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 What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically.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.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last week or two, I’ve been trying to figure out a paper for a panel at the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona in September. The panel is titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies” and the abstract looks for papers that: 

“… evaluate the growing paradigm of digital archaeology from an ontological point of view, showcase the ways digital technologies are being applied in archaeological practice—in the field/lab/studio/classroom—in order to critically engage with the range of questions about past people and worlds into which digital media give us new insights and avenues of approach.”

It’ll be a good panel and the folks proposing it are both cutting edge and super smart.

Obviously, this is something that deeply interests me, but it also has demoralized me in some ways. Whenever I read the latest paper on the use of digital tools, technologies, and practices in the field, I feel a bit anxiety. The language geared toward efficiency, accuracy, precision, and seamlessness in archaeological work doesn’t make me happy and to think that the archaeology of the future will be better, that the knowledge that we produce will be better, that the discipline that defines us will be better, and that the society that we inhabit will be better. I don’t like the feeling that – to paraphrase any number of recent dystopian science-fiction plots: “humanity is a bug” and technology is the solution.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care.

I’m not sure that humanity is a problem to solve and challenge to overcome and somewhat is begging to be enhanced, augmented, or virtualized. I actually like just normal reality. I don’t really want to click here to save everything. I’m not comfortable with the idea that symmetrical archaeology requires symmetrical practice, and I don’t enjoy the realization that the varied abilities of humans are affordances that constrain the functioning of tools.

I’m not saying that we don’t all need a little BLOCKCHAIN in our lives or that I haven’t adapted to the keyboard on my space-grey MacBook Pro. I mean, I wear and Apple Watch and it has nudged me to exercise more regularly. I used a drone to map a hilltop fortification this summer in probably 20% of the time that even a bad conventional survey map would take. I now stream cricket, the NBA, television shows, movies, and most importantly for me, music. Running my high-resolution, streamed music through a vacuum tube amplifier that drives full-range, paper drivers makes me feel a little better, but only because it obscures how deeply embedded I am in the internet of things. I mean, I think my dogs are real. I’m pretty sure. I’ve asked them repeatedly if they dream of electric squirrels. The bigger, yellow dog, just tilts his head.

What also causes me anxiety is that technology is also a problem to solve. Perfect music forever has become high resolution audio has become high definition audio has become vinyl spinning on turntables. The portable digital document in portable document format has become obsolete in the age of linked, machine readable data. Text mining offers ways to strip meaning from the tangled clutter of language or to strip language from the page or mine meaning from the ore of style or something. Mountains of text are now laid low, but the slag heaps of un-mineable documents threaten to bury the town. The codex discarded on a riverbank becomes an object rather than a source.

In fact, everything is an object now. We catalogue objects, collect objects, objects become database objects, objects orient toward ontologies. Things fall into line or create lines or become lines or push us to fall into line. Sometimes, I feel like I just can’t deal with it all.

And all the while, the churning hum of technology of data of objects pushes us people – symmetrically – to become data too. Uberfication. Archeology isn’t about the past. It’s not about people. It’s not about societies or buildings or art or identity or even the archaeologist. It is about data. Archaeology is a data problem to be solved. Uber is really a data analysis company. So is archaeology these days. 

To be clear, I’m part of the problem. I use the word workflow, I’ve talked about data, I’ve thought about blockchain (but not really), and I’ve even considered efficiency and inefficiency as metrics to evaluate practice. Even if I admit that good practices are inefficient, the friction in the system contributes energy to creativity. Industrial and post-industrial metaphors saturate my prose and introduce seams to the smooth contours of experienced reality.

Maybe it makes sense. After all, books have pages. Archaeology is a discipline born from industrial practices. Schliemann was an industrialist. The tools of the industrial and the post-industrial revolution – the railway, the assembly line, specialization, the manager, the spreadsheet, the database – have coevolved (and it been compounded by the university). It’s hardly surprising that archaeology is post-industrial these days and data driven. 

