Antiquity: Digital Debate

AFK Minecraft

I was asked to participate in a debate forum for Antiquity, instigated by Computer Scientist John Aycock’s The coming tsunami of digital artefacts. To greatly oversimplify, Aycock warns archaeologists that there is a lot of digital stuff and that we are not particularly well equipped to do the archaeology of digital things and we’d best get our acts together. In their respective responses, Sarah and Eric Kansa focus on archives and Jeremy Huggett discusses the definitions of digital archaeology and digital artefacts. They’re all very worthy discussions–I think it’s particularly funny that Huggett and I both lean on the old bricoleurs chestnut.

Then I go off on a Deleuzian discussion of Minecraft flint, that’s probably a bit half-baked, but it was fun and I’d like to expand on it. Then I say we can’t record all the digital things because we’d move up in the long list of environmental baddies, shades of the Borges map that covers the territory, etc. I also try to make cyborg archaeology happen. Forgive me.

An extract:

Aycock (2021) advises us to partner with computer scientists to examine the code. This is, of course, advisable for us to understand how the Minecraft flint was created, how it changed over time and is linked to other in-game affordances. We could document and potentially ‘excavate’ the Java code for the game, as Aycock and other archaeologists have done. The code, however, is one part of the assemblage that the Minecraft flint comprises, and I am equally interested in the other constituent parts. A prefigurative, embodied, feminist post-human approach—also known as cyborg archaeology (Morgan (2019); by way of Haraway (1985) and Braidotti (1997))—would encourage us to investigate the political implications of Minecraft, as its play is based in an extractionist settler colonial understanding of the world (Brazelton 2020), accompanied by a call to reconfigure the game along kin-based networks. An embodied approach would explore the effects of the digital on our bodies: on posture, bone spurs, and microplastics in our organs. A climate-aware archaeological investigation of scale and environment could help us understand how digital mining of a different kind, for example, bitcoin, is hastening global warming (Mora et al2018).

You can go to Antiquity to access my response:

Morgan, C. (2021). An archaeology of digital things: Social, political, polemical. Antiquity, 1-4. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.125.

Or check it out here:

Save the Date for Future Mourning: Prefiguration and Heritage

I was invited to respond to an ongoing discussion regarding prefiguration and heritage, instigated by Lewis Borck in his article, Constructing the Future History: Prefiguration as Historical Epistemology and the Chronopolitics of Archaeology. Cornelius Holtorf, wrote a response piece in Kritische Archäologie, Heritage Futures, Prefiguration and World Heritage, and I responded to that. Lost yet?

I think my short response piece can be read on its own, but if you want the full scholarly context, please do read the other articles. A sample below:

At play within Lewis Borck’s “Constructing the Future History: Prefiguration as Historical Epistemology and the Chronopolitics of Archaeology” (2019) and Cornelius Holtorf’s response, “Heritage Futures, Prefiguration and World Heritage” (2020) are ways to understand the future through our actions in the present. A response to these articles that considers heritage, climate change and the future should probably begin with impending doom, rising tides, shattering storms, a recent, heartfelt loss of cultural heritage. How do we understand a future that extends from this excruciating present without incorporating mechanisms for mourning? Let me, instead, draw very large parentheses around and an underline beneath climate change (climate change). Perhaps bold too? (climate change) This is our catastrophe, our great challenge, the change that changes everything. It is happening, and then…?

As archaeologists we should be well-versed in the “and then.” As archaeologists we know that all is change, everything is always changing, endless battleships of seriation diagrams dancing like sugar plum fairies around our heads. I always wondered if, at that last, pointy tip of the diagram, there was a sound like a slow exhale and a small puff of smoke as the artefact transforms into archaeology. The breathy sighs of material culture as they pass
from memory. At least, from the memory of antiquity, as they become archaeological. And climate change has that very pointy tip at our throats. Well, to be honest, at the throats of our children. Or perhaps the throats of children far away in other countries where they don’t have a fat buffer of colonial treasure and can’t afford turrets at the coastlines and military flights with payloads of vaccinations. But even tucked inside these bastions of wealth and
privilege, we are shedding what we call “cultural heritage” in polite society at a fairly remarkable rate. Of course, this loss does not compare to the great ravening mouth of development-concrete-fast-capitalism which pays the bills for many of our students, friends, colleagues. In the Great Concerns of capitalism and climate change, archaeology’s rank is debatable.

