Curating Excavation Data

Over the past two weeks David Pettegrew and I have been working through the data from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project’s excavation seasons. This includes two seasons of excavation in the 1990s by Maria Hadjicosti with the Cypriot Department of Antiquities and and three seasons of excavation by a team from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Messiah College, and the University of North Dakota. So far, we’ve prepared the finds tables for publication following the approach that we took with the data from the intensive pedestrian survey at the site published in 2014.

With that more or less under control, we’ve turned our attention to the excavation data which is a bit more complicated a proposition. When we published our intensive survey unit data, we recognized that each survey unit is more or less comparable to every other survey unit. They are all the product of the same procedures, methods, and recording. It is, therefore, useful to query all the data together or a wide range of subsets of that data to interrogate the relationship between surface conditions and artifact recovery rates, densities, and assemblages.

Excavation data, in contrast, is different. Each stratigraphic unit (SU) represents a more complicated set of variables, procedures, and methods that make it very difficult to compare them. For example, a scarp cleaning unit or a plow-zone unit is very different from a unit that is floor packing. The excavation of floor packing in different trenches may or may not be defined the in the same way spatially or procedurally. In one trench the floor packing might be a single SU; in another, the floor packing might be removed over several SUs that are determined only later to represent the same stratigraphic context.

Our description of survey units served to define each unit in a way that allowed us to compare surface conditions across the entire survey area or even between survey areas. Our recording practices in excavation often serve to define our stratigraphic units in a way that is relative to physically adjacent units that represent later depositional events. This isn’t to suggest that we can’t compare units between trenches, but to note that the relative differences between stratigraphic units are often more important in describing the character of a stratigraphic unit.

All this is to say that we’re trying to figure out what information is important to include as searchable, queryable, and sortable data and what information can be left on our stratigraphic unit forms (which will be published as scans). The issue, then, is not whether we’ll publish some information and not publish other information – we’ll publish all of our recording sheets – but rather what we will publish as data and what will remain available, but not presented in a way that can be queried or 

 My instinct is to be fairly minimalist with the information that we present as formal data points. My take would be to publish as data:
* EU (trench number)
* SU (stratigraphic unit number),
* Harris Matrix Relationships (using the basic Harris matrix style terms)
* Description (as a free text block).  

David advocates for a more robust set of queryable descriptors. 

The first group are the same as mine:

* Area
* EU (trench number)
* SU (stratigraphic unit number)
* Description

The next group can be easily pulled from our forms:

* DateExcavated
* MinElev
* MaxElev
* Munsell
* Texture
* Consolidation
* Stoniness
* Dominant Clast

Some of the categories will be included not as textual data, but as links to other resources:

* DrawingNumber
* DrawingDescription
* PhotoNumber
* PhotoDescription

The final group is more interpretive and will draw from the final reports and our published chapter:

* Context (Surface, Plow, Destruction, Floor, Subsurface)
* Phasing in Site
* Summary (from our chapter) 

He does not include Harris Matrix relationships.

The question that I leave for my readers to consider is how do we balance between presenting as much data as might be useful for our audience, and publishing so much data that we allow for unwanted errors to creep in without providing additional utility. 

More 7th Century

Just a short post this morning, but I’ve really been enjoying John Haldon’s The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740 (Harvard 2016). In many ways, Haldon has been responsible for the changing perceptions of the 7th and 8th century among historians and archaeologists with his several, high-influential works on the topic.

His most recent work stands 25 years (well 26), after his Byzantium in the Seventh Century, and surveys the field since this important work. The book brings together politics and religion with institutional history of the Roman state and the archaeology and even environmental history of the Late Roman world. I’ll reflect on the book more expansively next week.

What interested me the most for now, however, is that Haldon decided to use a biological metaphor for his study of the Roman state. His title and, indeed, the main focus of the book, is that states must “die.” The persistence of the Roman state in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the massive dislocations, turmoil, and changes of the 7th and 8th centuries, is, in some ways, its exceptional feature. For Haldon, the military and economic pressures on the state created conditions under which it should fail, but it didn’t.

It’s interesting that among archaeologists, we’ve increasingly come to expect continuity despite political and economic changes. In other words, we’re less inclined to expect a local social organization, political structures, or material culture to change even under rather dire or extreme pressures from military interventions or regime change. This speaks to the deep affinity to structuralism among archaeologist, our inclination to study society at the scale of centuries, and our profoundly ironic attitude to the traditional historical discourse. If history says change, archaeology frequently calls for continuity. 

