Announcing the Digital Edition of Pyla-Koutsopetria 1: A Free Download

Over the past three years, I’ve been working with the good folks at the American Schools of Oriental Research (especially on the Committee on Publications) and Sarah and Eric Kansa at Open Context to produce a linked, digital version of our 2014 book in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series, Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town that I edited with my friends David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. 

Here’s a link to download the book. All you have to do is to become a friend of ASOR which free. Do it! 

Scott Moore and I worked to insert hundreds of links throughout the book to our data which we published on Open Context at about the same time as the book appeared. These links are permanent, persistent, and unique which is super cool. This allows a reader to “drill down” into our data. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll expand some of the main points here This is good for our data and for our readers for a few reasons:

1. Every Sherd. Ok, well, not technically EVERY sherd, since we did group identical artifacts together into batches. But since the batch is the smallest level of archaeological analysis for our project, a reader can look at exactly those sherds that led to to make a particular argument. Here is a sample of the batch table, and here’s a link to a Roman period kitchen ware rim.

2. Every Unit. Our batches coincide with units which is the smallest spatial division of our survey area. Over the last couple of years Open Context has become much slicker in dealing with spaces in a survey project. So it’s now possible to attach particular batches of artifacts to particular spaces or to query particular places for the artifacts present there. Here’s Unit 39, and here’s Batch 29 (a Late Roman 1 Amphora handle).

3. Every Type. We organized our artifacts using the Chronotype system which provides a local typology for each artifact recovered during the survey. This typology can be extraordinarily broad (for example, a Medium Coarse Ware, Ancient History which is a sherd datable only to the historical period (i.e. 700 BC – Today) with a medium coarse fabric)  or rather more narrow (like a Late Roman 1 type amphora). These can then be viewed across the units in the survey area.

This kind of linked archaeological publication, however, is just the start. There are a few things that a future model for this kind of publication could do.

1. Links from Data to the Book. At present, it is easy and useful to drill down from the rather traditional archaeological monograph into the data. It is not possible, right now, to drill up (?) from the data to our arguments. 

2. Beyond the Book. There are also precious few opportunities (yet!) to go from our work and Chronotype typologies into other bodies of published data. One low hanging fruit would be the Levantine Ceramics Project data which could be linked to our PKAP finds data to expand both datasets. As we look ahead to publishing data from the excavation at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla, we hope to be able to link to both our survey and excavation datasets in a born digital publication.

3. Better Digital Circulation. Right now, this is a trial balloon designed to show what is possible leveraging existing platforms and a little DIY elbow-grease (like, inserting a bajillion links!). In the future, we need to look toward a better way to circulate the digital manuscript and to ensure it’s stability and persistence. Obviously, the friction of having to add your email and join a list is not terribly great, but it remains a barrier to access. More significantly, ASOR’s Archaeological Report Series does not have a standard way to distribute digital content and to make it discoverable on the web, and this makes sense, since this is a proof-of-concept type project, but in the future, we hope for a more robust method to make digital publications available from ASOR with as low a barrier to entry as possible!

Anyway, these are all exciting prospects for digitally publishing of archaeological data and reckon that this is a great way to celebrate “Love Your Data Week 2017

ARS 21  PKAP Linked SM Page 003

Altas.ti and the North Dakota Man Camp Project

For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.

The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.

Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!) 

This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:

Document1

The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.

The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.

Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation. 

So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom. 

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little Hypothes.is comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Survey Methods and Efficiency

I was pretty excited to read S.T. Stewart, P.M.N. Hitchings, P. Bikoulis and E.B. Banning, “Novel survey methods shed light on prehistoric exploration in Cyprus,” in Antiquity 91 (2017) over lunch yesterday. First off, it had the words method, survey, and Cyprus in its title, which always hit me in the “feels.” Secondly, it deals with survey efficiency across complex landscapes on the island, and this reflects a challenge that we’ve faced on the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) over the past three field seasons.

Like any good article, it sent me through an emotional rollercoaster. 

Phase 1!

