More on a Method for Late Antique Archaeology

Needless to say,  L. Lavan and M. Mulryan eds. Field Methods and Post-Excavation Techniques in Late Antique Archaeology (Brill 2015) has attracted my attention. First, it has to do with methods (see my post last week), but it also has to do with whether we think of about archaeology in terms of period specific methods. This winter, for example, I’m co-writing an introduction to a volume on Early Christian Archaeology, and my co-author, David Pettegrew, and I have been talking about whether the study of the Early Christian period (and this topic) requires a particular methodological toolkit. I have also been turning over in my head the idea for a small book on the archaeology of the contemporary world that considers both the methods for interrogating the contemporary (and modern) world and how the methods used by archaeologists (and their tools) can as easily become the objects of archaeological study. In short, I’m thinking about periods and methods a good bit these days and the Lavan and Mulryan book added fuel to the fire.

On a superficial level, I think most archaeologists will agree that the study of certain periods (and places) privilege certain questions. For example, Richard Blanton’s famous “Mediterranean Myopia” (Antiquity (2001), 627-629) article reflects (among other things) the disjunction between Mediterranean and New World conceptualizations of regional level intensive survey. It goes without saying that the concept of the region is historically and geographically constituted. The methodological (and procedural) limits on regional survey are shaped in large part by these historical and geographic research questions.

Luke Lavan’s contribution to the first section of the book was particularly intriguing to me. He frames his discussion of an archaeology of Late Antiquity around the questions that scholars of Late Antiquity tend to emphasize. Since scholars (ancient and modern) have tended to define Mediterranean antiquity as an urban phenomenon, our methods for documenting the “late” period of antiquity have focused on urban transformation. Lavan’s methodological reflections stopped short of declaring that the archaeology of the Late Antiquity requires a distinct methodology and instead emphasized how the careful inspection and documentation of urban spaces can reveal often overlooked evidence for change. For example scrutiny of building blocks and brick can reveal subtle indications of repairs. The original location of graffito and inscriptions can point to places of public display in late cities. Careful attention to spoliation, to micro repairs, and to the movement of material around urban sites can reveal the transformation of the urban fabric which represents a basic characteristic of the ancient world. 

(One could imagine a careful post on the role of the archaeology of the Late Antique countryside by David Pettegrew!) 

As for Early Christian archaeology, the challenge is a bit different. The attention to the intersection of ritual and scriptural texts and material culture could be a point of emphasis for scholars, it’s unclear how this text-centered focus shapes archaeological practice. The search for subtle traces of Christian origins might shape certain aspects of archaeological practice in the field, but even that seems unlikely to fall outside the range of typical, careful archaeological methods.

Perhaps the intersection of believe (even faith) and materiality is where an archaeology of Early Christianity could carve out some methodological autonomy, but it remains to be seen how this would be different from an archaeology of religion or philosophy or even just the illusive “archaeology of the senses.” That being said, there is a certain attitude toward materiality in Early Christianity that informed the veneration of relics, the important role of icons, and the significance of particular historical places and monuments. This may be where an archaeology of Early Christianity can produce a distinct contribution to archaeological method. 

More on Mobilizing the Past

Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology is the most recent book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota continues to produce downloads, sales, and page views. 

If you feel like the prospect of a free download or a $20 book is just too much of a commitment, then check out editor Jody Gordon’s summary of the book’s scope and perspective. He presented this paper at the recent American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting and released it to the world under a CC-By license. So rather than read something blather I’ve hacked out, go and read Jody’s summary.


(And if you’re still hungry for more, go and check out the next book from The Digital Press, Micah Bloom’s Codex. We’re doing a very quiet little conversation and preview here.)

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Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It finally feels like winter here in North Dakotaland, but fortunately there are plenty of reasons to stay inside by the fire. This weekend’s highlights involve numerous conference championship footballing contests as well as the Mighty Spiders of the University of Richmond taking on the Fighting Hawks of the University of North Dakota right here in Grand Forks. It doesn’t get any more exciting than that, folks. Throw the records out.

