Being that I am a fervent scholar of the marginalia of archaeology, and that I am in the middle of some fairly hardcore dissertation reading and writing, I thought I’d take a break to blog about the use of epigraphs in archaeological writing. For the unwashed (including myself, as I had to look it up), an epigraph is a quote before the main body of a piece of writing. As wikipedia has it, “the epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon, either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional context.” (Sorry epigraphers, I didn’t mean to get you all excited.)
While many academics either don’t read them or don’t use them, a good epigraph gives context to the intellectual universe of the piece. It’s a yearning for what you wish you were writing or what you hope to convey with the coming turgid academic prose. It can serve as a nod to a more poetic literature, or as a reference to a parallel understanding of a subject. The Archaeology of Islam by Timothy Insoll begins each chapter with a quotation from the Qur’an, Archaeology as Political Action by Randall H. McGuire begins with a Marx & Engels quote and the Gero & Conkey collection Engendering Archaeology dedicates a full half-page to a quote from John Berger’s Pig Earth about a kind of cheese. It’s one of my favorite epigraphs and I reproduced it in full on my tumblr blog if you are curious.
I admit that when I added “Life is short and filled with stuff. – The Cramps” as an epigraph to my first archaeology paper in graduate school, it was an oversimplified reaction to the main project of archaeology and probably a reflection of how homesick I was for my family of friends in Austin.
Beyond the relatively simple, static, textual epigraph, social media and digital technology can provide generalized epigraphic enhancement. If you were following my last.fm feed you could tell that I have certain songs that I listen to fairly regularly while I write. The songs shape and invade the writing, no matter how rigidly academic or blandly passive and prosaic the report or article may be. Tumblr and Flickr serve much the same purpose with quotes from books I’m reading or images from what is in front of me. One of my colleagues said that she could always see if her grad students were busy or stressed out by how many photos of books or coffee they were uploading. Digital technology can turn writing an article into a performance, if the writer chooses to let the audience into their secret chambers.
While it is possible that writing doesn’t need this amount of embroidered reflexivity, ultimately any piece of research is an assemblage. A good, elegantly written article can stand by itself–but sometimes I wish I could turn on a more universal “track changes” to see what lies beneath.