A Visual Lexicon for Archaeology

I think a lot about the visual representation of archaeology, particularly through digital technology and the internet. In 2016 I published an Open Access article in Internet Archaeology that discusses some of the ways that digital photography has either perpetuated visual tropes in archaeology, or has caused ruptures. For example, how the LCD screen on the back of DSLRs allowed some co-construction and sharing of photographs on site, particularly between people with differing levels of power on site, director vs fieldworker, for example. I’ve also posted about shooting “stock photos” for reuse, and I’d love to work to improve representation in stock photography for archaeology, as it’s pretty dire, if you can’t tell:

Stock photo of “adventurer archaeologist” that comes up in the first page of results on google image search.

There is more to be written about digital photography in archaeology, and I have been encouraging some students to engage with the topic over the years, but without too much success. A stand-out is Luke Snell’s undergraduate dissertation which looked at how students were using cellphones on site to curate their own representations of their experiences. I also have some cellphone work in press, but I think there are some interesting, broader issues at play.

Based on my entirely personal (though thoroughly embedded) experience, there was a rapid upskilling in photographic practice in archaeology as DSLRs became more ubiquitous on site, from around 2005 – 2015 or so. There are a wealth of very high-quality photographs from that time, but also an abundance of experimental photography. People were genuinely trying to do something different with archaeological photography. While file sizes and such were always a problem with archival, people shared a lot of this photography via Flickr, and there were thousands of photographs curated by archaeologists.

I’d curate photographs occasionally and post them. For example, this update from 2008 had an overhead shot, a digger in front of a rack of clothes, a photo of a complex drawing, and excavations at (where else?) Stonehenge. Even in 2014 I was complaining about the growing obsolescence of Flickr. Still, I have continually found photographs that I’ve released and licensed CC-BY in various places. Happily, many of my photographs have been placed on Wikimedia for reuse as well. There’s over 800,000 entries for “archaeology” on Wikimedia, but they’re not always deeply useful, or well documented. I also have not heard of many archaeologists depositing their photographs there, though some seem to be, for example I found this one from ANU’s Dougald O’Reilly:

Archaeologists drawing a burial at the Phum Lovea site as part of the Paddy to Pura Archaeological Project.

But there is no sense of curation, continuity, or broader organization in Wikimedia. There is also the problem that the Archaeology Data Service has run up against-data protection. People need to give permission for their photographs to be displayed and reused. This is expected these days, of course, but photographs that were taken before data protection cannot be shared or displayed, rendering many archaeological archives without the faces of the people responsible for the work.

So where is the new archaeological photography archive? Where can we retrieve photographs of archaeologists or archaeological sites for our reuse for teaching and making media? And can we make one that is more diverse, personal, exciting, experimental? And would or should these archives feed into neural networks such as Dall E, saving us from the beige-hat working shots that it uses to evoke archaeology?

Dall E representation of “Digital Knowledge Production in Archaeology”

There is another problem, one that has persisted throughout the adoption of digital photography in archaeology, but seems to be getting worse throughout the years: cellphone photography. High-quality DSLR photography is being outmoded in favor of quick snaps taken with your cellphone. The rapid upskilling in photography seems to be accompanied with a rapid deskilling. Or perhaps a reskilling in cellphone photography.

I completely understand–my very expensive smartphone has a great camera, so why should I lug around a heavy DSLR and a sack of lenses? If everyone uses cellphones why do I keep teaching students how to use DSLRs? I used to joke that all the best site photos were on the Facebook pages of the students, but now that the students no longer have Facebook pages, they’ve become even more submerged in black-boxed devices, never to be seen by other archaeologists. How many of your quick cellphone shots end up in the archive? Is it enough to create the one photo for social media, a few for the report, and forget about the rest?

Finally, a lot of the usual digital photography is now taken in service to photogrammetry, or eschewed entirely for other forms of digital imagery. Does the proliferation of other digital gadgetry push the DSLR out of our hands? Why, when archaeological photography is perhaps easier to create and share than it ever has been, has it dropped so far from view? Where are all the archaeological photos?

