Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Completed Draft

I’ve spent the last three months toiling over a paper that I’m scheduled to give at the European Archaeological Association meetings in September. I’ve posted parts of it here on the blog and gotten feedback from various folks. My panel is supposed to pre-circulate their papers today, and I do have a draft, but it’s pretty rough around the edges.

But since I’m pre-circulating it anyway, I thought I might as well post it here on my blog too. You can download it here, or go and mark it up using Hypothes.is here

The paper is for a panel on transhumanism, which I probably should have focused on more fully. Instead, I conflated transhumanism with a watered down version of Donna Harraway’s idea of the cyborg and reflected very broadly on the role of technology in shaping how we produce archaeological knowledge. 

The paper ended up being a bit more conservative than I would have liked, but that is probably true both to the “slow” paradigm that I’ve embraced for archaeology and, more obviously, the work of Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, which tend toward the explicitly un-progressive. That being said, I think there is a space for reflecting on how epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, and the organization of disciplinary practice interact, and my paper parallels, perhaps in a not too distant way, some of the recent work being done to reconsider the value of antiquarian practices. Some of these scholars have seen antiquarianism as an avenue for understanding un-modern (and anti-modern) ways of producing archaeological knowledge that are, at least partly, free from the political and social burdens of modernity and colonialism

That being said, I don’t think that I get everything right. For example, I do see the recent interest in shifting the dominant metaphor in archaeology from excavation and revealing to surface survey and assemblage building as a way to integrate a wider and more diverse range of voices into process of archaeological knowledge making. In fact, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s and Olivier Laurent’s works do just that by showing how distinctive views of time, narrative building, values, and relationships contribute to place-making practices at the local level that operate outside disciplinary methods and arguments. At the same time, I see in the kind of assemblage building the potential for greater fragmentation in disciplinary practices which echoes the way in which digital tools create networks of independent devices linked by data broken into discrete fragments. 

In any event, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get this paper all right, but as always I’ll appreciate any comments that you’re willing to offer. 



Archaeogaming: The Book

Over the weekend I read Andrew Reinhard’s new, concise introduction to archaeogaming, titled Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games (2018). I have had the good fortune of chatting with him a fair bit about archaeogaming in the field at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation, on my Caraheard podcast, and over email correspondence and conversations over the past five years or so. The concept has always intrigued me as an valuable approach to the archaeology of “Late Capitalism” or “Post Modernity” and a series of methods and practices worth developing if archaeologists continue to take seriously both their expansive view of materiality and their particular claim to being students of culture.


He defines archaeogaming in the title of his book as the archaeology in and of video games and carves out a space for it between the burgeoning and related fields of game studies and media archaeology. The book embraces its place between media archaeology and game studies by bouncing merrily between academic diction and more accessible prose which allows it to leverage the precise language of, say, Heidegger’s definition of “dwelling” with the campy, acronym-heavy, and breeze world of gaming lingo. Reinhard’s willingness to move between the densely philosophical, the methodological, and the colloquial would make this book a nice option for an introductory archaeology class where students learn about theory, methods, procedures, and techniques, but less frequently have opportunities to put these ideas into practice. An archaeogaming module, that encourages them to excavate, survey, or otherwise document a video game as a cultural artifact would be a nice complement or final project in an archaeology class. Reinhard’s book provides both the student and the scholar a way to think about what this kind of work will look like.

As is my usual practice, I haven’t the discipline or inclination to do a proper review. Instead, I offer three observations.

1. Gamification of Archaeology. I’m not a gamer and don’t own any video games, but one of the first things that struck me about this book is how much video gaming has shaped my engagement with “dirt and sherd” archaeology. From the graphic-user interfaces of software to the longterm interest in simulations, 3D modeling, and immersive environments, digital practices in archaeology drink from the same pool of practices and trends as does gaming culture. On a superficial level, the evident complexity of the kinds of video games at the center of Reinhard’s analysis make it clear that these games share with software used by archaeologists – particularly GIS and 3D imaging software – the need to allow for a wide range of mapping, marking, and measuring functions. In fact, a current publication project that I’m working on with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and Open Context has spent a good bit of time discussing how to measure a 3D-scan of an object across scales through an online interface. This past summer, I spent a good bit of time in the Western Argolid producing drone images of the landscape that will allow for higher resolution mapping of significant places in our survey area. The ability to zoom in from a satellite image to our drone photography or “fly” across the landscape to understand the spatial or visual relationship between two places at different scales (i.e. a 3 m cliff might be smoothed by a 5 m resolution digital elevation model into a steep, but passable slope, but in a higher resolution landscape model become a barrier to movement). While these these kinds of spatial analysis on the micro or macro scale are concerns of archaeologists, they have parallels with game play where issues of legibility across scales in immersive digital environments have particular consequence. So there is a resonance on a broad level between gamers and archaeologists who both share an interest in building worlds with an attention to detail across scale, a kind of cultural legibility, and a compelling vividness.