As I read Haldon’s book, I can’t help but constantly turn his premise on its head and wonder what agents and force would be necessary to make a state change at all and what kind of change would be necessary for us to declare a state well and truly dead. 

Evicted

If you haven’t read Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book, Evicted, you should. It is the best non-fiction book I’ve read for years and has done more to crystalize how I think about housing in the 21st century than almost anything else. Readers of this blog know that housing has become a significant interest of mine stemming largely from my work with the North Dakota Man Camp Project and conversations with my colleague Bret Weber.

As most folks probably know, Desmond’s Evicted follows a group of people who were evicted from their homes and shows the struggles that they endure to reclaim stable housing. He complements their perspectives with that of a couple of landlords who constantly balance between managing their properties as investments and dealing with the precarious lives of their tenants. The main argument in the book is that evictions are not the result of social and economic problems among those battling endemic poverty in American cities, but causes the economic and social problems making it nearly impossible for the poorest of the poor to claw their way to stability. Evictions not only become mark the records of the evicted as unstable renters driving them into far less stable markets for housing, but also disrupts family life and stable employment, undermines the ability for existing social safety nets to function properly, and deprives individuals of a sense of worth that is crucial for self esteem, confidence, planning, and that most characteristic condition of capitalist, ambition.

I took five things away from this book:

Functional Housing. I’ll admit that I’ve tended to see housing as a more less functional category of space. Perhaps this comes from my experience as an Mediterranean archaeologist where we’ve tended to see certain assemblages of material and spaces as “domestic” in function without much in the way of nuance outside the wealthiest elite of the ancient world. When I tried to adapt this kind of definition to my work in the contemporary Bakken oil patch, I found that it was rather inadequate to describe the conditions present in workforce housing in the Bakken ranging from ramshackle RVs to austerely functional, professionally managed “man camps.” While the latter certainly served the basic housing needs for a significant portion of the Bakken workforce, they also functioned like hotels, limiting the opportunities for their residents to personalize their space, privileging functionality over intimacy, and undermining the traditional middle-class division between work and life by bundling housing with employment.

Desmond’s book does not deal with workforce housing per se, but few of his evicted residents end up on the street or without a place to stay. Instead, they are forced from their homes into the homes of others, shelters, and other places that function as housing – or perhaps more basically shelter – but do not offer a sense of security, intimacy, or “ownership” (in the broadest sense of the term). Desmond brilliant reveals the division between housing as a function and housing as part of the psychological armor that an individual needs to survive in the modern world.  

Property as Investment and Housing as Life. The broader function of housing makes the tension between housing as an investment and housing as fundamental to a successful life in the 21st century all the more dramatic. Desmond’s work follows the story of both renters and landlords that embodies this tension. What is interesting is at the lowest level of the housing scale in the U.S., landlords are not faceless companies or management outfits, but real people who make their living providing housing for the poorest of the poor in American cities. In some ways these individuals are more sympathetic figures with more flexible approaches to housing than, say, the banks that held mortgages during the subprime mortgage crisis. On the other hand, these individuals could be fickle and unpredictable as they attempted to manage a housing stock that often was in desperate need of repairs, tenants who struggled to pay rent, and the various institutional challenges brought by building inspectors, the police, and various other city service providers. The property owners in Desmond’s book are far more sympathetic figures than the absentee, millionaire investors vilified by K. Stanley Robinson in his most recent novel or in the recent survey of housing by Marcuse and Madden.

Precarity. Bret Weber introduced me to the idea of precarity earlier this year and since then, I’ve been turning it around in my head and trying to figure our whether the idea is sufficiently robust to apply it formally to how we understand the coming changes to 21st century society. It basically describes an social and economic condition where one’s ability to survive in a meaningful and independent way is constantly under threat. I’ve considering applying it to the condition of oil workers in the Bakken whose livelihood is dependent on economic forces that are beyond their control and there is a clear value to wealthy companies to avoid encumbering their bottom like with a stable and permanent workforce. The recent rise in adjunct labor at American universities is similarly invested the creation of precarity in the academic workforce. Precarity also drives down wages, preserves a pool of available labor for just-in-time production, and undermines social stability in communities.

