Time and Archaeological Legacy Data

With the ASOR annual meeting not even begun, I’m already being gently nudged to think about my paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in January. Fotini Kondyli and Jon Frey have organized a panel on legacy data in archaeology, and according to the abstract that I wrote a few months ago, my paper will talk about flow and how scrutinizing the concept of flow can help us understand the archaeological argumentation and narrative.

Here’s my abstract

The more that I’ve thought about this paper, the more the first couple of lines in the abstract have stuck with me: “The notion of legacy data is an artifact of contemporary digital archaeology. Archaeologists define legacy data as information that is incommensurate with contemporary digital practices and standards.” 

This got me thinking about how legacy data fits into our notions of archaeological time. It seems to me that archaeologists generally have three notions of time in mind when they do their work. They tend to function in slightly different ways and can accommodate each other n varying ways.  

1. Archaeological Time. This is the basic framework for most archaeology. It assumes that the object of archaeological study is in a different time from that of the archaeologist. It allows us to see a past as “the past” and to think about what we do as “objectively” in the sense that it is fundamentally separate from who we are. The division between our time and archaeological time historically has tended to frame our object of study as part of the not-modern or pre-modern world. It’s not just the past, but a past that is distinct enough from the present to represent something discrete and worth studying through archaeological methods.   

2. Methodological Time. Methodological time represents the modern assumption that archaeologists are constantly improving our methods and practices. As a result, the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the present is better than the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the past. The best example of this kind of time is in the name of the SAA’s journal of archaeological methods: Advances in Archaeological Practice. Archaeological science, archaeological methods, and archaeology in general advances to produce a better, clearer, or improved view of the past.

3. Ethical Time. I am still attempting to understand completely what ethical time is an archaeologist. It manifests itself most frequently in debates over the repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists understand, of course, that returning say a Greek or Egyptian artifact to the modern nation of Greece or Egypt does not under any systematic understanding of the word “repatriate” return an object to the same people or state or even cultural entity that existed in the past. We are not returning an object to ancient Greece and in some case, like the Parthenon Marbles, we’re not not even proposing to return an object to the same political entity from which they were taken. This is particularly complicated for debates over the repatriation of artifacts to say, Lebanon, from Turkish museums. In many cases, these objects became part of these collections when Lebanon or Syria were part of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman state no longer exists. At the same time, the post-Ottoman nations of Lebanon and Syria have claims to their pre-Ottoman past in the service of modern nation building and in the construction of narratives that produce a meaningful past to communities living in those areas.

This is a complicated time to understand as an archaeologist and unlike the more or less linear time of archaeological methodologies or the fragmented time, stratigraphic time of the archaeological past, ethical time in archaeology tends to be recursive, spiraling, and grounded in contemporary commemorative practices that many scholars will argue emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a counterpoint to the dour rationality of historical thinking that so often seems to contravene the work of nation building.

(4. Material Time? One could argue that archaeologists are increasingly coming to recognize material time especially as we have come to address the “material turn” in historical and archaeological thinking. This time reflects the varied ways in which material change and how we understand the persistence of particular material as fundamental to shaping the archaeological record. This is different from archaeological time because it recognizes that objects carry with them a multiplicity of times that allow them to exist both in the past and in the present.) 

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Legacy data itself exists at the intersection of methodological and ethic time in archaeology. On the one hand, much of the conversation concerning legacy data – or publishing the results of past archaeological work – is grounded in the ethical assertion that because archaeology is, in some ways, “destructive,” (or perhaps better, involve “recontextualizing” material) we have an obligation to justify the recontextualization of this material through publication. Unpublished material, even if it remains secure in a storeroom, is no different than looted material in that its context is not made understandable. By publishing our work, we recontextualize material and “restore” it to a particular kind of time. This has nice parallels to the work of archaeologists to repatriate finds and restore these objects to a chronological and political context that benefits (generally speaking) a colonized community’s ability to produce a meaningful historical and commemorative narrative for their own society.    

On the other hand, legacy data presents a problem for archaeologists’ sense of methodological time. Because we have tended to see our discipline as always advancing toward new ways of recovering the past and contributing to the present, legacy data is often seen as flawed or, worse still, obsolete. Our field continues to privilege new projects, especially for the career advancement of early career scholars, at the expense of the long and frequently compromised grind of legacy projects.

My work at Polis is a great example of how legacy projects force us to think in three times at once. On the one hand, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition was probably the last major American excavation in the Mediterranean not to employ a stratigraphic system in excavation. Instead they dug in levels and passes which may or may not have been stratigraphic. They also regularly ignored “last in, first out” and had multiple contexts open at the same time. 

It is possible, of course, to restore some sense of stratigraphic control to the excavation because many of the excavators understood the concepts of formation and depositional processes. Moreover a simple application of the rules of superposition still apply allow us to broadly understand that lower levels are earlier than higher levels whenever we can safely assume some kind of controlled of systematic deposition. With a few basic understandings cobbled from the methods of contemporary archaeological work, we can start to reconstruct the past at the site of Polis. 

Moreover, this offers us an ethical way to recontextualize the excavated material at the site. The value of this material is that we can make it speak through contemporary methodological expectations to the past. 

Finally, we might even argue that our work to address the legacy material from Polis has pushed us to think about how various kinds of legacy data exist within their own material worlds. We started with the paper notebooks produced over the course of excavations at the site and the artifacts from the dig dutifully stored in wooden trays and paper boxes. We then converted these artifacts into digital objects in databases which allowed us to recombine them in new ways. We’ve also started to think about how to publish or at very least archive our digital data in ways that ensures that they are more widely available than paper copies of records and artifacts in storerooms. We also anticipate, in some way, that our digital artifacts might last longer than the paper records produced by the site. The time of the varying materials shape our strategies. 

Obviously all these ideas need further refinement and expansion, but there will be time for that…  

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