Mobilizing the Past Workshop Review, Part 2

Yesterday, I posted a review of the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future Conference held last weekend in Boston. This review focused on things that I really liked about the event. To be clear and fair, the event was great, and it left me with tremendously positive feelings about the digital future of our discipline. That being said, there remain opportunities for a more critical engagement with the digital tools that we use.


In the second part of my two part review of the conference, I thought I would touch on some of my key concerns as we continue to explore the potential of digital archaeology. Most of my critiques are not focused on particular papers, but on the overall direction of digital archaeology as a form of critical practice in the discipline.  As they say, great conferences leave you with more questions than answers, and I hope my comments below reflect this…

1. Slow Archaeology. I tried to open a space for some critical engagement with my paper on “Slow Archaeology,” but I fear that I mostly confused things. One benefit of having a blog is that I can take a moment to clarify a few points. First, I was less concerned with the speed of archaeology than my paper may have suggested. By invoking “slow” I attempting to shift the focus to the context of archaeological practice and to interrogate the relationship between how we do things and why we do things. So for me, “slow” meant “critical practice” which often, but not always takes more time. Next, I tried to refer to the emphasis on the local in the slow movement. When we talk about slow food, for example, we’re as likely to discuss the origins of the food as how long it takes to prepare it. Slow food, despite its critical and practical limits, represents local cuisine, prepared with a sensitivity to its economic, social, historical, and political context. By slow, I meant to shift our attention to the entire processes of archaeology rather than just its convenience or efficiency. Finally, I made an entirely unsuccessful effort to suggest that our investment in digital surrogates does have an effect on the ancient objects that we study. To put it another way, we have opened a digital divide in our discipline as we spend more and more time with digital objects standing in for physical objects and contexts.

2. It’s a Mac World. It was pretty remarkable to see the preponderance of Apple gear at this conference. IPads remain the preferred tablet in the field and FileMaker Pro seems to have ousted Microsoft Access as the relational database of choice among archaeology’s digital elite. This got me thinking about how much the tools that we use and our relationship to particular manufacturers shapes our approaches.

3. The Digital Divide. At the very end of the conversation several of us bantered a bit about the cost of digital archaeology. One speaker suggested that digital tools should cost around 10% of the total budget of a project; another suggested that if I project couldn’t afford iPads, maybe they shouldn’t be excavating; and another person noted the trend of B.Y.O.T. (bring your own technology). I recognized that it was the end of a long and intense day, but nothing revealed more about the role of digital practices in archaeology than the very evident divide between projects who prioritize investment and development of digital tools and those that do not. This seems to have manifest itself not so much in the use of digital tools per se, but in whether we take the time to articulate the significance of these tools in our archaeological workflow.  

4. The Politics, Products, and Policies. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more discussion of the rapidly evolving policies in host countries regarding the digital output of archaeological projects. As several of our presenters pointed out, in passing, many indigenous communities, local governments, and government agencies lack the infrastructure to access and manipulate the most robust and complex archaeological datasets. Moreover, as digital surrogates of sites and objects become more complex and precise (for lack of better terms), archaeologists are increasingly able to take highly accurate copies of buildings and objects abroad for study in a way that they could never manage with physical artifacts. I was curious to understand more about how these trends might effect the politics of a archaeological work and our responsibilities to local communities, host countries, and our discipline.  

5. Context is Everything. I was really excited about the range of digital tools and practices on display the conference. The best papers clearly demonstrated how digital practices solved particular problems – real problems – that existed in traditional field practices. The most obvious problems were the most simple: the fragility of paper documents, difficulties accessing dispersed character of archaeological field archives, or inconsistencies of traditional data collection. Less obvious at the conference were examples of digital tools solving the interpretive problems at the core of archaeological practice. I found myself asking (in my own head mostly because people got pretty sick of hearing me talk), “how did these digital tools help you to understand the past better?” Eric Poehler’s paper came close to this, for example, when he showed how a suite of digital tools revealed the presence of a polygonal structure in the middle of Pompeii’s famed Quadraporticus. Many of the other papers, however, seem to have started with the less focused issue of whether it was possible to do archaeology better. As I mentioned yesterday, I left the conference feeling like it was possible to do archaeology differently, but without understanding the particularities of each project, I struggled to understand how digital tool engoodened our field practice. Without taking anything away from the fun and utility of experimenting and play in an archaeological context, context remains everything even in the realm of digital solutions. Greater efficiency is not an archaeological problem.

6. What is Data? This simple question led my back to work of the R.G. Collingwood. Whatever his limitations are, he makes a simple point: for the historian and archaeologists, evidence (or data) never exists on its own, but must be data or evidence for something. In Collingwood’s mind, evidence or data must provide a way to answers a question. 

Now I recognize that archaeologists have an obligation to do more than dig a hole in whatever way is most efficient in order to find an answer to a question. Much of the “methodological turn” in the discipline has emphasized the need to answer questions responsibly and to strike the balance between the destructive character of archaeological practice and the need to collect evidence for particular questions. At times, however, archaeologists have confused the importance of data collecting with the importance of question answering. If our goal as archaeologists is to collect all possible information from a trench in the confidence that we can reconstruct the relationship between all objects (natural and man made) displaced by our excavation, we’re bound to be disappointed. In fact, Mediterranean survey archaeologists have long been accused of “Mediterranean Myopia” in which the intensity of data collection impairs our ability to answer questions on a regional scale. 

I left the conference wondering whether the digital turn in Mediterranean archaeology could continue to exaggerate these problems as improvements in efficiency and accuracy are relatively low-hanging fruit in comparison to difficult task of wresting meaning from the data collected. Our goal as archaeologists is not to reconstruct the entire ancient world or even the processes that created an archaeological deposit, but to answer particular and specific questions relevant to our modern condition. Archaeological excavation is destructive and all recording practices fragment a unified whole. Archaeologists reconstruct this fragmented whole not as it once was in the ground or in the past, but as it has meaning to us as an answer to a particular question. 

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