A Visual Lexicon for Archaeology

I think a lot about the visual representation of archaeology, particularly through digital technology and the internet. In 2016 I published an Open Access article in Internet Archaeology that discusses some of the ways that digital photography has either perpetuated visual tropes in archaeology, or has caused ruptures. For example, how the LCD screen on the back of DSLRs allowed some co-construction and sharing of photographs on site, particularly between people with differing levels of power on site, director vs fieldworker, for example. I’ve also posted about shooting “stock photos” for reuse, and I’d love to work to improve representation in stock photography for archaeology, as it’s pretty dire, if you can’t tell:

Stock photo of “adventurer archaeologist” that comes up in the first page of results on google image search.

There is more to be written about digital photography in archaeology, and I have been encouraging some students to engage with the topic over the years, but without too much success. A stand-out is Luke Snell’s undergraduate dissertation which looked at how students were using cellphones on site to curate their own representations of their experiences. I also have some cellphone work in press, but I think there are some interesting, broader issues at play.

Based on my entirely personal (though thoroughly embedded) experience, there was a rapid upskilling in photographic practice in archaeology as DSLRs became more ubiquitous on site, from around 2005 – 2015 or so. There are a wealth of very high-quality photographs from that time, but also an abundance of experimental photography. People were genuinely trying to do something different with archaeological photography. While file sizes and such were always a problem with archival, people shared a lot of this photography via Flickr, and there were thousands of photographs curated by archaeologists.

I’d curate photographs occasionally and post them. For example, this update from 2008 had an overhead shot, a digger in front of a rack of clothes, a photo of a complex drawing, and excavations at (where else?) Stonehenge. Even in 2014 I was complaining about the growing obsolescence of Flickr. Still, I have continually found photographs that I’ve released and licensed CC-BY in various places. Happily, many of my photographs have been placed on Wikimedia for reuse as well. There’s over 800,000 entries for “archaeology” on Wikimedia, but they’re not always deeply useful, or well documented. I also have not heard of many archaeologists depositing their photographs there, though some seem to be, for example I found this one from ANU’s Dougald O’Reilly:

Archaeologists drawing a burial at the Phum Lovea site as part of the Paddy to Pura Archaeological Project.

But there is no sense of curation, continuity, or broader organization in Wikimedia. There is also the problem that the Archaeology Data Service has run up against-data protection. People need to give permission for their photographs to be displayed and reused. This is expected these days, of course, but photographs that were taken before data protection cannot be shared or displayed, rendering many archaeological archives without the faces of the people responsible for the work.

So where is the new archaeological photography archive? Where can we retrieve photographs of archaeologists or archaeological sites for our reuse for teaching and making media? And can we make one that is more diverse, personal, exciting, experimental? And would or should these archives feed into neural networks such as Dall E, saving us from the beige-hat working shots that it uses to evoke archaeology?

Dall E representation of “Digital Knowledge Production in Archaeology”

There is another problem, one that has persisted throughout the adoption of digital photography in archaeology, but seems to be getting worse throughout the years: cellphone photography. High-quality DSLR photography is being outmoded in favor of quick snaps taken with your cellphone. The rapid upskilling in photography seems to be accompanied with a rapid deskilling. Or perhaps a reskilling in cellphone photography.

I completely understand–my very expensive smartphone has a great camera, so why should I lug around a heavy DSLR and a sack of lenses? If everyone uses cellphones why do I keep teaching students how to use DSLRs? I used to joke that all the best site photos were on the Facebook pages of the students, but now that the students no longer have Facebook pages, they’ve become even more submerged in black-boxed devices, never to be seen by other archaeologists. How many of your quick cellphone shots end up in the archive? Is it enough to create the one photo for social media, a few for the report, and forget about the rest?

Finally, a lot of the usual digital photography is now taken in service to photogrammetry, or eschewed entirely for other forms of digital imagery. Does the proliferation of other digital gadgetry push the DSLR out of our hands? Why, when archaeological photography is perhaps easier to create and share than it ever has been, has it dropped so far from view? Where are all the archaeological photos?