Even craft and slow and punk these days stands apart more and more as a response or a reaction. Craft beer isn’t less manufactured somehow and mechanical watches use silicon balance springs and were designed in AutoCad and 3D printed. Vacuum tube amplifiers have integrated circuits to balance the tubes.  Vinyl records are produced from digital masters. Craft and slow are an affect. There is no outside the digital.

Anyway, I’m spiraling now. I’m going to give a paper in September and it’s going to try to say some of these things in a way that embodies my very human anxiety. Digitally mediated anxiety. Craft anxiety. Intentionally imperfect to remind us that perfect data forever used to not be a thing.

Philip K. Dick, Memory, and Managing Utopian Data in Archaeology

With some kind of winter superstorm barreling up the I95 corridor, I’m skeptical that I’ll make to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston to present a paper at 8 am on Friday in a panel on “Probing, Publishing, and Promoting the Use of Digital Archaeological Data.” (Here’s the program, but there’s no way to link to the specific panel.)

I’ve been tasked with speaking to the “ways and means of managing digital data in archaeology” and I think I have something to say about that, but only a weird, Philip K. Dick kind of way. For more on my interest in Philip K. Dick and archaeology go here and do check out Andrew Reinhard’s more comprehensive consideration of the most recent Blade Runner.

So here’s the short, 5-minute paper that it seems unlikely that I will deliver on Friday: 

Last week I saw the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which, as you know, was based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both Scott’s film (and the reboot directed by a less subtle Denis Villeneuve) and Dick’s novel, played with the ideas of memory, materiality, and reality in a dystopian future. These are common themes in Dick’s works which, as a number of commentators have recently observed, have an explicitly archaeological character to them that anticipated the current fascination with the so-called “new materialisms.” He is also interested in memories and the challenge (and impossibility) of parsing false memories from the real.

(And here the Villeneuve’s version of Dick differs from Scott’s. In Villeneuve’s film, the replicant Blade Runner knows that his memories are fake implants but acts on them because they represent someone else’s authentic reality, whereas Scott’s Deckard is never really sure and acts on the memories because they are nevertheless HIS irrespective of their broader place within a shared reality.)

In some ways, managing digital archaeological data is like managing memories. Without trivializing a century worth of archaeological theorizing and epistemology (and here I’ll tip my hat to Adam Rabinowitz and Sarah and Eric Kansas who have written with more perspective on these topics), I think most archaeologists realize that digital data is not (and never will be) the same as archaeological objects, excavation, field survey or landscapes. Instead, they offer us a way to reconstruct a practical and useful memory of the field work that forms the basis for archaeological interpretation. Looking hard at data especially in anticipation of analysis and publication, however, almost always reveals the shortcomings of data as ubiquitous “total recall.” In fact, even the most granular, tidy, and even realistic digital data offers us a view of archaeology through “a scanner darkly.”   

In other words, the hard scrutiny associated with producing “slow data” (to use Eric Kansa’s phase) opens up a dystopian, or perhaps better heterotopian, world where the archaeologist is constantly sensing a glitch between the nature of our data and its utility for the kind of analysis and interpretation that we want to perform (or in a more Dickian turn, the reality that we want to create). This sense of glitching is rarely more clear than in the horrors of running finds and excavation data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus through Google’s open refine and finding all sort of un-normalized and even un-normalizable fields to recognizing the limits of our data when attempting to analysis the Medieval period from a field survey over 30 sq. km of the Western Argolid and recorded by nearly 20 different field teams over 3 years. Reading notebooks from the 1980s and 1990s excavations at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus and converting this unstructured information in queryable and generalizable field and tables compounds the feeling of glitching further.

This experience is, as Dick captures so vividly, as uncomfortable as it is uncanny. While neat tables, graphs, maps, and statistics offer one way to suppress the feeling of discontinuity, those of us cross over from the field, into the lab, and, then, in our offices managing this data are rarely spared this relief for long. I’ll leave it to other people on this panel to speculate on whether this uncanniness and discomfort contributes to the reluctance of some archaeologists to publish their data or whether it aligns in neat parallel with the unease that many of us feel when we move from our data – our codified memories of the field – to analysis in an effort to bridge the so-called “broken tradition” between the present and the past.

