Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age

This weekend’s IEMA conference, Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age, was pretty great and thought provoking. I thought I might share some of my impressions of the papers and the general themes of the conference. The papers were universally remarkable and, in some ways, it’s going to take me a long time to digest the entire conference, but I wanted to offer some preliminary thoughts while the papers (and my notes) were fresh in my mind.

So here are five thoughts on the IEMA conference. Most of them overlap in some way.

1. Social and Digital Practice. Four years ago, a group of digitally minded archaeologists got together for the Mobilizing the Past conference in Boston. The conference started with a keynote talk by John Wallrodt who was a pioneer in implementing digital tools, at scale, in the field (you can read his paper here as a pdf) and concluded with a talk from Bernie Frischer whose Rome Reborn project represented a landmark in the large-scale use of 3D modeling to create an immersive experience of Ancient Rome. You can get a sense for that conference in the published volume that came out of that event.

You can compare the two programs here and here or through the visualizations below:

MtPMobilizing the Past program. (You can see it better here).

IEMACritical Archaeology in the Digital Age (You can see it better here).

In many ways, if you extended a line between the two talks at Mobilizing the Past and traced its trajectory, it would continue through the IEMA conference, despite the explicitly different themes and modest overlap of participants. While “data” remains prominent in both visualization, the MtP cloud shows a prominent emphasis on “recording” whereas IEMA shows “research,” MtP shows “collection” and IEMA shows “social,” and MtP shows “mobile” and IEMA “media.” I recognize, of course, that the two conferences had different emphasis, but I would also suggest that the difference in emphasis reflects the changing priorities in digital archaeology. 

As we conclude the second decade of the 21st century, digital archaeology has become far more invested in the social outcomes, impacts, and potential of digital practices both in the field and as part of the larger discipline.    

2. Affective Archaeology. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to really think about how affect impacts how we know the world. I had recognized, of course, emotional and intellectual response to a spectacular view, the rush at an unexpected discovery, or the simple physicality of space, an object, or moving through a landscape, but this had always represented a bonus experience to be neatly cordoned off from the “real work” of data collecting and description.

Even my understanding of slow archaeology emphasized not the affective aspect of archaeological work but the patient attention to details and change. After hearing a number of talks at this weekend’s conference, I realize that this was a significant oversight on my part. In fact, it hadn’t dawned on me that some of the excitement and learning that took place during the Wesley College Documentation Project was not because of my brilliantly organized class, but because the students were encouraged to explore the buildings on their own and engaged with them on their own terms.  

The potential of immersive, digital experiences to create similar opportunities for engagement with archaeological spaces and objects pushes us to realize that the experience of the past is perhaps as important as our empirical knowledge of archaeology in creating meaningful and useful knowledge.  

3. Privilege and the Colonial. One of the threads that appeared throughout the papers at the conference was the way in which digital tools and practices create or mitigate colonial encounters or the production of privilege. It was inspiring to hear talks about teaching children in Peru how drones, digital cameras, and 3D scanning works and encouraging them to use these tools to reimagine archaeological narratives or how to reimagine museums where the barriers of expertise and access do less to reproduce privilege of wealth, education, race, and gender. 

Of course, digital tools have their own social constructed affordances that digital archaeologists and practitioners negotiate every day, but, at this conference, it felt like the traditional “boys with their toys” culture that so often surrounds supposed “expertise” in digital archaeology, took a back seat to more thoughtful and complex social critique. The range of scholarly ranks – from emerita to visiting – and the range of contexts and uses suggest to me that the critical engagements with digital practices are changing and deepening as more, diverse voices are coming to conversation.    

4. Open, Closed, and Digital. The final conversation at the conference focused on whether it was appropriate to publish the proceedings as a print only book bound by copyright. So much of the conference celebrated the potential of open, digital scholarly work and offered less than subtle critiques of practices that limited access to information, processes, or results.

