Friday Varia and Quick Hits

We’re experiencing North Dakotaland’s version of the Halcyon Days this week and we hope that it stretches into the weekend. With temperatures kissing 30 degrees, the world has come alive. Joggers and cyclist crowd the sidewalks, young families enjoy picnics in the parks, neighbors cook out and hold leisurely conversations across the alley, and students have donned flip-flops (thongs for my Aussie readers) and boardies as they head to class.

Here at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World headquarters, we’ve enjoyed the warm, grey days from the confines of our office working alternately on PKAP2, a lingering book review, layout for Visions of Substance, and, of course, Friday Varia and Quick Hits:

IMG 2776

Sacred Places and Landscapes in the Early Christian World

Over the past six months, two of my colleagues, David Pettegrew and Tom Davis, have quietly been working to get things started on my next big project. By December 2015, we should have assembled over 30 contributions to the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology.

This book will follow the recipe found in other volumes in the Oxford Handbook series and provide a sweeping overview of a field that may be a bit unfamiliar to scholars outside of Europe. Early Christian archaeology is a subfield that focuses monuments and associated with the first five Christian centuries (and perhaps longer when the forms associated with these early centuries persist). So, the archaeology of Early Christianity has tended to focus on things like Early Christian basilicas, catacombs, mosaics, baptisteries, and monasteries, as well as small finds like reliquaries, early icons, pilgrims ampullae, and lamps. My interest in these things reflects the long tale of my dissertation on the Early Christian archaeology of Greece and my ongoing field work at the Early Christian basilicas from Polis on Cyprus.

In the US, the study of these buildings and objects tends to be subsumed into the larger project of Late Roman or Early Byzantine archaeology which, to be completely honest, is where I tend to associate myself academically. This field, however, has tended to emphasize the transition from the ancient to the post-ancient (Medieval? Byzantine?) worlds and the political, economic, and aesthetic issues related to this transformation. To my mind, the best recent scholarship in this field has been related to trade and economic questions and the impact of political and social change on Late Roman urbanism (and by extension life in the Late Roman countryside). Important contributions in Late Roman religion have tended to focus on the change from paganism to Christianity and the impact this change had on institutional and social structures. These are all worthy points of emphasis, and I’d argue that the field of Late Roman archaeology has played a key role to establish the discipline of Late Antiquity as a significant focus of scholarly attention.    

Our handbook will shift the focus a bit from questions of continuity and change in a broad Late Antique context, and consider the emergence of Christianity both as a religion, but also as a totalizing discourse, to invoke Foucault by way of Averil Cameron. This shift in focus will produce a handbook of greater use to students in seminaries, theology schools, and Bible colleges who often ask different questions of archaeological material than scholars of Late Antiquity or the Mediterranean. Primary among the questions of interest to students of Christianity is the relationship between material culture and texts. Our hope is to go beyond a focus on realia (that is objects that appear both in texts and in archaeological contexts) to consider the broader material context for Christianity as it existed both within and outside of textual accounts.


One of the sections that I’ve agreed to co-author with David examines sacred places and landscapes of the Early Christian world. Our goal is both to set up a series of essays on churches, martyria, house-churches, baptisteries, baths, and monasteries and to consider how these places fit together to contribute to a Christian material world. In particular, I want to explore the question what is a Christian landscape.

1. Sacred and Secular. One major theme in the study of the Late Roman world is the momentary appearance of the secular that preceded the emergence of a universal Christian discourse. With the retreat and suppression of paganism, certain practices were left without a clear religious context in Late Roman society. These secular spaces could involve the artistic invocation of traditional pagan deities shorn of their ritual associations, scenes of authority outside the institutional power of the church and without clear foundations in the emerging Christian cosmology, and even the realm of everyday interactions between pagans and Christian depended on a middle ground respectfully devoid of overt religious expression. Thus the Christian landscape is a place of both places clearly articulated within a Christian cosmos, and non-places that at least for a moment in Late Antiquity no longer represented a pagan threat, but still had no place within the Christian discourse.

2. Buildings and Landmarks. The role of church buildings in organizing and articulating space in the Late Roman city is well known, but scholars have not entirely escaped the approach dictated by the great Richard Krautheimer in his Three Christian Capitals. His approach was saturated with the political maneuvers of the imperial elite during a particularly fraught time in Roman history. The city and its churches expressed the political aspirations of the both the institutional church and these building’s elite patrons with little view toward the communities who lived, worked, and worshiped in and around these buildings. The spread of Christianity likewise had an impact on older monuments and places within the city which increasingly took on new significance for Christianized communities. Unpacking how Early Christian communities received and understood both explicitly Christian and earlier monuments represents an ongoing challenge to a construction of an Early Christian world.

3. Moving through a Christian Landscape. Central to any effort to understand the meaning of landmarks and buildings within a Christian context is grasping movement. Recent work on Early Christian pilgrimage across the Mediterranean complements work on stational liturgies within urban settings to establish the significance of some large-scale public movement through the landscape. These studies with a few notable exceptions, however, have tended to be anchored by monumental architectural and impressive urban byways. At the same time, archaeologists are thinking more broadly about the routes and paths that construct relationships between spaces and places in the ancient world. Linking informal routes and paths to Christian monuments and places will be a key way to share the world of public ritual with the everyday movement of private life.   