The Outrage Machine

Over the last few weeks Archaeology departments have been getting Freedom of Information requests from news outlets asking about trigger warnings. On 7 June, the Daily Mail published an outrage-bait article naming me and describing my Communicating Archaeology module, in that it has a content warning on it. I became aware of this through my University contacting me to warn me and ask how they could support me and if they should respond.

This is a predictable and old media strategy that still somehow gets a lot of mileage. Gabriel Moshenska wrote a fantastic chapter, “Anatomy of a ‘trigger warning’ scandal” when he was dragged for having a warning on his Conflict Archaeology module in 2016. He added this warning as he receives students on his course with personal experiences of warfare:

Students who might have expected sessions on identifying regimental buttons and measuring musket balls were being shown magnified images of machete wounds and technical drawings of mass graves full of children – and it seemed only fair and reasonable to let them know.

Yes, this is archaeology too. The Mail on Sunday, the “sister paper” of the Daily Mail found this warning and contacted him. As he describes in this chapter, he replied in good faith, only to find that his reasonable account was presented alongside “pre-prepared outrage” from (gasp) a right-wing ideologue with an agenda. The coverage rocketed from there, from The Times, to Spiked, to Breitbart. He received hate mail and abusive messages on social media, some of them explicitly antisemitic. This discussion was also taken up by Tony Pollard with regard to trigger warnings and teaching about war graves.

Moshenska notes the immense hatred expressed not only toward “woke” academics (yawn, we are used to it) but worryingly also towards our “fragile” “snowflake” students who just can’t hack it, apparently. I found that this mirrored the hundreds and hundreds of comments under the news stories, students called “jelly babies” and the like. If anything, the students might need protection from the incredible hatred heaped upon them by their parents and grandparents. Intergenerational bigotry is so pointless and cruel.

The support from my University and my Department was very good–perhaps informed from previous incidents. My department also has a social media contingency plan in place for when things go wrong. I immediately locked and then deleted my main social media presence–Twitter. I’m not on Facebook and my Instagram has been locked forever. Like Gabe’s experience, the article has snowballed into ridiculous dimensions and miscellaneous venues, on the television and radio alongside print media. Unlike Gabe’s experience, I was only named in the Daily Mail instance, and I wonder if some of this has been because I followed Gabe’s advice: resist any urges to respond.

It’s frustrating to keep silent against such misuse, but when I was contacted by other journalists to follow up I didn’t respond and I asked my University and Department not to respond as well. Subsequently my name was left out of their stories. As an academic you really want to set the record straight, to potentially educate the journalist, or perhaps the public, but it doesn’t work that way. With outrage bait articles they are not looking for a reasoned response. They don’t want you to convince them, they want you to be the dumb woke academic mollycoddling our fragile students. They want column inches and maybe a photo of you for their right wing audience to mock. Give them nothing. I’m writing this during the furore, but will likely post it only after things have died down.

I’ve also been contacted by a few (wonderful) archaeology groups who want to publish a response. I have been trying to discourage these, to wait the news cycle out and let the culture war die out. Later responses are great and are really appreciated, but I also hope people are coming together to figure out how to better support people within their organizations when it happens the next time. I do appreciate the colleagues and institutions who, in their responses, have not named me. Thank you.

That brings me to some take-aways, for people impacted and their communities:

  • Don’t respond to the press when they are trolling. Not even for a “no comment” as they’ll print it as, “X said ‘no comment'”
  • Don’t answer your phone, as they’ll be calling. You may also need to have your email taken off the University websites.
  • Use my example, and Gabe’s experience to prepare for next time. Because they will come for us again, and it might be worse. They are not above spurious ad hominem attacks. It comes when you least expect it and for things that are completely mundane in our sphere, such as content warnings. The right wing newspapers came for me this time, but I’ve been waiting for the internet hate mob for over a decade so….(ominous music begins)
  • Unfortunately a lot of those who respond to the article are linking to the original articles…which gives the articles more clicks. Please use a screen shot or archive.is to make a mirror that does not give the news agency revenue from your outrage. For example, here is the archive.is link to the original article that set this all off.
  • Delete your socials for a bit. Go outside. Hug loads of people.
  • Reach out to those impacted and if you are targeted, take comfort in solidarity. I appreciate the huge amount of support I’ve received, both online and offline.
  • Ask the person who is targeted what support they need before “hitting back”–sometimes they want chocolate instead of tweets or statements. Just sayin’.