This isn’t limited, of course, to analytical work in the lab or office. Flying a drone involves a game like interface which occupies the pilots attention far more than the actual drone itself. Documenting walls or marking up photographs on a tablet involves looking at the tablet, manipulating graphics, and making aesthetic and procedural decisions in an interface that simulates work on paper, but also goes beyond it. These interfaces mediate between “meatspace” (to use Reinhard’s term) and “gamespace” (or whatever we might call it) that extends from our GIS and spatial analysis software to the interfaces on our tablets and drone consoles. 

2. Stratigraphy and Surface Survey in Virtual Worlds. One of the things that Reinhard explores is the relationship between games, game spaces, and archaeological knowledge. He describes the work he did on the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) which is a survey project focused on the procedural worlds created in the game No Man’s SkyYou can read more about that survey project here

What interested me the most is that survey archaeology – that is the study of assemblages of objects on the surface – was the chosen method for exploring the landscapes of video games. Not only is it useful for documenting the surfaces presented by game developers within games, but it also allows the archaeologist to create assemblages that extend from the world in the game to “meatspace” where digital recording methods, academic literature, conversations with colleagues, and knowledge about the game’s development trajectory and versioning as well as critical responses to the game itself come into play. As Reinhard states, archaeogaming doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the game itself, but extends to the world of the gamer, the interface, and the materiality of the game experience. The gaming experience is a surface that extends out widely in a network of entangled relationships.

At the same time, Reinhard pokes a bit at the idea of stratigraphy of video games. In some cases, stratigraphic relationships become visible in the history of the games themselves with keen observations possible by carefully reading the deposition of objects and features in the game landscapes. Stratigraphy is evident in aspects of games that evoke earlier version of the same game or earlier iterations of certain game types like quests or problem games. Stratigraphy is evident also in the way in which the player interfaces with the game or expects certain functions to work that build upon long standing conventions or gaming practices. It might even be possible to detect certain common game “engines” at play in games the provide, say, realistic gravity or other physical aspect of game place and allow players to anticipate how their avatar or character will respond to input. These basic (like in a foundational sense) features of game play can represent earlier deposits or moments of development in the game or in the gaming concept against which variation and change can be measured. Since strata are always defined by methods and practices, the challenge facing archaeogaming is defining these levels and their relationship to later depositional events. Reinhard appears well on his way to setting out some common methods for recognizing these stratigraphic levels. 

In other cases, stratigraphy involves digging down below the level of the graphic interface and into the murky world of code. Reinhard does not deal much with code in his book, but it clearly lurks right below the surface (heh, heh). Excavating code for the earliest deposition processes requires both a deep familiarity with programing practice and access to the codebase, which is usually zealously guarded by gaming companies. My guess is that parts of these games rely on code that is decades old and recycled – like ancient spolia – for different purposes in a wide range of games. Excavating the code of games would appear to be the next frontier for archaeogaming and to parallel nicely the recent interest in excavating archaeological practices. 

3. The Edges of Archaeogaming. There were a few places in the book where I thought that the edges of archaeogaming revealed its potential moving forward. For example, it is clear that archaeologists in video games, like in other forms of popular media, rarely follow our professional code of ethics. Laura Croft, literally raids tombs. Indiana Jones, punches (admittedly bad) people and steals their excavated finds and destroys their research projects. In other instances, some of the games themselves tend to present material culture as an analogy for “race” promoting a kind of narrow and problematic view of culture. These practices while problematic ethically for the practicing archaeologist can be suspended for the purposes of game play, just as players of the famous Grand Theft Auto game can run over families or shoot at cops. While we know that the grossest kinds of unethical (or illegal) behaviors in most video games are at best a kind of escapism and at worst a manifestation of the repressed desires to challenge authority, to destroy society, or to die, our understanding of the ethical limits within these virtual worlds are unclear. For example, there are some kinds of unethical behavior that are simply not acceptable in video games, but where these lines are drawn remains a topic for debate.   

I was also curious about whether archaeogaming ideas could be applied to so-called virtual worlds like Second Life or simulations like Sim City. For the former, users shaped landscapes and built structures which persisted when they were abandoned to leave strange ghost cities and worlds whose purposes were unclear. Games like Sim City have coded formation processes built into game play with neighborhoods falling into slums when resources or access are restricted. The archaeological thinking behind this simulation is that changes in resources not only lead to more elaborate buildings, but also their deterioration over time. Games like the well-regarded Civilization series similarly rely on archaeological assumptions to plot the development of groups and the competition for resources over time. It seems like these games embrace the relationship between disciplinary archaeology and “game space” in a way that could benefit both gaming and archaeology. 

None of what I’ve said in this critique is meant to be a criticism of the book or archaeogaming. In fact, I think this book does a lovely job opening up archaeogaming in a practical and intellectual way to scholars. I’m looking forward to Reinhard’s PhD Dissertation at the University of York to see where these ideas go in the future. Check out his ongoing work in this area at his Archaeogaming website.




Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense.

