words for an introduction.

When we adopted this strategy, we (or maybe just I thought): “How hard could this be?”

The answer is: really hard.

2. 90% Reading/10% Writing. In a little article for Forbes, Sarah Bond related that she had always been told to spend 90% of time reading and 10% of her time writing. This doesn’t seem like good advice (and I don’t want to suggest that Sarah was advocating for this). After all, as a working academic who might only spend half of their week (let’s pretend 20 hours) doing research, this would amount to a paltry 2 hours a week dedicated to writing. This seems hardly enough to develop the skills necessary to construct convincing (much less pleasing) argument. In fact, I would think that 2 hours a DAY might still be a bit on the short side to develop any serious writerly chops. I average about 15 hours per week writing and probably about the same reading (for research). It would seem to me that a 50/50 split is better.

3. Editing and Writing. As part of my graduate historiography course this semester, I’ve asked the students to produce some kind of manifesto or “statement” on studying history and as graduate students in history. I then hope to make it available for public comments. I largely let the students manage their own production of this document intending to contribute some comments when the text was largely set.

As sometimes happens, though, students did not entirely get along during the process and one student was offended by the way another student edited her work. This is normal, of course. I can vividly recall going back and forth with David Pettegrew over a few sentences in something that we wrote together. He’d change it one way, and I’d change it back, and then he’d change it back. After doing this 20 or 30 times, one of us gave in. I don’t really remember who.

Thinking about how to respond to this little conflict, I got to thinking about the role of the editor in writing. An editor can hear how your voice should sound, while the writer hears their voice as they want it to sound. Neither of these are “wrong,” but I can’t recall an editor ever making my work worse. To be a good editor, though, you have to communicate well. An offended writer will struggle to hear how their voice should sound and will sometimes become more stubbornly committed to how it sounds in their own head.

4. Citations. I really sucks at citations. I’m going through page proofs for an article now, and it appear that, when in doubt, I just wrote a random author’s name and a random date after it. It’s really remarkable that editors put up with stuff like that. What is the matter with me?

Ceramics from Koutsopetria

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on getting a preliminary draft completed for our publication of the excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. This work involved two campaigns in the 1990s by Maria Hadjicosti and her team and a single season of targeted excavation by a team from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project.

While the last two posts focused on the architecture and then the history of the site, the final part of this will focus on the ceramics. The only problem is that today is probably the last writing day of the great winter writing season, and I am not done writing that section yet.

And to make things more complicated, my partner in crime, David Pettegrew has started work on the introduction to our Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Archaeology. They’re having some kind of faculty write-in this week and he’s working away on that introduction. In solidarity, I’ll spend today writing the final parts of the first draft of our work at Koutsopetria. As a bit of motivation, I’ll post it when I’m done here!

So, stay tuned!

…. uh oh… still not done and it’s after 4 pm… maybe I can have a one day extension on this? 


As I spent the week working on grant applications and putting the final touches on a book, I’ve been thinking a good bit about words. 

This led me to ask Shawn Graham for a word cloud for The Digital Press’s soon to be released book, Mobilizing the Past:

Screen Shot 2016 10 10 at 4 54 00 PM

Dimitri Nakassis has produced a word cloud from the preliminary program of the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in January.


Lessons from the Bakken

For the last few weeks, I’ve been puttering about a little contribution to a Journal of Contemporary Archaeology Forum on undocumented migrants based on our work in the Bakken.

Here’s the abstract for the paper:

This article summarizes the recent work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project to understand the largely undocumented migrants arriving in the Bakken Oil Patch for work. It argues that efforts to document short-term labor in the Bakken exposes particular challenges facing the archaeology of the modern world ranging from the ephemerality of short-term settlements to the hyper-abundance of modern objects. The use of photography, video, interviews, and descriptions produced an abundant archive of archaeological ephemera that in some ways parallels the modern character of temporary workforce housing.  The final section of this article offers some perspectives on how work in the Bakken oil patch can inform policy, our understanding of material culture in the modern world, and the role of the discipline in forming a shared narrative.

