Failing Gloriously Recognized!

It’s with great pleasure that we recognize that Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays won a Digital Humanities Award for 2019. It is fitting, of course, that it won the award for the category of “Best Exploration of DH Failure.” We’re excited to refer to this book as “award winning Failing Gloriously” and to celebrate that, once again, Shawn Graham is an “award winning author and digital humanist.” 

On the one hand, as the organizers of the DH awards acknowledge, these honors are decided, in part, by popular voting so they are a kind of digital popularity contest designed as much to raise awareness of all the great DH work going on these days as to point out interesting and potentially valuable work.

On the other hand, it is always great to get recognized. As we’ve said all along, Shawn’s book was as much a personal essay as a treatise on failure. It took a good bit of courage to write and let us publish this book. Kathleen Fitzpatrick observed as much when she said, “Sharing these stories of failure is a radical act, a generous act, one that requires a willingness to be vulnerable so that others can learn from your failures.”

We hope the by winning this award Shawn’s book get a wider audience because, as Quinn Dombrowski noted in her review of the book, “There is much more work that needs to be done, on many fronts, to encourage, support, and reduce the personal risk associated with thoughtful analyses of failure, for everyone” 

Shawn’s innovative work was also recognized in the “Best Use of Digital Humanities for Fun” category for “A Song of Scottish Publishing, 1671-189” and “Making Nerdstep Music as Archaeological Enchantment, or, How do you Connect with People Who Lived 3000 Years Ago?” with Digital Press author Andrew Reinhard and Digital Press collaborator Eric Kansa.

Download Failing Gloriously for free or grab a paperback for $9 via Amazon!

Slow Archaeology and Slow Media

This weekend, I read Jussi Parikka’s little book, The Contemporary Condition : A Slow, Contemporary Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture (Sternberg Press 2016). I had also started to think a bit about slow archaeology (again) because I had agreed to be on a panel on slow archaeology at the now-cancelled TAG conference. Finally, next month, I need to start working on a chapter that considers media archaeology for my little Archaeology of the Contemporary American Culture project. These three things sort of converged in my mind as I walked the dogs over the weekend.

These streams sort of coalesced into three proto-ideas.

First, when I first started thinking about and writing about slow, it was in response to calls for greater efficiency and speed that had become typical in digital archaeology (and in American culture more broadly). I figured that slowing down might offer a way to escape from the pressures of efficiency and automation during field work and return our attention to the things, landscapes, and experience of fieldwork.

Reading Parikka’s book, however, reminded me to think a bit more about Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence (2011). Nixon demonstrated that the idea of slow was not just an alternative to modern calls to efficiency but also could be applied to the violent results of our need for efficiency in the modern world. In this context, slow was a way to describe the process of environmental degradation, the breakdown of toxic chemicals, and the impact of these forces on the lives, in particular, of the poor. 

In this case, I started to wonder whether a slow reading of the material world would also allow us to see more clearly the slow violence of the contemporary situation.

The second thing that this brought to mind was the Alamogordo Atari excavation. It’s been over 5 years since we went to Alamogordo to watch a landfill get excavated in search for a “lost” cache of Atari games. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I learned from that experience. It seems to me that thinking about the Atari dig as an example of slow archaeology makes sense. The landfill itself slowed the decay of material preserving green grass clippings, newspapers, food, and, of course, the Atari games.

More than that, the Alamogordo landfill may have been the destination for a number of mercury-laced pigs. In 1969, Ernest Huckleby had accidentally fed some of his pigs with mercury treated grain, and his family, including his eight children and pregnant wife, at some of the pork. The results were horrific and with three of his children and a his infant son were seriously mentally impaired, rendered blind, and paralyzed. Mercury survived in the pigs which passed it onto the children where it caused havoc in their developing nervous systems. Three of the children never recovered full physical or mental function or vision. The photo of Ernestine Huckleby that appeared in National Geographic in the aftermath of this incident was gut wrenching. 

Alamogordo is also, of course, well known for being the largest town near the Trinity Test site where the atomic bomb was tested. Some 30 miles to the east of the town is the WIPP site where nuclear waste from across the US is being stored. The nuclear history of this corner of the American southwest offers another locus for both slow violence and for the attention of slow archaeology. 

(In fact, I’ve increasingly come to realize that my experiences at Alamogordo were almost a parody of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).)

Finally, I got to thinking more seriously about the source of the material in our digital devices (and for some of Parikka’s thoughts on this, I’ve begun to read his A Geology of Media (2015)). My initial thinking about a slow archaeology was as a kind reflexive practice. I wonder whether this could extend to more critical attention to the materiality of the tools that we use.

