Photo Friday and a Few Random Links

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

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

The Barge in Summer

and to endure the terror of summer thunderstorms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things Thursday: Agency, Data, and Digital Archaeology

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

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

Thing the Second

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

More on WARP Data (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WARP 2021 Study Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Data and Data Literacy in Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Workflows in Archaeological Practice

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

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

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

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

It’s all pretty remarkable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Innovations in European Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book Day: Visualizing Votive Practice

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

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

You can download the book for free here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three Things Thursday: Digital Utopias, Poetry, and Everything is Fine

It’s the last Thursday before the last weekend before the start of classes. It feels rather momentous as we brace ourselves for the COVID-inflected start to the 2020-2021 academic year.

In an effort to preserve a sense of normalcy, I though it appropriate to drop a Three Things Thursday. A little alliteration never goes astray when your grasping at the new normal.

Thing the First

A few months ago, David Haeselin, a co-conspirator and buddy of mine made the observation that writing was a utopian project. It assumes readers, expects some kind of mutual understanding, and engages in  shared world building. (As I sit down to write this post, I also wish that I had read my friend and colleague Mark Jendrysik’s new book Utopia, rather than just congratulating him for it over social media.)

Recently, for various reasons, I’ve gotten to think that the kind of digital archaeology that I practice which focuses on the recording of information in the field through to the publishing of archaeological data in an open and granular format, is also a utopian undertaking. If I had more of the “little grey cells” I might be able to expand this observation somehow into a full blog post, if nothing else, but right now I’m content to offer it as a half-baked thought on a Three Things Thursday. 

I think our assumption and hope that we can record what we do in the field in a way that is useful in the future and, actually more than that, used in the future recognizes shared values between the present and future. Even a casual reader in archaeological methods and theory recognizes this view as a bit naive, but the hopefulness of this view perhaps lends a bit to what Shawn Graham and others have called the “enchantment” found in digital archaeology

Thing The Second

On Tuesday, The Digital Press released a new book titled, One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920. You can read about the book in more detail here. Since then, quite a few people have visited the book’s page at The Digital Press website and this, of course, is exciting. 

What has been a little disappointing is that most people aren’t taking the time to download the book. This, on the one hand, is understandable. The title and description reads as something intended for a fairly narrow audience. But I want to encourage anyone interested in US history, African-American history, or – and perhaps most importantly – public history to check out this volume! Or at very least read this poem. The book is free!

In the sane spirit, I would also encourage you to check out the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19. This project has commissioned 19 new works by women composers that debuted with the Philharmonic in February just before COVID-19 disrupted our world.

What I didn’t realize was that the Academy of American Poets also contributed to this project by commissioning 19 poems by women writers. You can read and listen to the poems here or download the 19-page book here.

Thing The Third

Like many people, I’m struggling to wrap my head around the upcoming semester, the risk associated with COVID-19, and the looming budget challenges facing my institution and our college in particular. 

To help me deal with this, I’ve adopted a new motto for the fall 2020 semester and I plan to produce some kind of poster or sign celebrating it over the weekend. 

The motto is:

EVERYTHING
IS
FINE.

Stay tuned.

Five Questions on Being a Digital Archaeologist

Last week (or maybe two weeks ago?), Shawn Graham asked a number of us to produce short recordings for his Digital Archaeology class at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve been turning the questions over in my head on my afternoon walks, but, for some reason, I’ve been reluctant to do actually do the recording.

It seems like a good idea to write up my answers now as a bit of a nudge…  

1. Who are you and what are you currently working on?

My name is Bill Caraher and I’m currently working on a few project including the preliminary report of 5 or 6 years of field work in the Western Argolid with the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP), the final publication of some excavations in eastern Cyprus concluded in 2012 with the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP), and a long-term publication project at Polis Chrysochous in western Cyprus as part of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition. These projects are all very data centered in that our analysis draws directly from our databases and GIS and have data publication as part of their priorities. 