This conversation, however, was not naive. Folks recognized that the opportunities and benefits of open publishing are not evenly distributed in academia. The increasingly metric driven world of academic evaluation has created growing pressure particularly on early and mid-career scholars to publish in high prestige journals or to publish books with a short-list of traditional and well-established publishers. This tension was not resolved. Times and practices are changing in academic publishing and dissemination, but they’re not changing for everyone at the same pace and in the same way. There remains risks publishing open access and digital work and those of us who are less vulnerable to these risks and more capable of reaping the benefits of these practices. 

5. Hard Work. Finally, I was humbled by the amount of time, intellectual energy, and personal effort present in the papers and projects shared at the conference. If we imagined more efficient, streamlined, standardized, and seamless digital world that would somehow result in scholars working less or with less energy, then we would be mistaken. Scholars engaged in the digital world are not only pushing forward our discipline’s technical tool kit and expertise, but also thinking in critical  ways about archaeology, the past, and the range of stakeholders and communities who engage with both the material and digital objects that we study and our analyses and interpretations. 

I suppose this isn’t surprising, but it makes me even more committed to doing my part.

Coda: Flow in Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology:

I’m in friendly, if grey, Buffalo, New York this morning at the 12th annual IEMA conference, “Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age.” On Thursday, I posted a draft of my paper, “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology,” and since then I’ve received some really useful feedback on it. So I’m going to add a coda to my paper.

Here’s that coda (or a draft of it):


There’s a coda to this paper.

My presentation here suggests, in some ways, that workflows – or flow in general – is uni-directional. Flow somehow starts in the field and concludes in publication. I worry that this linear view of workflow suggests that conviviality can serve progress.

This has practical and intellectual implications, of course. We know, for example, that data gains meaning from context and contexts and relationships between data sets constantly change as new data is introduced. Our interest in workflow produces a fluid data that pools but briefly in any one place. Academically, we understand that a book or report is never really the final word on a site or a project, but rather just a stage in the movement of archaeological knowledge. At the same time, we continue to regard the final report as a stable, complete entity and the culmination of the archaeological assembly line. 

The linear progress of archaeological work supports the modern and progressive foundations of archaeological knowledge making, but as data and work become increasingly fluid, there is no reason why our idea of publication should not represent the eddying, recursive flow of knowledge. The untethering of work, data, analysis, and meaning from the linear narrative offers new models representing the dividualted and always tentative character of archaeological knowledge.

In this model, the publisher does more than just usher the manuscript through the final stage of the knowledge making process, but works alongside the archaeologist from the very start of a project and continues to share responsibility for the archaeological knowledge that the project continues to produce into the future.  

Of course, realizing this kind of collaboration in practice is difficult to imagine and fraught with practical concerns from sustainable economic models to redefining areas of expertise and responsibility in production, dissemination, and curation (not to mention area and subject knowledge). For the dividuated 21st century academic, this process is already taking place with a range of positive and problematic consequences that range from the “uberfication” of academic life to our increasingly connected and dynamic transnational networks. I remain hopeful, however, that a convivial approach to knowledge making remains possible.

Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics

This weekend I’m off to the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology’s annual conference. This year, the conference is “Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age,” and my paper is on collaborative publishing in archaeology. The conference line up looks great and if my last IEMA conference was any indication, I expect that the event will be first class all the way around.  

This is essentially the first time that I’ve formally presented a paper on publishing archaeology from my perspective as a publisher. The paper will focus on the work of the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and continue with some of the ideas that I started to develop in my paper that will appear in the European Journal of Archaeology later this year

It’s kind of nerve-wracking to slowly feel my way forward in this area. Not only is the bibliography vast and largely unfamiliar to me, but I feel like much of what I say is either fairly familiar to folks who think consistently about digital practices broadly or just sort of slightly off. My hope is that presenting some of my first thoughts will sharpen how I understand the relationship between publishing and archaeology in an age increasingly shaped by the social and professional expectations of digital practice. 

Here’s a link to download the paper.