4. Time and a Christian Landscape. The continued importance of memory in construction landscapes means that we have to start to consider both the visible monuments, but also those less visible places where social memory and the history of the community intersect in every day life. I think the long tail of the Early Christian period has particular significance here as the ruins and remains of Christian monuments often remain important places in the landscape long after they have ceased to function as places of regular worship. It will be particularly valuable to understand how the long life of buildings, the memory of ruins, and archaeological practices from long before the advent of the modern discipline shaped our understanding of the Early Christian material world. 

More on this soon and note the new category!

The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World My continued musings on archaeology technology teaching and history

Narrating Archaeology

This week I started on one of my major sabbatical projects. I began the process of editing and writing the volume dedicated to our excavations at Koutsopetria on Cyprus. This volume will be PKAPII or PKAP2 whichever looks cooler.

The largest part of our volume will be a detailed treatment of our excavations on Vigla, a Hellenistic fortified site on a prominent coastal plateau. We will publish a discussion of our excavation practices, their results, the architecture and fortifications, and, of course, the significant assemblage of Hellenistic material from this site. The volume will also include discussions of the excavations by our team and Maria Hadjicosti at the Early Christian basilica associated from the Late Roman coastal site of Koutsopetria. More on Koutsopetria later because now it’s all Vigla, all the time. 

Over the next few weeks, I plan to spend time revising my colleague’s, David Pettegrew, detailed treatment of the stratigraphy and phasing of our excavations on Vigla. To be fair to David, these treatments represent the hard work of interpreting the various contexts excavated over our three seasons of work, but at present they are presented in outline form with bullet points. His work has made it fairly easy to identify the various contexts that represent the archaeological phases at the site, but tough reading for anyone not committed to wading through copious archaeological details. My job is to simplify his detailed outlines while preserving and bolstering the basic arguments that he made concerning the stratigraphic, architectural, and historical relationships at the site.

Trench from above 6f0a55071ePhoto by Ryan Stander from Topos/Chora

So far, this has been tricky, but rewarding work and it got me thinking once again about how we narrate archaeological results. In particular, I thought about three things:

1. History and Archaeology. History and archaeology tend to narrate differently. For example, David’s descriptions of our trenches begin with the plowzone and then go through all the earlier phases to bedrock. This is a typical form of archaeological narration that follows the work of the excavator moving through basic levels. Historians, however, rarely work from the present to the past when they narrate events (although good detective stories sometimes do work this way). After mulling and reading a good, I decided to invert David’s narration and start with the earliest phases of activity on Vigla and then argue for the series of changes that took place in our trenches. I think that this makes it easier for me to integrate our archaeological observations with our historical arguments later. 

2. Archaeological Description and Published Data. Traditionally, one of the roles of the archaeological monograph served was to make descriptive data available to as wide an audience as possible. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly common for projects to make all their data available online including their notebooks, their finds, their inventoried objects, photographs, and drawings. In this situation the archaeological monograph goes from being the primary location for the presentation of “raw” archaeological data and its interpretation to serving as a conduit between archaeological interpretation and a body of evidence that might be available elsewhere. Our volume will still include plenty of primary evidence for our arguments like an artifact catalogue, specific references to stratigraphic units, some section and trench drawings, and short descriptions of complete assemblage from each unit. At the same time, I think that we should place greater emphasis on the interpretation of this data – including narration – since the reader will have access to a far more complete dataset online.

3. Narration and Reflexivity. The trend toward increasingly relfexive archaeological practice and publication habits has had a significant influence on how I think about both field work and publication. In fact, this blog and its effort toward a reflexive transparency in my thoughts about archaeology, my academic career, and my teaching is a direct outgrowth of my commitment to demystify academic work and life. So, it concerns me as I’ve started to narrate “life history” of the site of Vigla over time that my efforts to convey to make our work conform to a historical or even broadly biographical pattern runs the risk of obscuring a reflexive narration of the archaeologists work. I’m not so naive to think that a reflexive critique is somehow independent from the perils of the narrative form (after all I’ve read Hayden White). The old objectivist in me still worries I’ll obscure the myriad small steps that produce our understanding of the past when I invert the traditional archaeological narrative and supplant it with a historical one.

In the end, I’ll have to trust the reader to drill down into our data and to celebrate the possibility of upsetting or challenging our narrative by engaging with the raw data that our project produced. And maybe simply acknowledging this fact and recognizing the limits of our narrative structure is enough? 

On Booms and Peripheries

In my efforts to revise a recent article for a well-respected journal, one of the peer reviewers suggested that the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota might not fit a traditional definition of a global periphery. Of course, this reviewer is right. When we think about the periphery we think about radically disenfranchised populations, very low levels of local capital, and a cultural and social institutions that are often ill-suited to negotiate on equal footing with  the political, economic, and technological power of the core. After all, the Bakken is part of the United State which is universally regarded as a core. Within the United States, however, we might be willing to regard the Bakken as a peripheral region comparable to Alaska or parts of the desert southwest.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that the idea of global periphery might be increasingly tied to the speed of global capital instead of the location of global capital. It is hard to avoid the conclusions that the state of North Dakota and the communities of the Bakken region have struggled to embrace the opportunities presented by the tremendous concentration of people and capital in this region. Part of that struggle has been the difficulties associated with adapting public (and private) institutions to sudden change. 