To read the rest, visit Forum Kritische Archäologie.

OTHER EYES: Understanding the past through bioarchaeology and digital media

Hey, good news!

I received an AHRC Early Career Grant for the Other Eyes Project.

The Other Eyes project confronts an emerging issue within archaeology: that of interpreting past people using digital technology. For over 350 years scientists have sought to recreate the worlds inhabited by our human ancestors using drawings, models and dioramas. Using 21st century digital technology, we can now use DNA recovered from skeletal remains to make 3D digital avatars of past people. But what benefits might this bring and what questions does it raise? How do we digitally reconstruct past people and does the authenticity matter? Does the ability to digitally embody a past person of a different age, sex, or with a disability change the way we think about the past? Are there significant differences between traditional 2D illustrations, museum models, and 3D avatars in the representation and understanding of past people? What are the ethics of “resurrecting” past people based on bioarchaeological evidence and can (and should) reconstructions of past people be archived to encourage their creative reuse?

Basically, the avatars research. I’m pretty excited as it brings together a lot of the smartest people I know to tackle a tricky issue that’s been on my mind for, oh, almost 15 years!

For more information, here’s the webpage: https://other-eyes.org

Archaeology in 3D at the University of York

I’ve written a blog post for the Cultural Heritage blog at Sketchfab:

https://sketchfab.com/blogs/community/archaeology-in-3d-at-the-university-of-york/

On the tours that we give to new students, we like to joke that the DAH Lab, a gorgeous barrel vault in the stately King’s Manor, was once King Henry the Eighth’s wine cellar. Sadly this is probably not true, but it is still one of the last places you might suspect would house the Digital Archaeology and Heritage Lab. The DAH Lab is the latest innovation in a long history of digital archaeology for the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. The King’s Manor is also home to the Archaeology Data Service, founded in 1996 for the long-term digital preservation of archaeological data and Internet Archaeology, an Open Access journal that has been publishing online since 1996. Amidst this storied digital history, my colleagues and I lead courses on 3D modelling, photogrammetry, GIS, laser scanning, and VR for archaeology and heritage students, at the undergraduate and postgraduate level….

Read more at the blog. Big thanks to Abby Crawford for the encouragement to post.

The “Archaeology Can” Bot

I’ve been off twitter again, and it’s done me a world of good to be away from the anxiety machine. Anyway, I subscribe to the James Murphy (LCD Soundsystems) philosophy:

The best way to complain is to make things.

I’ve wanted to make a bot for ages now, so I finally made the Archaeology Can bot. Originally I wanted it to take snips from publications, such as:

archaeology can promote health by connecting project participants and other community members with their territories

or

Archaeology can make a major contribution to modern anthropology by studying the processes of European expansion, exploration, and colonialization

The best I could do was grab an RSS from google news, so it will update with links to news articles that tell us what the press thinks that archaeology can do. And it doesn’t grab the exact quote, which is highly unsatisfying.

So then I followed Shawn Graham’s excellent tutorial and worked up a grammar in tracery that mostly works. It is certainly not a “bot of conviction” but it gives us grand and fairly meaningless statements such as:

“Archaeology can make a community.”

“Archaeology can require a planet.”

“Archaeology can pretend your past.”

“Archaeology can deliver our modern day.”

I considered making my main account into a bot, which I would find natural and good. And I may still do that someday. But for now, have a little whisper of possibility, keep on, keeping on.

Playing With Monsters: An Uncanny Digital Archaeology

Poster created by Shang Yang

I was honored and excited to be invited to give a virtual brown bag at the Stanford Archaeology Center earlier in October. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t have time to make something that would capture a virtual audience, but I decided to do my favorite thing–make trouble. For the lecture I decided to mess with the usual, expository, talking-head format through some fairly minor interventions in video editing. As my digital surrogate disgorged the lecture, I typed alongside, providing snide commentary, marginalia, etc.

At one point we were “zoom bombed” which was utterly delightful and disruptive, and I was excited that some audience members thought that it was part of the talk. It was important to me to add creativity and levity to the usual academic spiel and to try out some of the affordances we are all encountering in our new online world of information dispersal.

I received some truly excellent questions and comments from the audience, and it made me miss Bay Area archaeology in all its fine permutations. So, I’ve pasted the abstract below and the video. I’m working on a paper along the same lines, so I’d be happy for any feedback.