IEMA TALK 2019 FirstSlide

Reflowing Legacy Data from Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus

Last month I was invited by Foteini Kondyli and Jon Frey to contribute a paper to a panel at the 2020 AIA meeting in January. The panel is on “legacy data,” and they suggested that I might have something to say based on my work over the last 7 or 8 years at Polis on Cyprus.

It turns out that most of what I have to say is about process, and how the way in which we work creates the category of legacy data. I continue to be interested in the concept of workflow and the larger concept of “flow” and “assemblage” in archaeology and digital practice. To this, I’m working to consider the intersection of the concept of territorialization, both in literal terms (i.e. the spatially bound character of traditional archaeological work and knowledge) and more broadly particular in reference to critiques of digital practices, capitalism, and 21st (or at least late-20th century) culture and society. The abstract is below.

[What’s most exciting for me is that I’m starting to see how some of the ideas that I first thought seriously about while working in the Bakken begin to percolate through my work in the Mediterranean. Part of what is most intriguing to me, however, is that these ideas are not really relating in a literal way. In other words, I’m not thinking much about extractive industries, temporary housing, or taskscapes. Instead, I’m thinking about things like flow not of people or material, but of data. If our study of the Bakken was really a case study of flow — the flow of oil, the flow of people, the flow of capital, the flow of traffic — it speaks to the momentary aggregation and disaggregation of objects, people, skills, tools, and resources across landscapes. These create momentary places which disappear leaving only residual traces behind. I increasingly wonder whether our digital practices in archaeology are doing the same thing. They produce momentary landscapes and assemblages that offer situational knowledge which is valued as much for its fluidity (liquidity?) as for its ability to speak to persistent relationships anchored in the kind of real spaces – with real political consequences – where the archaeological imagination has traditionally worked.] 


Reflowing Legacy Data from Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. 
William R. Caraher, University of North Dakota
R. Scott Moore, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

The notion of legacy data is an artifact of contemporary digital archaeology. Archaeologists define legacy data as information that is incommensurate with contemporary digital practices and standards. 

Over the last decade, a team at the site of Marion-Arsinoe in the village of Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus has studied the notebooks produced from over two decades of excavation at the site starting in the 1980s. This work involved converting narrative notebooks into various forms from data in databases to graphic representations in pseudo-Harris Matrices and ultimately synthetic and analytical descriptions. Translating archaeological information between forms was both a convenience and a step of analysis that depended on the various affordances offered by the available tools as well as our goal to establish the phases and artifact assemblages present at the site.

By offering or work Polis Chrysochous as an autoethnographic case study, this paper considers the act of defining and translating data from a legacy formats and methods, to a database that can integrate with other datasets developed over the course of our work at Polis. By emphasizing the translational aspects of converting data from one format or standard to the next, we reframe the value of archaeological knowledge according to its ability to relate to other datasets. This relational recoding of archaeological information produces new assemblages and knowledge, at the same time that it obfuscates and renders incompatible other, earlier forms. Legacy data becomes defined by the information left behind and contemporary data becomes defined by its ability to contribute to the larger flow. This paper demonstrates how approaches to defining legacy data traces the changes in contemporary archaeological knowledge making.

Maybe Rhizomes

I’ve been toiling away a bit at my paper for next month’s IEMA conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper is titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology,” and it is my first formal effort to articulate what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota into academic terms. After all, I’ve sometimes said that The Digital Press is a laboratory press, but I’ve been less successful in stating what this laboratory is actually designed to develop, test, or produce.

A series of long walks and some serious stewing (and some reading, to be fair), led me back to a few things that I had read over the past year from which I could not shake free. I went back to my paper this weekend and started to play with the ideas that really inspired it (rather than what I think I was going to try to say). This is the new introduction (and the new conclusion):


Over the last two decades, there has been the growing use of the phrase ”digital workflow.” As you might expect, the Google ngram plot looks like the proverbial hockey stick. Workflow has its roots in the language of early 20th century scientific management, and the specific application to digital practices appears to have emerged at the turn of the 21st century in the field of publishing. In this context, the use of computer technology in the production of print media required a new way of organizing practice and spawned a series of “how to” style books. A similar response has occurred in the early 21st century with the spread of digital tools, technologies, and practices in archaeology, and, as a result, digital workflow has come to occupy a distinct place within archaeological methodology.

