New Article: Current Digital Archaeology

In 2020 I was asked to write an overview article for the Annual Review in Anthropology on Digital Archaeology. I was honoured to be asked—Annual Review articles are touchstones for the discipline, and in this case it was an opportunity to bring some insights from digital archaeology to Anthropology. Anthropology is considered to be the “umbrella” discipline for Archaeology in the US–less so in the UK, but that’s another blog post. Still I hesitated, as they’re not considered REF-able outputs, which unfortunately is the main currency of scholarship in the UK.

Review articles such as theses are not original research, but a critical engagement with what the author thinks are the major publications and insights in their specialism. In the end I was happy to do so as 1) I was on research leave 2) I felt less than on top of the literature since the completion of the literature review for my thesis in 2011 3) I wanted an overview article to assign to my MSc students that would reflect the current state of the discipline. And it turned out okay anyway, I still got promoted to Senior Lecturer this year, which is nice.

So: Current Digital Archaeology. It’s 6669 words long with 156 references. I obviously wasn’t able to cover everything. I left much of the review of the histories of computer use in archaeology to past experts. For this I also found Tanasi 2020 super useful, particularly in characterising the differences between US/UK. I also put parentheses around many very important parallel and subfields—such as the wide world of digital museums and computational archaeology.  I was able to signpost a few good reviews of these topics regardless. Providing an overview of current digital archaeology still felt like trying to hold water in my hands and I apologise to anyone who feels left out—it is entirely my fault and I really appreciate any suggestions for articles I’ve missed.

In the article I focussed on four interlinked themes: craft and embodiment, materiality, the uncanny, and ethics, politics and accessibility. In this I tried to unmoor practice from specific technologies and situated individual methods in broader political and theoretical debates. Additionally I tried to bring in some literature from practice-based research and multimodal anthropology, which are insightful for understanding the work of digital archaeology. Inevitably I also brought in anarchism, politics and touched on climate change, because I’m me. We are encouraged to engage with our own work within the review, though I probably over-emphasized the whole cyborg archaeology stuff and I’m finding those sections a bit cringe now. Oh well.

I want to specifically thank Alice Watterson and Ed Gonzalez-Tennant for letting me use beautiful images from their own work as illustrations of vibrant, politically engaged digital archaeology.

I wrote the bulk of the article in 2020 (perhaps should have mentioned my pandemic single parenting as broader context for the article) but was able to grab a few 2021/22 publications after the excellent peer review comments came in. I’m very sad to have missed more recent publications such as:

These incredible volumes, Digital Heritage and Archaeology in Practice edited by Lynne Goldstein and Ethan Watrall:

https://muse.jhu.edu/book/101232

Kevin Garstki’s edited volume: Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age:

https://ioa.ucla.edu/press/critical-archaeology-digital-age

Amongst others! I hope that mine is only one of several overviews that will contribute to critical examinations of digital archaeology.

Here’s the offprint:

What is an Anarchist Heritage?

I recorded a short video for the wonderful people at the Anarchism Research Group on the topic of Heritage & Anarchism. They asked for under two minutes, so the video is the edited version, which you can watch below:

The full text before editing:

We commonly think of heritage as grandiloquent historic homes, arranged on green lawns– that statue of the general in front of the courthouse. If you are in the United Kingdom, “heritage” may invoke castles, Roman villas, or the name of a rather pernicious right-wing populist and conservative party. Or perhaps you think of UNESCO world heritage sites, places that are deemed of “Outstanding Universal Value” yet are often statist and reflect colonialist legacies.

These examples reflect what Laura-Jane Smith calls the authorised heritage discourse–“the regulation of historical and cultural narratives and the work that these narratives do in maintaining or negotiating certain societal values and hierarchies.” But moreso, as she further describes, it is “a process, or a performance, in which we identify the values, memories and cultural and social meanings that help us make sense of the present, our identities and sense of physical and social place.”

“Heritage” props up power, nation states and solidifies narratives about the past that are generally abhorrent to anarchists. It immediately evokes “god and country,” and privileges the powerful elite. Lewis Borck argues that archaeological sites are not just used to legitimise the state but, in his words, “create a future history where alternative power  structures—egalitarian, non-state, Indigenous, pre-colonial—seem impossible to achieve; or worse, are forgotten.”