Housing provides a good case study for this. The rapid ebb and flow of population and capital in the region outpaces the ability of the housing market to expand and contract without hemorrhaging profits. As a result, housing starts have tended to lag behind the boom in an effort to suss out its trajectory and minimize risk. For individuals who have come to western North Dakota to work in oil and oil related industries, however, the lack of housing means that they need to provide their own accommodations. Readers of this blog know that this has resulted in the growth of workforce housing sites colloquially known as “man camps.” The reluctance of the housing market to accelerate at the same speed as extractive industries has a knock on effect in the region. Communities have found it difficult, if not impossible to provide either long term housing for social service providers, teachers, and law enforcement, or even short term accommodations for state employees with grants to document the boom. State salaries and rates for accommodations lagged far behind the growing cost of living in the Bakken and state officials were slow or just unwilling to risk of action. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the slow response of the state in this region is not simply political but systemic. 


Housing inventories, salaries, and the actions of state institutions are relatively slow to adapt to the needs to extractive industries. Extractive industries, ever vigilant of the price of commodities, labor, and technology on a global market, have become increasingly able to deploy or withdraw resources on short notice, on a global scale in the pursuit of profit. Their ability to function quickly on a global scale suggests that traditional spatial peripheries are vanishing as particular forms of capital, labor, and technology can now appear in nearly any location around the world. This is a “realtime” manifestation of the increasingly decentered financial markets which depend less managed systems associated with the traditional core, like the New York Stock Exchange, and, instead, operate continuously in distributed, digital worlds. So, if a core does exist, it is not a spatially defined one, but rather a system of links, processes, expectations, and operations that allows one set of resources to outpace others in order.

It is worth contemplating whether the speed of these extractive industries is a response exclusively to the global market for these raw materials or also served as a strategy to avoid potentially costly or complicating entanglements with localized forms of authority. In fact, it seems like the traditional dichotomy of core and periphery has been overtaken by the dichotomy between fast global and the slow local. These two phenomenon are not characterized by their respective spatial extents, but rather by their velocity. 

At the end of last year, Jo Guldi and David Armitage published a slim volume called the History Manifesto. I blogged about it here. The argument that they make is the historians have to once again embrace the challenge of big data to study large-scale, long-term, and often slow moving, phenomena. Clearly they appreciated the global scope of much history in the modern era and the need to develop skills and discourses that accommodates history on an unprecedented scale. As I’ve thought more and more about their book and our work in the Bakken, I’ve wondered whether a history of global phenomenon is possible for our contemporary era. The speed and scope of events like the Bakken boom almost certainly taxes the tools that historians have at their disposal. In fact, historians have largely relied upon physical, spatial structures to focus our research. Even as we have worked to pay increased attention to events at the periphery (and embraced the contingency of the countryside), we’ve continued to rely on the resources of the core to guide our work as the core preserves archives, political texts, and economic data upon which big history can be constructed. With the rapid pace of a globalized work and the decentering of capital, decision making, markets, and data (distributed data!), the historians gaze has to both expand to capture “the ghost in the machine,” but to focus in order to describe sequences of events that occur so quickly as to approach simultaneity. 

Booking at the Speed of Blog

This week, I’ve spent time doing two things (let’s say). One is reading Hartmut Rosa’s recent book on acceleration. The other thing is working on the final edits of the next book from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Visions of Substance.

Visions of Substance began its life about 15 months ago as a series of blog posts on my blog in a series called “3D Thursday.” The response to these posts was really good, with a few of the posts ranking among the most frequently viewed on my blog and attracting thousands of page views and a few academic citations to boot. I was pleased by how easy it was to publish substantial blog posts and to get ideas and practices, particularly in the fast moving area of 3D imaging in field archaeology.


Visions of Substance Cover

My goal as a publisher was to move this content into a book form. To do this, we invited the contributors to revise their papers and provide better quality images when necessary. Those inclined can see their work move from from the realm of the blog to the less ephemeral world of a digital and bound book.

This process was interesting to me for a number of reasons. First off, my hope is that the blog to book process continues the process of expanding the boundaries of “scholarly communication” to include the less formal space of the blog. Since the early days of my blog, I have made a little show of migrating it to a “paper ready format” as a light-hearted gesture in this general direction. I still don’t have the nerve to actually count my blog as part of my academic output, but it’s hard not to see it as part of my scholarly identity.

I also have become more and more interested in the publication process. I’ve long admired the Journal of Roman Archaeology for its austere and – let’s say – uneven editing; the spirit of the journal is captured beautifully in their website. I imagined it as a model of publishing efficiency as it dispensed with even the most basic formatting cues beyond footnotes, page numbers, and titles. My second love, has long been Hesperia, which subjects its authors to an arduous editorial process, exacting standards, and a good bit of design swagger in its presentation. Hesperia is – for an academic journal – sexy and it knows it. As some new to publishing, I realized that nothing I did would come close to Hesperia, but I could approximate a Journal of Roman Archaeology vibe. In fact, I think I could even do a tiny bit better than the JRA without succumbing to the need to actually take design seriously. This means that a respected academic template already exists for efficient publication with relatively little polish.

A colleague and I were chatting yesterday and we both noted how, in some point over the last half century, the correspondence or note has vanished as an academic genre. I recall Hesperia having published short epigraphic articles maybe a decade ago and I certain cite a few short notes in my own work, but as far as I can tell, few journals in the humanities continue to publish contributions under, say, 8,000 words. An editor once told me that it was because short articles took every bit as long as long articles to lay-out and edit, so it was more efficient to have 5 long articles rather than, say, 4 shorter notes and 3 longer articles. Book reviews continue to appear because, generally speaking, they are less editorially intensive (that is, they less editorial contact with authors and peer reviewers). I wonder if we can create a model for these think a streamlined publication flow that emphasizes public peer review through a blog like interface, and making the publication of notes no more intensive than a book review.