And here’s the most recent version of this paper (with photos!):

Bakken Man Camps and the Archaeology of Refugees

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly (so slowly!) pecking away on a short article for a special forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that looks at the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration. Since much of the movement into the Bakken is literally undocumented and can speak to the kinds of short-term settlement change that is taking place on a global scale, I think the work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project can speak to these issues.

So here are some of my words:

Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch

It is with some hesitation that we offer an archaeology of temporary labor in the Bakken oil patch as a contribution to a volume on forced migration and refugees. After all, it would be easy to categorize the experiences of economic migrants in the Bakken as a separate historical and even moral category from that of the migrants who have fled catastrophic military or political events. At the same time, we would gently content that our experience documenting the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch offers some useful lessons for archaeologies of the 21st century. Our work speaks to several issues that resonate across archaeology of contemporary world: the accelerated pace of the capital, the kaleidoscopic oscillations between cores and peripheries, the increasing fluidity of populations and places, and the fraught potential for the practice of archaeology to authorize the experience of displaced groups.

The North Dakota Man Camp Project has used both ethnographic and archaeological techniques to document the wide range of short-term workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch. Improvements in both drilling and fracking technology in the early 21st century and high oil prices re-opened the Bakken and Three Forks formation to large-scale exploitation. The global economic crisis begun in 2008 accelerated the arrival of workers from around the U.S. While some of these workers were brought to the region as employees of multinational corporations like Halliburton or Schlumberger and housed in mobile work force housing camps provided by global logistics companies like Target Logistics, many others moved to the area with the hope of finding employment in the oil patch. The small and historically remote communities of western North Dakota were unprepared for the influx of workers and many of the first wave of workers arriving in North Dakota squatted in public parks, lived in RVs in the Walmart parking lot, and negotiated unfavorable deals to park their RVs, rent bedrooms, or stay in local hotels.

If the absence of model projects for the politically and ethically productive engagement with refugee and force migrants has hindered our ability to produce new archaeologies of this phenomenon, it might be worthwhile to look at similar phenomenon in a global context. Saskia Sassens’ book Expulsions argues that the development of “advanced capitalism” has transformed both economic and social relationships on a global scale. As Arrendt and Agamben have recognized, the displacement of people is more than just the movement of people from one situation to another, but the displacement of an individual’s rights from the guarantees derived from status as citizens of a particular state to a new status dependent on a new set of political realities, definitions, and relationships. This situation does not deprive the refugee of all agency, of course, and Agamben has argued that the refugee has the potential to disrupt the political order of the nation-state by creating a space of for a kind of “pure human” to emerge in the gap between the individual as human and the individual as citizen.

If Agamben recognizes the transformative potential of the refugee as a “disquieting element” in the political order of the nation-state, the spaces of the western North Dakota Bakken Oil patch represent a different expression of the deterritorialization of the individual. The movement of individuals into the Bakken followed the global flow of capital which ignores national boundaries, demographics, and culture. Transnational companies contract with global logistics firms to import prefabricated crew camps which accommodate the largely male workforce involved in extractive industries. These “man camps” are set up to optimize access to work sites, leverage existing local infrastructure, and to allow for the rapid deployment of personnel to remote locations. Their modular design allows for them to be adapted to a range of environments and needs and generators, water treatment plants, cafeterias, laundries, security systems, and leisure spaces allow these camps to exist in self-contained and self-sustaining ways. For residents of these facilities, the space of the prefabricated crew camp seek to standardize the experience of temporary residence and to maximize the labor extracted from each individual. The space of the crew camp is a “non place” with no distinguishing features to complicate or disrupt the seamless deployment of local, human capital.

Even More Early Christian Cyprus

I keep slowly hacking away on my contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology which surveys the archaeology of Cyprus in the Early Christian period. My approach to the first draft of this contribution is highly modular with sections on the history of Early Christian archaeology, the textual sources for the period, churches, baptisteries, burials, and various small finds.

