Agency and Object Biography

Last week I heard that a paper proposed by Scott Moore and myself had been accepted for a panel on object biography at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. I posted the call-for-papers and our abstract here.

Since writing that abstract, I’ve read or re-read some of the seminal articles on object biography and some of the more recent critiques. As readers of this blog know, I’m sympathetic to the notion that objects can have agency in an archaeological context and that archaeologists are constantly confronted by incredibly resistant physical realities. For many archaeologists, these physical realities push back at our efforts to coerce them into tidy schemas suitable for the production of 21st century knowledge. Archaeologists have recognized in this contest many similarities with craft production. The experienced craftsperson (is this a real word?) has gained a deeply embodied understanding of a particular medium and specialized tools, has recognized the strengths and weaknesses of this medium and tools, and has come to appreciate the willingness of the medium and tools (the medium and tools have a will) to accommodate the needs of the craft, the community, and the production process. In other words (and in a very simplified way), the craftsperson’s intimacy with tools, material, and production has created a symmetrical bond between the knowledge of the craftsperson and the various tools, media, and social environments that result in the production of a completed object. The line between the craftsperson’s body, his or her personal agency, and the various tools and objects has disintegrated into a dense web of interdependencies.

This broad definition of agency is particularly compelling in our (post-)modern era where so many of us feel like the complexities of the contemporary society have deprived us of control over our environments. The limits of our ability to control our world is nowhere more evident than in our relationship with technology. Our everyday lives are filled with objects that perform functions according to rules that we cannot control. At the same time, the corporatized relationships that define our productive and social worlds limit the control over our own economic destiny. While I’ll acknowledge that there have always been limits on human freedom imposed through our engagement with technology, social and economic structures, and the physical reality of being human, the complexities of the 21st-century, Western world, has made many of us feel these limits more acutely. 

 By expanding the concept of agency to include objects, scholars have sought to reimagine agency in a way that both explains how objects limit human agency and – perhaps paradoxically – to suggest that these limits have always existed and the our 21st-century feeling of helplessness is more a product of expectations exaggerated by Enlightenment claims for human freedom than a genuine devolution of the power of the human will. In short, if objects can be agents, so can even the most constrained individual. At the same time, our sense of helplessness when confronted by a recalcitrant piece of technology reflects an authentic contest between two equally endowed tools committed to performing incompatible tasks. The square hole, round peg, and frustrated peg-pusher are all equally responsible for our 21st century frustrations.

To return to the paper that I’m writing for the ASOR meeting in November, I want to think about how our expanded notion of agency can follow an object through the tangled web of interactions that it encounters as it moves through what we  call (using Michael Schiffer’s terminology) “archaeological context” (that is the context in which an object functions after it has passed from its “systemic context”).  Almost as soon as the object emerges from the trench or the survey unit, it encounters other objects and other forms of agency that extend from the field walker or excavator to the various components of a digital camera, image processing programs, databases, the clustered existence of the web, and the old pulped-tree paper of final publication. During this time, the object itself is transformed, copied, we might even say “cloned” to facilitate insertion into an ever expanding web of new agents. At some point in this process the idea of an object biography takes on a tinge of science fiction as copies of the object circulate widely without any visible impact on the object itself. The ease with which this process takes place calls to question the continued utility of the biographic metaphor in our increasingly digital world.  

More on this paper over the next few months as I refine my ideas and take more time to comprehend the key scholarship on this topic!

Photo Friday from my First Week in Greece

The morning light is amazing in the little village of Miloi.

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We’ve had a few days of afternoon rain leaving the fields of the area heavy with sticky mud.

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The landscape, however, remains as striking as always with the wet winter leaving fields filled with green weeds.

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It wouldn’t be intensive pedestrian survey if we didn’t spend a good bit of time hunched over our maps and pointing. 

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The use of an old rail car as a agricultural shed provides a nice example of some of things that I discussed in post earlier in the week.

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One last tube-photo showing the village of Schinochori and a small outlying settlement (a kalyvi).

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Managing the Modern in Intensive Survey

I’ve made it over to the Argolid and am ensconced in the comfortable accommodations in the village of Myloi for the next two months. My colleagues Dimitri Nakassis and Scott Gallimore have been in the village for a week or so already getting ready for the second field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project. 

I’m excite for this year’s survey area because it encompasses at least two modern settlements which are in states of abandonment. We’re anticipating already a greater amount of modern and early modern (for Greece this is the 19th century) material associated with these settlements. Most recent intensive survey projects make a big deal about being diachronic, but to be fair, the modern period tends to present particular challenges to survey projects. In general, survey archaeologists recognize that we cannot treat the modern period the same way that we treat earlier periods. 

