Unstratified Beginnings

by Jamie Arjona

Photo credit: Kevin Utting through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo credit: Kevin Utting through Creative Commons attribution license.

If there’s one thing archaeologists feel comfortable with, it’s dirt. It’s part of our archaeological DNA, embedded in a sequence of shovels, callouses, and profile drawings. But for a discipline that takes so much pride in dirt, we seem rather averse to mess. We get dirty in the act of cleaning things up. We set up neat grids and obsessively scribe features. Personally, there’s nothing more cathartic than relishing in the sight of straight unit walls and a clean floor. These neurotic tendencies play a pivotal role in maintaining scientific rigor. At the same time, there’s a certain irony lurking in the belief that we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty. All the dirt makes it easy to forget how clean we really are.

“Stratification is like the creation of the world from chaos.” – Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The name of this blog, Unstratified, draws inspiration from the perversion of two archaeological concepts – stratigraphy and assemblages. The first term embodies the disciplinary hegemonies we’ve distanced ourselves from. Whether or not we approve of the association, stratigraphy serves as convenient metaphor for order, classification, and structure. It’s no wonder why social theorists gravitate toward archaeological allusions. For Foucault (1970), each excavated layer revealed a particular order of things, a system of social norms, an outline of social stratification. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) claimed stratification is like the creation of the world from chaos. The oppressive connotations of stratification can be alarming, especially for a discipline invested in social critique. Stratigraphic metaphors still haunt us because they bring back an image of archaeology that we’ve fought to overcome. We take comfort in the belief that stratigraphy is dead.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley through Creative Commons attribution license

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley through Creative Commons attribution license.

Assemblages, on the other hand, embody the illusion of mess. In a way, the ontological turn feels like a moment of redemption for archaeology. Assemblages have eclipsed stratigraphic sequences (De Landa, 2009; Latour, 2005). After all, we’re postmodern, or maybe we’ve never been modern. New materialisms and relational ontologies bring the mutability of social experience into sharper relief. Not to mention how gratifying trendy words like “assemblages” and “things” sound to archaeologists. Assemblages entertain a perfect blend of familiarity and theoretical momentum. They make it feel like things are getting messier.

But maybe we aren’t seeing how clean things really are.

In a 2008 Annual Review of Anthropology, Barbara Voss sensed that archaeological texts, “still read as if they were written to be approved by a morals committee for the promotion of family values”(Voss, 2008:318). I think Voss was on to something. A messy façade seems to be obscuring how sanitized archaeological narratives remain. Thinking about ontologies and assemblages makes it seem like we’re finally tapping into the volatility of experience. We take solace in an intricate web of human and nonhuman “entanglements”. We animate the characters in our stories with romantic adjectives – vibrant materials, generative landscapes, powerful agents. Our nuanced techniques enliven narratives of the past with detailed contexts and layered characters. But the stories feel censored. When will our characters become asocial? Where are the necrotic materials? When does depression corrupt resilience? Where are the fractures, the leaks, and the perversions?

Who gets left out in the tacit order of archaeology? The answer goes much deeper than theoretical inclinations. The order of things plays out in everyday scenes. I remember the tragically ordinary moments shared in conference presentations, conversations with colleagues, and reflections from friends. A queer student heard men jokingly told to ‘man-up’ in the field. In a ruggedly masculine display, a male graduate student plucked shovels out of the hands of two female undergraduate students and relegated them to the screen. A graduate student felt stunned by the solitude of being the only Black man in his department. Each narrator spoke about feeling left out in a field that didn’t seem to recognize their sense of alienation.

Photo credit: Kurt Bauschardt through Creative Commons attribution license

Photo credit: Kurt Bouschardt through Creative Commons attribution license

Over the past year, a number of surveys have exposed the ordinariness of those scenes. Researchers reveal unsettling trends that bring the problem of disciplinary diversity into sharp relief. Our colleagues highlight a spectrum of micro-aggressions, sexual harassment, and assault that infiltrates academic life (Clancy et al., 2014). I recently sat in on a conference symposium on minority representation in anthropology, when these issues surfaced. After being asked about ongoing surveys on levels of minority representation and whether affirmative initiatives were needed, Dr. Rosemary Joyce said something remarkably simple and viscerally profound. In a matter-of-fact tone, Joyce calmly looked up from her notes and said, I think we have enough data. Her reflection was a call for disorder. An onslaught of quantitative data might be revelatory for some, but it only reiterates what minority archaeologists have been calling attention to for decades. When people of color, queers, and women meander through a conference, tread the halls of an academic institution, or step into the field, they feel the ontological reality of difference. They feel how clean archaeology really is.

Unstratified is a call to imagine the radical possibilities of perversion. It’s a distortion of the archaeological genre. I’m not suggesting anything novel or innovative. I think most archaeologists are motivated by some vision of political subversion. I commend archaeologists for tackling high-stakes political issues. I see a sense of political urgency circulating in ethics panels, congressional directives, and public media forums. At the same time, disciplinary norms draw our attention to the urgency of daily struggles that bleed into disciplinary life. Uncomfortable topics like gendered field housing, admission policies, and sexual harassment codes reveal the ordinary sufferings that linger. If stratigraphy and assemblages epitomize order, Unstratified imagines the kinetic horizons of disorder. It’s about replacing happy endings with restless disaffection. It’s about being haunted by the sense of discomfort that hits us when we realize how clean we really are.


Clancy KB, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN and Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): trainees report harassment and assault. PloS one 9(7): e102172.

De Landa M (2009) A new philosophy of society : assemblage theory and social complexity. London: Continuum.

Deleuze G and Guattari F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault M (1970) The Order of Things New York: Pantheon.

Latour B (2005) Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Voss BL (2008) Sexuality Studies in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 37(1): 317-336.