The Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting: Four Conversations

The AIA Annual meeting was as exciting and interesting as usual (I’ll leave it to my more regular readers to determine whether there is sarcasm intended).  It was good to see old friends and hear about new ideas, projects, and, well, news.  Four conversations stuck out in my head as I traveled back to Grand Forks, and here they are:

1. Jobs.  While most of my graduate school buddies landed tenure-track positions over the last 5 years, I still know enough folks on the job market to hear about the good (2-2 teaching loads, good support for research), bad (4-4 teaching loads, budget cuts), and ugly (fractured departments, battles in interviews, little chance for tenure) jobs available.  The reports from the AHA and the MLA appear to resonate with things at the AIA/ APA (American Philological Association) Joint Meeting.  Almost everyone with whom I talked had some story about a job search being canceled or words of warning about “upcoming cuts” during the interview.  One interesting phenomenon is that several folks told stories about job searches being accelerated to get the hiring done before the position was suspended.  A few people told stories the entire job search — phone interview, on-campus interview, and job offer — taking place over a mere two weeks.  Our department is searching right now and we were surprised when one candidate accepted a position before Christmas.  Traditionally job offers are made in the late winter or spring.  It may be that our lost opportunity was the product of an accelerated search.

2. Digital Archaeology. I talked with several people about archaeological field work this summer (see below), and one thing that came up in conversations was the need for IT support.  On the one hand, this is not terribly surprising as most projects have (mostly de facto) an “IT Guy” (or person).  On the other hand, it was interesting to hear projects talk seriously a dedicated IT expert perhaps even with long term responsibilities to the project.  The coming of age of digital archaeology is when archaeologists understand that born-digital data requires the same level of curation as traditional techniques for archaeological recording (inventory cards, artifacts, notebooks, drawings, et c.).  In some ways born-digital artifacts are susceptible to the same risks as an artifact of archaeological fieldwork.  In particular, digital data requires carefully documented context to be meaningful.  Unlike “analog” artifacts — especially notebooks — the techniques for preserving and maintaining digital records are not nearly as refined (yet), so archaeological IT experts must remain committed to project data at least until it reaches a stable state.  Even then, projects appear to be aware that a basic level of maintenance is required for “legacy data”; after all, no one produces data with the expectation that it will become unusable or worthless.  Data becomes unusable only through neglect.  In any event, it was heartening to hear so many projects (even small ones) talking about either bringing in a dedicated IT person from the earliest planning stages and hearing more established projects designated IT “coordinator” to curate legacy data and enforce good practices in data creation.  Some projects even talked about data integration beyond the site on a regional level.  The era of the digital archaeologist has arrived.

3. A Fractured Field.  I think that I heard the phrase, “that doesn’t really interest me” more times at this meeting than ever before.  I’ll admit that I was guilty of this on several occasions (one might have even been documented on a digital recorder!) as I begrudged my prehistorian colleagues the abundance of panels on Aegean prehistory at the AIA!  Some of my begrudging was for show, I have to admit. After all, we have worked for the last few years on the Late Bronze Age site of Kokkinokremos on Cyprus and enjoyed the support of colleagues and funding organization in our efforts to contribute to a better understanding of the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.  What was vaguely more disturbing was the willingness of senior (and contemporary) colleagues to express a genuine lack of interest of work even within the more narrow disciplinary confines.  My feigned lack of interest in the Bronze Age could be seen as reasonable since my area of specialty is some 2000 years later in time!  A lack of interest in material produced 400 or 500 years earlier or later than one’s specialization (or in a different sub-region of the Mediterranean) reflects the ever narrowing focus of our field and perhaps predicts the eventual demise of such august and long-lived organizations at the AIA.  Already, conferences like the Byzantine Studies Conference, Dumbarton Oaks Symposia, annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting, the Society of American Archaeologists, and regional groups like the Classical Association of the Midwest and South offer smaller and potentially more focused environments for scholarly exchange.  As money for travel to conferences becomes more scarce (not to mention the money to put on such major events), perhaps the lack of interest among scholars who are more devoted to their narrow research fields (rather than larger disciplines) simply marks out a practical, intellectual reality of our changing times.  Stan Katz offered a similar (if more articulate) critique of the American Historical Association Annual Meeting at the Chronicle Review Blog. Despite my posturing, I’d be sad to see the AIA go.  I think that we have far more to learn from our colleagues than we sometimes realize.

4. Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project Logistics. I spent a good bit of time on Thursday and throughout the meeting talking logistics with my fellow directors of the Pyla-Kousopetria Archaeological Project.  It looks like we will have over 30 people this year on the project ranging from almost completely inexperienced undergraduates to specialists in Bronze Age pottery, Roman wall-painting, and the history of the Medieval Cyprus.  We had designed our project from the start to be “scalable”.  We began with 6, 3 students and 3 faculty, and each year expanded our operation.  With over 30 slated to come for at least part of the time, we’ll certainly push the limits of scalability.  This blog began as a means to make our planning and field work on Cyprus more transparent.  While it has expanded and wandered over the almost 15 months of its life, it will continue to keep our stakeholders informed of our planning and our day-to-day activities in the field.

Finally, I was approached a number of times this weekend by folks with kind words for this blog.  Apparently it was mentioned in several contexts at the Meetings, and this corresponds with a spike in hits over the weekend.  I do not do much to promote this blog (although it is listed in the various indexed blog-searches and has even appears occasionally in Google Scholar), so it was really encouraging to hear that people appreciate my musings.  Thanks!  And if you are a visitor or a new reader, I hope you find my blog entertaining (at least) or informative or just pathetic in an endearing way.  After all, it’s cold out here, and blogging helps keep me warm.  Keep coming back and I’ll keep posting.

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