The Outrage Machine

Over the last few weeks Archaeology departments have been getting Freedom of Information requests from news outlets asking about trigger warnings. On 7 June, the Daily Mail published an outrage-bait article naming me and describing my Communicating Archaeology module, in that it has a content warning on it. I became aware of this through my University contacting me to warn me and ask how they could support me and if they should respond.

This is a predictable and old media strategy that still somehow gets a lot of mileage. Gabriel Moshenska wrote a fantastic chapter, “Anatomy of a ‘trigger warning’ scandal” when he was dragged for having a warning on his Conflict Archaeology module in 2016. He added this warning as he receives students on his course with personal experiences of warfare:

Students who might have expected sessions on identifying regimental buttons and measuring musket balls were being shown magnified images of machete wounds and technical drawings of mass graves full of children – and it seemed only fair and reasonable to let them know.

Yes, this is archaeology too. The Mail on Sunday, the “sister paper” of the Daily Mail found this warning and contacted him. As he describes in this chapter, he replied in good faith, only to find that his reasonable account was presented alongside “pre-prepared outrage” from (gasp) a right-wing ideologue with an agenda. The coverage rocketed from there, from The Times, to Spiked, to Breitbart. He received hate mail and abusive messages on social media, some of them explicitly antisemitic. This discussion was also taken up by Tony Pollard with regard to trigger warnings and teaching about war graves.

Moshenska notes the immense hatred expressed not only toward “woke” academics (yawn, we are used to it) but worryingly also towards our “fragile” “snowflake” students who just can’t hack it, apparently. I found that this mirrored the hundreds and hundreds of comments under the news stories, students called “jelly babies” and the like. If anything, the students might need protection from the incredible hatred heaped upon them by their parents and grandparents. Intergenerational bigotry is so pointless and cruel.

The support from my University and my Department was very good–perhaps informed from previous incidents. My department also has a social media contingency plan in place for when things go wrong. I immediately locked and then deleted my main social media presence–Twitter. I’m not on Facebook and my Instagram has been locked forever. Like Gabe’s experience, the article has snowballed into ridiculous dimensions and miscellaneous venues, on the television and radio alongside print media. Unlike Gabe’s experience, I was only named in the Daily Mail instance, and I wonder if some of this has been because I followed Gabe’s advice: resist any urges to respond.

It’s frustrating to keep silent against such misuse, but when I was contacted by other journalists to follow up I didn’t respond and I asked my University and Department not to respond as well. Subsequently my name was left out of their stories. As an academic you really want to set the record straight, to potentially educate the journalist, or perhaps the public, but it doesn’t work that way. With outrage bait articles they are not looking for a reasoned response. They don’t want you to convince them, they want you to be the dumb woke academic mollycoddling our fragile students. They want column inches and maybe a photo of you for their right wing audience to mock. Give them nothing. I’m writing this during the furore, but will likely post it only after things have died down.

I’ve also been contacted by a few (wonderful) archaeology groups who want to publish a response. I have been trying to discourage these, to wait the news cycle out and let the culture war die out. Later responses are great and are really appreciated, but I also hope people are coming together to figure out how to better support people within their organizations when it happens the next time. I do appreciate the colleagues and institutions who, in their responses, have not named me. Thank you.

That brings me to some take-aways, for people impacted and their communities:

  • Don’t respond to the press when they are trolling. Not even for a “no comment” as they’ll print it as, “X said ‘no comment'”
  • Don’t answer your phone, as they’ll be calling. You may also need to have your email taken off the University websites.
  • Use my example, and Gabe’s experience to prepare for next time. Because they will come for us again, and it might be worse. They are not above spurious ad hominem attacks. It comes when you least expect it and for things that are completely mundane in our sphere, such as content warnings. The right wing newspapers came for me this time, but I’ve been waiting for the internet hate mob for over a decade so….(ominous music begins)
  • Unfortunately a lot of those who respond to the article are linking to the original articles…which gives the articles more clicks. Please use a screen shot or archive.is to make a mirror that does not give the news agency revenue from your outrage. For example, here is the archive.is link to the original article that set this all off.
  • Delete your socials for a bit. Go outside. Hug loads of people.
  • Reach out to those impacted and if you are targeted, take comfort in solidarity. I appreciate the huge amount of support I’ve received, both online and offline.
  • Ask the person who is targeted what support they need before “hitting back”–sometimes they want chocolate instead of tweets or statements. Just sayin’.

