Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

The Ghost in the Production: Speaking of Time and Agency in an Archaeology Lab, By Joseph Wilson (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”


Since Franz Boas championed the ‘four field’ approach in 1904, anthropology has been understood as a field informed by both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. “Anthropologists occupy themselves with the problems… of mankind,” writes Boas, “as found in varying forms of society, from the earliest times up to the present period, and in all parts of the world” (513). As such, time weighs heavily on the archaeologist, the breed of anthropologist with the most explicit devotion to diachrony. “The sequence of types of cultures as determined by the artifacts of each period, and approximate determinations of the absolute time to which these remains belong are the fundamental problems with which archaeology is concerned,” writes Boas (521). 

The artifacts and materials archaeologists deal with in their pursuit of the “chronological development of culture,” (Boas 1904:522) can be thousands of years old. Yet, at the end of the day, when they hang up their lab coats and head home, they are plunged back into the hic et nunc of everyday life in the 21st century. The jump between the deep time of human (pre-)history and the quotidian time of TTC schedules and board meetings is a large one. Is this jump visible in their choice of language? How do archaeologists at the University of Toronto mark their language as shifting between ‘archaeological time’ and ‘everyday time’? 

In this paper I will report on the results of a short period of ethnographic participant observation in one of the archaeology laboratories in the Anthropology building at U of T in pursuit of this question. Below is a brief sketch of my theoretical framework, my hypothesis, and my methodology. Next, I include ethnographic observations of the lab in an effort to understand the environment in which the archaeologists work. In keeping with a linguistic anthropological approach, the second half of the paper contains passages of speech, as heard in the lab during working hours, and an analysis of any clues that might point to the speakers’ conceptualizations of time in these two very different horizons. 

Theory, Methodology

Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration (2013) presents a useful rubric for how people might conceptualize time. “In the first place, they must deal with the time structures of their everyday lives, for instance, the recurring routines and rhythms of work and leisure time, waking up and going to sleep, etc.,” he writes (2013:6). The daily structure of a graduate student in the archaeology department can be imagined without too much trouble, mostly because it is similar to mine. Several interlocuters referenced a time cycle that does seem to be specific to of archaeology, however. Field-work is usually conducted in the summer, laboratory work conducted in the fall and winter, grant applications filled out and submitted in the winter, and papers submitted for publication in the Spring. If money permits, the students head out into the field again during the summer. This can be thought of as a department-specific version of the academic calendar, however, it is not that different from that of many sociocultural or linguistic anthropologists who rely on the summer months to enter the field. 

The second temporal level of consideration, according to Rosa, is “a temporal perspective on life as a whole in which they reflect upon their ‘lifetime’” (2013:6). Here we can consider a person’s lifetime as a narrative arc, a story that needs to be told with coherence, clarity and purpose. Although it would make for an interesting study, the ‘lifetime narratives’ of archaeologists is not something I focused on for this project. 

The third level is that of “epochal time,” where “actors experience their everyday time and their lifetime as embedded in the encompassing time of their epoch, their generation, and their age” (2013:6). Archaeologists have a secondary consideration to make, which is how their current epoch differs from the epoch of the object of their study, and as such, I will refer to this historical grounding as “archaeological time”. Archaeologists spend more time than the average person pondering the changes throughout history (and pre-history) from epoch to epoch and the macroscopic forces that have shaped the course of human history. “All three levels,” according to Rosa, “have, first, their own temporal patterns (rhythms, sequences, speeds, synchronization requirements) and perspectives (i.e. their own conceptions of horizons of past, present, and future and of their relevance for the given action)” (2013:9). This difference in “patterns” and “perspectives” is what I hope to observe in the language of the archaeologists in the lab.