Abstract:

Monsters, in their sensuous, ambivalent, in-betweeness, can be an expression of creative impulse, subversion, of evidence of play within archaeology. Braidotti’s monsters “represent the in between, the mixed, the ambivalent…(the) horrible and wonderful, object of aberation and adoration.” Digital interventions are Frankenstein’s monsters, lurching somewhere between Tringham’s “faceless blobs” and an idealized ontological collective—networked and multi-faceted but still oddly homogenous. Archaeological monsters are a human and unhuman aggregate, one that digital archaeologists should recognize as we practice assembling, as Haraway states, “articulations among cosmos, animal, human, machine, and landscape in their recursive sidereal, bony, electronic, and geological skeletons.” In this lecture I discuss a monstrous digital archaeology, confounding our senses, invoking joy as a form of resistance and inviting playful interventions.

Now we are all archaeological filmmakers

I spent the last two days filming an old Çatalhöyük friend (and now colleague) David Orton for his teaching in autumn term. We’re trying to prepare, as best as we can, for most eventualities within the pandemic. As I was filming it occurred to me that this was being replicated all over the globe–that suddenly we’ll have a legion of archaeological filmmakers.

Archaeological filmmaking has always been a bit niche, falling between visual anthropology and digital archaeology, and subject to the same price/usability considerations that come with most tech. It is now relatively easy to capture full HD video and editing software has smoothed the steep learning curve of Final Cut Pro into a relatively gentle slope. And there are a lot of examples of wonderful, more extemporaneous archaeological filmmaking using iphones and instagram, tiktok, and YouTube.

Annelise Baer has been making episodes of the No Budget Archaeology Show during the pandemic and is up to episode 20. This is her episode on Cleopatra:

And Chloe Duckworth has been killing it for the past few years with her YouTube channel, ArchaeoDuck:

And there is the Interactive Pasts crew/VALUE, who go live on Twitch every Tuesday and Thursday to stream video game play and commentary. Most recently they streamed Total War: Troy played by an Archaeologist and a Historian:

But filmmaking is a leaky, sneaky medium. In my Archaeological Filmmaking class I teach the students that you need filmmaking as a basic skill to demonstrate pretty much anything else you’d like to make with tech. Oh so you made a VR reconstruction? You’ll need a short film to fully demonstrate it to audiences without headsets. Want to crowdfund? Films boost your intake.

But…are recorded lectures droning on over powerpoint slideshows movies? Probably, yes. In my article Archaeology and the Moving Image I discuss several genres within archaeological filmmaking, including the traditional, didactic expository genre, complete with “voice-of-god” narration and expert interviews that tell a definitive, if monolithic narrative. The recorded lecture is expository-on-speed, with a single narrator dragging (screaming?) students through the content. If anything the recorded lecture is a pretty damning indictment of the academic lecture in general. While droning on to myself in a darkened room, I was haunted by the hubris of the live lecture–why do I think that my wild gesticulation, anecdotes and occasional questions for the audience are that much value added?

If you are finding recording (or viewing) lectures in this way to be absolutely deadening, you are not alone. You are making a truncated version of arguably the worst kind of archaeological movie, again, expository-on-speed. There are other genres though; perhaps through all of this mad experimentation with online learning we’ll find impressionistic or phenomenological lectures. A lecture that draws from the impressionistic genre, that is “lyrical rather than didactic, poetic rather than argumentative” and that implies and evokes more than they inform (thanks Barbash and Taylor), would be incredible to behold.

Or perhaps we should just turn to the old pros at this particular medium, the dedicated YouTubers. I was chatting to Aris Politopoulos about Cringe as affect, when he reminded me of the excellent Contrapoints lecture on the topic. Or we could look at, for example, the Contrapoints Gender Critical video:

The video begins with something that is generally forbidden in lectures–a really long quote. But the quote is dramatically performed, with key passages highlighted, against a background that evokes delicate femininity. The video has extremely high production value, is very entertaining and cites current research. With costume changes. Yeah, I’m a fan.

I hear all of my fellow teachers:

“Who has time??”

“How on earth could I get this production quality?”