While the excitement builds for the big game, please do enjoy a little list of varia and quick hits:

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Method in the Archaeology of Late Antiquity

This week I’ve started work on a rather more technical publication project for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.


I’m working to publish an archaeological field manual for a significant and long-standing excavation. The manual posses some interesting (but hardly unique) challenges. First, such documents with a few exceptions tend to be internal documents that assume a basic familiarity with a project and its infrastructure. For example, this particular manual talks about “the museum” as opposed to the “the lab” or “the apotheke” or the “storerooms.” This project had a unique cast of characters like “supervisors,” “a field director,” and “the Director,” whose responsibilities are not so much articulated but traced through their interaction in the manual. The organization or the manual and the balance between various sections rests on not only a long history of experience with the particular situation at that excavation, but also on institutional priorities, specific policies in the host country, and the character of an dense, multi-phase, urban site.

When I read the manual and talked it over with some members of my editorial board, we worried that this kind of work might be too site specific to be of general utility or that it would require a lot of contextualizing work to be applicable to another site elsewhere.

Then I started to read Luke Lavan’s newest volume in the epic Late Antique Archaeology series from Brill titled Field Methods and Post-Excavation Techniques in Late Antique Archaeology (2015). In his inflammatory (in a good way, I think) introduction, Lavan bemoans the uneven character of field work at Late Antique sites in the Mediterranean. While the reasons for the irregularity are wide range from the desire to remove levels quickly to present sites for visitor to particular national archaeological traditions, project directors who lack up-to-date archaeological training, and to intellectual (often related to political) isolation from wider trends in practice. Among the suggestions floated by Lavan is that archaeologists make their field manuals available so that exemplars of contemporary archaeological practices are available.

A quick Google search for field manuals turns up a pretty substantial number of manuals (particular from projects in the American southwest), but relatively few of them are from the Mediterranean basin and even fewer are from Greece. I couldn’t find any, even informally published manuals from projects on Cyprus. Needless to say, many of the manuals do not appear in WorldCat and exist as pdfs on the web where they run risk of being digital ephemera. In fact, these manuals are valuable as artifacts for the history of both excavations and archaeology, they’re an important means for circulating knowledge about excavation practices, and they’re invaluable lens for interpreting the results of a project. 

This got me thinking that maybe publishing a site-specific field manual, more or less “as is” isn’t a bad thing. They provide a snapshot of how a project operates or operated at a particular time and a guide that can be referenced when publishing the results or interpretation from a site. I wonder how many projects would be interested in doing that?

Indigenous Archaeology Again

My friend Dimitri Nakassis directed me toward a recent article in American Anthropologist 118 (2016) by Mary Leighton titled “Indigenous Archaeological Field Technicians at Tiwanaku, Bolivia: A  Hybrid Form of Scientific Labor.” I’ve blogged about Leighton’s work here a few months ago particularly her effort to dissect the organization and realities of field work as a vital component to archaeological knowledge production. Her work appears in the bibliography to my recent effort to propose a “slow archaeology.”

In her 2016 article Leighton explores the relationship between local, indigenous labor in Bolivia and archaeological work. She argues that the indigenous workers who do much of the labor associated with field work at her project in Bolivia have significantly different conceptions of the organization and purpose of field work. For example, local Tiwanakeño workers negotiate their roles in the project not based on experience or expertise, but according to a rotational scheme arranged by community leaders. Moreover, local workers do not think about their work on this archaeological project as co-producing scientific knowledge and were reluctant to share or simply ambivalent about their views or interpretations of artifacts and features that documented by the American and Bolivian archaeologists. Efforts to press the indigenous workers to interpret their works and its results were an awkward failure. At the same time, there was little evidence that working on a scientific archaeological project “colonized” Tiwanakeño understandings of their past. Members of the indigenous community remained adept at “code switching” and able to move between traditional understandings of their history and the requirements of archaeological field work.