The second theoretical work that informed my thinking upon entering the field was Pierre Bourdieu’s The Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004). In it, Bourdieu claims that “scientists use two linguistic registers: in the ‘empiricist repertoire’, they write in a conventionally impersonal manner” (2014:22), whereas “in less formal situations, this repertoire is complimented and sometimes contradicted by a repertoire which stresses the role played by personal contingencies in action and belief” (2004:23). I will refer to these as the “academic register” and the “informal register” for the rest of this paper. My initial hypothesis upon entering the field was that the “academic register” of the archaeologists would be deployed when speaking of events in “archaeological time” and the “informal register” would be used when speaking of events in “everyday time”. For archaeologists, the “impersonal manner” is perhaps required to remove themselves from the narrative woven around a particular artifact found at a site in, for example, Turkey, circa 7,000 BCE. 

I spent roughly 30 hours combined working in the archaeology lab and attending an archaeology conference from Oct to Dec, 2019. Each of the days I was in the lab I joined several undergraduate students who were either volunteering or employed as part of a work-study program. I performed the same tasks as they did, under the supervision of a graduate student, which consisted of classifying and measuring material taken from one of two field sites. There were three main tasks we were expected to perform: 1. Measuring flakes of ‘debitage’ created through a ‘knapping’ process used to create Neolithic stone tools; 2. Drawing and classifying pottery sherds and identifying their composition with the aid of a microscope; 3. Sifting and classifying small (1-2 mm) particles of ‘microrefuse’ based on their composition (shell, bone, charcoal, calcium carbonate, quartz etc.).

My participation in the activities of the lab allowed me to join the flow of the conversation more easily, and also gave me a preliminary understanding of what the students were working on and the significance it might have for the more senior archaeologists (grad students and professors) working in the lab. I did not conduct any 1:1 interviews because I was less interested in what the students said about archaeology, but in how they flipped back and forth from talking about archaeology to matters of quotidian concern in the environment of the lab.

The Lab 

There were lots of low-tech materials in the laboratory: ziplock bags, sharpies for labelling them, cardboard boxes, binders, metal cabinets, and of course the artifacts themselves and the dust they bring with them. Lab surfaces were cluttered with papers, binders and small tools like rulers, tweezers, calipers and pencils. The room itself had two sections: on one side of the room were rows of cabinets that held artifacts, and the other side held a large open lab bench on which the students and I performed our work. There was a large kiln in one corner, situated underneath a fume-hood, which I never saw used. Beside it was another long lab bench cluttered with test-tubes, papers and a sink. The room smelled of dust and of coffee. At the lab bench one could often smell the ink of a sharpie marker being used for inscription or the smell of the plastic of the ziplock bags.

Talk in the lab unfolded in clusters; quotidian conversation about other courses, or what one did on the weekend was separated by stretches of silence sometimes 5-6 min in length. These moments of ‘silence’ were punctuated only by the rustle of plastic bags, the musical clink of flint flakes falling together, and the whir of the exhaust fan embedded in the ceiling ducts. 

There was an interesting dimension of “everyday time” that emerged in the lab by virtue of the pace of the activities: they were repetitive, fairly simple, and consisted of working through a large “never-ending” (in the words of one informant) collection of material. One of our tasks was to draw, by hand, diagnostic pieces of pottery. “The value of a drawing over a photo is in its subjectivity,” said Nathan, one of the grad students supervising the lab.  The drawer can make certain features a little more salient than they might be in the sherd, something he called “strategic distortions.” The process of drawing itself is boring, time-consuming and repetitive. “It’s a bit of a slog,” said Nathan, but he accepted the value of the activity. “When you’re forced to draw, it forces you to observe carefully,” he said. Drawings are always done in black and white in order to highlight subtle features with shading. This monochromatic palette did not look anachronistic in the lab, surrounded as we were by piles of ancient pottery and bags of stones tools.

Bourdieu’s concept of social capital is useful in this context in understanding the hierarchy established between the students. He specifically defines “scientific capital” (at one point even calling it “laboratory capital” (2014:21)) as a subset of social capital only relevant in the field of science (2014:55). This is something clearly seen in the archaeology lab through the distinction between undergraduate students who did the most manual labour and the least amount of interpretive work. The graduate student supervising them checked their microscopes before they packed up their sample to start on a new one to make sure they hadn’t missed anything of note. When the grad student got stumped, he called in a post-doc working in the computer lab adjacent to give his opinion. The professor who ran the lab wandered through a few times per day but never lingered for conversation or to look through a microscope. One day he was wearing a grey suit with a tie and pressed shirt in preparation for giving a paper at a conference. There was a very clear, linear hierarchy that distinguished the players by their level of accrued scientific capital.  

