Day of Archaeology – Anywhere I lay my head

My head is spinning round, my heart is in my shoes, yeah
I went and set the Thames on fire, oh, now I must come back down
She’s laughing in her sleeve boys, I can feel it in my bones
Oh, but anywhere I’m gonna lay my head, I’m gonna call my home

The last of my books are going into their boxes, my music collection hawked for nearly nothing, and I toasted my friends last night for a going away dinner. The suitcase that I will be living out of for the next nine months is packed.

My plans this summer have changed a dozen times, through events both in my control and totally out of control. Some archaeologists have settled down, have nice homes and steady jobs, but there is a complimentary population that, to take another Tom Waits cue, raindog–travel around after jobs and live on the road. It wears you out, eventually. Most don’t do it permanently, and certainly I’ll be applying for academic jobs.

But today, I’m putting all my things in storage and hitting the road.

I signed up early on to participate in The Day of Archaeology, but I think I missed something in the flurry that has taken over my life. Anyway, check out the rest of the entries on the fantastic website:

The Ladder of Inference and Mark Menjivar’s You Are What You Eat

College Students | Waco, TX | 3-Person Household | Drummer for death metal band.

Mark Menjivar spent three years photographing the insides of refrigerators. He posts the results, along with a few details about the owners of the refrigerator, such as their profession, where they live, how big the household is, and then a strange yet salient detail about their lives or about their eating habits. It is an almost perfect example of what we call Hawkes’ ladder of inference in archaeology.

Delicatessen Attendant | Daphne, AL | 4-Person Household | Disowned by parents for marrying a black man.

In 1954 Hawkes wrote a very influential article regarding interpretation in archaeology, stating that while certain basic information can be gleaned from the material record, without a historical/documentary context it is difficult to ascertain ideological aspects of the people who made the objects. Using the example of the refrigerators, from their time-capsule-like contents, we could probably determine where the person lived, approximate how many people lived in the household, perhaps even glean a profession (getting higher on the ladder of inference), but the last, ephemeral bit can be frustratingly out of reach.

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily

Regardless of whether or not you find much truck in Hawkes’ slightly dusty ladder, there will always be something unknowable about people, whether they are dead and buried or your next-door neighbor. Something that, even if they left their entire home intact, you would still miss it, something vital, something that is more true to them in describing themselves than anything else in the world. I find this incredibly poetic and disastrously frustrating.

Anyway, I think I might use this as an assignment as a garbology alternative, assuming I ever get a teaching job.

Dioramas, Ruin and Archaeology

I was nudged back into the world of blogging today by the fantastic art of Lori Nix, a photographer who makes incredible tabletop dioramas and then shoots them with a large format camera. The results are stunning.

The above photograph is what initially caught my attention as it reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s lovely passage about the Bosphorus from The Black Book:

“Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic lines that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As this new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud….”

A closer look at Lori Nix’s website reveals a play on the photographic trope of ruin, something very much prevalent in the photography of archaeologists. She creates an abandoned landscape with a focus on civic structures, structures where we record and celebrate the triumph of civilization.

Natural History, 2005

I particularly like her take on the Natural History museum — she’s created dioramas within a diorama, showing our desire to recreate nature within structures, then the ultimate intrusion of nature.

Library, 2007

I find her work playful, rather than the cliched wallowing in ruin that photographers (including myself) usually pursue.

I’ve been thinking about dioramas for a few years now, especially after the virtual reconstructions of Catalhoyuk I worked on in Second Life. Digitally modeling individual objects was truly tedious, but still gratifying when the entire model came together. When I mention dioramas to archaeologists, they get remarkably excited–are we are all secret dollhouse keepers, manipulating people in the past to pose perfectly with that cob of corn, lighting a fire, catching a fish?

The plow is red/The well is full/Inside the dollhouse of her skull – Tom Waits, Such a Scream

The dioramas at Mesa Verde are stunning examples of interpretive archaeological dioramas that delight the half a million visitors the park receives every year. These dioramas are evocative in the way that the preserved archaeological excavations are not, and I would argue that they attract more interest than the same scene rendered in 2D media.

In a wonderfully reflexive and uncharacteristic move, the park has an extensive display regarding the making of the dioramas by our friends, the previously mentioned CCC. While I’m certain that current scholars of the ancestral Puebloans would find faults with the specifics of the interpretations that inspired these dioramas, Meredith Guillet, Paul Franke and Kenneth Ross reproduced actual artifacts in miniature, and went so far as to fire pots in order to break them, creating a more realistic scatter of sherds. The dioramas took about five years to complete, or “1,100 man-days” according to Ronald Brown and Duane Smith’s New Deal Days: The CCC at Mesa Verde. Would that we could have a similar investment in our museums and national parks by our current administration.

