EJA Special Issue: Digital Archaeologies

EJA_Cover
EJA cover, courtesy of David Osborne

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.

Archaeology in 360 video

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.

Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology

New publication!

Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology came out today in the European Journal of Archaeology. The article comes from our session at EAA 2018, Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies, and is part of a dedicated volume. I’ll write another blog post when the volume is completely published, but contributions from William Caraher, Ruth Tringham, and Katherine Cook are up on FirstView.

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.

Title: Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology

Abstract:

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.

If you don’t have access, here are the pre-proofs.

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.

EAA 2018: Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies

I’m very excited to announce that Catherine Frieman, Marta Diaz-Guardamino Uribe and I are co-organizing a session at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Barcelona, 5-8 September. We’d love you to join our session!
Title: Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies
Abstract:
Our engagement with the digital is reformulating the ways in which we (post/humans) engage with/create our worlds. In archaeology, digital processes and media are affording new practices of production, consumption and reception of knowledge, while throwing new light on existing analog methods. The digital is extending our cognitive and sensual capabilities, allowing us to explore previously uncharted grounds, giving us tools to envision the past in different ways, and enabling large datasets to be processed, distributed, and engaged with interactively. During this process, critical appraisal of the archaeological-digital has been relatively limited. 
In this session we will evaluate the growing paradigm of digital archaeology from an ontological point of view, showcase the ways digital technologies are being applied in archaeological practice—in the field/lab/studio/classroom—in order to critically engage with the range of questions about past people and worlds into which digital media give us new insights and avenues of approach. We ask how digital media and technology are being applied, whether they are broadening access to the archaeological record and how they are shifting relationships between archaeologists, the archaeological record and the public. 
Papers should have a theory-based approach to digital archaeological methods and set the agenda for future investigation. They should discuss the ways digital archaeology is affecting, disrupting and/or enhancing archaeological fieldwork, public archaeology, education and the publication/dissemination of archaeological data. Of particular interest are papers that engage with creativity and making, digital post/transhumanism, query analog methods through digital media, and feminist, indigenous or queer digital archaeologies.
For the session we have determined to pre-circulate papers and have a more general discussion panel at the conference. This will provide us more time and space for truly grappling with the questions at the heart of the session.
We also expect to publish this session in the European Journal of Archaeology. To that end, the following timeline would be applicable
1 February: Let us know that you are interested + provide a title for your paper
15 February: Submit your paper abstract to the EAA
1 August: Precirculated papers due
5-8 September: EAA Meeting
10 January: Final draft of paper due

Is it ethical to use social media for teaching archaeology?

Taken in 2009.

In 2008 I wrote a fairly shiny, wide-eyed treatment of the use of Facebook in the classroom, arguing that it provided an opportunity to discuss online privacy and a unique way to engage with archaeology. I gave the option for students to create a fake profile for a 19th century resident Zeta Psi fraternity house, a subject of research for one of the classes, when one could still do such a thing. To wit:

A critical pedagogical engagement in archaeology offers the potential to serve as an emancipatory practice, in that dominant political and historical narratives are challenged with the material record, providing a way for students to examine these narratives within their specific historical context and provide their own interpretations (Conkey and Tringham 1996; Hamilakis 2004).

Social media was a great way to get students to translate taught material and research into a sphere that they are more familiar with and use it to query the historical and archaeological record. Great, fabulous…I wrote the short piece for a teaching prize, which I didn’t get. Oh well, add it to my failure CV ala Shawn Graham.

Fast-forward a decade and I receive a notification specifically calling for examples of innovative use of social media within the classroom. Always too early. Oh well. Anyway, I’ve used social media ever since to disseminate archaeological information in various ways, to an almost tedious extent. This autumn I taught a course called Communicating Archaeology wherein the students used blogs as a platform to host archaeological media that they created themselves. I don’t consider this to be radical in any way, just a convenient way to cohesively host content.

….except. Except that I’ve asked them to use WordPress. I quite like WordPress, perhaps obviously, but my (and my students’) content creation provides their bottom line. I can justify this to a certain extent with my own work in that it is a bit like (wince) academic publishing. Would I feel the same if WordPress was funded by adverts and posts actively helping to undermine elections, ala Facebook? Do I know that they are not?