The archaeologists working in the lab exhibited a specific habitus, “a system of largely unconscious, transposable, generative dispositions,” which “takes specific forms depending on the specialty” (2004:41). We hunched over stereo microscopes and used the same hand tools (pipettes, tweezers, petri dishes, scrapers etc.). These actions are inscribed on our bodies. After a few weeks of work, I experienced “eye fatigue,” a feeling of disorientation or dizziness that comes from staring through the stereoscope lenses for too long, accompanied by a bright spot in the centre of vision. “Take a break,” Nathan advised me, “it’s not good for your eyes.” The grins from the other students suggested that such a bodily experience was akin to an initiation ritual into the laboratory life of an archaeology technician. 

The use of specific tools and apparatus in the lab was especial prized and could be considered a proxy measurement of the level of scientific capital accrued by the user. “In a general way, the competence of the lab scientist is to a large extent made up of a whole series of routines, mostly manual, demanding much dexterity and involving delicate instruments—dissolving, extracting, filtering, evaporation etc.” writes Bourdieu (2014:39). Yet the degree to which one engages in such ‘manual routines’ is determined by the level of scientific capital of the user. He describes this process of excelling at lab work as “a practice requiring experience, intuition, skills, flair, a ‘knack’, all things difficult to set down on paper, which can only be understood and acquired by example and through personal contact with competent persons” (2014:39). Nathan, upon orienting a new undergraduate student to the lab described the process this way:

“Over here we ha:ve (.) all of the stuff< that you are going to be using (.) in the process of ((inaudible)) and °I’ll walk you through that°. This is going to seem like a lot of information at first, don’t worry it will all be second nature (0.4) after a couple weeks.”

The use of the “stock instruments” in the lab (2014:66) comprised the first lesson for all new recruits. These consisted of: tweezers, pipettes, calipers, a digital scale, stereo microscope, light box, a profile gauge and several other classificatory scales unique to archaeology. One of the scales unique to archaeology is the “Munsell color chart,” a means of determining the colour of a fragment or soil sample without relying on subjective terms such as “brown” or “red”. The use of the Munsell chart by archaeologists in the field was famously described by linguistic anthropologist Charles Goodwin as a “coding scheme” where “nature is turned into culture” (1994:608). 

Two Registers 

Language is another way in which ‘nature is turned into culture’. “Discursive practices are used by members of a profession to shape events in the domains subject to their professional scrutiny,” writes Goodwin (1994:606). Sitting in my office after a morning of laboratory work, it was fairly simple to sift through my notes to find examples of “academic register” speech and “informal register” speech. Graduate student Steve would say something like “at what stage of knapping were these pieces removed?” to prompt a student to think about the process of fabrication. Another passage of description from Nathan reads as follows:

“When you fire pottery, basically, uh, depending on how much oxygen gets into (.) uh the clay as it’s firing you’ll have different, kind of, colours and patterns of the core (.) ah so this one (.) has these two bands on the exterior and then this solid grey core in the middle, right? ((pointing at the relevant feature))” 

These passages use archaeology-specific vocabulary and more formal formal syntax. The informal register was fairly commonly used, too, as given by the below example, an exchange between a graduate student (A) and an undergraduate (B):

A: “How’s petrography going?”

B: “Not bad. Had the midterm last week. It was brutal.”

A: “Oh man, that sucks.”

B: “He said the test would all be multiple choice, but it wasn’t; we were all like ‘what the fuck?’” 

The language here is much more casual, and especially with the inclusion of profanity, is marked as talk about “everyday time” as opposed to the “academic register” that anchors talk about deep/epochal used to describe the archeological record. 

