This blog originally appeared on October 13th, 2016 on the ever excellent Archaeology Southwest blog. It was written within a series of blog posts about what the day to day work life of an archaeologist looks like.
In a recent Tea and Archaeology talk, I broke ranks with the typical “this is what I am going to talk about” intro and started with “this is how I got interested in the topics I am going to talk about.” I did this because I think how archaeologists and researchers first think of things is important—fundamentally important.
There are examples all over our field of people starting to research children in the archaeological record after they’ve had their own kids. Or, researchers become incredibly engaged with using the archaeological record to examine gender fluidity and queer histories. Frequently, although not necessarily, it is because their lives have been marked in some way by these topics. The main point: an archaeologist’s personal life intruding into their work is not bad.
Though some might consider this bias (and there are ways to minimize bias, including the rigorous peer review we always go through), these types of crosscutting interests actually make our work relevant in the present. They are also one of the things that keep us interested in our job. Most archaeologists love things, but as David Hurst Thomas famously said (now tattooed on my arm), “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” Our interests help us move past the former and into the latter.
And so, in many ways, we drag the present into the past, just as often as we drag the past into the present. In its worst incarnation, the former can introduce bias into our research; in its best form, it helps create a research method (either scientific, historic, or humanistic) that is creative, exciting, and topical. Our concerns in the contemporary world are tested in some ways against the past, just as we use the past to critically examine the present. This is the regular dialogue of research that archaeologists have with themselves. Yet, other archaeologists, researchers, and the public only see half of it. The part that is published, the part that is scientifically or historically tested and examined. What is published is in some ways analogous to Plato’s cave. Our research can seem irrelevant to many people because it kind of seems as though we’re analyzing shadows on a wall.
But when we open up ourselves as archaeological artifacts to be analyzed, we see that we are bridges—what archaeologists would call liminal objects—between worlds. We are analyzing shadows on the wall, but in the process we are understanding, or attempting to understand, the actions of the people casting the shadows. We are in the middle of that process, along with, in the U.S. Southwest at least, Native elders and holders of oral histories, ethnohistorians, historians, and other historical social researchers.
So what are my bridges? My life outside of work involves a lot of long-distance running, and eventually I’ll start working on that archaeologically. My personal investment and interest in tattoos extends to the archaeological record as well. My dog Sancho—aging, deaf, going blind, and suddenly barking to no end at a blank spot on our fence—has led to an interest in canines in archaeology.
My wife Melissa has also fed my intellectual curiosity. She’s maintained a lifelong interest in animal welfare, held a career in that field, and spent many years engaged in animal behavioral analysis and positive reinforcement training. She spent time working for Dr. Patricia McConnell’s former company Dog’s Best Friend. She even beat me to the primary author research publication punch (see article here). She has since moved into a new focus on facilitating the reuse of material culture. This in many ways grew out of our mutual interest in the problems of consumption in contemporary life—upon which archaeology has heavily influenced my views.
We have two daughters who are incredibly inquisitive and raucous and rowdy and just smart. Watching them tackle the world around them and derive incredibly logical but factually ridiculous conclusions from their observations has instilled in me a fundamental interest in how we construct knowledge. I’m applying this in my other job with Leiden University. There I’m beginning a project that will deeply query how archaeological knowledge is constructed and what that means for our data—and by extension, for our understandings of how people purposely and accidentally express group membership, or cultural belonging.
As noted, I’ve talked before about how I gained some of my research interests. This history led to a scenic desert trip with a number of dead ends and an eventual arrival at a dissertation titled, Lost Voices Found: An Archaeology of Contentious Politics in the Greater Southwest, A.D. 1100–1450. The linked talk is mostly about that, but at an hour long, I understand if you aren’t able to watch it.