Among the poorest of the American poor, precarity is a way of life with the vicissitudes of housing not only manifesting the precarious nature of their existence, but exacerbating it. Precarious employment means precarious incomes and this means precarious housing. More importantly, the system of inexpensive rental housing depends on the precarious labor of the chronically unemployed who will work at below minimum wage or for incredibly low wages because they have no choice. This low cost labor keeps the margins up on low cost housing that is frequently occupied by the poorest of the poor who, in turn, provide both rents and low cost labor.  

Social Networks. One of the more remarkable things that I learned from Desmond’s book is the way in which personal relationship – the social network – functioned for the poor and the evicted. In some cases, personal relationship provided a functional safety net for people evicted from their homes. Friends, family, and neighbors took in the newly evicted and even provided food and – perhaps as importantly – advice, friendship, and sympathy.

At the same time, these networks were incredibly fragile with friends and family frequently unwilling or unable to help, and new relationships forming almost spontaneously during crises. This dynamic situation is both heartening because it demonstrates a kind of shared humanity during a crisis, but also troubling because social bonds become structured around the practical needs of housing and sustenance. As we start to analyze the interviews from the North Dakota Man Camp Project, it’ll be interesting to determine whether we can recognize these dynamic networks of relationships that thrive in precarious environments.

Objects. This is an archaeological blog, right? I couldn’t help but think about all the objects mentioned in Demond’s book. I immediately envisioned a student project that produced an index of objects from the book and considered how objects served to both advance Desmond’s argument and in the lives of the evicted. Producing plans of the houses and rooms that Desmond describes would also provide a kind of blueprint of poverty in American cites. Someone needs to do this!

Slow Academia and the Summer

I found Dimitri Nakassis’s recent blog post in response to Mary Beard’s recent column in the TLS pretty interesting, and it seems to have generated a bit of social media buzz as well. Go read it. 

[For those of you who read my blog regularly, you can probably skip this post!]

To summarize Dimitri and Prof. Beard briefly: they let folks know that academics work all summer despite the tendency to see our profession as primarily involved in teaching undergraduates and getting “summers off.” As readers of my blog might suspect, both Prof. Beard and Dimitri are really busy over the summer doing research, prepping classes, and even doing professional service to their disciplines and their universities. For most academics, this is hardly a surprise. We have the luxury of working when we want and sometimes even where we want for part of every year and most of us embrace these times not as an opportunity to turn our back on our professions, but to actually do things that enrich and expand our professional lives. As some of the comments on social media suggest, academics even define leisure activities like vacations or (in my case) bike rides or long walks as professionally productive time. 

I’ll return to these ideas, but first, it’s important to acknowledge the context context for their post. Both Beard and Dimitri work at publicly funded schools and these posts have a real value inasmuch as they remind the public that despite many of us not teaching in the summer, we, in fact, still work. They might have added that technically many of us are not even under contract in the summer months (although I am not sure about Dimitri and Prof. Beard). So those of us who continue to do our jobs – read drafts of theses, do research, respond to emails, revise classes, and the like – are doing so without being paid a salary. At the same time, most American universities do treat tenured and tenure track faculty as employees even when we’re not being paid, providing lab and office space, library access as well as health insurance during the summer months. In other words, American (and I assume most) universities provide their tenured and tenure track faculty with the basic tools to do their jobs even when they’re not drawing a salary. 

That being said, both posts also address one of the most interesting conflicts in the life of academics: the tension between our lives in the industrial world of education and the pre-industrial world of research. Research, especially in the humanities, frequently follows a pre-industrial model and ebbs and flows in fits and starts. We race toward deadlines and, at times, work settles into prolonged lulls. We work on weekends, over the summer, and on holidays, but we might also find ourselves taking weeks off from research as teaching, service, or other obligations take priority. Teaching and service, in contrast, tend to follow an industrial pattern with regimented flow of classes and semesters shaping our work rhythms.

This tension between industrial and pre-industrial work contributes significantly to the confused discourse of work/life balance in academia as I noted in my two part review of the Slow Professor, and I think it also creates some confusion when I discuss slow archaeology and the like. There is a tendency to see pre-industrial work rhythms as less efficient and positioned to benefit from any number timesaving tools designed to streamline workflow from research to publication. There’s also a tendency for industrial expectations to influence preindustrial work rhythms. This isn’t necessarily always bad. For example, the division between work and life is a product of industrial modes of production, and it allows for academic lives fit more easily into a world shaped by middle class expectations. Dimitri and Prof. Beard advertised the work that most of us do in the summer when either not on contract or at least not engaged in the regular work rhythms associated with teaching, continues to align rather closely with regular industrial practices. In other words, we don’t have time off in the summer; we work then too, just like normal working janes and joes. 