Anyway, it is ironic that I received this treatment from the Communicating Archaeology module, as it is primarily about critically examining and creating media about archaeology. It’s essentially created a perfect case study for the module. So it goes.

Archaeology and Dementia

Romans at Home artefact handling session

When we designed the multisensorial archaeological outreach project, Romans at Home, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We wanted to reach out to people living with dementia in care homes. In the summer of 2021, they were still relatively isolated for COVID precautions–a couple of kilometres away, but effectively off limits. This isolation has been disastrous for many people, but especially difficult and even fatal for this extremely vulnerable population, with lockdowns increasing memory loss, agitation and loneliness. At the same time, archaeologists are increasingly interested in archaeology performed in service to public benefit and wellbeing.

Romans at Home was primarily designed by the extraordinarily gifted Eleanor Drew, a recent Digital Heritage MSc at the University of York and in partnership with York Archaeological Trust. It draws on immersive multisensorial storytelling and interpretation developed as part of OTHER EYES, my UKRI-AHRC funded project. Chris Tuckley at YAT did a stellar job setting the scene and deploying non-threatening and creative prompts to help participants think about the artifacts. The project has been featured as an Open Research case study and we hope to further develop it and publish in due time.

But more importantly: I was struck, watching the elderly woman turn over that distinctive glossy orange-red piece of Roman terra sigillata in her hands, that this was the best use of archaeological artifacts that I’d ever witnessed. Sure, dig them up, wash them, catalogue them, put them on shelves and publish them in books–but this was the most alive these artifacts could be, under the scrutiny of a very cheerful woman with bright pink nails. As something connecting her to us, to others.

Ceramic bowl containing flints (© The Photographic Unit, University of Glasgow).

So it was with great interest that I read Nyree Finlay’s article, An archaeology of dementia, recently published in Antiquity. Finlay examines and compares the assemblage of a woman who’d been an artist and a keen avocational archaeologist who is currently living with dementia. This woman is named within the Antiquity article, to recognise her as “the originator of these creative works” in accordance with ethical approval at the University of Glasgow. This is interesting as the woman would generally be held strictly anonymous as a member of a vulnerable population and it is very tricky. Ultimately I agree with the disclosure of her identity in the article, as it is an intimate celebration of her ability and interests and I am confident in the sensitive handling of this subject with her and her guardians. Yet I’m going to keep her anonymous within this other context, a blog post, a circumstance that was not covered by the ethical approval.

Finlay notes this woman’s “extensive, systematic fieldwalking and landscape surveys” performed with friends during research and her work at a local museum. She was self-taught, and recorded artifacts she found by looking at regional publications and discussing typologies with specialists, including Finlay. This previous assemblage is compared with a later assemblage, which includes flint pebbles collected from her gravel drive, artifacts that occupy a difficult position within archaeology in that they are surely modified by humans but are considered incidental and generally not worthy of notice. But this woman living with dementia noticed them for various sensorial aspects, shape and color, and comprise, as Finlay states, “a collection of distinctive, creative dementia works and lithic assemblages.” The woman collected these in different but adjacent ways to her previous, systematic collection of artifacts. They offered this woman “tactile and audible pleasures” in the act of sorting and processing and the woman noted the coolness and smoothness of flint as an important feature, as Finlay states, “stone becomes both a comfort and companion as dementia progresses.”

This article is brilliant–very useful to archaeologists who seek to broaden our understanding of how people relate to material objects and how they shape our lives. We still rarely consider the impact of dementia or other disabilities in our consideration of archaeological remains. But moreso, I found the article deeply beautiful and melancholy. The woman’s connection to stone and to the everyday actions of archaeology changed as she aged and went through more advanced dementia, but persisted. I should not find it melancholy, as her connection and use of the gravel was agentive, creative and important to her, but…I do. It sits with me.

