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