Revisions of Slow Archaeology

Over the weekend I spent some time coming to terms with some recent comments to the most recent version of my slow archaeology article. As per usual, I worked out my thoughts on the blank page and this is what I cam up with as a framework for revising my thoughts. 

One thing is clear, I was wrong about my characterization of digital practices in the field. We need to trust technology to lead us to a bright new future. We have to trust industrial practices to produce a more thorough, sophisticated, and structured understanding of the past that is consistent with our place within the 21st century university.

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A Revised and Revisited Slow Archaeology  

Earlier versions of this paper lacked nuanced and identified contemporary digital practices as a highly visible extension of the tradition of industrial practices in archaeology. I worried that the use of digital tools marked a tipping point in archaeological practice. In my polemic, I imagined digital tools as transforming archaeological field practices into “data collection” and removing the work of analysis from the side of the trench to the laboratory, office, or computer center. In positing this, I suspect I fell victim to the rhetoric of digital practice that celebrated increases in efficiency, accuracy, and consistency of structured data collected at trenchside and downplayed the continued presence of messy, unstructured, and irregular data that continues to emerge from archaeological fieldwork. Our tendency to “black box” both archaeological evidence occludes less systematic and structured data and practices the continue to thrive despite the emphasis on efficiency in the discipline. Earlier drafts of this paper viewed slow archaeology as a return to pre-digital practices that resisted the industrial organization. This draft offers a more subtle call that celebrates the productive inefficiencies that complement longstanding push for greater efficiencies, consistencies, and regularity in existing archaeological practice.

Slow archaeology emerges at the intersection of the messy realities of archaeological practice and the intentional and complementary ways that archaeologists recognize the limits of systematic data collection in the field. It is a complement and critique of digital archaeology inasmuch as it focuses field practices that support integrative analysis of archaeological landscapes, trenches, and objects.

To be clear from the onset, my interest in slow archaeology comes from a position of privilege. I am an academic archaeologist who relies on his research for professional advancement, but not professional survival. I have tenure, and as a result, I do not need to race against the clock to produce publications. I also have the good fortune to work on archaeological projects with the manpower, time, and funding that align closely with our research objective giving us the luxury to consider a wide range of archaeological documentation processes without particular concern for efficiency. This has given us the opportunity to explore a range of digital tools and practices from the use of iPads in the field to reliance on differential GPS units, 3D imaging technologies, relational databases, and GIS. This article then is not the frustrated expressions of a Luddite, but an argument grounded in familiarity with digital field practices.

Industrial History

Archaeology is a discipline steeped in industrial practices. From the earliest days of the discipline, archaeologists drew upon industrial practices to improve the efficiency of moving large quantities of earth from sites. The organization of the workforce along hierarchical lines further reflected both industrial work-discipline as well as the influence of the military on archaeological practices. As one reviewer observed Pitt Rivers and Wheeler both drew on their military experiences as much as Schliemann drew on his experiences as an industrialist.

Of course, the industrial influences on archaeology go beyond simply the experiences of the earliest excavators and intersect with the position of the archaeology as a modern academic discipline. The modern academy reveals the profound influences of industrial principles of management and organization. The desire to produce new research more efficiently and more quickly has led to pressures on academic researchers to streamline their documentation practices in the field and to emphasize their ability to collect data and produce results in a systematic and consistent way.

Data and Discourse

To suggest that industrial practices in archaeology or even the latest neoliberal iteration of the academic industrial complex has driven a preoccupation with data collection in the field would be to overlook the influence of “New Archaeology.” New Archaeology strengthened an explicit commitment to using robust, often quantifiable, datasets to reconstruct ancient practices. The rise of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean introduced rigorous data collection practices to landscape archaeology in the Aegean. This marked a shift from practices grounded in less systematic and often individual efforts to explore and document sites on a regional scale across Greece to a more rigorous and eventually intensive method for documenting artifacts on the surface at a increasingly high level of spatial resolution. At the same time, excavation practices in Mediterranean shifted from traditional trench notebooks to various forms of context recording forms. A growing commitment to not only stratigraphic excavation practices, but also Harris Matrices marked an increased interest in defining depositional contexts at as high a resolution vertically as intensive survey documents horizontally. Harris Matrices represent stratigraphic deposits in a formal and generalized way and offer a tidy way to present the relationships between deposits now documented at a highly granular level.

Archaeological publications, then, present the data produced through these systematic approaches to field work and link them explicitly to archaeological conclusions. This clear link between systematically produced archaeological data and conclusions is commendable and so consistently presented as to be expected procedure for almost all archaeological publications.

