Now we are all archaeological filmmakers

I spent the last two days filming an old Çatalhöyük friend (and now colleague) David Orton for his teaching in autumn term. We’re trying to prepare, as best as we can, for most eventualities within the pandemic. As I was filming it occurred to me that this was being replicated all over the globe–that suddenly we’ll have a legion of archaeological filmmakers.

Archaeological filmmaking has always been a bit niche, falling between visual anthropology and digital archaeology, and subject to the same price/usability considerations that come with most tech. It is now relatively easy to capture full HD video and editing software has smoothed the steep learning curve of Final Cut Pro into a relatively gentle slope. And there are a lot of examples of wonderful, more extemporaneous archaeological filmmaking using iphones and instagram, tiktok, and YouTube.

Annelise Baer has been making episodes of the No Budget Archaeology Show during the pandemic and is up to episode 20. This is her episode on Cleopatra:

And Chloe Duckworth has been killing it for the past few years with her YouTube channel, ArchaeoDuck:

And there is the Interactive Pasts crew/VALUE, who go live on Twitch every Tuesday and Thursday to stream video game play and commentary. Most recently they streamed Total War: Troy played by an Archaeologist and a Historian:

But filmmaking is a leaky, sneaky medium. In my Archaeological Filmmaking class I teach the students that you need filmmaking as a basic skill to demonstrate pretty much anything else you’d like to make with tech. Oh so you made a VR reconstruction? You’ll need a short film to fully demonstrate it to audiences without headsets. Want to crowdfund? Films boost your intake.

But…are recorded lectures droning on over powerpoint slideshows movies? Probably, yes. In my article Archaeology and the Moving Image I discuss several genres within archaeological filmmaking, including the traditional, didactic expository genre, complete with “voice-of-god” narration and expert interviews that tell a definitive, if monolithic narrative. The recorded lecture is expository-on-speed, with a single narrator dragging (screaming?) students through the content. If anything the recorded lecture is a pretty damning indictment of the academic lecture in general. While droning on to myself in a darkened room, I was haunted by the hubris of the live lecture–why do I think that my wild gesticulation, anecdotes and occasional questions for the audience are that much value added?

If you are finding recording (or viewing) lectures in this way to be absolutely deadening, you are not alone. You are making a truncated version of arguably the worst kind of archaeological movie, again, expository-on-speed. There are other genres though; perhaps through all of this mad experimentation with online learning we’ll find impressionistic or phenomenological lectures. A lecture that draws from the impressionistic genre, that is “lyrical rather than didactic, poetic rather than argumentative” and that implies and evokes more than they inform (thanks Barbash and Taylor), would be incredible to behold.

Or perhaps we should just turn to the old pros at this particular medium, the dedicated YouTubers. I was chatting to Aris Politopoulos about Cringe as affect, when he reminded me of the excellent Contrapoints lecture on the topic. Or we could look at, for example, the Contrapoints Gender Critical video:

The video begins with something that is generally forbidden in lectures–a really long quote. But the quote is dramatically performed, with key passages highlighted, against a background that evokes delicate femininity. The video has extremely high production value, is very entertaining and cites current research. With costume changes. Yeah, I’m a fan.

I hear all of my fellow teachers:

“Who has time??”

“How on earth could I get this production quality?”

I wasn’t even supposed to BE HERE today!”*

Yes, I know. But first, remember that your audience may be more used to this kind of content delivery that you are, and that we could do worse than to learn from people who are old pros at this medium. And second, even if you don’t go full Youtuber, I hope that this incursion into filmmaking, however brief, will intrigue at least a few people enough to explore movies as an incredibly productive medium to explore archaeological storytelling.

*This last one is me, as I pre-record lectures to be shown during my sabbatical, in a very tricky, instrumentalized version of telepresence

A Prehistory of the Endtimes

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An abandoned house in Qatar

Anarchism, prehistory, survivalism, experimental archaeology–these tender sinews have been braiding, unravelling, rebraiding themselves in my pandemic imagination. One person’s cataclysm is another person’s “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Anarchism and archaeology both animate liminal zones where people reimagine different ways of life, with the occasional cross-over.