Often I think about an archaeology of archaeology which would consider the ways that archaeologists shape the landscape. For example, parts of the ancient city of Corinth are now buried beneath the backfill removed from excavating the Roman forum there. This same way of thinking, however, could extend to understanding the materiality of our digital (and analog) tools from the lithium ponds in Bolivia to rare earth mining sites in China and Australia, petroleum extraction and refining sites (for plastics) in the Middle East and the US, and various manufacturing centers with their global supply chains. It would also be valuable to think about the movement of our post-consumer and industrial waste which now is on a global scale. In short, a slow archaeology transformed into an archaeology of slow and slow violence could consider how our desire for efficiency and speed makes it all the more difficult to understand the gradual impact that our choices has on the earth. Moreover, the emergence of global supply chains which complicate the provenience of artifacts associated with archaeological knowledge making rely on the same speed that they themselves mediate. In fact, the instantaneous character of most engagements with digital tools works to obfuscate the complex processes, spatial contexts, and origins of the mediating technologies. A slow archaeology, with its attentiveness to the interplay between between archaeologists and their tools could bring some of the slow violence of contemporary society into view.  

Three Things Thursday: The Perfect, Photography, and Big Data in Archaeology

It feels like I have a ton going on right now (although I’m sure it’s not nearly as much as other people do on a daily basis!). I’m finishing a paper that I’m scheduled to give in a couple of weeks in the UK (coronavirus permitting), I’m working on a chapter for my book, and I’m getting a couple of books and a journal issue off the ground. As a result, I’m more scattered than usual. So here’s a little sampling of the things occupying my brain.

Thing the First

I’ve been meaning to write a long blog post on the recent Journal of Field Archaeology supplement on big data in archaeology. To cut to the chase: I really like it. It balances the potential of big data with some very incisive and thoughtful critiques. Jeremy Huggett’s piece continues his long standing project of a critical digital archaeology, for example, and urges archaeologists to pay more attention to the underlying structures that shape digital data. In particular, he suggests that archaeologists be more explicit in how they clean, integrate, and organize datasets from various sources. Mark McCoy’s critique of the site as an organizing concept in the effort to integrate and analyze big data at the regional or transregional scale connects how archaeologists interpret big data to one of the most basic debates in field archaeology: the definition of the site. Neha Gupta ,Sue Blair, and Ramona Nicholas discuss the rules governing big data in Canada and how these rules create challenges for indigenous communities when they seek to use, create, and control the flow of sensitive or culturally relevant data. They emphasize the role of crown copyrights in limiting access and use of data in ways that do not always work to the advantage of indigenous groups. Morag Kersel and Chad Hill demonstrate how drone imagery and the careful curation of data can link archaeologists with cultural institutions to mitigate and document illegal digging in Jordan. There are other articles, most of which I really liked, but one more deserves a little additional attention. Allison Mickel’s piece explores the relationship between big data and communities using case studies from Turkey and Jordan. The disconnect between the two and local knowledge and big data knowledge is striking in her case studies and her work – here and elsewhere – is a great reminder of the limits to our data driven world.

Thing the Second

I’ve started to read a bit about photography and archaeology. I think I had been keeping this topic at arms length because it seemed both theoretically daunting and massively complex. Yesterday, I got drawn into Lesley McFadyen and Dan Hicks’ edited volume, Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity, and Archive (Bloomsbury 2020) which sucked me in through Dan Hicks’ thoughtful and compelling discussion of time and photography in archaeology. First, he critiques Representational Archaeology which understands archaeologists as assembling persistent fragments of the past into compelling archaeological arguments and proposes a visual archaeology which emphasizes archaeology as a “complex of transformation.” Instead of archaeology assembling or revealing or producing the past, a visual archaeology recognizes the role of the archaeologist and technology in making the past visible. He’s quick to stress that this doesn’t mean making the occluded or hidden visible, but rather creating a distinct vision of the past produced through our discipline’s methods and techniques. 

This not only foregrounds the contemporaneity of the archaeologist with what they see and document (which is very much in keeping with how I’m trying to think of archaeology of the contemporary world), but also reinforces the view that photography is not a kind of documentation or a method used by archaeology, but in some ways IS archaeology as much as archaeology is documentation of the past.

Thing the Third

One of the things that I’ve worked on refining recently is the ability to apologize. As the fourth issue of North Dakota Quarterly goes into production this week, I am once again left with things that have slipped through the cracks or just aren’t quite right. I’m bummed that the issue and the process of production won’t be perfect. Many people won’t even notice the imperfections or little problems that linger. I’m not a perfectionist as any reader of this blog undoubtedly knows, but I find that my desire for the really good is much higher when I’m dealing with other people’s work.

Three Things Thursday: Digital Stuff, Underworld, NDQ

It’s been one of those weeks where nothing seems to get traction. From Monday at the keyboard to Tuesday in the classroom, Wednesday amidst articles and books, and now it’s Thursday and I have so very little to show for it. 

