What’s the Matter with Digital Humanities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hybridizing Paper

This is probably too grandiose a title for this blog post, but after my post last week, I realized that I had some odds and ends that I meant to include, but for various reasons did not. Most of these focus on the idea that the potential of digital media and digital books has tended to be set in opposition to paper books and traditional media. If hybridization occurred, as I proposed in my post last week, it tended to be in the creation of digital media that formally adopted some of the characteristics of paper books. This is best manifest in the continued currency of the PDF files as probably the most common and perhaps the most functionally useful way to circulate digital content. They look like a page, act like a book, yet are open to external hyperlinks, video, audio, and 3D content, and relatively seamless linear and nonlinear organization that does not compromise the basic structure of the page or the codex.

I’m more interested right now in the flip side of this situation. This past week a paper book that I wrote with Bret Weber has appeared from North Dakota State University Press. It is published only in paper, and as far as I know, there are no plans to make the book available in a digital format. As I’ve blogged on before, I have an interest in expanding the paper book to include both updates to the itineraries, but, more important, updates to the ideas present in the work. In effect, I want to wrap the book in a new context that allows the original paper volume to continue to stand as a unit, but can also offer new ways of thinking about it through updated research, reading, and thinking.

The desire to move from digital to paper and to digital again, I think is one of the intriguing challenges facing publishing these days. As I outlined with my new project in collaboration with the digital journal Epoiesen, establishing ties that link paper to digital content is both an aesthetic and practical challenge. 

It is interesting to note that there are some recent ventures in commercial publishing that have wrestled with the exact same issue. In my little corner of the world, for example, the watch blog Hodinkee recently published its first paper magazine. Carrying over many of the key aesthetic features from the blog, including the high quality color photography and genteel style, the magazine runs to $27.00. There are, of course, branding issues here that suggest that perhaps serve to distance the premium periodical from the more lowly blog while at the same time demonstrating a family resemblance.

My favorite audiophile blog, Parttime Audiophile, has recently initiated a similar venture with a downloadable .pdf called The Occasional. While this is a clever play on the “part-time” name, it sets itself apart with its higher production quality and its explicit print orientation, although at present, it is only available as a download. The presence of two page spreads, the organization of the text in difficult to read (and non-justified!) columns, and the absence of hyperlinks makes it more difficult to read as a digital document, but also clearly echoes the paper page. 

As I’m looking ahead to new ways to bring North Dakota Quarterly to a new and expanded audience, I’m likewise facing the challenge of integrating regular digital content appearing on our website with ab annual paper version.  

There are reasons, of course, for the persistence of paper. In the case of Hodinkee or (perhaps hinted at by The Occasional), there is a prestige associated with print even if it is digitally mediated. For upscale commodities like watches and high-end stereo equipment people expect a certain kind of luxury even in the media surrounding these products. My colleagues at NDQ have tended to emphasize the physicality of the paper book and the character of the final product as evidence for having MADE something. I admit that this feeling of making has carried over into my love of producing paper books as well. 

For academic work, there is another important and more practical aspect to producing paper that hybridizes with the digital. In academic culture it is still easier to cite paper (or paper-like) versions of books and article according to page numbers. Reviewers continue to prefer paper books – when given the option – and libraries remain better equipped to catalogue, preserver, and circulate print copies even as their book budgets continue to shrink. Paper copies, whether on the desk of an editor or on a library shelf, conform to certain institutional expectations for how knowledge looks physically. Of course, this might be a temporary or transitional stage in how knowledge looks and circulates as we come to terms with a more robust and complex digital future, but the massive history and continued ubiquity of printed media suggests that these paradigms will be slow to change.

All this is to say that one of key challenges facing publishing these days is not making digital less like paper, but making paper more like digital. There is a present need to create hybrid forms of paper media that push the boundaries of how the paper codex has traditionally functioned and to blur the lines between paper and digital. This under-appreciated and under-recognized form of hybridity will be part of what The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota explores.

Social Theory and Context of Digital Archaeology

I really enjoyed Lorna-Jane Richardson’s and Simon Lindgren’s recent article “Online Tribes and Digital Authority: What Can Social Theory Bring to Digital Archaeology?” In Open Archaeology. She argue that archaeologists would be wise to apply social theory to digital archaeological practices, and, in doing so, continues a trend toward reflexive archaeology that is as invested in practices as methods and results.

I found particularly useful their interest in using social theory to unlock the power structures that shape digital practices in the field and across the discipline. They bring to their critique the work of Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes (2009) that argues – among other things – that the despite the illusion of freedom and democracy, the internet (and digital practices more broadly) remains a deeply hierarchical place dominated by well-established (if often unspoken) rules. These rules, often established by loosely organized groups with distinct expectations of practice that O’Neil terms “tribes” that form the relational spaces of authority which often conforms to bureaucratic practices and amplifies the social power of so-called “cyber-chiefs.”