I’ve been thinking about the influence of speed lately. To return to Harmut Rosa’s book, he argues – and I’m simplifying greatly here – that acceleration and speed in late modernity have led significant and recognizable social change. (For a much better consideration of Rosa’s work in this context go here.) He is not the first to make these arguments, but he does summarize a vast swath of recent scholarship on the topic (and I’ll write more about this soon) and identifies the acceleration of the late modern world as the key instrument to social transformation. Among the many direct effects of speed, for Rosa and others, is its tendency to collapse space and distance, and, I might add, promote the creation of spontaneous communities around events that might otherwise exist in physical or intellectual isolation.

To apply it to our case here, Rosa’s concept of social acceleration explains how rapid publication has the potential for creating a sense of scholarly immediacy in print publications that we usually reserve for, say, the communal experience of academic conferences. Streamlined publishing from blog to book preserves some of the rawness of conference presentation (or blog post) while formalizing what might otherwise be ephemeral, informal interaction between academics. So as I work toward booking at the speed of blog, I have become increasingly interested in how publishing old-style, paper (or for that matter digital books) quickly based on academic ephemeral could make social and intellectual ties between academics more transparent and to localize, even if it’s just on a page, the liquidity intrinsic in the modern academy.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s the time of year in North Dakotaland when you realize that you haven’t left the house for days and have begun to confuse the meager light of the full moon and the sun. My motivation levels are so low that I’ve begun to finish lingering book reviews just to do something. Long term research projects are just too existentially taxing. When I way poetic (which is rare), I call this the North Dakota Midwinter Acedia. Most of the time, I just wish it wasn’t so frigging cold outside.

Despite the malaise, I have managed, in an endearingly half-hearted way, to assemble a little gaggle of varia and quick hits:

IMG 2744Let’s just agree that it is difficult to know what exactly happened here. 

Time to Degree

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Dimitri Nakassis’s blog post earlier this week at his Aegean Prehistory blog, you should take the time now. He takes on the issue of time to completion for Ph.D. with particular reference to Classics and applies Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat arbitrary 10,000 hour rule. He argued that, despite the problematic nature of Gladwell’s proclamation, in Classics, 10,000 hours is a reasonable length of time necessary to produce a substantial dissertation (he calculated 10,000 hours is about 2.74 years). This is on top of the time a student will spend acquiring mastery of Greek and Latin which he suggests is another 10,000 hours of time (or approximately another 3 years). All told, then, the Ph.D. in Classics should run close to 6 years in an American institution. (I might add that a Ph.D. in Ancient History should take around the same length of time even if we allow that most Ancient History programs do not emphasize languages at quite the intensity, any time gained in that area is lost to methods courses and various discipline specific seminars.) As a result, Ancient History and Classics are among the most time consuming Ph.D.s to complete within the academy.

This argument got me thinking, once again, about the unintended consequences of shortening time to degree and various recent efforts to either accelerate or dilute the Ph.D. programs in the humanities. Putting aside the observation that more people receive Ph.D.s in the humanities than there are jobs available, and shortening the time to degree alone will do little to remedy that situation, I have a few observations:

1. Ph.D. as a Professional Degree. From its introduction in the U.S. in the late-19th century the Ph.D.  – at least in History – was considered a professional degree designed to control access to our increasingly professionalized academy. In other words, lacking any certification like the bar or medical boards, holding the Ph.D. became the marker for professional standing in most of the humanities. Thus, Ph.D. programs served to establishing and perpetuate the professional credentials in our fields. We should be wary of any efforts to weaken the professional core of our disciplines from individuals outside our discipline. Pressures to change our professional credentialing can be seen as part of larger process of deskilling and deprofessionalizing the academy.

2. Ph.D. Programs as More than Professionalizing. The legacy of Ph.D. programs as professional programs is that the individual is seen as the most important outcome of the program. If the individual cannot be hired or does not continue to contribute to the profession (defined disciplinarily) then this is an outcome that does not coincide with the historical goals of this degree in the humanities. Some programs, to be sure, have begun to emphasize the potentials for employment outside the discipline for their graduates, and shift their programs accordingly, and this is a good thing as long as professional outcome for these students more or less aligns with the professional training of the faculty in these programs. After all, medical doctors should not be training cooks and engineers are probably not ideal for training the next generation of poets. 

This tendency to emphasize professional outcomes of Ph.D. programs is historically understandable, of course. It does tend to overlook one of the byproducts of these programs: new knowledge. The dissertation is more than just a tool for professional credentialing, but an actual contribution to human and disciplinary knowledge. Both the work of the academy and the work of the discipline and profession occurs just as much in Ph.D. programs as among credentialed professionals. In fact, the Ph.D. programs often serve as incubators for ideas which accelerates their development in the humanities. Enforcing time to completion may undermine the potential of these programs as part of the larger knowledge producing ecosystem of the American academy.

I know I’ve used this comparison in the past, but some aspect of the Ph.D. program is like minor league baseball. These programs are both the training ground for the profession, but also share most of the characteristics of the profession, just like Single-A ball is not the same as the major leagues, and not all Single-A players are promised a position in the major leagues, but minor league ball does produce baseball and ensures that the game continues to have a grassroots presence in communities and developing players have a chance to refine their skills. It has always struck me as odd that more people are not outraged about the minor league baseball system considering the outcry among academics for a similar problem.  

