A Visual Lexicon for Archaeology

I think a lot about the visual representation of archaeology, particularly through digital technology and the internet. In 2016 I published an Open Access article in Internet Archaeology that discusses some of the ways that digital photography has either perpetuated visual tropes in archaeology, or has caused ruptures. For example, how the LCD screen on the back of DSLRs allowed some co-construction and sharing of photographs on site, particularly between people with differing levels of power on site, director vs fieldworker, for example. I’ve also posted about shooting “stock photos” for reuse, and I’d love to work to improve representation in stock photography for archaeology, as it’s pretty dire, if you can’t tell:

Stock photo of “adventurer archaeologist” that comes up in the first page of results on google image search.

There is more to be written about digital photography in archaeology, and I have been encouraging some students to engage with the topic over the years, but without too much success. A stand-out is Luke Snell’s undergraduate dissertation which looked at how students were using cellphones on site to curate their own representations of their experiences. I also have some cellphone work in press, but I think there are some interesting, broader issues at play.

Based on my entirely personal (though thoroughly embedded) experience, there was a rapid upskilling in photographic practice in archaeology as DSLRs became more ubiquitous on site, from around 2005 – 2015 or so. There are a wealth of very high-quality photographs from that time, but also an abundance of experimental photography. People were genuinely trying to do something different with archaeological photography. While file sizes and such were always a problem with archival, people shared a lot of this photography via Flickr, and there were thousands of photographs curated by archaeologists.

I’d curate photographs occasionally and post them. For example, this update from 2008 had an overhead shot, a digger in front of a rack of clothes, a photo of a complex drawing, and excavations at (where else?) Stonehenge. Even in 2014 I was complaining about the growing obsolescence of Flickr. Still, I have continually found photographs that I’ve released and licensed CC-BY in various places. Happily, many of my photographs have been placed on Wikimedia for reuse as well. There’s over 800,000 entries for “archaeology” on Wikimedia, but they’re not always deeply useful, or well documented. I also have not heard of many archaeologists depositing their photographs there, though some seem to be, for example I found this one from ANU’s Dougald O’Reilly:

Archaeologists drawing a burial at the Phum Lovea site as part of the Paddy to Pura Archaeological Project.

But there is no sense of curation, continuity, or broader organization in Wikimedia. There is also the problem that the Archaeology Data Service has run up against-data protection. People need to give permission for their photographs to be displayed and reused. This is expected these days, of course, but photographs that were taken before data protection cannot be shared or displayed, rendering many archaeological archives without the faces of the people responsible for the work.

So where is the new archaeological photography archive? Where can we retrieve photographs of archaeologists or archaeological sites for our reuse for teaching and making media? And can we make one that is more diverse, personal, exciting, experimental? And would or should these archives feed into neural networks such as Dall E, saving us from the beige-hat working shots that it uses to evoke archaeology?

Dall E representation of “Digital Knowledge Production in Archaeology”

There is another problem, one that has persisted throughout the adoption of digital photography in archaeology, but seems to be getting worse throughout the years: cellphone photography. High-quality DSLR photography is being outmoded in favor of quick snaps taken with your cellphone. The rapid upskilling in photography seems to be accompanied with a rapid deskilling. Or perhaps a reskilling in cellphone photography.

I completely understand–my very expensive smartphone has a great camera, so why should I lug around a heavy DSLR and a sack of lenses? If everyone uses cellphones why do I keep teaching students how to use DSLRs? I used to joke that all the best site photos were on the Facebook pages of the students, but now that the students no longer have Facebook pages, they’ve become even more submerged in black-boxed devices, never to be seen by other archaeologists. How many of your quick cellphone shots end up in the archive? Is it enough to create the one photo for social media, a few for the report, and forget about the rest?

Finally, a lot of the usual digital photography is now taken in service to photogrammetry, or eschewed entirely for other forms of digital imagery. Does the proliferation of other digital gadgetry push the DSLR out of our hands? Why, when archaeological photography is perhaps easier to create and share than it ever has been, has it dropped so far from view? Where are all the archaeological photos?

The Outrage Machine

Over the last few weeks Archaeology departments have been getting Freedom of Information requests from news outlets asking about trigger warnings. On 7 June, the Daily Mail published an outrage-bait article naming me and describing my Communicating Archaeology module, in that it has a content warning on it. I became aware of this through my University contacting me to warn me and ask how they could support me and if they should respond.

