Some Thoughts the Digital Tsunami

This weekend, I read with some excitement the forum in Antiquity following John Aycock’s thought-provoking article titled “The Coming Tsunami of Digital Artifacts.” The is the key text in a short debate section that features papers by Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett. In other words, some of my favorite scholars in the field of digital archaeology. All their response are short and you should go and read them if it sounds interesting.

The gist of Aycock’s argument is that archaeologists have to do more to understand the world of digital artifacts if they want to be able to continue to apply archaeology to contemporary problems and objects. This is almost certainly true, although Aycock’s claim that archaeologists must become more digital literate and find ways to collaborate with computer scientists if they want to remain relevant is probably an overstatement. After all, most of human history did not involve digital technology and so knowing code, for example, may not necessarily change how we interrupt, say, Early Christian basilicas in Greece. 

That all said, the article did prompt me to think about how archaeologists make knowledge. On the one hand, Aycock is right that in many cases, archaeologists want to understand objects as thoroughly as possible. In most cases, efforts to extract as much data for an object, situation, context, or landscape involves a collaboration between as many specialists as possible. For a project devoted to a digital object, landscape, or context, then it seems like that a computer scientist might be part of the collaboration. 

On the other hand, I suspect that computer scientists also need archaeologists and experts on materiality as well. The detailed studies of video game machines and their context by Raiford Guins’s Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) and Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017) offered insights into the complex lives of games and game consoles both in the home and as objects that saw use, maintenance, and repair. Newman showed that the physical forms of gaming consoles, as an example, from their faux wood paneling to their low profile designs served to adapt them to middle-class domestic standards and to make space for masculine video game playing in less more feminine space of the home interior. Guins traced the evidence for game playing rituals, from the wear marks that show where spectators would hang on or rub against the game machine while watching another player. More than that Guins traced the challenges with repairing CRT monitors and circuit boards for games that are no longer manufactured. In any event, these are two easy examples of how we can still learn a good bit from the materiality of video games and this could productively inform how we understand the code of the digital artifacts that these machines embody. 

Aycock’s article and the notion of “D Transforms” introduced in the response by Sarah and Eric Kansa also got me wondering about the stability of digital objects. It is obvious that digital objects can survive outside of their primary cultural, material, or archaeology context. But it equally obvious that files become corrupted by either digital or material failures. These corruptions can be as spectacular as glitch art or as gut wrenching as lost data and hardware crashes. The interplay between hardware and software can likewise be incredibly ephemeral, as Andrew Reinhard has pointed out, and even an incredibly detailed understanding of code will not always make the material object easier to understand (and vice versa). The notion of “D transforms” feels like brilliant way to grasp our encounters with digital objects in their material, temporal, and social (political, economic, and broadly cultural) context.

While much of this goes without saying, the conversation did get me thinking back to my dissertation. One of the challenges that I faced with my dissertation is that all that we had left behind was the “hardware” for the rise of Christianity in Greece. We had very few textual sources and almost no sources for the ritual life of the Early Christian basilica-style churches that I studied. It seemed to me that the liturgy that took places in these buildings served as kind of software that made its architectural form work for the Christian community. Despite its absence, archaeologists have nevertheless worked out, to some extent, how the software of these buildings worked. In fact, this is what archaeologists tend to be pretty good at doing.

In the end, Aycock is right, of course, archaeology of the contemporary world would do well to collaborate with computer scientists especially when dealing with the complex interplay between digital objects and their material forms. At the same time, because the digital is no less fragile and dependent on context than the material, I think it’s safe to say that archaeologists will do just fine negotiating the material even when the digital remains beyond our grasp.

Three Things Thursday: Rhys Carpenter, Digital Archaeology, and Work

It’s been a long week and I’m looking at a day filled with meetings, teaching, and other adventures. In light of this, it seems like a good time for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Last week, while having a conversation with one of my old Greek archaeology buddies, he casually mentioned that Rhys Carpenter had written poetry. I suppose this not a secret to the cognoscenti, but I didn’t know. Of course, I knew Rhys Carpenter as an architect and an archaeologist who had worked at Corinth and contributed in a powerful way not only to the development of a rigorous and diachronic American archaeology in Greece, but also in the systematic study of post-Classical and Byzantine remains. During my first year at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as an aspiring archaeologist, I enjoyed the Rhys Carpenter fellowship (although I only gradually came to understand how cool a privilege to have his name associated with my career (albeit posthumously) was). 

In any event, a couple books of his poetry, published in the 1910s, is available via the Internet Archive. Check out The Sun-Thief and Other Poems (Oxford 1914) and The Tragedy of Etarre: A Poem (New York 1912)  The poetry falls just shy of feeling stuffy to me, but it is perhaps a bit too formal for contemporary tastes and it is unlikely to appear in a standard 20th century poetry survey course. That said, it does feel palpably modernist in its rather impersonal aspirations to the universal, in this case, cloaked in its Classical allusions and formal structures. Perhaps this style is appropriate for an architect and archaeologist who recognized the value in all periods (and even the beleaguered Byzantine) while still privileging Classical period. My colleague Kostis Kourelis, who introduced me to Carpenter’s poetry, make a similar argument in an article that he wrote several years ago now on the role that the archaeology of the Byzantine period in Greece played on Modernism and the avant garde. You can read it here

Carpenter also wrote a travelogue of a trip he took to Central America in the early 20th century. So it appears that his quest for the modern world in antiquity was not limited to areas and cultures traditionally articulated as the antecedent to modern European civilization. 