So, with this context, what would an anarchist heritage look like? There is a growing recognition of past anarchist events, people, and interventions and acknowledging and understanding these can dispute statist claims of stability and the assumed ubiquity of top-down power structures. There may be anarchist approaches to heritage: curators, caretakers, conservators, archaeologists and museum workers could extend their ethics of care for places and artefacts to people and communities. Some already have. I’m thinking of the statue of Edward Colston, slave trader, conserved and on display in Bristol, graffiti and associated assemblage from his immersion in the Bristol Harbour in 2020 intact. I’m also thinking of the plinth, now a central point of gathering for protest, direct action, and collective expressions of happiness, grief and resistance. Further, Rachael Kiddey’s work with the unhoused and migrant communities provide a version of heritage work that centres marginalised people, not statues.

Finally, how can anarchism inform heritage practice? There is already a robust movement toward community-based initiatives within the sector–but what would it mean to open up heritage properties to communal use, occupation and curation by the public? To emphasise reuse, social justice and communal management over state preservation? And what is the place of the “heritage professional” in all of this? To offer solidarity, to resist governments that seek to silence, to mobilise heritage to collaborate and to serve.

An anarchist heritage may be difficult to conceptualise, let alone achieve. Anarchists live a politics that are always becoming–we pull up the paving to find the beach, we see that stately homes are built on what was once communal land, and we are suspicious of any narratives or heritage politics that result in building a statue to honour, well, anybody. If there is an anarchist heritage, it must be one we make ourselves, that doesn’t lionise people, affix or sanctify events, but that is mutable, imperfect, can be explored and shared and celebrated but also ignored or discarded as we see fit. Spanish civil war anarchist Durruti reminded us that “it is we the workers who built these palaces and cities” and that “we are not in the least afraid of ruins.” 

Borck L. 2019. Constructing the Future History: Prefiguration as Historical Epistemology and the Chronopolitics of Archaeology. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. 5(2):213–302

Smith L. 2012. Discourses of heritage : implications for archaeological community practice. Nuevo mundo mundos nuevos

A Visual Lexicon for Archaeology

I think a lot about the visual representation of archaeology, particularly through digital technology and the internet. In 2016 I published an Open Access article in Internet Archaeology that discusses some of the ways that digital photography has either perpetuated visual tropes in archaeology, or has caused ruptures. For example, how the LCD screen on the back of DSLRs allowed some co-construction and sharing of photographs on site, particularly between people with differing levels of power on site, director vs fieldworker, for example. I’ve also posted about shooting “stock photos” for reuse, and I’d love to work to improve representation in stock photography for archaeology, as it’s pretty dire, if you can’t tell:

Stock photo of “adventurer archaeologist” that comes up in the first page of results on google image search.

There is more to be written about digital photography in archaeology, and I have been encouraging some students to engage with the topic over the years, but without too much success. A stand-out is Luke Snell’s undergraduate dissertation which looked at how students were using cellphones on site to curate their own representations of their experiences. I also have some cellphone work in press, but I think there are some interesting, broader issues at play.

Based on my entirely personal (though thoroughly embedded) experience, there was a rapid upskilling in photographic practice in archaeology as DSLRs became more ubiquitous on site, from around 2005 – 2015 or so. There are a wealth of very high-quality photographs from that time, but also an abundance of experimental photography. People were genuinely trying to do something different with archaeological photography. While file sizes and such were always a problem with archival, people shared a lot of this photography via Flickr, and there were thousands of photographs curated by archaeologists.

I’d curate photographs occasionally and post them. For example, this update from 2008 had an overhead shot, a digger in front of a rack of clothes, a photo of a complex drawing, and excavations at (where else?) Stonehenge. Even in 2014 I was complaining about the growing obsolescence of Flickr. Still, I have continually found photographs that I’ve released and licensed CC-BY in various places. Happily, many of my photographs have been placed on Wikimedia for reuse as well. There’s over 800,000 entries for “archaeology” on Wikimedia, but they’re not always deeply useful, or well documented. I also have not heard of many archaeologists depositing their photographs there, though some seem to be, for example I found this one from ANU’s Dougald O’Reilly:

Archaeologists drawing a burial at the Phum Lovea site as part of the Paddy to Pura Archaeological Project.

But there is no sense of curation, continuity, or broader organization in Wikimedia. There is also the problem that the Archaeology Data Service has run up against-data protection. People need to give permission for their photographs to be displayed and reused. This is expected these days, of course, but photographs that were taken before data protection cannot be shared or displayed, rendering many archaeological archives without the faces of the people responsible for the work.

So where is the new archaeological photography archive? Where can we retrieve photographs of archaeologists or archaeological sites for our reuse for teaching and making media? And can we make one that is more diverse, personal, exciting, experimental? And would or should these archives feed into neural networks such as Dall E, saving us from the beige-hat working shots that it uses to evoke archaeology?

