Digital Objects at the ASOR Annual Meeting: A Draft of a Paper

In a few weeks, I’m giving a paper at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. I’m giving a paper in the Object Biography for Archaeologist Workshop which this year focuses on objects as magnets. The abstract for my paper and the panel is here. If last year is any indication, this should be a fun panel with some good papers.

Last year, the papers went a bit long and that cut into our opportunities for conversation. This was too bad because the conversation seemed lively and, in some ways, more engaging than the papers. Even worse, my paper is the fourth of five papers and I’m set to go on after 5 pm. In other words, my paper will happen during cocktail hour.

To compensate for this, I’ve decided unilaterally to keep my paper short hopefully ceding a bit of time for conversation, and to keep my paper relatively simple. My target length is about 1500 words and I hope I can bring that in at around 12 minutes.

Here’s the first, roughedly-rough-ruff draft: 

Objects, Clones, and Contexts

The idea of an object as a magnet is compelling. It evokes the idea of the object as a node in a network of attractions and relations that draw together objects, associations, individuals, institutions, meaning, and even events and time. In fact, some scholars have suggested that objects are more than isolated nodes, but actually represent the network itself. In other words, the object does not attract meaning to it, but is meaning itself. It may be that magnet and the effects of magnetism are inseparable.

Of course the idea of the object as magnet also got me thinking about the role of magnetism in the creation of digital objects (even if magnetic storage is giving way to solid-state technologies which are not a magnetic medium). Instead of messy magnetic metaphors, my paper today will consider a wide range of digital archaeological objects. These digital objects play a vital role in archaeological practice and occupy a unique place in how we conceptualize object biography.

Digital objects are ubiquitous in archaeological practice. Archaeologists regularly produce thousands of digital objects each season and unlike excavated or collected artifacts which may only seem to proliferate, most archaeologists take active steps to ensure that digital objects are cloned and distributed across a wide range of locations and contexts. These objects exist in dense networks of both technological relationships, practice, space, and the archaeological discourse.

Despite the prominence of excavated or collected artifacts in archaeological publications and arguments, most of these objects enjoy relatively little attention from the archaeologist. They get uncovered or recovered, washed, identified, sorted, counted, recorded, and stored in trays or boxes or maybe even dumped. The archaeologists with whom I’ve worked on Cyprus refer to these most common artifacts as “sherds” (and it must be said with a dismissive sneer). In Greece (and on my project), we refer to them – problematically – as context pottery. I suppose this is meant to indicate that this pottery is so ordinary that it only offers context for the really important stuff or perhaps it should be regarded contextually along with other features in the trench like the stratigraphy. As a survey archaeologist with a bit of a quantitative bent, I always felt sorry for these “sherds” and most of my real archaeological work has focused on recovering these objects from “the enormous condescension of” most archaeological practice.

In our work, these sherds tend to be the smallest and most granular objects recorded in archaeological practice and the most common objects assigned archaeological significance. As an aside, I’ll overlook the work done to document the chemical make up of sherds which while important remains quite rare in Mediterranean practice and particularly unusual on a large scale. It is interesting, however, to note that scientific study of artifact whether through thin sections, XRF, or neutron activation, does recognize that archaeological objects exist on the molecular level. I don’t have much familiarity with these practices, but I introduce them as a little bit (see?) of critique on the idea that an object is a magnet. To my reading, this might imply an unnecessary division between the object itself and meaning (that is attracted to it from elsewhere?). It might be simpler to understand an object as only existing with meaning. Without meaning (or relationships) objects may well exist, but not in a useful or recognizable way.

Whatever the specifics, any process used to document these “sherds” involves the creation of at least one digital object. Our project at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, recorded each sherd as a record first on a sheet of paper and then in a relational database. At Polis-Chrysochous, we skipped the paper phase and recorded directly into the laptop computer. The entry in the database involves creating a record of the object’s weight, color, and place in established or local typologies. In some cases, this record is accompanied by another digital object, a photograph, and in exceptional cases, we use a series of photographs to create a 3-D structure from motion image of the artifact that is itself made up of a series of digital objects including photographs, a point cloud, a wireframe, and a textured 3D object. Each these individual parts of the 3D object represent stand alone objects that each have particular archaeological values.