Without unpacking the way in which these tribes function or manifest, Richardson and Lindgren are right in appreciating the role of authority in the development of digital practices in archaeology and the dissemination of digital archaeological data and the production of digital standards. Anyone who has spent any time around the edges of the digital archaeology world recognizes the role of tribes and tribal markers as structuring certain key aspects of authority in the space of digital practice. To be clear, some of the things that serve as tribal markers are necessary and, in fact, represent important elements of good digital practices, promote cohesive dialogue between practitioners, and reflect the balance the highly technical (and commercialized) discourse of digital tools with the more familiar (albeit no less tribal) world of archaeology. Simple things like the bewildering cacophony of acronyms serve as significant barriers to entry and markers of certain levels of proficiency in the digital archaeology world (while at the same time representing a useful shorthand for the densely obscure codes and standards). The need to demonstrate technical prowess through innovation even as this innovation frequently duplicates similar functionality already existing tools mediates a kind of competition between tribal entities that can be as inefficient as it is professionally disruptive, but it nevertheless forms the basis for a kind of authority.

Of course, nowhere is the tribal nature of digital archaeology more evident than the dense network of informal and formal associations that make up advisory boards, conference proceedings and panels, and grant collaborations. These relationships provide both tribal structure, but also define major currents of authority in our field. They’re traceable (and here I’m thinking about Shawn Graham’s work in network analysis (or this intriguing article by Tom Brughmans); in fact, they’re particularly traceable owing to the digital nature of this work as well as the increasingly digitally mediated nature of professional communication in our field. While it would be naive to assume that these links reproduce the power relationships present in various “digital tribes,” it would provide a useful point of departure for a more specific and potentially incisive critique in how digital archaeology functions at the level of practice.

[And do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s recent post on professional genealogy which would also be interesting to hold up against a map of collaborations and communication for the same figures. How neatly does genealogy align with the professional networks that scholars cultivate and maintain?]  

Photogrammetry and Archaeological Practice

Phil Saperstein’s and Sarah Murray’s recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology is remarkably useful for anyone considering using photogrammetry or structure from motion techniques to document an archaeological site. The authors argue that for the efficiency and precision of photogrammetric techniques to make a significant impact on archaeological documentation practices, archaeologists need to demonstrated greater rigor and transparency in the implementation of these techniques in the field.

Their article outlines key considerations for developing more rigorous field procedures for using photogrammetric techniques. For example, the article advocated for the use of coded targets to improve the efficiency of modeling and the accuracy of the resulting images. The authors provide a useful primer on focal length, aperture setting, and camera equipment which is useful to anyone using photography to document buildings, objects, or spaces. Anyone thinking about using photogrammetry in the field should consult this article. I know that I would do things a bit differently had I read this prior to our field work this summer.

There are three interesting things, however, that this article does not really consider, and I think that these speak to certain tendencies in archaeological methodology and, perhaps, how the discipline “works” in the field at a procedural level.

First, it was curious that there was little discussion of actual software in the article. On the one hand, this is understandable. The requirements of a particular software package, of course, are subject to change, and it was probably worth downplaying specific software in the interest of keeping the article timely. At the same time, the authors do make clear that the software that makes photogrammetric images possible is complex and opaque. This article offers a primer on understanding how to make useful images in the field, but it does not extend to understanding how these images are processed. This division remains a key difference between traditional archaeological illustration practices which are relatively more transparent, and our new use of technology to document sites.

Second, the article focuses on field practices and does not extend to the publication and dissemination of the images produced through these techniques. Like the software used to analyze issues, there tends to be a discontinuity between image production, analysis, and publication in archaeology. With the increased use of digital tools in the field and the growing interest and reliance on processed and 3D images offers unique challenges to archaeological publications that continue to emphasize 2D media for technical and traditional reasons.

Moreover, the producing photographs that are also data used in analysis has additional challenge of making sure that the data is available for independent confirmation of the analysis or future study using new and more advanced software. While archaeologists are never obligated to disseminate data publicly, a requirement does exist to archive properly both the photographs themselves as well as the results of photogrammetric analysis. Archiving digital photographs is relatively straightforward using existing standards and technologies; archiving photogrammetric or 3D models offers some new challenges. I’ve tended to see the needs to archive the results of photogrammetric analysis as something that extends directly from its use in the field and maintaining the continuity of metadata for each image is part of carefully executed field work.

Finally, (and readers of this blog know to expect this), I do wonder whether even a technical article like this could benefit from going beyond arguments for efficiency to include a stronger sense for the interpretative goals and potential for this kind of work. Accuracy and precision, for example, are always relative to the interpretive or analytical needs. Field efficiency is likewise dependent upon the desired interpretive outcome.

The authors do present a nice matrix for deciding whether photogrammetry is possible at a site, but this nevertheless depends on the kind of questions that archaeologists are asking. An article focusing on field practices cannot anticipate every possible interpretative outcome, but the authors have extensive experience with these kinds of technologies and could offer some substantive case studies.