The modular approach to writing has allowed me to chip away at the project without the commitment to composing a single, complex, sustained argument. From a technical perspective, I suspect modular approaches to composition have contributed to the popularity of applications like Scrivener and, most recently, Manuscripts which break the long blank document of the traditional word processor into sections. Each section can have independent word counts and style sheet, and sections can move around easily in a document. For those of us who write reports as much as traditional scholarly articles, the value of software designed to accommodate documents composed in sections is a huge boon. For those of us who struggle to find time to write 2000 or 3000 words in a sitting or who tend to write articles that cohere through thematic unity rather than linear argument, this software facilitates this approach to composition.

Thematically, our chapter will consider the tension between local development of a Christianity material culture and influences from outside the island. Not only is this a useful way of understanding Cyprus as a “crossroads” in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it is also consistent with a generation of scholarship that sought to understand Cypriot culture as either a pale imitation of the capital or a thriving, generative (if provincial) center. Neither of these paradigms is completely satisfying; after all, culture – even material culture – does not have neatly defined limits and cannot be mapped like a genetic code from one variation to the next. (At the same time, I should note that individual objects, buildings, or even sites do not exist as discrete entities bounded spatially or physically, but produce meaning through their interaction with other places and objects). 

Here’s how some of these ideas play out in the section on Early Christian ceramics from Cyprus:


Cyprus imported red-slipped table wares from across the Mediterranean with African Red Slip, Phocaean Ware (or LRC), and Cyprus Red Slip (or LRD) wares being the most common. John Hayes monumental efforts to develop a typology for these later Roman red-slipped, wares offers a convenient template for discussing and understanding the distribution and chronology of these common tablewares. These vessels were widely distributed on the island and appeared at both urban and rural sites suggesting that these red-slipped, fine fabric wares had a place on a wide range of tables in settlements and communities across the island. Certain forms of these vessels feature stamped cross decorations on the base of shallow bowls and dishes. These stamps do not, of course, indicate the the individuals who purchased, used, or discarded the plates were Christian or that they served a particular Christian function. At the same time, we can understand the appearance of table ware with Christian symbols as a broad indicator of the rise in a Christian culture on the island and the emergence of a Christianized material culture.

The earliest tableware vessels with Christian symbols appear in the fifth-century, on Form 2 of Late Roman D ware, also called Cypriot Red Slip. H. Meyza argues that these early LRD stamps which included a small cross inscribed in a circle, imitated those found on widely distributed African Red Slip vessels, although few examples of inscribed, fifth-century ARS vessels appear on the island. Hayes has tended to date LRD ware slightly than Meyza, but by the sixth and seventh-century inscribed variants of LRD wares had become rather more common appearing at Kopetra, Paphos, Kourion, Polis and the Kornos cave. later Recent excavations near the site of Gebiz in southern Asia Minor has revealed a kiln responsible for the production of LRD wares, numbers wasters and fragments of standard forms, and a tool designed to impress a cross stamp on the unbaked clay. This indicates that at least some LRD ware with cross stamps came onto the island from Asia Minor. Imported cross-stamped table ware likely represented one of the most common ways for Christian imagery to enter the home and the material culture of the island.

A Theoretical Epilogue to the Tourist Guide to the Bakken

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working pretty intensively on revising my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch for publication. The section that needed the most work was the final chapter which was probably both half-baked and somewhat unaccessible to the average reader. This is probably not the final draft of this section, but it is a major step closer to making it more fluid and more accessible. Here’s a link to the original draft.

I attempt to weave together four related concepts: 

1. Tourism as a product of and as a producer of modernity. In a post last week, I presented my first efforts to emphasize more explicitly the role of oil in both the creation of the middle class and tourism.