The Canadian Society of Archaeologists symposium proved to be a rich source of discourse about time. The symposium was devoted to urban archaeology, which meant that speakers were often talking about the more recent history of the 18th and 19th century. Bourdieu’s “two registers” (2004) were clearly present, with speakers embodying the persona of academic agents when behind the podium but engaging in “everyday” talk when waiting in line for coffee. For archaeologists, this change in register indexes a shift in how they speak about time: the domain of “archaeological time” is often framed by academic speech and “everyday time” is framed by informal speech which includes profanity and slang.

One speaker employed self-reflexive irony around her choice of appropriate academic words. When discussing her work analyzing the content of excavated “privies” from 19th century slums in Toronto, she self-consciously avoided the word that most people would have used in their “everyday language” to describe the object of her study (“shit”). An incomplete list of euphemisms she used includes: ‘nightsoil’, ‘muck’, ‘filth’, ‘stenchy deposits’, ‘septic tank’, ‘privy contents’, ‘liquid waste’, and, my personal favorite, ‘liquid, organic rich substrate’. The use of these euphemisms drew attention to the ‘distance’ between her “academic register” and her “informal register” and, by proxy, the distance between the “archaeological time” of her research and the “everyday time” of the conference. The euphemisms served to formalize her work and situate it in the past, framing it as an object of scholarly study, as opposed to a matter of quotidian concern in the present day. There was much laughter when she said, referring to their excavation during the hot summer of 2015, that her team was “literally drowning in… privies!” In essence she evoked the word without saying it, referring to it by its very absence, much like how the creator of an artifact is evoked by the presence of that artifact in an archaeological lab without ever being physically present themselves (see below ‘Index of Agency’). The invisible word travels across socially-defined linguistic registers much like the ‘invisible creator’ traverses domains of epochal time and daily time through the power of a material object. 

Despite this attention, many of the speakers did ‘slip’ between the two registers when the realities of the conference schedule bumped up against their discussion of 19th century urbanism. When the conference moderator held up a sign informing a speaker that he had five minutes left he said, in mid-presentation, “five minutes left… time flies.” Another speaker with two minutes left said, “the City of Toronto, two minutes left, good, in 1884 they’re starting to get their act together…” exhibiting a seamless shift between quotidian time and epochal time in the same sentence. After another said, by way of a concluding remark, “I talked too quickly, I’m actually done,” the moderator came up to the microphone and told the audience to take a coffee break because “I don’t want to get ahead of the schedule.” This suggests that “schedule-time” and “talking-time” were running parallel and her job was to keep them synchronous. There was no sense that the audience was confused by any of these statements, which shows that listeners can adapt to switches between registers and between discussions of different time-scales with ease.

Although I observed the presence of Bourdieu’s two registers, the distinction between them was not at all clear and talk that was not constrained behind a podium generally drifted between registers and between timescales, with relative ease. Notwithstanding the markers of “informal register” such as profanity, there wasn’t much difference in the grammar of the two. I began to realize that if I stopped cherry-picking “academic” sounding quotes from my notes to distinguish them from “informal” sounding quotes, I was forced to admit that speakers shifted between speaking of “archaeological time” and “everyday time” in a manner much more smoothly than I had predicted. In fact, much of the conversation in the lab would be difficult to classify as either distinctly “academic” or “informal,” which lead me to conclude that the distinction was not particularly meaningful in apprehending the archaeologists’ conceptualization of time as it applied both to the epoch of the artifacts under analysis or of their everyday concerns. 

Conversational Historical Present

Even though there were no clear grammatical markers when speakers in the lab shifted their register, there was, however, an interesting tendency for speakers to shift tenses when speaking of “archaeological time”.  I had assumed that archaeologists would speak of “archeological time” in the past tense in order to foreground the diachronic perspective so critical to the contributions of archaeology. This was not the case. Nor did archaeologists consistently use present tense to describe their work. Instead, they shifted from past, to present, sometimes to future tense, seemingly at random. When describing different classifications of pottery sherds, for example, grad student Steve explained to an undergraduate student the method of fabrication for each type using the following language:

“someone will take a stick and …” [third person singular, future tense]

