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The Archaeology of Nothing: Grand Challenges and Everyday Life

Seinfeld and the "Grand Challenges" project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

Seinfeld and the “Grand Challenges” project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address.  Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.

This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch).  Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.

Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male.  Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground).

The demographic diversity and methodology for the study is worth interrogating, but what seems lost in those analyses is that many scholars are perhaps not interested in universal questions; that is, a broad range of archaeologists are not intent on crafting “grand challenges” or examining the periods, places, and questions inherited from others.  Some archaeologists’ research questions are forged with contemporary communities who are not at all interested in scholars’ grand questions; many global archaeologists’ training comes from decidedly non-anthropological traditions; and for some of us our data revolves around idiosyncratic things and subjects—in my case, that includes contemporary materiality, urban renewal, household decorative goods, and race and the color line, the prosaic dimensions of 20th– and 21st-century everyday life.

An alternative might be to actually avoid grand narratives in an archaeology that revolves around everyday life.  We might take somewhat unusual rhetorical direction from Seinfeld, the 1989-1998 television series whose narrative reveled in stories about “nothing.”  Seinfeld’s nothingness was actually tightly knit stories wound around an arsenal of counter-intuitively mundane experiences: everyday life is a wave of being lost in parking decks, contemplating bad smells, lying about ourselves, and similarly mundane experiences that have melted beyond apprehension and become funny when their absurdity is illuminated.  Even the very material culture of Seinfeld–“normcore” fashion, big salads, coffee shops, and trench coats–is utterly banal.

Seinfeld provides a suggestive framework for archaeological story-telling that revolves around the recognition of ourselves that comes from a rigorous assessment of apparently banal everyday life.  Like any narrative, Seinfeld evokes persistent themes: self-indulgence, neurotic relationships, and selfish angst emerge as a consistent, if bleak narrative thread that the series’ plotless stories refuse to speak out loud.  Seinfeld’s plotlessness evades how its picture of everyday life confronts the experiences that are consigned to unexamined banality.  It may be that at least some archaeology might be enriched by a similar focus on how and why certain experiences, desires, and practices are driven into the unexamined recesses of everyday banality.  Archaeological narratives can avoid devolving into predictably structured (if not boring and irrelevant) analyses dictated by universalizing questions and rhetorical conventions; simultaneously, they need not be reduced simply to local histories that ignore the broader social world.

The NSF project was conceived in a North American anthropological tradition that frames universal hypotheses on the breadth of human cultural experience across time and space.  That disciplinary position risks ignoring many global archaeological traditions that diverge from anthropology’s broad comparative frameworks; similarly, it hazards posing questions that are specific to archaeologists and funding agencies, which are simply irrelevant to people outside anthropological archaeology communities.  The project risks posing grand scientific questions that are just boring beyond a small circle of specialists because they are so broadly defined and routinized.  They hazard distancing archaeology from the idiosyncratic things and local contexts that make archaeology so fascinating and simultaneously political for so many people beyond the discipline.  In 2014 Diggin’ It hinted at this when she lamented that “the topics heralded in the report seem likely to further the insularism of so much of archaeology these days by emphasizing what archaeologists can discover about the past, without really emphasizing they ways in which we can contribute to current debates outside of the discipline.”

Both the blog carnival and the NSF’s Grand Challenges are at some level a rhetorical exercise forcing archaeologists to articulate what we do and why anybody should even care.  Charles Cobb’s thoughtful response to the grand challenges lamented their advocacy of “archaeology as a neutral science,” and perhaps an “archaeology of nothing” runs the risk of appearing relativistic and fixated on local details.  However, seemingly quotidian things like parking lots, urban ruins, or suburban streets fascinate us because we fathom something consequential in them that connects everyday life to compelling structural questions about color and class privilege.  “Big questions” can be valuable starting points, and we are not reading the death rites to science.  Nevertheless, fascinating archaeological questions have their roots in individual scholars’ experiences and feelings, and for many archaeologists they are based on sustained discussions with contemporary communities about what they really want to know about how their social position were produced.  When archaeology seems to not be about us and how we came to be, it risks simply being irrelevant, and for many of us everyday life is an exceptionally rich starting point for an examination of the historical roots of the contemporary world.