At first blush, I was horrified at the prospects of using predictive modeling to exclude certain units within a survey zone from intensive pedestrian survey in the name of efficiency. This felt like exactly the kind of technology-driven Taylorism that my recent scholarship has railed against. A slow archaeology embraces the kind of contingency, chance, and randomness that defies (at best) and taunts (at worst) efforts at efficiency. At its most absurd, this is discovering the most significant and time-consuming finds on the final scheduled day of field work.

The authors describe how they excluded units from survey because more recent geomorphological processes would obscure or destroy the late Pleistocene and early Holocene landscapes that would contain artifacts from the earliest periods of occupation on the island. In practice, survey archaeologists know that nothing is ever that simple. Modern, mechanized activity in the landscape is capable of removing meters of sediment to expose earlier paleosols, reworking the water flow across the landscape to erode through more recent deposits and revealing scarps and sites long buried, and even moving soils from elsewhere are depositing them and their accompanying artifacts in unexpected places. While all these contingencies require critical consideration when used to construct settlement patterns across the landscape, they can also provide unexpected windows into the past. 

Finally, intensive survey is about more than just looking for artifacts. By ignoring units that are unlikely to produce artifacts, they deprive themselves the opportunity to engage the landscape in a wholistic way. While it is fair enough observation that contemporary landscapes are different from earlier landforms, engaging the landscape compels the survey archaeology to recognize the diachronicity of all survey assemblages. An exposed late Pleistocene horizon is no less a component of the modern landscape than the earliest levels of the so-called Anthropocene.

In short, the urge to efficiency in their survey methods felt like a lost opportunity (at best) that risked insulating the archaeologist from the full context of even the earliest artifacts within a dynamic modern space. This modern space is where we as archaeologists encounter the landscape and produce our understanding the fine strands that connect our world to the ancient.

Phase 2!!

Then, I took a deep breath. What Stewart and her colleagues proposed is actually pretty cool. They created two models. One was a general model of landscapes in the Tremithos River Valley and the other was a more specific model based on their daily work in the field. This latter model was particularly interesting because it was iterative. Each day this specific model was updated with data from the field revealing the potential and power of a sophisticated GIS and data-management system.

More than that, my colleagues and I have argued in print that intensity matters in producing analytically meaningful survey assemblages. A system that takes into consideration data collected on the fly and allows the archaeologists to know where added intensity is likely to produce the most meaningful results – and if this system bore fruit – is exactly the kind of targeted and variable intensification that my colleagues and I have recommended in survey practice. So whatever efficiency is gained by using models, for me the gain is really in intensification. 

Phase 3!!!

Finally, sometime about 4:30 pm yesterday while I was on the second mile of my run, I realized that Stewart and her colleagues were probably not wrong in their approach. Having spent the last three seasons trudging through cobble-strewn fields along the banks of the Inachos river and finding nearly nothing (and learning as we went that some of these units did not preserve much of the ancient surface), I am acutely aware of the needs to treat the landscape with systematic efficiency. From sampling and collection strategies to field tactics, intensive pedestrian archaeology is inseparable from modern, industrial practices that extended from auto manufacturing the organization of universities. If industrial production can be designed around predictive models and machines that learn, then intensive survey will invariably absorb these same impulses and trend toward increased efficiency in the kind of archaeological knowledge that it produces. In fact, check out the first 100 or so pages of Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town (2014); we lay out explicitly how our sampling strategies balanced intensification and efficiency. 

In a very practical sense, much of our conversation over the past three on WARP is how to approach our landscape efficiently. We had the luxury of increasing the number of field teams every year and retaining our amazing group of team leader who develop more efficient field practices each season. As a result, we surveyed larger and larger amounts of territory each day and each week. This allowed us take risks and survey areas where we though it unlikely that we’d find significant artifacts scatters. This included steep, densely-vegetated, hill slopes as well as the valley bottom near the river where erosion and sedimentation conspired to obscure ancient surfaces.

Knowing what we know now about the geomorphology of the Inachos valley and the artifactual landscape (that is in hindsight), we probably would have deployed our survey teams differently. At the same time, walking the valley bottoms did prompt us to think more carefully about both modern land use and fragmentation as well as routes both along and across the Inachos river. These were important considerations as our survey was diachronic and all parts of the landscape could contribute to our larger arguments.

