Another Year, Another Year of Blogging

Tomorrow morning, I’ll post my annual last minute Christmas gift for all Archaeology of the Mediterranean World fans: the sixth volume in my annual installment of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive. (For those feeling impatient and nostalgic, copies of Volume 1Volume 2Volume 3Volume 4, and Volume 5 are still available.

It’ll represent some 200+ individual blog posts and weigh in at around 165,000 words (words, that my colleagues will remind me, could have been committed to more personally and professionally profitable undertakings). More importantly that the profits produced by the words that I wrote, however, is what I’ve learned this year from running my little bloggy-blog:

1. Social Media and Blogs. If I don’t push a post via social media, I lose around 25% of my readers. When I started blogging, we had RSS readers and we liked it! But now, most of readers appear to use the hive mind of social media to filter the internet for their reading pleasure. For better or for worse, this involves me having to be active on social media. Most of the time, it is a pleasure to troll gently my friends and colleagues, but every now and then the outrage machine that is my Facebook feed pushes me toward the edge of rational behavior. I do realize that if we don’t post and comment on the most recent campus outrage from the local paper that the terrorists, racist, or other horrible people win. And yes, I know that it would be very bad if Trump was elected President. Finally, I know the they are putting chemicals in our drinking water, plotting to block out the sun and charge us for sun light, and, soon, very soon, only foreigners (mostly refugees) will be legally allowed to vote in the U.S. I am, as always, very, very afraid and hope that someone will swoop in and save me with lower taxes, more freedom, less freedom, better guns, fewer guns, more bombs, fewer bombs, more socialism, fewer chemicals, better drugs, and that.

Having to keep an active social media presence in our current age is excruciating. In fact, I’ve periodically stopped pushing my blog posts to social media to avoid their association with the internet outrage machine, racists and frankly malicious dreck, and political drivel. This results in fewer people seeing my blog and reading my words, which is a bummer.

2. My Mini Media Empire. Over the the past 12 months, Richard Rothaus and I have managed to sustain two full seasons of the Caraheard podcast with the last few episodes being the best yet. Most of our posts have been listened to at least 50 times and a few have been used in classrooms and other settings. If you haven’t listened to our most recent podcast which is a conversation with Ömür Harmanşah, do it now

I’ve worked closely with some amazing folks at North Dakota Quarterly, to learn the rhythms of work with a quarterly literary journal and the challenges of negotiating the tensions between a century of traditional approaches to media and the risks and opportunities of the digital world. The power of the North Dakota Quarterly brand has simply amazed me as its website regularly draws a couple of hundred views a day without new content and twice that with every new post.  

In 2015, the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota continues to grow up with two new books and a reprint in collaboration with NDQ. Next year, I feel confident in asserting that the Press will produce its most important works and forge some new regional and national partnerships and continue to mature. We might even branch out into some new directions that take the idea of “The Digital,” in “The Digital Press” a bit more broadly.

The blog sits astride the intersection of these interests and, as Andrew Reinhard and I argued in Internet Archaeology, was the impetus (not just in my case, but I’d contend, in a larger context) for the resurgence of small scale publishing. My own experiments with serialized publishing of longer works (for example, my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch which I published over at Medium has yielded over 2000 views this year) has demonstrated the continued vitality of blog-like environments as a platform for both short and long form publishing.

3. Old Content and New Content. One of the most interesting things about my blog is that only three posts that I wrote this past year ranked in the most viewed posts for the year. They were not posts from the beginning of the year; so this was not a factor of length of time being visible. Archaeology of Care was posted on September 10th and the open access teaser to the War with the Sioux appeared in September 1. Only the post announcing Visions of Substance appeared in the first half of this past year. The rest of the posts in the top 10 are from previous years and most are associated with posts that would ultimately become contributions to Visions of Substance (with the exception of two Punk Archaeology posts and the 200+ downloads of the book this year). 

