Five Questions on Being a Digital Archaeologist

Last week (or maybe two weeks ago?), Shawn Graham asked a number of us to produce short recordings for his Digital Archaeology class at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve been turning the questions over in my head on my afternoon walks, but, for some reason, I’ve been reluctant to do actually do the recording.

It seems like a good idea to write up my answers now as a bit of a nudge…  

1. Who are you and what are you currently working on?

My name is Bill Caraher and I’m currently working on a few project including the preliminary report of 5 or 6 years of field work in the Western Argolid with the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP), the final publication of some excavations in eastern Cyprus concluded in 2012 with the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP), and a long-term publication project at Polis Chrysochous in western Cyprus as part of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition. These projects are all very data centered in that our analysis draws directly from our databases and GIS and have data publication as part of their priorities. 

I’m also writing a small book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience and some very local CRM projects with my wife who is the local Historic Preservation Coordinator

I am the publisher and director at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and the editor of the literary journal North Dakota Quarterly

2. How did you get started in digital archaeology?

I came to archaeology quite late in my graduate school career. In fact, I’ve never even taken an archaeology course at any level and didn’t do my first fieldwork until after my MA. In an old school way, pre-professional way, I am completely “field trained.”

As a result, when I started working around archaeologists on Tim Gregory’s various projects in the Corinthia, I was drawn to work for which I had some degree of competence (i.e. not necessarily fieldwork!). Because my parents were computer people (my father has patents on digital “notebooks” for research) and my mother taught programing at the college level and worked in bio-informatics, I can’t remember not having a computer in the house. I don’t have any formal training or expertise for computer work or programing — for example, I’m not much of coder and I never really call myself a “digital archaeologists” — but I don’t fear computers and generally feel comfortable following directions and using most off-the-shelf computer programs for their intended purposes. More than that, as much as I love field work, I don’t really have any discernible expertise as an archaeologist. In other words, by putting me in front of a computer and tasking me to keep track of stuff, a project isn’t losing a key member of their field team or depriving the project of hard earned field expertise.

As a result, I took pretty quickly to working with Microsoft Access, ESRI ArcGIS, and various more specialized applications used for data capture and processing (various pieces of Trimble software, Agisoft Metashape, et c.). I also have a bit of knack for digital “workflow management,” and while I’m not a detailed person, my long experience with computers has made it relatively easy to think systematically.

As a result, when I went on my first archaeological projects (the Ohio State University excavations at Isthmia and the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS)), I gravitated to computer work because I thought that maybe I could be helpful there. Fortunately, the folks doing computer work for EKAS — Richard Rothaus and his cadre of GIS-trained graduate students — were super welcoming and walked me through various programs with unbelievable patience and generosity. 

As EKAS field work wound down, I become more and more interested in how the data worked and how I could use GIS and databases to support field work (and how these programs shaped what we could and could not document in the field). As I did some independent fieldwork, I leaned on what I had learned at EKAS to document and interpret features and finds (for example, here). I also began to work with colleagues to used our digital tools to analyze the material from our survey work at EKAS (for example, here). 

When I started my own small project on Cyprus in 2003 (the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project), I took a leading role in designing the databases, GIS, and digital workflow, although much of this was adapted from my previous experiences in EKAS. I also started a more digitally mediated project at Polis where we worked to build data structures that would allow us to query and analyze over 20 years of intensive excavation at the site. Finally, in 2014, I started to work with the folks at WARP to help with their data workflow.

At this point, I realized that the average archaeology graduate student had more experience using digital tools than I did and mostly what I was doing was workflow management rather than actual digital archaeology in any computational sense. I was perhaps slightly more savvy in dealing with the kind of big, structured datasets that archaeology produced, but, in the end, I was a dinosaur compared to their more agile ways of thinking with data and familiarity with the latest tools and techniques.  

3. What is the biggest challenge facing digital archaeology at the moment?

I’ve thought about this a good bit.

At first, I wanted to suggest that whatever center “digital archaeology” once existed, I’m increasingly inclined to say that it has currently dissipated. As a result, we’re not really dealing with “digital archaeology” as a field any longer, but “digital archaeologies” which cover a vast range of technologies, techniques, approaches, attitudes, and skill sets. For example, what Shawn does with agent-based-modelingAndrew Reinhard does with archaeogaming, or Maurizio Forte does at his DIG@Lab is pretty different from, say, the work of Eric and Sarah Kansa at Open Context or work to refit legacy data to contemporary problems, or data collection in the field. This isn’t to imply that one type of digital archaeology is better than the other or that one is “real digital archaeology” or whatever, but to suggest that whatever big tent digital archaeology could be, the field is highly disparate at this point with many subfields and approaches having developed specialized bodies of literature and discussion. One wonders whether digital practices are now so diverse that many of them are largely incommensurate. In other words, perhaps the biggest challenge facing digital archaeology is determining whether “knowing it when you see it” or archaeological work that involves computers (i.e. Colleen Morgan and Stu Eve’s famous “we’re all digital archaeologists now”) remains enough to support the concept as meaningful in theory and practice. For more on this read Jeremy Huggett for more (and frankly better) thoughts on this.  

