Lakka Skoutara and Abandonment: PrePrint with Pictures

Over almost 15 years, David Pettegrew and I have been revisiting the rural settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and documenting the changes. At first, our interest was to document site formation processes at the site and observe how abandoned buildings and houses fell down over time.

Figure 8 house7 image20 2009 d263338a90

After only one or two visits, however, we discovered that these houses were not simply left alone to collapse in the Greek countryside, but continued to be centers of a wide range of rural activities. For example, several of the houses lost their ceramic tile roofs during over the past 15 years, and others have seen regular maintenance and, in at least one case, expansion. As a result, our research shifted from a rather abstract (and naive) view of this settlement as a case study for site formation to a more dynamic and complex project designed to document the material engagement with the Greek countryside over a period of 15 years.

While it goes without saying that the history of rural Greece continues to attract attention from anthropologists, historians, geographers, as well as local antiquarians, there has been relatively less formal and systematic archaeological study of 20th century rural sites. Our work at Lakka Skoutara is not entirely unique, but it makes a useful contribution to the small number 20th century rural sites that have received systematic and sustained archaeological study in Greece.

You can download a draft of our paper here. Or read about our most recent visit to the site here.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Fall has arrived in North Dakotaland with temperatures almost kissing the 40s at night and our sleepy college town starting to come back to life in anticipation of the new school year and the return of students. As much as I’ll miss the frog days of summer, I’m getting excited too with a new class, a slate of conferences, a few new books slated for publication, and the general return to the comfortable routine of students, colleagues, meetings, and events.

To celebrate the start of the fall and the final third of the year, here are some quick hits and varia:

IMG 2854

Archaeological Context

Every now and then an article catches in my head for some reason. Recently it’s been a JMA article by Donald Haggis who was wrote in response to a conversation between Robin Osborne and James Whitley on the nature and meaning of archaeological context. Osborne proposed that collections in the museums, despite the tendency to be decontextualized by archaeological standards, still have the potential to contribute in significant ways to the discipline whereas archaeologists often overstate the value of archaeological contexts to contribute to conversations relevant to ancient historians or art historians. Whitley, in response, reasserted the value and importance of archaeological contexts for establishing chronology, function, and geographic or spatial provenience. Haggis, for his contribution to the conversation, noted that the field of Classical archaeology does more than simply provide context for objects that art historians, historians, and Classicists study, but also has its own set of research questions and ways of viewing objects, sites, and landscapes that are independent from the wider field of Classics, but nevertheless offer important and complicated ways of thinking about the past.

What made this article stick in my head was not so much Haggis’s claim that Classical archaeology has a kind of disciplinary significance outside of producing the context for objects as secure data points for arguments made in different disciplines, but his larger recognition that the idea of archaeological context requires additional scrutiny. In fact, I’d argue that the entire concept of archaeological context is perhaps sufficiently problematic that archaeologists should either define the term very narrowly or rejected it entirely. Here, I suppose, I’m leaning on Michel Foucault’s larger critique of context in Archaeologies of Knowledge (p. 109-112).  

In practical terms, I remember wandering through a storeroom in the Mediterranean and seeing a tray of objects that were labeled “No Context.” One of the objects had a tag with the word “surface” written on it and a GPS coordinate. This struck me as a fair narrow definition of the term “context.” At first, I imagined it as shorthand for “stratigraphic context,” but, of course, the surface is a stratigraphic level. Perhaps the tag writer meant “excavated context” which might be more true except that many (although not all) projects do excavate the surface as part of the plow zone, but this is a methodological decision or at very least a procedural one. It may be that the object did not appear as part of the surface or plow zone of a particular trench therefore it didn’t derive from a context defined by excavation. Perhaps the surface of the site was removed by a bulldozer prior to excavation similarly excising the plow zone from the contexts defined by conventional excavation methods. My point here isn’t so much to criticize a lack of precision in how a project defined context, but to suggest that the very idea of archaeological context is ambiguous. In fact, I’m as guilty as anyone when I casually refer to artifacts from intensive pedestrian survey as lacking stratigraphic context, which is technically untrue, beyond the idea that a single stratum as little meaning if not understood in relation to another stratum or strata whether the stratum is on the surface or subsurface. Strata and stratigraphy is relative.