By the time, I was done processing this short article, I had come full circle. It’s a fine article and characteristic of the discourse in intensive pedestrian survey and reflective of both practical challenges and opportunities facing field work in the digital age. 

A Short Introduction to the Digital Edition of Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town

Over the last few days, I’ve been messing around with the wording of the introduction to a provisional digital version of the first volume of our Pyla-Koutsopetria series in the American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Report Series.

It’s a kind of writing that I find challenging to do for lots of reasons. It has to be concise, it has to convey some complicated concepts in a way that invites people to explore a text, and it has to recognize and articulate the limits to our work. This is what I came up with (and stay tuned for the release of this linked book):

We are very pleased to release a digital version of Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town (2014). We have modified this copy of the manuscript to include links to the archaeological data produced from 2003-2011 during almost a decade of intensive pedestrian survey and study by the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP). We have published our data with the Open Context platform where it underwent basic review by the managing editor. By integrating PKAP field and study data with Pyla-Koutsopetria I, the reader can now “drill down” into the data through hyperlinked text in a pdf version of the book. These links allow the reader to view the various digital archaeological “objects” that form the basis for the arguments advanced in this book. These digital archaeological objects range from individual survey units with attendant descriptive data to individual artifacts or batches of artifacts. We have also linked to the various categories of artifacts in our typology. These followed the chronotype system which both informed our sampling strategy in the survey and how we described our finds. We assigned a type to each artifact based on the chronotype naming conventions. These conventions combined a fabric or form with a period and could range from the exceedingly broad – like Medium Coarse Ware dating to the Ancient Historic period (750 BC- AD 749) – to much more narrowly defined and specific categories like African Red Slip Form 99. We have also linked to the various chronological periods assigned on the basis of the chronotype system which guided much of our analysis of artifact distribution in this book.

It is important to stress that this is a provisional document. In some ways, the book reflects the retrofitting of a traditional, analogue text with a layer (literally as well as figuratively) of links to our published digital material. As a result, we did not consider whether the data present in Open Context could be easily arranged by the user to replicate the analyses underpinning this analogue volume. For example, in the book, we organized our data spatially into zones which reflected both practical and archaeological divisions in our survey area. We have not arranged our data in Open Context in such a way that it is easy to query a zone for particular types of artifacts. In future projects, digital data and description will be more closely coordinated allowing the reader to explore the textual arguments more fully while still preserving the granularity of the original archaeological data. 

On Academia.edu

Yesterday Sarah Bond published a thoughtful, short article in her regular Forbes column suggesting that academics abandon Academia.edu and move their research to open access alternatives. Bond argues that academia.edu is a for-profit wolf in .edu-sheep clothing. It’s not a real .edu, in that it’s not in institution of higher learning (which is the current criteria for an organization to use the “.edu” domain name). It is a for-profit company that is looking for ways to monetize academic research further. Academia.edu’s recent offer to boost a participant’s visibility on their increasing crowded site for a small fee would seem to confirm their willingness to ignore academic convention in the name of profit. 

To be clear, I largely agree with Sarah’s critique and when Ethan Gruber and Eric Kansa lend their voices to the call, I’m even more inclined to follow their lead. My purpose of writing this blog post is to force myself to think through the issues at stake rather than necessarily to weigh in with any authority.

That being said, it seems to me that the pros and cons of academia.edu break down like this:

Academia.edu is good at what it provides at present: an easy to use and highly discoverable outlet for scholars to share research. They seem to have very little interest in interfering with what people upload to their site making it a useful back-channel for acquiring articles that would otherwise be trapped behind paywalls. They don’t charge fees for posting content or downloading content. 

There are risks. Academia.edu can mine who looks at our research as well as the research itself and make this data available to people who do not have our best interest at heart (as well as those with shared interests, to be clear). As we have all encountered with Facebook, there is a model for monetizing visibility and discoverability, and it seems clear that academia.edu has in mind to monetize that. Finally, and most boorishly, academia.edu could clutter its interface with obnoxious advertisements, special offers, and other crap diminishing its legibility and utility. 