Anyway, it is ironic that I received this treatment from the Communicating Archaeology module, as it is primarily about critically examining and creating media about archaeology. It’s essentially created a perfect case study for the module. So it goes.

Archaeology and Dementia

Romans at Home artefact handling session

When we designed the multisensorial archaeological outreach project, Romans at Home, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We wanted to reach out to people living with dementia in care homes. In the summer of 2021, they were still relatively isolated for COVID precautions–a couple of kilometres away, but effectively off limits. This isolation has been disastrous for many people, but especially difficult and even fatal for this extremely vulnerable population, with lockdowns increasing memory loss, agitation and loneliness. At the same time, archaeologists are increasingly interested in archaeology performed in service to public benefit and wellbeing.

Romans at Home was primarily designed by the extraordinarily gifted Eleanor Drew, a recent Digital Heritage MSc at the University of York and in partnership with York Archaeological Trust. It draws on immersive multisensorial storytelling and interpretation developed as part of OTHER EYES, my UKRI-AHRC funded project. Chris Tuckley at YAT did a stellar job setting the scene and deploying non-threatening and creative prompts to help participants think about the artifacts. The project has been featured as an Open Research case study and we hope to further develop it and publish in due time.

But more importantly: I was struck, watching the elderly woman turn over that distinctive glossy orange-red piece of Roman terra sigillata in her hands, that this was the best use of archaeological artifacts that I’d ever witnessed. Sure, dig them up, wash them, catalogue them, put them on shelves and publish them in books–but this was the most alive these artifacts could be, under the scrutiny of a very cheerful woman with bright pink nails. As something connecting her to us, to others.

Ceramic bowl containing flints (© The Photographic Unit, University of Glasgow).

So it was with great interest that I read Nyree Finlay’s article, An archaeology of dementia, recently published in Antiquity. Finlay examines and compares the assemblage of a woman who’d been an artist and a keen avocational archaeologist who is currently living with dementia. This woman is named within the Antiquity article, to recognise her as “the originator of these creative works” in accordance with ethical approval at the University of Glasgow. This is interesting as the woman would generally be held strictly anonymous as a member of a vulnerable population and it is very tricky. Ultimately I agree with the disclosure of her identity in the article, as it is an intimate celebration of her ability and interests and I am confident in the sensitive handling of this subject with her and her guardians. Yet I’m going to keep her anonymous within this other context, a blog post, a circumstance that was not covered by the ethical approval.

Finlay notes this woman’s “extensive, systematic fieldwalking and landscape surveys” performed with friends during research and her work at a local museum. She was self-taught, and recorded artifacts she found by looking at regional publications and discussing typologies with specialists, including Finlay. This previous assemblage is compared with a later assemblage, which includes flint pebbles collected from her gravel drive, artifacts that occupy a difficult position within archaeology in that they are surely modified by humans but are considered incidental and generally not worthy of notice. But this woman living with dementia noticed them for various sensorial aspects, shape and color, and comprise, as Finlay states, “a collection of distinctive, creative dementia works and lithic assemblages.” The woman collected these in different but adjacent ways to her previous, systematic collection of artifacts. They offered this woman “tactile and audible pleasures” in the act of sorting and processing and the woman noted the coolness and smoothness of flint as an important feature, as Finlay states, “stone becomes both a comfort and companion as dementia progresses.”

