As digital archaeological workflows become common and increasingly regimented, we must ensure that there is time and space for the playful, creative exploration of the past. In this talk I will (briefly!) discuss the pushing the aesthetics and poetics of digital archaeology through collaborative research projects that emphasize lateral thinking, experimentation and making.
The Ouse, the river I cross each day as I walk to work, has become sinister. It is impossible not to notice the flat, burbling brown ribbon threading through the center of York. It chokes our traffic over tight bridges and belches over the banks in bad weather. Since I first posted about it, the Ouse has claimed the lives of two young adults, who fell into the river during drunken nights out. I suppose it isn’t all that uncommon, cities with rivers have drowning fatalities, so I’m not sure why these deaths have animated this particular river with menace for me. As apparent from the marble plaque above (located in the Minster), people have been dying in the Ouse for a long time.
I had a startled moment today when I realized that Virginia Woolf committed suicide in the Ouse on this day, the 28th of March…but a different Ouse entirely, down in Sussex. Her suicide note is sweet, deeply sad, and I wished that my stepfather had left something similar. He too committed suicide, last November, up Poudre Canyon in Colorado. The nearest mile marker on the highway was noted on his death certificate–when I came back to England after the funeral I spent a little while looking for the spot on Google Street View, until I realized that I should stop. Godspeed.
The quote in the title is from William Etty, a famous English painter who died watching the sun setting over the River Ouse, his last words: “Wonderful! Wonderful! This death!” I found Etty while I was looking for background for a fantastic project we are starting at York. But it’s all tumbled together in my head now–poetry, death, madness, digital ghosts, cemeteries–all roiling and frothy in the brown waters of a river that never really was all that innocent. The Ouse. The Oooze.
I have the great fortune to be next to the room with all of the departmental field kit. This office (apparently once the kitchens of King’s Manor) also hold our lovely tech specialists, and I was chatting with them while admiring the lovely wooden tripod we have in the department.
Anyway, I’d love to try my hand at the alidade & plane table once again, but I’ve been informed that the prices of them are now astronomical. This has been attributed to fans of the steampunk aesthetic, who are buying old scientific instruments and putting them in their drawing rooms and dismantling them to make costumes. Funny ol’ world.
In this issue of Then Dig we explore encounters with the past in the context of archaeological science. From the abstract expressionist appreciation of ceramic thin sections, to the treasure hunt for phytoliths under a microscope, to the severe precautionary costumes of the Clean Room, we investigate the aesthetic, the multisensorial, and the profound in archaeological science.
After a small hiatus, the blog/journal has been thriving. I’ll be posting the last submission associated with the Zeitgeist theme very soon, and there’s a great line-up that Dr. James Flexner has put together from a conference on Oceania that will also be going up shortly.
I’ve also very much enjoyed the Open Peer Review style. It is non-confrontational, productive, and synergetic. In the very small world of archaeological publishing, most of the authors cannot be anonymous anyway, and the cloak of reviewer anonymity invites a level of nastiness that is counterproductive. I’ve joined John Hawkes in signing all of my reviews anyway. I should probably send samples of my hair as well, so the authors can make a proper doll to stick with pins.
Anyway, consider submitting to the issue! It should be a good one.
Here’s to experimental publication types in archaeology!
The ladder isn’t high enough, and climbing up on the crane is out of the question. But you need an aerial photo of the site you are working on. So…it’s up to the rooftops!
This is a uniquely urban solution, as I realize that many sites are out in underpopulated landscapes. Sadly, most buildings are closed off to the public, even more so if you have a camera. Ideally you would build a relationship with the surrounding neighborhood, but it can be hard to get in touch with official property owners and such. Asking permission takes time and often comes back with a negative result.
Caveat: I officially do not condone any of the following actions and if you are foolish (or bold) enough to try them, don’t blame me. Also, privilege can be in play with any kind of social hacking.
Key points in gaining access:
* Look like you belong there. This can be difficult in work-a-day archaeology rags, but your high-viz vest, hard hat and a clipboard can go far. Wear this combination and you magically become invisible.
* Enter and walk with purpose. This is part of looking like you belong–you have an aim: get to the highest point you can over your site and try to ignore anything in your way.
* Don’t show off your camera. If you can, conceal it until you get in place. Photographers are not welcome on private property.
* If you do get stopped, be nice. Ask for directions to the bathroom. If the person is still waiting for you when you get out of the bathroom, tell them you are an archaeologist working next door and you’d like to see the site from above, can they help you? Don’t mention taking photos. If they tell you no, then take off.
* Keep an eye out for doors that automatically lock. Not so great to get caught out on a roof.
So, in summary: Don’t break anything! Don’t steal anything! Take your photo and go. More tips can be had from the fine folks interested in Urban Exploration.
I understand the temptation. You want to show the mundane, you feel that there is too much Hollywood glamor attached to the profession. So you begin your article, or your Introduction to Archaeology course, or public lecture with some variation of the following:
I know you all think that archaeology is all whips and snakes, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft, but it is actually a set of methods that can involve long, boring episodes in the lab, counting things, and general tedium.
STOP. Stop this now. Take it out of your lexicon. Not only is it one of the most lazy, overused introduction strategies, but it actively works against the profession and is terribly bad form in science education.
When archaeologists introduce their work with this cliché, they are attempting one of two things:
1) They are trying to tell their audience that their work is actually Very Important and Very Scientific. You do not need to contrast this with Indiana Jones’ breaking-and-entering approach, you can relate it through your enthusiasm for the science.
DO: “Let me tell you about the magic of Lidar and what it is doing to change everything we know about the archaeological landscape of Brazil.”
2) They are thinking that they can tap into a pop-culture figure as a way to relate to their audience. This is fine, and can be done in interesting ways. But to contrast you and your work with this character in an effort to disabuse your audience of romantic notions of the field, and, further, to offer extreme examples from your graduate career of the 100,000 obsidian flakes that you counted as some kind of badge of honor is wrong-headed.
You are not telling people that archaeology is boring, you are telling them that YOU are boring. Can you imagine a job talk starting with, “Well, I know that you think that the analysis of Bronze Age pottery from the Aegean is all rockstar magic and crazy Octopus eyes, but let me tell you how absolutely soul-sucking it truly is.”
DO: “While digging in Belize I found a vast, incredibly rich cache of obsidian flakes, but the true revelations came in the lab when I looked at them under a microscope.”
Show your excitement, show your enthusiasm, don’t patronize your audience by denigrating their passion for YOUR field. Don’t be blasé in some sort of effort to show how “over it” you are as a big, important archaeologist. Worse, don’t show your deep insecurity or ambivalence about the relevance of your work. If you hate your research topic, it kinda shows. Talk about an aspect of it that you find truly fascinating. By this I am not saying to hide the tedious bits. By all means, after you tell your audience how exciting and important your work is, highlight how your results were supported by sorting 600kg of oyster shell in a museum basement.
As more and more archaeologists become involved in science communication, whether by blogging, or television, or public lectures we cannot have the same failures over and over (and over) again. By calling archaeology boring you are not serving an important function in rectifying pop-culture. You are not imbuing your work with some kind of scientific importance. You are not showing a reaction against positivism with your post-modern indifference. You are stealing the limelight from the parts of your research that are absolutely fascinating. You are diminishing the reasons you became an archaeologist, and the reasons that you are compelled to tell people the story of your research.