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.

The Archaeology of Far Cry Primal

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The professors were in their places, the Twitch stream went live, and Micheál Butler, one of our MA students in Mesolithic Studies started the count-down to 10,000 BC. I am always excited when experimental play sessions come together, as it’s rare to find the right combination of archaeological and technical expertise and the will to bring it all together. We had Professors Nicky Milner (Mesolithic expert, director of the fab Star Carr excavation) and Matthew Collins (encyclopedic knowledge of all things cutting edge in archaeological science) discussing…a video game.

It was a bit quiet at first–I hadn’t heavily promoted the event as I was not sure it was going to work and I was completely frantic at the end of the term with teaching and other responsibilities, but it did, and now Nicky and Matthew were discussing the size of the cowrie shells worn by the characters, hunting in the Mesolithic, saber tooth tigers…and then the questions from the audience started streaming in.

How common was the consumption of raw meat and fat during this period? Did early humans not get sick with parasites and disease often?

Cowrie shell wrist wraps. Accurate, appropriate, fashion-forward?

How often did early humans venture out at night to hunt and scavenge? Further, did early humans operate on the same night/day cycle as we do?

Great questions! Nicky and Matthew were able to bring several archaeological examples into the conversation. I was able to chime in a bit about representation and video gaming in general. You can watch the play-through and conversation here:

Part One:

Part Two:

I am particularly appreciative of this, given that I’ve been dealing with and thinking about video games & archaeology for almost ten years (Tomb Raider & Embodiment, Tomb Raider & Angkor WatMy Game Biography, Video Game Cartography, Avatars I, II, Gone Home, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and oh god so much Second Life). It has been fantastic to see initiatives like the Value Project and Play the Past–and check out Tara Copplestone’s blog on our Far Cry playthrough, where she thoughtfully describes the relationship (or lack thereof) between academic archaeology and video game makers and players.

Further, I appreciate my colleagues here at York for possessing a quality that I’ve previously described as “being game.” That is, being open to experiences of all kinds, and importantly, letting this allow you to see your archaeology in new and interesting ways. It’s my #1 most important trait for people I collaborate with, and can be extremely rare.

So here’s to more play-throughs, gaming, and elbowing out a bit of room for fun in archaeology.

Post-photography and Archaeology

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Eron Rauch’ post-photography in video games: “This panorama is made up of screenshots of every player corpse I came across while I levelled up my character in World of Warcraft.”

Last week I submitted my CAA paper, The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography, for publication in the proceedings. It’s the second paper on photography and archaeology that I’ve submitted this month; the first was Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement and covered the analog to digital transition, with some added content/semiotic analysis thrown in for good measure. It’s nice finally submitting some of this stuff for publication, and I still have a fairly large unpublished chunk to go. Let’s hope it gets through the peer review process relatively unscathed.

The Death & Afterlife paper deals with a second “wave” of digital photography in archaeology. I argue that the first wave was essentially skeuomorphic–that it replicated composition and content from film photography, just more and faster. The second wave has moved into what has been termed the post-photographic, and I explore what this means in terms of 3D photogrammetric reconstruction, drone photography, and geomedia. Though photography in archaeology is becoming increasingly algorithmic, with more layers processed and varying results at the end, the output at the end still points toward photography. For example, your nice 3D Photoscan model is still presented as a 2D image in your report. What will be truly revolutionary is when publication no longer flattens archaeology.

Photography in archaeology is, as Martin Lister states, “a residual cultural practice…technically dead but still animate,” a trait I cite in the title of my article. Photography is incredibly useful to think with, especially as we try to understand the place of digital media in archaeological interpretation. Photography is deeply implicated in the history of archaeology, both as products and projects of modernity. In my conclusions, I discuss the post-photographic in terms of the post-digital; I cite the post-digital as a shift akin to the postcolonial, what Florian Cramer calls a “critically revised continuation” rather than a turn toward the analog. Jeremy Huggett has posted some thoughts regarding the postdigital as well.

I was still thinking of all of this when I came across Eron Rauch’s A Land to Die in, a momento mori for video games–photographs of all the corpses of other players that he came across in World of Warcraft. His photographs remind me of those taken on Mount Everest, of people felled in mid-adventure, “a constant reminder of the masses of other people and their stories; some who conquered, some who fell, a million virtual Beowulfs”. I think about this as I make avatars of past people and machinima of past landscapes that end up becoming still images in powerpoint slides. Not-quite-photographs of not-quite-right reconstructions of dead people, all coming together in pixels. Can we still ask: what does the archaeological post-digital photograph want?

A Decade of Archaeology in Action on Flickr

Nya lödöse 150312-2439.
Nya lödöse 150312-2439. Sweden.