The reasons are both complex and simple. The simple reason is that we simply cannot accommodate the super abundance of most modern material in our survey units. As Richard Rothaus and I discussed a few months ago on our podcast, there is a storage crisis in archaeology, and collecting modern material will only make this worse. In the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey we tried to document modern material without collecting using a “modern sweep” form. This form consisted of a long list of check boxes that tried to take into account the most common form of trash found in the Greek countryside. In practice, however, the survey teams mostly checked the box for “scattered modern trash,” and either failed or refused to distinguish between the various events that created the distribution of modern material through agricultural lands around contemporary villages. 

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I suspect that the difficulties dealing with the modern landscape also speaks to more complex challenges involving how we understand modern artifact distribution in the countryside where most modern survey projects are based. Modern material represents both very familiar practices – typically those associated with opportunistic discard of unneeded objects – and practices that are rather unfamiliar to archaeologists who are not well versed in modern, sometimes ad hoc, use of modern material in contemporary Mediterranean agricultural practices. For example, last year, I took numerous photographs of modified plastic water bottles hung from trees throughout the Argolid and the ingenious use of beer cans in modified irrigation systems.

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Our familiarity with the primary use of objects and simple discard practices has perhaps made it easier to overlook creative examples of reuse in the countryside. Modern objects have become so specialized, so disposable, and so common that we have to train our eyes to see them and our archaeological awareness to consider the range of uses possible in the countryside.

Traveling through Non-Place?

I’m sitting in the Larnaka International Airport reflecting on the Marc Augé’s idea that airports are quintessential examples on hyper modern non-places. Indistinguishable from one another and catering to displaced travelers, airports both ameliorate and exacerbate the sense of placelessness by being both familiar and non-local at the same time. As airports have become increasingly operated by multinational corporations and beholden to international security standards, they have only become more homogeneous in the 21st century.

At least that’s a simplified version of his argument brought up to date by some recent observations.

 

On the ride to the airport, though, my colleagues Brandon Olson and Dallas Deforest reminisced about old airports and their distinct character: the old Athens airport with its “flippy” list of arrivals and departures, the old Larnaka airport where you disembarked onto the tarmac with its distinct smell of the sea and jet fuel, and the chaotic nature of regional airports in Turkey. Maybe the de-placing of airports is a more recent phenomenon for many places in the world than Augéhas recognized.

Of course the airport in Cyprus has the added complication of being a product of the conflict that has seen the northern part of the island being governed by an unrecognized state. Prior to the invasion of 1974, the airport for the island was in Nicosia. It now stands in the UN controlled demilitarized zone. Few places on earth more poignantly reflect the character of late modern political space than these extranational zones which linger at the margins of formal political jurisdictions. At the same time, the old Nicosia airport has become a very local symbol of the island’s complicated last. It is simultaneously non-place and an highly nuanced political symbol.

I think my flight is starting to board now, but I wanted to write down a few thoughts (on my iPhone no less) while they were fresh in my mind. My next post will be from Greece!

Adventures in Podcasting in Absentia! Richard Rothaus and Tom Isern talk Heritage Renewal

Summer is upon us.  Bill is in Cyprus and Greece doing real archaeology, and Richard is set upon by various lesser North American archaeological endeavors, so get ready for some innovative summer podcast programming,

In this episode, Richard discusses the Heritage Preservation Renewal with Distinguished Professor Tom Isern, of North Dakota State University’s Center for Heritage Renewal.  We recorded this episode in our luxurious hotel suite in Stanley, North Dakota, prior to a session of the Man Camp Dialogues at the wonderful Sibyl Center.  North Dakotans will recognize the mellifluous voice of Isern from his Plains Folk radio show.  Richard really sounds like a mouse with a cold when mismatched such.

During the episode, Tom talks about why Renewal, not Preservation, is a worthy and appropriate goal.  Richard bemoans the state of “historic preservation” as a profession.  We both agrees that we are not sentimental about historic preservation as a cause, but we are committed to life and communities on the Great Plains.  We discuss how the once traditional adversarial relationship with the environment of the Northern Plains has changed with the latest settlers and generations.  We discuss how the study of history has developed in North Dakota and the Northern Plains, and note what some of us see as the unusually damaging interpretation of North Dakota’s grandfather of history, Elwyn Robinson.

