Logistics and Workflow in Archaeology

Over the weekend, I was in an entertaining Twitter conversation about archaeological data and publishing. The chat, as they often do on Twitter, became quite wide ranging, straying into the such charged areas as sandwich making and piano playing, but one of the more salient and thought-provoking points was that the end result of archaeological work should be proper publication. The following post is an effort to connect that conversation and view of archaeology to a paper that I’m slowly preparing for EAAs on a similar topic

On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with this. For most of my career in the field, projects that publish promptly receive the highest praise and archaeologists who do not earn (often quiet )derision. The pressure and expectation to publish is such that I’ve tended to see the entire archaeological enterprise – from planning field seasons to methods and procedures and the organization of labor and resources – as leading toward the final publication. If anything, I’ve probably tended to privilege excavation over all other outcomes of archaeological work to a fault. This reflects the standard belief that archaeological work – whether excavation or survey – is destructive and only restored through the proper publication of methods and results. While I’m never so naive as to believe that publication allows for the reconstruction of excavated level and layers, I will admit to imagining that greater transparency and rigor in documenting the excavation or survey process – both in terms of process and methods – will provide the foundations for more open-ended and nuanced interpretation.    

Most archaeologists are familiar with the general rhetoric that since archaeology is “destructive,” our work should take great pains to extract as much data as possible from the field. This “data” then becomes the foundations for analysis and interpretation and ultimately publication.

Of course, we also recognize that this rhetoric is, in a sense, facile. It’s a nice way to encourage students and volunteers to be careful in the trench or survey unit and perhaps even serves as a cautionary reminder that more, larger, deeper, trenches do indeed produce more, larger, deeper problems (i.e. mo’ trenches, mo’ problems). Archaeology is not a non-renewable resource, any more than excavation is an extractive industry. Archaeology is generative and productive and gives meaning to the flotsam of the past.

The focus on field work projects and the discipline on publication (and the logic that dictates this) serves to reinforce the social organization of archaeological practice in key ways. Final publication typically remains the responsibility of the director or directors, for example. As a result, the organization of archaeological work tends to be hierarchical with the director or directors at the top of a pyramid and specialists, supervisors, and workers forming the foundations for the ultimate expression of synthetic knowledge. In this idealized, if still representative structure, the copious “data” collected in the field by workers, organized and refined by specialists and supervisors, and then presented in reports becomes the possession of the director and foundational to analysis and interpretation. The recent and generally salutary trend toward the publication of “raw data” allows for readers to “drill down” through published analysis toward more granular bit of archaeological knowledge, closer to the trowel’s edge, and less complicated by — or at least disaggregated from — subsequent interpretation and analysis. In this way, archaeological work parallels the logic of excavation and the assembly line. Raw data enters the archaeological workflow at the trowel’s edge and refined interpretation exits in the final publication. 

The model that I have sketched out is both representative of certain currents in archaeological thought and mostly not true. We know that projects rarely work in such a streamlined way. Specialists harvest data and produce publications from archaeological artifacts. Volunteers and supervisors gain experience working on archaeological projects and this experience has direct value to their careers. Most projects have programs engaging local and global communities and recognize their responsibilities to conserve and present their work on site. In many cases, these the value generated from these outcomes trumps the value of a tidy and professional final publication. Moreover, in a few case, such as salvage projects, the final publication of archaeological analysis is not even a planned outcome; archaeological excavation is simply the performance of privilege or responsibility limited to particular groups within a community. In these cases it may be that careful excavation or survey is an expression of value in and of itself. 

In this context, then, the value of archaeological work is not limited to final publication and subject to the pressures of Taylorist efficiency, but distributed through a complex system. Workflow in this case, is not about the linearity of the assembly line but the value producing networks of logistics (especially as studied and articulated by folks like Deborah Cowen). 

Of course, articulating archaeological work through the lens of logistics is not without its own set of challenges. If the metaphor of industrial production and the assembly line promotes hierarchy, then the distributed authority and value present in a logistics network distributes agency between individuals, objects, communities, and methods. The methods of drilling down from the final product to the more “raw” initial observation dissipates across a network where the authority of identification, analysis, and interpretation relies less on a linear relationship between empirical observation and final publication, and more on the shifting relationships between individuals, objects, and technics. The ease with which these relationships can be reconfigured to produce unexpected outcomes – some of which might be undesirable on ethical grounds – marks out how an “uberfied” archaeology values expertise less and access more. The flow of data and knowledge in these logistic network involves the constant dividing and realigning of things and the sharing of responsibilities (but also the competition across the entire network for the right to expertise and the knowledge making).  


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