Scale, Spatial Analysis, and Slow in Archaeology: Some Scratchings

A week or so ago, I agreed to write a couple of papers for the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Barcelona. The first, will be an effort to integrate thee concepts that I’ve been turning around in my head for the past half-decade: slow archaeology, punk archaeology, and the archaeology of care.

The second paper is less well figured out in my head, but it will have something to do with spatial analysis, scale, and slow in response to a prompt by Becky Seifried for her panel on the geospatial turn: critical approaches to geospatial technologies in archaeological research.

I think of slow archaeology periodically and always, but recently I’ve had to think about it more than I usually do thanks to a bunch of provocations. First, I re-read Brian Pickering’s classic work The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago 1995) thanks to a recent article in Internet Archaeology (which I always think of as the old grey digital lady of online, digital archaeology journals). Pickering emphasizes the temporal dimension to practice in science and looks to that temporality as the key understanding the interplay between human and non-human agents. Pickering has also nudged me to go back to some of Peter Gailson’s work where he notes “And further, following Fernand Braudel, Galison suggests that layers of contextual constraints have differing inner temporalities.”

Just yesterday, I received word of a new article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording.” I haven’t read it yet, but I need to, obviously.

Finally, thanks to a commenter on this blog, I started reading Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton 2015). It’s fantastic and reminded me to go back to Donna Haraway’s class Cyborg Manifesto (which I’ll likely read in the lovely re-set publication produced by the University of Minnesota Press in 2016: Manifestly Haraway. Look beyond the olde skool cover and check out the pages. It’s really gorgeous.).

Plus, I’ve requested a copy of a paper delivered by Ömür Harmanşah delivered at the University of Glasgow this week and titled “Remotely sensing: Ethics of fieldwork, military technologies, and archaeological practice in the Anthropocene” (for the flyer).

In short, there’s too much cool stuff going on that it’s hard to marshal it all into a coherent set of ideas for a 6 minute paper. (I love the idea of 6 minute papers because they play to my increasingly opaque and superficial understanding of everything. Six minutes BEG me to try to be profound.)

So here are my idea right now:

1. Scale, Time, and the Individual. One of the key concepts that seems to float very near the surface these day is as scale increases toward BIG DATA, so does the sense of alienation from the data. The fervent arguments that individuals trained in the humanities are needed to re-humanize BIG DATA, indicates that this anxiety over algorithms is not constrained to luddite social scientists desperately hoping to protect their heirloom gardens, but seeping into the public discourse as well.

As data gets bigger and the sense of scale gets bigger, individuals become more faintly traced. Braudel recognized this and his magnum opus carefully preserved the incommensurability between history at different chronological scales,removing individuals from the gentle arc of the longue durée. This isn’t to suggest that BIG DATA rejects individuals explicitly, after all the most common uses of BIG DATA analysis are geared toward improving the consumer experience (more, and more, and more) by individualizing recommendation at a massive scale. As an archaeological example, data at scale is necessary to create immersive 3D worlds that allow an individual to “experience” a walk through the ancient countryside or cities. At the same time, there is a substantive difference between a simulation of individual experience and the “real thing.”   

2. Scale and Aggregation. If the production of BIG DATA often involves the aggregation of datasets generated by myriad individuals with individual goals (or gathered via automated means through machine legible datasets or other forms of computerized harvesting). Whatever the value of this kind of analysis has (and to be clear, I believe that it has some value), the result of these systems of production is to marginalize the work of the individual archaeologist and to undermine the status of the “heroic archaeologist” of the 19th and 20th century and elevate the role of a kind of post-industrial archaeological logic.

Of course, I recognize the significance of large-scale data projects in archaeology, but I also worry about their impact on our field. As large scale geospatial analysis involves drawing datasets from a wide range of sources (satellite photos, aerial photos, various maps, various levels of survey data from intensive pedestrian survey to remote sensing, excavation data, legacy data, et c.), the autonomy of these sources becomes subsidiary to larger project’s goals. And, while such synthetic alienation is part-and-parcel of even traditional archaeological work, the digital medium for so much spatial and digital archaeological work seems to offer particular risk for the fate of the author and the context of various kind of knowledge. I genuinely worry that our increasingly interest in these kinds of projects will authorize us to overwrite the contributions of individuals. 

3. Scale and Production. My previous point being offered, I remain concerned that many of the individuals associated with the recent move toward digital practices in academic archaeology, whatever their skills and competencies, tend to be alternative academics, precarious professionals, or otherwise marginalized in the process of academic, archaeological, knowledge making. I’m not the first to observe this, of course, but I’m only now beginning to realize that standardized outputs of digital tools often work to obscure the real expertise of these individuals making it easier to marginalize them in practice and in the profession. 

Here, I’m drawing on some of the ideas that I’ve started to mess with in terms of academic work. Digital tools in archaeology require tremendous amount of skill and knowledge to manipulate. At the same time, their outputs are, in some ways, standardized. For example, maps produced by GIS software or line drawings manipulated and “inked” in Illustrator take on similar appearances, especially compared to hand-drawn maps or illustrations, even if the skill of the individual practitioner varies widely. These kinds of standardized products make an argument, through this standardization, for an industrial process of knowledge making rather than the intimate work of digital craft that often goes into producing finely tuned and nuanced analysis. In effect, the results push back into the production and argue for the marginalization of the individuals who produce industrial “data.” 

I’m sure that I’m wrong and muddled about this stuff, but how wrong can I be in six minutes?

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