In the end, these quibbles are mostly me saying that I’d prefer this article to be different rather than saying that the article isn’t good. It’s really good. Go read it.

Curating Excavation Data

Over the past two weeks David Pettegrew and I have been working through the data from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project’s excavation seasons. This includes two seasons of excavation in the 1990s by Maria Hadjicosti with the Cypriot Department of Antiquities and and three seasons of excavation by a team from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Messiah College, and the University of North Dakota. So far, we’ve prepared the finds tables for publication following the approach that we took with the data from the intensive pedestrian survey at the site published in 2014.

With that more or less under control, we’ve turned our attention to the excavation data which is a bit more complicated a proposition. When we published our intensive survey unit data, we recognized that each survey unit is more or less comparable to every other survey unit. They are all the product of the same procedures, methods, and recording. It is, therefore, useful to query all the data together or a wide range of subsets of that data to interrogate the relationship between surface conditions and artifact recovery rates, densities, and assemblages.

Excavation data, in contrast, is different. Each stratigraphic unit (SU) represents a more complicated set of variables, procedures, and methods that make it very difficult to compare them. For example, a scarp cleaning unit or a plow-zone unit is very different from a unit that is floor packing. The excavation of floor packing in different trenches may or may not be defined the in the same way spatially or procedurally. In one trench the floor packing might be a single SU; in another, the floor packing might be removed over several SUs that are determined only later to represent the same stratigraphic context.

Our description of survey units served to define each unit in a way that allowed us to compare surface conditions across the entire survey area or even between survey areas. Our recording practices in excavation often serve to define our stratigraphic units in a way that is relative to physically adjacent units that represent later depositional events. This isn’t to suggest that we can’t compare units between trenches, but to note that the relative differences between stratigraphic units are often more important in describing the character of a stratigraphic unit.

All this is to say that we’re trying to figure out what information is important to include as searchable, queryable, and sortable data and what information can be left on our stratigraphic unit forms (which will be published as scans). The issue, then, is not whether we’ll publish some information and not publish other information – we’ll publish all of our recording sheets – but rather what we will publish as data and what will remain available, but not presented in a way that can be queried or 

 My instinct is to be fairly minimalist with the information that we present as formal data points. My take would be to publish as data:
* EU (trench number)
* SU (stratigraphic unit number),
* Harris Matrix Relationships (using the basic Harris matrix style terms)
* Description (as a free text block).  

David advocates for a more robust set of queryable descriptors. 

The first group are the same as mine:

* Area
* EU (trench number)
* SU (stratigraphic unit number)
* Description

The next group can be easily pulled from our forms:

* DateExcavated
* MinElev
* MaxElev
* Munsell
* Texture
* Consolidation
* Stoniness
* Dominant Clast

Some of the categories will be included not as textual data, but as links to other resources:

* DrawingNumber
* DrawingDescription
* PhotoNumber
* PhotoDescription

The final group is more interpretive and will draw from the final reports and our published chapter:

* Context (Surface, Plow, Destruction, Floor, Subsurface)
* Phasing in Site
* Summary (from our chapter) 

He does not include Harris Matrix relationships.

The question that I leave for my readers to consider is how do we balance between presenting as much data as might be useful for our audience, and publishing so much data that we allow for unwanted errors to creep in without providing additional utility. 

The Cost of Digital Archaeological Data

For the last ten years or so, I’ve had an installation of Omeka running on a University of North Dakota server. Because of budget cuts and administrative changes, they will begin charging us for our server space and service on a monthly basis. Since this is not a very stable environment for archiving or publishing data (and better suited for people whose data has a specific use life), I will have to migrate my data elsewhere. This isn’t a huge crisis (it’s just a mini-crisis), because most of what I have on this server is interesting, but not super useful for anyone other than myself and my colleagues.

There is one exception, and that is the 650 images associated with the abandoned settlement of Lakka Skoutara. David Pettegrew and I documented this site with photography for over a decade and these photographs provide a remarkable visual record of archaeological formation processes and the processes associated with abandonment in the rural Greek landscape. Check them out here.

It goes without saying that we wanted to have these in a more permanent archive with stable identifiers and substantial metadata so that they can be cited by scholars (including us in a forthcoming article). We requested a quote from a well-regarded digital archive for our photos and data. The standard rate was $5 per file so to archive these images it would cost about $3200 which is a bit more than I had budgets, but in a fundamental sense, not unreasonable. The collection of photographs is relatively small because, in part, many of the original photographs were taken with slide film. The developing cost of slides alone discouraged us from collecting “too many” photographs from the field.