On the other hand, among academics, there is tendency to see our preindustrial lives as particular pernicious because until the industrial routine centered on punching the clock and performing tasks on time and on clearly defined specifications, preindustrial work is not circumscribed by such tidy expectations. We work when we need to, how we want to, and to deadlines and specifications that are largely (if not always) of our own devising. For some, this leads to malaise as our structured training in academia gives way to the unstructured preindustrial world of research. In other cases, the lack of structured expectations can give way to pervasive anxiety about work or a drive to re-compartmentalize work and life. 

This is where a slow approach to academia has merits. Putting aside the tangled and unconvincing arguments in The Slow Professor which try and fail to accommodate the tension between industrial and preindustrial practices, I think embracing slow aspects to research offers one way to remind researchers that we don’t need to accommodate industrial work rhythms in all of our productive work. Slow practices allow for such disparate and seemingly inefficient practices as a vacation, a field season, a weekend reading, or a frustrating night writing to all be regarded as valuable and productive time. In this sense, slow has less to do with the speed at which once accomplished a goal and more to do with an approach that rejects tools or work rhythms that promote efficiency or speed at the expense of effectiveness. Slow practices draw a line between time defined by structures designed to promote the goals of the industrial academy and those designed to ensure the most effective contribution to our scholarly communities. There will always be a need to generate equivalencies between the slow aspects of our professional lives and those set apart by industrial expectation – as Dimitri and Prof. Beard have shown – but it remains particularly important that we not internalize these expectations.

(And I’ll leave this post for now, but I’d like to think more about communities of practice and the role of slow practices in the academy and archaeology in shaping the expectations of these communities…)

The Archaeology of Early Christianity: An Introduction

I know I’ve been promising to share a draft of our introduction to our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, but haven’t come through, 

Today, that changes. Here’s a link to a draft of our introduction to our Oxford Handbook project.

The challenge of this introduction stems our effort to do three things. First, we offer a brief survey of the history of Early Christian archaeology with particular attention to the Anglophone scholarship. Second, we introduced past, current, and future directions in archaeology as a discipline and argued for their impact on our understanding of Early Christianity. Finally, we offer a brief survey of the content of the volume. 

I do hope that some readers with an interest in Early Christianity and the Archaeology of the Early Christian world will take the time to offer suggestions, comments, or critiques of this draft introduction. We realize that it has some warts and some stylistic infelicities, but hope that this draft captures the general direction of our work.

As in the past, I’m using Hypothes.is to allow comments on our introduction. It’s a free, open-source application for commenting on the web! 

Check out our introduction here.

Atari, Archaeology, and Authenticity

As Andrew Reinhard is giving a talk on punk archaeology and Atari, I can’t shake the feeling that I should be writing up our experiences in Alamogordo in 2014 (despite having far more pressing things to deal with). Last week, I suggested that our article could focus on issues of authenticity in the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Here’s a rough outline:

Introduction. This is where I need to do the most work in setting up this article and introducing the three ways of engaging and authenticating the Atari excavation. The first section relies on a conventional archaeological discourse. The second section considers the role of the excavations as a transmedia encounter that weaves together the game, the work of excavation, and the documentary film being produced. The third section of the paper will consider the documentary, Atari: Game Over, and reflect on the unpacking 1980s Atari experience – both as game players and through the perspectives of the film director, Zak Penn, and the designer of E.T. Howard Scott Warshaw – as a kind of excavation of childhood (in a Freudian sense). The conclusion will reflect on the Ebay auction of the games from the Alamogordo landfill and  

1. Describing the Dig. As this article comes a bit more into focus, I can envision the first part of the article presenting a modern archaeological narrative that contributes to creating authenticity in the discipline of archaeology. The nice thing about this, is that I basically already have a draft done. You can check it out here (pdf).

2. Atari, Archaeology, and the Media. I think the most interesting thing about the Atari excavation is watching the film crew – who funded and organized the dig – deal with the contingencies of an active archaeological excavation while at the same time promoting their work as a media event (in the broadest possible sense of excavating media, producing excavation for the media, and mediating the experience of visitors to the dig). I’ve started drafting some of this section here (pdf).