Haggis, of course, recognizes this. Even a stratigraphically excavated site, individual strata only derive their context for a particular method. As careful work in micromorphology and microstratrigraphy has demonstrated, archaeologists regularly aggregate depositional events that more fine-grained methods can pull apart. Generally speaking our willingness to define stratigraphic levels derives from out particular research questions. The leveling fill for an early Christian basilica, for example, that offers a terminus post quem for the reconstruction of a particular district in the city. Microstratigraphy might be able to reveal individual dumps of material to form the fill, but this probably would not contribute much to how we date the entire fill. In another context, the documentation of microstratigraphy in the dromos of a tholos tomb could reveal how many times the tomb was opened and resealed over its life and this would speak to the ritual life of the tomb. In other words even stratigraphic and depositional contexts are simply extensions of our methods and since the methods for identifying microstratigraphy are sufficiently specialized and different from typical excavation methods, we might argue that these contexts are methodological.

Methods and methodological contexts, however, provide only one part of our definition of an “archaeological context.” Anyone who has stumbled upon a looting hole and noticed tidy scarps and sifted soil, realizes that looters can follow good field practices, if not methods. Moreover, we know that some stratigraphic excavations cannot provide archaeological contexts by dint of their occurring without proper permits or in areas like occupied Northern Cyprus where most excavation, however proper in terms of practice, is illegal for geopolitical reasons.   

All this is to say that Haggis is right in recognizing that Classical archaeology frames its own questions and adopts methods and practices according to those questions. I might, however, take his argument a bit further to suggest that it’s not just the questions posed by Classical archaeology that defines “archaeological context,” but archaeological contexts are also formed by the politics, methods, and objects themselves. At some point, it becomes unhelpful to talk about archaeological context or even contexts as something at all. The term “archaeological context” might be the kind of Latourian “black box” that serves to obscure more than it reveals and to generalize a dense and complex range of tensions and priorities in a universal way. 

It might be more helpful, instead, to talk about how assemblages produce meaning. For the archaeologist, the assemblage extends beyond groups of artifacts to include the methods, field practices, strata, and the questions that an archaeologist or ancient historian asks of the field work. After all, the questions that we ask as Classical or Mediterranean archaeologists do not alone define our work. We are as indebted to historical practices, institutional bureaucracies, and even a commitment to a work in an open ended way so that the results of our field work might be useful to others who may bring different questions to our “legacy data.” More importantly, archaeology has increasingly recognized the ethical aspects of our work that extend from how we listen to and respect indigenous archaeological traditions to how we treat our colleagues and students during field work, how we present our findings, and how we disseminate our work through publications. 

The benefit to the discipline of archaeology of dissolving the concept of “archaeological context” is that it opens a more expansive space to discuss, define, and debate what we do and how we establish the discursive limits to our practices and discipline. In the end, this might be the most effective way to resolve the issue that Haggis reiterates in his conclusion: “we do not really think very much about method and practice, and we rarely address (critically or otherwise) the study of archaeological context as an endeavor with rather different goals, perspectives, applications, and indeed very different sorts of data, than those commonly employed by our colleagues in classics, ancient history, and art history.” 


Syllabusing Greek History

This fall I’m teaching Greek history for the first time since 2004. I’m a bit apprehensive about it. Instead of just focusing on the ancient world, I think I’m going to try to think about the complex relationship between antiquity and the post-ancient Greece up through modern times. Since rather few of my students will be particularly interested in antiquity and even fewer will be Classics majors, I think the approaching the class like this will make it more relevant for students. 

The main texts for the class will be Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt (2017), which I’ve blogged about here, and John Bintliff’s The Complete Archaeology of Greece (2013), in celebration of our department’s merger with anthropology. Each module will have a little lecture, a primary source, and some kind of material culture. There are still a few gaps in the syllbus – for example, I don’t have a primary source selected for Medieval Greece (maybe something from the Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents) – but I have time to clean that up over the next few weeks (and I’m mostly interested in finding online primary sources). The class will have a midterm and a final as well as a review of an optional book and a primary source paper and a group project probably related to Hanink’s book.

Introduction to Greece
August 21
August 23

Bronze Age Greece
August 28
August 30: Knossos, Linear B, and Mycenaea
Optional Book: Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism. Chicago 2009.

The Classical Debt
September 4
September 5
Required Book: Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Era of Austerity. Harvard 2017.

