Craft in Archaeology: Who Digs? Craft & Non-specialist labor in archaeology

This is the fourth installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Colleen Morgan, EUROTAST Marie Curie Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Archaeology, University of York
Daniel Eddisford, PhD Researcher, Department of Archaeology, Durham University

Excavation animates archaeology. It is the public face of archaeology, we interpret at the trowel’s edge (Hodder 1997), and an apocryphal golden trowel symbolizes the highest recognition of archaeological professionalism (Flannery 1982). Digging is the most evocative archaeological practice, yet it is the most undervalued mode of archaeological knowledge production, least cultivated skill with fewest monetary rewards, and is considered so inconsequential that non-specialist labor is regularly employed to uncover our most critical data sets. Shanks and McGuire (1996) re-position archaeology as a craft, identifying divisions within archaeological labor, and propose a return to a master/apprentice-based model of enskillment. Yet the proposed “master” and “apprentice” are never defined beyond an amorphous teacher/student relationship that is contrasted with a problematic “factory model” of contract archaeology that emphasizes efficiency. Shanks and McGuire decry the routinization of archaeological methodology, but we would argue that the concept of mastery is inextricably bound to repetition. Further, the addition of non-specialist labor to archaeological excavation considerably increases the complexity of an apprentice to master progression.

Non-specialist labor has been employed throughout the history of archaeology. A non-specialist labor force can be students, volunteers, or “workmen” who are directed by an archaeologist. Though communities have long participated in archaeological excavations as hired labor or as volunteers, more recently non-specialist stakeholder labor has been implicated as a form of community archaeology. The full ramifications of non-specialist labor in the context of archaeological craft cannot be explored in this space. Yet, as commercial archaeological companies in the UK are increasingly encouraged to undertake projects that employ non-specialist volunteer labor, we are intrigued by the collision of what Shanks and McGuire characterize as the “factory model” of archaeology with community archaeology. 

Some of the considerations of community archaeology for commercial companies involve estimating the relative value of volunteer vs. professional labor. This value is both tangible, in the time and cost of excavating a site, and intangible, in terms of the benefits it brings to the community. In the current planning policy guidelines for heritage practice in the UK, “The process of investigating and recording, such as dismantling a building, or excavating a site, can be of public interest in its own right and the discovery of new knowledge and understanding about their locality’s history is valued by local communities. Community groups may be able to help” (English Heritage 2012:40). This value of understanding local history must be balanced by the ability for the archaeologists to investigate the site.

Alone, an archaeologist can excavate and document a cubic meter of deposits each day on site, with caveats in place for the complexity of the stratigraphic remains and other requirements for finds preservation and sampling. When non-specialist labor is involved, this equation is considerably altered. We provide the following observations and would welcome additional insights from other, more quantitative analyses. The ratio of 3:1 volunteers or students per archaeologist allows time for supervision and instruction while allowing the archaeologist to carry on with excavation. Accordingly, this slows progress on the site to about ⅓ the normal speed. These students and volunteers take about three weeks to train in basic methods and recording to achieve a state where they no longer slow the archaeologist down. This estimation highlights the inefficient pace of community archaeology projects, yet cannot provide exact conclusions about the fidelity of the archaeological data that is produced from these projects. This may not matter if the goal of the project is for community involvement rather than archaeological investigation or mitigation ahead of a development project.

To conclude, this is a partial, necessarily incomplete picture of the complex patterns of specialization and labor in archaeology. Nearly two decades ago, Shanks and McGuire argued for an apprentice model as opposed to a factory model, invoking the Arts and Crafts movement’s opposition to mass production (1996:77). Sadly this shift has not occurred. Contract archaeology has become even more fragmentary, with short-term contracts as the norm. A greater emphasis on volunteerism in archaeology reduces the perceived value of trained archaeologists. Craftsmen archaeologists still exist, but they are teaching volunteers rather than a new generation of apprentices. This threatens to turn archaeology into a hobby rather than a craft. Instead of moving from a factory model to a craft-based model, we are moving toward a hobby-based model. In this model there is even less room for the cultivation of master archaeologists.

English Heritage (2012) PPS5 Planning for the Historic Environment: Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/pps-practice-guide/pps5practiceguide.pdf

Flannery, K. V. (1982). The Golden Marshalltown: A parable for the archeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist, (84), 265-278.

Hodder, I. (1997). Always Momentary, Fluid and Flexible: Towards a Reflexive Excavation Methodology. Antiquity, (71), 691–700.

Shanks, M., & McGuire, R. H. (1996). The Craft of Archaeology. American Antiquity, (61.1), 75-88.

Craft in Archaeology: Craft in CRM Archaeology

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

As an industry, Cultural Resource Management archaeologists have adapted to our commercial environment in order to expedite the identification of important historic properties. We tend to work through standardized methods and management plans. We’ve co-opted types to make interpretively dubious assumptions that allow us to categorize artifact assemblages with a cool, quick precision. We categorize artifact types, site types, feature types, and eligibility types. We like our types and we want them to be clearly defined so we can create workflows that can be easily applicable. We don’t have time for apprentices or interns that we would normally take under our wing; we just need to plug people into pre-existing positions. These hires need to ramp up to the necessary professional accuracy and speed as quickly as possible in order to meet our deadlines. Our budgets, of both money and time, rarely allow for a great depth of understanding.

Our innovations are largely one of technical process. We adopt new technologies that allow us to record data more precisely and quickly than ever before. When we do adopt technologies (such as geophysical prospecting and lidar), they are often employed to save the effort of fieldwork, rather than to simply expand the pool of data at our interpretive disposal.

We develop managerial tools that allow us to reduce the amount of workload. Predictive models are often used to determine where or how to look for archaeological properties, rather than being used by a project’s proponent to determine where to best locate their project in order to avoid historic properties. Program comments and agreements are developed to allow only a small percentage of sites to be tested.

I won’t argue that these tools aren’t appropriate for the tasks at hand, but they do illustrate the trend of efficiency optimization within the CRM industry. Where does all of this leave craft within the industry?

When Bill issued the call for posts for this Archaeology and Craft series, I had been working on a post for my blog that I felt was actually brushing against the topic of archaeology as a craft and the pervasive lack of it in the CRM industry. The working title for this post was/is “Standardization, Professionals, and Technicians.” In it, I was discussing what a professional archaeologist is.

There are a lot of definitions and criteria over what is a professional archaeologist. There are the Secretary of Interior qualifications, which is the prevailing definition in the industry. There are also those who argue that “professional” = “licensed” and thus, you can’t be a professional archaeologist because there is no licensing body.

