Then Dig – Live!

Then Dig is live! Check out the fantastic Distance theme that Alun Salt put together here:
http://arf.berkeley.edu/then-dig

And “like”: the Facebook page for updates:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Then-Dig/207459359276221

Apocryphilic, Epigraphic Archaeology

Being that I am a fervent scholar of the marginalia of archaeology, and that I am in the middle of some fairly hardcore dissertation reading and writing, I thought I’d take a break to blog about the use of epigraphs in archaeological writing. For the unwashed (including myself, as I had to look it up), an epigraph is a quote before the main body of a piece of writing. As wikipedia has it, “the epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon, either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional context.” (Sorry epigraphers, I didn’t mean to get you all excited.)

While many academics either don’t read them or don’t use them, a good epigraph gives context to the intellectual universe of the piece. It’s a yearning for what you wish you were writing or what you hope to convey with the coming turgid academic prose. It can serve as a nod to a more poetic literature, or as a reference to a parallel understanding of a subject. The Archaeology of Islam by Timothy Insoll begins each chapter with a quotation from the Qur’an, Archaeology as Political Action by Randall H. McGuire begins with a Marx & Engels quote and the Gero & Conkey collection Engendering Archaeology dedicates a full half-page to a quote from John Berger’s Pig Earth about a kind of cheese. It’s one of my favorite epigraphs and I reproduced it in full on my tumblr blog if you are curious.

I admit that when I added “Life is short and filled with stuff.  – The Cramps” as an epigraph to my first archaeology paper in graduate school, it was an oversimplified reaction to the main project of archaeology and probably a reflection of how homesick I was for my family of friends in Austin.

Beyond the relatively simple, static, textual epigraph, social media and digital technology can provide generalized epigraphic enhancement. If you were following my last.fm feed you could tell that I have certain songs that I listen to fairly regularly while I write. The songs shape and invade the writing, no matter how rigidly academic or blandly passive and prosaic the report or article may be. Tumblr and Flickr serve much the same purpose with quotes from books I’m reading or images from what is in front of me. One of my colleagues said that she could always see if her grad students were busy or stressed out by how many photos of books or coffee they were uploading. Digital technology can turn writing an article into a performance, if the writer chooses to let the audience into their secret chambers.

While it is possible that writing doesn’t need this amount of embroidered reflexivity, ultimately any piece of research is an assemblage. A good, elegantly written article can stand by itself–but sometimes I wish I could turn on a more universal “track changes” to see what lies beneath.

Sneak Preview – Then Dig

On June 1st, Then Dig, the collaborative archaeology group blog, will debut with its first issue: Distance. I’m getting together my post for Distance, but if you are interested in participating, the Call for Posts is here:

http://arf.berkeley.edu/then-dig/2011/05/cfpo-distance/

I made a one-sheet for it that we’ll be distributing on the various archaeology mailing lists. So, expect us!

Dinner with Sinan

The MUNI ride was interminable. I was late, but I knew I was going to be late, after checking out an Afro-Futurist art show in Hayes Valley and standing for too long on a windy windy hill while the sun set over Divisidero. The MUNI was behind schedule and packed. The gears and wires groaned as we inch-wormed over the hills of San Francisco.

Most of the guests were around the table already, drinking wine and eating cheese. Ruth’s dining room has been a constant during my graduate education–dinners with visiting academics, Thanksgivings where I’m one of the few Americans attending, parties for the successful passing of first year exams, always centered on her long, wooden table.

The occasion last night was a visit from playwright Sinan Ünel, who doing some background research–he’s interested in writing a play about an archaeologist at Çatalhöyük. Burcu spoke about interacting with the local community, Meg (who has never worked at Çatalhöyük, but has no end of wonderful insights about archaeology) chatted about Maria Gimbutas and feminist/masculinist archaeology, and Ruth spoke of hand ballets and the differences between being filmed by a stranger as opposed to another archaeologist.

The conversation wandered from archaeology to the news, and back to Çatalhöyük again. We started talking about excavating burials, as Sinan was particularly inspired by Ruth’s Remember Me video:

I was trying to think like a playwright–how would you stage an excavation in a way that would be interesting and meaningful to an audience? Usually plays are up on stage, with audiences looking up at the actors, whereas archaeologists are often at the bottom of a pit, the gladiators in the colosseum–or the monkeys in a zoo–with audiences towering over us. The excavation could be projected above the actors, I suppose, if the director was looking for verisimilitude. It would be difficult to show the face to face relationship that an excavator has with a burial, the intimacy of the small tools scraping out lacunae, carefully keeping everything in place.