My elevator-speech version is that there are many hinge points, or transitional periods, in the historical and archaeological record. In archaeology, we’ve often talked about them as either products of environmental change, or inevitable products of social scaling (i.e., increases in population), and sometimes as social reactions to what has been termed “breakdowns of society.” I reanalyzed two case studies in the Greater Southwest, asking not how this happened or why this happened, but why the end result looked the way it did when so many other options were available. That, I think, is an important question that has been missed. And it led me to argue that the history of the Greater Southwest is filled with constant slides into hierarchy as social mechanisms restricting increases in inequality broke down, followed by sudden reactions as groups tore apart those hierarchical institutions and built new limiting mechanisms.
A lot of these interests also came out of an early passion for skateboarding on the street. Although you might see this as an innocent or—depending on your view of the ownership/tragedy of the commons—a criminal pastime, one of the underlying acts of skateboarding is a constant and physical performance aimed at reclaiming public space for the public. In fact, since its inception back in the early 1950s, skateboarding has been a political act. Fun, yes. Amazing to watch, yes. But political all the same. And it is an intensely, material political act. It uses human material culture to impact an environment we’ve built in order to contest restrictive control of space.
So, the theme of subversive actions aimed at questioning who is allowed privileges and rights in society has been with me for a very long time. Looking back, it seems pretty natural that I’d be addressing many of those issues by examining what many people have called transitional periods in the precolonial U.S Southwest from a perspective of understanding who controls space and understanding how that control of space (in this case religious architecture) was contested.
And now I need to get back to teaching my daughters how to skateboard.
The archaeologists and staff at Archaeology Southwest ran a bunch of blog posts for the International Day of Archaeology #IDA2016 from October 3rd through the 14th. As always with this group, they are a wonderful collection both of daily activities and history of archaeological ideas and practice. I’d really suggest checking them out. Mine was on October 13th and is called Bridges, if you are so inclined.
Here they are:
10/14/16 Decisions in Clay
10/11/16 The Translators
10/10/16 Painting Party
10/9/16 The Blog Must Go On
I just wrote a blog for Archaeology Southwest discussing how phenomenology and the scientific method intersect. You can check it out here.
Tucson is in the midst of a culinary renaissance as residents expand the use of native foods and create a local food market based on the unique palletes of the Sonoran desert. UNESCO has even awarded the city with its City of Gastronomy label, joining only 17 other cities across the globe with this designation. Much of this has to do with the deep history of agriculture and cuisine that we know about because of indigenous oral traditions and archaeology in the Tucson region. You can read more about it in these various national and international write-ups. If you live here, you probably already know how lucky we are. If you don’t, you should come visit us. See some of the archaeology that contributes to this culinary history and resurgence, eat at some of the restaurants outside of Tucson like the Desert Rain Cafe on the Tohono O’odham tribal lands that have helped underscore this interest in indigenous foods, and try some of the world class whiskey, beer, and wine that are produced here as well.
As an archaeologist, I’m often confronted with weird professional boundaries that stigmatise how and what types of culturally constructed material objects archaeologists study. This stigma primarily revolves around recent and contemporary material culture. In the UK, this is starting to change and in the US there are researchers such as myself who, regardless of what period in the past they study, think that archaeology is the scientific/social/historic/humanistic investigation of culturally constructed Things. Part of this is connected with what has come to be called New Materialism, a movement to rethink how and why humans and their world of Things (cars, toys, houses, wedding rings, toothbrushes, projectile points, tattoos, etc.) exist in a tangled web of interaction, identity construction, and cultural change.
Years ago, early in grad school this point of how archaeologists are barricading themselves within an in-artfully placed fortress of solitude was driven home to me while listening to a now retired archaeologist who publishes regularly on contemporary material culture self-deprecatingly, and I felt earnestly, note that he no longer writes archaeological literature. This same archaeologist, one of the smartest individuals I know, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and fundamentally changed the theoretical landscape of global archaeology in such an effective way that people now read his work and see it as mere “common-sense” when 30 to 40 years ago it was anything but.