Others use the “employed” criteria. If you’re paid to do archaeology, you’re a professional. This is closely related to the dichotomy of professional and amateur. The professional is trained through formal education and is the essential “keeper of the flame” for both information and also the technical aspects of the work.

I usually think about “professional” as opposed to “technician.” This is very similar to the SOI qualification definition that I mentioned above, but instead of qualifications, I’m thinking of the distinction in terms of process. Technicians follow a set process. Professionals develop that process. I think that an archaeologist who understands the process and the reasons for it. If the situation calls for a change in process, they can adjust it as needed. One could be a professional archaeologist and still hold a position with the title of “technician”. The opposite is also true. I’m sure we all know archaeologists who are ostensibly professionals, but fail to break processes when needed, sometimes even to devastating effect. 

Obviously, my notions of what makes a professional archaeologist overlaps considerably with the notions of craft as discussed by Shanks and McGuire (1996; the required reading for this post). For example they describe craft as “…a process of interpretation and involves taste and the judgment of quality; it is a process of design” (Shanks and McGuire 1996:78).

Standardization is needed in the CRM industry. Aside from the increases in efficiency, I think that the small samples that we use in the majority of CRM work (e.g. surveys and evaluations) could be very useful for improving our understanding of regions, but far too often are presented in ways that hinder incorporation of the data into wider analysis. Sites are not islands, yet we create islands of data that are not easily compared. The dangers of standardized methods are that we can follow them rote without much thought. It is the craft of CRM archaeology where we can design and follow processes, but alter those designs as needed.

Craft in Archaeology: The Craft of Pottery Analysis in Mediterranean Archaeology

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University

The idea of archaeology as craft is intriguing. Archaeology is a discipline which combines a number of elements from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. We ‘borrow’ methodologies perhaps more so than any other field, combining them to form a coherent body of theory and method. Archaeology is not standardized across the world, however, and a number of sub-fields exist, divided by geographical and chronological boundaries. Classical Archaeology is interesting to consider in the context of craft, given its strong historical connections to art history and antiquarianism. Scientific perspectives, such as New Archaeology, have not had as strong an influence on classicists as in other areas of archaeology. How does this affect our view of Classical Archaeology as a craft?

This post will focus on one aspect of Classical Archaeology as craft: the analysis of pottery. Ceramic specialists are an important component of any project, often dealing with the most robust and copious body of material collected. In many ways, pottery analysis adheres strongly to ideas of craft as they are espoused in the article by Shanks and McGuire (1996). Consideration of the use of an apprentice structure for training specialists, the increasing integration of technology, and the place of pottery specialists within the hierarchy of archaeology, for instance, sheds light on this issue. The analysis of pottery in its present form arose out of nineteenth century methodologies and, in many ways, adheres to this structure. It is not stagnant, however, and is a craft that continues to evolve. The discussion below will hopefully show the benefits and difficulties with this evolution.

An Apprentice Structure

Since the formalization of Classical Archaeology as a discipline, the training of scholars to become specialists in the analysis of particular materials has followed an apprentice system. Pottery analysis, for example, relies on passing knowledge from experienced to non-experienced scholars. This adheres to the ‘traditional scheme of archaeological fieldwork’ according to Shanks and McGuire (1996: 84). Labs often have one or two trained specialists who are assisted by students. The students gain experience working with the ‘masters’ and in some cases may even become specialists themselves.

Shanks and McGuire note that the alternative to the apprentice structure, the factory model, has developed mainly within the jurisdiction of contract and rescue archaeology (1996: 84). The apprentice structure, which promotes the training of students as one of its primary goals, is not as effective in the context of Culture Resource Management. Instead, hiring pre-trained students who can then be assigned to various tasks which in combination bring about an efficient completion to a project is preferable. Proponents of this model within the academy tend to be associated with the New Archaeology, with its greater emphasis of scientific approaches to the discipline.

For Mediterranean archaeology, is a factory model feasible? The primary goal of this model is to increase efficiency by standardizing the methodology and dividing tasks across a series of workers. It favors a top-down structure where the project director or directors would be the only ones familiar with every aspect of the work. To one extent, some aspects of this model already exist within our own field. I am likely not alone in sometimes feeling separated from many components of a project by spending most days in a lab. There is a disconnect that arises from focusing on a specific set of data collected by a project. On most projects in the Mediterranean, however, it is unlikely that many individuals have a command of every task being completed. Directors often spend most of their time in the field or in the lab and may not be familiar with the other. Most directors do not view themselves as CEOs of project who require oversight into every minute detail. Thus, even though pottery specialists may feel marginalized at times, we are not alone in this feeling.

Pottery analysts are also moving toward a greater degree of standardization. This is particularly true for the study of fabric, as noted below, and is apparent in other ways, such as the use of distinct terminology. We can only push this so far, however. For decades, pottery analysis was not a standardized field and the number of unique typologies and descriptive methodologies that arose makes almost any overarching standardization impossible. The study of Roman pottery has many of examples of this phenomenon. If we take amphorae, for instance, many of the most common vessel types encountered across the Mediterranean have a remarkable number of names. The Kapitän II, a third–fourth century A.D. wine container perhaps produced in or around Asia Minor, is also known as the Niederbieber 77, Peacock and Williams class 47, the Benghazi Middle Roman 7, the Zeest 79, the Kuzmanov 7, and the Hollow Foot Amphora. Trying to research a vessel type when it is part of so many different typologies can almost be an act of futility. It also suggests that no matter how much standardization is introduced into pottery analysis, there must also be flexibility to engage with these historical precedents and to train students in understanding the complex past of the discipline.

The history of pottery analysis in Mediterranean archaeology indicates that an apprentice system is still the best system for training individuals to study this material. Hands-on practical experience under the supervision of an experienced instructor is necessary both for learning about the standardized practices that are now in use and about the myriad variations to these practices that appear in older publications and that are still relevant to the field today.

Technology and Pottery Analysis

In his proposal for this blog series, Bill Caraher noted that one significant issue for understanding the role of craft in archaeology is the ever-increasing presence of technology. He asked whether the use of this technology could ‘…marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft.’ Pottery analysis is not immune to the technological revolution. Consideration of how this affects ceramic specialists is lacking, however. One risk with engaging more with technology is that it will erode away traditional skill bases in favor of more efficient (but not necessarily more effective) methodologies. Assessment of the types of technology employed by pottery analysts, and their goals in doing so, suggests an opposing view. Use of technology may actually augment the skills we are required to possess since effective use of this equipment requires keen understanding of the material we are studying.