3. Ph.D. Programs as Pioneers. Finally, we should recognize that the graduate education tends to depend on the “flipped classroom” and “learning by doing” which are key aspects of many efforts to reform undergraduate education. Graduate education so often relies on the co-development of specialization between the graduate advisor (“the guide on the side”) and the student. This process takes time and is immensely valuable for both the student and the research faculty who advises them. Accelerating the process of graduate education runs the risk of weakening the development of specialized knowledge. If we accept that educational practices that cultivate the development of knowledge both among students and faculty are a priority for education all levels, it would seem problematic to work counter to this at the graduate level where so much of these practices developed.

I don’t mean to suggest that these observations eliminate all concerns that surround the increasingly long time to completion for graduate students in the humanities. I recognize, of course, that fellowships and teaching assistantships regularly pay below the poverty line for these students. And graduate students are often asked to do more than just focus on their studies and teach courses which slow their progress to degree. At the same time, I fear that our highly practical and humane approach to reforming graduate education cares a bit too much for the individual product and not enough about the intricate ecosystem that our current process embodies.  

Atari Game as Artifact

To commemorate my participation the famous Atari excavation last spring, I decided to bid on one of the Atari cartridges being sold by the city of Alamogordo on Ebay. After a few false starts, I managed to secure a Centipede game for $60 which I think was the reserve set for the game.

The game arrived promptly in a well-padded priority mail box. The game itself was packaged in a ziplock bag of probably of 6 mil thickness. These are more or less the same bags that my project on Cyprus used for artifacts both in the store rooms and in the field (although if I recall ours were 8 mil). It’s substantial. 


The artifact was identified with a metal tag taped to the interior of the bag:


This did not represent the most secure method for labeling an artifact ever invented. The game itself is not labeled in any way and it is only ever identified by its inventory number rather than a formal description.

The game that I purchased was in its plastic “blister pack” package and labeled for sale at Target for $32.99.


The unopened blister pack suggests that the game was probably returned after going unsold at the store rather than defective or returned after the initial sale (although that is possible). We found whole cartons of games priced for retail in the landfill and I hope that at least some of these “assemblages” of games were preserved intact rather than being (once again) separated for resale.

Opening the ziplock bag was a mistake. The odor released suggests that the sweet and dusty smell of the landfill had fermented into something indescribable. It caused our beloved family dog (who had spent a good bit of time earlier in the day frolicking with a piece of his frozen poo) to shudder and immediately ask to be let out of the house into sub-zero temperatures. If there is any doubt that this particular game originated in the Alamogordo landfill, the odor alone might authenticate its provenience. 

The game did not appear to be cleaned in any way or modified. The blister pack had ruptured probably during its time in the landfill and I was starting to photograph the artifact, the the odor was sufficiently intense I thought it best to do someplace other than in my home. It is notable that Centipede is one of the games released in silver boxes; it was released, I think, in 1982, to generally positive reviews. (See the Atari Age page on Centipede here with links to reviews.)


The game came with a certificate of authenticity, but nothing on the certificate related to the specific game beyond including the identification number. It was attractive if generic printed on 40 weight paper and decorated with photographs from the excavation. The certificate was signed by the mayor of Alamogordo, Susie Galea, the game’s famous designer, Howard Scott Warshaw, and Joe Lewandowski. This is a nice touch, but they don’t authenticate the particular game; they authenticate a serial number associated with a plastic bag in which the game was placed. Interestingly, the Centipede was not designed by Howard Scott Warshaw, but by Ed Logg and Donna Bailey, one of the only female Atari engineers, and it was subsequently ported to the Atari 2600 VCS. In other words, the history of the Centipede game is really quite different from the history of the E.T. game, but the two games are conflated by their ultimate fate.


The game also came with a little history of the Atari dump and it recovery by none other than Joe Lewendowski. It’s a nice general overview of the Atari “tomb,” its discovery, and a recovery.


And some photocopied newspaper articles most likely from microfilm:


The entire package was well done to contextualize the object within a particular sequence of events and ensure the game’s transition from returned and discarded merchandise to historical artifact. 

The most interesting gap in this transmission is the absence of any link between the particular game and the historical record. The game itself is not marked in any permanent way (although I suspect the smell will not easily disappear) nor marked as associated with the other games from this particular excavation. For example, there is no register identifying this game as one of a number of similar types nor is there any formal archaeological record (e.g. a description of the object, its archaeological context, or relationship to the larger assemblage). The buyer is required to piece that together if possible – for example, this game was probably an unsold return from Target – or just enjoy the object as a souvenir from a rather unusual media event.

Fortunately, for this little orphan object, it will go to live at the University of North Dakota’s Department of Special Collections where it will be joined by various bits of archaeological information recorded from the site (by the “punk archaeology team”) and, in time, some interpretative material written up over the next year.  

UPDATE: So, I’ve been chatting with my buddy, Paul Worley, on Twitter all morning about how strange it must be for me to purchase an artifact that acquired some (all?) of its value because I participated in its excavation as a “real archaeologist.” In other words, my presence at the dig validated the archaeological legitimacy and authenticity of these artifacts. 