Apparently the State really is so small that one historian’s “too much of the too much mistake” can have a lasting impact. The short version –  there is strong strain of belief in the Northern Plains that residents are victims, not agents.  Richard and Tom think that’s really detrimental, and let’s opportunities slip by.  Tom exercises his rights as a tenured professor, and makes a strong interpretation of the behavior of the North Dakota legislature. Tom asks, in a cross-partisan way: “how much can we tighten our belts before we strangle ourselves?” and wonders why we tolerate an attitude of “don’t get your hopes up.”

Want to know how embedded this sentiment into Northern Plains culture?  Enjoy this sign from an official employee bulletin border in the State Capitol.

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But, we end on very positive notes about how there is a generation that very much wants to bring renewal to the Northern Plains and North Dakota. When people want to stay, and there are no jobs, they will create them.  We also discuss Tom’s work in building German-Russian heritage tourism, and Richard opines that it is an idea that is just the right amount of crazy.  We actually have a really vigorous discussion of this topic about 40 minutes in, to make up for the egg-headed beginning of our discussion.

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During editing Richard noted he really, really needs to work harder at creating context.

There’s an easter egg at the end of the podcast.

Some links:

IMG 1524And for those who are wondering, the Mighty Milo is doing just fine this summer… except that he decided to eat a bunch of pebbles which gave him a wicked tummy ache!

Summers are for Ideas

Summertime is a great time for ideas, problem solving, and field work, but it’s not a great time for blogging or any kind of long-form writing. I do keep a little notebook of ideas and keep notes in my phone using the irresistibly twee Vesper application for my iPhone. 

So, I have a few idea, most of which I (subjected?) shared with Scott Moore over the last few days.

1. Polis: City of Work. This summer we’ve been working to understand an industrial area of the site of Polis-Chrysochous. It was an area that probably did not enjoy as much attention as the monumental remains of the city in the recent Polis: City of Gold exhibition and catalogue. This was a shame, because we have a ton of evidence for production both in the area where we’re working – including a ceramic kiln and some evidence for possible glass production, metal working, terra-cotta sculpture, and probably other activities that are not associated with the glamorous life of monumental buildings, well-appointed sanctuaries, and other elite manifestations of ancient urbanism.

2. Wall and Holes. This year, the small team at Polis right now has focused on an area laced with walls and deep trenches. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to associate the trenches with walls and walls with floors and surfaces with fills. The big problem is that many of the excavators struggled to see foundation cuts in the difficult soil. Compounding this (and probably the major reason that foundation cuts went undetected) is the numerous “later” burials in the area and the constant rebuilding and adaptation of the area.

The end result is that we have walls, we have fills, and we have surfaces, and it is very difficult to link any of these together. So we have to find a way to publish the site that recognizes the challenges associated with the excavations and the limits to our knowledge as well as the potential the site and excavation have to contribute to archaeological knowledge on the island.

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4. Wall atop Walls. One of the coolest things about our corner of the Polis site is that it features walls atop wall over a span of nearly 1000 years. The basic grid plan of the area was probably established by the Hellenistic period and it persisted into Late Antiquity and probably beyond. As a result, the area of our current work has massive evidence for the reuse of architecture throughout. 

While the use of spolia is fairly well studied for monumental architecture like fortification walls and churches, it is not as considered in its most banal and practical form. Our area provides a window into the everyday life of an “ordinary” neighborhood at Polis on Cyprus. The reuse of blocks, the cuts, fills, and reconstructions, and the collapses and debris are all preserved as the fabric of the area’s history. 

3. Zombies and Ceramics. This summer, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working alongside an expert on Roman and Late Roman ceramics and zombies: R. Scott Moore. 

I’ve begun to prepare a treatment for a small-budget film that features Scott Moore as the only man who can save humanity from the onslaught of zombies propagated through contact with Late Roman ceramics. The first zombie, of course, was John Hayes whose work defined the field of ceramics in Late Antiquity. The disease soon spread to a group of scholars desperately trying to understand how to use his volume on the Roman ceramics from the site of Paphos. Others are stricken working their way through his volume on the Roman and Late Roman fine wares from the Agora or material from Saraçhane in Istanbul. Graduate students are particularly susceptible, but the cursed virus slowly begins to take down all the ceramicists in the Mediterranean, then excavators, then site directors, and finally tourists. 

Only Scott Moore remains immune. No one knows why or how, but what is more important is that he is the only person who can read Late Roman pottery without becoming a zombie.

Travelers Accounts and Formation Processes

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies by my fellow WARP staffer Scott Gallimore: “‘The Saddest of Ruins’: Travelers’ Accounts as Evidence for Formation Processes at Hierapytna, Crete.” Scott considers travelers accounts of ancient Hierapyta on Crete, the site of his dissertation research, as evidence for archaeological formation processes. 

