Interview with William Caraher

William Caraher is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota. His contribution to NDQ Volume 80.2 titled “Slow Archaeology” studies the application of the slow movement to his professional field. Caraher’s blog, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, features his “continued musings on archaeology, technology, teaching, and history.”

Your essay talks about applying the concept of slow to archaeology, your professional field. In what other areas of your life do you tend to incorporate “slow” and to what result?

I am an avid walker and (slightly less committed) runner. These two things force me to take time each day to slow down and engage the broader world. My wife and I are also very devoted to our “cocktail hour” at 5 pm almost every day where we take an hour or so to enjoy a cocktail and listen to some music and decompress.  Finally, I take time every morning (usually between around 6 and 8 am) to write for a couple of hours. Most of the time, that writing appears on my blog (Archaeology of the Mediterranean World), but sometimes I spend that time working on projects that would easily get swamped by the hectic pace of the day.

In your essay you talk about a time in Greece when you and a colleague noticed certain things that may have been missed if you hadn’t slowed down. What are some things people may miss in their hectic lives if they never slow down?

I wonder whether people get so involved in their lives that they don’t take the time to notice that they are part of an intricate, dynamic, and complex  world.  I find that when I start getting panicking about how much I need to get done that I enter into the selfish spiral of work related lock down. A simple walk around the neighborhood or across campus will remind me that my life and work is but a teeny, tiny part of the larger world. It also reminds me that my work has more of an impact when I engage with that world rather than burying myself in my own anxieties, deadlines, and workflow.

Are there any technologies that are supposed to make life easier but do just the opposite?

Of course! There is a tendency to see technology as the opposite of slow, but in fact, that is not the case. Technology has saved us from immeasurable drudgery. In fact, technology is perhaps the key reason that we can slow down. After all, if there is not fast in live, then there would be no slow.

So, for example, a smart phone allows us to manage our time more easily. We can respond to an email while sitting in sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room or we can quietly reflect. The ability to answer an email from almost anywhere allows us to make the decision to fill our day with these little distraction or put them on hold. It makes slowing down a conscious choice and this kind of reflective decision making is really what slow is about.

Are there any technologies you feel make it easier to live more slowly?

Another example is the car. We know that automobiles have fundamentally changed the structure of communities, architecture, and our lived space. (Oh man, there is nothing I hate more than the two-car garage with attached house architecture that is so prevalent in American subdivisions, but at least it’s honest!). Cars have basically invented modern walking. Taking the time to walk a route that I usually drive reminds me how diving simplifies our view of the world, but if we only ever walked places, I don’t think I’d encounter this contrast and the excitement of seeing some part of our community in a new way.

In “Slow Archaeology,” you write, “The rapidly vanishing elements of its earlier craft roots … represent more than just nostalgia.” What are some of these craft roots, and what does their vanishing mean for the field?

Archaeology has long been a field that is best learned by doing. No amount of classes, books, or even field schools will accelerate the slow process of becoming familiar with the material world (although classes, field schools, and books will enrich your encounter with the material world). Technology, academic pressures to “publish or perish,” and funding limits have pushed archaeologists to do more, more quickly, and to compensate for the lack of time to analyze in the field by collecting more data.

These trends have begun to change some things in our discipline. For example, at a recent conference one of the pioneers in digital archaeology proposed rationalizing the structure of an archaeological project to leverage increasingly efficient data collection techniques. This is great, except the goal of archaeology is not data collection per se, but understanding the past. An assembly line is a great way to build a car, but not a great way to understand how a car works.

There are some cool ways that technology could be leveraged to democratize the analytical process in the field. My projects on Cyprus, for example, encouraged students and staff to blog about their experiences doing field work and living on Cyprus and to create a reflective, public record of how working in a foreign country alongside a group of  cranky old archaeologists changed how they saw the world. The public nature of the blog opened the possibility that their impressions of the island, its people, its culture, and its archaeology could open the door to a dialogue. Moreover, by taking time throughout the week to write down their thoughts in a way that could be archived with the project, we blurred the line between the “official version” of our fieldwork and those other versions that are no less significant to understanding the experience of archaeology.

You seem to have a number of projects in the works. What are you keeping busy with, and how do you balance everything?

Over the last few months, I’ve been working to help NDQ to enter the digital world! I’ve also been working on a couple book projects. One is the second volume of my archaeological work at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus; the other is a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch. I’ve also been working to develop a little press here on campus: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

I’m not good at balancing things so I stopped trying to do that a long time ago. Instead, I concentrate on enjoying the process of doing work. Writing, reading, editing, and even digital data crunching make me happy in different ways, and I let my mood and the momentary pressures of deadlines dictate what receives the bulk my attention.

What are you currently reading?​

I’m reading a few works on toxic tourism for my Tourist Guide to the Bakken: P. C. Pezzullo, Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice. University of Alabama Press 2007; Timothy J LeCain, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines that Wired America and Scarred the Planet. Rutgers University Press 2009.