So here’s my a draft of my overly long introduction to the paper. Feedback is, as always, welcome:

My paper today is yet another effort to come to terms with my anxiety about the emergence of a transhuman, digital archaeology. To be clear from the start, I consider myself a bit of a digital archaeology and a digital native. I can’t remember, for example, living in a house without a computer and my role on archaeological projects has always involved data management and GIS. Over the last few years, I’ve also started an open access press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, that privileges digital downloads over print and has featured a number of open access books that critically examine digital practices in archaeology.

My interest today is a speculative and theoretical and instead of focusing on the immediate context of field practices, I’d like to think about technology in archaeology in a more historical and expansive way. This will, of course, make many of my generalizations easy enough to dismiss with examples for actual field practices or implementation. These to me are reasons for optimism and perhaps reflect the advanced state of critical engagement with the way that digital tools are shaping the discipline. At the same time, I do think that long trajectory of digital practices in archaeology (and in our transhuman culture) remains unclear as folks like Jeremey Huggett have recognized (Huggett, Reilly, Lock 2018).

My small part in this conversation, which I shamelessly plug in the title of this paper, involved publishing a collection of reflections on ”punk archaeology” (Caraher et al. 2014) and, more recently, a couple of short articles that use the popular ”slow movement“ as an imperfect, but nevertheless accessible and useful lens for critically engaging digital archaeology (Caraher 2015, 2016) . Punk archaeology offered a view of archaeology grounded in radical and performative inclusivity, and slow archaeology considered the implications of a particular strand of scholarship that celebrated the increases in efficiency, accuracy, and precision associated with digital field practices. While both efforts have received substantive and thoughtful critiques that have demonstrated the limits to these analogies (archaeology is LIKE punk or LIKE the slow movement; see Richardson 2016; Graham 2017), I still hope that they offer some useful perspectives on the relationship between how archaeology produces the past in the present and how this shapes the organization of our discipline. It is the intersection of epistemological (and ontological) concerns and professional and disciplinary concerns that has heightened my sense of anxiety concerning archaeology’s digital future.

Some of this anxiety almost certainly comes from my growing interest in the works Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, mid-century Christian anarchists, who wrote critically on the rise of modern institutions and technology. Without over simplifying and eliding their different perspectives, both men saw the shift toward modern practices as profoundly disruptive to traditional values and a sense of community.

Ellul’s is perhaps the more problematic for considering archaeological practice. He suggests that the rise of rationality and technology, which he summarizes in the term “technique” after 1750 severed the careful attention of the individual from work itself (Ellul 1964). In its place emerged ”technique” which had its own abstract logic that was closely tied to the need for efficiency. Thus, in Ellul’s writing, emergence of technique in the place of individual care marked the decline in human autonomy as individual choices in how to work gave way to the inescapably logic of efficiency as the organizing principle structuring all human relations and relationships between humans and their tools. As Jennifer Alexander noted in her historical study of efficiency, “efficiency remains an iconic mantra in the high-tech industries,” and I’d argue efficiency remains a key consideration for how archaeology is organized and uses tools (Alexander 2008). In fact, a recent conference and publication dedicated to digital tools in field work, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, was laced with the discussions of efficiency and terms like workflow. Among the most widely cited and read articles from Journal of Field Archaeology is Christopher Roosevelt’s (and team) thorough presentation of the digital workflow from their project in southwest Turkey.

Ivan Illich shared many of Ellul’s concerns and proposed that modernity, technology, and the state disrupted the conviviality that existed in the premodern world and among premodern societies (Illich 1975). For Illich, conviviality represented the opposite of modern productivity (with its interest in speed and efficiency) and emphasized the free, unstructured, and creative interaction between individuals and between individuals and their environment. For Illich, like Ellul, the use of technology does not result in a society more free, but one that is increasingly bereft of the conditions that allow for creativity as the need for efficiency and speed create a kind of dominant logic in practice. (One can see in this tension, for example, the curiosity driven and open-ended nature of basic science in contrast to the narrower more practically focused work of applied science (Pickering 1995).)

Archaeology, of course, has always been a hybrid discipline with certain aspects of practice grounded in the world of craft and others in the world of industrial (and increasingly post-industrial) practice. Michael Shanks and others have shown that archaeology, “has never been modern” or at least entirely modern as it integrates industrial and pre-industrial practices (Shanks and Maguire 1995; Shanks 2012). Recent efforts to champion the use of digital tools within archaeology have tended, however, at least on the practical level, to celebrate their ability to improve the aspects of archaeological work that tend not to align with industrial paradigms such interpretative description, scientific illustration, and the careful study of excavated artifacts. This suggests to me that the quest to improve efficiency in archaeological practice extends equally to modern and pre-modern practices in the discipline.

Illich’s and Ellul’s critiques of technology fit only awkwardly with much recent scholarship, of course. Efficiency itself has become increasingly regarded as a problematic term deeply embedded in practice and the coincidence of human and material agency (e.g. Shove 2017). Bruno Latour and others have demonstrated that any effort to unpack the complexity of energy in any system — social, mechanical, environmental, et c. — requires abstract acts of purification that define and separate energy and effects from their complex network of entangled relationships and practices (Latour 1993; Shove 2017, 7-8). This work, on the one hand, echos recent studies of both ancient and modern technology that have challenged tradition views of agency and argued that objects and individuals co-create the world. This greater attention to the interaction between individuals and objects has provided a compelling theoretical framework for understanding the interplay of technology, tools, objects, and agency in the construction of archaeological knowledge.