More recently, while talking to a few colleagues in the U.S Southwest, I’ve been publicly criticised for declaring that my side project studying skateboards and the impact the material culture of this pastime and sport has had on processes of identity construction and environmental meaning across the globe is somehow archaeology. Many more have supported my statement in private, but that fear of going public with the idea that archaeology is actually the study of humans and their things, instead of the study of humans and their things from some vaguely distant past is a critical problem . . . in Americanist archaeology at least. I say this as an archaeologist who primarily investigates at a distance of some 600-1000 years in the past. After all, the past is only as far away as the beginning of this sentence.
Recently, for a professional anthropological and archaeological audience, I wrote that the above-mentioned “separation between what we do study versus what we can study creates a situation similar to what cyberpunk author William Gibson calls atemporality. Atemporality is essentially the idea that portions of the human narrative are historical in the Fukuyama sense, that is progressing through history and other parts are ahistorical, which is to say not progressing and disconnected from those periods that are in the flow of history. This creates a separation between skateboards and Clovis points, between worthy versus not worthy for the archaeological gaze. This sets archaeologists off from history and lends to an image of archaeological research by the public as basically frivolous.” I end by discussing what we can use to stitch the pre-modern/modern/post-modern world back together.
Regardless, while archaeologists have been fighting somewhat useless theory wars about how to investigate our (self-imposed) isolated portion of the past, the rest of the world of social researchers moved past us and started constructing their own theoretical understandings of human and object interactions. And so, to get to the point of this blog post, I would like to direct you to one such recently published discussion of the interaction between capitalism, history, and identity on the Atlantic website by University of Twente, Applied Philosophy professor Nolan Gertz. It’s a lot more interesting than I make it sound and looks at the history of action figures, particularly G.I. Joe’s and Star Wars figures. This harkens to an archaeological investigation of Barbie by Marlys Pearson and Paul Mullins that was published in 1999.* These two are definitive readings if you want to understand why and how archaeology can be an important avenue for investigating what it means to be human regardless of the time period. As an archaeologist who works in deep history**, I love research like Gertz’s and Mullins and Pearson’s, because it gives me a fundamental connection between people and their stuff that I can use to explain the past in much more realistic, and truthful, ways than simply saying that clearly these people had to move from A to B because it got too cold or there wasn’t enough rain. Also, they made different pots.***
Anyways, check out both of these readings. Whether you like or agree with the authors, these articles are, respectfully, excellent examples of what archaeologists could be doing and are doing. And feel free to leave comments below. I know I have really only stereotypically captured the spirit of Americanist archaeology and there are many folks who have worked and are working to break us out of our bubble (such as Bill Rathje, Larry Zimmerman, Jason De León, and Andrew Reinhard)
**That extensive period of time before writing was invented but after humans became cognitively the same as modern humans. Previously mislabeled as prehistoric when really it should have been called pre-textual.
***This is an overly sensationalised stereotype of bad archaeology. No one really does this . . . much . . . anymore.
I just finished writing a blog post about an incident that happened a couple days ago. I won’t write too much about it here since it’s been picked up by the Huffington Post. This post is basically to just tie in with everyone who follows my blog so that they can check it out. Essentially, a blog I wrote for Archaeology Southwest ended up migrating to Huffington Post. You can check out the Archaeology Southwest version here and the Huffington Post version here. Anyways, thanks to Kate Gann for letting me delve into some sensitive topics on this one.
Nice newspaper article about how fracking is effecting cultural resouces in the American Southwest: http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20141010/NEWS01/141019952/-1/taxonomy/Wells-creep-toward-Chaco-
Here’s a link to a talk I gave recently on my dissertation fieldwork and research. Enjoy!
Another blog is up from me on Archaeology Southwest’s page. This is really a compilation of many of the social networking posts that I put up during the two and a half months of my dissertation fieldwork. It’s prepping for the final blog post that will be up in a week or so. Check it out here. Enjoy!