This article is brilliant–very useful to archaeologists who seek to broaden our understanding of how people relate to material objects and how they shape our lives. We still rarely consider the impact of dementia or other disabilities in our consideration of archaeological remains. But moreso, I found the article deeply beautiful and melancholy. The woman’s connection to stone and to the everyday actions of archaeology changed as she aged and went through more advanced dementia, but persisted. I should not find it melancholy, as her connection and use of the gravel was agentive, creative and important to her, but…I do. It sits with me.

Finlay’s article is Open Access, and I highly encourage a read:

Finlay, N. (2022). An archaeology of dementia. Antiquity, 96(386), 422–435. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.186

OTHER EYES: Understanding the past through bioarchaeology and digital media

Hey, good news!

I received an AHRC Early Career Grant for the Other Eyes Project.

The Other Eyes project confronts an emerging issue within archaeology: that of interpreting past people using digital technology. For over 350 years scientists have sought to recreate the worlds inhabited by our human ancestors using drawings, models and dioramas. Using 21st century digital technology, we can now use DNA recovered from skeletal remains to make 3D digital avatars of past people. But what benefits might this bring and what questions does it raise? How do we digitally reconstruct past people and does the authenticity matter? Does the ability to digitally embody a past person of a different age, sex, or with a disability change the way we think about the past? Are there significant differences between traditional 2D illustrations, museum models, and 3D avatars in the representation and understanding of past people? What are the ethics of “resurrecting” past people based on bioarchaeological evidence and can (and should) reconstructions of past people be archived to encourage their creative reuse?

Basically, the avatars research. I’m pretty excited as it brings together a lot of the smartest people I know to tackle a tricky issue that’s been on my mind for, oh, almost 15 years!

For more information, here’s the webpage: https://other-eyes.org

Archaeology in 3D at the University of York

I’ve written a blog post for the Cultural Heritage blog at Sketchfab:

https://sketchfab.com/blogs/community/archaeology-in-3d-at-the-university-of-york/

On the tours that we give to new students, we like to joke that the DAH Lab, a gorgeous barrel vault in the stately King’s Manor, was once King Henry the Eighth’s wine cellar. Sadly this is probably not true, but it is still one of the last places you might suspect would house the Digital Archaeology and Heritage Lab. The DAH Lab is the latest innovation in a long history of digital archaeology for the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. The King’s Manor is also home to the Archaeology Data Service, founded in 1996 for the long-term digital preservation of archaeological data and Internet Archaeology, an Open Access journal that has been publishing online since 1996. Amidst this storied digital history, my colleagues and I lead courses on 3D modelling, photogrammetry, GIS, laser scanning, and VR for archaeology and heritage students, at the undergraduate and postgraduate level….

Read more at the blog. Big thanks to Abby Crawford for the encouragement to post.

The “Archaeology Can” Bot

I’ve been off twitter again, and it’s done me a world of good to be away from the anxiety machine. Anyway, I subscribe to the James Murphy (LCD Soundsystems) philosophy:

The best way to complain is to make things.

I’ve wanted to make a bot for ages now, so I finally made the Archaeology Can bot. Originally I wanted it to take snips from publications, such as:

archaeology can promote health by connecting project participants and other community members with their territories

or

Archaeology can make a major contribution to modern anthropology by studying the processes of European expansion, exploration, and colonialization

The best I could do was grab an RSS from google news, so it will update with links to news articles that tell us what the press thinks that archaeology can do. And it doesn’t grab the exact quote, which is highly unsatisfying.

So then I followed Shawn Graham’s excellent tutorial and worked up a grammar in tracery that mostly works. It is certainly not a “bot of conviction” but it gives us grand and fairly meaningless statements such as:

“Archaeology can make a community.”

“Archaeology can require a planet.”

“Archaeology can pretend your past.”

“Archaeology can deliver our modern day.”

I considered making my main account into a bot, which I would find natural and good. And I may still do that someday. But for now, have a little whisper of possibility, keep on, keeping on.