I assume this result is as much the product of the way that search engines work as the inherent appeal of particular posts. For example, a post with the with the word syllabus in it will likely attract more sustained attention than one with a more (or is it less?) generic title. At the same time, I was a bit bummed that some of my better posts didn’t get more attention. I know, it is vane and naive to think that what I regard as good work will somehow get more attention on the internet, and maybe this is one of the best reasons for anyone to start a blog. You can see in immediate and graphic terms what the internet thinks (and sees in) your work.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the annual publication of the Archive!  

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

The semester is almost over (but for the grading), the footballing season is getting interesting, and the boys of summer are at it down under. And there are the holidays with all that they entail. 

I expect most of my loyal readers will be watching the epic Richmond Spiders vs. North Dakota State Bizon (that’s how they spell it, folks; and, yes, it’s strange) tilt this evening, but for those who aren’t here’s a little list of quick hits and varia:

MiloSpidersMilo is a Spiders fan!

Revisiting the Elwyn Robinson Memoirs Project

Years ago, when I was working on writing my History of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, I stumbled across Elwyn Robinson’s memoirs tucked away in the UND archives. It was titled A Professors Story and offered a revealing glimpse of both Robinson’s life and his work in the Department of History and writing his landmark History of North Dakota. (For more on it, see here and here.)

For the last few years, I had this idea that I could publish his memoirs in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his History of North Dakota. I’ll admit that I didn’t have a great plan for how to do this, but I kept a slot open for the production in my capacity as publisher of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

This is when Prof. Sherry O’Donnell and Michele Eifert entered the picture. I offered the manuscript to Sherry’s editing class in the English Department at UND to give them some practical experience preparing a manuscript for publication. This class spent the semester working through Robinson’s manuscript, preparing focused introductions to each chapter, and even working on format and type-setting. Yesterday, I finally got to see the fruit of their labor!

The result of their work is spectacular. The students’ pride and enthusiasm in discussing this project reminded me of the importance of “making” in the academic process and gives me great hope that the Robinson’s memoirs will be published in 2016.

IMG 4150  1

Practice and Process in Archaeology

Over the weekend, I read Mary Leighton’s “Excavation methodologies and labour as epistemic concerns in the practice of archaeology. Comparing examples from British and Andean archaeology” which appeared in Archaeological Dialogue 22.1 (June 2015), 65-88. The article compares a British and an Andean archaeological project to demonstrate how excavation practice plays a key role in understanding how archaeologists produce knowledge. Leighton’s argument focuses on the disjunction between discussions of archaeological method (and methodology) and what actually goes on during a dig. For Leighton, archaeological methods have become a “black box” (to use Latour’s term) in which a wide range of different practices take place, but are occluded from critical scrutiny. Leighton suggests that the variation in how projects implement established practices and procedures influences the results that these projects produce.

Her two case studies demonstrate the differences in archaeological field practice in the Andes where local communities provide unskilled and inexperienced labor for archaeological projects, graduate students document the work, and experienced archaeologists manage the labor, work flow, and results. In the U.K., Leighton looks at CRM practices that use the MoLAS model (Museum of London Archaeological Service). This model features single context, open area excavation and the archaeologists responsible for documenting work are also the primary excavator. The use of Franco Harris Matrices ensures that the individual contexts align immaculately across the site (ok, I made part of that up, but she does argue that the use of Harris Matrices to document “archaeological events” allows for comparisons between areas at a single site.) In short, the British MoLAS model is organized horizontally, whereas the Andean model is organized vertically.

Leighton draws some interesting conclusions about how these two forms of organization function on the ground. For example, she argues that in the example from Andean archaeology, archaeologists and excavators function as interchangeable cogs in a machine because the work of archaeology is to reveal objects (however broadly construed) in the ground. In the more apparently “democratic” system from the U.K., it is nearly impossible to separate the archaeologist from the interpretative process that produces an archaeological event which is ultimately represented as a box in the Harris Matrix. As a result, archaeologists appear vital to process. At the same time, the use of standardized forms and practices in the British system hints at another reality: the professional gaze of the archaeologist is focused on one particular area of the site, documented in a consistent way, and lacks a larger, synthetic perspective.

