Research in digital archaeology, heritage, and marginalia
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.
Sara Perry and I are running a workshop at the CHATmethod conference at MOLA on Friday, 1 November, 2019. We tend to have a ridiculous amount of fun (and trouble) when we team up, so I don’t expect this will be any different. Register here.
The workshop: A Contemporary Context? Recording Sheets for the Sublime and Ungrateful
The archaeological context sheet has been fashioned and refashioned extensively since its adoption. These context sheets are embedded within disciplinary lineages and reflect the questions and assumptions of archaeological knowledge making, both on the intimate and global scale. In this workshop we use the context sheet as a platform for reflection and play, with a particular intention to query its utility in recording contemporary archaeological contexts.
For this workshop we envision a hands-on, creative, trouble-making session, including constructive critique and display of our various takes on the contemporary context sheet. Join us to experiment with ruining and re/designing one of archaeologists’ most ubiquitous inscription devices.
I’m also going to be on a panel discussion that evening:
Methods for the 21st century hosted by London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE.
Chaired by Janet Miller, CEO of MOLA, with Colleen Morgan (York University), Laura Hampden (Museum Detox), Neil Redfern and Isabel Nolan (artist).
I’m really excited for both events, but slightly nervous about the panel discussion. I have been investigating (and now teaching) future-facing methods in archaeology for…a while now and I hope to speak to the creativity and diversity of the archaeologists, artists, and other phenoms who have inspired me over the years.
I’m thrilled that our long labor of love, this special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology on Digital Archaeologies has finally been published. Several of the articles were available ahead of time online, but seeing it all together like this is extremely gratifying. Marta Díaz-Guardamino and I wrote an introduction to the issue, here is a brief excerpt:
Current archaeological thought evokes a sparking Catherine wheel: spinning fireworks that detonate light, colour, and sound with every movement. These theoretical turns swirl alongside the ongoing development and adoption of scientific and digital techniques that have wide-ranging implications for archaeological practices and interpretations. Two particularly combustible developments are posthumanism and the ontological turn, which emerged within the broader humanities and social sciences. Posthumanism rejects human exceptionalism and seeks to de-centre humans in archaeological discourse and practice. Linked to this is the so-called ‘ontological turn’ (aka the ‘material turn’), a shift away from framing archaeological research within a Western ontology and a movement beyond representationalism (i.e. focusing on things themselves rather than assuming that objects represent something else).
Collectively, these papers are a provocation to rethink normative practices in analog and digital archaeology before they become comfortably ossified. The papers describe play, experimentation, transgression, hope, and care as forming the basis of a posthuman archaeology and invite future researchers to engage with this work as a form of resistance. Queer, weird, monstrous, fun archaeology will never be as lauded or rewarded as mainstream digging and lab work; but it is vital to the creative lifeblood of the discipline. The sparking Catherine wheel will keep turning, inviting a new cycle of archaeological theorists to (re)imagine the complexities of archaeological interpretation. But perhaps we can stop spinning through these endless turns and start kindling revolutions instead.
The individual papers have already started to make an impact, particularly Sara Perry’s on The Enchantment of the Archaeological Record, (which she has discussed in far better terms that I could manage on her own blog) and many of the other contributions are deeply important comments on the current state of digital archaeology, and point toward productive futures in the field.
Ruth Tringham’s article, Giving Voices (Without Words) to Prehistoric People: Glimpses into an Archaeologist’s Imagination, on the emotive power of storytelling, the importance of ambiguity, and evoking the past through experimentation weaves past and present together through…a basket! (obviously!) Her presentation at the EAA was breathtaking and completely inspiring and I am happy to see it translated into this article. Like most of her work, it’s a decade ahead of its time and informed by her deep experience in digital storytelling.
Bill Caraher’s Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the ‘Archaeology of Care’ is also a particular inspiration, as he’s been thinking about, working through, and publishing about the risks of alienation in digital work and response to this alienation through low-fi, DIY, and punk methods. I’ve obviously been a deeply interested and invested fan of Bill’s throughout the years and appreciate his approach to an Archaeology of Care. As he states:
The awareness that tools shape the organization of work, the limits to the local, and the place of the individual in our disciple is fundamental for the establishment of an ‘archaeology of care’ that recognizes the human consequences of our technology, our methods, and the pasts that they create.
Annie Danis’ Augmented, Hyper-mediated, IRL is an incredibly engaging exploration of how the indigenous teenagers of Pueblo de Abiquiú used digital technology during the community archaeology project but also in their personal lives. She provides an example of how collaborative work could and should be, but also the fantastic insight that the time saved by paperless digital recording in archaeology can be productively used to build community. In this case, it was a zine that:
represents a significant part of archaeological research by framing the methods for data collection within the interns’ personal experiences and providing an opportunity for young Abiquiúseños to tell the story in their own words.
Katherine Cook’s EmboDIYing Disruption: Queer, Feminist and Inclusive Digital Archaeologies reviews her engagement with digital projects and the professional risks of this engagement and examines problematic power relationships within the field. She discusses disruption and support networks established to help combat “the privileging of (Eurocentric) archaeological discourse, research, and interpretations.” Mobilizing what Cook terms Disruptive Digital Archaeologies “to defy, to confront, to derail, to remix, to subvert” is a clear call for change in the way that archaeologists use digital technologies.
I’ve discussed my contribution, Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology previously on this blog, but it remains an initial offering in the ways to understand the place and potential of digital practice for informing theory and knowledge production in archaeology. You know, no big.
Please read, download, immerse yourself in this series of papers as I believe they collect some of the finest current thinking in digital archaeology.
Ahh, 360! I’ve been wanting to play around with using 360 video in archaeology since seeing this video of the Hajj in 360–something that I will never be able to experience:
I also use this excellent example from the Crossrail Excavations for teaching and I love pointing out the various “actors” in the scene, the manager, the person recording, all these people standing over the two archaeologists digging up a plague pit:
Great use of diegetic sound, placement of camera, but the “actors” are oddly silent, as though waiting for the pesky camera to turn off before getting back into the ever-present trench chat. Maybe Crossrail thought it would be disrespectful to have discussion intrude into the excavation of a plague pit.
360 video would generally fall into what I’d call the phenomenological genre of archaeological filmmaking, granting the viewer the gaze of an archaeologist. The ability to pan around the scene provides a small modicum of agency to the viewer, a sense of being there in a way that eludes still photography and fixed-frame videography. There’s also the matter of surveillance and the panopticon (mentioned in the article above), so beware of abuse, obviously.
As the guest of the Elizabeth Castle Project in Jersey I took advantage of being there by trying out the 360 video camera (Insta360 One X) we have in the department. I knew there would be a learning curve, but it was great fun trying to figure out a new workflow, how to presence the archaeology, where to put the camera.
I was not very successful, particularly compared to the Crossrail video but I’ve learned a lot for the next go-round.
Put the 360 right in the middle of the trench. If it’s not in danger of being knocked down, it’s just not that interesting.
Get the remote bluetooth control working on your phone sooner rather than later. I have a lot of footage of me standing around looking like a jerk, staring at the 360 camera.
The file sizes are pretty huge so pushing them around while on fieldwork can be tricky. I had to wait to return to mess around with them much.
The editing software from the developers is pretty rubbish compared to FCP or Premiere. You can export your footage from this software into a file format that works with either of the above…but I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it.
Make sure, when you start the video, you want it to be facing the way you’d like to open the scene. Something more interesting than you staring down at it.
I’d like to be able to fit it in with still footage, add audio tracks, and just generally mess around with it a bit more, but for now, it’s a fantastic piece of kit for fieldwork. I’m also intrigued by composing the story of an archaeological excavation with a 360 camera. Would you narrate to the camera? Compose the shots to draw the eye to various elements within the scene? Have various archaeologist-“actors” yelling out for attention? Can someone buy me out for a year or two so I can play around with this damn thing??
The outtakes are pretty fabulously weird as well. I love that the device makes itself invisible…that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.
I’ve spent the last three days on Jersey, as the guest of the fantastic Elizabeth Castle Project. I am working with a separate(ish) small research team on a digital drawing project, details of which will be revealed at a future date. I’ve been excited about this project as it follows on from me and Holly Wright’s Pencils & Pixels article that examines digital and analog drawing and it fits well within my larger career goal: doing cool research with good friends.
Anyway, I was interviewed by the excellent Emily Sohn writing for Nature on Ways to juggle fieldwork with kids in tow a while back and the article came out more recently. I went to Qatar twice with T at 8 and 20 months and most of the experience I had was about towing a baby around. Now at 3 years (!!) T is officially a preschooler (shock, horror) and things are way different in pretty much all respects.
I’m not on the Elizabeth Castle Project team but part of another, adjacent project and so I have a lot of agency–my results do not inform the main ECP project goals. Other factors: Jersey is closer to York, culturally very similar to England, T is very independent, we are in a hotel, and…I’m single parenting. Dan is in Leiden, running the Seminar for Arabian Studies and very busy in his own right.
It has been pretty full on, but, similar to last time, I have a lot of help and have been given a lot of slack. The directors of the ECP have been great about having T around, the project itself is basically in a park, and my research team have been super supportive, walking at preschooler pace, okay with waiting through melt-downs, helping me out with the tremendous amount of luggage (apparently bringing an assortment of stuffed animals to site is non-negotiable) and watching her for brief periods of time when I’ve had to scamper off to take photos and such. T has also been taking long afternoon naps, during which I try to be useful.
I can’t imagine giving advice on this stuff, as I know many, many more people who have carted their kids around much more successfully, but…snacks and cartoons have gotten us pretty far. I am very lucky and very privileged to be in a position where I have a lot of control over what is required for this research and our schedule. Sometimes we need to go and check out flowers. Or climb to the top of the castle. Or play in the backdirt. Right now T is watching cartoons and eating a bell pepper (her choice) while I type this out in a spare moment.
T’s afternoon nap means we will be able to attend a team dinner. There are other things that we are very limited in–that’s mostly socializing and extracurriculars. Which is, honestly, fine. Getting T around, living out of a hotel and engaging in a research project is…enough. I guess as a parent and as an academic I’m starting to understand my carrying capacity and this is it. It’s good though.
A couple of months ago I had enough. Social media was driving me crazy. I have long term personal accounts that I’ve maintained for ages, archaeology project accounts, and now as my admin job for my current job I manage the Departmental social media. I probably owe a lot to social media for visibility of my research profile, but I was sick of it and needed a break. Some issues had come up in the Departmental social media and I found it overwhelming to manage these in addition to the heaps of teaching, research, and other administrative tasks that are part of my job. So I killed off my Twitter and Facebook profiles for the following reasons:
Social media was giving me a lot of anxiety and it made me really angry. And that’s what it’s designed to do.
It encourages passivity–it’s enough to rail against this or that, feel better, then cease any kind of drive to change at just that. So I posted an angry tweet. So what?
It took up too much brain space. I found myself thinking in 280-character fragments. I was annoyed at what people said and annoyed at having to talk myself down from responding. I became increasingly mute on social media, though I thought a lot about it. I missed blogging, I missed reading, I missed creativity and quiet.
I was tired of performing–performing research, performing teaching, performing activism. What’s more is I was tired of other people doing this.
Outrage theatre is richly rewarded. Want to get lots of likes? Be angry about something, post something snarky, perform your virtue. I found it exhausting. Combined with the point above, it led to the point below.
It made me dislike people I mostly agree with. They were too whiny or attention-seeking or posted about their pet too much. Honestly, if any of these things bothered me, it wasn’t their problem, it was me needing to get offline. So I did. We need to build allies, not engage in call-outs.
It was mostly Twitter that was the problem, I hadn’t done much with Facebook for a long time. And quitting…was amazing. Freeing. It took a couple of weeks to stop automatically punching in the urls. I enjoyed sitting in incredible lectures and not sharing them. I enjoyed not feeling like I had to converse with or impress anyone. I shut down and it was really incredible. During the CAA in Krakow I felt like I had earmuffs on, totally oblivious to backchat. Marvelous.
But I’m back, in a limited fashion. I’ve kept Facebook dead (though I realized the other day I need to check in on a few groups I maintain, uh-oh) but I re-activated Twitter. It’s annoying actually, you have to re-activate monthly anyway so you don’t lose your account. I might have just let it go, but I realized that there’s pretty much no other way to link to your blog, update people with publications, that sort of tedious stuff. But after my break, I feel like I’ve broken the back of it. I login when I have something to post, then logout again. I don’t check it, except for the Departmental accounts.
When I worked in the Computer Science department at the University of Texas I was always surprised that Edsger Dijkstra didn’t have a computer in his office. In fact, he didn’t have one at all. One of the fathers of Computer Science, didn’t have a computer. He didn’t want actual computer to limit his imagination about what a computer might be able to do. Would that I had the brain of Dijkstra, but something is damned compelling about that.
The article examines posthuman theory to understand how we use digital tools to interpret archaeology. I use the concepts of avatars, monsters, and machines to argue that digital archaeology should go beyond traditional representation to challenge and change interpretation and to transgress boundaries between “real” and “digital.” I made a horribly confusing diagram to try to explain the interstitial space where present and past people commingle. I coin a neologism that will probably relegate me to some hall of shame. The whole thing makes me want to hide a little, but it brings a lot of theory into conversation with digital archaeology, so might be useful for the bibliography at least.
As digital practice in archaeology becomes pervasive and increasingly invisible, I argue that there is a deep creative potential in practising a cyborg archaeology. A cyborg archaeology draws from feminist posthumanism to transgress bounded constructions of past people as well as our current selves. By using embodied technologies to disturb archaeological interpretations, we can push the use of digital media in archaeology beyond traditional, skeuomorphic reproductions of previous methods to highlight ruptures in thought and practice. I develop this argument through investigating the avatars, machines, and monsters in current digital archaeological research. These concepts are productively liminal: avatars, machines, and monsters blur boundaries between humans and non-humans, the past and the present, and suggest productive approaches to future research.