An example of the interaction between pottery specialists and technology can be found in the study of fabric. In the preface to their book Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide, David Peacock and David Williams make the following comment:

Another feature of this book is the stress upon fabrics as well as forms, because we feel that a consideration of both facets is essential if amphorae are to be identified with the precision that now seems necessary in economic analysis. We make no apology for including details of the characteristics of fabrics as they appear in the hand specimen and under the microscope, for this aspect is all too often neglected (1986: xvii).

For a pottery specialist working in the Mediterranean today, the assertiveness of Peacock and Williams’ view toward including details about fabrics is surprising. Now it would be the scholar who does not engage in fabric analysis who would have to apologize and justify his or her position. The study of fabric has become an essential component of ceramic analysis and one that has been aided greatly by technological innovation.

A number of archaeometric methods, both chemical and mineralogical, have been brought to bear for analysis of fabrics. Petrography is the most ubiquitous. Developed originally as a tool for studying soil and stone, petrography has a long history in the study of archaeological ceramics. Anna O. Shepard was an early proponent during her work in the southwestern United States (1942). Petrography was also in use by Classical Archaeologists around the same time (e.g. Felts 1942). The technique was not widespread, however. It is only within the past two decades that Mediterranean pottery specialists have come to include petrography as a standard part of their analytical program. Much of this is owed to Peacock who promoted the advantages of petrographic analysis in much of his early scholarship (e.g. 1970: 379).

Petrography has several advantages over other archaeometric techniques. It is relatively inexpensive, for instance, which is an important consideration within the present climate of dwindling funding.  The technique also provides a wider array of data about ceramics than most archaeometric methods, a detail noted by Peacock: ‘…the potential of petrology has been widely appreciated but recently other methods, more readily automated, seem to be favoured, even though the results may not have the same range of archaeological implications’ (1977: viii). In addition to providing information about the fabric that can lead to determinations of provenance, petrography can shed light on manufacturing processes, including the selection of raw materials, firing techniques, forming processes, and decoration (Peterson 2009: 2). More data is never a bad thing, which is perhaps why petrography has become so popular.

We must also consider Peacock’s comment about many of these techniques being automated. In other words, to what extent do pottery specialists actually engage with this technology? Petrography is again an interesting example since much of the analysis is done by trained petrographers and not by pottery specialists. We see the results of the study and incorporate them into our own analysis of the finds, but do not necessarily stare into the microscope on a regular basis. How does this affect our view of pottery as a craft? Is there a risk that archaeometric methods like petrography are beginning to replace the need for qualified specialists to examine ceramic assemblages? The answer to the latter question must be no. We can consider a scenario, for instance, where a ceramic assemblage is laid out with the intention of taking samples for petrographic analysis. A pottery specialist trained in analysing macroscopic qualities of fabric and shape is far more effective at selecting a representative sample of sherds from the pile. Moreover, the increased desire to use scientific techniques for studying pottery now requires pottery analysts to be much more vigilant in their study of the material. Detailed descriptions of fabric are now the norm in addition to careful division of the assemblage into known and unknown fabrics, with further subdivisions based on identified or suspected regions of production.

The need for more standardization and greater detail in fabric analysis is of great benefit to the discipline. One element of pottery studies that has always been frustrating is the poor quality of macroscopic fabric descriptions in much of the literature. They tend to relate vague overviews of color, inclusions, and texture. Comparing such descriptions to material under analysis or across different publications often proves disappointing. Efforts to develop standardized descriptions are helping to alleviate this and more and more publication of petrographic data and photographs of fabrics facilitate comparisons between sites and regions. Portable digital microscopes have also been helpful for improving the quality of fabric photographs in publications.

Concern that technology may erode the skills of individuals engaged in pottery analysis is not tenable. Even if pottery specialists do not engage with this technology directly, effective use of these methods prompts pottery specialists to improve their own descriptions and analyses of the material to ensure the best data possible is obtained by use of these techniques. Barring the invention of a Star Trek-like scanner that instantly provides all necessary details about a sherd, no amount of technology will replace the need for trained specialists to examine material by hand in a lab. Thus, the craft of pottery analysis should continue to exist in its present form for at least the near future.

A Field Divided

The use of technology may be beneficial to pottery analysis as a craft, but there are other issues to consider. One topic that appears several times within the article by Shanks and McGuire is the degree of hierarchy present within archaeology (1996: 82, 84). They observe that ‘we divide the practice of archaeology into those of us who manage and sit on committees, synthesize, generalize, and theorize and those of us who sort, dig, and identify’ (1996: 82). Pottery analysis would tend to fall into the latter category. Since the term ‘hierarchy’ has connotations of rank and status, a fact discussed explicitly by Shanks and McGuire, we must consider how this affects our view of pottery analysis as a craft.

At a basic level, there are three primary goals during the analysis of a ceramic assemblage. All relate to types of data that can be extracted from the material: chronology, function, economy. Pottery is the most important tool for dating in both excavation and survey. The make-up of an assemblage provides information about activities carried out at a site or within a specific structure and the origin of this material can shed light on economic patterns. Pottery specialists collect and organize this data. What happens afterward is where issues of hierarchy come into play.

Standard models of publication in Mediterranean archaeology would seem to support Shanks and McGuire’s view of an established hierarchy. In multi-author site reports, analysts present their data, but rarely offer significant synthesis of this material. That synthesis is left for project directors or other scholars who pull together disparate strands of information. Even when site reports involve multiple volumes, with artifact classes presented as separate monographs, pottery specialists often do themselves disservice. A typical pottery volume in Mediterranean archaeology is organized into a contextual introduction that describes the project in question, a detailed catalogue of finds, and a succinct overview of economic implications. It is the final section which reinforces the position of pottery specialists more as identifiers rather than synthesizers. Those final sections tend to range from several paragraphs to several pages and rarely go beyond a superficial treatment of the material. Detailed synthesis is left for other volumes in a series or for other scholars engaged in overarching studies of a region or period. There are a few exceptions (e.g. Peña 1999), but most studies fall into this type.

The analysis of pottery is a craft that requires mastery of a number of different skills. Focus on typology, chronology, function, and provenance, however, can serve as a barrier to moving beyond description into more detailed interpretation. Time constraints are also relevant since it takes a significant amount of time to process the hundreds, if not thousands, of kilograms of pottery produced by many projects. As the ability to obtain permits becomes more difficult across the Mediterranean and with pressure mounting to disseminate results more quickly, limitations on time, and thus on the ability of pottery specialists to interpret the collected data, will only increase.

