Survey and Scopophilia

…beep beep buh-beeep-beep….

I keep one headphone off while I’m at the total station, so that I can hear that final confirmation beep, telling me that I’ve registered another point on the landscape. A total station is an electronic theodolite and we use them in archaeology to accurately measure points on the landscape, much like the surveyors you probably see all the time standing by the side of the road. In this case we are using the machine to survey a long, ovoid beach site, with virtually no visible walls. To the untrained eye, it probably looks like a series of small dunes, lumpy, with very little definition. All this means is that we are making a topographic map of the site, along with what we think are cultural features. The EDM is highly accurate, but there is interpretation and guesswork involved in defining features, sometimes making it a slow process.

I move the scope across the landscape, sighting a prism, sometimes nearby and sometimes far away, catch the glint from the mirrored center, and push the button. Dan walks to the next point, and I repeat the process, entering the correct code. In one ear, I hear the beeping of the instrument, usually over a thousand times a day. In the other ear, I keep a steady stream of music, news, and podcasts to help the time pass.

In the Reign of Harad IV is a short story by Steven Millhauser that appeared in The New Yorker in 2006. The New Yorker has been featuring writers reading other writers for a couple of years now, and it’s a mixed bag. In the Reign is a lovely fairytale-like story about a king’s miniature maker, whose creations grow smaller and smaller until they enter the realm of the imaginary. As I was listening to it, creating a scaled, digitized world of my own behind a powerful lens, I wondered about the nature of this magnified vision, of remaking the landscape in tron-like polygons, and wondered how many artists worked in the medium of CAD landscape painting.

I also thought about Kwan’s use of GIS as part of a feminist methodology in geography, and asked one of my fellow surveyors what she thought about some of the complications involved in the use of technically-aided vision and interpretation of the landscape. She shrugged and said she just thought it was a tool, not some Foucauldian mind-trip. I still wondered though–the power to make these maps and to interpret these landscapes was very much in my hands. The site is highly endangered by people driving over it, and protecting it would involve limiting the use of Qatar’s prettiest beach–unpopular, to say the least. By swinging the scope around, quantifying this site, I am elevating it, creating it into something more than just a few lumps and bumps.

Still, quality time at the scope and walking around with the prism has taught me how to use this tool. While it is incredibly tedious at times, learning the details of landscape survey takes up Donna Haraway’s invitation to reclaim technoscience as a situated practice, a feminist pursuit. It is not enough to critique these visualization tools from an academic vacuum–you have to stand behind the beepy machine and learn how the damned thing works.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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