In the Bakken, for example, where we have only used digital data collection (photo, video, audio recordings), and collected close to 10,000 files. Assuming there are no economies of scale, this would cost $50,000 to archive. This is approximately twice the cost of field work. My friend Dimitri Nakassis’s project offers another example of how digital data has expanded. He is doing RTI imaging of around 1000 Linear B tablets. Each RTI image is composed of approximately 50 photos. To archive this at the rates quoted to me about would cost over a quarter of a million dollars. While Dimitri’s project is a large, multi-year undertaking, it probably still had a total budget of little more than $50,000. In other words, archiving his photographs could run to over 5 times the cost of fieldwork. A large field project with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars could easily produce an assemblage of files that could cost into the millions to archive. 

Update: Dimitri noted on Twitter that so far his RTI project has produced 311, 302 files which at $5 per file would cost a not-insignificant $1,556,510 to archive or approximately 30 times the cost of the producing the images.

Thinking about these numbers got me thinking a bit more about how digital tools in archaeology will shape the discipline. While archiving archaeological data – even in analogue forms – has always been a requirement for any archaeological project, not to mention the need to store and preserve finds and sites. But these expenses are often distributed through an existing system that ranges from institutional archives at universities to archaeological storerooms and museums frequently funded by host countries. In other words, traditional practice in archaeological work (as well as other research) provides established infrastructure within which projects can work in economically efficient ways.

Digital tools and digital data, however, still require a massive investment (and with the precarious situation of university research funding and major grant projects from the NEH) and some of that investment will devolve on projects, and the numbers that I’ve just recently encountered suggest that the investment on the part of projects will likely be considerable! 

More Mobilizing the Past

With all the exciting new stuff happening at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I’ve let some updates on (slightly) older projects slide. So here’s a bit of an update.

Copies of Erin Walcek Averett, Derek B. Counts, and Jody Michael Gordon eds., Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: the potential of digital archaeology (2016), went out to reviewers this winter and the first reviews are coming in. Benjamin Ducke of the DAI in Berlin offered a largely positive review of the book for the German journal Archäologische Informationen here. He concludes by saying that while “Zu den inhaltlichen Mankos einiger Beiträge gehören der kaum hinterfragte Einsatz proprietärer Software und Serverdienste zur Datenprozessierung und -speicherung, welche einer Blackbox gleichkommen, sowie eine zu autodidaktische Herangehensweise bei der Suche nach technischen Lösungen,” Mobilizing the Past “repräsentiert den Stand des Wissens am Übergang zur Phase der vollständigen digitalen Dokumentation archäologischer Feldarbeit. Since this is what the authors really set out to do from the start, we’re pretty happy with that assessment.

The editors of Mobilizing the Past funded the conference and the book through a NEH grant, for which they have written a final report. Read alongside Ducke’s review, this report confirms the fundamentally practical motivations for the conference and accounts from the practical character of many of the papers. When I decided to publish this book, I regarded this as a good thing because it offered a state-of-the-field (Stand des Wissens) perspective which will give it longevity as both a historical document and a critical reflection on a moment of particularly creative and accelerated change in field practices.

Finally, the book has been downloaded over 1500 times and we’ve sold a steady number of volumes in paper as well. Interestingly, the numbers for this book are almost identical to The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016).

Download a copy of Mobilizing the Past here or buy it in paper here.

  

From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology

This week the Society of American Archaeology annual meeting takes place is Vancouver, B.C. Unfortunately, I won’t be attending, but I will be there in person as my colleagues Derek Counts and Erin Averett deliver a paper that looks at how digital archaeology and digital publishing will work together to reshape the future of the discipline and archaeological knowledge making.  

Check out our paper, below, and download some cool publications in digital archaeology from The Digital Press.

“From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology”

Session: Archaeological Epistemology in the Digital Age

Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), Derek B. Counts (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), William Caraher (University of North Dakota), and Jody Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology)

Introduction

Before we get started, I wanted to offer two prefatory remarks: First and foremost, on behalf of my co-authors, I want to thank Rebecca and Michael for the kind invitation to offer a paper in this session, which positions itself nicely as digital approaches to archaeology continue to transform the field. Secondly, I must apologize for our title and the published abstract… and especially to those who have attended our paper on the promise of what we proposed. Seven months ago, Derek, Bill, Jody and I were in the trenches, battling the nuances of digital archaeology on several fronts as we made the final push to complete our book, Mobilizing the Past (Averett et al. 2016), which appeared in October (and is still available free to download at TheDigitalPress.org!). At the time, we thought a paper for this session provided a wonderful opportunity to synthesize what we had learned – and to discuss the ins/outs of our publication process and how we harnessed the promise of “digital” and “open” to build our book.

Fast-forward seven months. The title makes less sense and already seems dated. Things are moving that fast. Mobilizing the Past captured a moment in the evolution of digital archaeology. And, while we recognize that archaeological projects have incorporated digital technologies unevenly —especially if you scan the landscape outside of the Mediterranean—most agree that the move to ‘born-digital’ is well underway. Still, archaeologists haven’t fully articulated the benefits and problems of replacing traditional methods of field recording with digital technologies. And, while our recent publication was a step in the right direction, it was more about tools and technology than it was about process and products.  So – the first part of our original title – “From Trench to Tablet” –  is no longer useful for two reasons:

  1. The ship has sort of sailed on paradigm-shifting conversations about iPads; folks are using mobile devices in the field to do archaeology; and
  2. Because it imposed a limit on the conversation by separating the process of field recording from interpretation and analysis.