When I finally wandered away from the museum (the rest was full of really fun CCC/WPA displays) I saw a sign that seemed to indicate that there was a new museum in the works. Not so, but for a moment I was really worried–would these classic displays be scrapped in favor of touchscreens and boring videos with flute music? Though my reconstructive talents (such as they are) are squarely within the digital realm, the power of dioramas remains unparalleled. Perhaps they are too powerful, too compelling as a monolithic interpretation. But do we sacrifice the intense, imaginative experience and fascination to a multivocal touchscreen? Can we ever make a digital experience as truly immersive as looking at wax figures fighting with a dog, frozen in time for 80 years?

Flaming the Dead – Alice Beck Kehoe vs. Lew Binford

Lewis Binford and His Moral Majority is an excoriating article that attacks the late Lewis Binford on a primarily professional but also a profoundly personal level. All of the inset quotes are Kehoe’s.

As a close contemporary (of Lewis Binford) I watched from the sidelines as he drew disciples into a cohesive little army, assaulted our elders, and claimed the mantle of genius theoretician. From the sidelines, I saw that this emperor was as naked as they come, and puny.

If you didn’t take Introduction to Archaeology in the USA, you might not know the legacy of Lewis Binford. He professed to bring a new era of science and method to Archaeology, and people generally believe him. He died  back in April and there have been many eulogies dedicated to him, extolling his influence on Americanist archaeology.

Lewis Binford turned to lithics. Lithics were called ‘projectile points,’ never mind that nearly every one excavated came from domestic contexts, plus were not sufficiently symmetrical to allow a projectile to fly straight. Being a housewife, I could see that practically all these points are kitchen knife blades, they are the size of my indispensable little kitch knife and like it, have one side of the tip thinned and sharp, the opposing side lightly ground so one can put one’s finger on it to press in cutting. Guys didn’t know kitchen knives.

Reductionist gendering aside, I think Alice Kehoe does know her knives, and has been sharpening them for a long time. She repeatedly cites many others who have done much more rigorous work than Binford, earlier, and better. She completely undermines his legacy and throws in a few extra punches for effect. Finally, she celebrates his death:

The field is free for an empirical archaeology that begins with the syntagm in the ground and moves along a careful chain of signification to a paradigm drawn from rich compendia of ethnographic and historical data, nuanced by firsthand experience with First Nations collaborators and postcolonial appreciation of their histories.

As a non-processual, non-Americanist, non-Great Basin, non-syntagm-seeking archaeologist, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I read Sally Binford’s account of her time with Lewis with great interest back in 2008, and remain enormously interested in individual archaeological practice. I have had my own experiences with idealizing archaeologists, and have subsequently encountered both great disappointment and incredible affirmation. Ultimately, they are flawed individuals and you can like or dislike someone on a personal level, but admire or abhor their work. To be completely cynical, it seems that people are published or cited because their peers like them or are afraid of them, or their peers are similarly trained and don’t know any better. Is it considered brave to call people out, as Kehoe has done, even before Binford died? Or is it just written off as academic in-fighting, or worse, ignored?

What has struck me as I’ve “leveled-up” in archaeology is how few controls there really are over veracity of data and field methodology. It used to terrify me–okay, it still does–but now it motivates me to be both as widely experienced and as meticulous as possible, in this most humanistic of sciences.

No gods, no masters…right?

Hama, Syria

A little over a year ago, I spent a night in Hama. That day, Dan, Melissa and I were checking out sites in western Syria for potential projects and had gotten ridiculously lost in the mountains. The mountain towns were lovely, friendly and felt refreshingly relaxed. But it was late, and we were all tired, starving, and indecisive – a potentially lethal travel combination. We crashed in our hostel and then went out to get felafel. It ended up being the best felafel I’ve had in my life. Then we wandered the streets. It was the beginning of June and dead hot during the day, so most folks came out at night to socialize. At first it seemed like it was a shibab-dominated scene–boys were everywhere. But there were women around as well, enjoying the night air. We walked by the famous waterwheels – great, groaning, wooden dinosaurs that are monumental in scale and lit up like a carnival. The splashing water cooled the sweltering night, a miracle of relief in the desert breeze.

I hadn’t expected much out of Hama; it was a way-point in a misshapen quadrangle between Damascus, the coast, and Aleppo. But more than the groaning waterwheels, or the dark, cobblestone maze of the old city — the people of the city. The women. Or, one woman. There were a group of ladies on the street just wearing hijabs without a full veil, only slightly older than me, chatting and eating ice cream. I smiled at them, well, because I don’t generally see a lot of women while travelling in the Middle East and I miss their company, if only on the street. It’s a strange and lonely feeling when you recognize it.

The women hesitated, smiled back, and then one lady grabbed my arm. I wasn’t actually all that surprised by it, as I’ve become accustomed to displays of sisterly affection and warmth from a wide swath of amazing Middle Eastern women, but what came next did surprise me–she wanted me to have a bite of her ice cream. I didn’t really get it at first, but even after several demurrals, she insisted. We shared a melting bite of ice cream, laughed, hugged, and went on our way into the night.

So tonight, as the protests in Hama rage on, I’m thinking of her.

Solidarity with people who are yearning, aching, struggling to be free. Always.

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