Finlay’s article is Open Access, and I highly encourage a read:

Finlay, N. (2022). An archaeology of dementia. Antiquity, 96(386), 422–435. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.186

New Publication: Drawing and Knowledge Construction in Archaeology: The Aide Mémoire Project

We begun with an understatement: “Drawing is a problem within archaeology.” This research follows up on our earlier paper,

Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording” wherein Holly Wright and I comprehensively reviewed and queried the literature on “by hand” and digital drawing:

Colleen Morgan & Holly Wright (2018) Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording, Journal of Field Archaeology, 43:2, 136-151, DOI: 10.1080/00934690.2018.1428488

Several questions remained, and the more we tried to understand the use of digital tools for archaeological knowledge construction the more we found that we didn’t really understand the place of analog recording and media making in archaeology.

We had lots of well-founded hunches, but nothing to really prove it. So we reached out to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) expert Professor Helen Petrie, our Colleague in the University of York Computer Science Department
to collaborate on a rigorous series of qualitative and quantitative investigations.

We performed several field & lab-based investigations where we had participants fill out questionnaires, perform think-aloud protocols, and focus groups. We threw the whole qualitative book at the problem. Finally we used the NASA Task Load Index to assess difficulty of drawing. We also conducted a large online survey to try to understand what archaeologists thought about drawing. Basically we had way too much data, but tried to squeeze it into a 10k word article.

Our conclusions:

  • Drawing by hand helps archaeologists create mental models of archaeological remains better than digital recording (so far) BUT any drawing (digital or otherwise) is better than no drawing.
  • Archaeologists should not only keep drawing but they should draw MORE. Other disciplines are successfully using drawing to improve pedagogy in their fields.
  • By moving to digital mediums and methodologies that require constant care and mitigation for the data to be accessible in the long term, digital short-cuts can privilege short term gains at the expense of longevity of data and enskillment in archaeology.
  • We created a generative cognitive model of knowledge construction in archaeology (based on Van Meter and Firetto 2013) that demonstrates how archaeologists use media creation to make mental models to understand archaeology.

We’re still working on the future of digital drawing in archaeology. We urge the use of robust methods for understanding the impact of these technologies on archaeological knowledge construction and how to provide for the long-term care for that data. And finally we came across some interesting data regarding craft, resistance and labor with regard to fast capitalism in archaeology as well as disability and accessibility with regard to drawing that could certainly use further investigation.

The paper is Open Access, so download and disseminate as you wish! Let me know what you think:

Colleen Morgan, Helen Petrie, Holly Wright & James Stuart Taylor (2021) Drawing and Knowledge Construction in Archaeology: The Aide Mémoire Project, Journal of Field Archaeology, 46:8, 614-628, DOI: 10.1080/00934690.2021.1985304

Antiquity: Digital Debate

AFK Minecraft

I was asked to participate in a debate forum for Antiquity, instigated by Computer Scientist John Aycock’s The coming tsunami of digital artefacts. To greatly oversimplify, Aycock warns archaeologists that there is a lot of digital stuff and that we are not particularly well equipped to do the archaeology of digital things and we’d best get our acts together. In their respective responses, Sarah and Eric Kansa focus on archives and Jeremy Huggett discusses the definitions of digital archaeology and digital artefacts. They’re all very worthy discussions–I think it’s particularly funny that Huggett and I both lean on the old bricoleurs chestnut.

Then I go off on a Deleuzian discussion of Minecraft flint, that’s probably a bit half-baked, but it was fun and I’d like to expand on it. Then I say we can’t record all the digital things because we’d move up in the long list of environmental baddies, shades of the Borges map that covers the territory, etc. I also try to make cyborg archaeology happen. Forgive me.

