Mobility and Archaeology

As I read Tim Cresswell’s 2006 book on mobility: Tim Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge 2006), I couldn’t help but think of Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, the most recent book published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.  

The idea conveyed by the title, Mobilizing the Past, is that by using mobile devices from iPads to phones to drones and digital cameras allows the past to become mobile. This is a significant idea. After all, historians and archaeologists think both pretty rarely about the past per se (after all the past is a pretty murky place) and constantly about constructing arguments about the past. It’s hard to imagine making the past itself (whatever that could be) mobile. So mobilizing the past refers to making mobile the evidence that we use to construct arguments about the past.

For an archaeologist this is an intriguing move because archaeology has traditionally been concerned with objects that are either physically immobile like architecture or politically immobile like artifacts. Host countries typically restrict the movement of artifacts at least from the country itself and often from the immediate vicinity of the site. In other words, mobilizing the past offers a way to transcend the historical limits of archaeology and the immobility of strata, architecture, and large features, as well as to subvert the political aims (however justified they are) of host countries who seek to limit the movement of objects from sites. The connection between the object or the feature and our knowledge of the past has long been bound by issues of mobility, and there is no doubt that access to a site and to objects remains a vital component to archaeological knowledge production.

Mobilizing the Past, however, and larger trends in production may indicate otherwise. The digital and “knowledge economy” as well as certain kinds of manufacturing are no longer connected firmly to one place or the other. While border undoubtedly limit the movement of labor (and create pools of labor to be tapped) and the geological presence of particular resources structure the deployment of labor, capital, and infrastructure, the cost of moving goods and resources from the place of production to markets is a factor in the value of these goods and resources. The same, in some ways, is true of archaeology. The talk of efficiency, cost/benefit, and “workflows” in Mobilizing the Past reflect an awareness of the friction that comes with the immobility of archaeological evidence and the role of technology in reducing this friction.

There is a hitch, though. As Cresswell and Reece Jone’s have emphasized, mobility and borders are political constituted. Making the past mobile is not a politically neutral act. The ongoing efforts by nation-states to limit the movement of artifacts both to strangle the trade in illicit antiquities (and the impact of destructive, illicit excavations) and to reinforce national claims to the ownership of antiquities through repatriation of objects, remind us as archaeologists that the friction associated with archaeology’s immobility derives from markets and national politics. A future, digital archaeology where digital objects can move seamlessly from the trench or the survey unit to servers around the world. These digital objects become the basis for archaeological constructions of the past.

A mobile past, however, implies a past that is increasingly divorced from claims by nations and communities to the physical authority over objects. For now, physical control over objects serves similar purposes to the control over markets and labor in the national system. However, like markets and labor, digital tools are making this control all the more difficult and, perhaps, less meaningful. After all, if an ultra high-resolution scan of an artifact can tell us more than actually viewing and handling the original, then the possession of the original becomes more of an obligation than an opportunity (or, more of a cost than a benefit). This is even more the case when we realize that the original – like almost all archaeological artifacts – is deteriorating physically from the moment of excavation. A scan of an object might actually be more valuable from an archaeological standpoint than the object itself. One could imagine a scenario where the expense and associated with the storage and display and reproduction of digital objects is rather low and well within the means of traditional colonialist powers (i.e. the US and Western Europe) and the expense of storing, preserving, and protecting the physical objects is high and foisted off on Mediterranean nations through the cultural logic of repatriation. This has already begun, in some way, in the archaeological storage crisis, and while I agree politically with the need to repatriate artifacts at scale, I also wonder whether the politics of mobility offer a rather disagreeable out for Western cultural institutions who can increasingly reap the scientific benefits of objects through digitization, promote their moral righteousness through repatriation, and saddle the countries requesting repatriation with the economic responsibilities and burden of a cultural heritage that is physically local, but intellectual – in some way – decentralized.

While the history of recorded music offers us a cautionary parallel to a kind of future in which digital objects circulate freely and the physical experience of encountering an object is rendered obsolete. While we can now reproduce musical performances at levels of fidelity that actually (and this is kind of mind bending) exceed those possible by attending a live performance (i.e. when listening to a recording every seat is the best seat in the house), people still attend live performances. So maybe the actually physicality of an ancient artifact will continue to draw people to them and reinforce the need for artifacts and archaeology to be immobile and profoundly local. At the same time, we should understand mobility as never politically neutral and our desire to move objects freely, quickly, and efficiently reflects an intriguing facet of the emergent, post-national, modernity.  

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