I’m also writing a small book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience and some very local CRM projects with my wife who is the local Historic Preservation Coordinator

I am the publisher and director at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and the editor of the literary journal North Dakota Quarterly

2. How did you get started in digital archaeology?

I came to archaeology quite late in my graduate school career. In fact, I’ve never even taken an archaeology course at any level and didn’t do my first fieldwork until after my MA. In an old school way, pre-professional way, I am completely “field trained.”

As a result, when I started working around archaeologists on Tim Gregory’s various projects in the Corinthia, I was drawn to work for which I had some degree of competence (i.e. not necessarily fieldwork!). Because my parents were computer people (my father has patents on digital “notebooks” for research) and my mother taught programing at the college level and worked in bio-informatics, I can’t remember not having a computer in the house. I don’t have any formal training or expertise for computer work or programing — for example, I’m not much of coder and I never really call myself a “digital archaeologists” — but I don’t fear computers and generally feel comfortable following directions and using most off-the-shelf computer programs for their intended purposes. More than that, as much as I love field work, I don’t really have any discernible expertise as an archaeologist. In other words, by putting me in front of a computer and tasking me to keep track of stuff, a project isn’t losing a key member of their field team or depriving the project of hard earned field expertise.

As a result, I took pretty quickly to working with Microsoft Access, ESRI ArcGIS, and various more specialized applications used for data capture and processing (various pieces of Trimble software, Agisoft Metashape, et c.). I also have a bit of knack for digital “workflow management,” and while I’m not a detailed person, my long experience with computers has made it relatively easy to think systematically.

As a result, when I went on my first archaeological projects (the Ohio State University excavations at Isthmia and the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS)), I gravitated to computer work because I thought that maybe I could be helpful there. Fortunately, the folks doing computer work for EKAS — Richard Rothaus and his cadre of GIS-trained graduate students — were super welcoming and walked me through various programs with unbelievable patience and generosity. 

As EKAS field work wound down, I become more and more interested in how the data worked and how I could use GIS and databases to support field work (and how these programs shaped what we could and could not document in the field). As I did some independent fieldwork, I leaned on what I had learned at EKAS to document and interpret features and finds (for example, here). I also began to work with colleagues to used our digital tools to analyze the material from our survey work at EKAS (for example, here). 

When I started my own small project on Cyprus in 2003 (the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project), I took a leading role in designing the databases, GIS, and digital workflow, although much of this was adapted from my previous experiences in EKAS. I also started a more digitally mediated project at Polis where we worked to build data structures that would allow us to query and analyze over 20 years of intensive excavation at the site. Finally, in 2014, I started to work with the folks at WARP to help with their data workflow.

At this point, I realized that the average archaeology graduate student had more experience using digital tools than I did and mostly what I was doing was workflow management rather than actual digital archaeology in any computational sense. I was perhaps slightly more savvy in dealing with the kind of big, structured datasets that archaeology produced, but, in the end, I was a dinosaur compared to their more agile ways of thinking with data and familiarity with the latest tools and techniques.  

3. What is the biggest challenge facing digital archaeology at the moment?

I’ve thought about this a good bit.

At first, I wanted to suggest that whatever center “digital archaeology” once existed, I’m increasingly inclined to say that it has currently dissipated. As a result, we’re not really dealing with “digital archaeology” as a field any longer, but “digital archaeologies” which cover a vast range of technologies, techniques, approaches, attitudes, and skill sets. For example, what Shawn does with agent-based-modelingAndrew Reinhard does with archaeogaming, or Maurizio Forte does at his DIG@Lab is pretty different from, say, the work of Eric and Sarah Kansa at Open Context or work to refit legacy data to contemporary problems, or data collection in the field. This isn’t to imply that one type of digital archaeology is better than the other or that one is “real digital archaeology” or whatever, but to suggest that whatever big tent digital archaeology could be, the field is highly disparate at this point with many subfields and approaches having developed specialized bodies of literature and discussion. One wonders whether digital practices are now so diverse that many of them are largely incommensurate. In other words, perhaps the biggest challenge facing digital archaeology is determining whether “knowing it when you see it” or archaeological work that involves computers (i.e. Colleen Morgan and Stu Eve’s famous “we’re all digital archaeologists now”) remains enough to support the concept as meaningful in theory and practice. For more on this read Jeremy Huggett for more (and frankly better) thoughts on this.  