Archaic and Classical Greece
September 11
September 13: Herodotus Books 1, 6, 7, and 8
Option Book: Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – And Western Civilization. Simon & Schuster 2005.

Classical Greece
September 18: Athens
September 20: Thucydides Books 1, 2, and 6.
Optional Book: John M. Camp, The Archaeology of Athens. Yale 2004.


Hellenistic and Roman Greece
September 25: Athens and Corinth
September 27: Pausanias, Book 1 and 2.
Optional Book: Susan Alcock, Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece. Cambridge 1996.
Or David K. Pettegrew, The Isthmus of Corinth: Crossroads of the Mediterranean World. Ann Arbor 2016.

Late Roman and Byzantine Greece
October 2: Marinus, Life of Proclus 
October 4: Corinth in Late Antiquity
Optional Book: Amelia Brown, Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman, and Christian City. London 2018.
Or Richard Rothaus, Corinth, The First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion. Leiden 2000.

Byzantine Greece
October 9
October 11: Orchomenos and Osios Loukas
Optional Book: Anthony Kaldelis, The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens. Cambridge 2009.

Medieval Greece
October 16
October 18
Optional Book. Sharon Gerstel, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography. Cambridge 2015.

October 23
October 25 Writing Day

Ottoman Greece
October 30
November 1 – Evliya Celebi
Optional Book: Fariba Zarinebaf, John Bennet, Jack L. Davis, A Historical and Economic Geography of Ottoman Greece: The Southwestern Morea in the 18th Century. 2005.

Early Modern Greece
November 6
November 8 – Early Travelers
Optional Book: Eleni Bastea, The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth. Cambridge 1999.

November 13
November 15 – Writing Day

November 20 – Paper due
November 22 – Thanksgiving

Modern Greece
November 27
November 29

Catch Up Days
December 4
December 6


Boeotia Project, Volume 2: The City of Thespiai

Over the last few weeks I’ve been snacking on John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass’s Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site (2017). It’s a big book that is both impressively synthetic and filled with many distinct observations on the distribution of ceramics and survey methodology. The book focuses on work done in the 1980s at the long-lived urban site of Thespiai. Like my own project at Koutsopetria on Cyprus, the intensive pedestrian survey was not designed to locate the site (or small ex-ubran sites in the countryside), but to document the assemblage, distribution, and extent of material at a “complex urban site.”  The distributional analysis of the ceramic material from the survey interested me the most, although the book also brings together architectural fragments, epigraphy, Ottoman administrative documents, and ceramic analyses into a series of synthetic histories of the city.

I might venture a more thorough review of the book after I work my way through it all, but, for now, I wanted to record a few observations on chapter 3 which unpacks the distribution of ceramic material across this large urban site. There are five things that piqued my interest in these chapters.

First, the intensive survey around Thespiai was done in the mid-1980s meaning that this project drew upon a kind of legacy data. The authors were particularly up front about the challenges of these datasets, the occasional irregularity of their survey work, and the adaptation of their methods over time. It was a nice reminder that for all the methodological rigor associated with survey and for all the efforts projects make to demonstrate the systematic character of their artifact collection, intensive survey projects both adapt over the course of projects and in response to the landscape. Bintliff and his colleagues occasionally used irregularities to their advantage, such as when they compared an assemblage collected from units that were accidentally resurveyed with that from the original collection to demonstrate that larger assemblages tend to be more diverse. 

Second, for many of the survey units Bintliff’s team conducted both standard intensive survey collection at 15 m spacing over units that were around 3000 sq m, as well as more intensive samples over 300 sq m from the same 3000 sq m units. Comparing the assemblages produced by these two different methods demonstrated that the more intensive collection samples did not necessarily produce more chronological information than the less intensive transect walking. This confirms some of the experiments that we ran at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project and the preliminary analysis of our data from the Western Argolid Regional Project

It was a bit more striking that the density data from both collection methods produced more or less comparable. In my experience, more intensive sampling tended to produce much higher density per hectare than counting visible artifacts while walking units at 10 to 15 m intervals. The similarity in density counts and the distribution produced through the different methods is a remarkable sign that their less intensive methods were appropriately calibrated for the nature of the surface assemblage at this large urban site.

