Critique of Archaeological Reason
1. Introduction to the website

History of the website

Giorgio Buccellati – February 2016

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Prehistory of the project

Two parallel developments led to the conception and then the realization of this website.

The first was closely linked to the excavations at Tell Ashara first (1976-86) and then Tell Mozan (beginning in 1984). On the one hand I was concerned about establishing a stratigraphic grammar that would account systemically for the immense universe of details emerging daily from the field. On the other, I was experimenting with the very first stages of “computer applications” (as they were called then) to archaeology – which led me to bring, in 1978, the first “portable” computer to the field in Syria (a bulky and minimally effective CP/M based system).

The second was the inherent interest in theory, which undergirded and conditioned the whole excavation effort. At first, this was in the form of notes distributed to the staff at the start of each excavation season. As these notes took shape in the form of a discursive text, I first thought of them as an introduction to the “grammar” that defined my approach to the stratigraphic work. But then again, as this grammar came to be inserted in the Urkesh website, the presentation of the theoretical presuppositions acquired an independent status and grew into the book CAR that now gives it a coherent and consistent shape. The digital dimension, however, had always been and remained an essential conceptual underpinning of the entire enterprise, and did eventually find its formalization in this website.

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The Urkesh Global Record (UGR)

The Urkesh Global Record, UGR, is the full implementation of the grammar, and as such it represented the major effort at giving shape to the theoretical principles that I was at the same time formulating and which are now developed in CAR. In other words, while the Urkesh website and the Grammar within it were the overarching frame, the UGR and the digital books it yielded were the specific and concrete embodiment of those principles. In particular, it was in developing the UGR that I became directly involved in the hands-on programming required to transform the data, atomistically given in the excavators’ record, into a unified and organic whole

As a result, it was work on the UGR that more directly gave me an opportunity to reflect on the nature of digitality. It was an ongoing and long experiment that stimulated the reflection as articulated now in the Critique book (CAR) and in this attendant website.

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A long gestation

Reckoning the time that has intervened since the beginning of the Terqa project in 1976, the gestation of this project lasted for a full 40 year period. The qualification of “long” for such a duration may seem too benign, since it corresponds indeed to a life time. But it was not an unnecessarily protracted postponement, a putting off of steps that ought to have been taken more rapidly. True, there was often a Gulliver-like disconnect between ambition and implementation.” But none of this was in fact a delay, or, if so, it was only tactical, and not strategic.

When theory seemed to overwhelm and suffocate practice, I had to remind the staff and myself that we were working towards a larger picture that would make sense only if and when completed – much like a city wall, which serves no purpose if only in segments. On one occasion I read, while in the field and for our encouragment, however much tongue in cheek, Shakespeare’s King Henry’s St Crispin’s day speech:
*          He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

          He that shall live this day, and see old age,
          Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
          And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”

          And gentlemen in England now a-bed
          Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
          And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
          That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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Reflections on the longue durée

In some ways, the notion of a “long gestation” reflects the meaning of the French technical term, longue durée. Such overlong duration may also be seen in the light of Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge.” And I do not mean either analogy in a facetious way…

There was a constant throughout this period: the coherence of the structural scaffolding. It was grounded in theory, which is why, even though the Critique volume and this website come at the end of the long process, they both were there, if in nuce, from the very start. They were, indeed, “present at creation.”

In this sense ours has been a Foucaultian trajectory. “Archaeology”, in this case, meant that there was a firm, if subterranean and cavernous, point of reference to which the development could be anchored. It was in essence the close adherence to theoretical principles that were at all times sufficiently clear to hold the larger picture together as it (however slowly) was taking shape.

In the same way, it has been the experience of what a longue durée concretely means: the coherence of growth. Buffeted, as it were, by strong theoretical winds that bore on the hermeneutics of weightier topics, I felt the urgency of adhering to something as trivial as emplacement. Odysseus-like, we had to remain tied to the sail mast of the excavated record. I had a firm sense of the attendant theoretical implications, and “growth” meant articulating them and identifying their proper intellectual dimension.

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Formative years

Concretely, the notion of a website as a companion to the printed version of the Critique of Archaeological Reason (CAR) first took shape in its present form in 2013. As the size of the volume was growing beyond reasonable limits, the website appeared to be the place were the documentary apparatus could find its proper place.

But from the start a very important concomitant reason guided me in defining the scope of the website: the specific digital quality the website would embody. As outlined above, the Urkesh website and especially the UGR had been and remain the central point of reference and the main avenue for exemplifying the underlying theoretical principles. But the new website would also serve this purpose, and from the start it was so designed as to serve this purpose as well as that of supplementing the printed book.

It was then with this goal in mind that I designed the current website, so that the properly digital dimension may be more easily grasped than in the more complex Urkesh website. Just as the Urkesh website, the Critique website, too, was born digital, in the specific sense that it aimed, in its very structural make-up, to make the most of the potential of “digital thought.”

In the three years from early 2013 to the end of 2015 the website assumed its final shape. This was to some extent conditional on the finalization of the text of the printed book, since an important part of the website consists of notes to just this text.