Field Recording is thus also no longer the focus per se of this paper, in part, because it may not be particularly useful to think of it as a discrete “stage” or “step” within the practice of archaeological knowledge making.

For the record, our title is now: Interpreting and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology. We think this title embraces more fully how digital practices in archaeology impact the entire process from interpretation to publication.

Mobilizing the Past: Goals and Moving Forward

To start, I want to return briefly to Mobilizing the Past. The book grew out of a rather selfish need: as the Athienou Archaeological Project decided to move to digital recording methods in 2011, we struggled with the logistics of incorporating new technologies and digital data into our legacy workflow. On a practical level, we understood that other projects were struggling with the same concerns, but there was a surprising lack of published discourse. Thus, the idea for an NEH-funded workshop and publication was born. Our initial goal was to convene a forum that might begin to establish best practices and protocols for mobile computing in digital archaeology with respect to technologies and approaches to both in-field recording and the dissemination of the results. We structured the workshop sessions around the development and use of software, tools, and systems, but also pedagogy, data curation, and critiques. It soon became clear that our original focus on the practical aspects of digital technologies could not be separated from larger theoretical questions concerning field methods and interpretation. Some of this is apparent in the volume, which while remaining biased toward practical perspectives on the turn toward the digital, often left as tacit issues relating to the interpretation and publication of this rapidly expanding and diversifying body of “born-digital” evidence.

This point was not lost on folks who have commented on the volume. For example, Morag Kersel, in her response paper in the volume, notes her “shock” at the lack of attention to publication in Mobilizing the Past, remarking on “the lack of engagement of what to do with the increasing amount of data produced as a result of these new technologies—most of the submissions stopped at the edge of the square or in the analysis stage of fieldwork; very few mentioned publication” (Kersel 2016: 486).  In a series of blog posts, Dimitri Nakassis criticized the contributions for focusing too heavily on accuracy and efficiency in collecting data at the expense of interpretation.[1]  Making his point provocatively, he notes that the word “data” appeared 1619 times, while variations on “interpret” appear only 164 times.

At the same time, most of our contributors recognized that the perceived division between data collection and analysis is more closely related to the physical organization of archaeological work on the ground than the intellectual organization of the task involved in structuring an archaeological project. This division between physical and intellectual work, while a persistent idea both in archaeology and the larger organization of labor and humanity, has more to do with the separation of the field from the lab or office than any intent to isolate collection from interpretation. Thus, the distinction identified by Nakassis is more illusory than real. Data collection is interpretation. If we’re serious about digital technologies being part of a dynamic ecosystem of practice, then interpretation, and by extension publication, is more than just the result of digital work, but an essential aspect of what we do in the field. 

This perceived dichotomy between data and interpretation, however, belies a general schizophrenia in critical approaches to digital archaeology: as some call for more introspection with respect to the integration of digital approaches in field archaeology, others push for more discussion of how digital technology at large is changing interpretation and publication. Most projects started ‘going digital’ in the last five years—that process is still young, and so is the data that those excavations have produced. Moreover, as Shawn Graham recently blogged: this first phase (and maybe no phase) of digital archaeology is not efficient. It’s experimental; it’s slow; it rarely goes “click, bing! result.”[2] It is difficult to avoid the feeling that chastising archaeology done digitally for not offering ‘more on interpretation and more on publication’ reflects a sense that digital archaeology is somehow ‘faster’ (which it is not) and that somehow it allows its researchers to get to answers and new interpretations more quickly (why would it?).

This view of digital practices that demands efficiency in many ways embraces the linearity of the assembly line that starts with the “lowly” technical and physical task of data recording in the field, progresses through collating and processing the data in the lab, and ends with the most respected phase of interpretation – the final publication. The result of archaeological fieldwork, in this process, is the definitive work: the book or the article. This result carries marks of authority from its form as a printed text through exaggerated expectations of persistence and the symbols of authority imparted by a largely commercialized publishing industry. In this system, the authority of the final publication overwrites interpretations at the trowel’s edge, the selection of technology, or even the iterative process of analysis.  To put it another way, our current model of knowledge production exchanges the authority of methodologically sophisticated, consistent, and rigorous fieldwork for the authority imparted by the publication process itself. Critiques that noted the absence of interpretation in Mobilizing the Past do so because data isn’t recognized as fundamentally interpretative in our current model of producing knowledge, not because interpretation was absent.