At the end of the recording process, the archaeological artifacts go back into their trays or boxes, are placed on shelves in massive storerooms, and return to relative obscurity. In all, an archaeologist might spend 20 seconds handling, identifying, and recording a sherd on one of these trays. For the sherd, as object, the process (and in many ways the utility of the object) is over, but for the digital object that comes from this interaction its usefulness has just begun.

Over the course of my surveys, excavations, and study projects, we have produced tens of thousands of these digital objects in relational database as well as digital photographs each inscribed with vital metadata and assigned a file name meaningful in our recording system. This is standard practice.

These digital objects have innumerable advantages over the fired clay objects. These digital objects can be sorted instantly. They can be duplicated almost flawlessly. They can be transported over national borders and cloned so that they appear in multiple places at the same time. They can be published on the web and in books, and linked to by other folks to form new networks and relationships. Finally, the conservation and storage of digital objects in the short term is relatively inexpensive compared, at least, to the expenses and challenges associated with the so-called storage crisis in archaeology. In so many practical ways, the digital object is more useful to the work of the archaeologist than the excavated or collected object.

In conceptual ways, digital objects are more useful as well. For example, the digital world in which we work is so much simpler. It relies upon ontologies that make at least some relationships and definitions explicit and it cuts through the unsightly messiness associated with archaeological artifacts. In fact, for a digital object to have meaning, it depends upon a dense, but legible network of relationships that define not only how a digital object is expressed, but what it expresses. Moreover, the network of useful relationships between various digital artifacts tends to be more visible as well. For example, in contrast to cloudy network of associations generated by an archaeological artifact, the associations linked data relationships follow defined pathways either within a data set (for example linking two similar objects together within the same dataset) or between datasets (an artifact to a location in GIS for example or two objects discovered at different locations).

Digital objects rely upon more than merely bits and bites to communicate meaning. They exist within a networks of physical objects as well. Hard drives are every bit as hard (in physical terms) as solid state drives are solid. The cloud may seem ethereal, but it too is made up of routers, servers, storage, racks, chips, wires, and buildings. The devices we use to access our digital objects are made of silicon, aluminum, rare-earth, and plastics and function best in enclosed spaces with solid surfaces and comfortable chairs. Problems with the various material interfaces with digital objects will, of course, compromise the utility of these objects for archaeological analysis.

At the same time, the physical media upon which digital objects depend represent a vital component of the material culture of archaeology. These archaeological objects which have – quite literally – a magnetic relationship with objects produced in the field have only recently received significant scrutiny as objects. The use of iPads in the field and their innovative, yet familiar, interface has renewed conversation regarding the material form of digital recording devices. Archaeology of the contemporary world and the allied field of media archaeology have likewise showed renewed interest in material form of digital media. The most recent volume of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology explored these intersections in a most productive way. An NEH sponsored conference titled “Mobilizing the Past” and sponsored by ASOR members at the Atheinou Archaeological Project encouraged critical reflection on the intersection of digital and material tools used in archaeological field work.

The focus of today’s panels was on objects as magnets. I have taken this a bit too literally in reference to the myriad little magnetic charges that constitute so much of our digital world. At the same time, I hope my paper brings to the fore some simple examples of how archaeological work and archaeological artifacts depend upon digital objects. These digital objects have their own biographies that require us to adjust our understanding of life to allow for frequent cloning, periodic reincarnation, spontaneous bilocation, and, as with so many objects, lengthy periods of suspended animation.

These objects have important social lives as well. They depend upon hardware, software, and a wide-range of other technological infrastructures and protocols to be useful and understandable to each other and to archaeologists. These objects, in turn, rely upon the support of economic relationships, political and institutional structures, and ideological commitments to have value. Not every digital object has equal value and we all know of digital objects that have died unmourned on a faulty hard drive, a decommissioned server, or with the obsolesce of a particular application.

With the passing of a digital object, we lose part of the network of relationships that connect our analysis with the archaeological artifact. This is not a call to keep every related digital object alive on life support, but to recognize for objects like our poor, marginalized, sherds, the continued vitality of the digital artifact is more important than baked clay.

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