3. Atari, Adulthood, and Archaeology. One of the most remarkably things in Zak Penn’s documentary is that he took the work of archaeology quite literally. Not only was his film about digging up E.T. cartridges in New Mexico, but it was also about excavating the 1980s as an experience both for the user of these games and for the folks involved in their production. In many ways, Penn excavated his childhood and the extended childhood of Howard Scott Warshaw who designed the E.T. game. The fall of Atari and the failure of the E.T. game was more than just an economic or financial outcome of mismanagement or changing tastes, but it trapped the experience of the film, the game, and the making of the game in a dreamlike place that excavation revealed. I have parts of this section worked out here and you can watch the documentary here.

Conclusion: Auctioning and Authenticating Atari. The conclusion will look at the auction of the Atari games on Ebay and consider how the prices and packaging of these games legitimated the various authenticating narratives. This would bring in some of the Ebay data that Andrew Reinhard acquired for us and consider the ethical issues surrounding selling games authenticated, in part, through archaeological methods.

When I look at what I have already, it is pretty clear that I have the first draft of the article almost done. I just need to revise everything into a more coherent argument and narrative, and, of course, add a bit of a literature review, some historiography, and a bit of an edge. 

Bakken Goes Boom Roundtable at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

What are you doing on Thursday, October 5th, from 2-4 pm?

If you’re in the Grand Forks, you should come out and see our panel at the Northern Great Plains History Conference:

Boom Goes the Bakken
Roundtable

Chair: William R. Caraher,
University of North Dakota

Clarence Herz, North Dakota’s Super Boom: How Fracking Changed Production in the Bakken
North Dakota State University

Nikki Berg Burin, From Prohibition to Safe Harbor: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws
University of North Dakota

Richard Rothaus, Tales of Murder and Mayhem: Historical Violence in the Bakken
North Dakota University System

Bret Weber, Aliens in the Bakken: Precarity and Workforce Housing.
University of North Dakota

William R. Caraher, The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape
University of North Dakota

Comment: Audience

Archaeology of Refugee and Forced Migration

I spent some time this weekend reading Y. Hamilakis’s edited forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Since Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I contributed to the forum, we received an advanced copy and it’s my impression that the forum will be available very soon. The papers consisted of a wide range of reflections on the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations. Most of the papers dealt explicitly with refugees, but a few, including ours on the Bakken in North Dakota, deal with other forms of undocumented migration which are more difficult to categorize.

The articles are short and painfully evocative of the plight of modern migrants. Even if you don’t care about archaeology or are skeptical of its value in illuminating the modern world (which you shouldn’t be, but whatever!), the stories presented in this forum are worth reading and contemplating.

There are some themes as well that extend far beyond the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations and impact all archaeological work that intersects in a meaningful way with contemporary communities.

1. Ethics. Almost all of the essays in this forum reflect seriously on the responsibilities and obligations of the archaeologist and ethnographer when studying vulnerable communities. Without explicitly outlining specific ethical positions or practices, the contributors demonstrated how their own encounters with refugees or the material culture of migration was both emotionally and intellectually demanding. From objects like the Tu Do ship in the Australia and the Lampedusa Cross in the British Museum, to maps of migrant movements, clothing, and graffiti, the challenges of using archaeological approaches to unpack the real lives of individuals courses through these essays in a raw and disquieting way. There are no simple imperatives or solutions presented here.

2. Objects. I found the abundance of relatively un-theorized objects particularly refreshing. This isn’t to mean that objects weren’t considered carefully, respected, treated ethically, or placed within a historical, social, or cultural context. They were by all means. What was absent, however, from these short contributions was the intensive theorizing that objects have recently received from some archaeologists (and I’ll admit that I find the rise of “thing theory” and the material turn tremendously seductive. The objects in these contributions generally shied away from making claims to agency, from demands of symmetry with the archaeologist, and from entanglement in complex discursive ontologies.

I’m not pointing this out to celebrate the absence of theory or as a critique. Instead, I wonder if the rawness of the this kind of archaeology makes objects somehow less susceptible to agency? 