While acknowledging that this view of traditional publishing is a wee bit (!) polemical, we wonder if part of the current schizophrenia in the discussion of digital practices could be overcome by embracing a non-linear model of publishing that values reflexive approaches and interpretation that take place at every phase. This isn’t to throw the baby of high quality academic work out with bathwater of traditional publishing, but rather to suggest that critical attention to digital field practices needs to extend through the entire publishing process. The goal isn’t interpretation as an end (pace Nakassis), but ways to demonstrate the interpretive moves that take place throughout archaeological work. These perspectives, of course, aren’t new and are part-and-parcel of post-processual archaeology (see recently Berggren et al. 2015). For example, Morgan and Eve (2012) demonstrated how digital technology could mediate a decentered and participatory approach to fieldwork at the Prescot Street excavations in the UK. Caraher and Reinhard (2015) and Zubro (2006), using slightly different terms, argued that communities of practice extant across social and new media sites provide ways for archaeological information to disseminate to wide audiences with relatively little friction. These models of publishing can be both dynamic and fluid without the unnecessary stigma of being provisional (or relegated to “mere data collection”) if we de-emphasize the linear process of knowledge of production.

The technologies and conventions already exist for more dynamic publishing conventions that both embrace the core values of scholarly publishing and reflect the continuous nature of archaeological publication. Despite persistent anxiety, there are ways to preserve even academic standards such as peer review with platforms like Hypothes.is (https://hypothes.is/) and MIT’s PubPub (https://www.pubpub.org/)that allow for threaded conversations to develop texts in ways that go well beyond the limits of conventional paper publishing, and to allay concerns of persistence with the rapidly maturing infrastructure of the stable web with projects like the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/index.php). More importantly for archaeologists, however, is that there is a basic consensus for practices fundamental to a linked, open data infrastructure that many of the people on this panel understand. The approaches taken by Open Context (https://opencontext.org/), Perio.do (http://perio.do/), and Pleiades (https://pleiades.stoa.org/) provide foundational structures for de-centered, but consciously curated, strategies of publishing archaeological contexts and artifacts, periods, and places respectively. The decisions to embrace digital media both in new ways and within existing scholarly conventions is at least partly in the hands of the archaeological community. At some level, we set the standards for what constitutes legitimate disciplinary knowledge through our own practices of citation and participation.

There are, however, legitimate complications. For example, some countries remain hesitant to allow for digital publication of archaeological data, and it goes without saying that all forms of publication, but particularly those presented in a highly accessible way, must remain sensitive to the cultural interests of communities impacted by archaeological work. A less linear publication model will only exacerbate the overwhelming proliferation of scholarly outlets, publications, and resources (for a similar critique, see Witmore 2009 and Bevan 2015 on the “data deluge”). On a more subversive note: academic and professional institutions increasingly are beholden to the use of standardized metrics to assess research productivity and these tend to be calibrated to traditional publications; it is not unappealing to take approaches to knowledge production that intentionally break that system. But we must also recognize that such institutions tightly regulate tenure and promotion processes that might undervalue (or not acknowledge) forms of publication that do not adhere to the traditional modes. There are long-standing attitudes toward the book as a physical object that makes manifest in its form, a finite and apprehensible body of knowledge, and this stands in contrast to the seemingly limitless space of linked, digital knowledge on the internet.

Despite these challenges, it is easy enough to understand how digital technologies can create wondrous new forms of digital publication. For example, several years ago, Derek Counts and I decided to incorporate 3D scanning into our study and recording of the limestone and terracotta sculptures from the site of Athienou-Malloura in Cyprus.  This new 3D documentation strategy invariably forced a new publication strategy. Most importantly, the broader arc of our research agenda—from data collection to dissemination—was conceived digitally. Recognition that each step in the process requires careful consideration of interpretive decisions with respect to tools, methods, and analysis, ultimately is yielding multilateral control of interpretations that we hope will transform the traditional catalogue. Our collaborator, Kevin Garstki, has just highlighted some of this, but also recently written about the importance of recognizing these interpretive, even editorial, stages in 3D scanning in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (Garstki 2016). Unlike a traditional printed catalogue, the digital catalogue will include dynamic 3D images with a variety of user-manipulated tools, but it will also harness the potential for multiple forms of complementary linked data not possible in print form from simple hyperlinks to GIS-generated provenience maps. The catalogue can be updated each season with links to new stratigraphic data or information related to new finds, associated artifacts, and existing comparanda. Sculptural fragments published previously can be reunited with newly-discovered joins. As objects are photographed, digitally modelled, formally described, and contextually analyzed, the more traditional interpretive facets of their existence can be integrated with digital dissemination. Narrative analyses can be easily updated and linked to new information and to the range of technical and grey literature, from excavation manuals to published records produced at trenchside, providing relational knowledge that supports various readings of the site, the objects, and archaeological work. In other words, such standard interpretive moves that locate an object within an archaeological context are thus disseminated in an innovative, organic, and open way.