I then considered to talking about my own efforts to think about digital archaeology. I proposed the concept of “slow archaeology” as a way to think critically about digital practices. My ideas have evolved a bit over the last five years or so (read their latest iterations here), but they center on a concern for the impact of digital practices on the shape of archaeological labor. In other words, I consider how digital tools shape archaeological thinking and seeing from the survey unit and trench side to the lab and laptop. This felt odd solipsistic (and more than that, I know that Shawn and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on this). It also is a pretty narrow view of what digital archaeology and even archaeology means in practice. 

In an effort to avoid consuming my own tail (let’s say), I think I should propose that the greatest challenge facing digital archaeology/archaeologies at present is the continued need for sustained ethical reflection. While this applies to all archaeology, of course, I think that digital tools present distinct challenges. In fact, I would even propose that if digital archaeology has any center, it is in a shared ethics of practice. This could means a wide range of things, but I worry about this stuff the most:

1. How do digital tools and digital practices reproduce hierarchy within the discipline?
2. How have digital recording practices challenged ideas of heritage, ownership, and stewardship in our field?
3. How do digital practices reinforce colonial relationships and support claims to universalism?
4. What are our responsibilities toward digital ephemera and archival standards in everyday practice?
5. What are the ethics of open access in practice?
6. How do we understand critically the relationship between private profit and public good in the digital tools that we use?
7. What are the ethics of digital workflows and efficiency?
8. What are the ethics involved in selecting the material technologies that we use in the discipline?
9. How do we understand and critique the asymmetries in funding associated with digital innovation?
10. How do we critique the very concept of innovation in our field?  

These issues are obviously overlapping and complex, and many of these issues have already attracted sustained and careful attention. At the same time, I think that we need to do more to consider how digital archaeologies are shaping the ethnical landscape of archaeological practice. 

4. What drives you up the wall about how digital archaeology is currently received/perceived in the profession? (Alternatively, what are you currently trying to learn in digital archaeology OR have you had any glorious failures, and so please describe.)

I usually don’t get easily perturbed by how others see me or my work, but I do worry that the public (and to a larger extent my less digitally focused colleagues and university administrators) continue to see digital archaeology as a field centered on innovation (or, if this was 2006 “disruption”).

Of course, if you’ve read this far into this post, you will realize that I am guilty of this as well. In fact, my call for greater ethical scrutiny in the field assumes that somehow digital technology has made digital archaeology different from “analogue practice” and requires renewed critical attention. 

At the same time, I get annoyed by the lack of interest and support for the small-scale iterative and adaptive practice that make technology work for archaeologists on a day-to-day level. Having read for any number of national grants over the last decade, it’s amazing how even among critical and thoughtful specialists in our field, we tend to be drawn to the projects that promise to re-invent the wheel at the expense of projects that seek to improve, modify, adapt, or reuse existing technologies to address new challenges. 

5. What fills you with hope about the field?

I often feel like digital archaeology (and digital humanities, digital history, and digital practices in general) encourage a kind of attention to day-to-day practices that non-digital versions of archaeology, humanities, history, and the like tend to approach as settled. For example, in my corner of archaeology, there’s relatively little discussion about how one excavates or analyzes finds. That is to say, we don’t talk much about troweling techniques, how we discern different strata in the field, and what we do determine and describe the shape, fabric, color, and function of ceramics during artifact analysis.

Digital archaeology seems to have pushed us to think more critically about the little things that we do to create archaeological knowledge. Critical attention to digital tools has encouraged us to think more about how we produce an illustration, how we move about a landscape, and how we see architectural changes and strata. It may be that new technology will not radically change these practices in the long run, but it certainly feels like they’re receiving greater critical scrutiny these days as they intersect with an expanding range of digital tools.

Maybe this is really what Morgan and Eve meant when they said “we’re all digital archaeologists now?” It doesn’t mean that we’re all on the bleeding edge of digital practices in our discipline or even regularly using technology in our practice, but that the emergence of the digital has made our past practices “analogue” and opened them to new forms of critique and reflection.

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