 

References

 

Charles R. Cobb

2014 The Once and Future ArchaeologyAmerican Antiquity 79(4):589-595.  (subscription access)

 

Henri Lefebvre

1987    The Everyday and EverydaynessYale French Studies 73:7-11.

1991    The Critique of Everyday Life.  2nd ed.  Verso, London.

Repressing Repugnant Heritage: Place, Race, and Memory in Shockoe Bottom

lumpkin-jail dig

Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom is on first glance a prosaic if not unappealing void.  The checkerboard of parking lots and deteriorating buildings became home to a farmer’s market along Shockoe Creek in the 18th century: the core of Richmond’s earliest urban plan, Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street marketplace was ringed by food wholesalers, Tobacco Row warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing, Main Street Station, and residences, including the city’s oldest surviving structure, the circa 1740 Old Stone House now home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.  But much of the farmer’s market business has declined and food wholesaling transformed since World War II; in 1958 the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) sliced through the middle of Shockoe Bottom; the cigarette companies abandoned Tobacco Row in the 1970s; and most trains stopped running in 1975. Read the rest of this entry

Silence and Civility at the Talking Wall: Race and Public Art

The December 18, 2015 dedication of Talking Wall (image from author).

The December 18, 2015 dedication of Talking Wall.

This week artist Bernard WilliamsTalking Wall was installed on Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail.  Williams’ work sits along Blackford Street on the IUPUI campus, sandwiched between two parking decks in the midst of what was once an African-American neighborhood.  Talking Wall collects a series of symbols representing that African-American heritage, emerging after a long discussion over African-American public art stewarded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), Arts Council of Indianapolis (ACI), and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC).  On an otherwise non-descript stretch of the trail the work aspires to illuminate African-American heritage and evoke a historical landscape lost to most people’s memory.  For a piece that ambitiously celebrates its aspiration to promote conversation, though, it remains somewhat unclear exactly what sort of discussions a phalanx of planners hope to secure from Talking WallTalking Wall emerged from a tortured ethnographic failure of planners to fathom African Americans’ investment in public artistic representations of African America.  That failure and the subsequent effort to cast the subsequent Talking Wall community art project as reconciliation and civil discussion may frame a more interesting insight into privilege and the color line than any artwork. Read the rest of this entry

Manufacturing Heritage: History-Making at Trump National

The "River of Blood" marker at Trump National.

The “River of Blood” marker at Trump National.

Last week a stirring Civil War memorial in Sterling, Virginia was ridiculed for its commemoration of a Potomac River engagement known as “the river of blood.”  The gorgeous riverside site on the Trump National Golf Club was dramatically remodeled after Donald Trump purchased the former Lowes Island Club in 2009.  Part of that remodeling included the placement of a war memorial between the 14th and 15th holes commemorating a slaughter of “many great Americans, both of the North and South” whose blood reputedly turned the Potomac crimson.  The plaque at the bottom of a flagpole exclaims “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!–Donald John Trump.”

Northern Virginia has a rich landscape of Civil War sites, and the memorial to Civil War dead is perhaps earnest, but there is no evidence that such a battle occurred along the shores of the present-day Trump course.  When Trump was challenged this month over the details of this otherwise undocumented battle, he replied with characteristic arrogance that the location “was a prime site for river crossings.  So, if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.”  When pressed that he had manufactured a historical event, Trump dismissed demands for scholarly verification: “Write your story the way you want to write it.  You don’t have to talk to anybody.  It doesn’t make any difference.  But many people were shot.  It makes sense.”  Faced with scholars’ challenges, Trump protested ““How would they know that?  Were they there?” Read the rest of this entry

Imagining Holiday Odors

Our memories and experiences of the holidays are profoundly accented by scent: the fragrance of baking cookies, the pungent scent of pine trees, and the distinctive whiff of our family members’ homes are among many peoples’ strongest sensory memories.  Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past described a rush of “involuntary memory” incited by the scent and taste of a madeleine, painting a picture of sensations that provoke emotionally rich recollections.  Countless web pages provide directions for simmering water jars, stove top concoctions, and homemade potpourri that will make your home smell like a Yuletide wonderland.  For those of us too impatient to boil star anise, orange slices, and cinnamon sticks, an enormous industry caters to consumers’ sensory imagination, selling us smells that fortify our own clouds of pumpkin pie and turkey: numerous marketers hawk familiar scents like evergreen or vanilla, but many like American mall behemoth Yankee Candle sell fantasy scents, with Angel’s Wings, Cozy by the Fire, Winter Glow, and Cat’s Whiskers among its 2015 holiday fragrances.

Poo-Pourri promises to leave your toilet smelling like a mountain valley awash in flowers.

Poo-Pourri promises to leave your toilet smelling like a mountain valley awash in flowers.