On the other hand, this work has only just begun, I suspect, to inform the thriving conversation on the impact of digital tools on the organization of archaeological practice (although see Pickering 1995; Taylor et al. 2018), the nature of archaeological skills and expertise, and issues of archaeological preservation and publication (Huggett 2017). In fact, changing views of agency in the world have created new views of ethics in archaeological practice as well as in the social organization of discipline (e.g. Dawdy 2016). Perhaps this entangled view of the world gives the work of Illich and Ellul new relevance for archaeologist concerned with the social issue of disciplinary practice across the field.

More Fragments on Punk, Slow, and the Archaeology of Care

I’ve been playing around with some chunks of texts for the paper that I’m to deliver at the EAA conference in September. Because it’s how I role, I’m pre-nervous and fussing already with too many ideas and not enough thought.

What I’d like to write about is whether digital practices and tools in archaeology – from field procedures to analysis and publications – tend toward certain kinds of social relations among practitioners (broadly defined in their archaeologicality), at the level of the discipline, and in the ontological situation of objects. My fears and anxieties stem from, on the on hand, the prevalence of a certain language of description found particularly in Mediterranean practice (and here my concern is the growing influence of efficiency which follows – to some extent – the fears of Jacques Ellul) and, at least in my corner of the archaeological universe, the persistence of a kind of historicism which celebrates the modernist metaphor of excavation. By removing the overburden of history and the past, we reveal how things “really” work and that privileges a certain efficiency in process and practice that technology can accelerate. If the first efforts to accelerate how archaeologists produce (or “reveal”) the past grew from industrial practices and organization of labor, then the most recent digital turn appears – to some extent – to draw upon post-industrial modes of organization with the interchangeability of data, expertise, places, and people producing a kind of “Uber”-fied discipline. I know this requires a good bit of nuancing and some folks will find it unconvincing, but it’s a start.

So far, it’s led me to fragments and places like this:

What is an un-ironic archaeology? Would it all just be surfaces, following Rodney Harrison and even Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina or Olivier’s Dark Abyss of Time as opposed to, say, Buccalleti’s A Critique of Archaeological Reason

The challenge of thinking about an un-ironic archaeology is simultaneously recognizing that what we really want to understand is below the surface – the floor packing of archaeology, if you will – while recognizing that the main metaphor for archaeological work has been “excavation as destruction” (or even excavation as creation or digitization) which celebrates the knowledge associated with the surfaces and strata themselves. In other words, we want to know what is below the surface while at the same time preserving the surface itself as the strata through which sub-surface knowledge becomes apparent.

In this way, archaeology reveals a deep conservatism in both meanings of the word: it seeks to conserve the surface – albeit in a mediated form – and to validate the surface as playing a legitimate role in the making of archaeological knowledge only inasmuch as it implies a relationship to the levels that it covers. Historically, superficiality in archaeological thought and a concern with surfaces is important largely because it reveals deeper meanings. Even so-called “flat ontologies” with their rhizomic relations function as expressions of something else, of a hidden meaning, something profound and perhaps more real.

These kinds of musings, of course, don’t get us anywhere really. Critical appreciation of the excavation as the dominant metaphor for archaeological practice and a growing appreciation of the contemporary as both the space and the time of archaeological knowledge hardly offers a blue print for present or future uses of digital tools, for example, much less meaningful disciplinary or social change.

In fact, we could argue that celebrating surfaces of archaeological practice, unironically expressed in the performativity of punk or the slow crunch of dry soil beneath a boot in the Greek countryside, run the risk of absolving archaeologists from thinking about how and why their work matters. As a critical reading of punk archaeology has shown by emphasizing performance on its own without creating rooms to consider what is being performed, archaeologists are giving up the hard fought terrain of expertise. In effect, we’ve invited “fake news,” climate change deniers, the alt-right, and crystal worshipers, into the archaeological mosh pit, if not on stage. The improvisation of the double quartet of the Commune of Digital Anarchism must have limits and however much they challenge, reject, ignore the hard bop favored by the Academy of Digital Advancement or song book at the heart of the Ministry of Digital Orthodoxy, they still play recognizable instruments.

(As someone who lacks any formal archaeological training (other than sitting in on a graduate course in archaeology one semester), I can roll my eyes at the institutional structures of expert-making, while still admiring the technical proficiency of an experienced excavator. I can pretend that the embodied knowledge of craft is somehow more democratic, less hierarchical, and more open than the credentialing provided by universities corrupted through their complicity in capitalism and colonialism, but I also know that the contingent contemporaneity of archaeological practices does not parse that easily.). In short, a looter is a looter, there are good and bad archaeologists in our profession, good and bad (if not BEST) practices, and tools that will never escape their social, technical, and political limitations to be used in our field (and here I’m thinking about the potential of, say, the atomic bomb as an excavation tool, but also “sharks with friggin’ laser beams“).