Leighton concludes two things from an article rich in detailed observation. First, that the “micropolitics” of fieldwork shape archaeological results outside of the prevailing conversation about field methods, procedures, and processes. The result is that two projects with very different field practices will appear to employ similar methods and to produce comparable results. The other conclusions generalizes this situation by arguing that British and North American archaeology has dominated conversations about methodology and expectations of best practices have been projected across the global south (and, I’d contend, the Mediterranean littoral). The process of “black boxing” field practices occludes the variation across projects and the reasons for this variation. If the tools we use shape the know that we produce, we should not underestimate the importance the organization of labor, the individual excavator, and the implementation of methods on how we understand the past. 

Waste

I’m totally enamored by the little series from Bloomsbury Press titled Object Lessons. The books are small (and I have a thing for well done, small books). The feature eye-catching covers with relatively simple graphic designs. The name of the series is printed at the top of each cover in all caps, in a simple sans serif font with the word “Object” in white and “Lessons” in grey and no gap between the words. The title of the individual books appears in a different sans-serif font, lower-case letters below the graphic in bold white against the cover’s black background.  The authors name is below the title and shares the primary colors of the cover graphic. 

9781628924367 707x1024

Brian Thill’s book, Waste, is beautiful little essay on the role of waste in our lives. He documents through vivid case studies some of the physical, digital, and chemical waste that we produce every day and that infiltrates our lives. The chapter titled “Million Year Panic” caught my attention because I’m thinking a bit about a short chapter on the American West for our little book on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Thill makes explicit the link between sites like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico and the dump of Atari games in Alamogordo. (His work echoes many of the sentiments in Lippard’s Undermining, which I discuss here).  

Thill locates WIPP and the Atari dump at the intersection of our desperate realization that when we’re gone, our waste may no longer have meaning. He recounts how the designers of the WIPP facility solicited suggestions from around the world on how to mark this site as dangerous and toxic for tens of millions of years. The result was the “Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the WIPP” (.pdf) which produced numerous recommendations on how to mark out the site as deadly. Conversely, the excavation of the Atari games looked to recover our “wasted” youth and to determine whether it still held meaning. 

Both the WIPP and the Atari dump fall in part of the world which contemporary society has tended to see as a marginal. In the last 70 years, we have dropped atomic bombs, buried radioactive material, and dumped high tech waste in the deserts of the American West (not to mention mining, syphoning of water, and selling off of land), and this activity has generally neglected the delicate ecosystems and, more importantly, disregarded the rights of indigenous communities in this area. In other words, the discarding of waste in the southwest, reflects not just increasingly outdated views of the desert ecology, but also views of race and culture propelled forward by the seemingly inexorable pace and priorities of capitalism.

More Slow Archaeology

Over the weekend, I made more headway in revising my slow archaeology article. Addressing some of this paper’s reviewers, I introduced some of the ideas of slow archaeology earlier in the paper and also tried to situate my own position of privilege. 

Enjoy:

Slow archaeology draws upon ideas developed both amid a scholarly critique of speed and in the more popular slow movement. Scholarly criticism of speed is most frequently associated with larger critiques of modern capitalism. For David Harvey, for example, the speed of capital in contemporary society has outstripped human conceptions of time and space, and led to “the annihilation of space by time” through “time-space compression” (Harvey 1990). Marc Augé (1995) recognized the speed of the contemporary world as a significant contributor to the serialized production of non-places which exchange the distinguishing characteristic of place for the efficiency of legibility. Paul Virilio, in his concept of dromology, has stressed the transformative aspects of speed and perhaps more importantly acceleration in modern society. Beginning with the industrial revolution the drive to make things and processes faster, more efficient, and more connected has become an end unto itself. For Virilio, speed produces a distinct realm of experience and knowledge (Virilio 1995; James 2007, 31-32). A traveler in a car both experiences and produces the landscape in a way that is distinct from the experience of the landscape on foot (Virilio 2001). Hartmut Rosa (2013), following Virilio and Augé, argues that the rapidly shrinking present has created a kind of fluid, unstable, and unfamiliar world.