Early Candle Light (1914)

The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.
When autumn falls and withers every leaf,
When daylight shrinks and stormy nights grow long,
When winter-wind and winter-cold are strong,
And sorrow holds the weary heart in fief,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

When golden love lies bound with iron thong,
And noble tales but mock our dull belief,
When mirth has garnered every radiant sheaf
And all the sickly world is harsh and wrong,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his invocation of the seasons seemed appropriate today as I look out the basement window of the NDQ offices onto the Collegiate Gothic quad and watch the timeless movement of students against the fading green of summer.

Thing the Second

About 20 (almost 25!) years ago when people talked about “The Digital Archaeology,” I, like many people, assumed that this was simply a temporary trend that traced our collective effort as a field to negotiate technological change. But here we are.

This past week has produced a bumper crop of works on the use of digital technologies in archaeology. These range from field oriented considerations of low-cost and DYI approaches to digital tools. Check out Edouard Masson-MacLean and colleagues’, “Digitally Recording Excavations on a Budget: A (Low-Cost) DIY Approach from Scotland” or in the JFA. For an approach to field recording that is more prog than punk, check out the most recent from the FAIMS team in the same journal: “Deploying an Offline, Multi-User, Mobile System for Digital Recording in the Perachora Peninsula, Greece.”

For a less field oriented perspective, I’m excited to tuck into the recent Debate in Antiquity surrounding John Aycock’s article, “The coming tsunami of digital artefacts” which includes responses from some of my favorite thinkers about the digital tools and practices in archaeology: Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett

The interplay between increasingly sophisticated perspectives on the theoretical side of digital archaeology and the practical challenges associated with data collection in the field, management during publication and dissemination, and curation après le déluge (as the kids say) continues to be worth watching and a source of inspiration.

Thing the Third

Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote a blog post this week that really struck a chord. You can read it here. She basically argues that it is hard to get anything done. I can’t help but think of Yogi Berra’s quotable critique of a famous New York City restaurant: “Nobody goes there any more —it’s too crowded.” Despite feeling like I’m working all the time, I never feel like I’m getting anything done.

For a long time, this felt like running on a treadmill, but then I realize that most running (even when it meanders through the local park or streets in my small town) is running on a treadmill. The goal isn’t to get somewhere (or get away from something), but to endure the challenge and maybe improve (or at least hold station!). This isn’t meant to be a critique of Futo-Kennedy’s blog post, but it prompted a personal reflection. I feel like my own happiness is not connected to how much I work. I can write and read and “think” (or whatever passes for thought) day and after day and still wake up excited to do it all again. If I get bored or burned out on one project or task, I can shift my attention to something else: from research to teaching, from reading to writing, from writing to book production, from scholarship to creative work, and so on. 

My happiness and satisfaction with my job has increasingly come to revolve around process. When I’m doing what I’m doing, even if it doesn’t lead immediately to a “deliverable” result, I find that my life settles into a satisfying routine which, almost by its own volition, leads to things that the bean counters (and my colleagues) can discern as results. In other words, not getting things done seems, for me, to result in things that appear as accomplishments for those who care about such things.

This has got me thinking about the strange economy of the work-life balance industry and their occasional argument that working less often results in getting more done. This seems to assume that for most individuals, the product is more important than the process which is only good insofar as it can be minimized. For academics, I’d contend, the process is generally more appealing and satisfying than the product or outcome which tends to be ephemeral and contingent. Process, in contrast, is persistent and even when practices changed, continuously defined by certain disciplines, attitudes, affects, and experiences. Thus, the call for people to rebalance home life over work life as a way to become more efficient in their work misunderstands the appeal of work life and creates a scenario that, at least in some industries (such as academia), is likely to produce greater apathy toward work.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the rise in rhetoric surrounding “life hacks” designed to make home life more efficient leads people, ironically, to change their attitudes to work. When the alternative to the efficient home is a place where individuals can experience process and certain attitudes toward tasks that bring a kind of satisfaction, efficiency oriented home life with its rhetorical emphasis on outcomes and accomplishments (the tidy lawn, the clean kitchen, the efficiently prepare meal, or the completed home repair) becomes strangely unappealing. I’d rather read another article, write another page, meet with a student, or reflect on a class than mow the lawn, do laundry, or complete some household chore even if these are made more efficient by labor-saving tools or other life hacks.

For me, at least, it’s telling that the most pointless work in my life — walking the dogs, going for a jog, riding my push-bike, or writing my blog — are also times when I think about work the most intently and with the greatest pleasure. I recognize that it is a luxury to have time to do pointless things and to think about my work and practice it in a positive and open way, but perhaps recognizing this privilege is a way toward revising how we think about work itself. Rather than celebrating models of work (and work/home balance) that look to improve the efficiency of our work life, perhaps we should re-examine how our attitudes toward work and expectations of accomplishments, efficiency, and product impact the quality of the work experience for people across society. Maybe the key to doing more is actually thinking about what gets done less. Making a kind of productive inefficiency at work a more appealing alternative to home will do more to address not only concerns of work/home, but also the anxieties that come with feeling like we’re never getting anything done.      

Photo Friday and a Few Random Links

It’s the start of the “Frog Days of Summer” when it’s so hot, we all become a bit amphibious to beat the heat. 