The risks associated with using Academia.edu are not, to my mind, entirely unique to that platform. For example, the recent panic over the status of climate change data in the U.S. has demonstrated that state sponsored repositories are not necessarily safe from those who seek to undermine the free exchange of information. In state with an emboldened and interventionist super-majority in our legislature, I am not sure that I would trust North Dakota to protect access to my work in a repository. At the same time, private companies who understand their audience, users, and clients, have recently gone to battle with the federal government to protect privacy of their users (while at the same time mining user data for their own purposes). It is likely, of course, that academia.edu sells what they know about us to third parties, but to avoid this practice one would have to stay off the internet entirely. As a user of academia.edu and any number of other commercial platforms and tools from gmail to Facebook, WordPress.com, and my iPhone, I’m familiar with the cost/benefit dance that goes on any time we use a diverse digital ecosystem, and our power as consumers and users of these tools to influence how they use the information that they collect about us.

As an aside, I’m not terribly concerned about academia.edu’s ability to mine our research. Making our research open to the public always exposes it to the possibility of commercial uses. After all, we hope that our students mine our research for their own personal profits, both monetary and, we can hope, humanistic. I also have the feeling that community building in the public sphere will expose us to certain risks. 

The alternatives to Academia.edu do help avoid some of the risks associated with that platform, but they sacrifice discoverability, ease of use, and familiarity. I know the argument that if more people used the alternatives, then they might develop many of the same features and utility as academia.edu and provide a platform that is simultaneously more open and safer. I’m slowly populating my account at the Humanities Commons with my research, but I think I’ll keep my Academia.edu account for a while. For now, the visibility and utility of the platform – much like gmail or even Facebook – outweighs the risks, but as negative vibes around it continues to grow, I’ll prepare my escape route.

Revenge of the Analog

Over the holiday break, I read David Sax’s Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (Public Affairs 2016). It’s a popular book and Sax is a journalist who write on culture and technologies for a range of periodicals. His book is was intriguing to me not because he has an answer to why there is a persistent interest in the analog (or at least a simulacrum of the analog), but because he identifies a number of seemingly incongruous places where the “analog” practices appear to running counter to the prevailing trends of digital life.

In some ways, his book has parallels with recent popular move toward the “slow moment” as a antidote to the speed of life (and particularly capitalism) in the contemporary world. At the same time, Sax is clear that the analog isn’t a challenge to capitalist practices. In fact, one of his examples in Shinola which is a Detroit based company that specializes in luxury watches, leather goods, bikes, and, now, turn tables (of course). Another example is Moleskine notebooks which he recognizes as both a practical tool for members of the “creative class” as well as deliberately crafted corporate product. While the small time book seller appears in the books pages as does the owner of vinyl pressing factories and entrepreneurs looking to profit on the resurgence of film, these figures aren’t marginal or radical figures looking to scratch out a living at the margins of the global economy, but rather figures who recognize the potential to find profits among communities who embrace technologies and experiences that run counter to prevailing trends in our digitally mediate world.

Sax’s classic example of this is recent resurgence in vinyl records. He looks beyond audiophile arguments for the superior sound of vinyl (which may be valid, but only at price points way beyond the means of the average vinyl record buyer), and considers the rituals associated with the use of vinyl. The removing of a record from its dust cover, the cleaning of the surface, the placing of the stylus on the grooves and the endless fussing with tracking, tone arms, and cartridges. Even the need for separate components and cables and space for the records and the gear involves a spatial commitment to the experience of playing music that goes beyond what is required for digital or streaming music. In other words, the analog, at least for Sax, is physical. Books require bookstores, records encourage record stores and vinyl pressing factories, and film requires bulky manufacturing plants. Sax explores the world of board game cafes, the Detroit based workshop of Shinola watches, and cafes of Milan during fashion week where cognoscenti sip Peronis and sketch notes in their Moleskine notebooks. 