I wasn’t even supposed to BE HERE today!”*

Yes, I know. But first, remember that your audience may be more used to this kind of content delivery that you are, and that we could do worse than to learn from people who are old pros at this medium. And second, even if you don’t go full Youtuber, I hope that this incursion into filmmaking, however brief, will intrigue at least a few people enough to explore movies as an incredibly productive medium to explore archaeological storytelling.

*This last one is me, as I pre-record lectures to be shown during my sabbatical, in a very tricky, instrumentalized version of telepresence

Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory 2019: CHATmethod

I’ve got secret plans and clever tricks….

Sara Perry and I are running a workshop at the CHATmethod conference at MOLA on Friday, 1 November, 2019. We tend to have a ridiculous amount of fun (and trouble) when we team up, so I don’t expect this will be any different. Register here.

The workshop: A Contemporary Context? Recording Sheets for the Sublime and Ungrateful

Description:

The archaeological context sheet has been fashioned and refashioned extensively since its adoption. These context sheets are embedded within disciplinary lineages and reflect the questions and assumptions of archaeological knowledge making, both on the intimate and global scale. In this workshop we use the context sheet as a platform for reflection and play, with a particular intention to query its utility in recording contemporary archaeological contexts.

For this workshop we envision a hands-on, creative, trouble-making session, including constructive critique and display of our various takes on the contemporary context sheet. Join us to experiment with ruining and re/designing one of archaeologists’ most ubiquitous inscription devices.

I’m also going to be on a panel discussion that evening:

Methods for the 21st century hosted by London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE.

Chaired by Janet Miller, CEO of MOLA, with Colleen Morgan (York University), Laura Hampden (Museum Detox), Neil Redfern and Isabel Nolan (artist).

I’m really excited for both events, but slightly nervous about the panel discussion. I have been investigating (and now teaching) future-facing methods in archaeology for…a while now and I hope to speak to the creativity and diversity of the archaeologists, artists, and other phenoms who have inspired me over the years.

6 Reasons I Quit Social Media (and why I’m sort-of back on it)

A couple of months ago I had enough. Social media was driving me crazy. I have long term personal accounts that I’ve maintained for ages, archaeology project accounts, and now as my admin job for my current job I manage the Departmental social media. I probably owe a lot to social media for visibility of my research profile, but I was sick of it and needed a break. Some issues had come up in the Departmental social media and I found it overwhelming to manage these in addition to the heaps of teaching, research, and other administrative tasks that are part of my job. So I killed off my Twitter and Facebook profiles for the following reasons:

  • Social media was giving me a lot of anxiety and it made me really angry. And that’s what it’s designed to do.
  • It encourages passivity–it’s enough to rail against this or that, feel better, then cease any kind of drive to change at just that. So I posted an angry tweet. So what?
  • It took up too much brain space. I found myself thinking in 280-character fragments. I was annoyed at what people said and annoyed at having to talk myself down from responding. I became increasingly mute on social media, though I thought a lot about it. I missed blogging, I missed reading, I missed creativity and quiet.
  • I was tired of performing–performing research, performing teaching, performing activism. What’s more is I was tired of other people doing this.
  • Outrage theatre is richly rewarded. Want to get lots of likes? Be angry about something, post something snarky, perform your virtue. I found it exhausting. Combined with the point above, it led to the point below.
  • It made me dislike people I mostly agree with. They were too whiny or attention-seeking or posted about their pet too much. Honestly, if any of these things bothered me, it wasn’t their problem, it was me needing to get offline. So I did. We need to build allies, not engage in call-outs.

It was mostly Twitter that was the problem, I hadn’t done much with Facebook for a long time. And quitting…was amazing. Freeing. It took a couple of weeks to stop automatically punching in the urls. I enjoyed sitting in incredible lectures and not sharing them. I enjoyed not feeling like I had to converse with or impress anyone. I shut down and it was really incredible. During the CAA in Krakow I felt like I had earmuffs on, totally oblivious to backchat. Marvelous.

But I’m back, in a limited fashion. I’ve kept Facebook dead (though I realized the other day I need to check in on a few groups I maintain, uh-oh) but I re-activated Twitter. It’s annoying actually, you have to re-activate monthly anyway so you don’t lose your account. I might have just let it go, but I realized that there’s pretty much no other way to link to your blog, update people with publications, that sort of tedious stuff. But after my break, I feel like I’ve broken the back of it. I login when I have something to post, then logout again. I don’t check it, except for the Departmental accounts.