A few years ago, I played with the idea of indigenous archaeology in the context of my experiences in Greece and Cyprus. A common refrain among foreign archaeologists working in both places (and in Greece in particular) is that so much has been excavated, particularly by the Greek Archaeological Service and the Archaeological Society, and so little has been published. Few have worked in Greece without encountering famous stories of notebooks being passed down from the excavator to their wives and children as well as “rights” to publish particular material. I argued that for some in Greece, the work of excavation was not about producing publishable “scientific” results, but about expressing ownership over the objects and features excavated. Excavating specific sites and artifacts produced a kind of political power that was independent of the need to publish the results. In fact, excavation and possession represented a kind of authority that was in no way inferior to producing new knowledge. (And this extends to the sometimes protracted publication schedules embraced by foreign archaeologists as well). This isn’t to suggest that Greek archaeologists are any less committed to or capable of producing scientific results, but that archaeology in Greece has a range of different purposes from nation building to personal political advancement and the production of new knowledge.   

On Cyprus, I noted that archaeologists sometimes blended their faith and the faith of local communities with archaeological work that contributed to longstanding views of Cyprus as a Christian nation. This kind of national archaeology continued a tradition of Christian archaeological practice with roots in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period. Like their Greek colleagues, these archaeologists are capable of a kind of “code switching” between different discursive formations that give archaeological work meaning. Recognizing this kind of code switching allows archaeologists to move from relatively simple binaries that understand good and bad archaeological practices as mutually exclusive and toward larger critiques of archaeological goals and the relationship between archaeological work (both in the field and in an academic and narrowly defined professional sense) and our understanding of the past. 

A Deep Map of the Bakken

Over the long weekend, I immersed myself in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map). (1991). I didn’t know this book until a conversation with a few graduate students this summer after my tortured attempts to explain my tourist guide to the Bakken project. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the term “deep map,” but as I explored PrairyErth, I came to realize that Heat-Moon’s project with this work, which explores a single county in Kansas, was fundamentally similar to what I wanted to do with my tourist guide. The biggest difference was that Heat-Moon was a kind of story-teller, ethnographer, and oral historians where my speciality was in things.

So, the base map for the deep map that I want to prepare for the Bakken is the tourist guide (which should appear next year from NDUS Press). It provides a route through the space of the Bakken which runs across US Route 2 before turning south at 13-Mile Corner to trace US Route 85. This inverted L forms the main artery of the Bakken both from its origins around Tioga to its current heart in William and McKenzie Counties. Our anchors are the towns of Ray, Stanley, Tinga, Williston, and Watford City, but we recognize that the Bakken is also made of places like the abandoned town of Wheelock, the depopulated township of Manitou, the area called Johnson’s Corner, and the numerous nameless agglomerations of tanks, unit yards, mobile workforce housing, and gas plants. This is the framework for a deep map.

When we submitted the original draft of the guide to new Heritage Guide series editor at the NDSU Press, he suggested that we add more people to our work. I begrudgingly did this, thinking all the while, that tourist guides aren’t really about people but about places, monuments, and stories. If people do appear, they’re past people or individuals who make short cameos (like the kindly priest who has the keys to the historic church or the vivacious merchant who will offer you tea while you browse his wares). Complicating matters more is that our guide is not about a landscape forged in the distant past but about a dynamic contemporary space. In other words, historic personages who populate traditional tourist guides played a relatively small role in our work because our primary focus was on the present. While I don’t regret the decision of inserting a few people in our guide, I think the object-oriented approach to our guide limits how one can encounter the Bakken landscape.  

Heat-Moon’s deep map is, in contrast, all about people. Most short chapters, even those with a rather more empirical bent, focus on the people from Chase County, Kansas. In fact, he uses the ugly word “countians” so many times that I am almost comfortable with it. For the Bakken, we have hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews that could populate our deep map and we received a small grant from the University of North Dakota to publish these interviews next year.

Heat-Moon’s deep map is more than just people, though. He uses people to tell the geological, the historical, the political, the cultural and the economic story of the county’s various landscapes and places. We’re fortunate for western North Dakota to have not only an outstanding (and new) geological history, but also have an intriguing (and growing) body of literature about the region and some solid historical treatments of the places. 