This link between spatiality and the analog while not explicit in Sax’s book got me thinking about my own ill-defined anxieties concerning the growing role of digital practices in archaeology. Increasingly, I have started to recognize that digital practices offer archaeologists ways to de-spatialize both their practices and their objects of study. High resolution digital models, for example, take up virtually no space and can move without particular ceremony or ritual from one computer to the next instantly. The modern digital storeroom is distributed across multiple computers, servers, and disks and is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  The analog, in contrast, whether it’s a physical notebook or an object or a site, is explicitly spatial.

This spatiality gives archaeologists, national governments, and communities a sense of control and command over their objects of study. The analog world described by Sax is one shot through with these moments of control and possession. We can hold a vinyl record, destroy a Moleskine notebook, and watch chemical entropy slowly transform a prized photograph. So perhaps our desire for the analog has more to do with our desire to hold and control and act as physically defined agents in a world increasingly mediated by elusive digital data and technologies and seem to dance just beyond our grasps.

Mobility and Archaeology

As I read Tim Cresswell’s 2006 book on mobility: Tim Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge 2006), I couldn’t help but think of Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, the most recent book published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.  

The idea conveyed by the title, Mobilizing the Past, is that by using mobile devices from iPads to phones to drones and digital cameras allows the past to become mobile. This is a significant idea. After all, historians and archaeologists think both pretty rarely about the past per se (after all the past is a pretty murky place) and constantly about constructing arguments about the past. It’s hard to imagine making the past itself (whatever that could be) mobile. So mobilizing the past refers to making mobile the evidence that we use to construct arguments about the past.

For an archaeologist this is an intriguing move because archaeology has traditionally been concerned with objects that are either physically immobile like architecture or politically immobile like artifacts. Host countries typically restrict the movement of artifacts at least from the country itself and often from the immediate vicinity of the site. In other words, mobilizing the past offers a way to transcend the historical limits of archaeology and the immobility of strata, architecture, and large features, as well as to subvert the political aims (however justified they are) of host countries who seek to limit the movement of objects from sites. The connection between the object or the feature and our knowledge of the past has long been bound by issues of mobility, and there is no doubt that access to a site and to objects remains a vital component to archaeological knowledge production.

Mobilizing the Past, however, and larger trends in production may indicate otherwise. The digital and “knowledge economy” as well as certain kinds of manufacturing are no longer connected firmly to one place or the other. While border undoubtedly limit the movement of labor (and create pools of labor to be tapped) and the geological presence of particular resources structure the deployment of labor, capital, and infrastructure, the cost of moving goods and resources from the place of production to markets is a factor in the value of these goods and resources. The same, in some ways, is true of archaeology. The talk of efficiency, cost/benefit, and “workflows” in Mobilizing the Past reflect an awareness of the friction that comes with the immobility of archaeological evidence and the role of technology in reducing this friction.

There is a hitch, though. As Cresswell and Reece Jone’s have emphasized, mobility and borders are political constituted. Making the past mobile is not a politically neutral act. The ongoing efforts by nation-states to limit the movement of artifacts both to strangle the trade in illicit antiquities (and the impact of destructive, illicit excavations) and to reinforce national claims to the ownership of antiquities through repatriation of objects, remind us as archaeologists that the friction associated with archaeology’s immobility derives from markets and national politics. A future, digital archaeology where digital objects can move seamlessly from the trench or the survey unit to servers around the world. These digital objects become the basis for archaeological constructions of the past.

A mobile past, however, implies a past that is increasingly divorced from claims by nations and communities to the physical authority over objects. For now, physical control over objects serves similar purposes to the control over markets and labor in the national system. However, like markets and labor, digital tools are making this control all the more difficult and, perhaps, less meaningful. After all, if an ultra high-resolution scan of an artifact can tell us more than actually viewing and handling the original, then the possession of the original becomes more of an obligation than an opportunity (or, more of a cost than a benefit). This is even more the case when we realize that the original – like almost all archaeological artifacts – is deteriorating physically from the moment of excavation. A scan of an object might actually be more valuable from an archaeological standpoint than the object itself. One could imagine a scenario where the expense and associated with the storage and display and reproduction of digital objects is rather low and well within the means of traditional colonialist powers (i.e. the US and Western Europe) and the expense of storing, preserving, and protecting the physical objects is high and foisted off on Mediterranean nations through the cultural logic of repatriation. This has already begun, in some way, in the archaeological storage crisis, and while I agree politically with the need to repatriate artifacts at scale, I also wonder whether the politics of mobility offer a rather disagreeable out for Western cultural institutions who can increasingly reap the scientific benefits of objects through digitization, promote their moral righteousness through repatriation, and saddle the countries requesting repatriation with the economic responsibilities and burden of a cultural heritage that is physically local, but intellectual – in some way – decentralized.

