Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age

This weekend’s IEMA conference, Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age, was pretty great and thought provoking. I thought I might share some of my impressions of the papers and the general themes of the conference. The papers were universally remarkable and, in some ways, it’s going to take me a long time to digest the entire conference, but I wanted to offer some preliminary thoughts while the papers (and my notes) were fresh in my mind.

So here are five thoughts on the IEMA conference. Most of them overlap in some way.

1. Social and Digital Practice. Four years ago, a group of digitally minded archaeologists got together for the Mobilizing the Past conference in Boston. The conference started with a keynote talk by John Wallrodt who was a pioneer in implementing digital tools, at scale, in the field (you can read his paper here as a pdf) and concluded with a talk from Bernie Frischer whose Rome Reborn project represented a landmark in the large-scale use of 3D modeling to create an immersive experience of Ancient Rome. You can get a sense for that conference in the published volume that came out of that event.

You can compare the two programs here and here or through the visualizations below:

MtPMobilizing the Past program. (You can see it better here).

IEMACritical Archaeology in the Digital Age (You can see it better here).

In many ways, if you extended a line between the two talks at Mobilizing the Past and traced its trajectory, it would continue through the IEMA conference, despite the explicitly different themes and modest overlap of participants. While “data” remains prominent in both visualization, the MtP cloud shows a prominent emphasis on “recording” whereas IEMA shows “research,” MtP shows “collection” and IEMA shows “social,” and MtP shows “mobile” and IEMA “media.” I recognize, of course, that the two conferences had different emphasis, but I would also suggest that the difference in emphasis reflects the changing priorities in digital archaeology. 

As we conclude the second decade of the 21st century, digital archaeology has become far more invested in the social outcomes, impacts, and potential of digital practices both in the field and as part of the larger discipline.    

2. Affective Archaeology. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to really think about how affect impacts how we know the world. I had recognized, of course, emotional and intellectual response to a spectacular view, the rush at an unexpected discovery, or the simple physicality of space, an object, or moving through a landscape, but this had always represented a bonus experience to be neatly cordoned off from the “real work” of data collecting and description.

Even my understanding of slow archaeology emphasized not the affective aspect of archaeological work but the patient attention to details and change. After hearing a number of talks at this weekend’s conference, I realize that this was a significant oversight on my part. In fact, it hadn’t dawned on me that some of the excitement and learning that took place during the Wesley College Documentation Project was not because of my brilliantly organized class, but because the students were encouraged to explore the buildings on their own and engaged with them on their own terms.  

The potential of immersive, digital experiences to create similar opportunities for engagement with archaeological spaces and objects pushes us to realize that the experience of the past is perhaps as important as our empirical knowledge of archaeology in creating meaningful and useful knowledge.  

3. Privilege and the Colonial. One of the threads that appeared throughout the papers at the conference was the way in which digital tools and practices create or mitigate colonial encounters or the production of privilege. It was inspiring to hear talks about teaching children in Peru how drones, digital cameras, and 3D scanning works and encouraging them to use these tools to reimagine archaeological narratives or how to reimagine museums where the barriers of expertise and access do less to reproduce privilege of wealth, education, race, and gender. 

Of course, digital tools have their own social constructed affordances that digital archaeologists and practitioners negotiate every day, but, at this conference, it felt like the traditional “boys with their toys” culture that so often surrounds supposed “expertise” in digital archaeology, took a back seat to more thoughtful and complex social critique. The range of scholarly ranks – from emerita to visiting – and the range of contexts and uses suggest to me that the critical engagements with digital practices are changing and deepening as more, diverse voices are coming to conversation.    

4. Open, Closed, and Digital. The final conversation at the conference focused on whether it was appropriate to publish the proceedings as a print only book bound by copyright. So much of the conference celebrated the potential of open, digital scholarly work and offered less than subtle critiques of practices that limited access to information, processes, or results.

This conversation, however, was not naive. Folks recognized that the opportunities and benefits of open publishing are not evenly distributed in academia. The increasingly metric driven world of academic evaluation has created growing pressure particularly on early and mid-career scholars to publish in high prestige journals or to publish books with a short-list of traditional and well-established publishers. This tension was not resolved. Times and practices are changing in academic publishing and dissemination, but they’re not changing for everyone at the same pace and in the same way. There remains risks publishing open access and digital work and those of us who are less vulnerable to these risks and more capable of reaping the benefits of these practices. 

5. Hard Work. Finally, I was humbled by the amount of time, intellectual energy, and personal effort present in the papers and projects shared at the conference. If we imagined more efficient, streamlined, standardized, and seamless digital world that would somehow result in scholars working less or with less energy, then we would be mistaken. Scholars engaged in the digital world are not only pushing forward our discipline’s technical tool kit and expertise, but also thinking in critical  ways about archaeology, the past, and the range of stakeholders and communities who engage with both the material and digital objects that we study and our analyses and interpretations. 

I suppose this isn’t surprising, but it makes me even more committed to doing my part.

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