Today, I’d like to think a bit about workflow in the context of digital archaeology with special attention to archaeological publishing. The paper has two impetus. One is a passage from an article by Michael Given in which he applies Ivan Illich’s idea of conviviality to an understanding of the premodern agricultural landscape of Cyprus. Toward the end of the article, he suggested that a convivial approach between archaeological specialists from soil scientists to ceramicists, bioarchaeologists, architectural historians, and field archaeologists would produce a deeper understanding of the convivial landscape in which premodern Cypriots lived. My first reading of that passages was relatively uncharitable. To my mind, Illich’s notion of conviviality was anti-modern and attempting to reconcile this idea with the assembly line practice of archaeological work and specialization seemed as doomed to fail as the plantation style sugar works established by the Venetian colonizers on Cyprus’s south coast. If convivial relationships mapped the seamless sociability of premodern production, specialization and workflows created Frankenstein creatures which have the superficial appearance of reality, but are, in fact, mottled monsters of recombined fragments.

At the same time that I was thinking about Illich and Given, I read Anna Tsing’s work, The Mushroom at the End of the World and Deborah Cowen’s work on logistics, The Deadly Life of Logistics. Both books, in their own ways, describe the fluid of movement of people, things, and capital around the world. They explore the tension between the local and the global, places and movement, and the dividual and the individual. While Cowen’s work is, as the title suggests, practical and pessimistic in tone, Tsing’s work offers the rhizomic world of the matsutake mushroom holding for the “possibilities of life in capitalist ruins.” My paper today will swing back and forth between these two poles and offer both an angst-filled critique of archaeological practice and then some more optimistic reflections on why maybe Michael Given was right (and maybe I knew that all along) and convivial social practices in archaeology are possible, even in our digital age.


The Digital Press – and digital publishing practices in archaeology (and I’d propose in academia more broadly) – offers at least one way to think about the tension between the fragmenting of digital archaeological data and social practices at the core of knowledge making. The collaborative environment made possible by digital technology is not grounded simply in the relatively ease of using mainstream professional design tools, but in the transformation of archaeological workflow. Following the fragments of digital knowledge along the rhizomic streams connecting field practices to final publications disrupts some of the traditional forms of organization that define archaeological work. The ease with which objects, human remains, and even buildings can move through digital media demonstrates, at some level, how digital workflows can transform the social and disciplinary limits on archaeological practice. At the same time, the Digital Press offers a more convivial view of the future where archaeologists can unpack the black box of publishing and create a new, digitally mediated model for the production and dissemination of archaeological knowlege.

Fragmentation and Publication in Digital Archaeology 2

It happens sometimes. I’m swamped by a painfully slow going paper, “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology” for the IEMA conference at the University of Buffalo next month.

I wrote this today; it’s not very good, but it is what it is. I’m blaming the bomb cyclone.

Historically archaeologists have modeled their work on industrial practices with authority typically following a clear hierarchy. In an overly simplified form, archaeological responsibilities and tasks define the roles of project directors, field directors, trench or team leaders, and diggers. This division of labor is designed, at least on one level, to facilitate efficient archaeological work and to produce specialized and precise data. This form of organization allowed for control over a project’s outcomes and the knowledge making process. The formal definition of the site and the recognition that archaeological work involved embodied knowledge reinforced the spatiality of archaeological knowledge making. The long-standing concern for provenience, for example, and the location of the physical archives of a site in a dig house or storeroom near the site’s location further reinforce the connection between space and archaeological work. The connection between the hierarchy of archaeological knowledge making and the spatiality of archaeological place evokes the factory floor (or the prison) and the processes of enclosure that defined regimes of control of the modern ara.