This is a cool project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it provides a useful archaeological and intellectual context for early travelers’ accounts of the ancient landscape. Traditionally, scholars have recognized the value of these account and often bring them into their consideration of a region as something of a bridge between antiquity and the modern era. Many early travelers, particularly those explicitly interested in antiquities like Cyriac of Ancona or the much later William Martin Leake provide a faint echo of our own archaeological interests and archaeologists have often borrowed their perspectives (critically, of course) as a way to see landscapes radically changed my industrialization, mechanization, and other transformations of the modern world. At their best, scholars have sought to understand the various perspectives that these “early” travelers and porto-archaeologists brought to their seeing and writing; at their worst, scholars have seen earlier travelers as another source of “data” to be mined in an effort to reconstruct some kind of authentic ancient past. 

Scott’s article offers a different approach to how ancient travelers can and should be used. They represent a guide to understanding time and process in the long gap between the creation of ancient buildings and our work to reconstruct and recognize archaeological remains. In particular, Scott is clever in noting how travelers often tend to recognize short-term transformations to the local scene ranging from earthquakes, attacks, or changes in political or economic regimes. They are less savvy when it comes to understanding long-term change, but this is actually better for archaeologists. Many early travelers present static, rusticated, and ruined backdrop against which they set their moralizing views. The curious thing is, as Scott shows quite cleverly, this backdrop provides points along a continuum that actually subvert the travelers intentions by revealing more gradual but no less significant processes so crucial in the production of modern archaeological sites. 

In other words, the tension between the short-term catastrophes and the enduring ruins in the earlier travelers provides an intellectual framework for formation processes that tend to oscillate between moments of dramatic collapse and long periods of gradual deterioration. Whether this is universally true, is open to debate, but there is definitely enough anecdotal evidence for archaeologists to be familiar with this kind of tension: walls will continue to stand as long as the building has a roof, but when the roof fails, the walls will absorb water into their matrix and erode much more quickly.

Once you finish enjoying Scott’s article, be sure to check out the rest of this issue which includes a series of articles on the archaeological challenges associated with the division of Cyprus. Some good perspectives offered here. I’ll write up something on these 

Changing Landscapes of Rural Cyprus

I was pretty interested to read the latest article by the Athienou Archaeological Project team in the most recent issue of Journal of Field Archaeology: Shedding Light on the Cypriot Rural Landscape: Athienou Archaeological Project in the Malloura Valley, Cyprus 2011-2013. The article documents the most recent few years of excavation at the rural sanctuary of Athienou-Mallora which is just to the north of our coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria in southeastern Cyprus.

The article focused on the dynamic nature of rural sites and contribute yet more evidence that challenges the view of rural life in the Mediterranean as backward and  somehow less prone to change than life in urban centers. The sanctuary of Athienou-Malloura clearly underwent a number of significant changes over its long history and there was ample evidence for the reuse of even prestigious objects (like monumental and life-size sculpture) in renovations throughout its active history. Of particular interest was the presence of lamps with Christian symbols dating to Late Antiquity along with lamps with less overtly religious symbolism. This hints that the sanctuary might have been the site of some kind of syncretic religious practices at the end of its long life. We still do not know much about the afterlife of “pagan” sanctuaries on Cyprus especially when compared to the considerable scholarly attention paid to the late life of sanctuaries and temples in Greece. 

The article also features a brief report on the resurvey of several sites documented in the Malloura Valley Survey in the early 1990s. Returning to these sites nearly 20 years after their initial survey confirmed once again the dynamic character of the Cypriot countryside. While the results of this work were rather less surprising with mechanized agriculture and modern building practices intensifying the neglect witnessed by abandoned rural structures and sites, it was nevertheless revealing how little remained visible at abandoned mud brick buildings. In one case the entire building had vanished; in another, the mud brick walls had collapsed into the stone soccle at such an accelerated pace that human interference was suspected. 

The only bummer about the article is that I received an offprint from a colleague which was great, but I the offprint does not provide access to the supplementary material which requires a Manley log in to see. While the information on these pages is – presumably – supplementary and not vital to understanding the content of the article, it is nevertheless a bummer that I can’t see it. It is one more example of how we no long own content in a true sense, but simply rent access. As I work with some of the same authors on this article to develop a paper+digital+web edited volume based on papers from the Mobilizing the Past conference held this spring, I’m going to have to think hard about how to ensure persistent access to our supplementary material on the web.http://uwm.edu/mobilizing-the-past/

The Walk to Dinner

Two days with some thunder in a row has given us some interesting skies to enjoy on our evening walk to dinner.

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And some interesting light to savor during our evening meals.

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