Objects, Clones, Context

On Thursday evening, I give a short paper at an ASOR panel called Object Biography II: Object as Magnet. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the panel. Last year the papers spurred some interesting conversation, so it didn’t take much to convince me to submit something this year.

When I sat down and started writing my paper, I initially wanted to write something about agency, then a critique of the entire concept of “object biography” (which I generally find to be an unhelpful), and finally, I decided to write something breezy and fun (for me to write, at least). My talk will be after 5pm on a day that starts with a 8:30 am meeting. I’ll be tired, I think, and my audience will almost certainly be tired. So a breezy talk might be a better way to start some conversation or at least keep people from shifting restlessly in their seats as the minutes tick toward their evening plans.

This paper also gave me a chance to make some groovy slides.

Anyway, I was more or less set on the paper below before receiving an email that part of the goal of our papers and these sessions was to begin to move toward creating a protocol which one of the panel organizers articulates as “a way of doing things that the field can actually use as we analyze and interpret objects.” I’m not sure that my paper does a very good job at producing usable knowledge. At best, I provide a slightly boring critique. 

Here’s the paper and the groovy slides:


Objects, Clones, Context

William R. Caraher, University of North Dakota
R. Scott Moore, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Delivered at the
Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research Atlanta, Georgia Thursday, November 19, 2015

The idea of an object as a magnet is attractive. 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. 

The idea of the object as magnet also got me thinking literally about magnetism and 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. This is particularly important both because digital objects have come to play a central role in archaeological practice, and they challenge how we think about object biography.

Digital objects are ubiquitous in archaeology today and archaeologists regularly produce thousands of digital objects each season. Unlike excavated or collected artifacts which may only seem to proliferate, derive some of their significance from being unique, and tend to remain close to their archaeological provenance, most archaeologists take active steps to ensure that digital objects are copied and distributed widely. In keeping with a sense of biography, we can call these copied and distributed objects clones. These clones, while similar to point of being identical, nevertheless exist in particular networks of technology, practice, and space.

From Artifact to Digital Object


Despite the prominence of excavated or collected artifacts in archaeological publications and arguments, most artifacts receive relatively little attention from the archaeologist. They get uncovered or recovered, washed, identified, sorted, counted, recorded, and stored in trays or boxes, dumped, or on rare intentionally destroyed. 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 architecture or 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 is 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. A sherd, in this sense, is merely an assemblage of archaeological molecules, just as a deposit is an assemblage of sherds. 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 first as a record 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 image of the artifact. The 3D image 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 image represent individual digital 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 an 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.

Digital Object as Artifact


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 appear in multiple places at the same time. They can be published on the web and in books, and linked to from other books and sites 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 can be more useful as well. The digital world in which we work is in some ways simpler than the messy world of field archaeology. The digital universe relies upon ontologies that make at least some relationships and definitions explicit and it cuts through the unsightly messiness associated with archaeological artifacts. In some ways, digital objects are the most obvious manifestations of the tidy “black boxes” that form evidence for arguments. For a digital object to have meaning, it requires a legible network of relationships that define not only how a digital object is expressed, but what it expresses. Moreover, the network of useful relationships that allow digital objects to represent archaeological knowledge tends to be visible especially in contrast to cloudy network of associations generated by archaeological artifacts. The 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).

Physical Digital Object Digital


objects rely upon more than merely bits and bytes to communicate meaning. They exist within a networks of physical objects as well, and here they manifest a bit more of the messiness typically experienced at the edge of the trowel or amidst the survey unit. 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.


The physical media upon which digital objects depend are a complex and 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 from the Athienou Archaeological Project encouraged critical reflection on the intersection of digital and material tools used in archaeological field work.

Digital Objects as Magnets


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. Every archaeologist ought to fear the prospects of zombie media which lurches across our screens in a semi-living states like so many Geocities webpages and Lotus123 spreadsheets. Digital zombies reveal the risk of disrupting the social lives of our digital objects. Bereft of proper hardware, software, and other technological infrastructures and protocols necessary to be useful for contemporary inquiries, these half-dead zombie objects, reveal our dependence on various economic, political, and institutional entities for our discipline to function.

Of course, not every digital object has equal value (so some are unlikely to return as zombies). And, I suspect, 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.

Despite the anonymous sacrifice of the forgotten digital object, their passing nevertheless disrupts part of the network of relationships that connect our analysis to the archaeological artifact. This is not a call to keep every related digital object alive on indefinite life support, but to recognize that for every poor, marginalized, sherds, there is an equally vital digital object playing its part in our discipline.

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