The dogs are doing their best to keep cool and hydrated.

The Barge in Summer

and to endure the terror of summer thunderstorms.

IMG 6312

I still don’t have quite enough energy for a full on “Quick Hits and Varia,” but a few links to some late-summer reading never go astray. Do check out Carl Schiffman’s essay posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog or reminisce about a summer on Swan’s Island with the late Donald Junkins.

If you have a digital project that you love, do consider nominating it for the AIA Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology

If you’re looking for something at the intersection of poetry and photography, check out Kyle Cassidy’s Optimized for Likes: Kerning the Human Altered Landscape. It’s $3 and you can get the PDF here.

If you have itchy writing figures, do consider submitting something to this coming fall’s pilgrimCHAT conference. You can read the CFP here.

This is a neat little piece on jazz violinist Billy Bang.

I’m reading Rosemary Joyce’s The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material. Oxford 2020.

Three Things Thursday: Agency, Data, and Digital Archaeology

One of the great things about spending quality time with the Western Argolid Regional Project datasets is that it gets me thinking about data and digital archaeology more broadly. It is merely a happy coincidence that an a trio of interesting articles on digital archaeology have appeared over the last few weeks.

So for this week, we can do a little three thing Thursday that hits one some intriguing new publications.

Thing the First

I try to read most things that Jeremy Huggett writes and to my mind, he is among the most thoughtful commentators in the field of digital archaeology. His most recent article, in Open Archaeology, titled “Algorithmic Agency and Autonomy in Archaeological Practice” explores the nature of agency in digital archaeology at the moment where we are moving toward more sophisticated and complex digital tools. Huggett considers not only the changing notion of agency in light of the increasingly sophisticated technology used by archaeologists, but also traces a future trajectory that frames the need to consider the ethical implications of digital tools that archaeologists use to make their arguments. 

He emphasizes the way that complex algorithms create “black boxes” that obscure the workings of the technology that archaeologists use in their analysis. This is not a kind of luddite alarmism, but instead anchored in a thoughtful understanding of recent trends in our field. For example, Huggett notes that advance in algorithms already allow computers to scan massive numbers of satellite and aerial photographs for patterns that suggest cultural artifacts. Similar technologies may soon allow archaeologists to stitch together highly fragmentary wall painting or identify ceramic forms on the basis of broken sherds. These kinds of technologies rely on algorithms that process far more data and consider nearly infinitely more variables than a human could consider, and this allows them draw unanticipated conclusions that exceed the typical process of hypothesis testing at the core of archaeological inquiry. 

These algorithmic processes not only have the potential to disrupt the conventional process of hypothesis testing at the core of academic archaeology, but also produce results in such a way that they far exceed the conventional terms of archaeological explanation. At this point, Huggett would argue, the archaeologist has ceded a good bit of interpretative agency to technologies and algorithms. By giving up an understanding of process, we run the risk of giving up ethical control over our inquiries. We need look no further than recent controversies around facial recognition software that drew on databanks that were overwhelming white and this has created unexpected biases in biometric recognition practices (that tend to discriminate against non-white individuals).

In short, Huggett’s work is pushing archaeology to anticipate the ethical implications of ceding agency to algorithms that often are far more complex than the kind of routine hypothesis testing at the core of conventional archaeological practices.

Thing the Second

Néhémie Strupler’s recent article in Internet Archaeology is a remarkable first step toward a more critical practice in publishing. Titled “Re-discovering Archaeological Discoveries. Experiments with reproducing archaeological survey analysis,” Strupler compares archived and published date from three archaeological projects to the published results from those projects. Needless to say, the results are eye-opening. The data from two of the three projects (including my own Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project) did not coincide with the results published in their more formal, paper publications. 

This posed two problems for Strupler. First, it suggests that existing peer review practices do not extend to exploring the relationship between archived and published data and more traditional, predominantly textual results. This is particularly glaring in the case of the Pyla-Koutsopetria project where the data was published in advance of the formal survey publication (although perhaps not in advance of our manuscript being circulated for review).  

The second problem is concerns about the reproducibility of data-driven archaeological argument making. How robust must datasets be – in terms of metadata and paradata – to allow for scholars to reasonably test the results of archaeological analysis. More importantly, how robust must datasets be to allow scholars to go beyond merely testing published arguments, but propose counter arguments or new research directions on the basis of publicly available data. As I am involved in preparing three new datasets for both conventional and digital publication, this article provided some substantial food for thought. 

Thing the Third

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been dipping my toe into some local heritage work and CRM. One of things that this work produced was a substantial data set that describes mid-century housing in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The dataset was dutifully submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a table in a PDF (as they requested) and will for the foreseeable future languish on my hard drive as a flat table. 

This all introduces the nice little summative statement offered by Christopher Nicholson, Rachel Fernandez and Jessica Irwin titled “Digital Archaeological Data in the Wild West: the challenge of practising responsible digital data archiving and access in the United States” from Internet Archaeology. As they point out, the current state of digital archiving of archaeological data in the US is a patchwork of practices. Many states, for example, continue to lack policies or procedures for archiving the digital datasets that back many of the reports that CRM and heritage processionals produce on a regular basis. Private CRM firms lack any motivation to make data that they archive available publicly. Local heritage units, such as our Historical Preservation Commission, lack the resources to archive data, reports, and studies that they have commissioned and often look to the state for this or beyond, to the federal government. 

