My research interests are scattered. They range from workforce housing in the Bakken to intensive pedestrian survey and the archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. On the one hand, this is exciting because I rarely get bored. On the other hand, I feel like I rarely have an exhaustive grasp of any one issue before having to shift my attention to something more pressing.
Every now and then, this diversity of research interests demonstrates a bit of convergence. I know that I shouldn’t get too excited about this; after all, despite my efforts to focus broadly, I know that I tend to have particular ways of thinking that inexorably draw my projects into convergence.
Yesterday, I was working to revise the most recent draft of my slow archaeology paper. It’s slow going (see what I did there?) in part because I took about three months away from the article in the middle of making revisions and, in part, because I’m trying to wrangle a diverse set of ideas and ranging from field practice to the role of place in producing archaeological knowledge. While I was trying to bring these ideas to order, I kept thinking about a paper that I’m scheduled to give the American School of Oriental Research conference this fall on object biography.
In that paper, I hope to argue that the idea of object biography, if left focused on physical, material objects reflects only awkwardly contemporary archaeological practice. In fact, the physical engagement with artifacts – even particularly precious or aesthetically attractive “good things” – is rather fleeting in comparison to the time spent with various digital objects related to these physical objects through various processes of mediation. As Chris Witmore and other have pointed out, the process of mediation or translation from one state to the next preserves (at best) a relationship between the physical artifact and the digital (let’s say) artifact, but we should not confuse this relationship with a form of crass equivalency. The digital artifact is an artifact in its own right with its own history and its own interpretative potential. Digital objects form the basis for most archaeological analysis because they are easily manipulable, portable, and storable. At the same time, we recognize that these objects are only as useful as their relationship to the physical world.
My ASOR paper will then develop the idea of cloning and reflect on our ability to produce both increasingly accurate models of the physical world (but these models, like a clone or a twin, will not share the same biography as the physical objects,) and our ability to make exact (at least in a relative way) copies of digital objects. Like digital copies of physical objects, however, even these digital copies are subject to different life histories and uses.
I got pretty excited yesterday afternoon when I realized that these thoughts tie into my ideas of slow archaeology. As field practices have become more efficient (and more limited in terms of time and money), we have come to rely more and more heavily on digital objects for analysis. In other words, our digital clones of the physical world provide a mediated view of the physical world and form the basis for much of our analysis of the physical world. Savvy archaeologists, of course, recognize this and celebrate the digital clones less for their accuracy and more for their utility. At the same time, the pull of the physical world remains strong in archaeology and the pious hope that accuracy in our reconstructions can somehow replace the encounter with artifacts, places, and contexts.
My slow archaeology article takes this argument and goes off the rails with it. I hint that our growing interest in efficiency in the field, producing highly accurate digital copies of archaeological contexts, and data driven models of archaeological analysis is a response to the frustrated tension between issues of provenience, national claims to archaeological “patrimony,” and increasing limits on time in the field. In effect, producing digital models of the archaeological world is both good archaeology and an extension of colonial practices intent on appropriating the the global past into a master, scientific, “universal” (i.e. Western) narrative. By privileging digital data as the basis for archaeological analysis, pushing to make it freely available, and celebrating its increased accuracy and utility, we are contributing to centuries old negotiation between local and global knowledge.