I responded that I was not entire convinced that these were archaeological artifacts, but rather “media artifacts.” Their value is less bound up in our legitimizing presence and more bound up in the production of a documentary and a rapid online community who promoted the urban legend, excavation, and its results. My argument undermining their validity as archaeological artifacts derives from both how they are presented and how they were produced. As my post points out, they’re not presented archaeologically at all. They lack any unique identifiers (except probably smell) that makes them archaeological. They methods that produced these artifacts were likewise only marginally archaeological. Their context was pretty simple and documented superficially, but because of the requirements of documentary filming, safety regulations, and city policies and practices, we were not able to guarantee their unbroken continuity from the bottom of the trench to the storeroom to Ebay. I’m not suggesting that these are fraudulent in any way, but the performance of archaeology involves the systematic excavation, documentation, presentation, and ordering of the  artifacts (and the world). Our work only fulfilled a few of these roles in New Mexico, and the presentation of these artifacts on Ebay and in the flesh reveal the limits of their archaeological character.

The Centipede game presented to UND this morning will have the additional benefit of eventually being housed with my notes from the dig, copies of publications, media coverage, and presumably the Zak Penn movie. My hope is these efforts will allow me to perform (some) archaeology and to recontextualize the object in a way that increases its value as both a media and cultural artifact. I’m skeptical if it will even be regarded as truly archaeological, but like 19th century curios, we can at least use it to pose questions about how we produce value in our capitalist age. 

UPDATE 2: Here’s the official press release on this:

UND adds to its digital artifacts collection an ‘old’ Atari gaming system cartridge part of recent archaeology dig

The University of North Dakota Department of Special Collections in the Chester Fritz Library got an unusual addition this week: an Atari game cartridge once buried in a New Mexico landfill.

Special Collections is best known for housing collections associated with important national figures like former North Dakota politicians William Langer and Byron Dorgan, and documents related to the history of the Red River Valley, North Dakota and the University. Special Collections also accepts documents related to faculty research.

The Atari cartridge, a Centipede game for the Atari 2600, was among the thousands excavated from the famous Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, N.M., in April 2014. Bill Caraher, UND associate professor of history; and Bret Weber, UND assistant professor of social work; participated in the excavation that was funded as part of a documentary film. Caraher purchased a game from the excavation, which was made available by the City of Alamogordo, and has donated it to the University.

“While I usually do not condone purchasing archaeological artifacts of any kind,” Caraher said. “These artifacts are somewhat different because they represent our very recent past. When I saw that the Smithsonian had received a game and several other major cultural institutions as well, I had to acquire one for UND to commemorate the University’s participation in this unusual excavation.”

Curt Hanson, director of UND Special Collections, went on to say, “This is definitely the first artifact from a landfill in our collection, and also the first video game, although with UND’s growing status as a university on the cutting edge of the digital innovation, we would not be surprised to see more digital artifacts coming into Special Collections.

“I grew up playing Atari and to see my childhood treated as an archaeological artifact and preserved in our collection, as well as places like the Smithsonian, is really exciting!”

The UND Working Group in Digital and New Media will host a showing of the documentary Atari: Game Over this spring and bring in the “punk archaeology” team who participated on the excavation for a round table conversation on archaeology, the media, and video games as artifacts of our times.

UND Special Collections also houses notebooks and documents related to Caraher’s longstanding, and more conventional, field work projects on Cyprus.

UND Special Collections Atari cartridge donation  1280x850Curt Hanson (left), director of UND’s Department of Special Collections, holds sealed bag containing an Atari 2600 gaming system cartridge for the 1980s era game Centipede. The cartridge was unearthed recently during an archaeological dig in an old New Mexico landfill. UND history professor Bill Caraher (right), who was part of that excavation and an associated documentary film about the dig, purchased the cartridge from the city of Alamogordo, N.M., and handed it over to UND Special Collections this week.

Working on Workforce Housing in the Bakken

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on a major revision of our “Man Camp Article” that details the results of our first 2.5 years of work in the Bakken. Much of the revision is in direct response to critiques from three external reviewers and the editors at Historical Archaeology. The main thrust of the critiques is that we needed to refocus the article on analytical aspects of our work and cut way back on methodology and descriptive components of the article. Since the article that we submitted ran to over 13,000 words – far too long for any major journal – there was plenty available to be cut.

At the same time, we had intended our article to be a Hesperia-style preliminary report which was rather heavy on methodology and description and more circumspect in terms of analysis. The reviewers, however, were not interested in this, but they were remarkably supportive of our initial, probing interpretations. So, I culled description and methodology, and beefed up interpretation and structured the article more formally around an argument.

Here’s our thesis: Informal, temporary, workforce housing sites in the Bakken oil patch blend elements of traditional American domesticity with practices common to the global periphery.  

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To clarify and focus our argument, we replaced our famous typology of workforce housing with a continuum that ranges from formal to informal settlement types. Our article acknowledges the existence of formal, workforce housing sites in the Bakken like those constructed and managed by global logistics companies, but focuses instead on more informal settlements that range from RV parks to hastily constructed mobile home parks. Our continuum relates to larger conversations of informal urbanism in a global context, but is also tailored to the local situation. For example, even the most formal workforce housing site remains temporary, and less formal sites are even more contingent.  

Next, I argue more forcefully that the Bakken is part of a global periphery. Western North Dakota has long been outside the main centers of capital and dependent upon tenuous links to these centers for economic and political development. Because the local communities have only limited political and economic power, and what they do have is centered in the most densely settled areas of the area, namely towns, short-term workforce housing sites developed just outside the periphery of these communities and draw upon whatever limited infrastructure is available, while standing outside existing community’s ability to exert authority. A similar pattern of settlement is visible throughout the global periphery where large informal settlements cluster outside the somewhat fragile jurisdiction of the urban core – whether these are colonias on the Mexican-American border or favelas surrounding major urban areas in Brazil or the famous Indian slums around Mumbai.

