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.

The Enchantment of Digital Archaeology

It should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of Shawn Graham’s work. After all, my press not only published his previous book, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays, but also collaborates with with him to publish the paper version of the journal EpoiesenShawn was also among the first scholars to push back against my ideas of a slow archaeology and his critiques have continued to influence my current work.

I was pretty excited to read his latest book, An Enchantment of Digital Archaeology, which appeared as the first volume of Andrew Reinhard’s new Digital Archaeology: Documenting the Anthropocene series from Berghahn Press. The book is short and good, and I’d encourage anyone who is interested to read it. Shawn argues that digital archaeology can enchant by engaging the practitioner in the act of creating new knowledge largely through the media of agent based modeling. These digital models – primarily developed on the Netlogo digital modeling platform – allow archaeologists to create programs that allow them to test hypotheses by bringing their models to life. The practice of “singing” (i.e. fr. chant) these ideas to life on the screen foregrounds the creative and generative aspects of digital archaeology and emphasizes their relationship to craft as opposed to the industrial practices that I developed at the core of my calls for slow archaeology.

(As an aside, Shawn’s view of enchantment in his models reminded me so much of Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. which I blogged about a couple years ago here.) 

Instead of offering a review (which would be premature anyway as the book has just appeared), here are a few thoughts:

1. Big Tent Digital Archaeology or Digital Archaeologies. A few years ago, there was a good bit of talk about big tent digital humanities (which Ethan Watrall connected to digital archaeology). The gist of this conversation is that by expanding the definition of digital humanities, we also open the field to a wider range of voices and participants. There was (and perhaps to some degree continues to be) concern that digital humanities has become rather narrowly defined with perhaps too great an emphasis research questions of particular interest to scholars of literature and a fairly narrow set of tools and practices associated with producing digitally mediated critical editions, various forms of distant reading, and public facing corpora of historical sources. While this critique may seem outdated today, the debates surrounding the “big tent” digital humanities almost certainly nudged the nascent field to embracing a wider range of digital approaches under its purview.

Digital archaeology has perhaps avoided a small-tent mentality, although it would be fair, I think, to discern the clear emergence of certain communities of practice in the field. That being said, it might well be time to think about digital archaeologies rather than digital archaeology. 

Shawn’s book, for example, focuses heavily on the development and use of agent based modeling and the enchantment he experiences watching his ideas come to life in the interaction between agents in these digital mediated environments. This is intriguing work with applications that go well beyond the analysis of Roman brick stamps (which were the focus of his dissertation) or patronage systems in Roman Italy. One could imagine applying agent based models, for example, to Justin Leidwanger’s recent work on the Roman maritime economy and the distribution of amphora or Roman fine wares.

At the same time, this application of digital practices in archaeology is quite a bit different from the kinds of issues explored in Averett, Counts, and Gordon’s 2016 book, Mobilizing the Past which really emphasized the use of digital tools in field practices. It is also distinct from the brilliant work done by the Gabii team in producing a dynamic publication of a Middle Republican House or the work of Maurizio Forte and his DIG@Lab to create immersive archaeological environments. This is not to say that all these approaches can’t create the sense of enchantment, and the goals of digital heritage practices often seek to do just that, but rather to suggest that digital archaeologies embrace a wide range of practices, goals, and genealogies from the magical to the mundane.

2. Models and Meaning in Archaeology. Making and defining archaeological knowledge is difficult and the digital environment offers a way to think about how and what we know about the past as a product of the tools and practices that we use. In some ways, the key to Graham’s book is understanding that his idea of enchantment depends upon his view of archaeological knowledge making and this, in turn, is grounded in his reading of R.G. Collingwood. 

Collingwood, an archaeologist, historian, and philosopher famously argued that all history is the history of thought. The work of the historian was to rethink past thoughts and communicate these thoughts to other people. The historian’s work at explaining the past, then, depends upon their ability to articulate in a critical way their own thoughts. These critical articulations, mostly structured as formal arguments that make visible the reason why a historian thought in a particular way, are the objects of historical knowledge. Historians cannot debate what happened in the past, because this is something that is fundamentally unknowable, but we can debate what historians think happened in the past. 