As a result, I’m back to doing another Three Things Thursday, which I suppose are fine for what they are, but aren’t really the kind of blog posts that I like to write. They’re just stuff, but I guess when life gives you stuff, make a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed reading Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Glenn Wharton “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility” in Public Culture 32.1 (2020), 215-245. You can read it here.

Rubio and Wharton explore the challenges associated with born-digital art. These range from questions about what exactly a museum acquires when they acquire a piece of digital art. What constitutes their exclusive rights to a work of art? The files? The technology? The hardware? And how do these exclusive rights intersect with other rights expressed by hardware, software, and even other content makers? 

More complicated still is how to preserve a work of digital art. What constitutes preservation when even updating the format of a work so that it’ll continue to function as intended constitutes changing the underlying code as well as the media in which a work is displayed or experienced (think about the demise of CRT televisions or the improvements in video projectors, the capacity to playback uncompressed audio and the like). 

Obviously this article summarizes a bunch of scholarship and they’re not the first to observe this, but, on the other hand, it’s a great piece that has implications for how we think about archaeogaming, media archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m going to check out Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (Chicago 2020) this spring.

Thing the Second

I have to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It’s super long (800+) pages and its reputation makes it pretty intimidating and I have to admit that my motivation to read it is as much because I should read it as because it will add any particular nuance to what I’m working on. 

To be more clear, Underworld is situated at the intersection of the American West, garbage, and critiques of consumer culture. My current delusion is to just commit myself to reading this book over a single week. In part, because I need a break from the grind of writing right now. I’ve been working on a chapter for the last month and for some reason writing is feels like it’s making me think deeper and deeper into my own way of thinking (rather than helping me expand how I understand something).

I also need to re-read (or finish reading) Mike Davis’s City of Quartz which is also a bit longer than I usually like to read. Retraining myself to understand the American West is hard, and for whatever reason, it’s taken my a long time to realize the writing the kind of cultural history that I want to write will involve reading broadly as well as deeply. When writing makes me sink deeper into narrow ways of thinking, I’m going to have pull back from writing to read to make sure that I don’t get too sucked into the murk of my own way of thinking. 

Thing the Third

More reading, but this isn’t as daunting. Today I posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a short story by Jim Sallis called “Scientific Method.” You should go and check it out. It’s less than 1500 words. 

What’s cool to me (being a total novice to editing a literary journal) is Sallis was first published in NDQ in 1983 and then in 1985 and in the 1990s. His essay “Making up America” from 1993 is really great too (and connects to my efforts to think about the archaeology of the contemporary American West). You can read on his site or from the NDQ archive:  “Making up America.” 

I’ve added Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels to my summer reading list. There’s something comforting about noir.

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

2020SCSProgram 2 3 pdf 2020 01 06 08 23 55

The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.

Three Quick Things on a Snowy Monday

The sound of snowblowers woke me this morning because despite everything in town being closed someone just had to remove the snow at 6 am. 

Since I’m up and at my laptop, here are a few quick things for over the new year holiday.

First, I’ve finished the paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting next week on legacy data. I struggled with this paper a good bit because I tried to wed my practical experience of working with legacy data to my somewhat underdeveloped interest in time. The results were predictably messy, but I feel instinctively like this line of thinking is heading somewhere. Here’s the paperHere’s the abstract to the paper. I’ve posted ideas (with a little help from my friends) here, here, and here and a draft here.

Second, I’ve started to do layout on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in
North Dakota, 1958–2018 edited by Kyle Conway. A few years ago, I had this idea of a “Bakken Bookshelf” which would include links to significant books on the Bakken. At the center of the “bookshelf” would be a trilogy of books: The Bakken Goes Boom, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (from our friends at NDSU Press), and, now, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust. I’d like to think that these three books – whatever their limitations – form the cornerstone for any academic engagement with the Bakken oil boom.

More than that, these three books provide a nice testimony for why regional presses matter. As far as I can tell, there has been no book length academic publications on the social conditions, history, and experience of the Bakken oil boom published outside the Northern Plains. Without NDSU Press and The Digital Press (and it’s predecessor, The University of North Dakota Press), the Bakken would have received far less scholarly attention. For a bit more on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust go here.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I took a flyer and bought a novella published by a small press, Soft Cartel Press. The book, Craig Rodger’s The Ghost of Mile 43 is bizarrely wonderful, and if you have the time to read its 80 some-odd pages, you should. The narrator writes with the stilted diction of film noire voice over (which for better or for worse, serves the plot just fine), but the descriptions of abandonment are really quite remarkable. In fact, the entire book stands more as a meditation on the abject and the archaeological than as a vehicle for a narrative (much less a plot).  