This pattern is distinct, of course, from the typically American suburban  settlements which tend both to be more formal and emphasize a kind of permanence that most informal settlement lacks (although in a global situation might aspire to). The important role of fixity in American expectations of settlement reveals key aspects of the American domestic ideal. Suburbs often emphasize permanence both as an effort to create soothing constancy to a dynamic world, to reinforce the enduring character of the domestic ideal, to convey privilege grounded in long-term stewardship over the land. 

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These suburban ideals influence the structure of informal short-term settlement in the Bakken. We traced the negotiation of domestic life in workforce housing through five material aspects of life in informal camps: insulation practices, architectural enclosures, platforms and paths, demarcated property, and ritual objects. I’ll post more on this maybe next week as I pull together the diverse strands of my argument as they’re manifest in these five aspects of the informal material life in workforce housing.

For now, I’ll emphasize that insulation practices and architectural enclosures arrest the mobility of RVs and transform – even if just symbolically – the mobile character of the RV or mobile home into a permanent space evoking, to be sure, the expectations of suburban life, but doing so in a way that allows the RV to return to its mobile character without any structural changes. Of course architectural enclosures, mudrooms and the like, and insulation also have practical advantages for residents in the Bakken. Insulation is necessary to reinforce the thin outer shell of the RV against the sometimes brutal North Dakota winter and enclosures both expand the livable space of an RV and provide room for residents to remove muddy clothes, creates an airlock in the winter, and adds room for storage to the cramped conditions of the RV.    

Platforms, paths, and demarcated property boundaries represent strategies designed to create personal space in the contingent settlements of the Bakken. The positioning of an RV at one edge of a lot opens space between it and its neighbor. In some cases, residents build a deck here, often of salvaged materials like shipping pallets and scrap plywood. In other cases, residents fill this open area with potted plants, lawns, work areas, and even fence it in to distinguish it from their neighbors and to create personal space similar to the American front yard. In fact, it is not uncommon for residents to maintain the street facing side of their lots and discard unused or broken objects behind their RVs indicating that they understand the street side of the unit as a place for tidy display and the back of the unit as a space of opportunistic discard much the same way that backyards in suburban subdivisions are more private and front yards more public.


Finally, the objects associated with platforms and property in the Bakken reveal how the hyper masculine work in American extractive industries manifests itself in the publicly visible, domestic assemblages. The presence of grills, free weights, tools and appliances present a complex image of life in contingent settlements. Barbecue grills, tools, and free weights are objects long associated with the performance of masculinity in a domestic setting (we need only to think back to Terrell Owens famous driveway workout interview). Appliances, however, tell a more complicating story and reflect the practical limits of life in an RV.

Informal workforce housing in the Bakken represents a hybridized adaption of peripheral settlement drawing on characteristics of informal, contingent settlement familiar to scholars of settlement on the global periphery and in the developing world, but also shares features with ideals of domesticity manifest in American suburban life.

The Long Dark Tunnel of Sabbatical

I have slowly become aware this holiday season that my sabbatical is half over. I’ve done some of things that I pledged not to do, but avoided other pitfalls, and now I have to try to focus of the next 9 months to ensure that I survive sabbatical with my motivation intact.

I was particularly heartened to read Sara Perry’s recent post about her sabbatical. In it, she said that she focused part of her sabbatical on being quiet. I’m not really sure what that means in her particular context (as readers of this blog probably can surmise, I’m not a super quiet person), but it led me to think about how focused I can be on making a product. Every day, I go through this annoying process of reprioritizing my work based on (largely self-imposed) deadlines, goals, and schedule. For example, some tasks, like basic writing, can be interrupted and done with distractions. Other tasks, like careful editing, can’t be interrupted, but can only be sustained for about 2 or 3 hours at a time. Anyway, this process of prioritization is geared primarily to getting things done, rather than doing things.

This is where Perry’s idea of quiet comes in. When I become so focused on accomplishing particular goals, I find that I lose my ability to enjoy the tasks required to complete those goals. For example, I like to read, but when I read to glean bits of information from a book or an article, I find that I’m not very engaged with the reading process and more determined to find the answer to some question. This urgency to complete tasks, of course, probably isn’t a bad thing until it becomes all consuming like I fear it will become over the last 9 months of my leave. So, I’m going to focus less of my time on making noise (well, unless that means playing my stereo at socially unacceptable volumes), and more of my energy on just doing work.

My experience with this approach is that doing work, for me at least, is less gratifying than the tremendous rush that comes from completing a project, but also involves less of a let down. The famous burn-out/blow-out comes only from the exhausted, self-congratulatory let down when a task is completed. Making the hamster wheel turn, on the other hand, can feel endless and pointless, but that very feeling encourages me to focus on finding the pleasure in the little things rather than the almost incomprehensible big picture. So, if I seem a bit quieter (that is less productive in a big picture way) over the next 6 to 9 months, it’s not because I’m hopelessly behind, frantically working to meet some deadline, or flailing about in a endless reprioritization loop. It’s because I’m trying to find quiet again and enjoying the work that I do.

