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

INELIGIBLE Exhibition: Shoe

 

Last February Doug Bailey emailed me (and many others) to see if we’d participate in a unique experiment: he would mail us artifacts from the excavations that preceded the recent construction of San Francisco’s Trans Bay Transit Center that were deemed unworthy of archival. His prompt:

In accepting the invitation, you commit to repurpose (disassemble, take apart, grind up) the artefacts that you receive so that they become the raw materials with which you will make creative work. There are no other limitations, instructions, or guidelines, beyond the suggestion that the work you make should engage contemporary social or political issues and debates. Engagement may relate to San Francisco and its current energies (e.g., the tech revolution, disenfranchisement, home/houselessness). Engagement may flow from your personal reaction to your assemblage of artefacts, or to your own personal, professional, or local political experiences, desires, and frustrations.

A few months later, I received a box with some disintegrating leather inside. I put it on my desk and thought about it for a while. I’ve been teaching filmmaking to Master’s students for a couple of years now, but most of my time behind a camera has been spent making promotional videos for York in my publicity administrative role. I really wanted to engage creatively with film again and this was the perfect chance.

The Ineligible prompt also included the line:

Ineligible urges contributors not to think of the material as archaeological, as artefactual, or as historic.

Well, damn. So over the summer I put the shoe in peoples’ hands and filmed it. Though these people happen to be archaeologists, I think I was able to draw out different encounters with materiality, beauty, and our association/disassociation with the lives of our objects. To be honest, I think I failed in that part of the prompt, but these are the stories we wanted to tell.

I was prompted to write an artist statement, and I wrote this clumsy thing:

As an anarchist, a mother, an archaeologist, I’m deeply concerned with making kin through the investigation and care of objects, places, and people. Finding a politics of joy and intimacy, and building things together as a way to resist Empire. In this short film I gave an alienated object, a child’s shoe, to my kin, the caretakers of the discarded to understand and reanimate this object, even as it disintegrated in our hands.

I was delighted when it was selected to be shown at the Ineligible exhibition curated by Doug Bailey and Sara Navarro at the International Museum of Contemporary Sculpture in Santo Tirso, Portugal. The exhibition opens March 6, 2020.

 

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.

EUROTAST Videos

As part of my postdoc, I’ve been making short videos highlighting the research of the PhD fellows associated with EUROTAST. These are mixtures of footage that was shot previously, my own footage, and Creative Commons found footage.

They have been a challenge to make. Finding the proper visuals and music to accompany the incredibly sensitive research on genetics, identity and the difficult heritage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade has made the creative process much slower and considered than usual.

Still, I’m relatively pleased with how they’ve come out, considering they’re such a mixture of visual and audio resources.

The several I’ve made so far feature an anthropologist, an historical archaeologist, a molecular archaeologist, and an archaeologist-turned-historian. I went for the most visual research first. We’ll see how I handle the more conceptual PhD research of the mathematicians, geneticists, and computer scientists!

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

Heritage_Jam_upload
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)

Heritage Jam Video Series Complete

Over the weekend I finished up the series of short videos for the upcoming Heritage Jam and I’m fairly pleased with them. I have a much larger video project coming up for EUROTAST, featuring the incredible work of the research fellows, and so it was a good way to get back into the video-making groove again.

Each of the videos is a challenge to the participants of the Heritage Jam, as outlined by Dr. Julie Rugg.

Challenge One: Dynamism

Challenge Two: Visibility

Challenge Three: Class

In each video Dr. Rugg identifies some interesting challenges for visual interpretation in cemeteries. I enjoyed learning about cemeteries from her as I edited the videos.

I’m never quite 100% satisfied with the videos that I make either, as there’s always more that can be done. When I teach filmmaking to archaeology students, I tell them that you can pretty much spend an infinite amount of time editing a video, making it as perfect as possible…but I have other projects, so finding “good enough” is not wholly satisfying, but does get the video out there for other people to view. If anything, all of this just makes me appreciate the professionals that much more!

Even if you aren’t participating in the Heritage Jam, the videos may make you look at cemeteries in a different way–they certainly did for me!

(PS: Try to watch them in HD if you have the bandwidth!)

Archaeology Films A-Z: The Aegean

Title: The Aegean
Year: 2004
Length: 7 minutes
Made by: Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism
Genre: Expository
Authors: Tourism Promoters
Review:

aegean

The Aegean. A place close to my heart. Opens with twangy “traditional music” that fades into newage, but at least there’s a female narrator who betrays a faint Turkish accent around her proper English. Yes, it’s a gorgeous landscape and climate, and, we are informed, a “land of kingdoms.” Begin the dervish-like spinning shots in the middle of sites!

temple
It was actually very difficult to get this blurry screenshot as it was zooming by.