Third, over the last decade, I’ve been fairly concerned with issues of surface visibility in intensive survey. In fact, I’ve tended to think about visibility as having a particularly significant impact on the chronological and functional character of artifact assemblages. I’ve made two arguments for the role of visibility. First, as visibility decreases, assemblages tend to become less chronologically diverse and the most common artifacts, which tend to only date to broad periods, to dominate these assemblage. Second, low visibility units with particularly diverse assemblages likely represent windows into higher artifact density surfaces obscured by vegetation. 

Because I’m not particularly interested in overall artifact densities, per se, I’ve been reluctant to correct artifact densities for visibility and, instead, focused on identifying units with anomalous densities or diversity for their surface visibility.  Even if I was interested in overall artifact densities, however, I’d probably want whatever correction is applied to them unpacked more explicitly than the authors of this book provide. More than that, Bintliff’s long term interest in hidden landscapes might recommend greater attention to visibility as a key factor in obscuring and revealing periods that tend to be difficult to see on the surface.

Fourth, I was quite intrigued by the authors’ argument that earlier periods might be obscured by later period overburdens across the survey area. On the one hand, this is certainly the case particularly over the span of millennia, with evidence for prehistoric periods hidden, destroyed, or otherwise compromised by later eras that also tend to produce more materially visible marks on the landscape. I do wonder, on the other hand, whether the authors overstated their case a bit for the potential of various historical periods to obscure their earlier historical predecessors. The wide range of natural and human formation processes that shape contemporary landscapes ranging from cut terraces to erosional features, scars associated with historical (and contemporary) excavations, and the local movement of soil to level fields contribute significantly to the complexity to surface assemblages. While I don’t doubt that the area of the ancient city of Thespiai is relatively stable (or at least well understood by the surveyors), I suspect that the relationship between the plow zone and subsurface material is too tricky to make arguments for later overburdens in anything but very well understood situations.

In fact, one thing that I’ve come to appreciate from our soon-to-be-published work at Koutsopetria is how much earlier material finds its way into later buildings. For example, the annex room from the Early Christian basilica at Koutsopetria clearly stands atop a clear earlier Roman horizon, but the walls, the floor and roof collapse, and the erosional overburden across the Late Roman building featured a large quantity of Hellenistic and even earlier Iron Age (and Cypro-Classical) material. We have our doubts whether the area around the Early Christian basilica saw activity in the Iron Age or even Hellenistic period, but the material present in the Late Roman building ensured that the Hellenistic and Classical periods, nevertheless, appeared in the excavation. This led us to suspect that some of the earlier period scatter across the Koutsopetria plain, might well reflect material that entered the plow zone from later buildings. Needless to say, the famous example of the Pyrgouthi tower where a predominantly Hellenistic scatter obscured a significant phase of 7th century re-occuptation springs to mind as well. 

The significance for understanding the the relationship between material from various periods also underscores the complexity of defining the extent of the site at any period as well as interpreting the presence of features like cemeteries or ritual activities in the landscape (much less estimating population size based on the size of a site!)  

Finally, one thing that I really appreciate from this work is the authors’ willingness to bring to the fore the various archaeologists responsible for producing the assemblages from the site. This extends from the charming story of the “Mad Dogs of Thespaia” to various roles played by two generations of ceramicists who read the material in the 1980s and 1990s and re-examined it in preparation for the book. Intensive survey has, at times, embraced a kind of impersonal style that places quantitative analyses and well presented maps before the work of the individual survey teams and ceramicists who produced the data. On the one hand, this makes sense as the rigorous collection of information from the field and the ceramic assemblages produces datasets designed for quantitative analysis. On the other hand, anyone who has worked on a survey knows that time in the Greek countryside, with sherds, and in the company of other archaeologists can shape the results of a project in ways that the tidy analysis often obscures.

As I work my way through the volume, I’ll likely blog more on this book over the coming weeks. It’s an important and expansive book, so stay tuned!

Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

This summer Bret Weber and I have been working on a very overdue contribution to a pretty unique volume edited by my collaborator Kyle Conway. The book will be a reprint of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota by Robert Cambell and colleagues and published by The University of North Dakota Press in 1958. It will include a wide range of essays including updated treatments of the North Dakota economy, politics, and, as you can see in our contribution, housing and is scheduled to appear this fall from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as part of its soon-to-be-inaugurated Bakken Bookshelf Series which will include the volume edited by me and Kyle Conway, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016), the volume that Bret Weber and I wrote on the Bakken, The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017), the forthcoming digital publication of The BeastThe Williston Report at 60, and, in preparation, Bret Weber’s Voices of the Bakken

While this article was written for a very specific context, the article is really the first to really emphasize the voices of residents of the Bakken oil patch alongside our treatment of the material culture. We still have a ways to go in bringing out the “voices of the Bakken,” from my perspective, this short article is a good first step. 

The introduction is below. To download the entire paper from my Humanities Commons site, go here.

If not for the dated photographs, the 1958 Williston Report‘s treatment of housing could apply to the early 21st century Bakken Boom. During both times, a mobile and rapidly changing workforce marked the onset of the boom for older communities in the region, and the arrival of new workers had at least as significant an impact, in the short term, as the rig-counts and the barrels of oil sent to market. In both the 1950s and the 2010s, the influx of new workers in the region produced high rents, limited housing options, and created a sense of social disruption.

During the Bakken’s most recent boom, we led the North Dakota Man Camp Project, which, like the authors of the Williston Report, brought a multi-disciplinary team to the Bakken oil patch (for a review of this project see Caraher et al. 2017; Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2016; Barkdull at al. 2016). Our project focused on documenting the material and social lives of the workers living in the wide range of workforce housing sites across the region. The North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Williston Report both captured a moment in the everchanging space of the Bakken. Indeed, the rapid pace of change, and the resulting housing crisis and social disruption, appear to be a common feature to resource booms around the world. Booms can create collisions when they bring the needs and capital of the center to rural peripheries (Caraher 2016) and “outside” workers arrive in the region and interact with longer-term, more established residents. Despite these structural similarities, there are differences in terms of the scope of the two Bakken booms with each involving distinct policy reactions and economic and political contexts. As a result, we located the 21st-century Bakken boom within its particular historical context with our attention to workforce housing framed by the growing concern for housing in the late modern world.

This chapter provides a critique of the 1958 Report’s treatment of housing, a consideration of the emergent perspectives on workforce housing in the present, and an overview of our research of temporary workforce housing. It concludes with a consideration of how economic booms and busts manifest and accelerate changing ideals about domesticity, and the political ramifications of these changes for community in a global, neoliberal context.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It looks like a cloudy, cool, and muggy weekend as first feeling of fall creep into North Dakotaland and the start of the semester is right around the corner. It should be a good time to practice hunkering down with a good book, stack of articles, or some writing.

To get your first fall weekend started, here’s a little list of quick hits and varia:

IMG 2830Frog Days of Summer

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care (Part 2)

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense. I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and here’s the second section. It’s rough and a bit raw (and maybe bad). As always I appreciate both constructive and destructive criticism.

As the organizers of this panel know well, transhumanism offers a way to consider the interplay between technology and performance in society (e.g. Haraway 1984) and, more specifically, in archaeology. It also offers a vague roadmap to anticipate the social and disciplinary implications of new approaches to producing archaeological knowledge. Indeed, for most of the later 20th century archaeologists have embraced methodology and seen knowledge making as an explicit relationship between particular techniques, tools, and situations. In this way, archaeological work does not end at the limits of our bodies, but extends reciprocally through technology, techniques, and social organization to create the hybrid space of archaeological knowledge making.

I like to think of the resulting archaeology is far more superficial in the sense that Rodney Harrison has suggested with the dominant metaphor of excavation giving way to the production of surface assemblages consisting of people, objects, tools, and techniques. For authors like Shannon Lee Dawdy, the awareness of how assemblages produce meaningful pasts involves more than simply dutiful documentation and analysis of archaeological work but also recognizing the relationship between field work, local knowledge, ritual activities, and various pre- and anti-modern ways of locating, narrating, and producing social value for artifacts (Dawdy 2016). For Olivier (2012), this speaks to the chaotic nature of time and memory from which the discipline of archaeological seeks to produce an order, but not the only order possible, useful, or meaningful. In this context, the rather linear practice of stratigraphic excavation with its institutional, disciplinary, and performative underpinnings gives way to the raucous and uneven performance of punk rock music which often eschews expertise, barriers to access, and specialized knowledge. There’s an immediacy to it and an explicitly improvised character to even recorded punk music. To use Illich’s terms, the interaction between tools, performance, methods, and individuals is convivial.