Archaeological training provides an overactive imagination with a real-time augmented reality overlay that sees decay, collapse, refashioning, geological time–the seams between. And bones. Lots of bones.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area I walked through the smoking ruins of the 1906 Earthquake, contemplated the damp, squalid mudbrick enclosure that would become the Presidio. But what I wanted, more than anything, to see the great rolling dunes beneath the pastel Painted Ladies. The fog to nestle around great stands of trees, a fresh breeze in from the sea. Dig a couple of centimetres and find tarmac, perhaps the broken skeleton of a segway. Near futures of desolation and the ancient past, equally mythological.

Anarcho-primitivism, to deeply oversimplify, draws from archaeological constructions of the past and ethnographic research on contemporary societies to argue for small-scale societies against the deprivations of civilisation. This understanding of the past is well and truly disputed by Graeber and Wengrow. Yet like many writers, archaeologists, and anarchists, I still find myself interested in the jostling of these ideas against each other, in their collisions in fiction and experimental archaeology.

In Ghost Wall, middle class undergraduate students and a working class family collide in experimental archaeology, wherein they try to live like Iron Age Britons in Northern England. Silvie, the protagonist, is dragged by her past-and-purity obsessed and abusive father who is reliving his own patriarchal madness in the woods, bolstered by an archaeology professor. It animates some of our worst impulses in archaeology, piercing the veil into the past only to find our venal selves peering back. It was a lovely book. The archaeology undergraduates were my favourite, going along with the experiment to a certain extent, but subverting this incursion into the past by stopping by a local shop for snacks and heading off to the pub. They were gloriously useless at pastness, to their own merit.

I’m thinking in two to three generations there could be real wild children.

This theme was picked up in a New York Times article on primitivism, “How to Prepare Now for the Complete End of the World.” The article follows Lynx Vilden who was “teaching people how to live in the wild, like we imagine Stone Age people did.” The beautiful photography in the article shows people lighting fires and making tools. This was all framed within the (American) beginning of the pandemic, in that far away time of early March, 2020. Vilden is teaching people to use bones to process hides and use moss as toilet paper–as if our dystopian superabundance wouldn’t provide endless material for reuse in “endtimes” (See Station Eleven for the contra).  Still, there was some appreciation of the community and insanity that is formed around a campfire when all outside communication is cut off.

Or, sometimes not. A relative lack of fellow-feeling was apparent in another Sarah Moss book, Cold Earth, another team of archaeologists who are spending their summer on the west coast of Greenland, digging up an abandoned Norse colony. There is, of course, a pandemic on in the outside world, and this delays the extraction of the team from their field season. The director of the project flogs his team into terrible decisions–staying far too late in a season, not using the natural and cultural materials around them to improve their chances of survival. His eye is on the research potential of the site and his team suffers, and it’s hard to forgive.

So we find ourselves with a fairly miscellaneous set of skills for the end-of-world scenarios. Beware charismatic leaders. Beware ANY leaders. Use everything, purity be damned. Primitivism is based on a deeply flawed understanding of the ancient world. Take care of your team.

In Black Feminist Archaeology, Whitney Battle-Baptiste cleverly uses historical fiction to inform and disrupt (sigh, sorry) her ideas of the past–multivocality through Black storytellers is simply brilliant. I’m failing to imitate this, post-apocalyptic pandemic archaeology through science fiction and survivalism is sending us through the same tropes and indigenous-drag that have painted our lurid comic books for decades. The future-scope is cracked.

It leaves me thinking about anarchism, again. The anarchism that I imagine is fictive, but aspirational, though perhaps rather more cottage-core than primitivist. The one where we, as Graeber and Wengrow suggest, examine structural violence within the small scale. That’s where my archaeology is going, and, probably not by accident, where my politics are as well.