Pano pano pano, fast pano, cut to a nice pot showing “King Midas of the Golden Touch.” GOD the spinning again. Does this make the ruins look more lively? No real explanation, but lots of gorgeous ruins moving rapidly.

turkish_springs

Bonus hot bath scene!

A little discussion of Ephesus, then we move on to a quick touristy overview of each spot, with minimal, Lonely Planet explanation. Sorry Turkey–I love you, I love your archaeology, but this video is a twitchy tour through ruins with a litany of famous names of people who may or may not have visited or lived there. And night clubs.

nightclubs

Why is this on The Archaeology Channel?

1/5

Ruth vs. the Intercutting Firepits

The QIAH has been conducting work at Freiha since 2009, revealing dense, complex occupation. This video is a time lapse of my good friend (and coworker) Ruth Hatfield excavating a series of intercutting firepits. Photo and Video Credit: Qatar Museums Authority – QMA.

We built a small structure over a fraction of the firepits to provide shade and then Ruth did her thing, digging all of the firepits under the shade in two hours. This time lapse demonstrates the principles of single context recording on a microscale–Ruth would dig and record the fills and cuts, all in stratigraphic sequence, showing which of the pits were dug last and working back in time. The last little bits were dug (and burned) first and truncated by later firepits. In some ways it is too bad that the camera was on a timer–you only see Ruth measuring or taking photos a couple of times. I’d like to do a time lapse that shows the entire recording process for each feature–but that might be just too tedious. Sadly I had to use iMovie to edit–my old Final Cut Pro license expired and the new FCP is appalling.

Incidentally, the font for the video is one of my favorites, Lavanderia, inspired by the writing in the windows of the San Francisco Mission:
Download Lavanderia

The music is licensed under Creative Commons and is available on Soundcloud:
Kitab el 3omr by Yussof El Marr

Please comment and let me know if you show the video in your classroom so that I can report back to the QIAH and the QMA and show them that making these things is time well spent!

So You’re an Archaeologist? – on Youtube

Back in 2009 David Cohen and I made a video for the Afghanistan exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This video was meant to accompany the mostly interpretation-free display of gold and human remains; we wanted to give faces to archaeologists and convey what it is that we do. The museum provided us a list of guiding questions and we filmed responses from UC Berkeley archaeologists. Anyway, I finally had a moment to upload some of the videos to Youtube, and here they are for your viewing/teaching pleasure.

The infamous …and I’m an archaeologist video.

What is the best thing about being an archaeologist?

What is the worst thing about being an archaeologist?

What do archaeologists do?

What are some common misconceptions about archaeology? (Show this to your friends and family who keep asking about dinosaurs and gold)

And my favorite: What type of artifacts do you find?

Time-lapse Excavation at Hammerfest, Norway

I was delighted to find this video of a time-lapse excavation performed by the Tromsø Museum of a turf and stone structure from the 1700s. What really makes this video is the graphic in the corner of where the camera is located and the overall plan of the structure, highlighting what is being excavated. It transforms what looks like a bunch of workers shuffling around rocks in the mud into something inteligible. This is the translation of the video description I got in Google Translate from the original Norwegian:

Time-lapse of the excavations on the structure of S5 in the period 9.6. -21.7.2010. The structure is constructed dwellings of turf and stone. The shape of the structure implies a dichotomy where one part may have been a timber construction and the other part a hut construction. On the inside of the thick sod walls were found neverlag in different levels (see eg.Context 102). Remains of buildings is mainly dated to the 1700s, but can extend down to 1600 – the number and up to 1800’s.  Time-lapse footage shows the last part of the excavation, where the scroll. chimney, walls, entrances and some luck are being put excavated / removed. Towards the end of the grave none appeared a rock pit in one wall of the house, where the fill, context 118 and 128, were removed.

Video from the archaeological excavations in Cut Vika and Vika Mountains, Hammerfest, performed by the Tromsø Museum, University Museum.

 

Excellent video and a fairly easy way to help the audience see the archaeology.

A quick, unrelated note:

Thanks again for everyone who commented on the previous entry about health and safety. I’ve long wanted to make a series of videos or comics to make boring topics such as OSHA compliance easy to understand, but when to find the time?