Finally, I was struck by a visualization of excavation that I have often felt, but have not really articulated. The excavator identifies a burial cut, clears away all of the fill, bags the finds, photographs & draws the skeleton, writes up the 3+ context sheets that accompany the burial, makes sure that everything is fully recorded, and then…relief. The time between the full exposure of a burial and lifting the skeleton is harrowing, tension-filled–will I finish recording it in time, will I be able to keep all of the bones clean and in place for the photograph, am I taking too long, am I hurrying too much? This anxiety accompanies the exposure of most complex archaeology, but is much more pronounced for burials–unless, I suppose, you are a bioarchaeologist who digs nothing but burials.

There is this moment of release after I realize that the burial has been fully accounted for and I can start lifting and wrapping the bones, and I suddenly thought of that moment as literal release, as the person, now free of the dirt, getting up and walking away. Not a collection of bones, but as they once were. A moment, while not real in the field, could be made actual on the stage. (And then the newly revealed person walks down into the bioarch lab, lays on the table, submits to an inspection, and then is rolled up into a labeled box to live on a shelf in a dusty storage facility.)

After dinner Ruth drove us to the BART and we chatted with Sinan for a while longer. He was overwhelmed by the subject, by all of us, and had to have some time to think.

Today, during my morning jog around the lake, I listened to another episode of Radio Lab. One of the commentators said something to the effect that while science tells us that we are not unique or special in this universe, art tells us that we are. I’m not sure that the archaeologist on stage will be recognizable to me, that I will identify her hand with my own as she trowels across the dirt, and if that it is even important that she is recognizable. Ultimately Sinan will decide what is important to convey about the science and art of archaeology, the deeper meaning of it all, and I am excited to find out what that is.

Archaeology, Anthropology, and Multi-sited Ethnography

Here is my contribution to anthropologies, an excellent online collaborative project featuring short contributions regarding various anthropological topics. This month’s prompt was, “What does an archaeological perspective bring to anthropology?” I’m not sure that I answered the question, but judge for yourself:
A couple of weeks ago I attended a brown bag lecture given by Barbara Voss (Stanford) titled Sexual Effects: Postcolonial and Queer Perspectives on the Archaeology of Sexuality. It was an excellent overview of her research on China Camp in San Jose, California, a community that was overwhelmingly male. In her talk she discussed what the materiality of homosociality looks like as well as how we can think about gender and sexuality in the past. Barbara Voss is a prominent voice in the field of archaeology, and her work is interdisciplinary to the core. The talk was well attended, but I didn’t recognize any socio-cultural anthropologists in the audience. This was a fairly typical occurrence, sadly. Even at our more formal gatherings, the Monday evening 290 lectures, the socio-cultural professors and students are completely absent at talks that feature archaeologists.
There are a number of ways one could react to this, and I think I’ve run the gamut at this point. Do They (the capitalization as the beginning of an anti-fraternal sentiment) think that the past (Us) is irrelevant? Do they just not understand archaeology? Do they not feel like we have anything to offer them? Or are they just bowing underneath the substantial burden of both a widening of anthropological purview and a narrowing of in-field specialization? In their introduction to the 2009 Annual Review of Anthropology, Don Brenneis and Peter Ellison succinctly address this point, stating that “The expanding universe of knowledge increases the distance between disciplines of inquiry as the techniques and theories that are developed at the advancing edges of fields become ever more remote from their common roots.” The study of human experience has become so broad that the specializations necessary to make meaningful contributions to research, to carve out your own niche, leave no time for holism.

Oakland Chinatown Saturday

Pandan waffles on a gray Oakland day.

CV – Revamp

I occasionally get people downloading my CV from my About page, and I feel a little embarrassed when it happens. The New Media CV is three years out of date, and the Archaeology CV is a ridiculous six pages long! I’ve made selective CVs from time to time for permits, the Qatar job and whatnot, but I wanted to make a one-page CV that shows what I do. I’ll certainly revise it when I start applying to academic jobs, but I think that it’s a pretty good representation of the weird interdisciplinary space I’m in.

While I was tempted to be creative, I just chose a slightly different font for my name and the section titles. I used Adobe Illustrator instead of Word so I could play with the spacing, but it looks like there’s some funny spacing under Publications.

The content of the CV was a little hard as well; there’s a reason I’ve kept separate archaeology and new media CVs. My teaching experience (11 semesters, not including field schools) and fieldwork (10 academic sites and about the same in CRM) took up a page each! I also knocked out my awards/honors and my grants because I think that most people if they don’t see NSF or Wenner Gren, they aren’t interested. The last thing I cut were my papers presented because there were 13 of them and the best of them have turned into publications anyway.

So what do you think? Too unprofessional? Too boring? Let me have it!

Changing Archaeological Conferences 2/2

Photo by Connor Rowe.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I took part in Heather Law’s Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography session on Saturday. Sadly it overlapped with my graffiti session, so I missed the bulk of the presentations. The gallery space was great though, and the session was archaeologists/photographers presenting their work while the small crowd followed around the room.