2. Landscapes and Taskscapes. In this section, I argue that the remarkable dynamism of the Bakken has produced particular ephemeral traces of movement in the landscape. The concept of taskscape provides a useful way to understand dense network of traces left across the Bakken landscape.

3. Industrial Tourism offers a model to understand taskscapes shaped by industrial activities and brings together the experience of the tourist and the worker in a single space. The recent trend toward more subversive forms of tourism (toxic tourism, abandonment porn, urban infiltrations, “poorism”) that explore industrial sites in either critical or illegal ways demonstrates how contemporary industrial tourists could twist the goals of industrial to consider the complex legacy of industrial practices. 

4. Industrial Archaeology and Heritage. Finally, industrial archaeology has contributed to the rise of industrial heritage which has both celebrated a shared, modern industrial past, as well as offered an opportunity for historical reflection and critique. 

Any and all comments would be greatly appreciated.

Oil, Industry, and Tourism: Another Draft

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been churning away on a revised version of the final chapter of my Tourist Guide to the Bakken. These revisions have two goals. One is to make it more accessible to non-academics and the other is to reflect on the particular role of oil in the creation both of tourism and the industrial world.

Below is the first part of this concluding section. Enjoy:

BOO! I had to take down this content at request of the publisher!


Two Short Things on Writing

I’ve been thinking a bit about writing (and reading) lately. 

On my flight out to Atlanta this past week I read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard 2012). I’ll likely assign it to my graduate methods class next year. It’s a nice summary of how different disciplines write and offers some substantial tips on how to make academic writing more accessible to a wider audience without losing its intricacy, depth, or distinct tone and voice. Most readers will have heard her recommendations before: vary your writing, avoid substantive nouns, use jargon sparingly, reconsider disciplinary orthodoxies (e.g. using the first person), engage the reader early in the piece, and avoid noun-style, adverbs, and passive voice. 

While anyone who takes writing seriously should check out Sword’s book, she does little to unpack why academic writing has developed such an idiosyncratic style. On the one hand, I think it is safe to assume that academic style begets academic style. In other words, academics write as they do because we spend a good bit of our formative years reading academic writing. If reading good writing helps writers write better, then reading academic writing almost certainly encourages academics to write in a particular style. The problem, then, is as much with how academics read as with how academics write. Making tweaks to our style is one approach to refining academic language, but to make a real change to how academics write we have to change how (and what) academics read.

I was bummed out to read Andrew Henry’s guest blog post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. According to his post, a panel on blogging at the Society for Biblical Literature/American Association of Religion conference discouraged graduate students from blogging. Henry doesn’t provide much detail (but James McGrath does), but apparently the panelists considered the risks associated with graduate students blogging outweighs potential benefits (I suppose to the student and to the field). The Twitters came alive with comments on how blogging helped folks get their tenure track jobs and expand the audience for the various disciplines represented at the SBL/AAR.

One thing that struck me about their conversation is how much more active the SBL/AAR blogging community is. My blog has been running for over 5 years and I rarely get more than a couple comments per post. I have received some charitable mentions in scholarship and across social media, but my general impression is that my blog has a limited (if loyal) audience which is not inclined to troll, debate, or even comment on my musings. From what I gather about the SBL/AAR blogging culture, there is genuine and active debate across these public platforms and a graduate student’s participation in these debates has real risks and benefits for their career. Scholars associated with the SBL/AAR must read in a different way from those in more conventional silos associated with ancient history, Classics, and Mediterranean archaeology. These different reading practices must shape how and when and where scholars write.  

Digital Objects at the ASOR Annual Meeting: A Draft of a Paper

In a few weeks, I’m giving a paper at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. I’m giving a paper in the Object Biography for Archaeologist Workshop which this year focuses on objects as magnets. The abstract for my paper and the panel is here. If last year is any indication, this should be a fun panel with some good papers.

Last year, the papers went a bit long and that cut into our opportunities for conversation. This was too bad because the conversation seemed lively and, in some ways, more engaging than the papers. Even worse, my paper is the fourth of five papers and I’m set to go on after 5 pm. In other words, my paper will happen during cocktail hour.