In any event, this isn’t meant as a criticism of underfunded state, local, and federal agencies, but rather to note that archaeology as field is still struggling to come to terms with its digital footprint. 

More on WARP Data (Part Two)

Yesterday, I wrote about “Densities and Visibility” and “Hidden Landscapes” with regard to the data generated by the Western Argolid Regional Project. Today, I am going to write up four more aspects of our virtual study season in what should be the final installment of WARP related writing this summer. (You can read the rest here, herehere, and here). 

Next week, I return to Cyprus (at least in my writing and reading), but for now, WARP is the place.

Here are the final four observations on the WARP data crunching season.  

3. Land Use. As part of our standard descriptions of each survey unit, we recorded a good bit of land use data. This includes things like dominant vegetation, evidence for recent plowing, and the presence of features such as terrace walls that indicate material investment in the landscape. We initially chose to record this kind of information to provide insights to artifact recovery rates, but we soon discovered that this data also provided a high resolution perspective on contemporary (and recent) land use in the Inachos valley. 

For example, it became clear from our data that three main commercial crops in the Inachos valley were olives, stone fruit (primarily apricots), and citrus. While olives are more or less ubiquitous throughout the survey area, citrus tend to only appear in units under 150 masl in elevation. Apricots appear in units under 200 masl leaving units of 250 masl and higher in elevation to olives. This likely has to do with the susceptibility of these crops to frost damage. The presence of windmill-like air circulators in the citrus fields to the northwest of Argos confirm that this territory receives some manageable frost during the winter months. More durable apricots, a major export crop in our survey area, can endure occasional frosts, but are less rugged than the ubiquitous Greek olive tree. 

Evidence for plowing tends to be most common at fields under 200 masl which have, for our survey area, moderate slopes of less than 13 degrees although fields with compacted soils that show some evidence for plowing in the recent past (which we call “plowed, compacted” soils) extend slightly higher in elevation (and average 215 masl) and with slightly greater slopes of an average of 14 degrees. Higher elevations and greater slopes than these tend not to see regular plowing and are characterized by unplowed field even when the erosion of soils on slopes exceeding 20 degrees creates loose soil conditions. It should come as little surprise that units with plowed and loose soils tend to have the highest artifact densities and the highest visibilities. It is worth noting, however, that units with plowed and compacted soils, which indicate recent, but not ongoing plowing, produced the higher densities than predicted by visibility alone. 

A significant network of terrace walls manage the sloping walls of the Inachos river valley, and we recorded over 850 units with terrace walls. This is over 10% of all survey units. The average elevation of a terraced field is 247 masl with no terraces appearing below 108 masl and the highest over 500 masl. The average slope of a terraced field was 26 degrees. Predictably, most of the higher terraced fields (over 245 masl) were not plowed and these tended to have steeper slopes. There were, however, a number of recently or currently plowed terraced fields at lower elevations and slightly lower slopes suggesting that access rather than elevation and slope alone determined whether terraced fields saw plowing. In fact, these recently or currently plowed terraced fields tended to produce much higher artifact densities than visibility alone would predict whereas unplowed terraced fields tended to perform closer to what one would expect based on their visibility. This almost certainly reflects the high artifact densities from fields surrounding the ancient acropolis of Orneai which is also in the immediate vicinity of the village of Lyrkeia and accessible via a network of paved and field roads.      

4. Describing Chronological Landscapes. Over the last week or so, the project directors have been thinking about how best to describe the distribution of material from various periods across the entire landscape. This is distinct from how we interpret or understand the historical significance of particular patterns in the landscape. Instead, the idea (to my mind) is to describe the distribution of material in a consistent way across the entire survey area that allows for at least basic comparisons.

On the most basic level we can compare the character of assemblages by number of artifacts alone, but this speaks very little to the distribution of artifacts across our survey area. Thus combining the number of artifacts with the area of the units in which they appear helps to give some sense of distribution. David Pettegrew in his recent (unpublished) analysis of the distribution of EKAS data used nearest neighbor analysis (based, I believed on the centroid of units) determine whether the pattern produced by artifacts from various periods is clustered or dispersed. The vagaries of artifact recovery patterns could, I imagine, be managed by comparison with the overall pattern of the survey which would allow us to say whether the overall distribution of artifacts from a particular period is more or less dispersed than the overall distribution of all artifacts from the survey (imagining that the latter reflects recovery rates). 

Obviously one challenge here is the differential visibility or diagnosticity of particular periods on the surface. Certain periods – such as Pettegrew famously argued for the Late Roman period in Greece – are more visible than others complicating a simple reading of distributional analysis as a measure for (say) the character of settlement in the survey area. The other challenge, of course, is the different date ranges for various periods which mean that comparing, say, the Late Roman period (which we date to AD300-AD700) tends to be a good bit longer than, say, the Classical period (450BC-300BC) which means that the Late Roman assemblage has had twice as long to develop in the landscape.

There are various ways to manage for the differential diagnosticity and the different length of various periods to make these assemblages comparable. I tend to be fairly pessimistic about the potential of comparing assemblages from different periods. In other words, I think it is pretty hard to make arguments for the expansion or contraction of settlement by comparing assemblages from two different periods unless one establishes that the material signature of the two periods is fundamentally comparable.

