The Young Lions of Archaeology


(Written for William Caraher’s brilliant Punk Archaeology meeting in Fargo, North Dakota.) 

“This…hon…here.” I kneel in the trench, scraping away at the dirt with my trowel. Teaching digging, teaching how to see. “Tamam? Okay?” But I realize that my students and/or workmen are not looking at the dirt, they are not looking at the texture changes, they are not trying to discern the transition from the Byzantine to the Mamluk. One of the dirty, ragged cuffs of my long-sleeved shirt has ridden up, revealing faint swirls of color on my skin. My tattoos are faded, obscured by a salty rime of evaporated sweat. Later, when they are more comfortable with me, I expect questions about the tattoos. How many do you have? How long have you had them? How long did they take? But…you are a woman? Over the years my answers to these questions have changed in tenor, but I have settled on the explanation that has the most resonance: they’re traditional in my culture.

I need a second skin/something to hold me up

Fictive kinship, or kinship that does not rely on marital or blood ties, is a classic, though dated and thoroughly critiqued concept in anthropology. Kinship is obviously relative, if you will forgive the wordplay, and ties of love and obligation can bind through a near-infinite amount of variables. I think of kinship in the active tense; I kin to people, I understand, empathize and appreciate some people more than other people. My kin tend to have a lot of tattoos, drink cheap lager, and a deep reverence for live music, though they’d surely find the exception to any such proposed definition. I learned a sense of kinship through punk; I learned to find others who participated fully and passionately, who were politically minded, vocal, contrarian, who spoke plainly through microphones, records and zines.

I want you to know people who laugh too loud/And have to get drunk to find the right words/And can’t sleep ’til the colors are just right.

I carried this sense of urgency and community with me, nearly 2,000 miles away to graduate school, ready to shake the world. I very quickly learned to stick my nose in a book and to hide my tattoos. I missed my kin horribly. I had colleagues now, and they were not interested in listening to records or going to shows and even if they were it was something to do, not something you were. I did not have imposter syndrome, I had infiltrator syndrome. Before my MA exam I slid my headphones over my ears, locked myself in the department bathroom and listened to the irreverent roar of the X-Ray Spex and told myself that no matter what happened, academics could not take this away from me. No matter how they saw my work, my aptitude, my ability to theorize and categorize, this piece of me would stay strong and true.

I know I’m artificial/But don’t put the blame on me/I was reared with appliances/In a consumer society

This is still true. Graduate school provided fire and forge and I came out very different on the other side. The conservatism of punk, the inflexibility and strident nihilism was no longer feasible. My tattoos faded under the hot sun of excavations and I met a whole phantasmagoria of people who took life in their teeth.

I am the animal/With no pockets in my pants.

Still, I kept the possibly quaint ideal of kin and kept practicing what I felt was the best practices for a punk archaeologist. Membership in a community and participation in this community. Building things–interpretations, sites, bonfires, earth ovens, Harris Matrices–together. Foregrounding political action and integrity in our work.

Think about the kind of revolution you want to live and work in. What do you need to know to start that revolution. Demand that your teachers teach you that.

The Young Lions Conspiracy, led by Big Daddy Soul (né Tim Kerr), was a minor movement in the garage punk/Austin scene that called for “integrity, soul, attitude” in every aspect of life. He asked, “What are YOU doing to participate?” I have not been to a punk rock show in a while, and my tribe of tattooed drinking punks have changed, moved on, and do not need to be used to typify an attitude or remain static in their decades-old resistance. They too have forged their own lives; they own homes, have children, even changed political allegiances, but we have the same scrawls on our skin, even if I’m half a world away.

And I still have my Young Lions membership card tucked away in my wallet. This. This is traditional in my culture.

Inside “Faces of Archaeology” at WAC-7

Füsun Ertuğ formerly of Yeditepe University. She conducts paleobotanical research in Turkey.

During the 2013 World Archaeological Congress meetings in Jordan, Jesse Stephen and I organized a small project titled The Faces of Archaeology. The project was developed as a part of a larger social media push at WAC-7 that for the most part went unimplemented due to technical issues. Happily, this project did not depend on internet accessibility and Jesse and I were able to capture over 100 portraits of attendees of WAC-7.

While scholarship and science can mask their practitioners, the individuals involved in archaeological research are nevertheless a diverse group.  Such diversity, however, is not always easy to see in the discipline.  However, the latest generation of archaeologists has interrogated the question of who conducts archaeological research and the significance of this answer perhaps more explicitly than in any previous era. As a global organization, the World Archaeological Congress endeavors to represent, integrate, and further a diverse body of archaeological participants. This project will reinforce these principles, making them visible through a body of photographic work.

Faces of Archaeology is a photographic project that will be completed during the 2013 Congress in Jordan.  During the weeklong event, a lens will be turned on a wide variety of people connected to the archaeological record and the Congress. Through a collection of portraiture and short interviews, a sample of people, purposes, and motivations currently involved in archaeology will aim to illuminate the diversity of archaeology.  Framed by this gathering of people in Jordan, and also by a selection of its notable archaeological sites, we will persue a glimpse of the discipline at large.

The results have been stunning so far–Jesse Stephen is such an amazing photographer! We have been posting the portraits here:

We’ll update every week with 10 more portraits, so keep checking back!