“someone has taken a pebble and rubbed it to make it shiny…” [third person singular, perfect present tense]

“they’ve punctured through it” [third person plural, perfect present tense]

“you take a pebble and shine the surface” [second person, present imperative]

“people would build along these wadis…” [third person plural, conditional past tense]

These passages were not uncommon in their variability of both tense and pronoun placement. Often, a speaker would shift tense from one sentence to the next. Below are some longer passages spoken by Nathan that were recorded and include some transcription symbols:

“Basically, they’ll take a slab of clay like a circular slab of clay, kind of turn up the (.) uh, edges of it, and then start building coils on top of that.” [third person plural, future tense]

“That’s burnishing. And that’s basically caused by someone taking (.) (a something) like a round pebble (.) and basically just rubbing the surface of the pot until its: polished essentially and you can u:sually see:: …” [third person singular, present progressive tense]

“Smoothing is essentially when they take something like uh grass er straw er (0.3) whatever and they just wipe the surface of the pot.” [third person plural, present simple tense]

“‘IN’ is incised (0.6) that’s when something has been carved into the clay to make a decoration” [no pronoun, passive voice, present perfect tense]

“‘AP’ is appliqué, that’s when someone has taken clay and added it to the surface to make a decoration so like a, um (.), they might make like a stick-man and put it on the surface.” [third person singular, present perfect tense; present conditional]

“‘IMP’ is impressed so that’s basically someone taking something and just pressing into the surface of the clay.” [third person singular, present progressive tense]

There is a well-documented tendency for speakers to shift tenses when speaking of events in the past when speaking as part of a conversation (i.e. not in formal written texts). This phenomenon, called the “conversational historical present” (CHP) and has several structural markers (Wolfson 1979). “CHP in itself has no significance,” argues Wolfson. “Rather, it is the switching between CHP and the past tenses which is the relevant feature,” she writes (1979:168). When recounting a story from the past, speakers will often begin in past tense so as to situate the listener at a particular point in time (1979:171), then shift to CHP to recount the main events of the story. The past-tense framing is called an orientational clause by sociolinguist Deborah Schiffren (1981:48). After the scene has been set, CHP is applied especially to action verbs, such as the verbs Steve used to recount the creation of artifacts—strike, poke, rub, puncture. These are the “action clauses” that are understood to occur in the past even though they are recounted in present tense, and they are understood to happen in the order in which they are recounted (op cit.). “Their event time is fixed: each event is understood to have occurred after the one preceding it,” writes Schiffren (1981:50). In her work collecting quantitative evidence of CHP in discourse, Schiffren concludes that there is an “almost total restriction of the HP to complicating action clauses” (1981:51). 

For Steve and Nathan, the very presence of an artifact or referring to a particular place in the laboratory was enough to cue the use of CHP. Sometimes, their speech lacked an explicit orientational clause in past tense to orient the listener. Instead, physical placement in the lab was used as a cue, something more akin to Bakhtin’s idea of the chronotope. Bakhtin used the term to refer to an “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” that define a genre of text/literature (1981:7). In the archaeology lab, the chronotope (literally translated as ‘time-space’) can be thought of as a set of specific physical cues (boxes or shelves of artifacts) that orient the speaker and the listener to a specific epoch. “Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation,” (1981:7) writes Bakhtin of the chronotope, a sentence that could just as easily apply to the presence of a flake of obsidian or a pottery sherd. We might use the term “orientational chronotope” to refer to the place-based orientation to past archaeological epochs that occurs when archaeologists speak about particular artifacts in the lab.

Index of Agency

The microscope proved to be a particularly effective orientational chronotope, especially if there was an interesting material being examined under the lenses. During one session after I discovered several 1mm-sized flakes of snail shell in a sample, Steve wondered out loud if “they might have been eating snails… but it might have been a ‘late intruder’.” He spoke of the people inhabiting the site in the conditional, perfect present tense, and used “it” as an impersonal pronoun for the snail, yet he personalized the same snail by giving it agency with the term “intruder”. In explaining the importance of the microrefuse I was analyzing, Steve explained that “they tried to clean up after they left; they took everything with them or dumped it somewhere we haven’t excavated yet. This is what’s left over.” This is all in past tense, yet when explaining the importance of the “greenstone” (malachite) I identified in the same sample a short time later, he reverted to the present tense by saying, “they’re using it to make stone tools but also to make copper, when you melt it.” 