Of course, this conceptualization of archaeological work has seen compelling challenges over the past 30 years. Shanks and McGuire argued that archaeology should return to its roots in craft practices as a way to challenge the industrial modes of archaeological knowledge making. McGuire’s radical efforts to create more a egalitarian and democratized archaeological project demonstrated the potential of such an approach in practice. A few radical projects in the U.K. have likewise sought to introduce democratic processes to field work (the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (Faulkner 2000, 2009) cited by Morgan and Eddisford 2018). While these projects remain outliers, they demonstrate that the social organization of archaeological practice remains a topic of discussion and, to a lesser extent, experimentation for archaeologists. At the same time, Mary Leighton adopted an STS approach to understanding field work and argued that a certain amount of “black boxing” in archaeological practice masks a diversity of practices that are both more and less hierarchical than the formally reported results might suggest. Morgan and Eddisford (2018) have suggested that single context recording represents a far more decentralized and even anarchic method for producing archaeological knowledge.

The critical attention that field practices (including methods, but also more mundane procedures and unspoken conventions) has shaped how scholars have approached the growing use of digital tools in archaeological knowledge making and their practical, disciplinary, and ideological significance of these changes. My interest in workflow and the rise of logistics in archaeological knowlege making traces a scholarly trajectory that understands the movement, use, and reuse of data in a digital medium as a key element to transforming the institutional landscape of archaeology. The ability to disseminate data from the field, for example, and to repurpose that data for online publication through platforms like OpenContext demonstrates how the fluidity of the contemporary workflow is already challenging the barriers between fieldwork and publishing.

In 2014, a colleague and I founded the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The goal of this project involved leverage digital tools enter into the world of academic publishing and to experiment with the potential for these digital tools to challenge the structure of the publishing process. Our current publishing model is extremely fluid, but follows certain relatively consistent conventions. First, we use digital tools to produce and distribute our books at a low cost using print-on-demand printing for paper books and PDF downloads on a low cost website running WordPress. Second, We publish mainly under various open access licenses. Finally, we collaborate closely with authors on all aspects of a publishing process.

Fragmentation and Publication in Digital Archaeology

This weekend, I spent some quality time with Isto Huvila’s book, Archaeology and Archaeological Information in the Digital Society (2018), some of Costis Dallas (and colleagues) work on digital infrastructure and practice in archaeology, and the recent Journal of Field Archaeology supplement. I’m working on my paper, “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology” for the IEMA conference at the University of Buffalo next month.

Last week, I wrote an introductory section the foregrounded the concept of workflow in digital publishing and archaeology. It suggests that there is a growing fluidity in how digital data of all kinds move through our academic ecosystem. As such, barriers between one stage of the process of knowledge making and the next have eroded. 

This creates a tension that I’m particularly interested in exploring. On the one hand, the creation of fragmented data facilitates the movement of information between individuals, teams, and projects. It also reflects the specialized nature of archaeological knowledge making with area specialists producing discrete data sets. Digital technology increasingly produces and mediates the relationship between these data sets. The work of the authors who I read this weekend emphasizes the social and technological infrastructure for production and curation of digitally mediated archaeological knowledge. They recognized that digital tools and practice interact to produce new forms of knowledge. 

Efforts to understand the interaction of tools and practices – the digital habitus of archaeological work – involves a range of auto-ethnographic reflections and observations sometimes framed as methodological interventions, sometimes framed as reflexive practice and something simply description of procedure, as well as a small, but growing body of systematic ethnographic studies of behavior conducted by Huvila’s team in Sweden, the Sarah and Eric Kansa (and team), and Costis Dallas in various contexts (as well as the work by Matt Edgeworth on the ethnography of archaeological practice). My approach will be more auto-ethnographic (at best) or reflexive and instead of looking at the trowel’s edge, as I have elsewhere, look toward the publishing as a key node in the production of archaeological knowledge. 