Would I feel comfortable asking my students to perform their content on Facebook or Twitter these days? I’m not entirely sure. There has been some discussion regarding the ethics of use of social media amongst archaeologists, several of which are linked from my department’s webpage, but none of it engages with the fact that we are assigning students to create monetized content on for-profit platforms, OR that by making our students engage with these platforms they are getting their personal information harvested and re-sold. Never mind that, during an untold mental health crisis amongst our students, we are encouraging them to engage with media that actively makes users feel worse about themselves.

During my last lecture of Communicating Archaeology I emphasized to the students that on social media, the product is YOU. If you choose to engage with social media you may as well try to use it in a way that will benefit you, as those companies are profiting from your participation. For now the pedagogical balance may fall on a structured, critical engagement with social media, but any use in the classroom needs to fully consider the monetization of content and personal information provided.

The Lessons of Pokémon Go for Heritage

Pokémon Go at Stonehenge (re: Stu Eve)
Pokémon Go at Stonehenge (re: Stu Eve)

I have to admit, I was mostly ignoring the emergence of Pokémon Go, as I have probably the most gorgeous baby girl in the world to attend to these days. But after my favorite co-conspirator Stu Eve wrote a rather grumpy piece about augmented reality and Pokémon Go, I couldn’t resist.

Stu and I are basically the Statler and Waldorf of digital archaeology.
Stu and I are basically the Statler and Waldorf of digital archaeology. Especially if you don’t cite us.

Stu implores people to go outside, to use augmented reality to enhance and enchant heritage sites or even to ditch technology altogether and preserve and observe the wildlife that is already there instead of cartoon creatures. Stu then goes on to demonstrate that Pokémon Go distracts from heritage, citing a girl on Twitter catching a Pokémon at Stonehenge.

I contend that people playing Pokémon Go at heritage sites are simply extending their performance of identity on social media. It is not enough now to have an Instgram-filtered photo of you and your bestie at Stonehenge. There is a rather interesting one-upmanship in the attempt to capture unique content in the digital visual morass. When everyone has a photograph of Stonehenge, how can yours be the most unique, the most quirky or authentic performance of self in respect to the backdrop?

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK

An interesting example–in the Volte Face series of photographs, Oliver Curtis deliberately turns away from the heritage focal point to capture the reverse view. This is provocative and compelling in its simplicity; the photographs reveal a blind side, a kind of back-stage for heritage at the same time as anthropomorphizing the heritage site–this is what the heritage “sees.”

Adding a Pokémon Go overlay adds a new element of interest, an unexpected juxtaposition of cartoon characters in a solemn (potentially boring) place. I, for one, welcome the Charizard on top of the Vatican–though I certainly share Stu’s concern for the complete monetization of experience.

The first lesson from Pokémon Go for archaeologists and heritage managers is that people are looking for novel, collective ways to experience and perform heritage. I think it is particularly important to note that Pokémon Go is obviously not a bespoke heritage application. It corresponds with my digital archaeological practice in that instead of attempting to build wholly new heritage-based applications and such, I try to use what people are already using as a form of interventionism, or even, at a stretch, détournement.

Memory maps at the San Francisco Presidio, 2008.
Flickr memory maps for geolocative interpretation at the San Francisco Presidio, 2008.

It is a hacky approach and everything breaks all the time–though bespoke heritage applications might actually have a worse track record–but surprising people by putting archaeology where they are not expecting it is its own reward. Be reactive, try to place archaeology in unexpected places, and don’t be too surprised when it blows up or it is ignored and it slowly fades away.

Perhaps the second lesson from Pokémon Go is that there is a corresponding retreat from digital media in archaeology from some of the most forward thinking digital archaeologists. It may be that the next challenge is to create interpretation so compelling, or so self-actualized that they put aside their phones and completely immerse themselves in experiencing heritage sites. Right? Devil’s advocate though–even if we managed such a monumental post-digital interpretive experience, we’d have to take photos of people engaged with it for the eventual publication. After all, pics or it didn’t happen.