So where does that leave those of us who see the world as a single (Borgesian) surface rather than a series of superimposed contexts waiting to be documented and removed in order to reveal new knowledge?

Archaeology of Care is an effort to recognize the social affordances of this map.


What I’m increasingly interested in is the relationship between archaeological practices – particularly those mediated by digital tools – and the structure of archaeological thinking. This extends from the social organization of the discipline – both in terms of field practice and larger economic and political concerns that involve considerations of gender, race, and class – to the relationships between archaeologists and their communities as well as the basic structure of archaeological knowledge as simultaneously contemporary and in the past.

In other words, how does our critical understanding of our digital tools both reflect and produce archaeological knowledge that is socially meaningful. And how do we do this without falling back ironic conceptions of archaeological knowledge that see “real meaning” existing below a surface that must be excavated away.

Jeremy Huggett has offered some compelling insights into the nature of digital practices and digital thinking in his use of the concept of cognitive artifacts.


One of the methodological implications of so-called “flat ontologies” in archaeology is the deskilling of archaeological practice. Digital technology whatever its integrative potential, relies at least in part on the industrialist (and Taylorist) conceit of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones. These simple tasks, often mediated by the simplified fields of the data collection form as opposed to the synthetic archaeological notebook, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation as opposed to the experience of walking through the landscape (Brouwer Burg 2017), the clicking of a GPS point as opposed to plotting a location on a map, or the use of structure-from-motion photography as opposed to drawing by hand (Morgan and Knight 2017). While nearly every field archaeologist would admit to the importance of these methods in transforming the production of archaeological knowledge, most would also recognize the role technology has played in changing archaeological practice. As I have argued elsewhere, the adoption of digital tools and the understanding of digital technologies at both a conceptual and applied level is not merely exchanging one set of skills for another (pace Roosevelt et al.), but also the deskilling of certain elements of archaeological work.

The ease with which archaeological projects generate “Big Data” (Kansa 2016; Bevan 2015) – my project in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota has generated over 10,000 photographs, over 100 hours of audio interviews, video, illustration, text documents, and other forms of data (and paradata, and metadata, and quasidata and almost invariably flavors of pseudodata) – is directly related to the ease of data collection and the power and ease of the tools developed to analyze these large datasets. This isn’t to say being a good digital archaeologist is easy – certainly there are practitioners and theorists in the field of digital archaeology who are thinking and working hard to transform how we understand digital practices in the field – but, as Colleen Morgan and Stuart Eve have observed in some respects “we are all digital archaeologists now.”

Of course, the analogue roots of archaeological practice can be overstated. While there has always been a craft element to archaeology (e.g. McGuire and Shanks 1996), industrial practices have recently started to give way to post-industrial practices with their concern for data. There are elements of this transition which could encourage the uberfication of archaeological knowledge making (Hall 2017) in which increasingly granular data and practices await synthesis by a handful of scholars who have control over the data.

Is this a science fiction distopia where the alienation from objects reflecting our alienation from one another?

Uberfication involves creating a workforce consisting of individuals with very basic skills, mediated by digital technologies, who can be exchanged in a highly modular way. The internet of things and the distribution of agency throughout decentralized networks of objects has normalized increasingly digital forms of social, archaeological, and intellectual relationships and at least implied (albeit in an uncritical way) through this dispersed model of agency that objects, data, individuals, and landscapes (even across scale) are more or less commensurate. The impact of this can be summarized in the inanimate carbon rod winning the “Worker of the Week Award” on the Simpsons, disappointing Homer.

Views of Digital Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a good bit about digital archaeology lately. This is partly because I’ve been working on a paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association meeting and in part because I’ve been doing digital stuff over the last week or so.

My colleague Dimitri Nakassis wrote a little post about archaeology being hard over on the Western Argolid Regional Project page last week. This is a bit of a response in a series of photographs. I’m not so much arguing that digital archaeology is or isn’t hard, but that it is not very scenic or beautiful. I’ve spent some quality screen time over the past few days.

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Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

Two Abstracts for the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting

My morning today was filled with finish abstracts from the EAA annual meeting. Since I can submit two and was kindly asked to contribute to two panels, I put together two abstracts that look to similar topics. These abstracts are pretty raw and the ideas should be both familiar to readers of this blog, but also slightly rougher and more incomplete. I’m thinking of them as prompts for me to develop as much as abstracts that summarize completed thoughts.

The first abstract is for Colleen Morgan, Catherine Frieman, and Marta Diaz-Guardamino Uribe’s panel titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies”. I blogged about it here.

Here’s the abstract:

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Recent research has emphasized the significant impact that digital technology is having on archaeological practice. Over the last decade, my work has tried to come to terms with post and transhuman archaeology. First, I proposed a “punk archaeology,” which looked to rawness and immediacy of punk rock music as a model for a disruptive interest in the performance of archaeological work. Later, I became intrigued by the popular “slow foods” movement as well as in the work of diverse scholars on the rapidly accelerating pace of modernity as a model for a “slow archaeology” that sought to trace both the rhetoric surrounding and practice of digital technology in field practice. Recent work by Eric Kansa and Ömür Harmanşah have pushed me to recognize that slow archaeology may well offer a solid foundation for critiquing the growing influence of neoliberal expectations in the use of digital tools in archaeological work.