Ruth Tringham, presenting her photos at TAG2011. Photo by Allison Barden.

The format was very informal, with many of the presenters speaking extemporaneously. It was much more of a conversation than a critique, which was probably for the best. Most of the photos were not obviously archaeological, with scales or excavators working, but were more phenomenological. After typing a lot of words on this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that archaeological photos need to do something archaeological. A pretty good rule of thumb: I have to be able to use something in the photograph to reconstruct (either verbally or virtually) the archaeological site.

Me, photo by Allison Barden.

I did something a little different with my photographs. As I’ve previously discussed, I put them into an album and set them up with a small, salvaged table and a lamp. I wanted to bring the viewer in, to have them engage with the physicality of the photographs in the album, in part to highlight the analog/digital disruption that was the primary theme of my work. I spoke about my creative process and got a few good questions from the gathered crowd. Adrian Praetzellis was particularly touched that I left one of the photos of the young family in the album, captioned appropriately. I’ll post a more in-depth discussion of the actual piece in a subsequent post.

Everyone that I heard from in the photo show really enjoyed it. Heather seems eager to do it again, and it would be nice to bring it outside of TAG to a larger audience.

The lessons from this session were more subtle – on the surface it could be compared to presenting a poster in a more structured setting. What distinguishes a photo session is the curatorial process of selecting, captioning, printing, and arranging photographs and the accompanying friction between artistic voice and archaeological vision. I also appreciated the directed discussion and greater interaction between presenter and audience.

USA TAG is in SUNY Buffalo next year and I hope to see more experimentation in the classic “conference” format.

Changing Archaeological Conferences 1/2

Deadeyes and Safety First, painting. Photo by Connor Rowe.

The Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting at UC Berkeley this past weekend assured that I would be screamingly busy. I was an organizer of the conference, participated in a photo session (which I will discuss in a subsequent post), read my friend Shanti’s paper, and organized a session on Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary.

The session faced issues from the start–a lot of people sent abstracts but ended up canceling, I was so busy with the Blogging and Archaeology session at the SAA that I neglected some finer points of organization, and I almost canceled the whole thing more than once. It was good that I didn’t.

There were four fantastic papers presented by people from four different places–England, Ireland, Australia, and the US. The papers were diverse in their content, but all grappled with the place of graffiti in archaeological research and in wider cultural heritage. The international scope of the research was impressive and the authors of the papers were obviously intensely engaged in the interpretation of graffiti. A traditional discussion session after the papers would have been lively, fun, and satisfying–you can tell by the abstracts that we were doing something right. But we did something different.

Two members of the Black Diamonds Shining Collective, Deadeyes and Safety First came up from Oakland to conduct a live painting session and discussion of the papers. I had given them the choice, they could just talk or just paint or do a mixture of both. The session was a bit chaotic and ran over time, but at the end of the last presentation, we cleared a big space in front and brought in the large, prepared scrap of wood that I salvaged from Berkeley’s art practice department (thanks, Nick!).

Deadeyes and Safety First started painting and the room was absolutely silent. Multinationalism aside, everyone in the room was academic & white, while the graffiti artists were black. Were they just performing? Was it a strange, silent, live, Othering-event? Afterwards, several people confessed their enormous discomfort at this intense scopophilic moment. The presumed silence of our research subject was made real, highlighting the epistemic injustice that underlies academic research.

Deadeyes and Safety First. Their faces have been intentionally omitted. Photo by Connor Rowe.

Deadeyes capped his pen, stood up and turned around. He spoke, outlining his decade-long interest in and documentation of Oakland graffiti art and the intensely personal and political nature of graffiti, emphasizing the sociality in their chosen form of expression.  Suddenly, the focus of the room shifted, and these academic archaeologists had the creator of their studied object pushing back, correcting assumptions, and throwing into question the entire enterprise. Safety First chimed in at times while still working on the painting.

I came away from the session humbled but also re-energized. This, to me, more than studying the ruins of theme parks or dismantling vans, was the archaeology of the contemporary. Having graffiti artists live-paint their reaction to the papers was dangerous–I actually had no idea how dangerous until I was in the room, watching the collision of these spheres. It was endangering our precious research, our preferred notions of how material culture was made, and how conferences should be run.

I still haven’t fully digested the whole experience, and I’ll be following up with the individual session participants and discussants. Changing archaeological conferences is hard, and risky, and most people resist, probably with good reason. That’s why we still sit in rooms, reading page after page, flicking through powerpoints. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I was deeply relieved to read a paper in such a session the very next day.

Tomorrow I’ll write about another risky and rewarding session I was in, Heather Law’s Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography.

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?

(This post is also hosted at Then Dig, an archaeology group blog that will premiere in June)