An extract:

Aycock (2021) advises us to partner with computer scientists to examine the code. This is, of course, advisable for us to understand how the Minecraft flint was created, how it changed over time and is linked to other in-game affordances. We could document and potentially ‘excavate’ the Java code for the game, as Aycock and other archaeologists have done. The code, however, is one part of the assemblage that the Minecraft flint comprises, and I am equally interested in the other constituent parts. A prefigurative, embodied, feminist post-human approach—also known as cyborg archaeology (Morgan (2019); by way of Haraway (1985) and Braidotti (1997))—would encourage us to investigate the political implications of Minecraft, as its play is based in an extractionist settler colonial understanding of the world (Brazelton 2020), accompanied by a call to reconfigure the game along kin-based networks. An embodied approach would explore the effects of the digital on our bodies: on posture, bone spurs, and microplastics in our organs. A climate-aware archaeological investigation of scale and environment could help us understand how digital mining of a different kind, for example, bitcoin, is hastening global warming (Mora et al2018).

You can go to Antiquity to access my response:

Morgan, C. (2021). An archaeology of digital things: Social, political, polemical. Antiquity, 1-4. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.125.

Or check it out here:

Save the Date for Future Mourning: Prefiguration and Heritage

I was invited to respond to an ongoing discussion regarding prefiguration and heritage, instigated by Lewis Borck in his article, Constructing the Future History: Prefiguration as Historical Epistemology and the Chronopolitics of Archaeology. Cornelius Holtorf, wrote a response piece in Kritische Archäologie, Heritage Futures, Prefiguration and World Heritage, and I responded to that. Lost yet?

I think my short response piece can be read on its own, but if you want the full scholarly context, please do read the other articles. A sample below:

At play within Lewis Borck’s “Constructing the Future History: Prefiguration as Historical Epistemology and the Chronopolitics of Archaeology” (2019) and Cornelius Holtorf’s response, “Heritage Futures, Prefiguration and World Heritage” (2020) are ways to understand the future through our actions in the present. A response to these articles that considers heritage, climate change and the future should probably begin with impending doom, rising tides, shattering storms, a recent, heartfelt loss of cultural heritage. How do we understand a future that extends from this excruciating present without incorporating mechanisms for mourning? Let me, instead, draw very large parentheses around and an underline beneath climate change (climate change). Perhaps bold too? (climate change) This is our catastrophe, our great challenge, the change that changes everything. It is happening, and then…?

As archaeologists we should be well-versed in the “and then.” As archaeologists we know that all is change, everything is always changing, endless battleships of seriation diagrams dancing like sugar plum fairies around our heads. I always wondered if, at that last, pointy tip of the diagram, there was a sound like a slow exhale and a small puff of smoke as the artefact transforms into archaeology. The breathy sighs of material culture as they pass
from memory. At least, from the memory of antiquity, as they become archaeological. And climate change has that very pointy tip at our throats. Well, to be honest, at the throats of our children. Or perhaps the throats of children far away in other countries where they don’t have a fat buffer of colonial treasure and can’t afford turrets at the coastlines and military flights with payloads of vaccinations. But even tucked inside these bastions of wealth and
privilege, we are shedding what we call “cultural heritage” in polite society at a fairly remarkable rate. Of course, this loss does not compare to the great ravening mouth of development-concrete-fast-capitalism which pays the bills for many of our students, friends, colleagues. In the Great Concerns of capitalism and climate change, archaeology’s rank is debatable.

To read the rest, visit Forum Kritische Archäologie.

OTHER EYES: Understanding the past through bioarchaeology and digital media

Hey, good news!

I received an AHRC Early Career Grant for the Other Eyes Project.

The Other Eyes project confronts an emerging issue within archaeology: that of interpreting past people using digital technology. For over 350 years scientists have sought to recreate the worlds inhabited by our human ancestors using drawings, models and dioramas. Using 21st century digital technology, we can now use DNA recovered from skeletal remains to make 3D digital avatars of past people. But what benefits might this bring and what questions does it raise? How do we digitally reconstruct past people and does the authenticity matter? Does the ability to digitally embody a past person of a different age, sex, or with a disability change the way we think about the past? Are there significant differences between traditional 2D illustrations, museum models, and 3D avatars in the representation and understanding of past people? What are the ethics of “resurrecting” past people based on bioarchaeological evidence and can (and should) reconstructions of past people be archived to encourage their creative reuse?

Basically, the avatars research. I’m pretty excited as it brings together a lot of the smartest people I know to tackle a tricky issue that’s been on my mind for, oh, almost 15 years!