As I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, workflows look to erode obstacles to their path. The entire conceptual framework of logistics involves removing obstacles to movement and the distributed production of value. Efforts to promote this in an archaeological context involves standardization, for example, that ensures that archaeological tools and data can relate to each other in consistent and predictable ways. These standardization practices also promote a kind of modularity of archaeological knowledge that supports reuse of various ways and ensures. In the best scenarios, that self-contained pieces of archaeological information complete with contextualizing metadata move freely between devices, individuals, and locations via the web (or whatever other digital protocols are appropriate).

As the Kansas’ have worked to demonstrate, the reuse of archaeological data between projects, is, at present, less of a technological barrier than a social and professional one. Grants, professional organizations, and institutions have only recent come to regard the work to archive, much less publish, archaeological data as a key responsibility in the discipline. The growing insistence on archaeological data plans for major grants and the recognition of digital work and publications by professional organizations demonstrates that a shift is taking place, but it’s difficult to anticipate the rate at which these top down protocols will shape practice in the field.

Complementing these top down policies are more organic changes that both attempt to leverage the flow of archaeological knowledge as well as to offer critiques of the barriers that remain in the seamless movement of information archaeological logistics. To use one particular case study, there’s been some interesting recent work concerning the dissemination of 3D models and data from broadly archaeological contexts.  Recent work, for example, on the publication of 3D scans of fossils has shown that the willingness to make this data publicly available remains relatively rare with two-thirds of articles that relied upon 3D scans not making the data available for various reasons with mostly involve the desire to use this proprietary research for future work or the lack of requirements to share. In contrast, the ethical concerns shape the willingness of bioarchaeologists to share the scanned remains of humans as a recent special issue of Archaeologies has brought to the fore. The concerns surrounding the 3D printing of a scale replica of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra revolved around the context of its display, the accuracy of the scale model, and the motives for the presentation. Practical concerns likewise exist for the publication of 3D data and images with projects like relatively recent digital monograph on Gabii demonstrating both the potential and challenges associated with sustainable, dynamic, and expansive data rich publications.

The publishing of archaeological information, whether it’s 3D data or more dynamic and immersive digital environments, reflects a more expansive realization that publishing information, analysis, and interpretation are explicit parts of an archaeological workflow that continues beyond any notion of “final publication.”  To my mind, over time, this will transform the relationship between the disciplinary work often associated with field work, interpretation, and writing and the notion of publishing, which is often presented as the culmination of archaeological work rather than as a part of a longer process of engagement with a fluid archaeological workflow. 

Starting to Write: Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology

Next week, I have to get stuck into down and get a draft of my paper from this year’s IEMA conference at the University of Buffalo.  My paper is titled: “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” and I have to admit that it’s more of a concept or even idea than an argument at this point. 

Right now my paper will start with workflow and fragmentation, and then talk about various models of aggregation and publication, before concluding with something on attribution in digital media. (My sections are a vague hat tip to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.) 

Here’s the first bit of it. 

Over the last two decades, there has been the growing use of the phrase ”digital workflow.” As you might expect, the Google ngram plot looks like the proverbial hockey stick. While workflow has its roots in the language of early 20th century scientific management, the specific application to digital practices appears to have emerged at the turn of the 21st century in the field of publishing. In this context, the use of computer technology in the production of print media required a new way of organizing practice. It is hardly surprising then that as digital tools, technologies, and practices have become more common in the early 21st century archaeology, archaeologists have found themselves preoccupied with issues of digital workflow.