The basic tools for this kind of approach already exist and models are appearing regularly that demonstrate how this or that element could work – from real time recording like Morgan and Eve describe at Prescot Street to artifactual records published by Open Context to the bewildering range of associated files types supported by online repositories like the Internet Archive and tDar (https://www.tdar.org/). On a very practical level, there is no need for us to imagine data collection as somehow un-interpretive and just a step toward publication. To the contrary, this type of publication embodies these fragments of archaeological knowledge as digital technologies provide a relational, linked, and largely open platform for a non-linear and transparent ecology of archaeological knowledge making.

When confronted by the potential and challenges of such boundless and infinitely-linked knowledge, it is helpful to return to the field and Mobilizing the Past. One of the major critiques of our book, which applies to many recent explorations of digital technologies and archaeological work, is that we continue to use the language of objective empiricism and industrial process to describe “data collection,” while at the same time acknowledging that we recognize the interpretive character of field work and the influence of digital technologies on the knowledge that we produce. Part of the reason for this perspective on fieldwork rests in the tradition of seeing archaeological knowledge production in a linear way with the final publication marking the culmination of an interpretive and analytical process. A more reflexive digital archaeology in the field, however, pushes us to think how publishing can capture these interpretive processes. Rather than seeing the interpretation at the trowel’s edge as a provisional stage in the way to a final analysis, we’re proposing a digital archaeology that explores non-linear publications to expose, to probe, and ultimately to destabilize the binaries that have come to dominate our field.

 

Works Cited

Averett, E. W., J. M. Gordon, and D. B. Counts (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016). https://thedigitalpress.org/mobilizing-the-past-for-a-digital-future/

Berggren, Å., Dell’Unto, N., Forte, M., Haddow, S., Hodder, I., Issavi, J., Lercari, N., Mazzucato, C., Mickel, A., Taylor, J. 2015. “Revisiting the Reflexive Archaeology at Çatalhöyük: Integrating Digital and 3D Technolgies at the Trowel’s Edge,” Antiquity 89: 433-448. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2014.43

Bevan, A. “The data deluge,” Antiquity 89 (2015), 1473-484. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2015.102

Caraher, W. and A. Reinhard, “From Books to Blogs: Blogging as Community, Practice, and Platform,” Internet Archaeology 39 (2015). http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue39/7/toc.html

Garstki, K. “Virtual Representation: the Production of 3D Digital Artifacts” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2016), DOI:10.1007/s10816-016-9285-z.

Kersel, M. “Response: Living a Semi-Digital Kinda Life,” in E. W. Averett, et al. (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016), 475-92. https://digitalpressatund.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/5_1_kersel.pdf

Morgan, C. and S. Eve, “DIY and digital archaeology: what are you doing to participate?” World Archaeology 44 (2012), 521-37. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2012.741810

Zubrow, E. B. “Digital Archaeology: The Historical Context” in T. Evans and P. Daly (eds.), Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. Routledge. (London, 2006), 10-31.

Witmore, C. 2009. “Prolegomena to Open Pasts: On Archaeological Memory Practices,” Archaeologies 5 (2009), 511–545. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225833647_Prolegomena_to_Open_Pasts_On_Archaeological_Memory_Practices 

Updates from The Digital Press: Digital Infrastructure

One of the biggest challenges for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is developing (or more properly discovering) the digital infrastructure necessary to support robust and persistent digital context to complement the traditional books. As long as books are just volumes distributed via Amazon in paper or made available as PDFs, a relatively simple system works. 

The challenges get bigger when it comes to coordinating media that exists as both a book – either in paper or in some simple digital form. As a mid-sized institutions going through some pretty significant budget cuts, we don’t have the resources to support an in-house repository (yet!), as a result, I need to use services and resources already available on the open web. Sorting this all out will be particularly significant in the next few weeks as two nearly completed projects require supplemental material. 

My instinct is to use the Internet Archive to support my relatively modest needs. For example, I am almost ready to announce that I will be publishing Corinth Excavations’ Archaeological Manual. This will be the first major, published excavation manual from a project in the Mediterranean published in the last 40 years (probably since the last edition of Dever and Lance’s A Manual of Field Excavation in the early 1980s). The book will include a digital supplement which includes the forms the the Archaeological Manual recommends using in the field. These will be reproduced in the slim book (around 170 pages), but at a size appropriate for the rather narrow (8.5 x 5.5) volume. In the supplemental material, we will make them available at full size to download. Since the entire volume will be CC 4.0-By, the plan is to put the supplemental material up in the Internet Archive for download with the idea that the Internet Archive can produce a persistent URL. But I obviously want to make sure that this will all work how I think it will work so when I include the link in the paper and digital volume, it will work for years to come.

Oh, and I started working on the cover. Corinth is a pretty conservative place and the Archaeological Manual is a pretty technical, specialist book, so I wanted to convey something of the conservative, technical nature of the work. I really like Gil Sans for the title, and think that anything bolder would look overwhelming. I used Times New Roman for the author’s names. There are a lot of authors on this manual so that was tricky.