Now we are all archaeological filmmakers

I spent the last two days filming an old Çatalhöyük friend (and now colleague) David Orton for his teaching in autumn term. We’re trying to prepare, as best as we can, for most eventualities within the pandemic. As I was filming it occurred to me that this was being replicated all over the globe–that suddenly we’ll have a legion of archaeological filmmakers.

Archaeological filmmaking has always been a bit niche, falling between visual anthropology and digital archaeology, and subject to the same price/usability considerations that come with most tech. It is now relatively easy to capture full HD video and editing software has smoothed the steep learning curve of Final Cut Pro into a relatively gentle slope. And there are a lot of examples of wonderful, more extemporaneous archaeological filmmaking using iphones and instagram, tiktok, and YouTube.

Annelise Baer has been making episodes of the No Budget Archaeology Show during the pandemic and is up to episode 20. This is her episode on Cleopatra:

And Chloe Duckworth has been killing it for the past few years with her YouTube channel, ArchaeoDuck:

And there is the Interactive Pasts crew/VALUE, who go live on Twitch every Tuesday and Thursday to stream video game play and commentary. Most recently they streamed Total War: Troy played by an Archaeologist and a Historian:

But filmmaking is a leaky, sneaky medium. In my Archaeological Filmmaking class I teach the students that you need filmmaking as a basic skill to demonstrate pretty much anything else you’d like to make with tech. Oh so you made a VR reconstruction? You’ll need a short film to fully demonstrate it to audiences without headsets. Want to crowdfund? Films boost your intake.

But…are recorded lectures droning on over powerpoint slideshows movies? Probably, yes. In my article Archaeology and the Moving Image I discuss several genres within archaeological filmmaking, including the traditional, didactic expository genre, complete with “voice-of-god” narration and expert interviews that tell a definitive, if monolithic narrative. The recorded lecture is expository-on-speed, with a single narrator dragging (screaming?) students through the content. If anything the recorded lecture is a pretty damning indictment of the academic lecture in general. While droning on to myself in a darkened room, I was haunted by the hubris of the live lecture–why do I think that my wild gesticulation, anecdotes and occasional questions for the audience are that much value added?

If you are finding recording (or viewing) lectures in this way to be absolutely deadening, you are not alone. You are making a truncated version of arguably the worst kind of archaeological movie, again, expository-on-speed. There are other genres though; perhaps through all of this mad experimentation with online learning we’ll find impressionistic or phenomenological lectures. A lecture that draws from the impressionistic genre, that is “lyrical rather than didactic, poetic rather than argumentative” and that implies and evokes more than they inform (thanks Barbash and Taylor), would be incredible to behold.

Or perhaps we should just turn to the old pros at this particular medium, the dedicated YouTubers. I was chatting to Aris Politopoulos about Cringe as affect, when he reminded me of the excellent Contrapoints lecture on the topic. Or we could look at, for example, the Contrapoints Gender Critical video:

The video begins with something that is generally forbidden in lectures–a really long quote. But the quote is dramatically performed, with key passages highlighted, against a background that evokes delicate femininity. The video has extremely high production value, is very entertaining and cites current research. With costume changes. Yeah, I’m a fan.

I hear all of my fellow teachers:

“Who has time??”

“How on earth could I get this production quality?”

I wasn’t even supposed to BE HERE today!”*

Yes, I know. But first, remember that your audience may be more used to this kind of content delivery that you are, and that we could do worse than to learn from people who are old pros at this medium. And second, even if you don’t go full Youtuber, I hope that this incursion into filmmaking, however brief, will intrigue at least a few people enough to explore movies as an incredibly productive medium to explore archaeological storytelling.

*This last one is me, as I pre-record lectures to be shown during my sabbatical, in a very tricky, instrumentalized version of telepresence

A Prehistory of the Endtimes

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An abandoned house in Qatar

Anarchism, prehistory, survivalism, experimental archaeology–these tender sinews have been braiding, unravelling, rebraiding themselves in my pandemic imagination. One person’s cataclysm is another person’s “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Anarchism and archaeology both animate liminal zones where people reimagine different ways of life, with the occasional cross-over.