The popular media has explored a critique of speed through concepts like “slow food” which celebrates the deliberate preparation of locally sourced food stuff as a challenge to the homogenized and generic fast food experience. Initially championed by the Italian activist Carlo Petrini (2003), the idea of slow has offers a way to summarize a wide range of criticism of the speed of contemporary life. Carl Honoré (2004) and others have extended the Petrini’s idea of slow to a wide ranging critique of the cult of speed in the modern world. These writers have endured criticism, of course, especially from those who see the opportunities to slow down as only possible because of prosperity provided by the inhuman efficiency of the industrial world. Despite these critiques, these authors have offered practical advice on how to slow down individual engagements with the world. Petrini, for example, celebrates local food ways. Honoré advises that we set aside time to unplug and to savor the pleasures of experience without interruption or mediation.  

Slow archaeology calls upon archaeologists to recognize the influence of speed on archaeological practice. This paper will not call on archaeologists to discard their digital tools or reject the remarkable benefits of technology for a romanticized past. Instead, I will offer a critique of both certain digital practices and, perhaps more importantly, the way in which these tools are described and promoted in the scholarly discourse. I remain skeptical that archaeology will benefit from tools that offer greater efficiency, consistency, and accuracy alone, and my hope is that this skepticism has particular significance at a time when a new generation of digital tools are entering the field.

Unpacking the implications of our use of digital tools and the adoption of streamlined practices require some attention to the intersection of scientific and industrial practices in archaeology. At the same time, the recent growth of contract, salvage, and rescue archaeology has made the influence of speed and capital on archaeological work particularly visible. While similar pressures have long existed for academic archaeologists, the pressures of development and the efficient management of heritage as a resources have provided ample reason for the enthusiastic adoption of digital tools and practices. The goal of slow archaeology is, on the one hand, to recognize archaeological work and the particular emphasis on efficiency, economy, and standardization in digital practices within the larger history of scientific and industrial knowledge production. This chapter also seeks to carve out space within the proliferating conversation about digital archaeology for practices and tools that embrace the complexity of archaeological landscapes, trenches, and objects. In this way, slow archaeology recognizes that the presentation and publication of archaeological tools and arguments tends to simplify the impact of technologies and the often-messy relationship between evidence and argument. In this way, slow archaeology finds common cause with Eric Kansa’s recent interest in “slow data,” which recognizes and embraces the complex, dynamic, and profoundly human character of archaeological datasets. 

My position as a tenured, academic archeologist provides a distinct professional context for slow archaeology. I recognize that my arguments for a slow archaeology come from a position of privilege. I am an academic archaeologist who relies on his research for professional advancement, but not professional survival. I have tenure, and as a result, I can be more deliberate in the race against the clock to produce publications. I also have the good fortune to work on archaeological projects with the manpower, time, and funding that align closely with our research objectives. These luxuries have allowed us to consider a wide range of archaeological documentation processes without particular concern for efficiency. We have deployed range of digital tools and practices from the use of iPads and structure-from-motion (SfM) 3D imagine to now standard reliance on differential GPS units, relational databases, and GIS. This article then is not the frustrated expressions of a Luddite outsider, but an argument grounded in familiarity with digital field practices.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

As the semester winds down and the holidays loom lustrously around the corner, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World begins to put its house in order and try to regain some of its focus (or maybe that just the author of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World). Now is the time when academic’s catch up on those shelved writing projects, read those dusty books and articles, and concoct their syllabi for next semester.

We also sit back and watch some cricket, look frantically for unique gifts, and trudge from one holiday party to the next.