That being said, my tasks over the next 9 months will focus around 3 major projects (leavened by the usually gaggle of ankle-bitting obligations!):

1. PKAP II. My colleagues and I managed to get PKAP I through the publication process this fall and while it’s tempting to being “operation shutdown,” I know that I really need to keep focused and get the second book which documents five seasons of excavation at the site into proper order.

This involves making sure that we have good data from our last excavation season in 2012 at the site of Pyla-Vigla. We are pretty confident that our work in 2012 confirms and strengthens the chronology revealed in our previous two seasons excavating at the site. We have a working draft of a manuscript that documents this excavation, and now I need to collate that with our more recent work.

I’ll also need to return to my work on the Late Roman room associated with the Early Christian basilica at the site of Koutsopetria. This was excavated in the 1990s and will be published with our one season of excavation at the site in 2008. We managed to refine the chronology of the building on slightly and to document a bit more thoroughly the events associated with the room’s decline and abandonment. Beyond that, our work mostly consists of putting the architecture of the room and its wall painting in the context of church architecture on Cyprus.

2. Polis Preparation. With any luck, I’ll have a three week season at the site of Polis-Chrysochous this summer that hopefully involves putting the finishing touches on a major publication of the Late Antique phases of the South Basilica there. To be able to maximize my time in Polis, we need to work out the stratigraphy for the last few trenches of EF2 and the trenches associated with Roman period site of EF1.

More important than that, we need to make sure that our work over the last four years is ready for publication. To do that, we have to complete the manuscript that we drafted about 6 months ago and figure out where we need to fill in gaps during the field season. With a little luck, that manuscript might be submitted by the spring with the understanding that for it to be publishable, a few loose ends need cleaning up.

3. Man Camp Writing. With crashing oil prices and budget cuts among the major companies active in the Bakken, I have the creeping fear that the boom will be over before any of our major publications on our work appears. That’s probably unfounded, but it does encourage me to stay focused on tasks associated with my three major Bakken Boom writing projects:

a. Article. Our major scholarly product, representing the first 2.5 years of field work, is currently under revision. I’ve made some pretty major cuts, reorganized and hopefully strengthened the argument, and, most located our work more fully in the conversation about settlement, domesticity, and masculinity in the U.S. With any luck and with the approval of my coauthors, we’ll be able to resubmit this article in the next few weeks. 

b. The Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. After a few weeks of cajoling, my co-author, Bret Weber, convinced me that we needed to add another loop to our itinerary. This look will run from Watford City south to Belfield, east to Dickinson, and then north on ND Route 22 through Killdeer and Mandaree on the Ft. Berthold Reservation. In fact, he’s scouted this route over the winter break and I’ll hopefully be able to do a follow up run through the area in late January. With this last leg of the itinerary being complete, we’ll work on producing a final copy and figuring out where to send the product before I head to the Mediterranean this summer.

c. The Bakken Boom Book. This massive tome which includes papers by nearly 20 contributors is out in peer review right now and it’ll need attention as soon as it returns to my desk in the late winter. I’m very pleased with how the book is shaping up and excited for it keep moving along without delays.

Other projects:

1. Publishing. As readers of this blog surely know, I have started a small press called the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. I’m probably too excited about it, but our first book, Punk Archaeology, currently ranks #1,191,400 on Amazon’s sellers list, right behind (sort of) Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C. This month, our second book will appear, called Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson, and our third book will appear in April! 

2. Book Reviewing. I’m embarrassed to say that I have not yet finished my review of Michael Dixon’s Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Corinth, 338-196 B.C., but it’s almost done, which is good because there’s another book in the way! I’ll, as per usual, post my completed, pre-publication draft here.

3. Paper Giving. Next week, my colleagues on the Western Argolid Regional Project are giving a paper at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in New Orleans. I can’t take much credit for that fine paper, but the project directors are accomplished writers and the paper is entertaining! I would love to say that we’ll post it online, but with increasing restrictions on the dissemination of archaeological information on the internet, I don’t think the project directors will feel confident posting the paper. So, if you’re at the Archaeological Institute of America meeting, go and check it out. Nakassis, James, and Gallimore is better live anyway.

I’ll be giving a paper in Boston in February at the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future workshop though, which will be a major update to my paper given last spring at the University of Massachusetts and revised as “Slow Archaeology” for North Dakota Quarterly.

4. Serving. One of aspects to my sabbatical is that I insisted on continuing to fulfill some service obligations both on campus and in the community. I get the impression that this is quite unorthodox. That being said, our campus is currently oppressed by the tyranny of a faction, and it would seem irresponsible to leave the situation wholly unopposed, for many of the boldest spirits have left the university, quit academia, or worsewhile the remaining faculty, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion. (Ok, that was overly dramatic, but that was called love for the workers in song, probably still is for those of them left.) So, I’m on some committees and doing that thing on campus.

I’m also serving on the North Dakota Humanities Council and the State Historic Preservation Board. Fun work that would be a shame to abandon to the selfish delights of sabbatical.

5. Reading. One of my colleagues (of a rather Sallustian comportment when it comes to campus politics) remarked at a holiday party that he was working to get back to the basics and do things like… read. I’ve been haunted by these words since then and plan to redouble my commitment to reading and listening to what books have to say, rather than mining them for my own, largely inconsequential purposes.

6. Running. I need to write a blog post on this, but I’ve started running. Not far, not fast, and not with any great purpose, but my goal is to run a 5k in late September. Right now I’m nursing an aggravated adductor in my left leg, but once that calms down, I’ll be back in my shoes making steady progress.