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.

Art, Archaeology, and Fonts at the Van Eyck

The Jan van Eyck Academie felt otherworldly, a precise, modern shadowbox surrounded by winding medieval streets. Artists wandered in and out of studios, only vaguely curious as to what a gaggle of archaeologists was doing at an art institute in Maastricht, Holland.

I was almost too distracted to notice. I about to give the keynote lecture for the NEARCH meeting, on Archaeology and the Image, and navigating between the two audiences I would be addressing was making me nervous. Very prominent, senior academic archaeologists and cutting-edge contemporary artists would be hearing all about archaeological photography, modernity, and representation. Or my take on it, at least.

Art/Archaeology at the Van Eyck! #holland #nearch

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

 

So when I came across this pair of doors leading into studios, I had to laugh. What better description of life as a postdoc? “Super confident, always worried” indeed. Except in my case those two doors would lead to the same office.

Touring the incredible @jve_academie print studio.

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

 

Later, we’d go on a tour of the Van Eyck, including the print workshop where artists and scientists print and bind beautiful catalogues and single, masterful pieces. I knew that they specialized in older, analogue printing techniques and yet I couldn’t conceal my delight when the cabinets of heavy typeface were opened. As a child I toured a print shop where they were switching over to digital printing and I was given my initials in letterpress lead block caps, all in slightly different sizes: C.L.M.

 

The print master showing us around had twinkling eyes and a million inks spread across his work shirt–I couldn’t resist asking him about the Van Eyck’s particular, casually stylish font. Apparently it was traced from the remains of the work of the sign painter, Pierre Bonten, who painted the “no parking” signs outside the Institute. It was clever; the font combined an appreciation of the past of the institute, a nod toward craftmanship, and the interplay between analogue and digital forms of expression.

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This artistic, archaeological font is named Bontepike, Here’s a video about the process:

Digging for DNA on Medium.com

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I’m very pleased with this long-form, popular article that I wrote: Digging for DNA: Archaeology, Genetics & the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I wasn’t sure where to put it at first, as it’s long for many journals, and a lot of places do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Journalistic writing is surprisingly difficult to break into! It was also one of the more difficult things that I’ve written, as it details very contentious issues in research on ethnicity and genetics.

While my name is on the byline, it received quite a few edits from the researchers involved–precise language is important in discussions of scientific research, and I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting perspectives of the researchers and fellows involved.

It was also interesting to write something for Medium.com, as there does not seem to be much of an archaeological presence there. Additionally, they give you stats on how many people get to the bottom of the article–so far, less than 1/3 of readers muscled their way through the nearly 5,000 words.

Overall, it has been a revelation working with the EUROTAST network, and has considerably shaped my future research projects. I hope you enjoy this discussion of their research! Here’s the first paragraph of the article:

Marcela Sandoval gave me a wry grin, then covered her face with a mask. Next, a covering for her hair, goggles, booties over her shoes, and a crisp, white suit that crinkled when she moved. Finally, a pair of turgid purple latex gloves snapped into place. She put her hands on her hips and impatiently motioned for me to get on with it. I awkwardly pulled on my own clean suit and followed her into the laboratory, where a faint glow outlined test tubes and complex machines.

Here, in this quiet room, was the beginning of a complex, captivating story about genetics, ethnicity, and the archaeological past.

For more, go to:
https://medium.com/@colleenmorgan/digging-for-dna-3c1984ed94d6

The Other Photography of Archaeology

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January has been full on, with three talks (including a keynote!) in three countries and a fourth one next week. Two of them involve representation in archaeology and I was reminded to finally get my Nostalgic, Personal, Neglected, Treasured, Rejected: The Other Photography in Archaeology made into an e-book!