Draft of Reflowing Legacy Data from Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus

I’m trying to finish my AIA paper before the end of the week!! So, instead of blogging this morning, I’m going to write my paper and then post it when a draft is done! Here’s the abstract to the paper. I’ve posted ideas (with a little help from my friends) here, here, and here.

If you’re not into this topic, maybe you’d prefer Storey Clayton’s recent essay in the latest NDQ?

Or maybe you’d rather read a bit of Shawn Graham’s excellent new book, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays, from The Digital Press?

Here’s my AIA paper draft. It’s a bit rough and sort of ends with a whimper, but it’s just about the right length and approximately what I wanted to say. I also get to introduce the concept of Franco Harris Matrices.

I’d love comments, criticisms, or otherwise:

Reflowing Legacy Data from Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus

Legacy Data

Legacy data, like archaeology, is a renewable resource. Every technological, methodological, or practical change in archaeological practice, analysis, software, or hardware creates the potential for more legacy data just as the continuous work of depositional processes creates more archaeology.

It goes without saying, of course, that not all depositional process are considered worthy enough to create archaeology, and not all old data is legacy data. The conditions that allow for the creation of legacy data hinge on the significance of the site, our ability to access the data, the methods by which archaeologists originally produced the data sets, and, perhaps most importantly, the questions that we intend to ask of the data. When technology, access, and research interests align, we produce legacy data from the body of information collected over time that remains dead data. Dead data are forgotten while legacy data live in the present.

My paper today will reflect on my experience producing legacy as part of a team of scholars in the village of Polis tis Chrysochous in Western Cyprus where we’ve been studying the ancient site of Arsinoe which was excavated for about 20 years by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition beginning in 1984. My hope is that this paper will drawn on my experiences to define the distinct character of legacy data as part of the late modern concept of flow, and then reflect on how thinking of the flow of legacy data offers an opportunity to think a bit about archaeological time. I’ll admit from the start that things get a bit messy, but maybe that’s always the story with legacy data. It might even be part of its charm.

Polis

Since 2010, the Polis team’s attention has focused on the trench notebooks from the areas of E.F2 and E.F1 in the Polis excavation grid. These notebooks offer a guide to the excavation methods and the various deposits associated the architecture preserved at these sites. E.F2 produced an Early Christian basilicas style church, a Late Roman well-house, Roman period roads, a lamp kiln, and various earlier walls and features especially associated with water management in the area. We began to study the Polis notebooks mainly to determine the chronology of the “South Basilica” at the site and its transition from wood-roofed to barrel vaults. As our work developed, however, our research question expanded and we are now studying the smaller, apparently industrial, site of E.F1 as a window into the changing uses of the northern edge of the Late Roman city.

Narrative trench notebooks are not an uncommon form of legacy data. In fact, we were fortunate at Polis that Joanna Smith, the project’s current director, had the notebooks scanned and made available to teams in the U.S. and Cyprus. The greater challenge in the study of Polis notebooks is that excavators used a hybrid method that was not strictly stratigraphic. Excavators dug in levels and passes. The former coincided loosely to stratigraphic deposits or, just as frequently, distinct areas in the trench. The latter were either literal passes with the pick or episodes of excavation bounded by time, features, a prescribed depth, or some other distinctive character. Confusingly, passes sometimes corresponded to stratigraphic changes while in others, they did not. Excavators also allowed for multiple levels in their trench to be open at the same time disregarding a “last in, first out” approach that so often defines stratigraphic excavation. In fact, some levels could be open for virtually the entire excavation season with excavators removing deposits and defining features from time to time as workers and attention allowed.

The excavation notebooks preserved the daily excavation notes from all the active levels and passes in a trench. As a result, the description of a particular level (or even a particular pass) could appear across multiple days and notebook pages. This not only made it hard to understand the character of any single level, but also to grasp the relationship between various levels and passes. Because neither levels nor passes had to be stratigraphically defined there need not be a depositional relationship between various levels, but our ability to discern deposition in the data relies on the careful interpretation of the description of levels and passes to reveal depositional processes. From these descriptions, we produce what he affectionately called a “Franco Harris Matrix,“ after the recipient of the similarly miraculous ”immaculate reception” in the 1972 AFC playoffs.

Once we had prepared our Franco Harris Matrices, we analyzed the pottery from contexts that appeared to be defined stratigraphically and were useful for shedding light on architectural features in the various trenches. We recorded the ceramics according to the year of excavation and trench as well as the level and pass even when we were aware that the level and pass were not depositional unique. We then combined this new data with a database that recorded so-called inventoried finds, which described artifacts inventoried because they deserved more detailed descriptions, conservation, or special storage. To make this database “talk to” our analysis of context pottery required some additional recoding of the inventoried finds database. In most cases, this allowed us to produce assemblages that we could map back onto our stratigraphy, but in some cases, it demonstrated the disjunction between our stratigraphic analysis and the original recording method. For example, if the excavator only records the object by level and not by pass and we have discerned a change in depositional context within a level (say between pass 3 and 4), then this artifact fits only awkwardly within our interpretative scheme rendering it less useful in our effort to date contexts and associated architecture at the site.