As I continue to turn the idea of a deep map over in my head, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that guide to the Bakken is just a beginning for a deep map. 

Another Book by the Cover

One of the really fun things about being a publisher is that I get to help bring amazing projects to a wider audience. I have a book in the very early phases of production and another project that is just gaining some moment.

After a little nudging I’ve managed to convince Micah Bloom to publish (part of) his remarkable installation Codex with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The ink isn’t quite dry on the agreement, but we’re far enough along that I feel like a quiet announcement on my personal blog is in order. I blogged about Codex when it was an installation at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Our plan is to expand Codex by adding a series of short, incisive essays by archaeologists, historians, and scholars of the book to Bloom’s arresting photographs. The book will be released in a archival edition, a digital edition, and a lower-cost paperback each with slightly different content.  

Right now, we’re working out some of the production details, but Micah drafted a few potential book covers just to get some ideas flowing. 

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Codex cover digital press copy

Codex covers i copy

Codex covers 4 copy

We also set up a website for some conversation between the authors and contributors. You can take a peek at it here and do check out the gallery to get an idea what this project is about.

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s a holiday weekend and the start of what I like to call “the winter writing season.” These are the frantic weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years when we share with our students an overwhelming sense of urgency to get work done.

Of course we all have other stuff going on. This weekend alone we have The Game, the first round of FCS playoffs (Go Spiders!), the heart of the NFL season, the season finale of Formula 1, and Australia’s desperate effort not to lose their sixth test match in a row. And that’s not mentioning college basketballing, Christmas shopping, or the NBA. No wonder professional hockey went under in the US. There’s simply no time for it.

But there is always time for writing and reading, so please enjoy these quick hits and varia:

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Teaching Wednesday

I know that “Teaching Wednesday” isn’t a thing, but I realized that I hadn’t blogged about teaching for a while here, and left my night class yesterday thinking about teaching at the end of the semester. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been teaching History 101 in the University of North Dakota’s fancy Scale-Up classroom. The Scale-Up room consisted of 20, 9-student tables designed to facilitated group learning.

My course leads students through the process of writing a history textbook with each table being responsible for a part of a chapter on Greek, Roman, and Medieval history. Over the course of the semester, the students start by writing 500-700 word, individual, analysis papers which introduce them to using primary sources, compiling specific historical evidence (e.g. names, dates, et c.), and constructing arguments. These papers begin as group work, with each table working on an outline, compiling evidence, and discussing their approaches to the topic. Then, each student turns in an individual paper.

The skills developed in these exercises are then applied them to the larger task of writing 3, 3000-word sections of chapters for a textbook written collectively. For each section, each 9-person table prepares an outline, writes a draft, reviews other table’s drafts, and revises their draft into a polished, final product over a three week stretch. Thus, the final 9 weeks of the semester are dedicated to each group writing a section on three different topics. 

Each class is a bit different, but generally, I provide different levels of feedback over the course of the 9 weeks. The first section each table writes often focuses on process. For example, students become so eager to figure out a thesis for their chapter that they often try to come up with an argument before they have compiled evidence (each table has a variety of textbooks and web resources for their research). The second 3-week section tends to focus on issues of organization and making sure that a 3000-word paper written by 9 students coheres and supports a single argument. The final 3-week section tends to focus on more writerly issues, but it also offers the students an opportunity to approach the task of writing a 3000-word paper with a sense of confidence both in my expectations and in understand group dynamics and how the process works. 

The biggest challenge for me as we head toward the end of the semester is what to do during class time. This week, for example, was the second week in the final 3-week module. This class period usually involves addressing feedback they’ve been given on their outline, refining their supporting arguments and thesis, and hopefully beginning to write. Last night, I stood there, bored, and watched the class work. I thought: “Everyone is just writing. It’s like they don’t NEED me any more.”

Then I realized that everyone is working, and while I can always push them to improve, to some extent, the class has reached its goals. Everyone in the class was just writing. 

That was a pretty good feeling.