While the history of recorded music offers us a cautionary parallel to a kind of future in which digital objects circulate freely and the physical experience of encountering an object is rendered obsolete. While we can now reproduce musical performances at levels of fidelity that actually (and this is kind of mind bending) exceed those possible by attending a live performance (i.e. when listening to a recording every seat is the best seat in the house), people still attend live performances. So maybe the actually physicality of an ancient artifact will continue to draw people to them and reinforce the need for artifacts and archaeology to be immobile and profoundly local. At the same time, we should understand mobility as never politically neutral and our desire to move objects freely, quickly, and efficiently reflects an intriguing facet of the emergent, post-national, modernity.  

ASOR Wrap Up

My apologies for missing a few days on the old blog last week, but I was pretty busy at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to as many panels as I would have liked, but it was a productive meeting none the less.

So here are five things that happened (to me; after all, it’s my blog!) at ASOR:

1. Object Biography. The final workshop in a three year series of panels on object biography was a hoot (or as one of the panel’s organizers said “a bag of worms”), even if my paper was cautiously received. The papers were fun and the conversation was pleasantly edgy. Whatever the utility of object biography, the panels demonstrated an overwhelming desire for some kind of authentic engagement with things. It may be that object biography is flawed because most of us don’t think of objects as having life. At the same time, one wonders whether the recent interest in object agency especially among archaeologists, reflects our experiences struggling with objects that appear to have greater and greater autonomy from our wishes, desires, and intentions. In other words, maybe the idea of an object having a biography – a birth, a youth, an adulthood, and a death – is simply a matter of degrees from the idea that objects are agents. The former, however, seems contrived not because as we expand our notions of agency from individuals to things we are simultaneously diluting the very concept of being alive.

2. Welcoming our new digital overlords. I was amazed by the number of variety of panels on digital tools in archaeology at this year’s ASOR. Maybe it’s been like this for the last few years, but our fascination with the potential of digital archaeology was on full display starting with the plenary address by Sarah Parcak and continuing through many of the posters and papers. I was particularly pleased that the most recent book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, received a share of the attention. In fact, co-editor Jody Gordon recorded his paper and answered some questions for ASOR and this will likely be posted in the next week or so. I’ll put up a link to his paper and the interviews when they become available. 

3. CAARI has a new director. I am a member of the board of trustee of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute and after almost 7 years of dedicated service, Andrew McCarthy, is stepping down to pursue new adventures. In his place, the CAARI board approved the appointment of Lindy Crewe, a prehistorian who has worked on the island for many years and has a reputation for being a thoughtful scholar and an elite excavator. You can get a sense for her accomplishments on her academia.edu page. It was a good choice and I look forward to her leadership at an institution that has contributed significantly to my work on this island and my career.

4. Digital Publishing and ASOR. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working with Scott Moore to produce a digital version of Pyla-Koutsopetria I: The Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town. Since we published our data with Open Context, we produced an unofficial digital edition that allows a reader to move from the text to our published data throughout. We learned at ASOR that we’ve been given approval to release a linked digital copy of the book (as a beta) this spring once we work some bugs out. The goal is to present this beta-draft for some feedback and to prepare a revised digital edition at a later date. 

We also discussed the possibility of preparing PKAP II as a digital release with links throughout to our excavation data in Open Context. There are number of technical and cultural challenges to overcome, but hopefully we can propose a series of steps toward making the Archaeological Report Series a significant outlet for innovative digital archaeological publications.