This paper draws on field experiences doing intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean and the archaeology of the contemporary world in North Dakota to consider how digital tools mediate and transform not only archaeological information in the field, but also the experience of fieldwork. Critical reflections on these processes have shaped an archaeology of care that considers more than the efficiency, accuracy, and convenience of digital tools and analysis, and, instead, shifts the focus how the archaeologist and these tools creates a meaningful space of archaeological practice. Archaeology of care foregrounds the constitution of the archaeological field team, interaction between archaeologists and communities during field work, the location of archaeological analysis, and the experience of archaeological knowledge making to expand our sensitivity to the ways that digital technology is transforming our discipline.


The second abstract is for Rebecca Seifried and Tuna Kalayci’s panel and titled “”The “Geospatial Turn”: Critical Approaches to Geospatial Technologies in Archaeological Research.” I’ve blogged about it here.

And, here’s my abstract:

Slow Spaces: Big Data, Small Data, and the Human Scale

Fernando Braudel famously demonstrated in The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, that historical data analyzed at various scales are not necessarily comparable or commensurate. In other words, history written at the chronological and spatial scale of the longue durée need not inform history written at the scale of the individual or event. On the one hand, this appears to be a common sense conclusion and corresponds well to our experience of purchasing suggestions produced by algorithm, the music choices of Pandora, or any number of predictive models that falter when ground-truthed.

On the other hand, archaeologists regularly seek to work between scales as they both collect information in the field in a tremendously granular and detailed way and seek to use so-called “big data” to understand lived experiences. To make data collected at the small scale commensurate with both data and research questions articulated at a larger scale invariably involves standardization practices that obscure the agency of the individual archaeologist. In this way, our sense of scale in argument influences, in some ways, the limits of agency in practice.

My paper today will briefly explore the intersection of slow archaeology and space in archaeology. Slow archaeology offers a critical approach to digital practices in field archaeology and emphasizes the irregular and unstructured nature of archaeological knowledge generated through experience. These slow spaces represent a distinct form of archaeological knowledge making because of their incommensurability with the spaces of big data. These are not space that can or should be reconciled with the conventional approaches of spatial analysis.

Pencils and Pixels: New Perspectives on Digital Illustration

On Friday, I read with great excitement Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright’s very recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording” (and here too). It’s worth reading for quite a few reasons, but I want to highlight a little gaggle of observations here (that don’t entirely reflect the scope and character of the article, but do represent my own interests in it).

1. The Heroic Archaeologists. A few years ago, I became enamored with the idea that there was a heroic age of archaeology based on a bit of a cheap parallel with the heroic age of science. These heroic archaeologists have names that are associated with their notebooks (Blegen’s notebook), their sites (Wheeler’s excavation at the Great Palace), and who game name and form to their discoveries (Schlieman’s discovery of Priam’s Gold). To this we can add, following Morgan and Wright, their plans and drawings like Aubrey’s drawing of Avebury and Wheeler’s illustration of Segontium.

Morgan and Wright complicate this, of course, by pointing out that these drawings did not always spring from the impartial pens of master excavators, but from rather less known draftsmen, associates, and even, as in Wheeler’s case, the archaeologist’s wife.  Indeed, the work of Pitt-Rivers, Piggot, and Wheeler was informed by industrial, or in some cases, military practices and organization of labor which involved specialists with specialized skills, but also preserved elements of the “heroic archaeologists” vision of both methods and the sites themselves. In other words, even my heroic archaeologists, with their elegant and idiosyncratic, and sometimes signed illustrations, represent an already industrialized organization of archaeological practice (one that nevertheless allowed for a good deal of latitude and imagination, as Kostis Kourelis has recently noted regarding Georg Vinko von Peschke’s work around Corinth). In fact, the tension between the elegant plans and industrial practices are a defining feature of early 20th century archaeology.

2. The Ethnography of Archaeological Practice. One of the key strengths to this article is that Morgan and Wright draw effectively on the small, but growing body of work on the ethnography of contemporary archaeological practices. By using not only their own experiences as well as the immensely valuable and overlooked work of Matthew Edgeworth and others (although oddly not Mary Leighton’s work, which I’ve found very useful), they enter into the every day practices that define archaeological knowledge make at the edge of the trowel or the click of the mouse. 