At the end of their article, Shanks and McGuire argue that archaeologists have an ‘…obligation to take responsibility for what we do and produce’ (1996: 85¬–6). Pottery analysts working in the Greco-Roman world do appear well aware of their purpose within an archaeological project. We produce vital data to complement and augment interpretations developed out of field work and the processing of other materials. The question I am asking here, though, is whether pottery specialists should take on more of the responsibility for interpreting this data. We have the closest connections to this material, engaging with it day after day. Is it not possible for the identifiers to also be synthesizers and vice versa?

The hierarchy and strict division of archaeologists into different specialists has also led to another critique of the discipline. In an article from the late 1990s, Penelope Allison addressed one of the problems inherent in the analysis of material culture by archaeologists. She began with a concise summary of the standard procedure with which artifact analysis is approached by Mediterranean archaeologists:

At present, a common pattern of post-excavation activity is to divide the excavated artefacts into what are now well-established categories. Each category is then assigned to a different “finds specialist” for organisation into a typology which is ultimately published in the excavation report. The categories are largely selected on criteria attributable to the formal or manufacturing characteristics of the artefacts (1997: 77).

Allison’s main critique is that this methodology does not reflect how objects and individuals interacted in antiquity. In other words, separating pottery from glass, bone, architecture, etc. hinders rather than helps us to reconstruct ancient behavior. It was Allison’s own frustrations in reading through countless site and artifact reports during a study of households at Pompeii that led to this appraisal. A related difficulty is the fact that after pottery, most artifact classes are relegated to the category of small finds and given far less rigorous treatment. This pattern has been steadily changing over the past few decades, in no small part thanks to a book published by James Deetz on the importance of small finds in American archaeology (1977), but the disparity is still evident.

For Allison, a more appropriate procedure involves a holistic approach to studying the archaeological record. All material culture, including pottery, should be analyzed and presented together. She advocates the use of database management programs to organize these vast and disparate sets of data, a process which has now become standard practice for many archaeological projects. Scholars interested in domestic architecture have been the primary proponents of Allison’s ideas, following her seminal study of Pompeian households (2004). This includes Brad Ault’s work at Halieis in Greece (2005) and Ben Costello’s recent study of the Earthquake House at Kourion, Cyprus (2014). Most field projects, however, continue to separate their finds and bring in multiple specialists, who are not always present at the same time. 

Allison proposed this alternative to traditional practice in Mediterranean archaeology fifteen years ago, but for pottery analysis there has been little movement to modify its traditional structure. It is a sub-field that has seen its own skill set expand over the past two decades with the greater integration of technology. The accusation of pottery specialists being myopic in studying a single class of artifacts is perhaps tenable, but is myopia a bad thing if it means the ability to extract the maximum amount of information from a ceramic assemblage? Can an individual who spends equal time learning about ancient pottery, glass, bone, metal, wall painting, architecture, etc., be expected to understand ceramic fabrics at a level that is currently expected among pottery specialists? Will becoming a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ improve our overall ability to understand the archaeology and history of the ancient world?

These questions are difficult to answer and in many ways require much more discussion and debate among archaeologists. There are palpable benefits to the approach espoused by Allison, but there is also risk that the skills of pottery and other specialists would erode if they were required or expected to become knowledgeable about numerous classes of archaeological material. Allison’s call for use of database management programs may provide the best answer for a compromise. The use of tablets, for instance, allows members of an archaeological project to access a variety of data, often updated in real time, that bring together disparate elements of a project into a more cohesive whole. Pottery specialists can quickly scan the details of an excavated deposit before reading the material. Excavators can assess the chronology of layers already dug to help them understand the stratigraphy of deposits while still in the field. Perhaps breaking down boundaries in Mediterranean archaeology should focus more on sharing information rather than blurring the lines between specialized knowledge. As a craft we have come to rely greatly on our degree of specialization. Other types of finds should be given more robust treatment, but this should not constrain the need for detailed analyses of ceramic assemblages. 

Conclusions

Pottery specialists working in the Mediterranean are achieving a greater degree of professionalization as they develop more standardized protocols and methodologies. There is also a strong element of craft within the field of pottery analysis in Classical Archaeology. These elements are not mutually exclusive and their combination enables ceramic experts to provide robust data for use by other members of their projects. Further development of this craft is possible, particularly with respect to pottery analysts taking on a greater role as synthesizers. Shanks and McGuire note that ‘Craft is productive work for a purpose’ (1996: 78). Pottery analysis in Classical Archaeology adheres to this definition and, in its current manifestation, is successful at justifying its purpose.

References

Allison, P.M. 1997. ‘Why do Excavation Reports have Finds’ Catalogues?’ In Not So Much a Pot, More a Way of Life: Current Approaches to Artefact Analysis in Archaeology, C.G. Cumberpatch and P.W. Blinkhorn (eds.). Oxford: Oxbow Books 77–84.

Allison, P.M. 2004. Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA.

Ault, B.A. 2005. The Excavations of Ancient Halieis, Volume 2. The Houses: The Organization and Use of Domestic Space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Costello IV, B. 2014. Architecture and Material Culture from the Earthquake House at Kourion, Cyprus (BAR Int. Ser. 2635). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Deetz, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Felts, W.M. 1942. ‘A Petrographic Examination of Potsherds from Ancient Troy’. American Journal of Archaeology 46: 237–44.

Peacock, D.P.S. 1970. ‘The Scientific Analysis of Ancient Ceramics: A Review’. World Archaeology 1: 375–89.

Peacock, D.P.S. 1977. ‘Preface’, in Pottery and Early Commerce: Characterization and Trade in Roman and Later Ceramics, D.P.S. Peacock (ed.). London: Academic Press, vii–viii.

Peacock, D.P.S. and D.F. Williams. 1986. Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide. London and New York: Longman.

Peña, J.T. 1999. The Urban Economy during the Early Dominate: Pottery Evidence from the Palatine Hill (BAR Int. Ser. 784). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Peterson, S.E. 2009. Thin-Section Petrography of Ceramic Materials. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

Shanks, M. and R.H. McGuire. 1996. ‘The Craft of Archaeology’. American Antiquity 61: 75–88.

Shepard, A.O. 1942. Rio Grande Glaze Paint Ware: A Study Illustrating the Place of Ceramic Technological Analysis in Archaeological Research. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Craft in Archaeology: Is Digital Archaeology Craft?

 This is the first installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Shawn Graham, The Electric Archaeologist
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Carleton University

What is digital archaeology? Is it craft?