Flow

Our goals in analyzing the legacy data from Polis naturally shaped the flow of data through our system. The concept of dataflow, of course, appeared in the 1990s as a term for the organization of fragmented processes in parallel computing. The more general term ”workflow” became common at about the same time to describe the sequence of processes used to produce a particular outcome. Dataflow and workflow privilege the organization of data in ways that allow them to move smoothly through networks. It is hardly surprising that social and critical theorists Deleuze and Guattari found the concept of flow emblematic of the late modern condition and symptomatic of the fluid movement of good, capital, and people that defines neoliberalism and contemporary logistics. Flow plays a distinct role in how we think about the value of data in archaeology and is central to distinguishing dead data from legacy data. As a number of critics have recently observed, data that cannot or is not (or in some cases should not) be used, can die. In fact, it seems to me that the designation of legacy data only applies to data that required adaptation to be reused. Dead data is just dead data without a legacy, and data still moving about existing workflows is just archaeological data that has acquired no legacy. To make a simple point unnecessarily complex, legacy data is data that is already adapted somehow to contemporary research. Recombining old data with new data sets involves deciding which elements of the legacy dataset links to new data or serves to address new research questions.

At Polis this process revealed certain unexpected complications. While the notebook data that we studied remained safely locked into its notebook, to make it useful for our research, we attempted to break it out of its scanned-paper prison by transcribing some of the level and pass descriptions to make it easier to understand various contexts. It soon became apparent that these transcriptions created new problems. In our effort to understand levels and passes in a depositional context, we separated them from their daily context. In an excavation where multiple contexts might be open simultaneously and that later contexts were not necessarily removed before earlier ones, understanding which contexts are open at the same time provided clues to understanding the potential for contamination between levels and passes. In other words, as we re-contextualized the levels and passes so that we could understand the depositional contexts, we also started to de-contextualize the excavation itself. This tension between the original medium and methods and our efforts to reuse the data clearly established the Polis notebooks as legacy data both in that it maintained an original context that is separate from our contemporary needs and nevertheless remains susceptible to the requirements of contemporary data flow.

Legacy Data and Time

At this point, this paper could speak to the importance of metadata and paradata in ensuring that archaeological data flows do not distort, misrepresent, or obscure the character of older data. Eric Kansa’s call for “Slow Data” as an antidote to our rush to homogenized Big Data. Instead, I’d like to explore how the concept of data encourages us to think about time in the context of digital archaeology. My tentative foray into the issue of time in digital practice is a very modest attempt to fill a lacuna in recent discussion about time in archaeology which have largely overlooked digital artifacts such as those that constitute legacy data. Moreover, it seems like legacy data is worthy of additional attention because it exists, by definition, between the past and the present.

Most of us accept that archaeology studies the past (and for simplicity’s sake I’ll exclude archaeology of the contemporary world which is not only complicated by the concept of contemporaneity, but also by the rather defuse and challenging body of theoretical literature). In other words, we tend to define the object of archaeological study as temporally and chronologically remote from archaeological work. We might also accept that the prevailing paradigm in archaeological practice is one of progress through time. After all, the journal of methods from the SAAs is called Advances in Archaeological Practice. We can, of course, acknowledge that since the mid-20th century there are any number of valid critiques of the paradigm of progress and archaeology has embraced many of these critiques. Legacy data, however, doesn’t really care about that because it requires the paradigm of progress for its definition as part of a methodological and technological past that can be adapted to present needs of our discipline. We can perhaps leave to folks like Francois Hartog to debate whether our concern for utility in the present marks a departure from a regime of historicity that emphasizes progress.

I wonder whether the flow that defines legacy data offers insights into the move from one temporal state – that archaeological past – to another – our present research goals and questions – while still complicating views of archaeological methodology that privilege progress. The temporal fluidity of legacy data which require it to be both past and present simultaneously reflects an obscure quality present in most archaeology. In this way, it echoes the view of archaeology advanced by Laurent Olivier in his The Dark Abyss of Time. The interplay between the past and the present in the Polis notebook data, for example, shares Olivier’s (and others’) recognition that the irreducible character inherent in the materiality of the data as notebook pages and underscores how this burden makes any translation and transformation incomplete and problematic. The flow of legacy data, then, is not just toward the present, but toward the past as well.