Attributing motivation or agency to the people who left the traces we were examining was very common. Stories of fabrication always had as a protagonist an un-named, non-specific character who was responsible for creating the stone tools. “The motivation of knocking this piece off was probably not to remove the cortex…” was one comment from Steve. The students in the lab were engaged in what Keith Murphy calls “collaborative imagining,” a process of animating static objects in the imagination and using them to tell stories to imagine possibilities. “Gestures, talk, and material objects are symbolically used to create in physical space what is being imagined by the interactants,” writes Murphy based on his time performing fieldwork in an architecture office (2005:118).

Archaeologists often struggled to use a consistent pronoun to refer to the fabricators of a certain artifact. In the excerpts above, pronominal references mostly alternated between third person singular (“someone”) and third person plural (“they” or “them”) with an occasional second person (“you”) thrown in. There is an interesting paradox here: despite archaeologists’ desire to understand the lives of their Neolithic predecessors, they will never know exactly who created the artifact they are looking at. Furthermore, even though the “person” (persons?) existed in the past, in a sense they exist contemporaneously with the archeologist, a presence that is collocated with the artifact itself. “They’re ghosts in the production,” said Nathan. Any artifact under examination in the lab is frozen at the “moment of effect of individual action”, yet the individual who made it is fundamentally unknowable, only apprehendable through the proxies of the inscriptions created in the laboratory. “We have a tendency to get attached to the creator,” says Nathan. “They are mythological,” he says, noting “we can’t even say ‘he’ or ‘she’ with any certainty.” The “invisible creator” is a human agent responsible for creating the artifacts under examination. They do not have a name, or a gender, or a personality. They take the position of the “human actant” (Latour 2005) that creates the artifact that is under scrutiny at any one time. 

Here I find Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998) useful guide. For Gell, art and artifacts are one and the same, both evidence of human agency. “We have no a priori means of distinguishing ‘artefacts’ from ‘works of art’,” he writes (16). “I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it,” he writes (6), casting the art object as the third node of a network linking the creator and the observer. The creators exert agency by creating indexical relationships for an observer through an object, according to Gell. The creator of a particular pot or flint tool has embedded meaning in a physical object that, for the archaeologist making careful observations 6,000 years later, represents the entire cultural sphere of production of the society in which he or she worked. “They are traces or indexes of events, that is, the events or performances which brought them physically into being” (1998:241). 

The artifacts are, for Gell, an example of a “distributed object,” in this case, stretched over 6,000 years of changing cultural landscape. The person who created the object is also distributed “across space, across time,” (1998:221) an invisible agent, known only by proxy through their creations. “A person and a person’s mind are not confined to particular spatio-temporal coordinates, but consist of a spread of biographical events and memories of events, and a dispersed category of material objects, traces, and leavings, which can be attributed to a person and which, in aggregate, testify to agency and patient hood during a biographical career which may, indeed, prolong itself long after biological death,” writes Gell in what might act as an elegy to the work of archaeologists across the ages (1998:222).

In one passage of discourse, Nathan included references to all three actants by using different pronouns for each: the ‘invisible creator’, the artifact itself and the archaeologist making the observations. At no point did he define exactly what, or who, the pronouns stood for, but it is assumed from the context, from the orientational chronotope of the lab itself:

 “It’ll either tell us what time period it’s from or what part of the world it’s from, ah, so we can do things like reconstruct what kind of pots they had on the site, how that changed over time, what kinds of things they were doing on the site, ah, what kind of technology they had.” 