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In “Going Postal“, the Royal Mail is kaput. A critical mass of letters warp space and time, and this being Discworld, magic too, affecting events as they try to effect their own delivery. Knowledge = power = energy = mass, Pratchett tells us in the context of the Library (another concentration of magical words). Words – data – have curious power in the Discworld. Golems, creatures of clay, obey the words in their heads, enslaving them. When in “Feet of Clay“, someone puts the receipt for the purchase of a golem into that golem’s head, the golem is set free. Pratchett of course is not known as a philosopher of science or of epistemology, but the illustrations are useful as we think about the consequences of our own tombs of dead words and self aware word-based robot slaves. Ultimately, when you have these things, you are not as in control as you would like. All things strive. The craft of digital archaeology is about this tension. Our digital methods in archaeology in the field record and organize the contingencies, serendipitous encounters, chance observations, joys and sorrows such that we can excise all that is human from our story about the past.

This:

Slabs like the squared off clots Of a blue cream. Sunk for centuries under grass [Seamus Heany, Door into the Dark 1969] Until I found Bann clay. Like wet daylight or viscous satin under the felt and frieze Of humus layers. The true diatomite Discovered in a little sucky hole, Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable – Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool. [Seamus Heany, To a Dutch Potter in Ireland, 1996]

becomes this:

Very compact, Blue-ish grey to white, 10YR/8/1, pliable, clay 90% silt 10%, 35-17 cm, probably natural.

(originally quoted on Electric Archaeology in a post on 2007/12/10 What do we do then? We might then put that “data” on the web, where nothing much else happens subsequently. From graves to tombs of words. There is no craft here (witchcraft, practical necromancy, or other). There are only our golems, standing quietly by, awaiting further orders.

~oOo~

There is a genre of after-action reporting in video gaming called the ‘playthrough’. A subgenre of this is the ‘speedrun‘, a video of a player beating a game in the fastest time possible, by finding the equivalent of a least-cost path through the branches of possible experiences afforded by the game. Speedrunners are not craftsmen, but analog algorithms optimized for a particular path. Excavation is theatre, Tilley tells us. I’d argue that it’s more akin to a game. The site report is but one path through the excavation. If the excavation in potentia could play out in many possible ways, the site report is the expert playthrough. And like most playthroughs it is lifeless. Contingency and chance and serenditpity and insight are excised. The playthrough is not the game. It is but one path (an efficient path) through our tomb of dead words. Other paths might produce other, equally enlightening truths; possibly more enlightening ones. This is not Discworld; our texts do not warp space and time except in only figurative ways (although consider a citation network). Our golems are not yet set free. But. The day is coming. We are beginning to use our knowledge of the structures and relationships and semantic meanings in our data to structure the internet itself: to traverse these linkages is to perform the structure of knowledge. Archaeological data is not on the web, but is of the web. We have also started to create sentient word-driven creatures to do our bidding, without us necessarily telling them how or what to find. These unsupervised learning algorithms hold much promise for us as archaeologists. Both of these ideas, of linked open data and the use of unsupervised learningalgorithmns are premised on a kind of idea-space. Linked Open Data links data that is semantically related, that has meaning, thus are ‘closer’ in some sense. The links themselves express something about how the knowledge was produced and what it represents. It’s not a network, but a meshwork in an Ingoldian sense. Not a landscape, but a taskscape. Natural language unsupervised learning looks for patterns in these taskscapes – language does work; it is built out of the careful juxtaposition and grammatical linkages of words and ideas – making decisions about what goes with what. Thus there is no reason why alternative playthroughs could be generated and examined. We could tune our golem to emphasize the patterns containing these elements or relationships rather than those ones. In short, digital archaeology is not the use of digital information management tools in the field. Rather, it is the careful crafting and contemplation of algorithmic representations of the past. One could call this “visualization”, if visualization means ‘to communicate meaning’ (and see the tremendous work done at the recent HeritageJam in this regard). However, it is the step before communication that I am most interested in here: data mining. Topic modeling for instance carries no rule-book for deciding how many topics to generate, or which of the many signals created by the algorithm to pay most attention to. Indeed, what topic models produce are meshworks woven through the dead words of the corpus, all the dead cells, loci, contexts and other echoes of the excavation, and through these paths different voices can be heard again. What voice? Not the voice of the past, certainly. Here is the excavation at Prescott Street. In these models of meshworks I can clearly see the “official” interpretation of the site. But I can see other voices too. I can even put names to them:

 Greg

Figure 1: refuse pr greg crees pit rubbish kind determine paula representing previously rounded bs discovered full gradual probing based enclosing struck

 David

Figure 2: pit david unspecified ross edge roman brenna lowest shallow expect final basal presume dimensions marcus pebbles angular appeared covering diffuse

Greg and David record aspects of the excavation that are, for the most part, unique to and uniquely expressed by, them. We won’t find that in the official report, though. Understanding the output of data mining requires craft. Were it art presumably my interpretation would be unique from yours; both might reveal great truths, but they’d hardly be reproducible or of the level of ‘great’ art that transcends time and place. Science? Were it science then I could give you the method and workflow and you’d be able to exactly replicate what I have done. There would be one and one result only. No, there is randomness and probability involved in data mining, natural language processing, and unsupervised learning. Just as there is randomness and probability involved in excavation, in site formation processes, in the stigmergy of humans in a given culture interacting with each other and with their environment. What we are dealing with is craft in the same way every shaker chair is unique yet recognizably of a type, working with the grain of its materials and all of the improbabilities that came to bear on this one knot in space and time. Craft involves tacit knowledge and induction into secrets. Rob Nelson revealed to me the secrets of getting MALLET to work. It took me several months to figure it all out. In digital work though the bar is always moving. What was once hard becomes easier- Ian Milligan, Scott Weingart and I pulled back the curtain and revealed to all of us poor humanists how to make it work. And yet, even as we write morehandbooks to digital craft (‘hand book’ – hand – digits – digital) we find that what works on my machine does not work on Ian’s. Why? Craft again. Our digital workshops are responsive to the tasks (data) we most often do. Retooling reveals the tacit embodied knowledges we didn’t even see. Craft is alive and well in digital archaeology.

Recognizing/validating/extracting/creating (surely the Germans have an appropriate compound verb) all the meshwork of paths/playthroughs latent in this digital soil, is craft. Craft means that there will be masters, guilds, secrets, and initiations. It can’t be avoided when there is tacit knowledge involved. I leave to the reader to decide whether or not this is desirable. I do know that digital archaeology, as I conceive it, is every bit as ‘slow’, as ‘punk’, as other archaeologies. There are other issues at stake. Chris Godsen asked, ‘What do objects want?’ My digital golems: I did not create them. Who knows their wants and desires? Digital archaeology, more than perhaps other kinds of archaeology, shares authority in the co-creation of archaeological knowledge with quasi-independent algorithms. There is literally something unhuman about knowledge created/uncovered this way. Stephen Ramsay once said, ‘algorithms are thoughts; chainsaws are tools‘. The tacit knowledge, the unspoken bits about working with these digital golems, these thoughts-encoded: that’s the part of the craft that needs the most work right now.