That said, I suspect that the distribution patterns of material from various period between different survey projects is likely to be more comparable than between periods in the same survey project. For example, issues of differential visibility or diagnosticity on the surface tend to be common to most survey projects in a region and in most cases periodization schemes are, if not absolutely the same, at least broadly consistent at a regional level. In other words, being able to describe the various period landscapes across the survey area serves as the basis for later analysis of the periods in question rather than the analysis, necessarily, of the survey area across time (although it should also inform how we understand the survey area diachronically).  

5. Chasing the Data. One thing that crunching data does reveal is the strengths and weakness of any dataset. Our dataset is quite a way from what I would consider big data and as a consequence little problems with our data can create big issues during analysis. (And here I’m assuming that the strength of big data schemes is that small imperfections or outliers in the data set tend be washed out by the scale of the data more generally, for better or worse). As I ran queries and did analyses and produced new datasets on the basis of data that we collected in the field, I discovered little problems. For example, the aoristic analysis that I posted last week was based on a chronology table that had the Archaic period dating from 750BC-AD450 rather than 750BC-450BC. This is meant that pottery dated to the Archaic period was rather significantly underrepresented in the aoristic analysis that I conducted. It is an easy enough fix, fortunately, one that probably would have become clear at some point in the publication process.

At the same time, doing the work of analyzing our material is part of what brings various limitations to our data to the fore. For example, we didn’t ask our field teams to record the presence of terrace walls. So I had to excavate this data from the a more general comment field. This was easy enough to do, of course, but I suspect that the dataset is a bit fuzzier around the edges than one generated by a simple check box. 

In the end, querying the data will both reveal its analytical limits and make it a stronger dataset. This kind of “slow data” work is both humbling, in that it reveals the limits of data collection processes in the field, and energizing in that it only through analysis do we recognize the potential of our data to reveal more about the landscape than we had intended.

6. Solitary Data Crunching. Finally, crunching data by myself has been pretty boring. One of the great things about study seasons is not so much the work of study, but the time to reflect, ask questions, make false starts, share processes, and think out loud (although my colleagues might not entirely agree about that last one!).

Crunching data alone in my home office feels so disconnected from the work of the survey. I’m left to my own devices and my own questions, I often end up spinning my wheels or working my way into a dead end of data which does neither speaks to whatever hypothesis that I have imagined nor leads me to new questions. 

When doing data crunching next to my (often much smarter) colleagues, however, I constantly encounter new ways of seeing the data and imagining how it speaks to the archaeological landscapes that we explored together. In that context, data oriented study seasons often led to trips through the survey area (and surrounding regions), shared memories and reflections on units and field practices, and deeper engagements with both the landscape and our data.

Data-ing alone, on the other hand, has made me feel not only a bit detached from the survey universe, but also mildly confounded by our data. Hopefully before we get to the publication stage, we’ll have time to revisit our data together in a more collaborative and conversational way, but for now, this is what we have and despite it being a bit uncomfortable, I think I’ve made a bit of progress. 

WARP 2021 Study Season

The 2021 WARP study season starts tomorrow. This means three things.

First, it means DATA. Like many contemporary archaeological projects and certainly most contemporary surveys, WARP produced a ton of data from its four seasons in the field and three study seasons. Despite spending some quality time with this data each year, it remained a bit provisional as our finds data was refined and updated and our survey unit data was polished. Moreover, as we digitize and analyze maps, we continue to produce more data that can inform our larger analysis. In short, this means a season of sitting in front of my laptop and crunching numbers.

Our biggest goals this season is to determine the main factors that impact artifact recovery rates from our survey area and then attempt to determine whether the variables impact recovery rates in the same way for artifacts from every period. 

Second, it means DISPLACEMENT. Some of my fondest memories of archaeological work do not involve toiling in a trench or slogging through another field looking for sherds. They don’t even involving hiking up a mountain and the rush at “discovering” an undocumented or unpublished fortification. Some of my favorite memories of doing archaeological work involve sitting at my laptop in the tiny room underneath the Marinos house in Ancient Corinth, crunching EKAS data with David Pettegrew. I also have fond memories of working on Polis data on Cyprus while sitting in the Polis storerooms or in the main room of our little apartment in the village.

In both of these cases, we had the ability to go out the door and wander around the excavation area or go and check out a particular unit, situation, or view. I’ve never been one for aimless driving around or hiking or other random outdoorsy activity that I don’t perceive as having a clear goal in mind. I do enjoy, however, checking things out and revisiting sites or scrutinizing problems at a site or in the landscape. The dialogue between the data and sites and landscapes ensures that the data remain tied to experience. In fact, I often think of data that we take with us into the field (either in our minds or quite literally when we check a measurement or test a hypothesis) as embodied data. These data are data that blend seamlessly with the sites themselves.

Of course, this year, like last, we can’t do that. I’m feeling a distinct sense of displacement from the field and it reinforces my idea that data as data, set adrift from a sense of place, loses something significant. 

Finally, no study season can happen without DONUTS. Tomorrow is National Donut Day. My plan is to make a donut pilgrimage to Sandy’s Donuts in Fargo to mark the official start of the WARP study season. 