Archaeological training provides an overactive imagination with a real-time augmented reality overlay that sees decay, collapse, refashioning, geological time–the seams between. And bones. Lots of bones.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area I walked through the smoking ruins of the 1906 Earthquake, contemplated the damp, squalid mudbrick enclosure that would become the Presidio. But what I wanted, more than anything, to see the great rolling dunes beneath the pastel Painted Ladies. The fog to nestle around great stands of trees, a fresh breeze in from the sea. Dig a couple of centimetres and find tarmac, perhaps the broken skeleton of a segway. Near futures of desolation and the ancient past, equally mythological.

Anarcho-primitivism, to deeply oversimplify, draws from archaeological constructions of the past and ethnographic research on contemporary societies to argue for small-scale societies against the deprivations of civilisation. This understanding of the past is well and truly disputed by Graeber and Wengrow. Yet like many writers, archaeologists, and anarchists, I still find myself interested in the jostling of these ideas against each other, in their collisions in fiction and experimental archaeology.

In Ghost Wall, middle class undergraduate students and a working class family collide in experimental archaeology, wherein they try to live like Iron Age Britons in Northern England. Silvie, the protagonist, is dragged by her past-and-purity obsessed and abusive father who is reliving his own patriarchal madness in the woods, bolstered by an archaeology professor. It animates some of our worst impulses in archaeology, piercing the veil into the past only to find our venal selves peering back. It was a lovely book. The archaeology undergraduates were my favourite, going along with the experiment to a certain extent, but subverting this incursion into the past by stopping by a local shop for snacks and heading off to the pub. They were gloriously useless at pastness, to their own merit.

I’m thinking in two to three generations there could be real wild children.

This theme was picked up in a New York Times article on primitivism, “How to Prepare Now for the Complete End of the World.” The article follows Lynx Vilden who was “teaching people how to live in the wild, like we imagine Stone Age people did.” The beautiful photography in the article shows people lighting fires and making tools. This was all framed within the (American) beginning of the pandemic, in that far away time of early March, 2020. Vilden is teaching people to use bones to process hides and use moss as toilet paper–as if our dystopian superabundance wouldn’t provide endless material for reuse in “endtimes” (See Station Eleven for the contra).  Still, there was some appreciation of the community and insanity that is formed around a campfire when all outside communication is cut off.

Or, sometimes not. A relative lack of fellow-feeling was apparent in another Sarah Moss book, Cold Earth, another team of archaeologists who are spending their summer on the west coast of Greenland, digging up an abandoned Norse colony. There is, of course, a pandemic on in the outside world, and this delays the extraction of the team from their field season. The director of the project flogs his team into terrible decisions–staying far too late in a season, not using the natural and cultural materials around them to improve their chances of survival. His eye is on the research potential of the site and his team suffers, and it’s hard to forgive.

So we find ourselves with a fairly miscellaneous set of skills for the end-of-world scenarios. Beware charismatic leaders. Beware ANY leaders. Use everything, purity be damned. Primitivism is based on a deeply flawed understanding of the ancient world. Take care of your team.

In Black Feminist Archaeology, Whitney Battle-Baptiste cleverly uses historical fiction to inform and disrupt (sigh, sorry) her ideas of the past–multivocality through Black storytellers is simply brilliant. I’m failing to imitate this, post-apocalyptic pandemic archaeology through science fiction and survivalism is sending us through the same tropes and indigenous-drag that have painted our lurid comic books for decades. The future-scope is cracked.

It leaves me thinking about anarchism, again. The anarchism that I imagine is fictive, but aspirational, though perhaps rather more cottage-core than primitivist. The one where we, as Graeber and Wengrow suggest, examine structural violence within the small scale. That’s where my archaeology is going, and, probably not by accident, where my politics are as well.