Federico Buccellati has been the constant interlocutor during the prehistory and the formative period of the project. It was, at all times, an interaction that affected deeply the philosophy of the approach as well as the practical aspects – from grounding principles and methods of analysis to programming, to hardware and systems choices, to fund raising. It has been the longest and most constructive collaboration of which I have been fortunate to avail myself, and which has been a constant source of joy. It served as a model for all other collaborative efforts.

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Intermediate presentations and publications

During the formative period, and in the years leading up to that, I published a few programmatic articles and gave a number of presentations about the Urkesh website and the UGR, and they are listed separately. But on the whole I refrained from an extensive attempt at describing my effort, because I felt that, without it being coempleted, it would have been too difficult to explain clearly its scope and merits. As a result, the project never became well known.

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The UCLA server

Critical to the establishment and progress of the website was the availability, from the very beginning, of a dedicated server in the Mesopotamian Lab of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. The server and attendant software was purchased through IIMAS. It was set up by Fanxi XU, and then developed by David Truong (through 2016), with the support of the UCLA Social Sciences Computing office. Plans are underway for establishing one or more mirror sites.

The server is of course indispensable in operational terms, since it houses the website and regulates access to it. It has proven particularly useful for us to have it accessible directly in our lab, because this has given a greater measure of control and full flexibility in handling its content.

But the server has also proven to be a very important focal point for the entire project. Direct FTP access to it means that contributors from remote locations in the US and Europe can all interact very directly by having the results of their work instantly uploaded and made available to all others, as if working physically side by side.

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Collaborative dimensions

A major aspect of these formative years was the development of a collaborative network that made it possible to enlarge the interest base and increase correspondingly the range of coverage. This evolved with an ever increasing use of long distance connections, all referring back to the server as the focal point of interaction. The interlocutors were scattered in various parts of the US and Europe besides Syria, although we would occasionally still be able to meet in person and spend time together.

The model was the one set by the Urkesh website, which has also been based on extensive long distance collaboration. But the Critique project also drew on several young contributors who were not attached to field work at Mozan. Among these, Esmeralda Agolli (first as a graduate student at UCLA and now a professor at the University of Tirana, Albania), developed for our website a sustained set of entries on the theme of classification.

Laerke Recht, a post-doc from Trinity College Dublin, currently in Denmark, worked on a number of bibliographical entries and assisted in the overall organization and harmonization of the material. This task became more and more urgent as the website was expanding and as new individuals began to contribute. Laerke was the one who developed a full familiarity with the website, and could therefore most efficiently monitor the unfolding of its various components. This defined the position which she now holds as Associate Editor of the website.

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The Hermeneutics Project at the Catholic University of Milan

A major impulse for both the conceptual structure of the website and for its collaborative dimension came from a research project held during the academic year 2014-15 at the Catholic University of Milan, with the support of its Research Department. It was hosted by the Philosophy Department, with the academic support of Profs. Roberto Radice, Massimo Marassi, Nicoletta Scotti Muth and Maria Luisa Gatti.

Devoted to the hermeneutic dimension of the Critique (see especially Chapter 16), the project gathered a group of some fifteen colleagues, post-docs and advanced graduate students, drawn from philosophy, history and archaeology. The conceptual focus of the project was the study of the hermeneutics of broken traditions, and this entailed a truly in-depth interdisciplinary interaction: philosophers were presented with hard core archaeological evidence, and archaeologists were equally confronted with the full weight of philosophical conceptualization. It gave a major impulse to my own research and to the clarification of a central issue of the whole essay.

It also provided a new impetus to the collaborative dimension of the website, which I opened to the project participants as the communal forum for our shared research. As will be seen from the authors’ list, many contributed only one or few entries, but the momentum was sustained by the deep interest in the shared sense of purpose and by the growing sense of a shared deepening insight. Stefania Ermidoro and Pia de Simone were the two post-docs who most closely helped me in the conceptual and organizational aspects of the project.

An important side effect of the Catholic University Hermeneutics project was that we had several colleagues and young researchers join us from other universities: Adriano Fabris from Pisa, Marcello Fidanzio from Lugano, Daniela Massara from Milan, Clelia Mora and Marco De Pietri from Pavia, Giorgio Paximadi from Lugano.

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Current structure

The website is currently staffed as indicated in the section on Authorship.

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Closure of the testing period

Following the publication of the Critique book CAR in April 2017, the Critique website opens for public access in June 2017.

As of that date, changes to the website will be done following the ephemeris protocol. New versions or editions of the website will be made available at set times, and each file will have a date marker by which it can be referred to. It is felt that this best serves the need of maintaining a proper bibliographical status for each entry.

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Future perspectives

The website will remain open indefinitely on an open HTTP access basis for all users, and on an open FTP access basis for individuals who will join the Critique Research Group. This will serve as a virtual continuing seminar, informal in its structure but fully goal oriented in its procedures. To implement more fully such a project, we will seek funding for young scholars who may actively work on the project, at least on a part time basis.

We will also seek to widen the institutional support basis, on the model of the research project at the Catholic University of Milan. In particular, we will relay on the newly established International Academy of Archaeology to assist in supporting and developing the forum dimension of the website.

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