3. Methods. The contributions here – with a few exceptions – were also free from lengthy discussions of methods. Some of this is undoubtedly do to the relatively short length of the articles, but I wonder if some of it is also because the approaches to archaeology of the contemporary world are so relatively fluid. As people, objects, and places move, disappear, transform over short periods of time, methods become increasingly ad hoc as efforts to document the material experiences of refugee and migrants requires an acute sensitivity to the complexities of a particular situation.

This isn’t to say that the contributors were not systematic and careful in their approaches, but, again, the intersection of object, places, and people seems to drive these contributions forward rather than a preoccupation with methods or methodology.

4. Placemaking. Among the major themes in these essays is the challenge of placemaking in a condition dominated my placelessness or non-places. As the archaeology of the contemporary world approaches the supermodernity of contemporary existence, the challenge of understanding the contours and characters of non-places or places whose existence blinks on and off at the absolutely edge of archaeological awareness.

Places like refugee cars, camps that are obliterated, coastline or offshore encounters, and ephemeral traces in the desert challenge archaeological resolution and practices (as well, of course, as methods). Whenever I think too hard about what archaeology can do in an era of placelessness I can’t avoid the fear that the tools and techniques associated most closely with the careful and reflective approaches of the humanities might require some modification to contribute to 21st century existence. The contributions included in this forum are a reason for hope, but also, for continued awareness that the past and the present are very different countries. 

5. Archaeology of Care. Finally, I was really excited to see Richard Rothaus’s term an “archaeology of care” appear periodically in the volume (well, at least in our paper, Kostis Kourelis’s paper, and Y. Hamilakis’s introduction). I could’t help but notice throughout this forum that there were plenty of places where the interest of archaeologists in the lives and material reality of individuals gave as much to refugee and migrant communities as a well argued scholarly article or book. In other words, there were signs that a mutual understanding existed between scholars and migrants that their experiences were significant and important.

If this forum does nothing else, I hope that it communicates this recognition. 

Pallets and Epoiesen

When I get overwhelmed with things to do or get stuck with a project that seems insurmountable, I start to think up new projects. In fact, over sabbatical, I got stuck and ended up writing a 35,000+ word little book. 

I’ve been pretty unproductive since I’ve been home and that’s pushed my mind to drift off to new projects that (like all projects on their first days) have more potential to produce something tangible (rather than the endless editing of an article or introduction that is almost ready for primetime, but can also endure constant tweaking as we search for the elusive edge!). So I decided to spend a few hours this morning working on a draft of an article to submit to Shawn Graham’s brilliant new project Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement and Archaeology. It has a ton of interesting features including a open comment and review through Hypothes.is, open access licensing options, submissions in mark-up, an open and adventurous scope, and a great editorial board.

I have this idea that I want to publish a short (i.e. <5000 word) article in Epoiesen on my stalled “pallet project.” This spring I spent the better part of several NASCAR races coding photographs from my trips to the Bakken oil patch. I literally coded hundreds of pallets. Last summer, I did a research trip to a pallet reconditioning and redistribution center, collected some bibliography on pallets, the whitewood industry, and containerization, and took notes and photographs on the use of pallets in the Greek countryside.

What I’d like to do is offer pallets as a kind of physical analogue for a number of larger trends in the global economy. On the one hand, the ad hoc use of pallets (and their place in adhocism) evokes certain elements of the “sharing economy” (broadly construed) from the flow of pallets between individuals for a wide array of improvisation to the use of redistribution centers where used pallets  (also known as cores) are repaired and made available once again to manufactures and shippers. Pallets travel with bulk goods of various kinds from distribution or manufacturing centers and then build up at highly distributed locations where pallet recyclers collect them, repair them (if necessary), and re-sell them back to manufacturing or distribution centers. The system for the recirculation of pallets is highly decentralized and this has the occasional side effect of pallets ending up rural areas where there is little demand (and little infrastructure for them to re-enter the market), and the effort to privatize pallet pools by three large companies has strained the circulation of traditional whitewood pallets in different ways. The competition between closed pool pallet companies (who own their pallets, control their circulation, and look to stabilize supply) and the open pool whitewood pallet circulation provides an interesting analogy for the tensions between open and closed pools in almost any economic or cultural system (and manifests some of the same tensions that exist within the sharing economy).

The pooling of pallets in places in like the Bakken present the intersection of opportunity and circumstance. Temporary housing in the Bakken during the height of the oil boom constantly looked to improvise in low-cost ways; at the same time, whitewood pallets were ubiquitous in the region owing to the absence of a pallet recycling center in Williston or Minot contributed to the collecting of pallets in the Bakken. This coincidence of need and opportunity produced innovation in temporary Bakken housing and speaks – in some ways – to the productive potential of open pool systems as well as the adhocism present in Bakken building practices.