Theblur

In the meantime, here are some quick hits and varia:

Imwaiting

North Dakota Quarterly 80.4-82.4

I’m pretty excited to announce that a rare, time-spanning, wormholing issue of North Dakota Quarterly is back from the printers and heading to your mailbox soon. (If you don’t subscribe, don’t panic. Do nothing for about 4 days and then go and subscribe when we have our new online subscription service set up next week!).

IMG 4133This is a hint… stay tuned.

Here’s my draft of a press release. I’ll post the finalized version over at ndquarterly.org when it’s approved.

It is with great pleasure that we announce the publication of North Dakota Quarterly 80.4-82.4: Welcome to the Wormhole. This combined issue was guest edited by Lucy Ganje, Nuri Oncel, and Eric Wolf and uses the image of the wormhole to celebrate the THEMAS movement. THEMAS is an acronym for Technology, Humanities, Engineering, Mathematics, Arts, and Sciences and it is poised to replace STEM as the shorthand litany of skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century economy and society.

The cover illustrations of a swirling NDQ Wormholes draw the reader into the issue. The poetry of Sarah Eliza Johnson, Anna Leahy, Katharine Coles, and others demonstrates that the ancient traditions of scientific and ethical in verse remain very much alive. Coles’ reflection on the body scientific and Leahy’s embodied reading of her father’s exposure to uranium provides an almost perfect epilogue to Tom Leskiw’s essay on the arts and sciences as twin siblings. Cindy Hunter Morgan’s poetic engagement with the fading Rothko Harvard Murals nudges the reader toward Nathan J. Bols’ essay “Flint Hills Lost” which reflected on the aged, fading grandeur or the Great Plains. The arresting images of Nuri Oncel’s and Betsy Thaden’s “Nano Art” converse with Sarah Eliza Johnson’s “Nanomachine” sequence of poems. There is much more to explore and sample.

The tête-bêche binding of this double issue evokes distorted time-space of the wormhole and the forgotten tradition of binding pairs of science-fiction novels together in the golden age of dimes-store fiction. Kenneth King’s essay reminds us of the potency of the past and future crossroads, Kimberly Miller’s poetry evokes ancient days (“Duria Antiquior”), and Paisley Rekdal’s verse takes us further back to the “Paleo.” In keeping with this recursive attitude, Sharon Carson invokes the almost-lost reviewers art and introduces a group of compelling review essays. There is little doubt that the innovative THEMAS movement finds in venerable genres new paths to the future. We think this captures the spirit of North Dakota Quarterly as well.

Be sure to check out ndquarterly.org for selections in this volume and more!

Rejiggering Slow Archaeology

This week I began in earnest the process of re-writing and “rejiggering” my slow archaeology article (and I’ve started talking about this rejiggering process here and comparing these two posts is fun. I wrote one before I started working on revisions and the post today comes after a few days of work). I’ve been looking forward to this task with equal parts excitement and dread. I think a couple of weeks of work will either make this paper look much better or like “Tom Cruise in vanilla sky.” 

After a few days of work on it, I think that I have three mains things that I need to sort out without doubling the length of the paper or adding complications where none are necessary.

1. Streamline. One of the things that I’m really struggling with right now is how to summarize two key trends in discipline of archaeology in the first 2000 words: the history of science and the history of industrial practices in archaeology. The former establishes a division between “archaeological data” which is collected in the field and analyzed later. The latter organizes the division of labor around that distinction with the trench supervisor, field director, or project director taking on the role of analyst or interpreter and workmen, student excavators, or less experienced archaeologists being responsible for “data collection.”

The history of science is an overwhelmingly vast and complex topic and the dichotomy between “data” and “analysis” may parallel the division between “nature” (i.e. data in the raw) and “culture” (i.e. the lens through which we interpret the data) that scholars like Bruno Latour have sought to demonstrate derives from an intentionally distorted view of practice. For Latour, practice – even in the hard sciences – reveals that data and analysis, and nature and culture, are so deeply intertwined that distinguishing the two concepts obscures the reality of both scientific work and our natural world.