Of course, the presentation of archaeological evidence – even in its most conventional forms – has always required a willingness to construct memories of the field and filter the rough and ready documentation from notebooks, photographs, plans and drawings and forms into the elegant refinement of published catalogues and descriptions. I wonder, though, whether the ability to collect digital data at the edge of the trowel or transect and the growing expectation that this data will be published generates an additional burden for those of us tasked with mediating between the collective experience of archaeological fieldwork and the end-user, consumer, or fellow scholar, who may expect to enter into that space for themselves and transcend the uncanniness to “remember it wholesale.”

Dick’s dystopian fantasies are hardly a reassuring lens through which to view our archaeological future, but I wonder whether they do speak to some of our anxieties about digital data recording (note my slow archaeology in Averett, Gordon, and Count’s Mobilizing the Past), digital data management, data publishing, 3D reconstructions, and the endless panels on digital approaches, strategies, and best practices. As America becomes increasingly anxious about the specter of “fake news” and systematic campaigns of mis- and disinformation, perhaps it’s worth considering whether some of this anxiety comes not from our fear of being tricked or misinformed, but our own gnawing insecurity when faced with the task of navigating the glitchy experience of managing the data of our own memories.

Publishing Projects at The Digital Press

I’ve spent a good bit of time this week working on projects for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and just this morning another project appeared in my inbox. These are interesting times both for The Digital Press and digital and academic publishing.

This post today is more of an update on what’s going on at The Digital Press and some broader – and perhaps speculative – thoughts on digital publishing. For more like this, and other voices, do come to our panel at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting on Friday, January 

Project One

First, just yesterday I sent off the galley proofs of volume one of Epoiesen to its editor Shawn Graham. Epoiesen is “a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology” and having spent time with the content of its first volume, I was struck by how there really isn’t anything like it in the contemporary landscape. The articles and their response range in tone from the playful to the polished and professional and captured a wide range of ways of thinking about and engaging the past from public outreach to Twine games. Do check it out here and consider submitting in 2018!

One of the challenges with publishing such a unique journal is getting the tone right in the design and layout. For the pages of the book – as I blogged about last week – I decided to stick with a fairly conservative, if modern, font, but also layout images in such a way that they encroached on the margins and spilled over toward the edge of the page. While this worked well for conventional articles that combine text and images, I’m not sure that I’ve managed to capture the spirit of more complex, hybrid articles that involve Twine games or integrate marginal comments in into a cohesive critique. Rendering this kind of hybridity on a page and then in paper remains a challenge!

Another challenge is the cover. As my old friend Andrew Reinhard opined on Twitter yesterday, “If I see one more sober journal cover, I will vomit.” To some extent, he was responding to my proposed cover:

Epoiesen 1Cover2 01

In my defense, I designed a relatively conservative cover to communicate the seriousness of the project and to offer a bit of contrast to the sometimes playful (but not unthoughtful) content. Andrew’s take was a bit different and suggested wearing the playfulness of the journal on its sleeve. He offered a few versions, but this one was the most appealing to me, in part, because of Gabe Moshenska’s clever graphic, and in part because it is conventional enough to be recognizable as a journal cover, but also unorthodox enough to be interesting.

Adreinhard 2017 Dec 26

(As an aside, if you haven’t already, you really should download Gabe Moshenska’s free, open access, book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, published earlier this year by University College London.)

I’m not entirely sold on the more casual cover, but I’m open to advisement (and the editorial board of Epoiesen has been asked as well!).

Project Two

I’m working with a pair of outstanding editors to publish the papers from a pair of panels from last year’s Archaeological Institute of America meeting on abandoned villages (you can check out the paper here). As part of that panel, my long-time friend and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I gave a paper on the site of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia. Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I collaborated on paper focusing on Wheelock, North Dakota in the Bakken. Both papers drew upon a rich photographic archive as the basis for our analysis and as the primary method of documentation. 