Digital Data and Data Literacy in Archaeology

I’ll admit that the last six months have not been the most balanced of my career. Between teaching, service, and research (the so-called trinity of academic life), I’ve been flat out (like a lizard resting) since the pandemic began. In some ways, this is good because I’ve been able to avoid the worst of pandemic related social consequences because I wouldn’t have had time to socialize anyway. In other ways, the conflation of work and home and the reintroduction of premodern regimens on top of post-industrialized expectations of productivity, as I’ve blogged about before, has created a perfect storm where work expands to fill every possible time of the day. (I have now taking to scheduling meeting during the time that I walk my dogs (they don’t mind) and I have a meeting today during the narrow window when I eat dinner between the “end of my work day” and my night class!)

Whinging about working loads aside, I do take time to read things here and there because I’m interested rather than because they’re burning a hole in my head. This week, I read Eric and Sarah Kansa’s “Digital Data and Data Literacy in Archaeology Now and in the New Decade,” in the latest issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice (https://doi.org/10.1017/aap.2020.55 or here). Since the article is short, you should just go and read it.

Rather than summarize the article, I just want to mention one point that the authors make. They point out that digital literacy is not about knowing how to use the latest hardware or software or even being a deft coder in Python, but a whole suite of practices, understandings, and perspectives. These extend from the kind of recording practices one makes at trench side to broad (often ethical) considerations regarding work flows, access to data, and data preservation. In other words, archaeologists should no longer see data literacy as the domain of digital or technical specialists (although to a certain extent this will be true as well), but must be woven into all aspects of archaeological practice.

This struck me as an unsurprising, but nevertheless rarely stated insight. It helped me think more broadly about some of my own projects. For example, recognizing that digital practices in archaeology extend from the field to final publication and through the range of workflows that define these processes creates new obligations for the discipline. Digital literacy may require us to understand better how archaeological knowledge goes from the field to an audience not only in terms of data management plans and dissemination strategies, but also in terms of publication practices, presentation, and access management. Publishing a traditional paper book might feel like a time-tested path of least resistance, but in a digitally mediated world it may not be the most ethical way to disseminate knowledge.

The expansive view of digital literacy recognized by Eric and Sarah Kansa in this article also requires us to really think had about the way in which digital workflows are transforming archaeological labor. To my mind this involves critical reflection on everything from crowd-sourced data analysis and collection to more mundane and common forms of digital labor. As the last twelve months of COVID-induced isolation has shown digital work in archaeology can be every bit as onerous and time consuming as conventional field work. We can readily agree that field work has particular ethical challenges ranging from basic safety to the unconventional professional setting in which archaeological occurs. Digital work, on the other hand, might seem to cleave closer to typical office or library work, but appearances might be a bit misleading. The anonymity of so much digital work makes it ripe for the kind of abuses that are already too common in archaeology where those who do so much of the labor remain invisible. At least a hand written notebook or context sheet preserves some of the stubborn humanity of the author whereas a hand-keyed databases often encourage a kind of uniformity that benefits analysis at the expense of individuality.  

In a world defined more and more by time constraints and a pace of life and work that feels like it is careening wildly out of control, a short article on data literacy offers a lovely opportunity to reflect on how digital practices in archaeology have both influenced our discipline and shaped our lives during a time of crisis. Check it out!

Digital Workflows in Archaeological Practice

This weekend, I read with tremendous interest an article by Michael Boyd and a cast of dozens titled “Open Area, Open Data: Advances in Reflexive Archaeological Practice” in the Journal of Field Archaeology (2021). The article documents the digital workflow employed by an open area excavation of an Early Bronze Ages site on Kos. It is state of the art and forms a kind of sequel to the Roosevelt et al. article in JFA 40 (2015) which lays out the digital practices employed by the Kaymakçı Archaeological Project in Turkey. It also complements some of the discussions in 2016’s Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek B. Counts.

The article is the kind of publication that will reward a deeper reading and critique than I’m probably capable of doing today. It is not only model in that it endeavors to make clear what the project did with their digital tools, but also how their digital practices supported open area excavations, in particular, which remain relatively rare in Greece. The authors made the point that this was done, in part, to reveal the inner workings of the digital “black box” that sometimes envelop their day-to-day practices. This means that this paper links digital workflow to field practices and readers of this blog know how much I love workflow.

I’ll just make three quick observations because this article is available under some kind of open access license. The software that the project uses is largely the iDig application developed in the Athenian Agora and run on iPads.

1. Integrating a Fragmented Workflow. One of the things that the authors acknowledge form the start is the desire to integrate the fragmented workflow of contemporary archaeological practice supported by the various specialists who produce a wide range of largely (and impressively) compatible data. What’s particularly intriguing tis that some of the specialists involved had to streamline their workflow to allow the project to integrate their data with field work in near real time. While it’s tempting to suspect that “the tail” of the technological potential of having a robust dataset from specialists at trench side (or excavation data readily available in the lab) might be wagging “the dog” of careful, deliberate documentation, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, the potential of digital integration encouraged more ambitious efforts to ensure specialists and excavators communicated regularly. The level of efficiency at this project seems also to be tied to it largely being a single period site, well-known through recent excavations, and with a substantial staff and funding.

It’s all pretty remarkable.

2. Tools and Time. Likewise, it’s interesting that the tools the project used – both software and hardware – were sophisticated, but not extraordinary. The primary data collection device at trench side was the iPad and the software, iDig, was available via Apple’s App Store. The limits of the iPad’s computing power and connectivity at the site meant that at times the syncs between devices — apparently done over Bluetooth — took longer than anticipated, and it seems that the software developed provided them some high level help in implementation, but if I understood correctly, most of the day-to-day functioning of the technology was within built-in capabilities of the software. 

The software will continue to serve as one of the ways in which specialists expand the project dataset and team members, at least initially, analyze and interpret the site in the short term. In the longer term the data will transition to ArcGIS where the volumetric information collected through 3D data capture can be analyzed more efficiently and synchronized with the field and lab data collected on site. The project provided the Python scripts that they’re using to refine their data and bring from iDig into an SQL data structure. 

The project noted that iDig did not make field recording faster, but it’s clear from this article that it did make it more efficient and expansive. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been incredibly time consuming and inefficient to facilitate the level of interaction between various parts of the project without digital technology.

3. Limits of the Digital. The authors also noted that the flexibility of iDig helped ensure that the interface itself did not overly structure the way in which field recording occurred. Individual excavators and specialists could, for example, create new fields and the iDig’s “minimal parenting approach” avoided the use of dropdown menus or other fixed response fields. I suppose this made the data produced by the project messier, perhaps less consistent and more idiosyncratic to specialist and situation, but also more robust in its ability to capture nuance and detail. The authors admit that the clean up necessary to make the data consistent was not a simple process. It would have been interesting to understand where the most significant variation between datasets occurred to understand how the minimal parenting approach produced incompatibilities (or pushed the project to negotiate variation). 

At the same time, the authors note that the capacity for iDig to create Harris matrices on the fly sometimes inhibited excavators from “questioning their developing stratigraphy.” This awareness, however, suggests that this is a manageable situation. In fact, the elegance of iDig’s Harris matrices might actually be a attractively ironic way to remind the excavator to question tidy associations.

It also offers nice reminder that open area excavation is messy and complex. It replaces the orderly grid of bulks with their relatively tidy displays of vertical stratigraphy with more ragged edges and complex associations produced through a range of formation processes. It goes without saying that, in most cases, the advantages of stratigraphically controlled open area excavating outweighs its challenges. The robust use of digital tools allowed this project to approach open area excavation with a remarkably integrated data set that must have facilitated decision making at trench side. 

To be clear, I’ve only just scratched the surface of this article, that I think will become a kind of classic example of practice in digital archaeology. I’d have liked to have seen a few examples of how this robust workflow worked in practice to produce new interpretations and knowledge, but I also get that unpacking the blackbox of method and procedure have value in its own right. Articles like this also reveal many of the assumptions associated with contemporary archaeological practices and, in this capacity, serve an auto-ethnographic function for our field. Do check it out!

Digital Innovations in European Archaeology

This weekend, I read Kevin Garstki’s little book Digital Innovations in European Archaeology, which is part of the Cambridge Elements: The Archaeology of Europe series.  When I described it as “little” it is literally only 90 pages, but these are pages as dense with ideas and citations as they are easy to read. This is a rare feat for any book and true t the idea that this work is elemental for anyone interested in digital practices in archaeology.

It is also available this week for FREE. Go here to download it. And while you’re at it, consider downloading this book’s close cousin: Visualizing Votive Practice by Derek Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Michael Toumazou, and the very same Kevin Garstki!

At 90 pages, it does seem very useful to review the volume. After all, you can grab a copy for free and read it on a lazy holiday afternoon. I will highlight four things that I found compelling in the volume and which would make it a great little book for a class on digital archaeology.  

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[If you click on the images in this piece, they’ll take you to the data behind them which is drawn from a simple text analysis of Garstki’s book!]

First, Garstki has a knack for identifying areas where challenges exist in our use of digital technology in archaeology. As you might expect, the book begins with an assessment of digital technologies associated with field practices. It was gratifying to see my work on slow archaeology make a cameo in the book and for Garskti to think carefully about the way in which our enthusiasm for the efficiencies gained through the use of digital tools can sometimes obscure the way in which various kinds of digital data collected in the field can shape our analysis. Unlike my sometimes overwrought critiques, Garstki is more balanced, thoughtful, and practice-based in his assessment of the use of digital tools in the field. We need to be attentive to situations when digital tools become technological “black boxes” (in a Latourian sense), but also realistic about the benefits that will come from our ability to collect more data more quickly.

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Garstki is also clear and thoughtful in his discussion of the fate of our digital data. He highlights the ongoing challenges associated with copyright, openness, and ownership of digital data. On the one hand, he is clear that you can’t copyright data. On the other hand, he recognizes that archaeological data from 3D scans to geographic information is connected to real world concerns about cultural property, heritage, and community. It is now commonplace, for example, to obscure the specific location of certain sites not only as a way to acknowledge cultural sensitivities of communities, but also to protect vulnerable sites from looter or others who might want to do them harm.

Issues surrounding the ownership and use of 3D models, on the other hand, remain a bit less clear. As Garstki notes, from a legal standpoint, a 3D model, like a photograph, is not the same as the object and is not subject necessarily to the same limits on the circulation and display of these objects. 3D images become even more complicated in that we have technology to produce highly accurate models from artifacts. In fact, these models might contain more information than is visible on the object itself (e.g. multispectral data or scans that capture microscopic details). As digital surrogates for objects become more common, the prospects for a kind of digital colonialism looms. It is already possible to store and disseminate collections of digital surrogates at a far lower cost than what is necessary to store and curate the physical originals. These digital scans are on the verge of supporting sophisticated and robust analyses. It is concerning to imagine a near future where repatriation of objects is not an acknowledgement of a destructive and alienating colonial legacy, but a cost saving measure which burdens the countries of origin with the expense of storage and curation while preserving the benefit of access to the object through digital means. 