To compensate for this, I’ve decided unilaterally to keep my paper short hopefully ceding a bit of time for conversation, and to keep my paper relatively simple. My target length is about 1500 words and I hope I can bring that in at around 12 minutes.

Here’s the first, roughedly-rough-ruff draft: 

Objects, Clones, and Contexts

The idea of an object as a magnet is compelling. It evokes the idea of the object as a node in a network of attractions and relations that draw together objects, associations, individuals, institutions, meaning, and even events and time. In fact, some scholars have suggested that objects are more than isolated nodes, but actually represent the network itself. In other words, the object does not attract meaning to it, but is meaning itself. It may be that magnet and the effects of magnetism are inseparable.

Of course the idea of the object as magnet also got me thinking about the role of magnetism in the creation of digital objects (even if magnetic storage is giving way to solid-state technologies which are not a magnetic medium). Instead of messy magnetic metaphors, my paper today will consider a wide range of digital archaeological objects. These digital objects play a vital role in archaeological practice and occupy a unique place in how we conceptualize object biography.

Digital objects are ubiquitous in archaeological practice. Archaeologists regularly produce thousands of digital objects each season and unlike excavated or collected artifacts which may only seem to proliferate, most archaeologists take active steps to ensure that digital objects are cloned and distributed across a wide range of locations and contexts. These objects exist in dense networks of both technological relationships, practice, space, and the archaeological discourse.

Despite the prominence of excavated or collected artifacts in archaeological publications and arguments, most of these objects enjoy relatively little attention from the archaeologist. They get uncovered or recovered, washed, identified, sorted, counted, recorded, and stored in trays or boxes or maybe even dumped. The archaeologists with whom I’ve worked on Cyprus refer to these most common artifacts as “sherds” (and it must be said with a dismissive sneer). In Greece (and on my project), we refer to them – problematically – as context pottery. I suppose this is meant to indicate that this pottery is so ordinary that it only offers context for the really important stuff or perhaps it should be regarded contextually along with other features in the trench like the stratigraphy. As a survey archaeologist with a bit of a quantitative bent, I always felt sorry for these “sherds” and most of my real archaeological work has focused on recovering these objects from “the enormous condescension of” most archaeological practice.

In our work, these sherds tend to be the smallest and most granular objects recorded in archaeological practice and the most common objects assigned archaeological significance. As an aside, I’ll overlook the work done to document the chemical make up of sherds which while important remains quite rare in Mediterranean practice and particularly unusual on a large scale. It is interesting, however, to note that scientific study of artifact whether through thin sections, XRF, or neutron activation, does recognize that archaeological objects exist on the molecular level. I don’t have much familiarity with these practices, but I introduce them as a little bit (see?) of critique on the idea that an object is a magnet. To my reading, this might imply an unnecessary division between the object itself and meaning (that is attracted to it from elsewhere?). It might be simpler to understand an object as only existing with meaning. Without meaning (or relationships) objects may well exist, but not in a useful or recognizable way.

Whatever the specifics, any process used to document these “sherds” involves the creation of at least one digital object. Our project at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, recorded each sherd as a record first on a sheet of paper and then in a relational database. At Polis-Chrysochous, we skipped the paper phase and recorded directly into the laptop computer. The entry in the database involves creating a record of the object’s weight, color, and place in established or local typologies. In some cases, this record is accompanied by another digital object, a photograph, and in exceptional cases, we use a series of photographs to create a 3-D structure from motion image of the artifact that is itself made up of a series of digital objects including photographs, a point cloud, a wireframe, and a textured 3D object. Each these individual parts of the 3D object represent stand alone objects that each have particular archaeological values.