Three Calls for Papers: Slow, Public, and Craft

If you just managed to submit your abstract for the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting and still have some energy before classes start in earnest, then I have a few possible, last minute calls for papers to fill up the idle hours.

The great thing about these opportunities is that they all look to a shorter form of writing (6000 words or less!) and position themselves in the relatively uncharted (academic) territory of creative non-fiction and less formal, professional writing. 

Slow. Feel free to circulate this to your creative non-fiction types who are not archaeologists. The call is for a special edition of North Dakota Quarterly that I’m editing with Rebecca Rozelle-Stone of our department of philosophy and religion. We’re looking for thoughtful, interesting, and critical perspectives on the “slow movement” as well as fiction. I’m working on a more systematic and cohesive version of my slow archaeology screed. The contributions should be no longer than 6,000 words and will be peer-reviewed. This is due October 1!

Public. The Joukowsky Institute at Brown is hosting a competition for accessible archaeological writing and inviting everyone in the world to contribute an entry. The goal of the contest is to highlight high quality archaeological writing that nevertheless preserves the complexity and excitement associated with the archaeological process. The papers should be between 5000 and 6000 words and are due September 1. There is also a prize of $5000 for the best paper and that paper and the eight runners-up will be published. I can’t help but thinking that this is the kind of competition that should be crowd sourced. All the contributions should be made public and some kind of voting system should be put in place (perhaps like the system put in place for SXSW panels). After all, it seems like this kind of competition should be judged by someone other than the faculty and students from the Joukowsky who have generally focused on academic writing! 

Craft. Like last fall, I’m hosting a series of blog posts (short(ish) articles  on “Archaeology and Craft” here on my blog. With some luck and coordination, I hope to crosspost them over at Then Dig. The plan is to get them out as a short volume within a year via the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The contributions can be any length, but since they start on a blog, I generally nudge folks to keep them under 5000 words. Of course, we can always split longer posts into two or more parts. Drop me an email if you want to contribute. I have a few contributions already, but I like to have five or six before I start to post them regularly. 

I just realized this weekend that I’m officially under contract as of August 15, so I need to start to get focused on my official sabbatical “to do” list (and a post on that will be forthcoming). Hopefully these opportunities will give you productive distractions as the grind of semester looms!

A Proposed Blog Series: Archaeology and Craft

Over the past few years there has been a renewed interest in the role of craft in archaeological practice. The locus classicus of this discussion is the influential, if not unproblematic, article by Michael Shanks and Randall Maguire in the 1996 volume of American Antiquity. This article, however, focused more on the role of craft in archaeological epistemology and less on the practical aspects of a craft approach. The growth of methodology as a substantial discourse in the discipline and the transformative impact of new digital technologies have provided particular challenges to the less standardized practices that have traditionally formed the basis foundations of archaeological knowledge.

At the same time, a more systematic and methodological approaches to archaeological knowledge have undoubtedly benefited the field and the discipline. In fact, the development of a archaeological methods grounded in standardized practice has characterized the belated professionalization of the discipline with all the attendant social benefits of this process. The growing interest in craft and the abiding confidence in archaeological method, then, represent two countervailing, if not mutually exclusive, trends in archaeological practice.

A conversation last week over Twitter and across several blogs stimulated me to think a bit more systematically about the intersection of craft and archaeology. I posted on it here and hope that others might consider continuing the conversation.

From my perspective there are three significant issues involving craft in archaeology (but I’m sure there are more!):

1. Craft in the Field. How and where do craft approaches exist in archaeological practice and how have recent trends in archaeological methodology limited the influence of traditional craft approaches to field practice (for better or for worse). In craft, the master craftsman has intellectual and bodily control over the entire productive process. How do we reconcile craft modes of archaeological production with those grounded in more industrial modes?

2. Craft in the Discipline. While the modes of knowledge production associated with craft have sometimes taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years, they can also carry forward a set of deeply conservative attitudes regarding access to the field (both literally and figuratively) and the authority to produce archaeological knowledge. In many cases, the authority within a system of craft derives from vaguely defined notions of  “expertise” and “experience” which while important in archaeological work, tend to reinforce hierarchical social arrangement and privilege certain groups who have had traditional access to field work opportunities, material, and the previous generation of archaeological masters (e.g. old, white, men).  In contrast, in professional archaeological knowledge is a product of rigorous adherence to modern, industrial, field practices (often mediated by technology) which could be acquired through the study of published work on methodology. This had the advantage of opening of the discipline to a wider group of practitioners by undermining field practices that reproduced traditional social hierarchies. Do appeals to archaeology as craft present real risks for archaeology as a discipline?

3. Craft and Technology. In recent years, it appears that archaeology’s increasing engagement with technology would bring about a revolution in field and publication practices. With more data collected in more sophisticated way and at a faster rate, technological changes has accelerated the slow process of field documentation. This has ensure that we have more information from our time in the field, and less time for the deliberate and contemplative aspects of the archaeologist craft. I realize that juxtaposing craft with practices mediate by technology is not entirely fair or accurate; at the same time, I can think of few technologies used regularly in archaeological work that explicitly reinforce the kind of haptic, embodied knowledge of traditional archaeological experience. Does archaeology used technology in such a way to marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft?    

These issues are meant as points of departure rather than limits on what we can consider in this series of posts, and they are meant to be a bit polemic to stimulate reflection on the role of craft in the discipline. I’d welcome contributions that go beyond these rather simple proposition or reject them completely. (For some of my own reflections on archaeology, history, and craft go here.)

Over the next few months, we hope to present a series of contributions on the issue of craft in current archaeological practice. The contributions will appear weekly either on my blog here, or, if we can arrange it, on Then Dig. Once we have an assemblage of contributions, I am willing to edit and publish them in an ebook and paper. Better still,, I’m open to co-editors or even guest editors to help with the practical and intellectual aspects of the editorial process. I’m currently finishing up editorial duties on last years’ 3D Thursday contributions and they will, with any luck, appear early this fall.

As for the mechanics of contributions, I’m willing to be the contact person for now, so please drop me an email at billcaraher [at] gmail [dot] com or leave a comment on this post. I don’t see any need to impose word limits on contributions and longer post can be broken across several weeks if that would work better. I’m happy to post images as well, and having necessary permissions and publication quality images (e.g. 600 dpi or better) will facilitate the final editing process for publication. 