INELIGIBLE Exhibition: Shoe

 

Last February Doug Bailey emailed me (and many others) to see if we’d participate in a unique experiment: he would mail us artifacts from the excavations that preceded the recent construction of San Francisco’s Trans Bay Transit Center that were deemed unworthy of archival. His prompt:

In accepting the invitation, you commit to repurpose (disassemble, take apart, grind up) the artefacts that you receive so that they become the raw materials with which you will make creative work. There are no other limitations, instructions, or guidelines, beyond the suggestion that the work you make should engage contemporary social or political issues and debates. Engagement may relate to San Francisco and its current energies (e.g., the tech revolution, disenfranchisement, home/houselessness). Engagement may flow from your personal reaction to your assemblage of artefacts, or to your own personal, professional, or local political experiences, desires, and frustrations.

A few months later, I received a box with some disintegrating leather inside. I put it on my desk and thought about it for a while. I’ve been teaching filmmaking to Master’s students for a couple of years now, but most of my time behind a camera has been spent making promotional videos for York in my publicity administrative role. I really wanted to engage creatively with film again and this was the perfect chance.

The Ineligible prompt also included the line:

Ineligible urges contributors not to think of the material as archaeological, as artefactual, or as historic.

Well, damn. So over the summer I put the shoe in peoples’ hands and filmed it. Though these people happen to be archaeologists, I think I was able to draw out different encounters with materiality, beauty, and our association/disassociation with the lives of our objects. To be honest, I think I failed in that part of the prompt, but these are the stories we wanted to tell.

I was prompted to write an artist statement, and I wrote this clumsy thing:

As an anarchist, a mother, an archaeologist, I’m deeply concerned with making kin through the investigation and care of objects, places, and people. Finding a politics of joy and intimacy, and building things together as a way to resist Empire. In this short film I gave an alienated object, a child’s shoe, to my kin, the caretakers of the discarded to understand and reanimate this object, even as it disintegrated in our hands.

I was delighted when it was selected to be shown at the Ineligible exhibition curated by Doug Bailey and Sara Navarro at the International Museum of Contemporary Sculpture in Santo Tirso, Portugal. The exhibition opens March 6, 2020.

 

Archaeology and Capitalist Realism

This is a speech I gave at a Teach-Out during the 2019 University and College Union (UCU) UK Industrial Action. We were on strike for pensions, better pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads. We regularly hold teach-outs to provide liberatory space for teaching and discussion and the subject of this teach-out was Neoliberalism, Marketization and Education. Forgive some of the miscellaneous citation, I was away from my books. 

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism begins by quoting Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek:

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Capitalist realism is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2009, 2). It creates the illusion that change is impossible. It coopts any subversion and and sells it back to us. The product is you.

It is certainly easy for archaeologists to imagine the end of the world. Post-apocalyptic fabulism is not just limited to popular media and books, but also fuels our archaeological teaching and interpretation. We tell stories about death, destruction, and collapse as we sift through what is left behind. Garbology and Pompeii scenarios can help us think about durability of material culture and the stories we tell with what evidence remains.

So too it is relatively easy for archaeologists to identify Empire. Empire is the name that Bergman and Montgomery (2017, amongst others) give to the organized destruction under which we live. It is the “interlocking systems of settler colonialism, white supremacy, the state, capitalism, ableism, ageism and heteropatriarchy” (Bergman and Montgomery 2017). The commodification and monetization of…everything. The constant anxiety and depression. The ways that we measure and are measured that are destructive to learning and conviviality and that remove meaningful contributions and creativity in favor of fulfilling yet another Personal Learning Outcome, adding to your CV, conforming to grade descriptors. This manifests probably most profoundly in the horrendous mental health crisis amongst students AND educators. Are we all deeply, individually, broken, unable to cope, in need of mindfulness, “resilience training” and yoga?

