EJA Special Issue: Digital Archaeologies

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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.

Archaeology, Westworld, and Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that people form with other people (or animals, or things) who are unaware of the other’s existence. It was coined by psychologists Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe “intimacy at a distance”–the emotions and investment that members of an audience feel in mediated encounters with actors, particularly on TV. I began thinking about parasocial relationships with people in the past; could our interpretive media create such a strong response as to evoke this sense of intimacy? Would a truly engaged public look like fan culture?

Let’s play this out a little bit. Would a true marker of the impact (ugh, I’m beginning to hate that word) of our research be if someone wrote fanfiction about the site, artifact, human remains featured? Should we be applying for funding to host an Archaeo-con, where people cosplay as their favorite beaker person? Or are archaeologists themselves the actual fans, forming parasocial relationships with their particular time period, region, material focus? Are we the ones writing fanfiction about the past? And if so, isn’t that freeing?

Yet a parasocial relationship implies that there is a barrier between the fan and the object of adoration. In archaeology that barrier would be time depth, our focus fuzzy from our various interpretive lenses. But I wonder if parasocial relationships have changed with digital media–harassing your favorite actor is just a tweet away. I’ve previously argued that archaeological interpretation and mediation creates an interstitial space, being “telepresent“–not in the past, fully, but also not quite fully in the present. This can be with any media, but I find it can be particularly affective with digital interpretations. Arguably, the feeling of telepresence and accessibility to the past through an interstitial space might be ascribed to a changing media metaphor–instead of TV we have VR.

In 2018, HBO promoted the second season of Westworld with the Westworld Experience. Westworld plays with tropes of human/android/cyborg experience and so it was fitting that for the Westworld Experience, they hired actors to play androids programmed to think they were humans. And other humans came to interact with the actors and treated them as…less than human. But the experience the Westworld Experience actors had themselves as fully immersed within this world recalled the experience of living history practitioners as described by Handler and Saxton in their article on Dyssimulation. Perhaps the past feels more authentic because there is a more coherent narrative (in retrospect) than our mundane, disjointed lives exhibit. A story feels more true.

So, as archaeological/heritage interpreters, do we aim for a more coherent story that feels true, to fully immerse other people, to omit breaks of presence, or do we dive straight into the dissonance and make interpretations that highlight the disjunctures in interpretation, but may be ultimately self-serving? Are the parasocial relationships we form with those cunningly inaccessible people in the past more compelling because they don’t have the temerity to talk back? …yet?

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.

Digging for DNA on Medium.com

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I’m very pleased with this long-form, popular article that I wrote: Digging for DNA: Archaeology, Genetics & the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I wasn’t sure where to put it at first, as it’s long for many journals, and a lot of places do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Journalistic writing is surprisingly difficult to break into! It was also one of the more difficult things that I’ve written, as it details very contentious issues in research on ethnicity and genetics.

While my name is on the byline, it received quite a few edits from the researchers involved–precise language is important in discussions of scientific research, and I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting perspectives of the researchers and fellows involved.

It was also interesting to write something for Medium.com, as there does not seem to be much of an archaeological presence there. Additionally, they give you stats on how many people get to the bottom of the article–so far, less than 1/3 of readers muscled their way through the nearly 5,000 words.

Overall, it has been a revelation working with the EUROTAST network, and has considerably shaped my future research projects. I hope you enjoy this discussion of their research! Here’s the first paragraph of the article:

Marcela Sandoval gave me a wry grin, then covered her face with a mask. Next, a covering for her hair, goggles, booties over her shoes, and a crisp, white suit that crinkled when she moved. Finally, a pair of turgid purple latex gloves snapped into place. She put her hands on her hips and impatiently motioned for me to get on with it. I awkwardly pulled on my own clean suit and followed her into the laboratory, where a faint glow outlined test tubes and complex machines.

Here, in this quiet room, was the beginning of a complex, captivating story about genetics, ethnicity, and the archaeological past.

For more, go to:
https://medium.com/@colleenmorgan/digging-for-dna-3c1984ed94d6

Archaeology Hack-a-thon! The Heritage Jam, Cemeteries & Audioscapes

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Alexis and Sam, hacking away!

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the basic outlines of what a “Jam” should be in the tech/gaming world–everyone comes together to hack on a project together to see what kind of results you can get with very intense focus for a short amount of time–but how would that play out in the world of interpretation and heritage? I just knew that I was excited to finally have a chance to work on something with other visualizers, some of whom I’d known for years. We started out bright and early at 9:00, went through introductions, got an outline of a plan together, then went to York Cemetery to gather primary data…

(Read the rest of the post written by me and Stu Eve at the Day of Archaeology website)

AAA 2013: A Digital Ecology of Sharing Archaeology

Sorry to post yet another abstract, but the American Anthropological Association has come to San Francisco and I’m presenting in a fantastic panel titled, Sharing Anthropology: Theorizing Anthropological Research in the Age of Social Media. All of the rest of the presenters are anthropologists (except for Ryan Anderson, who is a sneaky former archaeologist) so I’ll be one reppin’ the field.

Sadly my slides aren’t going to be quite as fantastic as the ones I previously posted, but what can you do? Here’s my abstract:

A Digital Ecology of Sharing Archaeology

Clean. Draw. Photograph. Level. Record. Dig. Sample. Sort Artifacts. Share.

Share?

Archaeologists are increasingly recognizing the benefits of an online presence. Field school blogs and project Facebook pages have become standard outreach fare. Yet this outreach is often an afterthought, relegated to undergraduate students and rarely cultivated as a legitimate expression of archaeological research. I argue that unless digital sharing moves beyond a rarely-updated Facebook page and is integrated into all aspects of archaeological practice it will always be considered an illegitimate by-product, remaining at the fringes of our profession, a poor shadow of the potential that digital outreach has for communicating with the public. This integration involves disrupting our professional customs to re-frame our research in terms of expressive, teachable moments. Contrary to the opinion that sharing at an intimate level would compromise our research, I argue that sharing can introduce reflexivity into the archaeological process and increase multivocality among project participants. Creating a digital ecology wherein archaeological research is made available “at the trowel’s edge” and rewarded as a legitimate undertaking is risky, unpredictable, and utterly necessary to usher archaeology into the digital age.