In this way, legacy data shares an important temporal character with the objects and monuments at the center of debates over archaeological heritage, conservation, and repatriation. In many ways, legacy data invites us to engage fully with more than just the past as the object of archaeological study or the ostensible progress of archaeological methods, practices, and technology. Legacy data as both in the past and present, shares an ethical time with calls for repatriation which emphasizes the flow of objects from the deep past of archaeology, through various colonial, commercial, or other encounters, to the contemporary space nations-states and communities. As a post-colonial gesture, repatriation is not about restoring a past that has been somehow disrupted or disturbed, but about recognizing the flow between past and present as an inherent feature of the repatriated artifact.

Perhaps the similarity between legacy data and repatriated artifacts allows us to think about the study of legacy data as a kind of ethical opportunity. By reflecting on the past and the present as a flow and recognizing this flow as what constitutes legacy data as well as the complex issues surrounding heritage, we can witness first hand how archaeological knowledge can exists only in the continuous negotiation between the past and the present.

Legacy Data, Digital Heritage, and Time: A Response

My old pal Andrew Reinhard of the American Numismatic Society and a PhD candidate at the University of York kindly agreed to comment on my post from yesterday. Because he interwove his responses to my original post, I thought it would just be easier to repost yesterday’s post with his comments included. His comments are in italics.

Over the last couple of weeks, I continue to think about the role of legacy data in archaeology. This is for a paper that I’ll give next month at the annual Archaeological Institute of America. I’ve started to work through my ideas here and here.

At first, I imagined that I’d give a fairly routine paper that focused on my work with notebooks at the Princeton Cyprus Expedition at Polis on Cyprus. As readers of this blog know, a small team of us have worked to analyze over 20 years of excavations at Polis and to move the data from a largely analogue, notebook system, to a relational database that we can query. This has not only allowed us to understand the relationship between the excavation, ceramic assemblages, and architecture, but also moved us toward a secondary goal of publishing the data from Polis.

This is something similar to what the American Numismatic Society has done with the notebooks of E. T. Newell. We have the printed notebooks, they have been scanned and tagged, are available as open access to the public, and give us insight into the first Golden Age of numismatics, both the people and the artifacts and related context. The trick is doing a third step: publishing what we’ve learned. We can do all of this cool, useful stuff post-digitization, but the results must be published both digitally and in print. More about the necessity of the analogue below.

At the same time that I was working on this stuff, I was also continuing to think about time and archaeology and reading some recent works including Marek Tamm and Laurent Olivier’s Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism (2019) as well as some turn of the century works like F. Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2015). These works consider the changing nature of time and heritage in archaeology and argue that emergence of the contemporary “heritage industry” particularly after 1989 (and September 2001) demonstrates a changing notion of time in which heritage largely serves the various needs of the present. This contrasts to an earlier regime of time which emphasized the past as evidence for progress into the future.

I’m coming at the issue of heritage-time from looking at active software use. Classical civilizations found the archaeologist thousands of years removed from acts of creation, use, modification, discard, and destruction. Digital archaeologists find themselves watching as digital landscapes, sites, and artifacts undergo those stages over the course of an hour, often less. The notion of digital time is so absurd that we must observe it at the quantum level, understanding that Deep Time happens concurrently with things occurring literally at the speed of light. How are archaeologists equipped to handle an archaeology of the immediate? This issue is not limited to digital data, but also to anything that is mass-produced. The speed of waste now when compared to what it was 2,000 years ago is logarithmic. Archaeologists are yet not able to keep pace

It was interesting that the Tamm and Olivier book includes no sustained discussion of how the changing regimes of time influence the use of digital tools in archaeological practice.

I think it’s important to mention here that I see “digital archaeology” as having two major threads that are not independent of each other: 1) digital archaeology is archaeological investigation of anything facilitated by the use of digital tools, and 2) digital archaeology is the archaeological investigation of digital things, which can include, but is not limited to synthetic worlds, software of any kind, and the firmware, middleware, and hardware used to create, distribute, and allow access to those digital spaces.

This is all the more striking because the Hartog’s change in the nature of the past maps loosely onto our embrace of digital technology to facilitate to documentation and analysis of archaeological field work. One might argue that older techniques of documentation with their dependence on paper sought to create an archive that was designed as much for the future as for the present. We anticipated more sophisticated ways of analyzing our work and sought to document our practices, methods, and assumptions as carefully as possible. The practice of carefully archiving one’s field notes – typically on site – was fundamental to our notion of responsible excavation.

It shouldn’t matter why archaeological documentation is created, only that it is. At the point of its creation, archaeological documentation is of its own time, which can tell future researchers a bit about the conditions of the creation of the interpretation of archaeological data. Archaeological documentation, while of its own time, is also of all time, that is to say that it occupies past, present, and future all at once. Researchers at the initial point of interpretation will author documentation with conscious or unconscious political, social, and economic bias as they work to answer their research questions. They need to bear in mind, however, that while this interpretation is important in the present about the present and the past, that their interpretation will not be the only one. They will not have thought of all of the research questions. They will miss things in the data that only temporal distance from the project’s “conclusion” can yield. Ideally data should be agnostic and amoral, but data are anything but. Archaeologists can, however, write for the present knowing that future generations will revise the work and there’s nothing to be done about it.