This is significant for digital archaeology because it calls into question any approach that isolates data collection as a process from epistemological and analytical priorities. While this might be a strawman in the context of archaeological practice, I’d contend that the recent interest in archaeological technology often privileges the work of data collection as separate from larger discussions of research methods, analysis, and goals. This is not to suggest that this hasn’t always been in the case in archaeology, but that we can do better.

More than that: I need to do a better job in my slow archaeology paper establishing the disconnect between discussions of digital practice and analysis.

2. Anticipate. My first draft of the slow archaeology paper was naive. I neither anticipated objections nor defined my terms well hoping that my audience would more or less buy into my big picture arguments without scrutinizing the details too closely.

The paper has gone through two peers reviews and numerous critical conversations with friends and colleagues. More than that, my ideas have been engaged in scholarly works that appeared over the past year or are due to appear in the coming volume. What is clear is that my ideas have been too frequently conflated with a kind of anti-technology Luddism rather than a critical approach to how archaeologists talk about and use technology.

I also need to unpack the term “deskill” a bit. I used this term in various versions of my paper to discuss how technology can undermine the development of certain skills among field archaeologists which archaeologists developed in the analogue realm, but nevertheless had important benefits to the process of producing archaeological knowledge in the field. The most obvious example of is illustrating a trench plan. In recent years, the advantages of using structure-from-motion to capture 3D images of the trench has replaced the painstaking and time consuming practice of illustration (in fact, we experimented with this on my project in Cyprus). At its most basic, this practice involves taking a series of photographs of the cleaned trench which are then analyzed by software to produce a 3D image. If necessary, a plan can be made from this image. Traditionally, the task of preparing a trench plan for an excavation context requires the trench supervisor to carefully scrutinize the trench and to prepare an illustration that captures the relationships between various visible features. This is a skill, developed at trench side and deeply embedded in the interpretative process of archaeology, that the move to digital practices will erode. The argument that the use of new tools will encourage the development of new skills is reasonable, but the case must be then made that these new skills will benefit the field.  

3. Position myself. Both reviewers called me out on my privileged position within academia. In the first draft of this paper, I acknowledge that I’m a white, male, tenured professor who does not feel any unusual pressure to publish the result of my field work (although I do publish regularly and at what I think to be reasonable standards). I also have had the good fortune of solid funding, staffing, and expectations on my projects. I have only rarely felt pressure to work more efficiently in the field or race to finish our work before the end of a season. This may mark a certain lack of ambition on my part, but I also think that it reflects a deliberate approach to field work that makes the push for ever greater levels of efficiency, rates speed, and quantity of data unnecessary to accomplish research goals. 

I obviously recognize the difference between my approach to archaeological work and that of folks who work in the CRM industry or scholars who are working in more difficult, endangered, and limited environments where political, economic, or even military pressures require rapid work to document archaeological remains. I’m aware that many academic archaeologists have to meet publication expectations and there is pressure within the discipline to do more, publish more, document more. In fact, I’m broadly sympathetic with those who argue that nearly all archaeology is salvage archaeology pushed forward by the need to harvest the remains of the past for academic advancement, publications, heritage, or to clear the way for development. My call for a slow archaeology is unlikely to serve as a break on these pressures and is a product of a particularly privileged position both in relation to the past and in my discipline. 

The Archaeology of Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

A year or so ago we submitted a manuscript to a top-tier archaeology journal describing our North Dakota Man Camp Project. It was a long manuscript – 12,000 words, it was descriptive and report-y, and tried to say everything at once. It came as no little surprise, then, when we received a “revise and resubmit” request from the journal along with some really positive (and critical) comments. It turns out that our article was far worse than our project (at least we hope). We hope this article is better.

I make a couple of maps yesterday using the really great data from the North Dakota GIS Hub.

Figure 6

A year later, we’re ready to resubmit, and this marks one of the few tangible results of my sabbatical (so far?):