Fisher cites Oliver James’ work that identifies a correlation between “rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism” (Fisher 2009, 23). The reaction to this has been what Fisher calls the “privatization of stress”—if these are all caused only by individual problems, neurology, family background, “any question of social systemic causation is ruled out” (Fisher 2009, 23). You must suffer individually, be diagnosed individually, be treated individually, submit your Student Support Plan on time and to our exact specification instead of coming together to FIGHT the thing that is making you ill. The fact that so many of our students and my colleagues suffer from poor mental health makes me sad, frustrated and monumentally ANGRY. This is the work of Empire. (With the caveat that regardless of structural causes of poor mental health, you should get help early and often)

The reason I get so angry about the organized destruction that Empire enacts upon ourselves and our communities is that we (archaeologists) have the distinctive expertise to break capitalist realism, and we don’t always seem to know to mobilize this expertise.

Three points:

1. Contemporary archaeology has been scrutinizing the links between material culture and structural violence since its inception. Rathje’s garbology showed us that all of the trash that we are putting into landfills is not rotting safely into the ground. He famously found “perfectly preserved 40-year-old hot dogs,” and a 25-year old head of lettuce. Buchli and Lucas’ (2001, ethically dubious) examination of a recently abandoned council house showed the violence of the privatisation of council housing during the Thatcher years and its potential impact on women who were the victims of domestic violence. Rachael Kiddey’s work on homelessness and more recently on migration is also relevant to this discussion. This is no surprise to this audience, but we can meaningfully use archaeological methods on contemporary assemblages to critique social and political structures.

2. We must use the creative, generative, collective forces within archaeological methods to engage in what anarchists call prefigurative politics, making small-scale versions of the societies we want to live, love and work in. Daniel Eddisford and I have identified significant instances of prefigurative politics within existing archaeological practice, both within the housing of archaeologists—how does your workspace change how you think about archaeology and how you interact with your colleagues? And, within commercial archaeological uses of single context methodology. In examining a large, extremely complex Harris Matrix from Billingsgate we found annotations in varied handwriting, with many changes, long lines of white correction fluid, and erasures.

These materialize the process of collective decision-making and interpretation through the inscription of stratigraphic relationships on paper. Individual archaeologists are able to meaningfully contribute to the site-wide narrative. The construction of a record of the stratigraphy of the site as a coherent whole is undertaken by archaeologists in conjunction with those working around them without the direct oversight of a manager. In this way archaeology can fostered a model with similarities to anarcho-syndicalism, wherein a small, non-hierarchical group works together towards a common goal, side-stepping more formalized authority. At its best, archaeology is non-alienated labor, making communities of practice instead of reproducing hierarchy.

3. People who are already fighting Empire need our help.

At the end of Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher (2009) states:

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

Bergman and Montgomery (2017) quote Silvia Federici in discussing the social amnesia imposed by Empire:

What most matters is discovering and recreating the collective memory of past struggles. In the US there is a systematic attempt to destroy this memory and now this is extending across the world, with the destruction of the main historical centers of the Middle East—a form of dispossession that has major consequences and yet is rarely discussed. Reviving the memory of the struggles of the past makes us feel part of something larger than our individual lives and in this way it gives a new meaning to what we are doing and gives us courage, because it makes us less afraid of what can happen to us individually.

Reviving the memory of struggles of the past, uncovering egalitarianism and forming critiques of social inequality is deeply important, and is the work of a small but growing cohort of archaeologists. Archaeology is the collective, deep chronological documentation of the capacity of humans to imagine different ways to live. As archaeologists we are the discoverers and keepers and storytellers of the different ways we have found to be human. Capitalist realism tells us there is only one way to be, only one way to imagine ourselves, while people trying to break free of Empire are begging for us to use our expertise to find different ways to be. The more we find out about the past, the more we find it to be a weird, wild, wonderful place. Our gift as archaeologists must be to tell stories of human resilience and diversity of experience to help people dream of alternatives to Empire.

That’s why it is so important that we come together to fight the deadening of this remit, the blunt forces of neoliberalization and marketization in education trying to subvert this gift into another avenue for capitalism.

Bergman, C., & Montgomery, N. (2017). Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. AK Press.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.

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