Teaching They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s collaborative documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old was released for the centennial anniversary for the end of WWI. Using archival footage from the Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his legion of effects wizards stitched together a 99 minute long take on soldiers’ experience of the front in color, filling in frames to smooth out motion and adding a voice-over that was drawn from oral histories. Happily, miraculous restoration of archival footage was released the week before my “digital futures” lectures in Communicating Archaeology (second year undergrad) and Analysis and Visualisation (Master’s module). I switched up the syllabus (don’t tell teaching committee) and added the documentary.

The purpose of assigning the documentary was to incite discussion around three major points:

  • The creation of narratives with archival materials–whose story is being told and for whom? Who is being omitted and why? How is this similar to the ways we tell stories using archaeological remains?
  • What can we do with digital technologies to tell stories about the past and are these effective? Should we just leave it to the professionals, ie forming collaborations with Peter Jackson instead of trying to do it ourselves?
  • What are our responsibilities to the people that we are digitally resurrecting? As these technologies become more accessible, it is easier to use dead people in ways they have not imagined or authorized.

The students were up to the challenge, and we also discussed the “Wizard of Oz” moment when the soldiers arrive at the front and suddenly transform from ragged, black and white figures from the distant past to full-color, real people with faces and names. Archaeologists are familiar with this feeling of the past becoming more real to us through our multiple encounters with traces of the past, and Peter Jackson was able to bring that feeling to general audiences.

To accompany this discussion I also played this “making of” video:

The video shows the painstaking process involved in colorizing the footage, and the creation of the sound effects–my postgraduate students, deeply involved in creating multimedia interpretations of the past for their assessment, groaned in recognition. Peter Jackson’s description of retiming the footage, of the excitement of the filmmaker in the field as they cranked their camera and the unscientific way that they had to translate this irregularity was an excellent lesson on learning how to look for embedded meaning in media archives. Finally, will Jackson’s “restoration” of this film be seen as a new archival standard, sought after to meet our HD standards for the visual record?

They Shall Not Grow Old was not uncontroversial; this excellent discussion from Historian Alice Kelly highlights the film’s use of the propaganda magazine The War Illustrated to illustrate battle scenes. Kelly also rejects the word “documentary” for the description of this film, which I found a bit curious. From my experience in making interpretive media about the past, I wondered what her threshold was for authenticity in these narratives–was Ken Burns okay, even though his “animation” of still photography, (now a staple of documentary filmmaking) instills these photographs with a sense of urgency and life? If you let me film you for an hour or so, I could probably recut it to make you look incredible or despicable just through editing,  not to mention using cutting edge technology:

They Shall Not Grow Old was timely and good to teach with and it was nice to be able to take advantage of very current popular media to discuss the use of technology to make interpretive media.

RIP Archaeology in Action on Flickr

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Photo by Marius Loots. “At the end of excavation, the final rites. Mapungubwe, 1995. Mapungubwe, inhabited around 1200 AD is now a World Heritage Site. This was one of the last large scale excavations done on the site.”

All (digital) things must die. But it sure is sad. Archaeology in Action on Flickr has been collecting visual evidence of archaeological work for 13 years, and I’ve been an admin and curator of the group for almost as long. It has over 4,400 photos in it, showing work from all time periods, all over the world. It has slowed down considerably in recent years, as people abandon the platform, but still held as a collection, with some of the most beautiful images of people and archaeology that I’ve ever seen.

In January, Flickr is going to move to a for-pay model that will only allow free users 1,000 photos and will delete any photos above that number. This is going to have rather dramatic consequences for Archaeology in Action, and my own account, which has 3,000 photos, licensed CC-By and available for people to use.

I tell my students that for-profit platforms are not an archive and are not beholden to you and you should not trust them in the least. But it still feels like a blow. Regardless, it may be the final push I needed toward moving entirely to Wikimedia Commons.

Inktober 2018

With no particular plan or preparation, I decided to participate in Inktober this year. Considering it is right in the middle of term-time, I feel pretty good with managing half of the prompts. Some of these small stories I’d told in other forms, but I really wanted to convey illustrated snapshots of my time as an archaeologist–the moments that somehow add up to years, that shine up in your pocket after turning them over and over until all the details are gone.

I find it interesting that I didn’t include any digital work it in at all, considering that’s apparently what I do. Perhaps the medium didn’t lend itself. In an ideal world, they’d all be the same shape, size and color, but that they are irregular shows that they were rushed, time stolen after Tamsin’s bedtime and before I fell over each night. It was also a good reminder of how rusty I am at drawing, and how risky it feels to put work that you are not completely confident with out in the world. This is particularly relevant as I teach students to engage with media that they’re very unfamiliar with.

Anyway, thanks to Katherine Cook for the prompts, and to my fellow (much better) artists. It’s good to be reminded to have fun and to have fun collectively and creatively. I’ve included these all below, I can’t imagine anyone would want them higher-rez, but let me know. I also combined them together in a pdf here.

New Publication: Teaching Resistance in Maximum Rocknroll

Maximum Rocknroll began in 1977 as a punk rock radio show and became a long-running zine–basically my teenage bible. In it, John No of the Fleshies and Street Eaters has been editing the Teaching Resistance column and I knew him through a class at UC Berkeley, so I thought I’d contribute. Some of it is cribbed from my Teach-Outs and the Progressive Stack blog post, but it’s considerably expanded.

I’ve posted my bit below, but John No has a great introduction to the piece so you should pick up a copy of MRR at your favorite record store, or online. Want to write your own? Email John No at teachingresistance@gmail.com.

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