I’ve been using Flickr for photographs since 2005, and have administered a group “Archaeology in Action” for almost as long. There’s 630 members and almost 4,200 photographs of archaeologists doing that thing we like doing so well.

Archaeologist Mary Weahkee during an Education Outreach event
Archaeologist Mary Weahkee during an Education Outreach event. New Mexico, USA.

Interestingly, being the admin for the group helped me define what it meant to be an “archaeologist in action”–what does our discipline cover? It also helped me define what an archaeological photograph is, exactly. HINT: NOT YOUR TRAVEL PHOTOS OF THE PYRAMIDS. I delete those mercilessly.

Shilla, South Korea - archaeology, planum
Shilla, South Korea – archaeology, planum

Why? Why should I censor the tourists? Aren’t their experiences of the site just as legitimate as ours? Perhaps. But it wasn’t archaeology. The Flickr group was cultivated to be a resource for educators, and to show a diversity of people doing archaeology. That last, active part was also important. Someone in the photo had to be doing something. Even if that someone was behind the camera. The photographer had to make archaeological seeing visible.

Modele Numerique de Terrain d'un chantier archéologique à Fleury-sur-Orne (Calvados-FR).
Modele Numerique de Terrain d’un chantier archéologique à Fleury-sur-Orne (Calvados-FR).

The group has been motoring on, attracting spam, but also, occasionally, surprising me with gorgeous, raw, photos from around the world of the incredible, strange, delightful tasks of archaeology.

Archaeologist Karen Wening surveys the highway right-of-way at the top of San Augustin pass on US Highway 70, about 10 miles east of Las Cruces.
Archaeologist Karen Wening surveys the highway right-of-way at the top of San Augustin pass on US Highway 70, about 10 miles east of Las Cruces.

Recently Flickr took away one of my most favorite functions–note taking. I loved this function as I was able to annotate maps and photographs to explain different features–it was great for outreach. I heard that they’ll add it back soon. Let’s cross our fingers!

Nya Lödöse Project, working on a Harris Matrix.
Nya Lödöse Project, working on a Harris Matrix.

In the meantime, if you have any photos of archaeology in action, sling them toward the group!

Previous photo-based posts highlighting Archaeology in Action. I probably should have made it a series at some point. Or at least had a consistent naming scheme:

Archaeology in Action on Flickr
Archaeology in Action Update
Archaeology in Action, Another Update
Archaeology in Action Around the World
Archaeology Around the World
Community Archaeology in Action

CAA 2015: The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography

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Hello from lovely Siena! In about an hour I will be presenting in the Towards a Theory of Practice in Applied Digital Field Methods session at the CAA conference. It’s my first CAA–it is usually too close to SAA to manage, but I thought I’d try both this year. Anyway, here’s my paper title & abstract:

Title: The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography

Abstract: 

The second wave of digital photography in archaeology, including HDR, photogrammetry, textures for 3D objects, time-lapse, drone photography, and screen-shots from google earth has destabilized notions of craft, authorship and the archive. Personal photography, taken with cellphones and curated on social media has created a substantial, expressive counter-archive that documents a more personal, experiential account of archaeological investigation. Digital manipulation of photographs has created a genre of hybrid images that combine past and present landscapes, to startling effect. While interplay between analog and digital photographies, inspiring innovation and stealing from one another, demonstrates that the digital age is still deeply embroiled with analog values and aesthetics, the second wave of digital photography in archaeology ventures into what J.T. Mitchell termed the “post-photographic” (1992:225).

While Mitchell characterized the post- photographic era as an “ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real, and the tragic elusiveness of the Cartesian dream” (1992:225), this “loss of the real” has instead become a hyperreality wherein the imaginary is intimately linked to reality. The networked image has both decentered the “reality” of the photograph by hosting endless modifications and reproductions of the image while at the same time providing the ability to reference (or trace) the original “real” work. This “real” work is hosted next to the derivations, both de-centering its authority while also providing a citation for the modified images.

The post-photographic era is generative, rendering the act of creation of the photograph as something that will be reproduced and modified, instead of creating a single artifact. The placement of digital photography within an “interactive, networked interplay of a larger metamedia” is termed “hyperphotography” by Fred Ritchin (2009:141). Metamedia can be conceived as a media ecology of “larger personal communication that will keep appointments, make calls, take visual notes, check calendars, order from restaurants, find out about sales in neighboring stores, check blood pressure, and tune in to television, radio and personal playlists” (Richin 2009:145). It is within this media ecology that we must understand archaeological photography, not simply as a separate methodology, but as part of a network of personal and professional digital practice.

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)