Rejiggering Slow Archaeology

This week I began in earnest the process of re-writing and “rejiggering” my slow archaeology article (and I’ve started talking about this rejiggering process here and comparing these two posts is fun. I wrote one before I started working on revisions and the post today comes after a few days of work). I’ve been looking forward to this task with equal parts excitement and dread. I think a couple of weeks of work will either make this paper look much better or like “Tom Cruise in vanilla sky.” 

After a few days of work on it, I think that I have three mains things that I need to sort out without doubling the length of the paper or adding complications where none are necessary.

1. Streamline. One of the things that I’m really struggling with right now is how to summarize two key trends in discipline of archaeology in the first 2000 words: the history of science and the history of industrial practices in archaeology. The former establishes a division between “archaeological data” which is collected in the field and analyzed later. The latter organizes the division of labor around that distinction with the trench supervisor, field director, or project director taking on the role of analyst or interpreter and workmen, student excavators, or less experienced archaeologists being responsible for “data collection.”

The history of science is an overwhelmingly vast and complex topic and the dichotomy between “data” and “analysis” may parallel the division between “nature” (i.e. data in the raw) and “culture” (i.e. the lens through which we interpret the data) that scholars like Bruno Latour have sought to demonstrate derives from an intentionally distorted view of practice. For Latour, practice – even in the hard sciences – reveals that data and analysis, and nature and culture, are so deeply intertwined that distinguishing the two concepts obscures the reality of both scientific work and our natural world.

This is significant for digital archaeology because it calls into question any approach that isolates data collection as a process from epistemological and analytical priorities. While this might be a strawman in the context of archaeological practice, I’d contend that the recent interest in archaeological technology often privileges the work of data collection as separate from larger discussions of research methods, analysis, and goals. This is not to suggest that this hasn’t always been in the case in archaeology, but that we can do better.

More than that: I need to do a better job in my slow archaeology paper establishing the disconnect between discussions of digital practice and analysis.

2. Anticipate. My first draft of the slow archaeology paper was naive. I neither anticipated objections nor defined my terms well hoping that my audience would more or less buy into my big picture arguments without scrutinizing the details too closely.

The paper has gone through two peers reviews and numerous critical conversations with friends and colleagues. More than that, my ideas have been engaged in scholarly works that appeared over the past year or are due to appear in the coming volume. What is clear is that my ideas have been too frequently conflated with a kind of anti-technology Luddism rather than a critical approach to how archaeologists talk about and use technology.

I also need to unpack the term “deskill” a bit. I used this term in various versions of my paper to discuss how technology can undermine the development of certain skills among field archaeologists which archaeologists developed in the analogue realm, but nevertheless had important benefits to the process of producing archaeological knowledge in the field. The most obvious example of is illustrating a trench plan. In recent years, the advantages of using structure-from-motion to capture 3D images of the trench has replaced the painstaking and time consuming practice of illustration (in fact, we experimented with this on my project in Cyprus). At its most basic, this practice involves taking a series of photographs of the cleaned trench which are then analyzed by software to produce a 3D image. If necessary, a plan can be made from this image. Traditionally, the task of preparing a trench plan for an excavation context requires the trench supervisor to carefully scrutinize the trench and to prepare an illustration that captures the relationships between various visible features. This is a skill, developed at trench side and deeply embedded in the interpretative process of archaeology, that the move to digital practices will erode. The argument that the use of new tools will encourage the development of new skills is reasonable, but the case must be then made that these new skills will benefit the field.  

3. Position myself. Both reviewers called me out on my privileged position within academia. In the first draft of this paper, I acknowledge that I’m a white, male, tenured professor who does not feel any unusual pressure to publish the result of my field work (although I do publish regularly and at what I think to be reasonable standards). I also have had the good fortune of solid funding, staffing, and expectations on my projects. I have only rarely felt pressure to work more efficiently in the field or race to finish our work before the end of a season. This may mark a certain lack of ambition on my part, but I also think that it reflects a deliberate approach to field work that makes the push for ever greater levels of efficiency, rates speed, and quantity of data unnecessary to accomplish research goals. 

I obviously recognize the difference between my approach to archaeological work and that of folks who work in the CRM industry or scholars who are working in more difficult, endangered, and limited environments where political, economic, or even military pressures require rapid work to document archaeological remains. I’m aware that many academic archaeologists have to meet publication expectations and there is pressure within the discipline to do more, publish more, document more. In fact, I’m broadly sympathetic with those who argue that nearly all archaeology is salvage archaeology pushed forward by the need to harvest the remains of the past for academic advancement, publications, heritage, or to clear the way for development. My call for a slow archaeology is unlikely to serve as a break on these pressures and is a product of a particularly privileged position both in relation to the past and in my discipline. 

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