More recently, digital tools become a key component to documenting field work. Archaeologists have produced what Andy Bevin has called a “digital deluge” of data from our surveys, excavations, and research projects. The need to archive this data has remained significant, but, at the same time, there’s a growing quantity of “legacy data” that past projects have accrued. The concept of legacy data demonstrates an immediate awareness of the division between past data practices (whether digital or not) and contemporary needs. The expanding discourse on data preservation practices, archival format, and “best practices,” “standards” and meta-data traces our anxieties in the face of rapidly changing technologies and protocols. The fear, I’d suggest, is less about the future of our data and more about its present utility. This follows the increasingly blurred line between the archiving of data and its publication. The potential for re-use in the present has shaped much of the conversation about legacy data. 

All data are legacy data, which includes data created and interpreted today. Any data “preserved” digitally are fugitive. Databases serve the purpose of now, one year from now, and maybe ten years from now. I remember talking to Sebastian Heath about the future of filetypes. Should we be concerned about what types of files we use for data entry, for publication? His opinion (and this was several year ago and might have changed, but I agree with him now and still) was that it didn’t really matter. If we want to access a legacy filetype badly enough, we’ll find a way. But ultimately this all depends on persistent electricity, internet, the “cloud”, and functioning hardware. All are doomed in the long view. So what are we going to do about it? I’d suggest paper versions of record. Super-engraved blocks of permanent material that will outlive every server farm? But then, if data ever survive that long, will future humans and non-humans (including A.I. entities) care? I don’t think it matters. It’s the moral obligation of the archaeologist to record, interpret, publish, and preserve data from any given project with as much care as possible on the unlikely chance that someone 100 years from now will return to it and be able to do something useful with it.

Legacy data, however, is about more than just reuse in the present. In fact, the formats, tools, and technologies that made data collected in the past useful in the past remain a key element to understanding how digital data came to be, how it was encountered, and how it was interpreted. The details about data how a project produced or collected – or the paradata – remain significant, but more than that, the technologies used to produce, store, and analyze data in the past are fundamental to understanding archaeological practice.

I find myself waiting for the publication of the historiography of 21st-century archaeological method and practice, but published in 2020, and not at the end of the century. Such an omnibus publication would surely advance the state of the discipline, prompting conversations about “best practices,” although what’s best for one type of practice might not be best for another kind.

Scholars of video games, of course, already know this. Rainford Guins in Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) for example, has considered the role of the arcade, the video game cabinet, the art present in a video game cartridge, and the design of the video game console as well as its place in the home. For Guins the game code is just part of the video game as a cultural artifact. He documents the challenges associated with preserving vintage arcade games and the balance between allowing the games to be played and the wear and tear of regular use on cabinets, controllers, and increasingly irreplaceable CRT monitors. The impulse to preserve “legacy games,” if you will, allows us to make sense of these objects as complex cultural artifacts rather than simply vessels for digital code. 

I think video game archaeologists (myself included) continue to fetishize the artifact over its context, and that needs to change, perhaps decentralizing the role of the game itself and instead placing it within a ring-of-context: what forces caused this game to be created, and where does the game slot in with everything else that’s happening at the point of its creation. We study the game-artifact as a way of participating in the greater knowledge-making of the past 50 years.

In an archaeological context, then, legacy data is about more than the code or the digital objects, but also about the range of media, technologies, tools, and practices that made this data possible. Our interest in the utility of digital data risks reducing digital heritage to an evaluation of present utility. If, as Roosevelt et al. famously quipped “Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice,” we might also argue that our modern impulse to digitize or adapt legacy data is a destructive practice, “Digitization is Destruction.”

I don’t think so largely because in most(?) cases, the artifact or site once digitized still exists in its analogue form. Lots of copies keep stuff safe, so as long as copies of data are kept and openly distributed at the point of their creation, we theoretically should have “originals” floating around even as other copies are ported forward to other formats for contemporary use.

This isn’t to suggest that we stop engaging legacy data as important sources of archaeological information or that we only engage it using 30 year old IBM PC with a SCSY port Zip drive. Instead, I’m suggesting that our approach to legacy data gives us a useful way to reflect on the changing notion of time in archaeological practice and perhaps even speaks to the complicated relationship between archaeology and heritage practices. 