At the end of the recording process, the archaeological artifacts go back into their trays or boxes, are placed on shelves in massive storerooms, and return to relative obscurity. In all, an archaeologist might spend 20 seconds handling, identifying, and recording a sherd on one of these trays. For the sherd, as object, the process (and in many ways the utility of the object) is over, but for the digital object that comes from this interaction its usefulness has just begun.

Over the course of my surveys, excavations, and study projects, we have produced tens of thousands of these digital objects in relational database as well as digital photographs each inscribed with vital metadata and assigned a file name meaningful in our recording system. This is standard practice.

These digital objects have innumerable advantages over the fired clay objects. These digital objects can be sorted instantly. They can be duplicated almost flawlessly. They can be transported over national borders and cloned so that they appear in multiple places at the same time. They can be published on the web and in books, and linked to by other folks to form new networks and relationships. Finally, the conservation and storage of digital objects in the short term is relatively inexpensive compared, at least, to the expenses and challenges associated with the so-called storage crisis in archaeology. In so many practical ways, the digital object is more useful to the work of the archaeologist than the excavated or collected object.

In conceptual ways, digital objects are more useful as well. For example, the digital world in which we work is so much simpler. It relies upon ontologies that make at least some relationships and definitions explicit and it cuts through the unsightly messiness associated with archaeological artifacts. In fact, for a digital object to have meaning, it depends upon a dense, but legible network of relationships that define not only how a digital object is expressed, but what it expresses. Moreover, the network of useful relationships between various digital artifacts tends to be more visible as well. For example, in contrast to cloudy network of associations generated by an archaeological artifact, the associations linked data relationships follow defined pathways either within a data set (for example linking two similar objects together within the same dataset) or between datasets (an artifact to a location in GIS for example or two objects discovered at different locations).

Digital objects rely upon more than merely bits and bites to communicate meaning. They exist within a networks of physical objects as well. Hard drives are every bit as hard (in physical terms) as solid state drives are solid. The cloud may seem ethereal, but it too is made up of routers, servers, storage, racks, chips, wires, and buildings. The devices we use to access our digital objects are made of silicon, aluminum, rare-earth, and plastics and function best in enclosed spaces with solid surfaces and comfortable chairs. Problems with the various material interfaces with digital objects will, of course, compromise the utility of these objects for archaeological analysis.

At the same time, the physical media upon which digital objects depend represent a vital component of the material culture of archaeology. These archaeological objects which have – quite literally – a magnetic relationship with objects produced in the field have only recently received significant scrutiny as objects. The use of iPads in the field and their innovative, yet familiar, interface has renewed conversation regarding the material form of digital recording devices. Archaeology of the contemporary world and the allied field of media archaeology have likewise showed renewed interest in material form of digital media. The most recent volume of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology explored these intersections in a most productive way. An NEH sponsored conference titled “Mobilizing the Past” and sponsored by ASOR members at the Atheinou Archaeological Project encouraged critical reflection on the intersection of digital and material tools used in archaeological field work.

The focus of today’s panels was on objects as magnets. I have taken this a bit too literally in reference to the myriad little magnetic charges that constitute so much of our digital world. At the same time, I hope my paper brings to the fore some simple examples of how archaeological work and archaeological artifacts depend upon digital objects. These digital objects have their own biographies that require us to adjust our understanding of life to allow for frequent cloning, periodic reincarnation, spontaneous bilocation, and, as with so many objects, lengthy periods of suspended animation.

These objects have important social lives as well. They depend upon hardware, software, and a wide-range of other technological infrastructures and protocols to be useful and understandable to each other and to archaeologists. These objects, in turn, rely upon the support of economic relationships, political and institutional structures, and ideological commitments to have value. Not every digital object has equal value and we all know of digital objects that have died unmourned on a faulty hard drive, a decommissioned server, or with the obsolesce of a particular application.

With the passing of a digital object, we lose part of the network of relationships that connect our analysis with the archaeological artifact. This is not a call to keep every related digital object alive on life support, but to recognize for objects like our poor, marginalized, sherds, the continued vitality of the digital artifact is more important than baked clay.