Slow Archaeology and Local Context

Over the last week I set aside my work on a volume devoted to the various excavations conducted at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla, and started work on an updated version of my slow archaeology paper. I’ll give this paper at the end of the month at the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future conference in Boston.

The first two parts of my paper focus on the potential of slow archaeology to counteract our tendency to divide archaeological sites into fragments for easier documentation in the field. Of course, archaeology, as a modern discipline, has always fragmented the world into neat packages. but our reliance on digital tools had exaggerated this tendency. It has become more and more easy to capture archaeological information at astounding levels of granularity in the field. In keeping with the larger argument of slow archaeology, I connect this increased granularity with the intersection of Taylorist practices in field work designed to increase efficiency without “missing” vital archaeological data and the structure of digital tools which encourage highly structured recording practices. I want to write more about the accelerated pace of academic archaeology sometime soon, but this first section is basically a repackaged call for more phenomenological approaches to archaeology.

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The second part of the paper argues that we have come to rely on an increasingly complex digital ecosystem to pull these fragments of archaeological information back together. This is a shorter section that suggests archaeologists have gone ahead with data collection methods in the field without necessarily thinking about how the results of this work will be published or archived. My easy case study is the rapid expansion of 3D imaging technologies which capture in highly accurate and efficient ways spatial relationships in the field, but so far have no become commonplace in archaeological publications and require careful consideration for archiving.

This sets up my final part of the paper, which I reproduce here because it is more speculative and unconventional: 

The final part of my paper today is the most speculative and perhaps the most unconventional. I want to appeal to arguments made for the relationship between time and space in a digital world. So far I’ve argued that digital methods are part of a larger trend to seek efficiency and speed by parsing tasks more finely. These practices have gone a long way to solve the practical problems associated with limits in time, funding, expertise, and workforce and reflects century-long trends in industry, academia, and even archaeological methodologies. At the same time, the ways in which we have implemented digital tools in archaeology has complicated our efforts to reconstructing the archaeological context of our excavations (or survey units) and ultimately the past. I’d like to try to argue – or at very least suggest – that the quest for efficiency (and speed) has had a concomitant effect on how we understand archaeological context and space.

To make this argument, I appeal to work of geographers like David Harvey (pdf) who describe a phenomenon called “time-space- compression.” For Harvey, the increase in speed has resulted in the “annihilation of space by time.” I’ll apply his complex arguments in a rather loose way to archaeology, but I think we can mostly agree that one of the ways in which digital practices have increased the efficiency of field work is by moving the place of analysis from the side of the trench to the storeroom, the laboratory, the library or the faculty office. Field work becomes focused on data collection, primarily, and the understanding of those data collected can take place not only at another time, but most often, in another place.

To do this, we have become increasingly attached to digital surrogates (to use Adam Rabinowitz’s term) for archaeological artifacts. I use the term artifact quite broadly here to include both traditional artifacts, like pot sherds, statue fragments, and architecture, and evidence for archaeological relationships, like stratigraphy, soil descriptions, and other environmental data recorded over the course of an excavation or survey. With the most recent advances in easy, cost effective, and efficient 3D scanning as the organizers of this conference have helped to develop, it becomes possible to transport a 3D model of an object back to their home institutions on a laptop computer. Databases, scans of notebooks, photographs, and other digital records enable archaeologists to reconstruct an artifact’s archaeological context thousands of miles from the present location of the physical object and even further from its “origin” (and I uses this word advisedly).

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It would seem that the higher the resolution of our documentation, the greater the boon to the archaeologist. To be clear, like most people in this room, I have found myself in my office cursing some overlooked or misremembered detail invisible in photographs, descriptions, and even 3D models. These moments of cursing, however, never fails to remind me that the “original” context of the object matters, or, to evoke a slightly different discourse, provenience has value. Looted objects are less valuable because the act of looting has rendered them out of place. Moreover, most people in this room would agree that calls for the repatriation of artifacts – whatever the modern political context for such gestures – is important because it enables us to understand the connection between objects and their broader context. To bring all remaining fragments of the Parthenon Marbles together within view of the Athenian Acropolis represents an effort to restore the building, its sculptures, and Classical Athens to some kind of recognizable whole. Digital surrogates, plaster casts, and scale models simply do not suffice.

This being said, I obviously recognize that excavation involves some kind of displacement. We replace this displacement of soil and objects by establishing an archaeological context. This archaeological context, however, has traditionally had a physical connection with the location of excavation or survey. We tend to localize these archaeological contexts by connecting sites to museums, artifacts to storerooms, and ensuring that appropriate archaeological authorities have final reports, copies of notebooks, and even subsequent publications. Lectures, site tours, and other kinds of outreach are becoming more and more common even at as site as visually unremarkable as ours at Pyla-Koutsopetria. Like widely supported calls for repatriation, something about archaeology remains unmistakably local.

This returns me, of course, to the larger lessons of slow archaeology. Because slow archaeology resists the fragmentation of archaeological information for the sake of efficiency, it encourages us to take the time to understand archaeological contexts in their entirety. This breaks down the boundary between context (either geographic, archaeological, cultural, political, economic, spatial) and archaeological object. It produces an archaeological that is more consistent with our current archaeological ethics. 

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