Archaeology and Craft in the 21st Century

It feels very odd to say that a conversation on Twitter spurred me to think a bit more about archaeology as craft. Yesterday a group of archaeologists, mainly in the U.K., and seemingly spurred by Colleen Morgan who began a discussion on the decline of the craft of excavation spurred in part by a rereading of C. Tilley’s well-known article on archaeology as theater. Tilley speaks out against the growing (in 1989) fixation with gathering information in archaeology that privileges excavation (particularly salvage excavations) and manifests itself in the dreadfully scientific site report. The published reports in excavation tend to reduce the complexity of excavations and conform to what Tilley sees as a kind of “strident professionalism” that limits access to meaningful readings of the past. Nowhere is this more evident, at least for Tilley, than in the practice of excavation focused solely on a research question articulated by an archaeologist. Instead, Tilley suggests that archaeologists should entertain the possibility of less scientific excavation to open the process to the voices and hands of the community as a way to generate a truly multi-vocal articulation of the past. Here’s a link to Sarah May’s take on the article.

Tilley’s argument is short, dense, and not entirely convincing, at least in the 21st century. He does, however, identify some of the key problems with scientific excavation characteristic of disciplinary archaeology. The disciplinary tendency to expect (or at least to present) linear progress from data collection to final publication embeds professional archaeological knowledge within a tradition of industrial production that is one with the basic structure of the modern American university. This is the point of departure for many of my observations on archaeology as craft.

At the same time that I was eavesdropping on this Twitter conversation and reacquainting myself with Tilley’s article, I was also reading a pre-publication draft of an article by Sara Perry. I won’t spoil the fun before its 2014 publication, but the title is “Crafting Knowledge with (Digital) Visual Media in Archaeology.” Set aside Collen Morgan’s work, it has reminded me that there are compelling efforts to bridge the gap between digital tools and craft practice. (My efforts were NOT compelling in any way.)

Anyway, these conversations have spurred me to make three observation.

1. Slow. As with everything on this blog, I can’t help but make this conversation about my own work (although Shawn Graham who brought me into the Twitter conversation indulged me as well). My interest in Slow Archaeology has less to do with the pace of archaeological work (either excavation or survey) and more to do with creating an alternative to the kind of method-driven, industrial practices that have emerged as a component of disciplinary archaeology. If methodology promotes a transparent and – as much as possible – linear relationship between field procedures, analysis, and interpretation, then Slow Archaeology advocation complicating this process. Tilley offers one way to complicate the mechanical (if not mechanistic), method driven disciplinary archaeology by making room for practitioners to think about archaeological work outside of atomistic data recovery guided by hypothesis testing. 

Survey archaeology is particularly suitable to this kind of practice because it is largely non-destructive. Walking across a landscape without a notebook or a camera might seem like an effete indulgence of 21st century Western intellectuals or even a lingering expression of colonial dominance (and these critiques are consistent with views of the Slow movement more generally). On the other hand, this practice would promote – even just for a time – a less-structured engagement with the archaeological landscape.

2. Embodied Knowledge. Sara Perry’s article reminded me to read Pamela Smith’s The Body of the Artisan (Chicago 2004). It has been on my “to read” list for about three years, but I think that I need to move toward a more sophisticated understanding of the role the body plays in knowledge production. I was particularly interested this summer in the posture of our team leaders and field walkers. Team leaders consistently presented hunched shoulders over a form on the clipboard and field walkers carry an inclined head toward the ground scanning a narrow swath of the surface to either side of the path.

P1070932

To me, this posture makes clear the shift away from viewing the landscape as a unified space and toward a view of the archaeological universe that privileges distinct bits of data, recorded diligently, and the projected on computer generated maps for analysis. Over the course of our field season on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I encouraged team leaders and students to tilt their heads up from time to time to take in the larger landscape, but the pressures of covering as much ground as possible and documenting the presence of individual sherds on the surface of the ground.

We can contrast that with, for example, the posture that archaeologists have when illustrating a feature. In the photo below, we can see how our two archaeologists are literally part of the object they are illustrating (an Ottoman bridge). Their posture and position (although not necessary when they’re smiling for the camera!) reflects a different engagement with the archaeological object.

P1080331

 

3. Craft and Archaeology in the 21st Century. All of this thinking about craft and archaeology (and a small, but compelling body of recent scholarship) has me thinking that I should run another series of guest blog posts on the topic. That our conversations have begun in Twitter is perfect for this kind of digitally mediated conversation. My growing experience moving text from the blog to more traditional paginated medium (see two soon to appear books based on the Punk Archaeology blog (and conference) and the series of posts on 3D Modeling Mediterranean Archaeology) is itself a manifestation of craft practice and becoming familiar with the tools and technologies required to move documents through the process of publication. 

So, here’s a draft proposal:

Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the intersection between the growing number of new digital tools, methodologies, and field procedures, and the longstanding traditions of archaeological expertise and practice. This interest reflects both optimism for a more highly visible, transparent, and democratic archaeology, but also a concern for the skills and knowledge that will be lost as archaeology fully embraces its place as a (post)industrial discipline. This conversation is not distinct to archaeology, of course, with scholars across the humanities and social sciences reflecting on the potential of “craft” as a meaningful and familiar way to articulate what we may be losing.

Who would be interested in contributing to this kind of forum? I volunteer my blog to host it and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to push out a quick publication. 

A Stapled Plate

From time to time, we find a piece of pottery with mending holes in it.  I’ve always understood certain types of ancient table wares were worth mending. They were either heirloom quality or valuable to their present owners even in their damaged state.

Recently as my parents cleaned out the basement of their home, some pieces of cut-glass table ware were passed on to me, including this piece mended with what appear to be lead staples.

Staples

The staples do not go all the way throughout the glass and the break appears to have been clean. There is a very slight discoloration of the glass suggestion some kind of glue might have been used to seal the crack. I suspect this kind of repair to date to the first half of the 20th century.

I suppose the plate was probably a salad bowl or designed to accommodate some kind of small dish.  It measures less than 15 cm in diameter. I suppose it was suceptible to repair because it was not designed to hold liquid and it was a fairly nice piece of cut-glass (I suppose, but I really don’t know).

It is a sad testimony to our disposable culture and dependence on mass-production to see something like this as an object of remarkable curiosity.

