Bill Caraher draws parallels between 'punk archeology' finds of the modern past and artifacts of antiquity

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Bill Caraher draws parallels between 'punk archeology' finds of the modern past and artifacts of antiquity

University of North Dakota historian Bill Caraher traveled recently to the seaside village of Myloi, in Argos, Greece, to start his newest field project.

Just weeks ago, Caraher made waves as a member of an elite group of archeologists who dug up defunct game maker Atari's burial ground in Alamogordo, N.M. That project was covered extensively by media worldwide, including CNN, National Public Radio and the Guardian.

In Greece, "The Western Argolid Regional Project is a collaboration between scholars at the University of Colorado, University of Toronto and Wilfred Laurier University (in Waterloo, Ont.)," said Caraher, who spent several summers excavating a site in Cyprus. "Our purpose is to study the archaeology of settlement and movement in a valley in the rural Greece."

"I was invited to participate in this project as a specialist in Mediterranean archaeological survey, geographic information systems, and data management," said Caraher, who honed his digital information skills on the Cyprus project.

The work in Greece is very different from his "punk archaeology" adventure in the New Mexico desert ? not far from the Trinity test site where the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945.

"We encountered a media circus surrounding the well-publicized excavation of thousands of Atari game cartridges from a landfill," said Caraher, a founding member of the UND Digital and New Media Working Group. "The three-day dig in New Mexico attracted international media attention and earned mention back home in the Grand Forks Herald."

"Being part of the team supervising and documenting the Atari dig in New Mexico was great," Caraher said. "It gave me more firsthand experience working in late-20th century archaeological contexts. This is work at the fringes of the traditional disciplinary definitions of archaeology which has tended to privilege the ancient or at least 'really old' artifacts."

"The Atari dig, however, speaks to us a in a very immediate way about how we live today," Caraher said about the project.

"The rapid pace of change in contemporary world propels objects from being things we can't live without to things that we cast aside, want hidden away from us and buried in a landfill," Caraher said.

Archaeologists tend to study things that were, for whatever reason, cast aside.

"But with the Atari dig we had a chance to witness and participate in the rapid cycling of culture where something as common and popular as Atari games is desired, discarded, and then excavated as cultural and historical artifact," Caraher said. "So for us, the process of discard and discovery creates a cultural artifact, and the interest of the Smithsonian in some of the excavated games confirms the enduring importance of what we did and what it produced."

His current summer project in the Argolid, Greece is more consistent with what scientists imagine as traditional archaeological practice.

The field project in Greece will focus on a valley that connected to prominent regions of the ancient world. Caraher will help manage the archaeological data both in the field and in the digital realm. He will draw upon over a decade of running his own projects on the island of Cyprus.

"With the Atari dig, we basically fought the idea that what we were doing wasn't archaeology because the objects and processes that we studied were so recent," Caraher said. "However, our work in Greece has to challenge the idea that the seemingly remote and picturesque Greek landscape has never been modern."

In fact, Caraher noted, the valley the team is studying has been a significant thoroughfare for thousands of years, including today where Greece's most modern highway runs along its north slopes.

"This should lead us to see the valley as unchanging over time," he said. "But it will also push us to understand how this region functioned in different economy regimes, political powers, social and religious systems over time."

So to put it another way: "By saying that the ancient is so similar to the modern, we're observing not that the rural world of modern Greece is somehow static," Caraher said. "Rather, we have every reason to assume that rural Greece in antiquity was every bit as dynamic as our modern age. The ceramics scattered across the surface of the ground are antiquity's Atari cartridges and can tell us about how people lived and worked in the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, or Medieval periods."

The progress of the Punk Archaeology movement, his work on Greece and Cyprus, in the digital world, and all sorts of related posts appear almost daily on Caraher's blog.

His work this summer can also be followed on the hashtag #WestARP on Twitter.

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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