Field Practice

The contexts offered by industrial practices in archaeology and the rise of “New Archaeology” offers little room for a slow archaeology. The use of digital tools in the field streamlines the movement of data from trench side to publication especially as the publication of data has slowly become part of the expected routine of archaeological dissemination. My own publication of an intensive survey on Cyprus grounded our arguments directly in a substantial body of published data in keeping with archaeological conventions. Latour refers to the tidiness associated with the publication of data and scientific arguments as “black boxing” which like the neatly arrange Harris Matrix, occludes the distracting and messy details of the field or laboratory practices. One result of “black boxing” in archaeology, is that it emphasized field practices that produce tidy data as a way of demonstrating the efficient adherence to scientific methods (broadly construed). The tendency to present neat, clearly defined, and often quantitative datasets in publications also serves to demonstrate efficiency in field methods and procedures. In other words, the publication process itself has led to the privileging of certain kinds of documentation processes in the field.

It is hardly surprising that scholarly attention has focused on the development of a new generation of digital tools well-suited to collect the kind of data traditionally associated with published archaeological results and ongoing methodological conversations. For example, the use of tablets to collect information at trench side that efficiently populates and syncs with databases hosted on secure servers emphasizes the collection of information that can easily be sorted, aggregated, and projected spatially. The gains in efficiency associated with the trench side collection of data and its aggregation and dissemination would seem to assume the kind of analysis that depends upon the re-assembly of relatively granular data. In early 20th century excavations, by comparison, it would be possible for a project director to document the excavation of an entire site in a single notebook. In late 20th century excavations, each trench had a notebook. Today, a trench might have dozens (if not more) context forms and hundreds of fields in a database.

My view of slow archaeology has consistently called for greater attention to practices that encourage and document analysis at the trench side or amid the survey unit. To my mind, these practices focus on the production of analyses that both resists efficient granularity and embraces integrative and synthetic documentation of archaeological thought. This contrasts with at least the rhetoric of archaeological data “collection” from the field that characterizes trench side and survey unit based practices as documentation rather than analysis.

Critiques of slow archaeology have emphasized that their interest in collecting more granular data from each trench does not exclude the recording of more traditional forms of less structured data. A trench-side iPad is not just a window to a database, but also a digital notebook, a digital sketch pad, and a tool that can even collect a new range of relatively unstructured and unconventional data from audio recording to video. Indeed, there is little intrinsic in digital tools (except perhaps at the level of the microprocessor) that requires us to collect archaeological data in a more granular way.

Moreover, some have criticized how I have characterized the deliberate and integrative approaches associated with traditional archaeological practices as intentionally inefficient or privileging the collection of less-structured data. In reality,the industrial and scientific influences on archaeology pre-date by a over a century the widespread adoption of digital tools. As a result, practices that may appear today as drawing on pre-industrial practices associated with craft production – like manual drafting of trench plans – were, in their own time, regarded steeped in scientific and industrial rigor. In early excavations the daily or regular trench dairy was not a synthetic alternative to the database, but its direct predecessor. What I have characterized as trench side analysis was, in fact, efforts to document the process of excavation at a level adequate for future publication.

Following on my misunderstanding of past archaeological practices, critics of slow archaeology have suggested that streamlining data collection using digital tools actually holds forth the prospect of allow more time in the field for reflective analysis. Technologies have increasingly freed excavators, trench supervisors, survey team leaders, and field directors from the tedious routine of documentation and provided them with time to reflect, analyze, and interpret ongoing field work. The need and opportunity to do this in the field is less fundamental to archaeological work and more a new critique of longstanding industrial practices in the discipline. Slow archaeology is not a form of resistance to digital field practices, but at least a crucial byproduct, and perhaps its inspiration.

Needless to say, these critique have given me pause. My arguments for slow archaeology have focused on the intersection of technology and archaeological with the idea that the tools we use in fieldwork shape the arguments that we make. While this may well be true, it is also possible that the tools we chose, reflect our ideological, methodological, and disciplinary commitments. This line of argument smacks a bit of a kind of idealism that has driven and justified the growing efficiency of industrial practices throughout history, and while it is hard to deny that technology has improved the quality of goods produced by the assembly line, it is more difficult to argue that industrial technology has improved our quality of life.

Industry and science have exerted a pervasive and expansive influence both on contemporary archaeological practice and the publication of archaeological arguments. Pressures to produce more, in less time, and in a more transparent way has pushed archaeological practice to embrace digital technologies as a tool document (or collect) archaeological data in a rigorous and efficient way. As a tenured professor with little pressure to publish quickly and a critical appreciation of the limits and potential of digital tools, it is relatively easy for me to consider the importance of reflexive practice, to spend time on analysis in the field, and to challenge the value of digital recording techniques. My projects enjoy robust digital infrastructures, skilled trench and field team supervisors, and colleagues who are willing to embrace less conventional field practices as part of an effort to understand landscapes and sites at the level of experience. Whether this more deliberate and slow approach to field work manifests itself in our final publication remains to be seen.

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