In a sense, my submission to Epoiesen will have an essayistic edge, but fully embrace the meaning of the term and the maker culture in which this new journal project will embrace. Now I just have to become more familiar with markup (and complete that Hesperia article, the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, my little corner of the final report for WARP, the article on the Atari excavations, and various other shining objects that come my way). 

428 AD

I am not sure how I missed the English translation of Giusto Traina’s 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Princeton 2009), but I did. It’s a wonderful book. The book follows a circuit around the Mediterranean world in the year 428 starting in Antioch and then Armenia, before moving through the capital and the Balkans, Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Egypt, Persia and Palestine. At each stop, Traina considers the events taking place in one year, 428, with just enough attention to the connections between regions to weave a compelling tapestry to the Roman Empire in the early 5th century.

My main interest in the book – other than the lucid and engaging narrative – is Traina’s use of time and space to structure his work. It defies traditional historical notions of linear causality by collapsing dense networks of political and social relations (and texts) into a single year and then stretching this year across the Braudelian Mediterranean basin.

Time. The main argument in the book is tied to its approach to the past. Rather than unpacking a particular historical problem, Taina’s book used the concept of time to organize the events of the Roman Empire. While this might seem fundamental to the historians’ craft, in most historical works time takes a back seat to the relentless press of causality. Causality can subvert temporally proximate events, collapse or distend distances, overwrite the linearity implicit in calendars. Traina specifically considers non-linearity in history by presenting simultaneity as a way to order his work and leaving aside questions of causality. This approach reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s critique of the modern novel and how to provided a narrative tool for the kind of simultaneity required to support “imagined communities” on a global scale. Traina’s use of time to frame his work is profoundly modern.    

Space. At the same time as his modern approach to the Roman time is bracketed with a distinctly ancient concept of space. Drawing on a long tradition in the study of the Late Antique and Byzantine world, Traina is not particularly concerned with formal borders and instead explores what Obelensky and others have called the “Byzantine commonwealth” (which is, I recognize, a modern concept serving to describe an ancient conception of space).

Traina recognizes the porosity of borders and deeply interconnected world of the Mediterranean basin where social relationships, ecclesiastical politics, and historical traditions connect communities as much as the formal apparatus of the state. By ignoring any concept of formal boundaries (whether ancient or modern), Traina is able to approach the Late Roman world at a level defined by networks of relations rather than lines on the map.

This has an impact on time and causality as well, of course. Whereas Benedict Anderson’s idea of “empty time” (ready to be filled by a growing sense of simultaneity) depended upon the sense of a contracting and interrelated world, Traina’s segmented moves around the Late Roman world emphasized the discontinuities within the ancient Mediterranean even among the Late Antique elite whose shared culture Peter Brown’s exploration of paideia so famously celebrated.  If Anderson’s treatment of imagined communities evokes a world that was approaching our own, Traina’s world presented an interesting tension between time and space (and social organization) that challenged the reader to consider how fundamentally different antiquity was to our own world.

Texts and Time. Of course, to define the world in a single year, no matter how expansively, Traina leans heavily on texts. Some of those texts are contemporary with 428 and others look back. At his best, Traina weaves these texts together seamlessly bringing together hagiography, history, epigraphy, and theological into an elegant tapestry. At times, however, the view of the present and past become too neatly conflated. A hagiographic text has a very different view of the world than a history or a contemporary inscription, and, perhaps more importantly, historians and hagiographers have very different views of both the past and the present. For example, hagiographic work often conflated contemporary and Biblical time and even in pagan lives – like Marinus’s Life of Proclus – there is a tendency toward romantic elision between the past and the present that careful scholars have struggled to unpack. (For example, were sites like the temple of Asklepius and Dionysus still functioning in Proclus’s day or were the reference to these sites anachronistic?). Walking through the Palestinian countryside with hagiographic texts and pilgrim narratives intentionally superimposed the Biblical past with the present obscuring the year 428 under an overburden of memories. 

If you happened to miss the publication of this book like I did, by all means go and read it. It’s only 130 some pages and a compelling perspective on what it meant to read, write, live and travel in a single year in Late Antiquity