For more information, here’s the webpage: https://other-eyes.org

Archaeology in 3D at the University of York

I’ve written a blog post for the Cultural Heritage blog at Sketchfab:

https://sketchfab.com/blogs/community/archaeology-in-3d-at-the-university-of-york/

On the tours that we give to new students, we like to joke that the DAH Lab, a gorgeous barrel vault in the stately King’s Manor, was once King Henry the Eighth’s wine cellar. Sadly this is probably not true, but it is still one of the last places you might suspect would house the Digital Archaeology and Heritage Lab. The DAH Lab is the latest innovation in a long history of digital archaeology for the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. The King’s Manor is also home to the Archaeology Data Service, founded in 1996 for the long-term digital preservation of archaeological data and Internet Archaeology, an Open Access journal that has been publishing online since 1996. Amidst this storied digital history, my colleagues and I lead courses on 3D modelling, photogrammetry, GIS, laser scanning, and VR for archaeology and heritage students, at the undergraduate and postgraduate level….

Read more at the blog. Big thanks to Abby Crawford for the encouragement to post.

The “Archaeology Can” Bot

I’ve been off twitter again, and it’s done me a world of good to be away from the anxiety machine. Anyway, I subscribe to the James Murphy (LCD Soundsystems) philosophy:

The best way to complain is to make things.

I’ve wanted to make a bot for ages now, so I finally made the Archaeology Can bot. Originally I wanted it to take snips from publications, such as:

archaeology can promote health by connecting project participants and other community members with their territories

or

Archaeology can make a major contribution to modern anthropology by studying the processes of European expansion, exploration, and colonialization

The best I could do was grab an RSS from google news, so it will update with links to news articles that tell us what the press thinks that archaeology can do. And it doesn’t grab the exact quote, which is highly unsatisfying.

So then I followed Shawn Graham’s excellent tutorial and worked up a grammar in tracery that mostly works. It is certainly not a “bot of conviction” but it gives us grand and fairly meaningless statements such as:

“Archaeology can make a community.”

“Archaeology can require a planet.”

“Archaeology can pretend your past.”

“Archaeology can deliver our modern day.”

I considered making my main account into a bot, which I would find natural and good. And I may still do that someday. But for now, have a little whisper of possibility, keep on, keeping on.

Playing With Monsters: An Uncanny Digital Archaeology

Poster created by Shang Yang

I was honored and excited to be invited to give a virtual brown bag at the Stanford Archaeology Center earlier in October. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t have time to make something that would capture a virtual audience, but I decided to do my favorite thing–make trouble. For the lecture I decided to mess with the usual, expository, talking-head format through some fairly minor interventions in video editing. As my digital surrogate disgorged the lecture, I typed alongside, providing snide commentary, marginalia, etc.

At one point we were “zoom bombed” which was utterly delightful and disruptive, and I was excited that some audience members thought that it was part of the talk. It was important to me to add creativity and levity to the usual academic spiel and to try out some of the affordances we are all encountering in our new online world of information dispersal.

I received some truly excellent questions and comments from the audience, and it made me miss Bay Area archaeology in all its fine permutations. So, I’ve pasted the abstract below and the video. I’m working on a paper along the same lines, so I’d be happy for any feedback.

Abstract:

Monsters, in their sensuous, ambivalent, in-betweeness, can be an expression of creative impulse, subversion, of evidence of play within archaeology. Braidotti’s monsters “represent the in between, the mixed, the ambivalent…(the) horrible and wonderful, object of aberation and adoration.” Digital interventions are Frankenstein’s monsters, lurching somewhere between Tringham’s “faceless blobs” and an idealized ontological collective—networked and multi-faceted but still oddly homogenous. Archaeological monsters are a human and unhuman aggregate, one that digital archaeologists should recognize as we practice assembling, as Haraway states, “articulations among cosmos, animal, human, machine, and landscape in their recursive sidereal, bony, electronic, and geological skeletons.” In this lecture I discuss a monstrous digital archaeology, confounding our senses, invoking joy as a form of resistance and inviting playful interventions.

%d bloggers like this: