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.
Occasionally one of my photos will surprise me. I’ve been uploading miscellaneous high-resolution photos online for over a decade, all licensed CC-BY, lots of archaeology and travel, and some even tagged with metadata. So they’ve been used all over the place to illustrate blog posts, travel websites, various and sundry. I’m a fairly rubbish photographer–well, the skill comes and goes as I go in and out of practice. I’d probably be even better if I could be bothered to photoshop my photos. I give them a couple of tweaks then release them online.
One of my admin roles in the lectureship is media creation for marketing the department. So a lot of my photos are used for various things, a prospectus, postcards, social media decoration. On weekends away with my family I inevitably drag them to a Local Heritage Attraction(tm), snap some photos and sometimes they’re reused as a nice background to a recruitment campaign, or textures in powerpoints. They’re mixed in with lots of photos of my kid…keeping a work/life media balance is a ship that’s long sailed.
I don’t find enough time to take photos, though it’s part of my role as a lecturer. It’s difficult to participate in events and have to photograph them at the same time. I had a fairly hilarious exchange with a condescending parent at the last graduation who asked if I was “just the photographer.” I was mostly annoyed at the diminishing of the role of photographer. I tell my students over and over, that old internet chestnut: “pix or it didn’t happen.” Anyway, the happy side effect of doing event photography and taking 100000 photos of my child is that I’m getting a little bit better at photographing people. Still not amazing though.
I still take most photographs with my phone, which does a fair job for Instagram, but I dusted off the 50mm and took the Big Camera into town today to try to take a photograph for the Cultural Heritage Management MA. I wasn’t able to get the specific one I wanted as the light was bad, but I took a few others that may get used for one thing or another.
It’s not a bad thing to ramble around York, taking photos and calling it “work.” It is, obviously, but it’s also work–it’s getting harder to see new and interesting angles in York. I just breeze by, headphones in, watching everyone else take photographs of the lovely city.
Bury me, my Lovetells the story of Nour as she flees Syria through the medium of simulated text messages. As her husband Majd, you try to help her make decisions–go to Izmir, go to Beirut, try to make the border into Bulgaria, which smuggler to trust. Your responses help guide her actions, but you do not wholly control Nour as she will occasionally overrule you.
The game feels intensely personal, two lovers chatting on Whatsapp, and was inspired by a story published in le Mondethat featured over 250 screencaps of messages that Dana, a young Syrian who fled in 2015, sent to her family. The story also plays out in a modified “real time” and you wait to see the consequences of your direction.
There are some scary moments, as above, or when Nour turns off her cellphone to save battery while dodging brutal patrols on the Turkey/Bulgarian border. This is powerful testimony for the utility of smartphones as a guide and lifeline for vulnerable people. Further, the format of the cellphone to deliver this game is perfect–there is an immediacy and urgency in your interactions with Nour as you make incredibly difficult decisions. The writers were able to convey Nour’s humor, vulnerability, loneliness, defiance and despair through texts.
Bury me, my Love relies in part on immersion through telepresence. Telepresence, where you are when you’re talking on the phone–not with the person you are speaking to, but not quite alone in the room either–is a longterm research interest of mine. Delegation and the extended self play important roles in interpreting the past and building an understanding of past people. The game takes the familiar distant-closeness of communicating with friends and loved ones through digital devices and social media and uses this dynamic to deliver a powerful message about the lives of asylum seekers in Europe’s hostile landscape. Through the simple mechanism of text messaging, Bury me, my Love is an impactful, truthy account of people’s lives, one that may improve empathy and provide some education in human rights.
Do I want these things to be delivered digitally? Is the gamification of the horrendous treatment that desperate people receive at international borders really how we teach ourselves that state-sanctioned brutality is a bad thing? I want there to be important games, impactful games and Bury Me, my Love certainly is such an example. This game is harrowing, but I can walk away. After working with Syrian refugees, it makes me a little queasy to play them, to play their struggle. But perhaps any kind of intervention, especially a very sympathetic, impacting, intelligent game is better than nothing.
This game really begs the question: how serious should serious games be?
I was commiserating with another translocated mother; she’s British and raising a son in Hawaii with an American husband, while I’m exactly the opposite. (Yes, I’m fairly sure that York is the opposite of Hawaii, alas.) We had been speaking about the subtle but substantial differences in nomenclature for British and American babies–everything from nappies vs. diapers to how the wheels on the bus go round and round, either all day long or all through town. London Bridge is rebuilt with different materials (silver and gold??) in the UK, whereas in the USA you take the key and lock her up…my fair lady. Needless to say, this all feeds into my shonky, blinkered ethnography of the UK, with this particular instance falling into the chapter on raising children.
Many of Tamsin’s books are from her grandparents who amassed a wealth of literature through teaching and having four children of their own. These are well-loved, disintegrating, and taped-together but remain compelling and most are still in print today. My favorites are the decidedly psychedelic Meg and Mog books (late 1970s):
Though The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) is a close second–its ambiguous (anti-fascist?) narrative of a very large furry tiger who eats all the food and all the drink in a house occupied by a little girl and her mummy while daddy’s away is oddly chilling, and requires a greater literary scholar than I to unpick.
Janet & Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo (1981) is another classic British children’s book that I was not familiar with. Without getting too much into the literary devices in the book, it is told from the perspective of a little baby boy who peeps through a hole cut into the next page at various scenes of family life.
While it is not stated, the book is set during WWII, yet portrays a happy domesticity during a devastating war. This would have probably been obvious to any British readers, with the barrage balloon/anti-aircraft blimp in the background of an image of a park, a bombed-out building in the distance, gas mask on the bed, and the father is shown in uniform toward the end of the book.
This is obviously a idealized, heteronormative vision of the British past, one that probably feels true and right and comfortable. Dan tells me that a lot of children’s books are set during this time; my sample and experience are still relatively limited. What caught my attention is the architecture–we live in a similar Victorian terraced house that backs onto a small, paved yard with a tiny garden.
I started noticing the period-specific features of the house, ones that are mostly gone from ours, like the big stove in the kitchen and the outhouse tacked onto the end of the shed. The traces of these remain in our house, and some of our neighbor’s houses still have the back shed.
I realized that you could figure out the interior of the house and the location of the various rooms from a generalized knowledge of the architecture of these houses. This is how ingrained and ubiquitous these terraced houses are in the UK. In fact, after reading the book at least 1,000 times, I reckoned it was close to this set up:
In this modern version the back shed has been converted into a kitchen and the former kitchen is now a dining room.
The interior scenes in Peepo are remarkably consistent, with objects (artefacts) appearing and reappearing as the everyday things interwoven into life. I wondered if the house was based on one from the Ahlbergs’ past, or if terrace houses were so generalizable that elaborate planning of the various scenes was not required. Of course the kitchen is there, with the stove just so, and the clothes horse in the corner.
I also love the book as potential inspiration for archaeological illustrations and reconstructions. It’s not messy, just full, rich with materiality and every object has a used and purposeful feeling to it. Small piles of toys are a playtime interrupted, but not quite cleared away. According to an interview in The Guardian, the illustrator Janet Ahlberg used The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1939-1940 for reference and “would get waylaid in it and sit for ages looking at bread-bins and kettles.”
The book is from a baby’s perspective, watching his family move around him and the details he picks up that might go unnoticed by adults. It also evokes the “daily round,” of waking, daily activity, then bath and bedtime. Out in the back yard he sees:
A bonfire smoking
Pigeons in the sky
His mother cleaning windows
A dog going by
I love publishing collaboratively. It shows the collective nature of knowledge construction in archaeology and it’s one of the ways that I can use my (relatively limited) power to push new ideas out in the world and to give other scholars a boost. I haven’t actually published “up” (with senior scholars) as much as is normally expected, though I have been included in a couple of publications for which I’m very grateful. Rather I’ve published articles with staff members, undergraduates, Master’s students (not my own), PhD students (also not my own), commercial archaeologists, fellow grad students in grad school, etc etc etc. (And, perhaps inadvisedly, my husband. I should burn a sage-filled manuscript for Sally Binford.) When I’ve solicited contributions for edited issues or conferences I try to contact a broad range of people to add their perspectives to the conversation.
I’m not necessarily trying to get kudos (I find this short piece on performing virtue and “rigid radicalism” extremely compelling), but it’s important to foreground participation and representation when “manels” and all-male journal editor boards and such are still happening. Like any good white liberal radical woman, I’ve got a good balance of (self-identified) male and female co-authors and, through the virtue of the projects that I’ve worked on, a few POC and “indigenous” scholars as well. (indigenous in quotations because I’m unsure they’d label themselves as such) These collaborations have never been out of tokenism but have been the result of compelling ideas formed out of collaborative work. Anyway, I’m being so reflexive that my palms are sweating. You can probably tell by the amount of parentheticals that it’s an uncomfortable subject to try to pick apart.
This is all to foreground something that has been nagging at me as I’m working on the edits for a chapter in an edited volume. It was collaboratively written by four people in very different career stages. There’s an undergraduate, a Master’s student, me (then a postdoc) and a Professor (sadly we never walked into a bar together as 2/4 are non-drinking Muslims). There are relatively large chunks that were contributed from the Master’s student and undergraduate, filler + theory from me, and some really gutsy, introspective stuff from the Prof. Interestingly, if you ranked us in academic power, then it would pretty much go as you expect. However if you ranked us in relative power in the socio-economic context in which we work, it might go something more like (in descending order of power): undergraduate, Professor, Master’s student and me (doh). With fairly wide gaps between a couple of these positions. I’m first author though. These kinds of interpersonal relationships and power differentials are so telling and important, and yet not visible to our eventual readership.
So we’ve put this Google doc together. The cool thing about the juggernaut of corporate evil and yet convenience that is the google academic ecosystem is that it is very easy to work collaboratively AND it is easy to unpick the relative authorship of a document by going through the version history (forget github, most academics begrudge you asking them to write in something other than Word). If journals published the version history alongside the final article you could see the 1) intellectual trajectory of the article 2) the impact of the peer reviewers and editors 3) the individual contributions of the authors to the writing. And cursing, probably. A whole new world of academic transparency.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been going through the editorial comments on the chapter. Some of these comments have dealt with shifting spelling conventions (US vs UK), fine, but others have dealt with the use of the active voice, “we,” which I’d like to resist but it’s the style of the rest of the volume and the (non-white, non-western, though they’d probably not describe themselves in the negative–writing about identity politics while keeping identity anonymous is near impossible, argh) editors don’t necessarily subscribe to my particular brand of stroppy (white, western) feminism as performed through writing (strong; like a man). Other comments have more explicitly asked us to write with a consistent voice. As lead author, I guess that is my voice. Without the “we” or me. So I go through and subtly change or obliterate all that does not sound like me. So much for heteroglossia.
Rosemary Joyce co-authored a brilliant book, Languages of Archaeology that brilliantly delves into the creation of archaeological writing in a much more rigorous and poetic fashion than my mangy and fraught blog post. Joyce has pointed to the possibilities of hypertext on severaloccasions, and Jeremy Huggett encourages a further investigation of the form. It’s compelling to imagine ways to reveal the craft and co-authorship of individual research articles, but I think I’m kidding myself if I thought anyone would actually go through and unpick them–people hardly read academic articles such as they are. Though perhaps the influence of collaborative writing through transparent(ish) version systems would be more upon the writers than the readers. Authorship and the gradual transformation of the text is very visible and gives us a chance to rethink academic power and responsibility. Maybe.
Aaannnnd that’s 850 words on meta-writing/procrastination. Back to the chapter.
This strike action has been a rapid education for me—though I’ve been teaching in universities since 2006, my lectureship so far has basically been firefighting, with developing new courses and getting used to new responsibilities while conducting top notch research (right???) and occasionally seeing that child that I’m rather fond of. I didn’t really think I’d have to learn the specifics of my pension, the timeline of escalating student fees (beginning to understand why Tony Blair is so thoroughly despised), and the subtly different rules of protest and industrial action in the UK, but here we are. We are two days into a strike action that could potentially take out 14 days of teaching from a critical time of the student year, the end of the spring term.
I’m no stranger to protest; my mother took me to an anti-nukes rally in the early 1980s, I protested the build-up to the 9/11 (forever) wars and took action in Berkeley many, many, many times, as perhaps one might expect. One of my photos of these protests made the cover of the 2010 University in Crisis issue of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers.
The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people of good conscience. We are raised, with good reason, to be obedient; it requires a great deal of discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our more sociable inclinations to conform….
…the call to direct action was not limited to ‘safely’ tenured faculty – but included undergraduate and graduate students, and untenured faculty, drawn into sometimes uncomfortable confrontations with the administration by their sense of integrity and drawing strength from what I am calling “the habit of courage.”
This habit of courage and willingness to engage in ‘non-violent resistance’ has weakened in recent decades, replaced by a self-interested and protectionist academic ethos. A more politically cautious faculty have followed a neoliberal notion of decorous and quiet civility….
Meanwhile, there is a resurgence of anti-intellectualism, the infiltration of corporate business models to every aspect of academic and university life, the devaluation of the arts, humanities and the social sciences, increasingly seen either as a luxury or as intellectual enemies of the global economy. The Enlightenment idea of the university as a voluntary community of teachers, researchers, and students dedicated to the open and disinterested pursuit of knowledge and learning is being rapidly replaced by the idea of the university as a corporate enterprise whose primary functions are to provide a skilled workforce and to generate profitable and usable research for industry and global commerce.
Scheper-Hughes points out that, ironically, during these strike actions we actually do more teaching and admin than we would have done otherwise, through organized teach-outs, strategy meetings, and public outreach on the radio, print and television.
We’ve been organizing Teach-Outs (as opposed to Teach-ins, which would cross picket lines) at our local archaeology pub who immediately and fervently declared their solidarity. I was afraid that our first Teach-Out would find me and a handful of fellow lecturers having a lonely pint, but…we had standing room only. There is a hunger for action amongst students and staff that is refreshing but honestly unsurprising.
During the Teach-Out, we had questions and discussion guided by the progressive stack, a tactic used for group meetings during Occupy. Sara Perry and I had been talking about ways we could use it in the classroom, and I had written it up for review by our teaching committee. The progressive stack in the context of the Teach-Out was invigorating; POC spoke before white people, LGBTQ+ people before cishets, students before lecturers, women before men…to the best of my ability, at least. It relied on my own biases and foreknowledge, so it was (deeply) imperfect, but foregrounded voices that were critical to our discussion. We’re doing it again on Monday, and hopefully gathering momentum–getting more diversity on our speaking panel, etc.
It was and will continue to be, completely exhausting. Organizing on the fly, standing out in the bitter, bitter cold, and keeping up the emotional energy left me with very little to give my family afterwards. So…basically like academia, right?
But, again, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes states:
Nothing good happens without struggle, without solidarity, without a readiness and a willingness to court controversy, to take risks, and to expect and to sustain retaliation….
There’s a very real chance that this, my first UK industrial action, might be the last. If it fails, a toothless union isn’t worth much, except to be laughed down by ridiculously overpaid VCssipping “pornstar” martinis in expensive hotel suites while our precarious associate lecturers and other university workers struggle to make ends meet. It’s critically important to support the strike and to take back our universities.
It’s fairly well-known that I’m a fan of the Archaeology Data Service, lauding their efforts and crashing their parties whenever I can. It is amazing to be right down the hall from the hive of archival activity, and Internet Archaeology is just up a couple of flights of stairs. I’m alwayshappy to publish in Internet Archaeology, as the journal’s Open Access ideals and flexible data formats work well for digital archaeology.
What didn’t occur to me, at least at first, was the powerful teaching tool that combining the two would represent. This year I led on Accessing Archaeology, a module that our entire first year cohort of undergraduates takes. Students are introduced to basic concepts of Archaeology, including sessions on Landscape, Material Culture, Excavation, Archaeology & Science, etc. Each week students are in seminars wherein they discuss these concepts, using a textbook (available online through the library) and, importantly, present in small groups on a particular case study that shows the application of these concepts.
Some of case studies that the students present are from Internet Archaeology, and many of these articles have backup datasets stored at the Archaeology Data Service. For example for the seminar on Excavation, we use:
I did not design the module–the heavy lifting was done a few years ago by my colleague Dr Steve Ashby (of Real Vikings fame), but I find that the way it integrates teaching the basics of archaeology with specific case studies presented by students to be an excellent method of engaging students with the material.
The module culminates (as many do) with an essay, and this year I set the question to draw from two different lines of evidence (say, analysis of structures + zooarchaeology or human remains + environmental sampling) from a single site to make an argument. Sorry I’m being a bit vague–I’d like to use variations on the theme in the future!
The students were able to pick one of six sites, five of which were archived with the Archaeology Data Service. This way they could access not only the associated official publications, but they could really dig into (sorry) the excavation data to query the methods used at the site. One of these sites was Sutton Hoo, which has a huge amount of data archived at the ADS. Students can access field reports, images, specialist reports, maps, and other archaeological gray literature to build their arguments.
I’m fairly new at teaching with archives, but I hope to integrate more of the materials at the ADS into the courses I teach as it’s an incredible resource and evokes both the desk-based assessments that archaeologists must perform before archaeological investigation and reveals how archaeologists make arguments with archaeological data–for better or worse!
It…is a monster. Weighing in at over 10,700 words, we examine the history of archaeological field drawing to better contextualize the emergence of digital (paperless) field recording and drawing. We reference literature in architecture and design to inform this transition to digital, and find that drawing performs several essential functions in understanding archaeological stratigraphy. From the article:
As drawing has persisted since the beginning of archaeological recording, remained important after the introduction of photography, is characterized as an essential mode of communication and knowledge production within archaeology, and features prominently within abductive reasoning during initial archaeological investigation, a complete abdication to digital recording should be a matter of intense consideration.
Getting the article out was a bit of a fraught process, having to retrospectively include literature that was published after submission (Mobilizing the Past: Recent Approaches to Archaeological Fieldwork in a Digital Age I’m looking at you) and trying to include actual field drawings–it was a real struggle getting pencil drawings on gridded permatrace to be high enough resolution, so I ended up having to digitize the drawing, then had to trace the drawing onto the included photograph to make it extra clear. Layers of irony in that one in the digital/analog back and forth. The editors were great though and really worked hard with us to get it out.
I was especially happy to publish with the esteemed Dr Holly Wright, as this formed part of her dissertation on digital field drawing. She’s a good friend and colleague and it’s always fun to publish with folks. I was also able to include drawings from some pretty legendary archaeologists, Michael House and Chiz Haward.
Chiz was especially helpful and contributed an amazing elevation that he created through both digital and analog drawing. We quote him at length in the article as his integrated workflow was especially informative to our argument. Illustrations from David Mackie and Ben Sharp also feature, as well as some lesser-known dudes such as John Aubrey, General Pitt-Rivers, Stuart Piggott and Mortimer Wheeler. (No women! That’s the subject of some current research, watch this space.)
Anyway, I’d be exceedingly happy if you read this and shared it widely and let me know what you think.