Industrial Practice and Archaeology

Lately I’ve been struggling to revise a paper that I delivered at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting last month for submission to the European Journal of Archaeology. In my blog post today, I’m trying to work through these ideas as explicitly as possible to work out some thinking problems in my current article draft. Most of what I’ve written here, I’ve tried to articulate before on the blog. The ideas aren’t new, but I’m hoping that I can get more refined in how I state them.

I argue that historically, industrial practices and the assembly line in particular, have exerted a strong influence over the organization of archaeological work. This is not a terribly unique argument and draws on a well-established body of scholarly work from as early as the 1980s and intersecting with larger critiques of archaeology as a distinctly modern practice. The influence of the logic of the assembly line, for example, encourages specialization in expertise and skills, looks to scientific management practices to organize labor, and prizes efficiency.

While the logic of the assembly lines is most explicit in contract archaeology where time is literally money, it is hardly surprising that it exerts an influence of academic archaeological practice as well particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when the emergence of New Archaeology reinforced the need for consistent field practices to produce rigorous, and frequently, quantitative data for hypothesis testing. At the same time, an intensification of pressures within academic archaeology to comply with permit requirements, to maximize the use of grant funding, and to produce consistent results from an increasingly volunteer (and often student) workforce, further encouraged the model of the assembly line and its influence on efficiency and consistency. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, there are parallels between the organization of archaeological practice and the logic of higher education. The assembly line exerted a clear influence over how students and faculty work within the American university system (and systems influenced by it). Specialization is prized and learning (and research) is divided into specialized compartments that pair specialists with students in the service of explicit teaching or research goals. As a result, the organization of academia and the shifting character of archaeology – especially as it became increasingly driven by methods and practices – found new opportunities for convergence. 

Digital tools and practices largely aligned with the practical needs of the archaeological assembly line and a major current in archaeological thinking has emphasized the way that digital tools can improve efficiency and consistency in archaeological recording. The most commonly used digital tools – like total stations and GPS units, laptop computers, databases, and GIS software, and digital cameras – came into use because they were easier, quicker, and better than earlier analogue practices. In many ways, the logic of these digital tools followed the logic of the assembly line. The tools encourage us to break down the world into manageable bits and bytes that can be reassembled when necessary to produce knowledge. The utility of databases, for example, is that they follow so closely the tendency to divide the complex into fragments, just as the assembly line divides complex tasks into simpler ones or the American university divides knowledge into subjects, courses, and classes. The parallel between digital tools and archaeological work facilitated the integration of these tools with field practice. 

At the same time, the modularity inherent in digital practice and digital logic opened the door to new ways to organize archaeological work. The assembly line was, by definition, linear, and this offered a model of archaeological work that proceeded from the field to the publication, the fragmentation of processes that digital tools allowed and, in some ways, required also undermined the linearity of the assembly line process. Digital tools, particularly with the spread of the internet, reduced the friction that maintained the linear movement of archaeological knowledge toward the goal of publication. It is now possible for the fragments and specialized work to be disaggregated from the larger goal of archaeological work and distributed to be used for different purposes. 

In fact, recent work in digital archaeology has sought to increase the value of this disaggregated archaeological information outside of the linear progress from trench to public. The push to publish archaeological “data” with robust metadata describing its organization, character, and utility makes it possible for others to understand and query this data as well as redeploy it to answer different research questions and for different goals. The growth of Linked Open Data standards explicitly encourages the (re?)use of data by different projects. The interoperability of this data complicates the linearity of archaeological work and introduces new ways to consider the production of archaeological knowledge.

It is at this point that the logic of logistics becomes increasingly significant for archaeological work. Whereas there was an expectation, if not a requirement, that assembly lines be arranged to limit the friction along their course, logistics emphasize the modularity of objects across different networks. The most obvious and well known examples of objects designed to facilitate logistics are shipping pallets and shipping containers which have standardized sizes that allow for different goods to be moved through expansive networks with a minimum of friction. In terms of packaging, standardization becomes a shared practice that offers certain advantages to anyone who chooses to prepare their goods in a certain way. More complex logistics, however, involve bespoke practices that allow not only for the distribution of goods through networks, but also their use in a wide range of contexts and environments. The ability for certain goods to move through networks but also to have value across networks represents the organizational logic of logistics. It’s not enough for an object to be produced with maximum efficiency. Real value comes when that efficiency is distributed through a network in ways that mitigate variability in markets, for example, or in labor or shipping costs as well as friction caused by borders and distance. In short, efficiency in logistics involves reducing the friction caused by distance, culture, and contexts while at the same time preserving the utility of the objects being dispersed. 

For an archaeologist, the growing influence of logistics as a model for understanding archaeological knowledge making offers certain contradictions. There is obvious value in the ability to reuse “raw” archaeological data to address issues or questions independent from the original goal of a project. At the same time, logistics emphasizes, in some ways, the decontextualizing of archaeological work. In a very tangible way, the ability of archaeological data across national boundaries and to move far beyond its physical context or provenience challenge traditional views of cultural ownership that are often located in a distinctive sense of place or culture. While most projects have sought to keep this in mind as they produce and disseminate archaeological data and have installed protocols that, for example, prevent the location of sensitive sites from being known, these efforts push against infrastructure – such as the web and linked data standards – designed to facilitate the seamless flow of knowledge. The development of elaborate metadata schemes offers another example of how the narrow context of archaeological runs counter to pressures of interoperability and the dissemination of data. Site specific schemes and typologies, while potentially more valuable in describing the situatedness of archaeological information in a particular place, also make this data less valuable for reuse. While this might appear to be largely a practical issue that technology can solve, they also have larger implications for the way we structure and value archaeological knowledge in general. As we work to adopt practices that make it easier for our data (and knowledge) to move more seamlessly from a particular context, place, or situation, we also transform the nature of archaeological knowledge and work. 

Archaeology has always involved creating knowledge from a specific site and in a specific context that has value that goes beyond the trench or place. The logic of logistics and digital tools, however, provides a model for digital practices that is both a development of such modern approaches to knowledge making as the industrial assembly line and a significant challenge to the significance of context and provenience in archaeological practice.  

 

 

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