Blogging History and the Microlocal

Lately a few local neighborhood blogs have been featuring the history of the streets beneath their feet, and I have been interested to see the excitement generated by this engagement with place.  Recent popular mythos describes the reverse phenomenon, the suburban “Bowling Alone” culture of disengagement with local community.  I’m happy to see that there seems to be a reverse trend, aided by historical documents made available by digital technology and sharing initives. Focusing on the Mission in San Francisco,  Mission Mission and Burrito Justice have been checking out maps and re-tracing old neighborhood features like streams, lakes, and race tracks.  In the comments:  “WHOA.  Do I have my numbered streets wrong, or did Dolores Park used to be a… JEWISH CEMETERY?”  This warms my little archaeologist-nerd heart.

I couldn’t find much for Berkeley, besides more general blogs about the history of radical activism in the Bay Area, but there were more blogs about Oakland popping up and many of them directly cited the recent violence and rioting connected with the Oscar Grant shooting by a BART police officer.  Two of my favorite local Oakland blogs are run by the same person, Andrew Alden.  Oakland Geology documents the rocks and road cuts in this earthquake-prone area, with exhortations to just take a moment and look around.  His other blog, Oakland Sidewalk Stamps is a bit closer to the topic at hand, which documents the stamps in the concrete all around town.  I wish he’d post them on flickr and geolocate them though.  One of the most interesting posts that I found was on City Homestead, documenting the scrawled names inside a house and connecting this history to the broader history of the neighborhood.

I’m disinclined to start a Berkeley history blog, but I’d love for local historical archaeologists to take the ball and run with it.  I guess I am in a transitional place right now–I know that I will not live here for much longer and have not invested much in my local community.  It’s a shame, really.

I looked around to see if there were any historical items on the local blogs of my hometown, Austin, TX, but I couldn’t find any.  All I found were posts about booze, music, and food, which, now that I think of it, was the only thing I paid attention to while I was in Austin as well!

Archaeology and Machinima

Machinima are movies made entirely within virtual worlds such as Halo, World of Warcraft, and, of course, Second Life.  The video featured above is a classic example made by the staff at Linden Labs, and more appropriate as an archaeological example than some other machinima that are music videos or steampunk extravaganzas.

As our semester starts up again, we were looking for new projects for our Second Life deCal to pursue, and making a machinima based on Çatalhöyük seems like a project that would be flexible enough for different skill levels in Second Life to pursue.  I think it would also be a useful exercise in understanding the past through performance and really stretching our imaginations and interpretations.


I’ve started sketching out storyboards for the movie.  Usually I do this by hand, with pen and paper, but I’ve been trying to use a new tablet and adobe illustrator to make it easier to share with other people. Unfortunately I just don’t know enough about illustrator to be able to use it for this project.  Instead, I downloaded Seashore, a simple drawing program, and have been impressed with how quick and easy it is for someone like me who grew up using MS Paint.  The sketches aren’t beautiful, but they are vital for stitching together a movie that makes sense.

I’m also hoping to have part of this project ready to show at the SXSW interactive panel that I’ll be speaking at, The Real Technology of Indiana Jones, moderated by Adam Rabinowitz.  I’m hoping that I’ll come up with a few things of interest to technologists!

Community Service

I figure I should look up from the stacks of books occasionally, blink my eyes, and look at my surroundings.  As most of you probably know by now, I’m midway through my fourth year of grad school.  Four years!  I took my qualifying oral exam last spring and I’ve been hammering out the shape of my dissertation, due in Fall of 2011 (or so).  I’ve gotten to the point where people pretty constantly ask when I’m finishing.  My answer varies depending on my mood.  I still seem to go between being incredibly inspired by my research, and utterly disillusioned about the whole process and academia in general.  All of this is apparently typical.

I made a couple of “best of” blogging lists, and am picked up in a few of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnivals and in that spirit, I wanted to share a few places where I get inspiration when the dissertation seems particularly bleak.

A pretty constant source of joy is the Moore Groups blog, which covers a wide range of topics with Irish…snark?  Is that the right word for it on that side of the pond?  I met Declan and friends at WAC, where he showed us how to make beer and how to drink beer. Of particular delight is his recent coverage of Obama’s Irish roots and the archaeology of the associated area.