This kind of work is not only incredibly important for understand how the tools that we use shape the knowledge that we produce, but also lays bare the complex and – to my mind – often problematic world that our technologies inhabit. The affordances that condition our use of digital tools are increasingly complicit in dense entanglements of exploitative practices in ways in which writing in a notebook or drawing on a piece of graph paper are not. This isn’t to suggest that the latter is beyond reproach or innocent, but to point our that what we do and how we do it constantly forces us to embody a dense organism of political, economic, social, and cultural relationships that do have consequences. The shift from analogue practice in the field to digital practices may or may not be a paradigm shift in terms of the incommensurability of knowledge, but, I’d argue, does reflect a paradigm shift in terms of practice and the range of affordances that shape those practices. Greater attention to practice, then, in the field allows us to unpack these relationships in productive and, to me, socially responsible ways.

(What’s more, here, is that Morgan and Wright have some of the ethnographic details to back up the sort of idealized generalizations that have tended to inform my work on slow archaeology. What I write, seems “right” based on my memories and experiences, but it certainly doesn’t have the rigor to support it that genuine ethnographic practice would 

3. Embodied Knowledge. On Saturday, I read a copy of a paper that Ömür Harmanşah generously provided that, in thoughtful ways, explored the significance of embodied knowledge, informed by the senses, in archaeological practice (among other things). Morgan and Wright’s treatment of the embodied knowledge of drawing in the field articulates in really smart ways ideas that I’ve struggled to understand over the past five years. Not only is the act of drawing with a pen or pencil on paper an act with definable and distinct cognitive significant, but it also opens onto ways of seeing archaeological contexts that more efficient, more streamlined, and invariably more digital methods do not support.

I like this way of thinking because reflects my experiences, particularly after this summer when I spent time documenting a series of fortifications on the basis of drone photography and structure-from-motion and ortho-rectified photographs. In some of my 20th century archaeological work, I worked with archaeologists who taught me how to illustrate by hand and it was tedious, long, hot work that provided remarkable (and sometimes illusory) familiarity with buildings. In contrast, drawing from a ortho-rectified series of drone photographs allowed me to produce a detailed plan much more quickly than work in the field and also made it much easier to scale my encounter with the site (i.e. by zooming out for context or zooming in for a detail), but I certainly feel less familiar with the site. Again, some of this a sense of familiarity may not be real (and I can’t help but extend the sense of possession, paralleling, perhaps, the work of heroic archaeologists, of a site where I spent countless hours drawing stones), to my sense of detachment from a site that I visited 8 or 10 times to ground-truth plans drawn from drones. 

The sense of place that develops from the act of manual drawing and illustration goes well beyond (in probably crazy ways) what Morgan and Wright explore in their article and is probably an effort to make their article into something that I want to say, but to me, at least, it is a useful point of departure for continued musing on the rise of digital field practices.  

For my work on these topics go here and here.

Scale, Spatial Analysis, and Slow in Archaeology: Some Scratchings

A week or so ago, I agreed to write a couple of papers for the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Barcelona. The first, will be an effort to integrate thee concepts that I’ve been turning around in my head for the past half-decade: slow archaeology, punk archaeology, and the archaeology of care.

The second paper is less well figured out in my head, but it will have something to do with spatial analysis, scale, and slow in response to a prompt by Becky Seifried for her panel on the geospatial turn: critical approaches to geospatial technologies in archaeological research.

I think of slow archaeology periodically and always, but recently I’ve had to think about it more than I usually do thanks to a bunch of provocations. First, I re-read Brian Pickering’s classic work The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago 1995) thanks to a recent article in Internet Archaeology (which I always think of as the old grey digital lady of online, digital archaeology journals). Pickering emphasizes the temporal dimension to practice in science and looks to that temporality as the key understanding the interplay between human and non-human agents. Pickering has also nudged me to go back to some of Peter Gailson’s work where he notes “And further, following Fernand Braudel, Galison suggests that layers of contextual constraints have differing inner temporalities.”

Just yesterday, I received word of a new article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording.” I haven’t read it yet, but I need to, obviously.

Finally, thanks to a commenter on this blog, I started reading Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton 2015). It’s fantastic and reminded me to go back to Donna Haraway’s class Cyborg Manifesto (which I’ll likely read in the lovely re-set publication produced by the University of Minnesota Press in 2016: Manifestly Haraway. Look beyond the olde skool cover and check out the pages. It’s really gorgeous.).

Plus, I’ve requested a copy of a paper delivered by Ömür Harmanşah delivered at the University of Glasgow this week and titled “Remotely sensing: Ethics of fieldwork, military technologies, and archaeological practice in the Anthropocene” (for the flyer).

In short, there’s too much cool stuff going on that it’s hard to marshal it all into a coherent set of ideas for a 6 minute paper. (I love the idea of 6 minute papers because they play to my increasingly opaque and superficial understanding of everything. Six minutes BEG me to try to be profound.)

So here are my idea right now:

1. Scale, Time, and the Individual. One of the key concepts that seems to float very near the surface these day is as scale increases toward BIG DATA, so does the sense of alienation from the data. The fervent arguments that individuals trained in the humanities are needed to re-humanize BIG DATA, indicates that this anxiety over algorithms is not constrained to luddite social scientists desperately hoping to protect their heirloom gardens, but seeping into the public discourse as well.