Christmas is an especially lucrative time of year to sell scents.  In 2012 Yankee Candle’s European Managing Director championed holiday scents when he said “imagine Christmas without all the wonderful scents it comes with, and you’ll understand why home fragrance is so important at this time of year.”  Perhaps the most distinctive entrant in the holiday consumer scentscape is the Poo-Pourri toilet spray.  Poo-Pourri has sold over 10 million bottles of its’ “before you go” toilet spray, which promises that its natural oils will eliminate your foul bathroom cloud before it becomes part of your Yuletide sensory memories.   Poo-Pourri concedes that the fragrances of the holidays inevitably include the unavoidable intestinal impact of Grandma’s butter-laden sweet potatoes.  The toilet spray’s elevated holiday sales suggest that at least some of us are self-conscious that our young relatives’ memories of Christmas fragrances will involve pine trees, Yankee Candle vanilla, and the unmistakable post-digestive cloud that will forever be associated with you.  Rather than have your friends and family remember you as a malodorous Chewbacca, Poo-Pourri promises you’ll instead be associated with the English garden scent you always left in the holiday potty. Read the rest of this entry

Concealing Anxiety: Advertising Period Underwear

One of the THINX ads that was apparently rejected for its public use of the term "period."

One of the THINX ads that was apparently rejected for its public use of the term “period.”

Perhaps no bodily function inspires as much public awkwardness as menstruation.  A host of consumer goods have long promised to resolve a pantheon of discretely acknowledged bodily realities like body odor, belching, acne, farting, bad breath, and bowel practices, and the success of such products is measured by their very invisibility: that is, nobody cares about your deodorant until you smell foul, we have little to say about toilet paper unless it inflicts injury,  and tampon failures are discussed in only the most delicate company (or reddit).  The market for such personal hygiene products extends back over more than a century, and it is enormously profitable: for instance, in 2014 the ten leading American deodorant brands accounted for $1.06 billion in sales. Read the rest of this entry

“Our Succulent Middle Class”: African-American Country Clubs and the Black Bourgeoisie

Sportsmans Golf July 18 1970

In July, 1970 Sportsman’s Club supporter and pro football player Leroy Kelly joined a group of golfers at the club’s nine-hole course.

In April, 1969 James Saint Clair Gibson reported on the opening of the Sportsman’s Club, a country club being built by African-American investors in the city’s northwestern suburbs.  Gibson contributed columns to the Indianapolis Recorder from 1936 until his death in 1978, often writing under his pen name of “The Saint” and dispensing acerbic commentary about life in African-American Indianapolis.  Gibson’s report on the Sportsman’s Club  inventoried its promised offerings of swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf links, but Gibson could not pass up a comment on the club’s apparent exclusivity, observing that memberships cost “$$$$ (hundreds) per year, and according to what we hear—they are being gobbled up right and left by our succulent (?) middle-class.”

The Sportsman’s Club aspired to provide a cross-class, multiethnic social club.  However, Gibson perhaps captured his readership’s wariness of exclusive country clubs, which were segregated along class lines and had historically been places where African Americans performed service labor.  The caricature of White hyper-wealthy clubs may have made the notion of a predominately Black club seem especially archaic at a moment when many once-segregated citizen rights were being transformed.  Perhaps the most unsettling implication was that the club illuminated the reaches of American life that remained utterly segregated.  Country clubs would indeed be one of the last bastions of segregation long after other spaces and citizen rights were effectively integrated. Read the rest of this entry

Segregating the Fairways: Golfing and Public Leisure in African America

In January, 1928 the Indianapolis Recorder dryly proclaimed that “it is indeed gratifying to see how many of our group have taken up the ancient and honorable game of GOLF since the city turned the cow pasture at Douglass Park over to us for a golf course by the placing of six tin cans around said pasture.” In 1926, the African-American newspaper had spearheaded the course’s construction, arguing that “Indianapolis Negroes want to play golf.” By 1928, though, it lamented that the six-hole course at “Douglass park has plenty of hazards, bunkers and the like, but they are not artificial. They are just as God made the land, rough, uneven, uncut grass, trees in the fairways, even the `teeing ground’ is like a bunker.”

Much of the 20th century battleground for African-American citizen privileges and human rights was waged in public spaces like workplaces, schools, and the voting booth. Nevertheless, that activism reached into nearly every corner of everyday life, finding some of its most powerful activism at seemingly prosaic lunch counters, bowling alleys, and municipal parks. African America’s grassroots struggle for citizen rights in seemingly mundane leisure places like golf courses was a critical dimension of 20th-century African-American activism. Such activism remains preserved in traces of the contemporary landscape, but the significance of such spaces—and the persistence of many color line divisions in those very places–risks passing without notice today.