This is a predictable and old media strategy that still somehow gets a lot of mileage. Gabriel Moshenska wrote a fantastic chapter, “Anatomy of a ‘trigger warning’ scandal” when he was dragged for having a warning on his Conflict Archaeology module in 2016. He added this warning as he receives students on his course with personal experiences of warfare:

Students who might have expected sessions on identifying regimental buttons and measuring musket balls were being shown magnified images of machete wounds and technical drawings of mass graves full of children – and it seemed only fair and reasonable to let them know.

Yes, this is archaeology too. The Mail on Sunday, the “sister paper” of the Daily Mail found this warning and contacted him. As he describes in this chapter, he replied in good faith, only to find that his reasonable account was presented alongside “pre-prepared outrage” from (gasp) a right-wing ideologue with an agenda. The coverage rocketed from there, from The Times, to Spiked, to Breitbart. He received hate mail and abusive messages on social media, some of them explicitly antisemitic. This discussion was also taken up by Tony Pollard with regard to trigger warnings and teaching about war graves.

Moshenska notes the immense hatred expressed not only toward “woke” academics (yawn, we are used to it) but worryingly also towards our “fragile” “snowflake” students who just can’t hack it, apparently. I found that this mirrored the hundreds and hundreds of comments under the news stories, students called “jelly babies” and the like. If anything, the students might need protection from the incredible hatred heaped upon them by their parents and grandparents. Intergenerational bigotry is so pointless and cruel.

The support from my University and my Department was very good–perhaps informed from previous incidents. My department also has a social media contingency plan in place for when things go wrong. I immediately locked and then deleted my main social media presence–Twitter. I’m not on Facebook and my Instagram has been locked forever. Like Gabe’s experience, the article has snowballed into ridiculous dimensions and miscellaneous venues, on the television and radio alongside print media. Unlike Gabe’s experience, I was only named in the Daily Mail instance, and I wonder if some of this has been because I followed Gabe’s advice: resist any urges to respond.

It’s frustrating to keep silent against such misuse, but when I was contacted by other journalists to follow up I didn’t respond and I asked my University and Department not to respond as well. Subsequently my name was left out of their stories. As an academic you really want to set the record straight, to potentially educate the journalist, or perhaps the public, but it doesn’t work that way. With outrage bait articles they are not looking for a reasoned response. They don’t want you to convince them, they want you to be the dumb woke academic mollycoddling our fragile students. They want column inches and maybe a photo of you for their right wing audience to mock. Give them nothing. I’m writing this during the furore, but will likely post it only after things have died down.

I’ve also been contacted by a few (wonderful) archaeology groups who want to publish a response. I have been trying to discourage these, to wait the news cycle out and let the culture war die out. Later responses are great and are really appreciated, but I also hope people are coming together to figure out how to better support people within their organizations when it happens the next time. I do appreciate the colleagues and institutions who, in their responses, have not named me. Thank you.

That brings me to some take-aways, for people impacted and their communities:

  • Don’t respond to the press when they are trolling. Not even for a “no comment” as they’ll print it as, “X said ‘no comment'”
  • Don’t answer your phone, as they’ll be calling. You may also need to have your email taken off the University websites.
  • Use my example, and Gabe’s experience to prepare for next time. Because they will come for us again, and it might be worse. They are not above spurious ad hominem attacks. It comes when you least expect it and for things that are completely mundane in our sphere, such as content warnings. The right wing newspapers came for me this time, but I’ve been waiting for the internet hate mob for over a decade so….(ominous music begins)
  • Unfortunately a lot of those who respond to the article are linking to the original articles…which gives the articles more clicks. Please use a screen shot or archive.is to make a mirror that does not give the news agency revenue from your outrage. For example, here is the archive.is link to the original article that set this all off.
  • Delete your socials for a bit. Go outside. Hug loads of people.
  • Reach out to those impacted and if you are targeted, take comfort in solidarity. I appreciate the huge amount of support I’ve received, both online and offline.
  • Ask the person who is targeted what support they need before “hitting back”–sometimes they want chocolate instead of tweets or statements. Just sayin’.

Anyway, it is ironic that I received this treatment from the Communicating Archaeology module, as it is primarily about critically examining and creating media about archaeology. It’s essentially created a perfect case study for the module. So it goes.

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