 

True, but I worry about the speed at which the recent past creates massive piles of stuff for archaeologists to inherit and inhabit. This “data deluge” can be sanely managed through the use of bucket cores as an analogy for the  sampling of data flows. For example, a game I am studying (Death Stranding) contains human-created items (signs, towers, roads, etc.) that are created and destroyed several times an hour. The archaeologist would need to sit at the screen 24/7/365 to record all that is happening. Now, over time, the same events happen in the same places, although with subtly different placements, volume of creation, and names of creators. Is it necessary for the archaeologist to mine all of the data all of the time, or, in the case of human-occupied digital environments, can one take a sample every day, week, or month, and be satisfied that the sample is representative? I think so, but in doing so we might miss out on those anomalies—a day of no creation, or a day of the creation of something odd/funny. Perhaps by sampling data often over a very long period of time, those anomalies will appear just as part of standard sampling. The only way to find out is to try.

Legacy Data, Digital Heritage, and Time

Over the last couple of weeks, I continue to think about the role of legacy data in archaeology. This is for a paper that I’ll give next month at the annual Archaeological Institute of America. I’ve started to work through my ideas here and here.

At first, I imagined that I’d give a fairly routine paper that focused on my work with notebooks at the Princeton Cyprus Expedition at Polis on Cyprus. As readers of this blog know, a small team of us have worked to analyze over 20 years of excavations at Polis and to move the data from a largely analogue, notebook system, to a relational database that we can query. This has not only allowed us to understand the relationship between the excavation, ceramic assemblages, and architecture, but also moved us toward a secondary goal of publishing the data from Polis.

At the same time that I was working on this stuff, I was also continuing to think about time and archaeology and reading some recent works including Marek Tamm and Laurent Olivier’s Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism (2019) as well as some turn of the century works like F. Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2015). These works consider the changing nature of time and heritage in archaeology and argue that emergence of the contemporary “heritage industry” particularly after 1989 (and September 2001) demonstrates a changing notion of time in which heritage largely serves the various needs of the present. This contrasts to an earlier regime of time which emphasized the past as evidence for progress into the future. It was interesting that the Tamm and Olivier book includes no sustained discussion of how the changing regimes of time influence the use of digital tools in archaeological practice.

This is all the more striking because the Hartog’s change in the nature of the past maps loosely onto our embrace of digital technology to facilitate to documentation and analysis of archaeological field work. One might argue that older techniques of documentation with their dependence on paper sought to create an archive that was designed as much for the future as for the present. We anticipated more sophisticated ways of analyzing our work and sought to document our practices, methods, and assumptions as carefully as possible. The practice of carefully archiving one’s field notes – typically on site – was fundamental to our notion of responsible excavation.

More recently, digital tools become a key component to documenting field work. Archaeologists have produced what Andy Bevin has called a “digital deluge” of data from our surveys, excavations, and research projects. The need to archive this data has remained significant, but, at the same time, there’s a growing quantity of “legacy data” that past projects have accrued. The concept of legacy data demonstrates an immediate awareness of the division between past data practices (whether digital or not) and contemporary needs. The expanding discourse on data preservation practices, archival format, and “best practices,” “standards” and meta-data traces our anxieties in the face of rapidly changing technologies and protocols. The fear, I’d suggest, is less about the future of our data and more about its present utility. This follows the increasingly blurred line between the archiving of data and its publication. The potential for re-use in the present has shaped much of the conversation about legacy data.

Legacy data, however, is about more than just reuse in the present. In fact, the formats, tools, and technologies that made data collected in the past useful in the past remain a key element to understanding how digital data came to be, how it was encountered, and how it was interpreted. The details about data how a project produced or collected – or the paradata – remain significant, but more than that, the technologies used to produce, store, and analyze data in the past are fundamental to understanding archaeological practice.

Scholars of video games, of course, already know this. Rainford Guins in Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) for example, has considered the role of the arcade, the video game cabinet, the art present in a video game cartridge, and the design of the video game console as well as its place in the home. For Guins the game code is just part of the video game as a cultural artifact. He documents the challenges associated with preserving vintage arcade games and the balance between allowing the games to be played and the wear and tear of regular use on cabinets, controllers, and increasingly irreplaceable CRT monitors. The impulse to preserve “legacy games,” if you will, allows us to make sense of these objects as complex cultural artifacts rather than simply vessels for digital code.

In an archaeological context, then, legacy data is about more than the code or the digital objects, but also about the range of media, technologies, tools, and practices that made this data possible. Our interest in the utility of digital data risks reducing digital heritage to an evaluation of present utility. If, as Roosevelt et al. famously quipped “Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice,” we might also argue that our modern impulse to digitize or adapt legacy data is a destructive practice, “Digitization is Destruction.”

This isn’t to suggest that we stop engaging legacy data as important sources of archaeological information or that we only engage it using 30 year old IBM PC with a SCSY port Zip drive. Instead, I’m suggesting that our approach to legacy data gives us a useful way to reflect on the changing notion of time in archaeological practice and perhaps even speaks to the complicated relationship between archaeology and heritage practices.