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.