How Savage is Your Savagery?

After receiving some rather chilling feedback regarding the name of my blog, you know, Middle Savagery, I took a step back to think about it a little bit more. I thought it was obvious to everyone, that it was reclaiming an arcane, racist category for classifying ancient societies in a reflexive, anthropological way. I shouldn’t have assumed.

While I had been blogging since 2001, I started my archaeology-based blog in 2004, after taking Sam Wilson’s excellent The Archaeology of Complex Societies class, wherein we had to directly address what complexity means. It was one of those game-changing classes for me, a rigorous exploration of archaeological literature on complexity that revealed my own assumptions about social organization a moment before blowing them completely away. In it, we learned about the history of categorizing ancient societies, including Lewis H. Morgan’s system of progression through savagery, barbarism and civilization, with gradations of Upper, Middle and Lower for each category.

So when I heard that the name was not well received, I was taken aback. By now Middle Savagery feels worn-in, well-used, easy–perhaps lacking the sharpness of critique, an archaeological in-joke on a blog that has grown far beyond the original intended audience of friends and the handful of archaeologists communicating online at the time. I thought about transitioning to a new blog, but I’m torn. I might still. Lacking that, I re-wrote my rather glib About page to include the following:

The name of this blog is from Ancient Society written in 1877 by Lewis H. Morgan. In a very racist, colonialist way, he categorized all societies within an arcane hierarchy, ranging from Savagery to Civilization. In a fit of reflexive angst brought on by sharing the last name Morgan, in 2004 I named this blog after one of these categories, “Middle Savagery,” to highlight the ludicrous nature of ranking ancient and modern societies along such lines. It is not meant to perpetuate or codify these categories in any way, but for us to highlight the suspect history of anthropological and archaeological thought.

Even as archaeological blogging has grown vast and somewhat mundane, I hope that I can keep up a little outpost here at Middle Savagery. That, and we’re finally publishing the papers from my 2011 SAA Session on blogging in the excellent, Open Access Internet Archaeology–look for it in the coming months.

Archaeology & Being “Game”

Between digging up wedges of wind-blown sand and anhydrite stub walls I’ve been thinking about archaeology and reflexivity quite a bit lately–what we are allowed to do and think while we are constructing a record of the past. My daily experience of site is fairly rote; I clean the context, photograph, draw, level, record, dig, sample, record, sort artifacts, write 1000 labels, rinse, repeat. A criticism of single context recording is that it is deadening to creativity in interpretation, but I think that is a critique more of the application of the methodology than the methodology itself.

Though I find many moments in the day where I could be creative, where I could take a moment to take an unnecessary but beautiful photograph, where I could try to chat with my workmen about their opinions of the site, think about the architectural phasing and recreate the paths around and in-between the buildings that people could have taken, I often retreat back into single context.

Clean, photograph, draw, level, record, dig, sample, record, sort artifacts, repeat. Faster.

Among professional archaeologists it is often frowned upon to step outside of these lines. Most people don’t really want to talk about their day job while they aren’t on the clock–it’s an unwelcome intrusion into relaxation time. It can be a hard balance while on an archaeological excavation–sometimes you are just exhausted and talking about stratigraphy or methodology can be dry dinnertime conversation.

Still, I consider “being game” an essential part of being an exceptional (or at least interesting) archaeologist. Want to find a nearby clay source to reconstruct an earth oven to see how it works? Okay. Want to find the only soccer field with grass within 100km and play on it until the evening call to prayer? Okay.

By “being game” I mean being open to experiences of all kinds, and importantly, letting this allow you to see your archaeology in new and interesting ways. It is easy to become hide-bound and it is a truism on sites that archaeologists don’t like change–they don’t like new people, different accommodations, new rules, but it is important to stay open and excited about archaeology. And life.

I think that there is a balance in archaeology, as with most things. Staying passionate and invested in your profession while living life as an ongoing adventure can be tricky, to say the least. But it’s a worthwhile cause, if only to maintain some semblance of sanity, right?

More about reflexivity, soonish.