Dall E representation of “Digital Knowledge Production in Archaeology”

There is another problem, one that has persisted throughout the adoption of digital photography in archaeology, but seems to be getting worse throughout the years: cellphone photography. High-quality DSLR photography is being outmoded in favor of quick snaps taken with your cellphone. The rapid upskilling in photography seems to be accompanied with a rapid deskilling. Or perhaps a reskilling in cellphone photography.

I completely understand–my very expensive smartphone has a great camera, so why should I lug around a heavy DSLR and a sack of lenses? If everyone uses cellphones why do I keep teaching students how to use DSLRs? I used to joke that all the best site photos were on the Facebook pages of the students, but now that the students no longer have Facebook pages, they’ve become even more submerged in black-boxed devices, never to be seen by other archaeologists. How many of your quick cellphone shots end up in the archive? Is it enough to create the one photo for social media, a few for the report, and forget about the rest?

Finally, a lot of the usual digital photography is now taken in service to photogrammetry, or eschewed entirely for other forms of digital imagery. Does the proliferation of other digital gadgetry push the DSLR out of our hands? Why, when archaeological photography is perhaps easier to create and share than it ever has been, has it dropped so far from view? Where are all the archaeological photos?

The Outrage Machine

Over the last few weeks Archaeology departments have been getting Freedom of Information requests from news outlets asking about trigger warnings. On 7 June, the Daily Mail published an outrage-bait article naming me and describing my Communicating Archaeology module, in that it has a content warning on it. I became aware of this through my University contacting me to warn me and ask how they could support me and if they should respond.

This is a predictable and old media strategy that still somehow gets a lot of mileage. Gabriel Moshenska wrote a fantastic chapter, “Anatomy of a ‘trigger warning’ scandal” when he was dragged for having a warning on his Conflict Archaeology module in 2016. He added this warning as he receives students on his course with personal experiences of warfare:

Students who might have expected sessions on identifying regimental buttons and measuring musket balls were being shown magnified images of machete wounds and technical drawings of mass graves full of children – and it seemed only fair and reasonable to let them know.

Yes, this is archaeology too. The Mail on Sunday, the “sister paper” of the Daily Mail found this warning and contacted him. As he describes in this chapter, he replied in good faith, only to find that his reasonable account was presented alongside “pre-prepared outrage” from (gasp) a right-wing ideologue with an agenda. The coverage rocketed from there, from The Times, to Spiked, to Breitbart. He received hate mail and abusive messages on social media, some of them explicitly antisemitic. This discussion was also taken up by Tony Pollard with regard to trigger warnings and teaching about war graves.

Moshenska notes the immense hatred expressed not only toward “woke” academics (yawn, we are used to it) but worryingly also towards our “fragile” “snowflake” students who just can’t hack it, apparently. I found that this mirrored the hundreds and hundreds of comments under the news stories, students called “jelly babies” and the like. If anything, the students might need protection from the incredible hatred heaped upon them by their parents and grandparents. Intergenerational bigotry is so pointless and cruel.

The support from my University and my Department was very good–perhaps informed from previous incidents. My department also has a social media contingency plan in place for when things go wrong. I immediately locked and then deleted my main social media presence–Twitter. I’m not on Facebook and my Instagram has been locked forever. Like Gabe’s experience, the article has snowballed into ridiculous dimensions and miscellaneous venues, on the television and radio alongside print media. Unlike Gabe’s experience, I was only named in the Daily Mail instance, and I wonder if some of this has been because I followed Gabe’s advice: resist any urges to respond.

It’s frustrating to keep silent against such misuse, but when I was contacted by other journalists to follow up I didn’t respond and I asked my University and Department not to respond as well. Subsequently my name was left out of their stories. As an academic you really want to set the record straight, to potentially educate the journalist, or perhaps the public, but it doesn’t work that way. With outrage bait articles they are not looking for a reasoned response. They don’t want you to convince them, they want you to be the dumb woke academic mollycoddling our fragile students. They want column inches and maybe a photo of you for their right wing audience to mock. Give them nothing. I’m writing this during the furore, but will likely post it only after things have died down.

I’ve also been contacted by a few (wonderful) archaeology groups who want to publish a response. I have been trying to discourage these, to wait the news cycle out and let the culture war die out. Later responses are great and are really appreciated, but I also hope people are coming together to figure out how to better support people within their organizations when it happens the next time. I do appreciate the colleagues and institutions who, in their responses, have not named me. Thank you.