Reddit and Archaeological Outreach

EDIT: Sadly, only hours after I posted this, one of the founders of Aaron Swartz, committed suicide. The world lost a brilliant soul, who was facing 50 years in prison for sharing academic articles:


There’s been a growing amount of attention to Reddit in the past year or so, culminating with very prominent appearances on the website including Q&As with President Obama, Ira Glass, Molly Ringwald, and Bill Nye (the Science Guy!). The website is reminiscent of early newsgroups, with “subreddits” devoted to most every topic under the sun. The popular subreddits appear on the default front page and are primarily devoted to photographs of cats, arguments about American politics, atheism, science, and miscellaneous “meme” humor.

The key to reddit is an up/down-voting system that determines the prominence of the content and rewards frequent, useful, or clever posts with “karma” points. This is a boon and its burden, but more about that later. There is also a heavy emphasis on anonymity.

I started using Reddit to read the Crossfit subreddit, which contains work-outs and advice, but soon started looking over a handful of other subreddits, including:

The Archaeology and Anthropology subreddits are relatively low-volume with a mix of news stories, students looking for help with homework or advice about field schools, and questions about specific topics from the more general Reddit population. Sadly, these subreddits are not as robust as they could be, as the emphasis on anonymity undermines discussion of most of the topics. Answering questions and helping students is not particularly valued and can even result in backlash from the students–if you voice an unpopular opinion, Reddit downvotes can bury the discussion, even if this opinion is informed.

More structured subreddits such as AskSocialScience and AskHistorians require areas of credentialed expertise to receive badges signaling this knowledge. These subreddits are also more strictly moderated with stated rules in the sidebar. The outreach potential of these two forums is fantastic, and questions range from “How injurious was tarring and feathering” to “What came first, dance or music?” to “What was the Arab world like before Islam?”

There are also AMAs – “ask me anything” wherein anonymity is shed and the expert invites any questions. An archivist and a curator from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted a AMA and then discussed their engagement with Reddit later in a fantastic blog post on Engaging Museums. Sadly it appears that their participation in the format ended with the AMA and they have not continued to participate as named experts on Reddit.

Most people seem to separate their Reddit accounts from their identities, and Reddit heavily discourages posting personal information of any kind. As such, I have not posted my name to Reddit, but it would not be too hard to figure out who I am.

Reddit offers a venue for archaeologists to directly communicate with interested, engaged, online stakeholders and to answer questions about the past. It is not without its own pitfalls–the anonymity of the userbase and the up/downvoting system can both obscure the credibility of authors and promote a culture of consensus that punishes legitimate opposing voices. Still, with some dedicated work from archaeologists, Reddit could be a useful addition to an outreach toolkit. For archaeologists with a book or a dig to promote, an AMA can raise awareness of your research to a broader audience than a blog or a twitter account.

Failing that, Reddit also turns a fantastic trade in small cute animals. I mean, LOOK at this baby zebra!

Take Two: Rephotography in Doha

Should that be re-rephotography?

I wasn’t entirely happy with my last attempt at rephotography, so we tried again. This time, we went while the area was somewhat deserted and took photographs across a wide plane of vision, then stitched them together as a pano. I would have liked having people in the modern photograph, but they tend to move, which is not so good if you are trying to stitch photographs together.

Instead of just getting a small window of current Doha within historic Doha, we were able to make them equal players, which I like. This was a much easier photoshop job as well, just two layers, a mask, and a gradient and there we have it. I thought about masking some of the details out near the mosque in the background, but some confusion in the overlay is a good thing–not a seamless past melting into the present, but a hodgepodge–this appeals to my sense that reconstructions should present the messy palimpsest that archaeological interpretations entail.

Rephotography in Doha

1904 view of the Qubib Mosque

Rephotography is something of a fad, with people replicating viewsheds to meld historical events into modern context, to comment on past events, and even to show themselves aging.

As part of the Origins of Doha project, we’ve been looking through old photographs of the city and trying to match them up their modern settings. Rephotography is a familiar tool for archaeologists; we have used Prince’s Principle to locate sites, indeed I used a digital version of it last year to locate the lost site of Al-Huwailah here in Qatar.

There is not much left of old Doha; anything before 1960 was demolished or incorporated into concrete block structures. There are also few older photographs available, as it was not a highly photographed place and what few exist are in private collections. Still, when have I ever let improbable circumstances stop me?

As I’ve posted above, there’s a nice photograph of the shoreline, some dhows, with a mosque in the background that we have been able to corollate with a modern mosque. The modern mosque has been rebuilt several times, but it seems to be mostly on the same footprint as the old mosque. Bingo.

We printed out the old photograph and attempted to find the viewshed where the photograph was taken. The area has turned into an electronics shopping area, and is very busy with cars and people everywhere. Still, we managed to find a small gap between parked cars that matched the angle that the mosque was taken from. There was a large building directly behind us so we were not able to get the entire viewshed of the original photograph. I snapped a few dozen shots, then compared them on the screen to the original photograph.

There were a few that matched closely, so I went to work with layers, masking, and the gradient tool. I’m hoping that CODA will make one of their handy online workflow videos to explain the process, as my workflow tends to involve gnashing of teeth and watching irrelevant Youtube videos narrated by pre-teens who don’t actually explain what I need to know.

I ended up with something that approaches what I wanted, but is not ideal. I will probably turn it into a GIF, so that people can see both of the photographs, but I may go back to take more photographs during a quiet time of day so I can stitch them together to capture a bit more of modern Doha.

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