It makes me wonder, though, how I’ll teach social media for outreach. I’m already been a bit wary, wondering Is it ethical to use social media for teaching archaeology? Is bad practice in social media good practice in self-preservation?

When I worked in the Computer Science department at the University of Texas I was always surprised that Edsger Dijkstra didn’t have a computer in his office. In fact, he didn’t have one at all. One of the fathers of Computer Science, didn’t have a computer. He didn’t want actual computer to limit his imagination about what a computer might be able to do. Would that I had the brain of Dijkstra, but something is damned compelling about that.

 

Re-loading the Archaeological Canon: Decolonising the Undergraduate Archaeology Curriculum

At York, all lecturers are encouraged to complete teacher training to receive their Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP). I’ve been teaching in higher ed since 2005, but appreciated the training as it was specific to the UK system. One of our tasks was an original research project on an aspect of teaching that we are interested in. I decided to evaluate the first-year undergraduate Archaeology curriculum for inclusion to better understand how the canon of literature was formed in Archaeology.

What resulted was a small project that falls somewhere between a proper paper and a blog post. I went through and made spreadsheets of all of the assigned reading at York. From the paper:

To address the need to decolonise the curriculum in archaeology, I assessed the reading lists assigned to first-year undergraduates within the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, noting two metrics: 1) Perceived Gender, and 2) Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) (see appendix 1). At times these metrics were difficult to determine. Assigning perceived identities was an uncomfortable exercise, but there was not time within the assessment to email each of the authors individually and ask how they should be identified. Some archaeological reports did not attribute authorship. Additionally, I only recorded data regarding the first three authors; in the case of scientific journal articles, I recorded data regarding the first/corresponding author and the last author, as this is generally the lead investigator of the article and the senior author/supervisor, respectively. After gathering these metrics on spreadsheets I assessed each of the courses independently for their inclusion of diverse voices. Finally, I compared this data to data gathered from an Introduction to Archaeology reading list assigned to first-year undergraduates at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. By doing this I hoped to gain a more general idea of practice within the field, particularly as UCL is the home institution for the ​Why is My Curriculum White​ movement.

I was hoping to use the Gender Balance Assessment Tool, as it measures both gender balance and the inclusion of BAME (for USA readers, this is UK-ese for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) authors. Unfortunately it requires the first name to be listed, which almost never happens in reading lists or bibliographic citation, so I had to pick through the lists to manually code them.

Perhaps predictably, the balance is…not so good. From the paper:

Collectively, the autumn and spring term coursework in Archaeology at York assigned reading by female first authors 22% of the time (87/308) (figure 9) and BAME authors 1.3% of the time (4/308). This compares positively to the UCL Introduction to Archaeology figures (though York is an aggregate and UCL may assign more diverse authors in additional courses) and, given more research into reading lists across the UK, might be viewed as average or even good, considering the founding of the profession.

Yet in research conducted in 2013, academic roles in archaeology are divided more evenly, 46% female and 54% male (Aitchison and Rocks-McQueen 2013). Gender parity was expected across archaeology (incorporating commercial, educational, and other sectors) in 2017-2018 and women were to be the majority of the workforce by 2022 (97) (Aitchison and Rocks-McQueen 2013). Research conducted during the same time period on publication and gender in archaeology in the United States revealed a similar gender division, 47% female and 53% male, but also showed a considerable gap in publication rates (Bardolph 2014). Out of 4,552 articles and reports from 11 peer-reviewed journals published between 1990 and 2013, 71.4% were authored by men as the first author and 28.6% by women (Bardolph 2014). A similar study has not been conducted within the UK. Out of the courses surveyed, only Introduction to Archaeological Science surpasses the 28.6% mark of scholarship authored by women, with 30.4% of the reading by women as first authors.

I’m speaking at one of York Archaeology’s Equality and Diversity meetings about the topic, and all of my colleagues that I’ve discussed it with have been interested and invested in trying to diversify the curriculum. We’re changing up several of our core reading lists this summer as well. If that goes well, I may update the paper and send it out somewhere for publication.

But for now, if you are interested, it’s a short read, hastily written:

PGCAP_Research_Project_Morgan_without_appendices

I’ve removed the appendices as York’s reading lists aren’t public–unlike poor UCL, who get picked on for their transparency. Sorry UCL, I still love y’all.