Teaching Historiography

This semester I will teach our graduate historiography seminar for perhaps the last time. The course is one of the most difficult to teach in our department not only because it is required for all graduate students (so there is no self-selection process), but also because the course has an explicitly theoretical goal.  For most of our Master’s level students, this is their first class that touches on topics like historical epistemology, critical and social theory, and methodology (as in the study of method rather than method itself).  The course generally evokes two reactions.  Some like the opportunity to explore more abstract approaches to history; others resent the technical language, difficult texts, and disconnect from history as a discipline rooted in practice.

Readers of this blog know that I am interested in the idea of craft in academia. I’ve blogged on archaeology and craft, graduate education and craft, and most recently followed with interest the debate among digital humanists regarding the role of practical skills in the formation of this vital sub-discipline. For some reason, I have not discussed history and craft much even though I teach a class every semester for undergraduates called “The Historians’ Craft“.

Nowhere does the desire for history to articulate itself as craft come through more clearly. One of the standard critiques of the class is that it has too little to do with the practical practice of history.  The emphasis on the clear link between education and practice clearly echos the practical emphasis of craft training (see my comments on Herzfeld, for example) and suggests models of apprenticeship.  The goal of graduate training in history, for these students, is master of a set of technical skills rather than a self-conscious understanding of the philosophical, epistemological, and theoretical foundations for the field.  In fact, for some drinking too deeply of the abstract, theoretical discourse risks alienating history from its true social power as a field that DOES things, produces actual knowledge, and endows society with clear sense of place in time.  Time spent dissecting the epistemological grounds for historical knowledge not only detracts from the training needed actually TO DO history, but undermines the validity of the final product of historical work: new knowledge.

The call for craft, so to speak, captures a kind of impatient anti-intellectualism that has long existed around the fringes of fields like history that have struggled with sophisticated amateur practitioners and the limits to its own status as a profession.  Much of undergraduate education in history is geared toward doing.  Students take classes where faculty model historical thinking, write research papers where they the practical lessons of historical thought, and are assessed based on their ability to mimic key characteristics of the craft whether they are rooted in practice (style, use of evidence, proper citations) or so-called foundational knowledge (names, dates, places, events, causal links, et c.).  Any engagement with larger intellectual concerns is typically focused clearly on the production of history by means of methodology or relegated to the fringes of the curriculum (perhaps in a historiography class or as part of a larger “required” course).  In short, historians learn history through DOING history.

So, it is hardly a surprise that students struggle when confronted with a class that seems to care less about DOING history and more about understanding or even contemplating what it is that the historians does. In taking this approach, I try to place the work of the historian in an intellectual framework following the lead of 18th and 19th century thinkers and taking as a point of departure R. G. Collingwood’s wonderful, if flawed, efforts in his Idea of History. (Oxford 1946).  I am clear, however, that the philosophy of history or an emphasis on the intellectual underpinning of disciplinary practice need not always stand in direct opposition to the actual practice of historical knowledge production.  Unfortunately, this argument only convinces the choir; most students committed to historical work as craft production see my efforts as a kind of pedagogical sophistry (at best) or Socratic corruption at worse.

So teaching graduate historiography places me in the belly of the beast. The conflict between historical practice as common sensical, almost certainly universal, and subject to refinement through practice, and historical practice as a baffling contradiction requiring us to mediate between a intellectually elusive past and a problematic present.

Digital Humanities and Craft

I’ve been fascinated by the recent debates centering on the nature of digital humanities. While the debate has gone on for years, the most recent round of posts (some of which are summarized by Geoffrey Rockwell here) were spurred by an MLA panel on the history and future of digital humanities.

One of the most interesting (although unsurprising) developments from this discussion is that several scholars have argued that digital humanities has a strong connection with craft. In some ways, this attitude is a response to the critique that Digital Humanities lacks theoretical development and, by implicit extension, the sophistication associated with other areas of the “pure humanities”.  In a recent response to this attitude Geoffrey Rockwell has gone so far to suggest that digital humanities is “under theorized the way carpentry and computer science are”.  It is unfair to reduce his entire critique to this simple observation, but others (like Alan Liu) have developed this observation in a more critical direction.

Part of the impulse behind the association of digital humanities with craft derives from the long-standing perspective that associated being a digital humanist with coding or, more broadly, building things.  This is consistent with larger directions in the digital discourse which emphasize the making of things, and has overlap with the larger DIY movement through such projects as the DIY book scanner and other more intentionally subversive gestures toward industrialized, manufactured, commodified reality.

The notion of craft and DIY has a strange relationship with the institutional expectations of the modern university. Universities developed to accommodate the needs of an industrializing world and disciplinary boundaries and academic professionalism emerged hand-in-hand with an interest in creating a specialized educational process that paralleled industrialized production.  In short, the modern, western university as an institution  stood in contrast to older models of learning rooted in apprenticeship and craft production. On the one hand, this availed the modern university to the mantle of progress which held the industry represented a far more democratic approach to society. Goods would be more freely available, and the dignity of work accessible to even the least skilled in the labor pool.  Craft production in contrast was understood to be more socially constrained and, in general, to represent a less efficient, fair means of organizing labor.  Of course, all parties did not agree on this dichotomy.

So arguments that have focused on the craft nature of digital humanities not only share something with more radical conceptions of higher education that emphasize craft, but also, ironically, allude to more conservative traditions of knowledge production.  While craft can claim for itself an anti-modern mantle of authenticity, it is also a form of productive organization that depends heavily upon access to informal social networks.  These networks tend to have less institutional structure and rely less heavily on expertise and and more on personal relationships. So, ironically, the rhetoric of craft alludes to exactly the kind of exclusivity that William Pannapacker decried in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post.

There is another angle to the rhetoric of craft, however. Archaeology has interestingly enough occasionally seen craft as a way to articulate its peculiar approach to knowledge production; anthropology has also made use of this metaphor.  Movements like Punk Archaeology embrace the DIY movement’s efforts to resist the commodification of both knowledge itself and experience or process of knowledge production.  In contrast to claims that these perspectives are “under theorized” DIY, punk, craft, and other subversive anti-industrial, anti-institutional, and anti-establishment perspectives tend to derive from the most highly theorized corners of the discipline.  There is, of course, an element of dissimulation here. By embracing craft, punk, “doing” and “making” scholars intentionally create a dichotomy between those who produce things and those who, for lack of a better word, “think”.  The former becomes the mantle for active resistance to institutional expectations; the latter, passive, quiet acquiescence.

The willingness to structure the debate in this way, demonstrates a certain sophistication in how a certain group of digital humanists (or at least their caricatures) are willing to articulate their craft theoretically.  Moreover, it provides a useful case study for how our efforts to articulate assumptions about knowledge production implies attitudes toward social organization, access to expertise, and ultimately the structure of the academy, the classroom, and the lab.