Graham’s agent based models are, if I understand correctly, the basic unit of archaeological thought. They represent his ideas about the past brought to life and attention to the variable and code around which he structured the models offer a way to critique Graham’s thoughts. The models are arguments and the enchantment that Graham experiences in producing these models is parallel to the enchantment a historian feels in spelling out their view in text.

3. Digital Archaeology and Work. Graham has long taken issue with my concept of slow archaeology as a counter weight to the discipline’s growing dependence on digital technology and practices. He rightly points out that coding is a creative process and parallels the kind of craft practices that I connect to slow work in the field. This makes sense; after all WordPress has long reminds us that “code is poetry” and few of us would argue that writing poetry is industrial labor. 

I’ll gladly concede that the production of robust and carefully constructed datasets, thoughtfully designed maps, agent-based models and even the digital involved in creating and publishing books has closer parallels to craft than to industrial practices. In fact, I’ve been pretty convinced by Colleen Morgan and Daniel Eddisford’s argument that single context recording, in which an archaeologist is responsible for bringing together all that is knowable about a single context is an open area excavation, represents a the basis for a creative, anarchist praxis in our field.

At the same time, I think there are elements of scale that make these practices enchanting. After all, not all digital practices in archaeology involve the integration or construction of complex models or datasets. Most of what slow archaeology critiqued was the use of digital tools in the field to collect bits of data. Unlike an agent based model, these bits of data are not complete archaeological thoughts. A photograph used to make a structure-from-motion 3D image, for example, might not even be recognizable by a human viewer as representing a particular object or landscape. The photograph only makes sense in the computer-mediated context of a 3D model generated by software like Pix4D or Agisoft Metashape. The same can be said for entering data into a database in the field or filling out a form. In isolation, a check box or even a short description does not produce a sense of enchantment and, following Collingwood, these are not complete archaeological or historical thoughts. 

I’d argue that this kind of digital archaeology, the work that anticipates Graham’s enchanting models, has more in common with the fragmented work of the assembly line and industrial practices than the integrated work of craft. That the collector of digital data, especially at scale, is rarely the individual responsible for the integration and interpretation of the data reinforces the relationship between fragmentation of digital archaeological work and the organization of archaeological labor. Slow archaeology, in this context, is very much consistent with Graham’s calls for enchantment, but it also offers a more cautionary note that encourages us to see the potential for enchantment alone as only part of a larger system of digital practices in our field that both draw upon longstanding forms of archaeological organization and intensify their effects. 

4. The Future of Digital Practices. Shawn, of course, recognizes that not all digital practices lead to enchanting outcomes and that not all forms of enchantment are inherently good. If the first half of the book involves enchanting models, the final chapters considers how the creation of models from massive unstructured, human-language datasets opens the doors not only to viewing how computers create structure but also on the limits of computational methods for reproducing the thoughts that we think about the past.

Shawn presents a number of examples of plausible texts produced from the autonomous analysis of historical documents. The plausibility of these texts rests on our ability to understand the context of the original documents and the style of writing and kinds of thinking that Flinders Petri, for example, might offer.

This plausibility, however, also makes the potential of this kind of technology seductive. By divorcing bit of text from their specific context and reordering and remixing them in new ways, he reveals how the fragmentation of digital data can divorce the fruits of archaeological work from individual actors, spatial and relational contexts, and relevance grounded in a sense of place. It appears that the affective potential of digital enchantment can also obscure and complicate how we understand the past.

As the code for NetLogo agent based models in the appendices of the book demonstrate, digital work requires transparency. 

5. Style. Finally, the book is written in Shawn’s honest, informal, but nevertheless precise style that should be familiar to anyone how has read his blog or Failing Gloriously. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly fits the goals of this book and has contributed to Shawn’s distinct place in the field of digital archaeology. 

Failing Gloriously Recognized!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Archaeology and Slow Media

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

These streams sort of coalesced into three proto-ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thing the First

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

Thing the Second

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

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

Thing the Third

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