I then considered to talking about my own efforts to think about digital archaeology. I proposed the concept of “slow archaeology” as a way to think critically about digital practices. My ideas have evolved a bit over the last five years or so (read their latest iterations here), but they center on a concern for the impact of digital practices on the shape of archaeological labor. In other words, I consider how digital tools shape archaeological thinking and seeing from the survey unit and trench side to the lab and laptop. This felt odd solipsistic (and more than that, I know that Shawn and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on this). It also is a pretty narrow view of what digital archaeology and even archaeology means in practice. 

In an effort to avoid consuming my own tail (let’s say), I think I should propose that the greatest challenge facing digital archaeology/archaeologies at present is the continued need for sustained ethical reflection. While this applies to all archaeology, of course, I think that digital tools present distinct challenges. In fact, I would even propose that if digital archaeology has any center, it is in a shared ethics of practice. This could means a wide range of things, but I worry about this stuff the most:

1. How do digital tools and digital practices reproduce hierarchy within the discipline?
2. How have digital recording practices challenged ideas of heritage, ownership, and stewardship in our field?
3. How do digital practices reinforce colonial relationships and support claims to universalism?
4. What are our responsibilities toward digital ephemera and archival standards in everyday practice?
5. What are the ethics of open access in practice?
6. How do we understand critically the relationship between private profit and public good in the digital tools that we use?
7. What are the ethics of digital workflows and efficiency?
8. What are the ethics involved in selecting the material technologies that we use in the discipline?
9. How do we understand and critique the asymmetries in funding associated with digital innovation?
10. How do we critique the very concept of innovation in our field?  

These issues are obviously overlapping and complex, and many of these issues have already attracted sustained and careful attention. At the same time, I think that we need to do more to consider how digital archaeologies are shaping the ethnical landscape of archaeological practice. 

4. What drives you up the wall about how digital archaeology is currently received/perceived in the profession? (Alternatively, what are you currently trying to learn in digital archaeology OR have you had any glorious failures, and so please describe.)

I usually don’t get easily perturbed by how others see me or my work, but I do worry that the public (and to a larger extent my less digitally focused colleagues and university administrators) continue to see digital archaeology as a field centered on innovation (or, if this was 2006 “disruption”).

Of course, if you’ve read this far into this post, you will realize that I am guilty of this as well. In fact, my call for greater ethical scrutiny in the field assumes that somehow digital technology has made digital archaeology different from “analogue practice” and requires renewed critical attention. 

At the same time, I get annoyed by the lack of interest and support for the small-scale iterative and adaptive practice that make technology work for archaeologists on a day-to-day level. Having read for any number of national grants over the last decade, it’s amazing how even among critical and thoughtful specialists in our field, we tend to be drawn to the projects that promise to re-invent the wheel at the expense of projects that seek to improve, modify, adapt, or reuse existing technologies to address new challenges. 

5. What fills you with hope about the field?

I often feel like digital archaeology (and digital humanities, digital history, and digital practices in general) encourage a kind of attention to day-to-day practices that non-digital versions of archaeology, humanities, history, and the like tend to approach as settled. For example, in my corner of archaeology, there’s relatively little discussion about how one excavates or analyzes finds. That is to say, we don’t talk much about troweling techniques, how we discern different strata in the field, and what we do determine and describe the shape, fabric, color, and function of ceramics during artifact analysis.

Digital archaeology seems to have pushed us to think more critically about the little things that we do to create archaeological knowledge. Critical attention to digital tools has encouraged us to think more about how we produce an illustration, how we move about a landscape, and how we see architectural changes and strata. It may be that new technology will not radically change these practices in the long run, but it certainly feels like they’re receiving greater critical scrutiny these days as they intersect with an expanding range of digital tools.

Maybe this is really what Morgan and Eve meant when they said “we’re all digital archaeologists now?” It doesn’t mean that we’re all on the bleeding edge of digital practices in our discipline or even regularly using technology in our practice, but that the emergence of the digital has made our past practices “analogue” and opened them to new forms of critique and reflection.