My arguments for a slow archaeology shares an interest in conviviality when it seeks to privilege unstructured or less structured engagements with the countryside, embodied field practices like illustrating and note taking by hand, and avoiding the fragmentation of archaeological information into smaller bit of “data.” On the one hand, I remain optimistic that such views of the use of digital technology in archaeology are likely to be superseded as scholars continue to unpack the complex relationship between archaeologists and technology. The transhuman archaeologist is much more likely to recognize the interplay between ourselves and the various digital ”cognitive artifacts” that expand our ability to think about, recognize, or produce archaeological objects (Huggett 2017).

On the other hand, a transhuman archaeology will also transform the social organization of archaeological practice. Digital technology, for example, whatever its integrative potential, relies, in part, on the industrialist and Taylorist approach of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones as a step toward aggregating the results of these tasks into completed products. While the linearity of the assembly line may appear outmoded in our digitally networked world, its efficiency speaks to a common goal of fragmenting work as a way to mitigate differences in experience and expertise. Various crowd-sourced research projects (e.g. Sarah Parcak work) have shown how digital tools have produced non-linear approaches to complex archaeological problems. Whatever the value of this kind of archaeological work it is hard not to see it as a kind of digital approach to industrial logic, and as a result, and bringing a distinct form of deskilling (or at very least “reskilling“) to certain kinds of archaeological work.

I recognize that by following the logic of Ellul, Illich, and other anti-modernists, I am predisposed my to worry about the use of remote, structured or simplified recording digital recording interfaces, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation, or the use of software to synthesize unstructured data such as generated by digital photography into 3D structure-from-motion images (Morgan and Knight 2017). I do, however, think that the adoption of digital tools and the understanding of digital technologies at both a conceptual and applied level is not merely exchanging one set of skills for another (pace Roosevelt et al.), but also simplifying (and deskilling) certain elements of archaeological work.

Shifting from an assembly line model to a digital model that allows for more dynamic (and remote) access to data production and analysis will transform the organization of archaeological work. The coincidence between an approach to archaeological grounded in assemblages of individuals, objects, places, and pasts, and the democratizing character of digital practices demonstrates allows us to accommodate, but also replace certain kinds of specialists with a computer algorithm or commercial software. The incorporation of algorithms, software, digital tools, and new techniques into archaeological practice brings with them their distinctive logic of practice to field work and analysis.

Jacques Ellul’s work stressed how efficiency and specialization are bound up in the fuzzy concept of technique which he locates as the driving force behind human decision making. For Ellul, technique is modern desire to work efficiently as an end unto itself. Archaeology, on the one hand, as a discipline that emerged, at least in part, alongside industrial practices has always privileged efficiency in organization, documentation, and work. This is not to say that individual archaeologists only and always privileged efficiency, of course, but the very concept of specialization in approaches, methods, procedures, and experiences represents a kind of technique that has played a historically significant role in the production of archaeological knowledge. Practices that marked an individuals specialized skills from carefully maintained notebooks of the trench supervisor or the intricate illustrations of the architect today represent some of the very fields that digital practices propose to refine and improve.

As people like Eric Kansa have noted, the impulse to use digital tools to produce more efficient data collection, as an example, anticipated the recent fascination with “Big Data” well in advance of the consistent demonstration of its results (Kansa 2017; Bevan 20xx). This is not to say that big data will not lead to important breakthroughs in our field, but to suggest that the efficiency possible in digital data collection, analysis, and dissemination, has outpaced our ability to draw significant conclusions. As Roosevelt and others cleverly quipped, digitization is an alternative to destruction in the context of field practices, but this presupposes that this data can produce meaningful interpretation.

In Praise of Trucks

This is another draft of an essay for the North Dakota Quarterly blog and a case study for what happens when you have to clean up from a major thunderstorm while jet lagged. Comments, critiques, or ridicule welcome, as always!

I had been home from my summer field work for about 24 hours when I found myself in our yard, cleaning up branches from a major summer thunderstorm. For the next five or six days, I watched pick-up trucks full of fallen limbs, brush, and other debris transport their crumpled cargos to the local green-waste disposal site. I filled my 2003 Ford F-150 up with branches as well and hauled them out of my yard. In times like this, I appreciated the utility of the American half-ton pick-up truck and celebrated their ubiquity in my small town in North Dakota.