Due to changes in hosting policies here at UND, I’ve lost my server space (or, more properly, it became prohibitively expensive), and as a result, our online presentation of Lakka Skoutara images is no longer available. This is a bummer for many reasons, but the extent of it being a bummer was made clear when I investigated my options for producing a comprehensive archive of the Lakka Skoutara material and discovered how expensive it would be. One of the suggestions that Frank McManamon from tDAR made was that I compile the photographs and other documentation in a .pdf (or even a print-on-demand book) and then put that in an archival repository (like tDAR, an institutional repository, or even just the Internet Archive).

While I recognize that this is not an optimal solution for many reasons. PDFs are not machine readable in a proper sense and the images would likely not have all the metadata that individual files in an archive would have. That being said, there’s something important about making a smallish archive (and Lakka Skoutara is fewer than 650 images) accessible to the human eye and compiling that visual data (and any attendant text) together in a single document. At the same time, a PDF can be accessioned by a library, is inherently portable, and is easy enough to produce and archive. So it is a usable solution.

My idea is to include a couple expanded archives as digital downloads with the abandoned villages volume. They’d be set up on a template so fairly easy to design, lay out, and produce.

Project Three

I’m also working with Kyle Conway on a republication of the 1958 Williston Report with expanded content and up-to-date analysis. This is part of the “Bakken Bookshelf” project. 

This project has a few challenges and the largest of these is whether to preserve the original pagination for the Williston Report. And, if I do repaginate it, how do I mark out the original Williston Report text from our updated chapters? Do we use complementary fonts with a serif-ed font marking the Williston Report and a sans serif font marking the newer contributions?

Stay tuned for more on this project over the next few months.

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What’s the Matter with Digital Humanities?

Last week an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Timothy Brennan created a good bit of buzz in my social media world. The author declares, after a bit of muddled argument, that digital humanities is largely bust after carefully setting aside certain common digital tools like the “Moodles” and podcasts. In short, he suggests that DH has not lived up to the hype or realized the promised revolution, instead producing works that are more overstatement than substance.  

Whatever the merits of Brennan’s article, it suffers from a rather narrow reading of digital humanities (in which it recognizes “the Moddles” and not, say, Wikipedia, and lots of digital text projects and not as much attention to the use of digital tools in spatial analysis, “maker culture,” history, or archaeology) and probably a less than critical understanding of certain generic conventions in DH texts, like a penchant for overstatement, that the author should have recognized as part of a both historical and transdisciplinary trends in how we talk about technology. In other words, Brennan’s article is both overly narrow and not particularly deep in its reading of DH. 

At the same time, I did feel like the article did reflect a certain anxiety among people like me who hang around at the fringes of the DH movement, and I found some of the push back against it disconcerting. Brennan’s article is flawed, to be sure, but understand why this kind of article (and I’d group it with the better argued, but no less controversial article last year in the LARB) appears from time to time. I think there are five or six things.

1. DH and Analogue H. For the last 15 years or so, there has been a kind of rhetorical tension between DH and Analogue humanities. While both sides will agree that their larger goals are the same as are their methods, DH practice remains distinctive and it is often presented as the cutting edge alternative to the tired tradition of analogue or conventional humanities. Some of this comes from university administrators eager to demonstrate that even the hide-bound humanities have embraced technologies, and some of it comes from the humanities itself when DH projects have sought to distinguish their practices from convention in order to attract funding. Of course, it’s easy for those of us in the murky marshes between the digital and analogue conventions in our field to dismiss those inclined to divide the humanities into two types. This tendency from DH to take on the mantle of innovators and for this to divide digital from conventional humanities practices is a source of anxiety.