Steve told me that his research was devoted to determining the “diachronic social boundaries” of the Neolithic settlement at their site. He used the term chaîne opératoire to refer to the order of the pottery-making techniques employed by the ‘invisible creator’.  The term is used not only to refer to technical processes, but also the chronological ordering of social acts in sociocultural anthropology (Soressi and Geneste, 2011). This allows for a more granular understanding of the time-scales involved in creating artifacts and moves away from mere typology and classification towards social significance and synchronic variations between people who occupied different sites but may have been contemporaries (op cit.). In Steve’s words “the order of operations gives rise to the style of the creator.” In order to do this, scholars like Steve need to measure both ‘absolute chronology,’ which pins artifacts down to specific dates based on comparisons with Carbon-dating techniques, and also determine the ‘relative chronology’ to focus on the sequence of events relative to one-another. The ideal situation would be to gather enough material to reconstruct the daily life of the Neolithic people of Turkey, but the reality is that there is almost always guess-work involved. “Technology is slowly giving us the resolution we need to do that,” Nathan explains without further comment. Such talk always occurred in the presence of objects. In the words of Webb Keane from Signs of Recognition (1997), “powers of speech are entangled with those of objects,” (4) or, later, “words and things must be transacted together” (20).


This project has sought to extend the work of sociologists G. Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay who suggested, almost 50 years ago that “scientists’ discourse, its organization and contextual production, become the object of sociological investigation” (Gilbert and Mulkay 1984:14). In this particular archaeology lab at the University of Toronto, there seems to be a particular ‘mode of talk’ that is not well-described by Bourdieu’s distinction between two registers. Instead, interlocuters used conversational historical present in recounting the creation of certain artifacts, often without the use of an explicit past-tense orientational clause, combined with pronouns suggesting the timeless presence of an ‘invisible creator’. To keep the ‘invisible creator’ vague and characterless, tenses and pronouns shift as if to suggest that the human agency responsible for creating human history is “always present” but never pinned down to a specific “everyday time.” The ability to “see” the importance of certain artifacts as an index for a particular historical epoch, and the ability to talk about it appropriately, are examples of what Charles Goodwin defined as skills that “are central to what it means to see the world as an archaeologist and to use that seeing to build the artifacts… that are constitutive of archaeology as a profession” (1994:615). 

In discussing how the three different levels of time might interact with one another, Rosa claims “the interconnection of the three levels of time in the perspective of actors always follows narrative patterns” (2013:10). This is certainly the case for the archaeologists observed in their lab at the University of Toronto.

Taped onto a pillar in the archaeology lab is a poem by Sigfried Sassoon that captures the tension between “archaeological time” and “everyday time”. It is the archaeologists in the lab who are attempting to read the book of the “Life of Man” by piecing together the “shattered arch.” In the speech of archaeologists there is a collapsing of tenses that represents the collapse of the timescales experienced in the lab, and described in the poem, both epochal time and everyday time, channeled through the same object. 


Bakhtin, M. 1981. “Forms of time and of the chronotope in the novel”. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Bourdieu, Pierre, 2004. The Science of Science and Reflexivity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

Gilbert and Mulkay. 1984. Opening Pandora’s Box: A sociological analysis of scientists’ discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, Charles. 1994. “Professional Vision,” in American Anthropologist, Vol. 96., No. 3, p. 606-633 

Keane, Webb. 1997. Signs of Recognition. University of California Press

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Latour, Bruno and Steven Woolgar. 1986 (1980). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Murphy, Keith M. 2005. “Collaborative imagining: The interactive use of gestures, talk, and graphic representation in architectural practice,” Semiotica, Vol. 156, No. 1, p. 113-145

Rosa, Hartmut. 2013. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schiffrin, Deborah. 1981. “Tense Variation in Narrative,” Language, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar. 1981), p. 45-62.

Soressi, Marie and Jean-Michel Geneste, 2011. “The History and Efficacy of the Chaîne Opératoire Approach to Lithic Analysis: Studying Techniques to Reveal Past Societies in an Evolutionary Perspective,” PaleoAnthropology p. 334-350

Wolfson, Nessa. 1979. “The Conversational Historical Present Alternation,” Language, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 168-182.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s