That brings me to some take-aways, for people impacted and their communities:

  • Don’t respond to the press when they are trolling. Not even for a “no comment” as they’ll print it as, “X said ‘no comment'”
  • Don’t answer your phone, as they’ll be calling. You may also need to have your email taken off the University websites.
  • Use my example, and Gabe’s experience to prepare for next time. Because they will come for us again, and it might be worse. They are not above spurious ad hominem attacks. It comes when you least expect it and for things that are completely mundane in our sphere, such as content warnings. The right wing newspapers came for me this time, but I’ve been waiting for the internet hate mob for over a decade so….(ominous music begins)
  • Unfortunately a lot of those who respond to the article are linking to the original articles…which gives the articles more clicks. Please use a screen shot or archive.is to make a mirror that does not give the news agency revenue from your outrage. For example, here is the archive.is link to the original article that set this all off.
  • Delete your socials for a bit. Go outside. Hug loads of people.
  • Reach out to those impacted and if you are targeted, take comfort in solidarity. I appreciate the huge amount of support I’ve received, both online and offline.
  • Ask the person who is targeted what support they need before “hitting back”–sometimes they want chocolate instead of tweets or statements. Just sayin’.

Anyway, it is ironic that I received this treatment from the Communicating Archaeology module, as it is primarily about critically examining and creating media about archaeology. It’s essentially created a perfect case study for the module. So it goes.

Archaeology and Dementia

Romans at Home artefact handling session

When we designed the multisensorial archaeological outreach project, Romans at Home, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We wanted to reach out to people living with dementia in care homes. In the summer of 2021, they were still relatively isolated for COVID precautions–a couple of kilometres away, but effectively off limits. This isolation has been disastrous for many people, but especially difficult and even fatal for this extremely vulnerable population, with lockdowns increasing memory loss, agitation and loneliness. At the same time, archaeologists are increasingly interested in archaeology performed in service to public benefit and wellbeing.

Romans at Home was primarily designed by the extraordinarily gifted Eleanor Drew, a recent Digital Heritage MSc at the University of York and in partnership with York Archaeological Trust. It draws on immersive multisensorial storytelling and interpretation developed as part of OTHER EYES, my UKRI-AHRC funded project. Chris Tuckley at YAT did a stellar job setting the scene and deploying non-threatening and creative prompts to help participants think about the artifacts. The project has been featured as an Open Research case study and we hope to further develop it and publish in due time.

But more importantly: I was struck, watching the elderly woman turn over that distinctive glossy orange-red piece of Roman terra sigillata in her hands, that this was the best use of archaeological artifacts that I’d ever witnessed. Sure, dig them up, wash them, catalogue them, put them on shelves and publish them in books–but this was the most alive these artifacts could be, under the scrutiny of a very cheerful woman with bright pink nails. As something connecting her to us, to others.

Ceramic bowl containing flints (© The Photographic Unit, University of Glasgow).

So it was with great interest that I read Nyree Finlay’s article, An archaeology of dementia, recently published in Antiquity. Finlay examines and compares the assemblage of a woman who’d been an artist and a keen avocational archaeologist who is currently living with dementia. This woman is named within the Antiquity article, to recognise her as “the originator of these creative works” in accordance with ethical approval at the University of Glasgow. This is interesting as the woman would generally be held strictly anonymous as a member of a vulnerable population and it is very tricky. Ultimately I agree with the disclosure of her identity in the article, as it is an intimate celebration of her ability and interests and I am confident in the sensitive handling of this subject with her and her guardians. Yet I’m going to keep her anonymous within this other context, a blog post, a circumstance that was not covered by the ethical approval.

Finlay notes this woman’s “extensive, systematic fieldwalking and landscape surveys” performed with friends during research and her work at a local museum. She was self-taught, and recorded artifacts she found by looking at regional publications and discussing typologies with specialists, including Finlay. This previous assemblage is compared with a later assemblage, which includes flint pebbles collected from her gravel drive, artifacts that occupy a difficult position within archaeology in that they are surely modified by humans but are considered incidental and generally not worthy of notice. But this woman living with dementia noticed them for various sensorial aspects, shape and color, and comprise, as Finlay states, “a collection of distinctive, creative dementia works and lithic assemblages.” The woman collected these in different but adjacent ways to her previous, systematic collection of artifacts. They offered this woman “tactile and audible pleasures” in the act of sorting and processing and the woman noted the coolness and smoothness of flint as an important feature, as Finlay states, “stone becomes both a comfort and companion as dementia progresses.”

