Mobilizing the Past Workshop Review, Part 1

This weekend’s Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology conference was great in every way. It was well-organized, collegial, and very useful. Videos of the various papers will be (or maybe are already) available on the web and I hope the organizers consider some kind of publication of proceedings. Having been to several of these conferences over the past few years, I feel confident in saying that this event reflected the coming of age of digital archaeology. While it is probably too soon to call the all archaeology digital, the range of presentations and tools on display essentially eliminated the possibility of a non-digital practices. 

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Since my notes and comments on the conference are pretty expansive, I think I’ll break it into two posts. The first group of observations today are the positive things that I learned at the conference. The observations tomorrow will be a bit more probing and critical, but nevertheless a positive outcome from the conference:

1. Collegiality. The level of collegiality at this event was remarkable. There was a genuine effort to make the various projects, programs, and approaches presented talk to one another. Folks even made a genuine effort to bring my (perhaps overstated) luddite critique into the fold and to engage seriously the ideas and issues that I was attempting to explore. In fact, outbursts of apologizing punctuated the event as scholars let their passion for various approaches and platforms slide toward critique, but these apologies were never really necessary. It is clear that that an overwhelming sense of respect and academic humility permeates the entire digital archaeology community.  

2. Paper is technology. This was a key refrain that echoed through many of the papers. The technology of paper notebooks and recording forms shaped the social structure of archaeology and the structure of the information collected at trench side. Digital tools offer new models for both archaeological organization and new methods of information collection. Our generation of archaeologists will be the last to remember (or continue to use) paper to collect information in the field at any significant scale and the kind of information that archaeologists collect, analyze, and archive will start to diversify digitally mediated 3D models, video, mass photography, and illustrations become the norm. John Wallrodt’s key note set the stage for this conversation and presenters used it as a constant point of reference. 

3. Archaeology and Design. Chris Motz presented one of my favorite papers at the conference. One of the most obvious things that a guy like Motz brought to infield data recording was a sense of design. His elegant forms on the iPad led the archaeologist through the process of constructing an comprehensive and consistent infield dataset. For example, filling in the digital recording form produced an illustration of the physical tag that the archaeologist would copy onto the paper tag attached to the artifact bag. This simple tag design then continued through the entire digital workflow integrating the digital and physical records of field work. Likewise, consistent icons, colors, and other visual cues provide structure for the recording workflow and, presumably, improved the efficiency by visually demonstrating the relationship between certain data sets.         

4. Bringing Data in the Field. A few of the papers discussed the intriguing potential of bringing both project data as well as secondary publications into the field. I could immediately appreciate the advantage of having the full data set of a project in the field at our finger tips especially in dynamic visual forms could provide field teams with valuable information that would lead to better decision making. More than that, it offers the possibility of overlaying earlier views of the landscape, site, or trench to complicate (in a productive way) what the archaeologists sees.

5. Publication Options. Presentation by Eric Kansa of Open Context, Michael Ashley of Mukurtu, and Shawn Ross of FAIMS demonstrated the publication of archaeological data is keeping up with our ability to generate it. FAIMS and Mukurtu, in particular, demonstrate how publication can exist as part of the same workflow as data generation in the field. It seems clear to me that a major fork in digital archaeology involves an integrated workflow from trench side to data publication within a robust (and dynamic) application. 

6. Bespoke. By the end of Saturday, the word bespoke was being used to describe both applications and particular data structures made within those applications. The era of standardized data models is well and truly over and digital archaeologists have come to recognize that no matter how similar two data sets appear, comparing them in the most productive way remains a process best accomplished within the infinitely flexible context of the human mind. What digital archaeology can do, however, is to demonstrate relationship between data sets and assist in hypothesis building. The messy act of comparison – as a step toward understanding – remains a human endeavor.

7. Data and Efficiency. It was unsurprising that so many projects discussed how digital tools improved the accuracy and efficiency of data collection in the field. Indeed, some of the papers presented some outstanding of examples of streamlined recording and John Wallrodt’s keynote imagined a new, digitally mediate, structure of field work that would perhaps be more at home in CRM environment than an academic project. Despite such assertions of efficiency and the common-sense appearance of improved workflow, there were almost no arguments that used evidence from actual field practice to show how great an improvement digital archaeology actually managed. Informal conversations at the event made clear that such data likely exists, but none of the presenters deployed it during their at the conference.  

More tomorrow as I need to scurry off and catch up on my day job…

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