Today, I’d like to think a bit about workflow in the context of digital archaeology with special attention to archaeological publishing. Over the last five years or so, I’ve also started a small press called The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Part of the goal of starting this press was to think about the role of publishing in the larger academic and intellectual process. Our first book was, appropriately, Punk Archaeology (2014) and as much as a test case in DIY (digital) book making, under the watchful eye of the experienced publisher Andrew Reinhard, as it was a kind of anti-manifesto of punk practice in an archaeological context. Since that time, my little press has published over a dozen other books on topics ranging from digital practices in archaeological field work to the historical and cultural significance of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. At present, we have in various stages of production, a 21st century archaeological autobiography, a 3D catalogue of digitally scanned votive objects from Athienou on Cyprus, and the republication with critical updates of a 1958 report on the social conditions in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota. Each of these books have a discrete workflow that begins with a field work, library work, and an idea and culminates in book. Historically, we have divided this workflow in various ways, perhaps distinguishing between fieldwork and lab work, data collecting and analysis, research and writing, and, of course, submitting a manuscript and publication. The final division between the manuscript and the published volume tends to be among the most formal with the publishing process neat separated from the writing process by professional standards, credentials, and methods. The professionalization of publishing has led, in part, to its development as a multi-billion dollar industry as well as the its key role as a mediator in the hiring, tenure, and promotion processes on many campuses.

My experiences as an archaeologists, author, and publisher have led me to become interested in the way in which our increasingly digital workflow has come to shape the relationship between the various stages of archaeological knowledge making. I am not the first to think about these things, of course, but I’m hoping that my focus on workflow can show how digital culture and practices can change the structure of academic work for better and, perhaps, for worse.

Provenience, Sustainability, and Credit in Digital Archaeology

Sarah Bond wrote a thought provoking piece last week on whether the well-known Rome Reborn project (and now commercial concern) exploited the work of its developers. Her piece stands well enough on its own, and I won’t weigh in on the specifics of that case. Go read it now

UPDATE: And please also go and read Prof. Frischer’s thoughtful response to Prof. Bond’s piece here (and see his comments below).

At the same time, her work also – as it so often does – opens the door to a much wider conversation about digital work in archaeology. Since I’m starting to think about a paper that I’ll be giving next month in beautiful Buffalo, New York, that will touch on how digital practices in archaeology and in archaeological publishing will introduce new challenges to conventional approaches to archaeological knowledge making, it seems like a good time to put some words on the screen. Sarah Bond’s piece is a perfect prompt. 

1. Provenience in an Age of Logistics. Some of the challenge that Rome Reborn is facing is an issue of provenience. Where did the models come from that form the basis of the commercialized version of Rome Reborn?

Fortunately, archaeologists are experts on provenience and readily acknowledge that it is a messy concept. On the one hand, the best archaeological evidence comes form a known, permitted, legitimate, scientific excavation, was professionally conserved and curated, is accessible to both researchers and, if possible, to the public, and is published with care and in an approved venue (and if at all possible promptly). Problems at any one of those stages erode the value of the object and can lead archaeologists to exclude these objects from the archaeological discourse or to marginalize the value of the object (and any work that relies on the object for claims to truth). In short, archaeologists are very particular about context whether this be legal, archaeological, ethical, or social. Compromises at any stage of the process through any number of complicated ethical, social, political, and disciplinary decisions and policies can render an object useless to knowledge-making. Frankly, it’s intense.

It is not, however, exclusive to archaeology. Over the last several decades a similar interest in provenience has occurred among every day people. Perhaps our heightened sense of political awareness and social justice has pushed us to think more broadly about our own habits as consumers. There’s a growing interest in farm-to-table restaurants, ethically produced food, ethical practices in manufacturing and even extractive industries. These concerns have given rise to what some have called supply-chain citizenship which looks to ground the 21st century’s interest in globalization and logistics on a more ethical ground. 

Digital objects are particularly challenging in this context. While no one would deny the remarkable commercial value of digital objects – which range from snippets of code, to 3D models, data, or even complex software. There are, of course, a whole series of intellectual property laws and rules that ensure that individuals and companies receive credit (and compensation) for their work. At the same time, we know that digital practices and the fluidity of the digital world encourage sharing and the almost frictionless movement of digital objects from one context to the next. Whatever the improvements in global exchange of physical goods, digital objects circulate with infinitely less friction and at massively faster rates of speed.

More than that, digital objects can more easily be severed from provenience and their social, economic, political or even geographic context. This isn’t meant to excuse exploitation or even theft of digital objects and work, but to suggest that our linked world encourages a kind of fluidity of reuse that challenges notions of ownership, credit, and context.

