I’ve worked a lot as an on-the-road digital archaeologist for hire, between commercial and academic spaces, spanning over 20 years now. I’ve created probably hundreds of thousands of pieces of media about archaeology, and my media organization…could be better. In addition to the media that I made, I have entire site archives, postex photos, and textures that I’ve grabbed to make 3D objects–TBs upon TBs of digital clutter. I’m most reminded of all of this when I try to find a single photo that I’ve taken during that time. (good lord just look at all the photos I have of decaying concrete in Qatar…London…)
The lesson, as I always tell my students (and as Michael Ashley and Ruth Tringham taught me ages ago, and as I anticipate causing great despair amongst my colleagues at the ADS) is to not be me, instead be very organized, and embed your metadata as you go along. I’m waiting for (or maybe it already exists) the miracle digital assistant that will organize my media for me, then I can die in peace. In the past it’s been a real problem with archaeologists who didn’t write up their sites before they rode that digger into the great beyond. Now all of this digital data lives in little deposits on laptops and faulty harddrives flung across the world. I’m not saying anything particularly new with this, a “Digital Dark Age” has been discussed extensively within archaeology, and some incredibly smart people are working on the problem.
I think about the laptops though, and to a lesser extent, the stacks of project hard drives sitting in filing cabinets. In many of the projects I’ve worked on, you bring your own laptop to the project. If you are the GIS specialist, then you BYOGIS. Hacked adobe abounds. Stu Eve and I discussed this ages ago:
It is common knowledge that some archaeologists have thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars worth of illegally downloaded software to perform everyday tasks and do not hesitate to publish results and visualisations gained from using this illegal software.
It was pretty intensively queried during peer review–is this something that we admit as a profession? (yes, apparently) I do my best as a lecturer to teach software that is 1) industry standard 2) accessible to students after they leave university. My hit rate is…okay.
BYOL is pretty exclusive, and unfair. Can a site director really expect folks to rock up with the latest laptop, all software installed, ready to donate their time and technology to the project? When you hire an archaeologist do you hire the whole cyborg?
Of greater existential risk is the digital archaeologist that works on a site, then leaves with all the data, without contributing it to a site archive. It’s like hiring an antimatter archaeologist, there is no site and there is no data, there is nothing but a big hole.
So, what to do about this undisciplined machinery? All these unruly laptops and perambulatory data? Shared network drives are great, but it’s rare that everyone has the equipment or know-how to make them work. If you only have a couple of project laptops, it can be a serious bottleneck in your work. We generally have a primary shared project drive and a weekly back-up and it mostly works. Mostly. And regardless of your approach, archaeology will leak out anyway.
I’ve occasionally thought about the “Facebook archive” and now, I guess, the “Whatsapp archive” as counter-archives to the official record. Usually, when I want to tell the story of a site, the photo or video that I want was not taken on a site camera, it is not catalogued or part of the site report. It was taken by a student, uploaded to Facebook and forgotten about. These media are even less visible now that folks have moved to Whatsapp–entire backchannels of gorgeous, evocative, fun photos that will never be used to enliven the past for…the rest of us.
Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we don’t need to capture…shenanigans any longer. Maybe they can live in back pockets and over beers. That may even be for the best.
It makes for a pretty dull archaeology though.
(the featured photo for this post is by Jason Quinlan, taken of 2008 of me and some other miscreants working in the lab with our BYOLs at Çatalhöyük)