This article is brilliant–very useful to archaeologists who seek to broaden our understanding of how people relate to material objects and how they shape our lives. We still rarely consider the impact of dementia or other disabilities in our consideration of archaeological remains. But moreso, I found the article deeply beautiful and melancholy. The woman’s connection to stone and to the everyday actions of archaeology changed as she aged and went through more advanced dementia, but persisted. I should not find it melancholy, as her connection and use of the gravel was agentive, creative and important to her, but…I do. It sits with me.

Finlay’s article is Open Access, and I highly encourage a read:

Finlay, N. (2022). An archaeology of dementia. Antiquity, 96(386), 422–435. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.186

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.

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

A Prehistory of the Endtimes

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An abandoned house in Qatar

Anarchism, prehistory, survivalism, experimental archaeology–these tender sinews have been braiding, unravelling, rebraiding themselves in my pandemic imagination. One person’s cataclysm is another person’s “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Anarchism and archaeology both animate liminal zones where people reimagine different ways of life, with the occasional cross-over.

Archaeological training provides an overactive imagination with a real-time augmented reality overlay that sees decay, collapse, refashioning, geological time–the seams between. And bones. Lots of bones.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area I walked through the smoking ruins of the 1906 Earthquake, contemplated the damp, squalid mudbrick enclosure that would become the Presidio. But what I wanted, more than anything, to see the great rolling dunes beneath the pastel Painted Ladies. The fog to nestle around great stands of trees, a fresh breeze in from the sea. Dig a couple of centimetres and find tarmac, perhaps the broken skeleton of a segway. Near futures of desolation and the ancient past, equally mythological.

Anarcho-primitivism, to deeply oversimplify, draws from archaeological constructions of the past and ethnographic research on contemporary societies to argue for small-scale societies against the deprivations of civilisation. This understanding of the past is well and truly disputed by Graeber and Wengrow. Yet like many writers, archaeologists, and anarchists, I still find myself interested in the jostling of these ideas against each other, in their collisions in fiction and experimental archaeology.

In Ghost Wall, middle class undergraduate students and a working class family collide in experimental archaeology, wherein they try to live like Iron Age Britons in Northern England. Silvie, the protagonist, is dragged by her past-and-purity obsessed and abusive father who is reliving his own patriarchal madness in the woods, bolstered by an archaeology professor. It animates some of our worst impulses in archaeology, piercing the veil into the past only to find our venal selves peering back. It was a lovely book. The archaeology undergraduates were my favourite, going along with the experiment to a certain extent, but subverting this incursion into the past by stopping by a local shop for snacks and heading off to the pub. They were gloriously useless at pastness, to their own merit.

I’m thinking in two to three generations there could be real wild children.

This theme was picked up in a New York Times article on primitivism, “How to Prepare Now for the Complete End of the World.” The article follows Lynx Vilden who was “teaching people how to live in the wild, like we imagine Stone Age people did.” The beautiful photography in the article shows people lighting fires and making tools. This was all framed within the (American) beginning of the pandemic, in that far away time of early March, 2020. Vilden is teaching people to use bones to process hides and use moss as toilet paper–as if our dystopian superabundance wouldn’t provide endless material for reuse in “endtimes” (See Station Eleven for the contra).  Still, there was some appreciation of the community and insanity that is formed around a campfire when all outside communication is cut off.

Or, sometimes not. A relative lack of fellow-feeling was apparent in another Sarah Moss book, Cold Earth, another team of archaeologists who are spending their summer on the west coast of Greenland, digging up an abandoned Norse colony. There is, of course, a pandemic on in the outside world, and this delays the extraction of the team from their field season. The director of the project flogs his team into terrible decisions–staying far too late in a season, not using the natural and cultural materials around them to improve their chances of survival. His eye is on the research potential of the site and his team suffers, and it’s hard to forgive.

So we find ourselves with a fairly miscellaneous set of skills for the end-of-world scenarios. Beware charismatic leaders. Beware ANY leaders. Use everything, purity be damned. Primitivism is based on a deeply flawed understanding of the ancient world. Take care of your team.

In Black Feminist Archaeology, Whitney Battle-Baptiste cleverly uses historical fiction to inform and disrupt (sigh, sorry) her ideas of the past–multivocality through Black storytellers is simply brilliant. I’m failing to imitate this, post-apocalyptic pandemic archaeology through science fiction and survivalism is sending us through the same tropes and indigenous-drag that have painted our lurid comic books for decades. The future-scope is cracked.

It leaves me thinking about anarchism, again. The anarchism that I imagine is fictive, but aspirational, though perhaps rather more cottage-core than primitivist. The one where we, as Graeber and Wengrow suggest, examine structural violence within the small scale. That’s where my archaeology is going, and, probably not by accident, where my politics are as well.

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