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Garstki also acknowledges the opportunities and challenges associated with using the web and social media for outreach. It is one thing to share 3D images of objects as a way to expand access to these objects, but another to create a meaningful interpretative space for these objects on the internet. The increasingly politicized character of social media, for example, has increased the personal and professional risk for any scholar looking to engage a wider audience. This reality offers a useful counter point to the growing calls for public scholarship in archaeology and the humanities and social sciences more broadly.

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Finally, no publication on digital archaeology is complete without a discussion of “big data.” The term has become synonymous with unlocking the untapped potential of digital information, but also has become associated with the risks of digital overreach. The growing recognition that archaeological data requires robust metadata and should follow standards that support linked-data protocols supports a vision that encourages big data approaches to archaeological knowledge making. While our datasets might seems too small to qualify as big data, the tendency of archaeology as a discipline to produced standardized and formally organized information means that the quantity of structured data available in our field is particularly high. At the same time, the examples of analysis driven by large, multisite, structured data remains relatively few suggesting that the big data revolution in our discipline is still on the horizon. In short, the potential of a data driven digital archaeology on a regional or trans-regional scale remains untapped.

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As you probably can guess, I’m a fan of this little book. It’s an cutting edge assessment of digital practices in archaeology that has obvious value in the classroom, but is also thoughtful and at time provocative enough to engage even a seasoned scholar in the digital archaeology scene. Check it out! 

New Book Day: Visualizing Votive Practice

It’s my favorite day at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: NEW BOOK DAY.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce the publication of Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3DModels by Derek B. Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Kevin Garstki, and Michael Toumazou.

You can download the book for free here.

This book is particularly meaningful to me not only because it was the most complex and ambitious book that The Digital Press has published, but because it has a connection with my earliest days doing archaeology on Cyprus (nearly 20 years ago!). 

When I was fresh out of graduate school and working with Scott Moore and David Pettegrew to get the Pyla-Koutospetria Archaeological Project started on Cyprus, we were trying to understand the practical and political realities of doing work on the island. The team that helped us the most was from the Athienou Archaeological Project. In our first year of field work they showed genuine interest in our work, lent us tables and equipment, and gave us good advice on navigating the political side of doing work on Cyprus. While generosity isn’t uncommon among archaeologists working on the island, their collegiality, good cheer, and support made my transition from field work in Greece to work on Cyprus immeasurably easier.

Of course, this book stands on its own as a significant and innovative work of scholarship. It went through rigorous peer review, received high quality professional copy editing, and abundant, sustained attention from its authors. In some small way, it is also  a gesture of appreciation for the support that I received years ago when I was just starting out on Cyprus.

Here’s the press release and download link. It’s free, open access, and pretty great.

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Visualizing Votive Practice uses 3D images embedded directly in the PDF to present a significant new group of terracotta and limestone sculpture from the sanctuary of Malloura on Cyprus. By combining traditional features of an archaeological artifact catalogue with the dynamic possibilities of a digital book, these fascinating objects come alive on the page. The book also includes thousands of hyperlinks that invite the reader to engage with objects at the world’s greatest museums, explore previous scholarship, and engage the content in new ways. Visualizing Votive Practice provides an important discussion of the theory, methods, and practices that produced the 3D images in archaeology. It is available as a free, open access, download.

Derek B. Counts, Professor and Chair of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, describes the thinking behind the book “we wanted to challenge traditional approaches to publication and leverage open, digital platforms to provide better access to our research but also connect that research with a wider network of information.”

As Kevin Garstki, Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Global Religions, and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, explains, “The book builds upon the available platforms for sharing 3D models and combines them with important archaeological context that makes them more than just “pretty” models on a computer screen but actual research tools.”

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The site of Malloura on the Mesaoria Plain on Cyprus is significant in its own right. Erin Walcek Averett, Associate Professor of Art History and Classical & Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University, notes “this sanctuary is one of the few religious sites to be excavated scientifically and provides a wealth of information on changing Cypriot religious practices from the Cypro-Geometric through Roman periods (ca. 8th c. BCE to at least the 4th c. CE). From terracotta warrior figurines to limestone statues of Cypriot Herakles, this  votive assemblage enriches our understanding of the cult and ritual habit at  the site.”

The book also relies on the Alexandria Archive’s Open Context digital, archaeological publishing platform. Each object in the book is linked to a permanent digital version on the web allowing future researches to link to a specific artifact and for the catalogue to expand and develop in the future. Eric Kansa, Open Context’s Program Director explains that the digital publication of these artifacts “allows for continued expansion of the collection, as well as the addition and association of other related archaeological materials—such as the ceramic vessels, coins, and animal bones– facilitating exploration and reuse of the ever-growing collection, even for purposes not currently recognized in the context of the Visualizing Votive Practice publication.”

William Caraher, the director at the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, remarks “Open access books such as Visualizing Votive Practice shows the potential to combine rigorous peer review and innovative collaborative publishing practices. Scholar-led publishing is not the only future for academic publishing, but works such as this are starting to make the case for it being a viable and significant alternative to traditional academic and commercial publishers.”

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