Click here for the low-quality pdf

Click here for the link to the high-quality FREE blurb book

Here is the original abstract for the Berkeley TAG piece in 2011:

Our view of the past is hazy, inaccurate, hard to discern, never quite all there. Yet our record of such uncertainty is becoming dazzlingly clear; professional-quality digital SLR cameras producing high-dynamic range imaging are becoming the norm on archaeological projects and our photographic archives, once highly-curated collections of “scientific,” carefully set-up shots have exploded in size and diversified in content accordingly. Along with this extraordinary, high-tech verisimilitude runs a counter-narrative–photography on sites performed by students, workmen, professionals, and tourists using their cellphones. These images are too casual, personal, low-rez, and are often unavailable to the official project. They find another life online, emailed to friends and posted on Flickr and Facebook, living beyond the archive and often becoming a much more visible public face than the more official photographs released by the project.

Inspired by this tension between the personal and the formal and Damon Winter’s recent New York Times iPhone photo essay of soldiers in Afghanistan, I shed my cumbersome and conspicuous DSLR to explore the affective, casual, and nostalgic qualities of archaeological photography with my cellphone and on-board photo-editing applications. In a session focused on exploring the work that archaeological photography does, I will investigate the hazy, inaccurate, personal, and extra-archival qualities of the archaeological snapshot.

As I said during my talks, interplay with digital and analog, and the transgression of using a camera-phone for archaeological recording felt a lot more edgy several years ago.

I discussed a bit about how I made the original, analog album in the previous blog post, The Other Photography.

The Happy Accidents of Archaeological Drone Photography

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Admittedly, 80% of the 227 photos are of grass. Blurry, impressionistic, green. The camera was set to time lapse, taking a photo every five seconds, and most people in the Heritage & Play group had a turn. A new person at the controls, and the angry-bee-buzz of the small white drone would signal lift-off.

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We all stood around it, watching it aloft, buzz around, then land. We were amateurs–this is not an effective group shot, but it’s lovely. It’s late autumn in England, the sun hangs low in the sky, prolonging the golden hour and lighting up the still-green fields.

DCIM100GOPRO But who is the author of the photo? It was a time lapse, so was it Neil, who set the camera? Or the “pilot” of the drone? The wind played havoc with the camera gimbal, so the drone propellers show up in some of these photos, like fingers left too close to the lens.

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These are the rejected shots, the extra-archival material that I’m always interested in, the visual archaeological marginalia. Drones, tied to vicious, out-of-the-blue attacks on non-combatants by the United States, are tools of surveillance, of state-crafted terror, and take lovely photos of archaeology in the English countryside. We were happy the rain lifted so we could take better photos; in Pakistan a little boy lamented the death of his 67-year-old grandmother who was killed by a drone strike while picking vegetables, “I no longer love blue skies…In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Even unarmed, the drones are used for “weaponized photography“–there are a host of rules about where and when and why you can fly drones in the UK. Perhaps that’s why I find delight in these marginal, miscellaneous photos–they are goofy, non-standard and non-threatening, revealing an imperfect technological surrogacy. They’re accidentally lovely.

Who Digs? Craft & Non-specialist labor in archaeology

Dan and I wrote a short polemic for Bill Caraher’s series on Craft and Archaeology. It was a hydra of a piece to write–we wanted to be succinct and direct, but it kept spiraling out of control. We obviously have a lot more to say on the subject, here’s a short excerpt:

Digging is the most evocative archaeological practice, yet it is the most undervalued mode of archaeological knowledge production, least cultivated skill with fewest monetary rewards, and is considered so inconsequential that non-specialist labor is regularly employed to uncover our most critical data sets.

Click HERE to read the rest.

Book Review: Archaeographies

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Real Estate Open House, by Fotis Ifantidis

My review of Fotis Ifantidis’ Archaeographies came out in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. I’m not sure why there aren’t figures, but oh well.

A quote from the review:

Out of the thousands of photographs taken at Dispilio, Ifantidis has selected examples that are, on the surface, aggressively non-archaeological. These photographs do not effectively document the archaeological record in a way that is acceptable as standard site photography: scales, when deployed, are haphazard, artifacts are scattered and in partial focus, and site overviews are messy and full of distracting tools or loose dirt. This is entirely intentional.

Read the rest here:

http://www.equinoxpub.com/home/morgan-book-review/