2. Sustainability. Among the greatest challenges facing digital project in the academy these days is sustainability. There are a whole series of challenges facing large-scale digital projects like Rome Reborn. For example, large grants in the humanities tend to reward innovation and the next great thing at the expense of longstanding project. Universities tend to see grant funded projects as a source of revenue for the institution and the sustainability of more mature projects as a responsibility of the private sector or other sources of income. Commercialization is one possible route where intellectual property, particularly in the sciences, can generate additional revenue – through licensing – to the university, while also moving the cost of continued work to the private sector.

Large scale digital humanities projects tend to have significant ongoing costs related not only to their continued development – especially as platforms change, their preservation, and any planned expansion. Open access projects look to solve these issues through building a community of users who will contribute code, content, and even new functionality and applications to these projects. This kind of collaboration, however, can be unpredictable in terms of timelines, episodic, and irregular, and any discontinuity in the utility of a tool or access to content risks disrupting the community of contributors and making new developments less likely. The fluidity and speed of digital technology, resources, collaborations, and the press for innovation creates a constantly refiguring of priorities and effort in the digital sphere. 

UPDATE: Prof. Frischer offers some insights into how Rome Reborn will balance commercialization and Open Access in his follow up post here.  

3. Credit. The pace of digital innovation, the fluidity of digital objects and work, and the ambiguity of digital provenience makes the traditional functioning of academic credit particularly challenging. The standard [academic] critiques of Wikipedia, for example, embodies these challenges. Students will often say “anyone can edit it!” or “it can change from one day to the next,” or “how do I know it’s accurate?” Of course, academic writing and credit provide checks on the system. The need for persistent credit ensures that publications remain stable, attribution produces authority that reinforces legitimacy and accuracy of knowledge, and all of this allows for our work as academic professionals to result – in indirect ways – in professional and usually economic reward. 

In archaeology, of course, attribution and credit is always messy, but recently there has been greater attention to crediting student volunteers, graduate student analysts, local workers, and even junior partners on projects for their contribution to archaeological knowledge making. Traditionally, a name on or a reference in a notebook connected an individual to archaeological work (although this isn’t to suggest that this was entirely transparent or doing archaeological work ensured that one received professional credit). 

With digital practices, this becomes more complex. While it is easy enough to credit someone for producing a particular record, the very nature of records in a database ensure that they can be disaggregated and recombined. Here credit may go to the original data creator, but also the individual responsible for a query or an analysis. Credit becomes distributed in a system.

As the system becomes more complex, however, the potential to track credit through networks of linked, open data (LOD) diminishes. This is even more the case with machine aggregated datasets where the data, the code, and the use of the aggregated data could all represent different individuals contributing to the over all utility of an assemblage.

To be clear, I’m not blaming technology or even digital practices for the potential exploitation of individuals over the course of any long-term, iterative research project (like Rome Reborn). The digital systems that we’ve adopted and created for archaeology, however, rest on certain technological expectations that do not privilege the rewarding of all parts of the network with equal visibility. As academics trade, in part, on attribution there is an incompatibility. From crowd sourcing to Uber and Amazon’s “mechanical Turk” economies of practice have emerged that aggregate piece work and monetize it while rending the individuals responsible for that work all but anonymous.

The ability to fragment both data and labor into more and more granular parts is key to    most contemporary digital practice. At the same time, we continue to try to push back against the fragmented nature of contemporary practice and life through public critique, calls for the return to craft practices, and supply chain citizenship. These are really challenging questions and Sarah Bond’s article reminds us that they do not have simple answers. Like archaeological provenience, digital practices in the 21st century are more then just the adherence to best practices and require constant critique and the constant reformulation of what we think is right and just. 

It’s hard work and it has to be done at the pace of our digital world. We probably can’t fix logistics and capitalism, but we can at least hope to produce a more aware, more critical, and better discipline of archaeology.

Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.