I recognize, of course, that this is not a popular position to have. Trucks are inefficient vehicles in the best of circumstances. The get miserable gas milage, their size and weight is unnecessary for grocery store runs, the daily commute, or finding parking in a crowded Starbucks, and their design language embodies a kind of hyper masculinity that puts brute strength before all subtlety in an increasingly complex world. Moreover, they’re not particular fun to drive, they don’t typically involve the latest and greatest in automotive technology, and they are designed around predictability and persistence. They’re boring and ubiquitous, and perhaps this accounts for widespread availability of parts and accessories to customize these vehicles. I can’t and won’t deny that my truck is boring, inefficient, and vulgar, but I do love it. 

I also appreciate the willingness of truck owners to take on part of the collective guilt in society in the name of a kind of situational utility. After a big storm, few would doubt the utility of the truck and value of local truck owners. When it comes time to move, pick up that big purchase at a local store, load up on mulch, buy wood for rebuilding a deck, or any of the other suburban, middle class chores that seem to never end, the neighbor’s truck becomes a community resource. When weather disasters attract national attention, there’s the ironic celebration of monster or lifted-truck owners who bring their absurd vehicles to the rescue of beleaguered suburbanites, who invariably drive lesser vehicles or hybrids. Truck drivers, in some ways, have become inverted scapegoats for their communities. They contribute during moments of particular need or crisis, but otherwise endure the criticism for their outsized and outmoded vehicles. 

As a university professor, in the humanities, at a state university, I’m pretty comfortable holding an position that is unpopular among a sizable part of the population (although probably the same part of the population who also own more than their share of trucks). In contrast to the noble truck, in the absence of crisis, humanities faculty are politely ignored and is, at worst, seen by critics as a harmless concession to tradition, and, at best, as a useful way to prepare students for the complexities of everyday life. During times of financial or ideological crisis, however, humanities faculty become the scapegoats for perceived problems in higher education or, more broadly, the profligacy of obsolete public institutions that peddle in useless factoids or convoluted theorizing of limited practical value.   

Survey Archaeology and Dogs

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been working my way through some recent scholarly on survey archaeology as we begin to analyze the data from the Western Argolid Regional Project. Hopefully I’ll have time to blog more at length about articles like, Marica Cassis, Owen Doonan, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, “Evaluating Archaeological Evidence for Demographics, Abandonment, and Recovery in Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia,” Human Ecology 46 (2018): 381–398. Cassis et al. bring together the analysis of a range of survey projects in Anatolia to demonstrate a diverse array of changes in settlement across the region during the seventh and eighth centuries. The authors argue for regional variation but also connections to climate change, the occupation of marginal lands, and varying degrees of regional engagement in larger economic and political systems. 

I’ve also started to read carefully, John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass, Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site. Cambridge 2017. While there is much to unpack in this volume, I genuinely appreciated the anecdote on p. 31. 

“One recollection, shared between the notebooks and our own vivid memories, is that of the ‘Hounds of Thespiai’. In those days, when dogs in rural Greece were almost never treated as pets, allowed in the home or kept on a leash (in contrast to the gilded pooches on parade in Athens’ Kolonaki Square), their main function in the countryside was to guard houses and sheep-folds. Apart from the violent barking which was the first form of custodianship, few ventured physical aggression unless one really intended to break into private property. To these rules of behaviour, comforting for the nervous student on field survey in Greece for the first time, the Mad Dogs of Thespies were a permanent exception. Once the field teams were in place in the lowlands of the ancient city each morning, only a few minutes of suspicious calm would elapse before a distant belling from the top of Thespies village hill above us would announce our detection by the Mad Dogs. They would immediately pour down the hill-side towards us at a great pace, then charge at the two teams. There never seemed to be an intention to stop short and make fierce gestures: rather, one got the repeated impression that large pieces of student were believed to be on offer to the under-fed mongrels. Only a Classical education offered daily security against the presumed threat: forming a circle, the field teams would present their steel-tipped sets of 2-m ranging poles to their would-be attackers. Wonderfully, after ten minutes of the ensuing stand-off, the Mad Dogs would slink off, but one could never be sure that an unexpected reprise might not occur later in the morning.”