The Riverside Park links and a story on the novel game appeared in the June 29, 1902 Indianapolis Journal.

The Riverside Park links and a story on the novel game appeared in the June 29, 1902 Indianapolis Journal.

Indianapolis’ first public nine-hole course was built at Riverside Park in 1900, just as golf began to be played in the US; simultaneously, the Great Migration and color line segregation were transforming the world of 20th-century African-American golf. In 1901 Henry Alfred Fleming, an African-American caddy at the Indianapolis Country Club, was appointed as Riverside Park’s golfing instructor. Many African Americans like Fleming found work as caddies at the nation’s earliest country clubs and golf courses, quietly becoming skilled players themselves. John Shippen, an African American and indigenous Shinnecock Indian, was a caddie who played in six U.S. Opens alongside White golfers between 1896 and 1902, but golf clubs and tournaments soon excluded people of color. Fleming’s position as an African-American golf instructor at a public course would be nearly unimaginable by 1910, when golf became a segregated mass leisure. Read the rest of this entry

Evil and Everyday Life: Interpreting Nazi Heritage

The "We Were Friends" exhibit

The “We Were Friends” exhibit

In June, 1941 the German military arrived in northern Finland as part of the Operation Barbarossa offensive against the Soviet Union.  The Germans became co-belligerents with the Finns, jointly waging war on the Soviets between June, 1941 and September, 1944 in what is known in Finland as the Continuation War.  At its height, 220,000 Germans were based and living in Finnish communities.

IMG_8567The Arktikum Museum and Arctic Science Centre’s exhibit “We Were Friends”: Finnish-German Encounters in Lapland, 1940-1944 revolves around the premise that in many ways the Finns and Germans experienced all the human relationships common between people anywhere: in various contexts, Finns and Germans were friendly colleagues, indifferent peers, or romantically involved.  “We Were Friends” departs from conventional Nazi narratives dispensing familiar moral judgments and instead plumbs everyday life between Finns and Germans.  That focus delivers a novel if potentially unsettling humanization of Finnish and German people living alongside each other amidst war.  It is an enormously challenging ambition to render the Nazi soldiers in Finland as prosaic and even banal people since the Nazis’ broader legacy has dominated historical pictures of German foot soldiers.  Inevitably, the exhibit also uneasily illuminates the historical implications of the Finns’ reception of the Germans.

The Haus der Komradeschaft in Rovaniemi in 1943 (image SA-Kuva).

“We Were Friends” casts Finns and Germans as utterly recognizable people negotiating difference and their circumstances as nearly any of us would.  The exhibit aspires to humanize the relationships between Finns and Germans, not Nazis and the German military writ large, a mission that may be impossible, naïve, refreshing, overdue, or something anywhere on that continuum.  The exhibit perhaps on some level aspires to salvage German soldiers’ humanity from narratives fixed on the Nazi war machine or caricatures of the German foot soldier as an ideological automaton.  On a novel, fascinating, and potentially unsettling level “We Were Friends” avoids weaving any especially judgmental moral or ideological narrative of the war, Nazism, or wartime Finns, instead painting a picture of everyday life distinguished by its recognizable banality. Read the rest of this entry

Class and Lycra: Style, Wealth, and Cycling Apparel

David Miller in a jersey from his Chpt.III line by Castelli.

David Miller in a jersey from his Chpt.III line by Castelli.

This week cycling insiders are heralding a new line of bike apparel from fabled Italian cycling manufacturer Castelli.  After decades of cycle clothing innovations, Castelli has partnered with recently retired pro rider David Millar to produce an “ultra high-end” clothing line for “discerning cyclists” seeking “sartorial elegance.”  The brand hopes to appeal to a “new breed” of cyclists attracted to “the cutting edge of fashion,” and the first jersey in the line retails for £190; assessing the line’s prices, Bike Radar dryly concluded that “it’s a fair bet that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Cycling producers are by no means alone in their branding appeal to consumers seeking exceptionally high-end sports garments and gear, and cultish brand appeal has complicated implications on how we view sport in general and cycling in particular.  A massive industry has made cycling an increasingly lucrative industry, and it is attempting to remain profitable and accessible to the masses even as brands like the new Castelli line cultivate social and class exclusivity. Read the rest of this entry

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