Shawn Graham’s Electric Archaeology always provides interesting links and commentary–I consider his blog the first and last word on developments in digital archaeology.  He adopts an explicitly pedagogical approach to the subject, which I really appreciate.  I do wish he’d switch back to a single column style though!  It’s hard to believe I’m a traditionalist when it comes to blogging.

Testimony of the spade is Magnus Reuterdahl’s blog about archaeology in Sweden.  I particularly liked his recent post about patterns that he was seeing in the doors of cabins–classic archaeological vision at work.

Though it’s hardly fair, I’m always a fan of John Lowe’s Where in the hell am I?.  He’s an old friend and is posting about his experiences as a professional archaeologist in Texas.  He’s been moving up in the world lately and has started managing projects and the accompanying headaches.  Good luck, John!  (and ew…move away from blogspot!)

Fotis’ Visualizing Neolithic is exactly where we need to be with archaeological photography.  It’s just…wow.  In the same vein is Ian Russell’s relatively new blog, culturge.  He highlights art and culture with particular attention to material culture.  Of course, I particularly liked his post about killer robots.

Obviously these are only a few of the blogs that I read (look that way for more! —–> ) but these few particularly resonate with my perspective on archaeology.  If you have any more suggestions, I would be happy to hear them!

Fake Dead People


What exactly is the agency of the virtual non-human human? This question hit me when I was in the midst of editing what is shaping up to be my first publication, (Re)Building Çatalhöyük: Changing Virtual Reality in Archaeology, a text refashioned from my more stridently titled paper presented at the World Archaeological Congress, Get Real: A Manifesto for Virtual Reality in Archaeology.  In this paper I establish Second Life as a pretty good venue for changing the way we reconstruct archaeological sites and examine the use of avatars and non-player characters (NPCs) in these reconstructions. My good friend (and professional copy editor!) Lei-Leen had done me the favor of proofing it and she highlighted my use of “person” while I was discussing these NPCs.  Certainly these people-created constructs were not people themselves.

In the paper I argue against the creation and use of NPCs in virtual archaeological reconstructions:

NPCs are “non-player characters,” entities generally created as a kind of set dressing, present to answer scripted questions about the reconstruction, or to provide ambiance. This tends to bring out the worst in reconstructive impulses; in one example, Julius Caesar reclines on his couch, reciting information about his villa to the user. A recent simulation of an African American site in Oakland, California contained prominent members of the community who stood by the side of the road to robotically impart their knowledge when approached by the user’s avatar. Turning people of the past into mere mouthpieces for their architecture diminishes the rich potential of reconstructions to impart information about complex lifeways. Using programmable objects such as the previously mentioned mano and metate allows avatars to act as their own guides to the past, populating the re-created ancient landscape with avatars of people interested in the past, interacting with artifacts and taking on roles suggested by these artifacts. This is simple for archaeologists who are accustomed to telling stories through objects and adds another level of interactivity to the virtual reconstruction.

I still believe this to be true, that fundamentally we are better off wearing Caesar’s crown for ourselves rather than asking a poor simulacrum about the weather in the Republic.  Thinking of Caesar as a non-player character in history is a stretch by any means.  But game developers (and digital archaeologists) will probably not stop populating virtual worlds with fake people.  These NPCs are nonhuman manifestations of a network of agents (polygons, “modern” humans, fiber-optics, and the dead person herself) and the relationships between these agents and as a result should be studied as such.  But does this understanding of an NPC as a network make it ethical to take such liberties with the visages of the dead? What does it mean when Joey Ramone comes back from the dead to sell Doc Martins?

Of course, I could just be reading too much Latour.  Let’s ask Eliza.

* Hello
> How are you today.. What would you like to discuss?
* Latour
> Tell me more…
* Have I been reading too much Latour?
> Can you elaborate on that?
* He’s a modern social theorist.
> What does that suggest to you?
* That I should be reading him for my dissertation.
> Say, do you have any psychological problems?
* Possibly.
> Tell me more…

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