2. Institutional Narratives. At least some of this divisiveness derives from institutional narratives that seek to promote digital humanities as a high-tech alternative to traditional methods and humanities. This is tied to an effort to promote institutions as hotbeds of innovation and to celebrate breakthrough discoveries as evidence for their place on the cutting edge. In this way, it coincides with large trends in how the media, higher education, and national agencies have positioned cutting-edge humanities research as exciting, revolutionary, and oriented toward results rather than practices. Embodied in TED talks, idea summits, and various other high-profile gatherings or celebrations of the humanities elite, this result-oriented view of the humanities tends to run counter to the slow, incremental, process oriented slogging that makes up much humanities work. For every sensational TED-style presentation and discovery touting new technology, there are hundreds of hours and thousands of researchers slowly reading, thinking, teaching, and writing in traditional ways that are overlooked in the rush to the next idea festival or DH sensation. While a generous reading of this celebration of innovation imagines that it’ll raise all ships in the humanities, the reality is that the academy is an increasingly competitive place which competition for ever scarcer resources and support defining the relationship between and within units. When DH “wins” because it fits into the kind of sensational narratives promoted by universities, conventional humanities are positioned as losers, whether this is true or not.

3. The Rise of Technological Solutionism. I think some of the tension between DH approaches and conventional humanities comes from a tendency to conflate the practices of the traditional humanities with problems to be solved. Again, I’m not saying that this is a real tendency among digital humanities who obviously recognize the value of, say, slow reading of a body of text or the walking of the landscape, but the time consuming nature of these conventional practices tend to stand out in a world that celebrates speed, efficiency, and acceleration. Technology is frequently the solution to the problem of slow and deliberate research, just as “big data” has become “the solution” to narrow academic specialization It is easy enough to dismiss this kind of academic Taylorism as a red herring for the value of DH just as advocates of BIG DATA have stressed that our ability to process massive and complex datasets does not necessitate their creation. At the same time, there is a tendency to speed as solution to the “problem” of deliberate thinking with an eye toward break throughs and results that overshadow the value of process. This fits into institutional narratives of continuous improvement with speed being an easy to grasp and useful measure of success and reinforces the caricature of the plodding humanist toiling of his or her “life’s work.”

4. Technology and Corporate Influence. The landscape of corporate interest in Digital Humanities is difficult to parse and confusing. On the one hand, many of us cringe at the idea that we’re preparing our students in the humanities for lucrative middle-management careers using their digital skills in the corporate world. At the same time, it is hard to understate the importance of employment for students students who have taken on massive loans to pursue higher education and who fear that that their passion for texts and humanistic inquiry will lead them to life of penury. Digital humanities appears to some as the best of both worlds (or a problematic compromise) between skill-based education and practices of humanistic inquiry that seek to cultivate the whole person for a lifetime.

On the other hand, digital humanities has long been tangled with corporate interests that extends from support from digital giants like Google to the use of social networks for community building and the wide-spread adoption of for-profit technology in our daily work. In some ways, of course, this is unaided in the contemporary world and we can thank thoughtful DH scholars for pointing out the inconsistencies in our attitudes and practices. These inconsistencies, however, do lead to confusion and compromise that can produce a palpable frustration among scholars who look to DH practitioners for guidance in the murky world of technology and corporate/college interaction.

5. Uneven distribution of DH rewards. I think some of the anxiety felt by non-DH scholars is that many of us WANT to be more deeply involved in the digital humanities, but the promise of more egalitarian and even distributed of DH technologies, appears to be oversold. The difference between access to support and technology at well-heeled liberal arts colleges and major state universities and smaller and less wealthy second and third tier schools is more dramatic than many DH practitioners suspect. While this unevenness can easily be dismissed as no more dramatic than the unevenness of other resources and exceptions abound, I’d contend that the division between lower-tier universities as consumers of open digital humanities projects and higher-tier schools as producers will only become more dramatic despite the institutional rhetoric that celebrates innovation. This irony probably accounts for some of the most palpable frustration at the most elaborate pronouncements of DH utopianism. 

The point of this rather lengthy response is not to give Brennan too much credit for his somewhat muddled article, to blame DH for current in higher education that are far beyond the control of a relatively small group of scholars or to take any credit away from scholars who have done meaningful and in some cases sensational research using digital tools. Instead, I am trying to articulate my own frustration as an outsider to many of the cutting-edge digital practices in the fields of history and archaeology and trying to anchor it in certain discursive trends rather than the complicated realities of humanities research and their significance and impacts. For a more thoughtful critique of Brennan’s article, do check out Sarah Bond’s response