As data gets bigger and the sense of scale gets bigger, individuals become more faintly traced. Braudel recognized this and his magnum opus carefully preserved the incommensurability between history at different chronological scales,removing individuals from the gentle arc of the longue durée. This isn’t to suggest that BIG DATA rejects individuals explicitly, after all the most common uses of BIG DATA analysis are geared toward improving the consumer experience (more, and more, and more) by individualizing recommendation at a massive scale. As an archaeological example, data at scale is necessary to create immersive 3D worlds that allow an individual to “experience” a walk through the ancient countryside or cities. At the same time, there is a substantive difference between a simulation of individual experience and the “real thing.”   

2. Scale and Aggregation. If the production of BIG DATA often involves the aggregation of datasets generated by myriad individuals with individual goals (or gathered via automated means through machine legible datasets or other forms of computerized harvesting). Whatever the value of this kind of analysis has (and to be clear, I believe that it has some value), the result of these systems of production is to marginalize the work of the individual archaeologist and to undermine the status of the “heroic archaeologist” of the 19th and 20th century and elevate the role of a kind of post-industrial archaeological logic.

Of course, I recognize the significance of large-scale data projects in archaeology, but I also worry about their impact on our field. As large scale geospatial analysis involves drawing datasets from a wide range of sources (satellite photos, aerial photos, various maps, various levels of survey data from intensive pedestrian survey to remote sensing, excavation data, legacy data, et c.), the autonomy of these sources becomes subsidiary to larger project’s goals. And, while such synthetic alienation is part-and-parcel of even traditional archaeological work, the digital medium for so much spatial and digital archaeological work seems to offer particular risk for the fate of the author and the context of various kind of knowledge. I genuinely worry that our increasingly interest in these kinds of projects will authorize us to overwrite the contributions of individuals. 

3. Scale and Production. My previous point being offered, I remain concerned that many of the individuals associated with the recent move toward digital practices in academic archaeology, whatever their skills and competencies, tend to be alternative academics, precarious professionals, or otherwise marginalized in the process of academic, archaeological, knowledge making. I’m not the first to observe this, of course, but I’m only now beginning to realize that standardized outputs of digital tools often work to obscure the real expertise of these individuals making it easier to marginalize them in practice and in the profession. 

Here, I’m drawing on some of the ideas that I’ve started to mess with in terms of academic work. Digital tools in archaeology require tremendous amount of skill and knowledge to manipulate. At the same time, their outputs are, in some ways, standardized. For example, maps produced by GIS software or line drawings manipulated and “inked” in Illustrator take on similar appearances, especially compared to hand-drawn maps or illustrations, even if the skill of the individual practitioner varies widely. These kinds of standardized products make an argument, through this standardization, for an industrial process of knowledge making rather than the intimate work of digital craft that often goes into producing finely tuned and nuanced analysis. In effect, the results push back into the production and argue for the marginalization of the individuals who produce industrial “data.” 

I’m sure that I’m wrong and muddled about this stuff, but how wrong can I be in six minutes?

Announcing the Publication of Volume 1 of the Epoiesen Annual!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is very excited to announce the publication of the first volume of the Epoiesen Annual. This is an annual volume based on the extraordinary new journal, Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology, edited by Shawn Graham and colleagues and hosted by the library at Carleton University in Ottawa. Check it out here.

Epoiesen (ἐποίησεν) – made – is a journal for exploring creative engagement with the past, especially through digital means. It publishes primarily what might be thought of as “paradata” or artist’s statements that accompany playful and unfamiliar forms of singing the past into existence.

What have you made? What will you make? This journal, in its online home, makes space to valorize and recognize the scholarly ways of knowing that are expressed well beyond the text. Bill White reminds us why society allows archaeologists to exist in the first place:

“it is to amplify the whispers of the past in our own unique way so they can still be heard today.”

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Download, explore, or buy it today!


For a bit of the backstory, Epoiesen is really the work of a group of dedicated and innovative collaborators, editors, and partners, as Shawn Graham himself makes clear in the introduction. The native format for the journal is on the web, but Shawn reached out to The Digital Press in the middle of last year to explore producing a hybrid, print/digital (pdf) format. The hope is that this form will appeal to readers who more comfortable with print for reading, citing, and cataloging.

The work of the Digital Press, then, was largely translation from they dynamic digital form to the more conventional print-ready format which at times was a bit tricky, as even a quick review of the PDF will show. We adopted a format that intentionally played with the tidiness of the textbook and the grid, pushing images over the boundaries and outside of lines.

The cover is itself is a vibrant piece of scholarship thanks to Gabe Moshenska’s generous decision to make his book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, free and open access. For the cover design, we listened intently to the authors, members of the editorial board, and various sundry social media commentators. It seemed fitting that the cover emerged from the very creative, digitally mediate milieu that journal itself celebrates.

Finally, this project embodies the kind of laboratory publishing that The Digital Press has pursued since Punk Archaeology appeared four years ago. So it’s particularly fitting that on the fifth anniversary of the Punk Archaeology conference, some of the same collaborators (Andrew Reinhard, for example, designed the cover for Epoiesen) returned to the scene of the crime to produce this volume.