CEM Cover 01

A similar issue faces my work with Micah Bloom’s Codex project. The book (about books… check out the link) also includes a video. The original plan was to archive the video in our newly minted institutional repository, but my instinct is that we won’t have this up and running by the time that the book needs to be produced in early May. So, like the supplemental material for the Corinth Archaeological Manual, I need a place to post the video that will provide a persistent link so that we can embed connect the book and the video. I’m hoping the Internet Archive can provide this.

With the SAAs beginning this week, I decided to create a little landing page for folks who are checking out The Digital Press for the first time. Just for fun, I’m embedding live views of the books from the Internet Archive. It’s not an ideal layout, but fun and dynamic way to show off The Digital Press’s archaeology catalogue. Here’s a preview

 

Finally, yesterday I mentioned that my graduate historiography class is working on a project relating to the humanities, history, and the UND budget crisis. Just for fun, I designed a book cover or a poster for the project. If figure it might help promote their work when we release it for local and then public comment. 

It’s nothing that’ll win a design award, but I like it: 

DefendingHistoryCover 01

As you can probably guess, this post is partly a cry for help, but also a little update on recent projects. If you can help, please do! If you’re curious about getting an advanced copy of forthcoming publications, do drop me a line! If you just want to insult my design skills, do that as well!

Three Thing Thursday: Cities of Salt, Digital Practice, and Borders

Maybe I’ll make a habit of this over the next few months. Or maybe not. (I’m tempted to be one of those bloggers who releases shorter posts throughout the day. In fact, I’m tempted enough to write those posts, but not as tempted to push them out over the course of the day.)

Anyway, here are three unrelated things that are flitting through my addled mind.

1. Abdelrahmen Munif’s Cities of Salt should be required reading in North Dakota. The novel describes the disruptions experienced in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with the discovery of oil. It begins in a verdant oasis which is destroyed and, then, moves on to a dreary coastal town where the American company houses Arab workers, many displaced from their previous homes in the oasis, in a series of man camps. The first camps were tents set up along the beach in neat lines and after they worked to construct an American-style town to accommodate the American workers, they were moved to a series of barracks where the lead used in the tin roofs dripped down on them during the day as it melted in the sun. Both the American-style town and the various camps for the Arab workers were set apart from each other and their surrounding by barbed wire and access control points. Munif set these in contrast to the oasis, which despite being a physically distinct environment from the surrounding desert, nonetheless saw the constant flow of caravans and other movement that emphasized its integration with the rest of the world.

While I haven’t finished the book, Munif provides a dynamic and deeply social portrayal on the way that extractive industries can disrupt the interplay between society and the environment. (For more on this, see my Tuesday post.)

2. The Character of Digital Practice. I spent a little time yesterday afternoon and last night fiddling with a paper that some colleagues and I will give at next week’s Society of American Archaeology annual meeting. One of the things that my co-authors, Derek Counts and Erin Averett, have really prompted me to think about some of the binaries that shape how we think and talk about archaeological work. For example, the distinction between data collection and analysis, between data and interpretation, between being in the field and being in the lab or in the office, between doing and thinking. These binaries both reflect long-standing philosophical divisions between, say, mind and body, here and there, and describing and interpreting, but they also represent differences in experience between being hot and dirty and tired in the field and being clean and rest and cool in one’s office or coordinating team leaders and trench supervisors on the ground and running statistical analysis on a dataset.

It is easy enough to characterize these binaries as false and unhelpful. For example, we understand that certain assumption, expectations, and structures of digital data collection directly shape the kind of archaeological interpretations and knowledge that we make. At the same time, these divisions are real and they do shape our approach to the tools – digital or otherwise. For me, negotiating this tension seems to be very close to the heart of how we understand digital practices in field archaeology. While I am always quick to lump all aspects of archaeology together as “interpretation and knowledge making,” I think that this kind of lumping might be reaching the end of its usefulness in the case of understanding digital practices in the field. Digital technologies do present ways to break through certain binaries, of course, but they also exist in a particular place and moment of archaeological practices.

3. Borders. Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak about his work, including his 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizers. As a Vietnamese-American writer he talked a good bit about how various borders – physical, literary, and economic – served to define the limits of how a minority author could express himself or herself. He talked about how he worked to defy literary expectations and instead of writing, what he called “little brown realism,” he sought to write in a more self-consciously literary style. It was a novel written by a minority and the son of refugees that wasn’t a minority novel. 

He likewise discusses the roles of borders in defining groups and impeding movement while acknowledging that his family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam was made possible by Cold War politics and the favorable optics of the United States accepting refugees from a communist country. He also recognized that this kind of permeability of borders with information, culture, animals, tacos (yum!), and capital crossing from one country to the next. This permeability of borders, for Nguyen, held forth the future of the world where borders don’t exist. At worst, humans would flow like capital and best like culture.