Slow Archaeology: An Addendum

This past week, I’ve been doing more exploring and skimming than authentic reading. I did take some time to slow down and read Matt Edgeworth’s “From Spade-Work to Screen-Work: New Forms of Archaeological Discovery in Digital Space” in A. Carusi, A. S. Hoel, T. Webmoor, and S. Woolgar eds. Visualization in the Age of Computerization. Routledge 2014. 

Edgeworth was a familiar name to me. He wrote an important ethnographic dissertation on archaeological fieldwork in the early 1990s that represents perhaps the last and best word on the practice of pre-digital fieldwork. In his short contribution to Carusi et al. volume, he updates this work to include some ethnographic observations on archaeology in the digital age.

He documents the work of an archaeologist using common digital tools like Google Earth to look for features in the landscape. He notes the speed with which the archaeologist moves from one screen to the next comparing aerial photographs and zooms in and out at different scales, and compares it to her deftness with the trowel (p. 48). Later he describes the speed with which an archaeologist can query satellite images or aerial photographs which just a decade ago would have required special permissions and a perhaps even a trip to an government office (p. 49). Computers have allowed archaeologists to accelerate their ability to discover features in the landscape that would have probably taken many years to recognize on the ground (p. 55). For Edgeworth, archaeologists have adapted their manual dexterity with the trowel to the computer, and the computer has transformed the deft ability to uncover small details in the trench to the sweeping power to recognize features across an entire landscape. For the computer, speed comes, in part, from the ability to operate at scale and to move quickly and seamlessly from the minutely detailed to the global. 

Edgeworth’s contribution should be read alongside Timothy Webmoor’s “Algorithmic Alchemy, or Work of Code in the Age of Computer Visualization,” in the same volume. Webmoor conducts ethnographic research in a computer visualization lab in London which specialized in scrapping data from the internet and projecting it spatially. One of the most interesting things about the article is that Webmoor blurs the line between coders as creative contributors to the research process and the more traditional practice of identifying data sources and proposing lines of analysis. Code (and to some extent coders) has tended to be occluded from public eye and treated as proprietary of the coder whereas the data and the output of data and code were publicly available (at least at this lab).

I got to thinking about how our cult of speed relies so heavily on occluded and proprietary code work. The craft of the archaeologist, which in the field was relatively immediate in their work at the edge of the trowel, has becomes increasingly mediated by technologies that the archaeologist can only rarely control or understand. (At a recent conference, a group of us were fretting about how which Agisoft Photoscan, software the produces structure-from-motion 3D models, worked. We finally concluded that it worked by “Russian Magic,” which was more amusing than intellectually satisfying.) This is not to suggest that field archaeology is completely transparent. There are ceramicists and excavators who can see and recognize things that are impossible to communicate without decades of experience, discipline, and training. We depend upon these people to help us understand archaeological realities, but we also expect them to be transparent in their methods and processes, even if they are not easily transferable. We would not be satisfied with a ceramicist who declares a sherd “locally made cooking ware, 4th c. AD” on the basis of “ceramicist magic.” 

Part of the cult of speed in archaeology involve outsourcing skill from the trowels edge to the black-box of coded Russian magic. This fragmentation of the archaeological process has allowed us to do things at a speed and scale almost unimaginable just a decade ago. In exchange for speed, we’ve lost complete control of the archaeological workflow and have to rely upon ecologies outside of the traditional academic process. So, there is a price to pay for speed.

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