5. The ASOR Meeting Program. I serve on the ASOR program committee and one of the most interesting conversations in recent years in that committee concerns the number of times people can officially appear in the annual meeting. This year, we decided (and it was a mistake) to only list the first author (or presenter) in the schedule section of the program book and to list coauthors in the abstract section. The reasons for this are complex and involve both aesthetics (and a concern for clutter in the schedule) as well as a concern that some members of ASOR are appearing “too frequently” in the program. Most academic meetings have some kind of policy limiting the number of times someone can appear in the program designed to promote diversity in the program and to ensure that scholars of all ranks can participate. At ASOR we have fiddled with this policy numerous times over the last few years and not quite settled on a universally accepted formula.

To me this is interesting because it considers both the meetings, but more importantly, the academic program as a lens through which we can understand and shape the field. Limiting the number of times someone can appear in the program will promote the the appearance of diversity, but it leaves open the possibility that the program does not actually reflect the work of writing the paper. At the same time, appearances can change reality and making the program appear more diverse might actually change the nature of field.  

Archaeology Mediated by Technology: Gibson, Dick, and Archaeologies of the Future

Last week, I posted a draft of my ASOR paper, and today it is more or less done. It think I originally titled the paper “Excavating in the 21st Century: A Fictional Biography Mediated by Technology,” mostly because it rhymed. 

Enjoy.

OB III THE OBJECTS

For my brief remarks today I’m intentionally misunderstanding the assignment for this panel. Rather than discuss the artifacts presented in the pdf file that Rick and Nancy circulated, I want to consider the pdf document as an archaeological artifact. As I looked at the pdf file and its metadata, I recognized that the pdf format was introduced by Adobe System around 1990 and this pdf file appears to have been created using Microsoft Word apparently on a MacIntosh using Apple’s Quartz PDF and running OS X 10.10.5. So we know something of the provenience of this digital artifact. 

OB III THE OBJECTS2

I knew a good bit less about the artifact visible in the pdf document. So I wrote an admittedly fanciful abstract for this session thinking about all the companies and brand names associated with this single digital document and channeling my inner William Gibson. In particular, I indulged in Gibson’s recent tendency to name everything, which perhaps found its most pervasive expression in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Frederic Jameson called this tendency “postmodern nominalism” in his 2007 collection of essays on science fiction titled (aptly enough), Archaeologies of the Future. Of course, the naming of things is not new, but it takes on special visibility in our hyper-commodified culture. The naming of things is significant for the concept of object biography because, we recognized – as did Igor Kopytoff – that objects initially exist with general names as commodities (even in our late capital world) – before they enter our world as artifacts. As artifacts, they go from being general types to things that have meaning in a singular way – a process Kopytoff calls singularization. Singularization transforms the commodity into something that has a social life, which gives rise to a biography. 

OB III THE OBJECTS3

In the three previous object biography sessions, the papers have generally focused on the life of these singularized things and have paid particular attention to the objects that archaeologists study or recover. As the papers in these sessions have recognized, for archaeologists, the process of commodification is more complex as objects are commodities, have lives, and are then discarded (and become rubbish and striped of all value to use Michael Thompson’s imagining of that term) before once again entering the world of value and life. 

OB III THE OBJECTS4

In my contributions to these sessions, I’ve tended to reflect on the tools that archaeologists use and tried to understand how these objects intersected with the objects that we study. I’ve thought about technology and been impressed by some recent work by Eric Kansa who has emphasized the role of branded, commodified, interchangeable tools in archaeological practice. If archaeologists in the 1970s prized their (branded!) trowels, today digital cameras, iPads, laptops, and software join traditional field gear as vital for the archaeologists work. Archaeology has been even more enmeshed in the commodified world of Gibson where products and brands intersect with archaeological things. 

OB III THE OBJECTS5

As I thought about this, I was drawn to the novels of Philip K Dick particularly as interpreted by Bill Brown in his most recent book Other Things. Brown emphasizes what even the casual reader of Dick’s novels knows: the authenticity of objects is a central concerns for the author as he explores the future of the past. In Time Out of Joint, the idyllic surroundings of a 1950s American town slowly falls apart when the protagonist discovers a cache of magazines describing an alternative present that appears every bit as real as his surroundings. In Ubik, objects drift in and out of chronological focus in a netherworld between life and death. In The Galactic Pot-Healer, Dick contrasts the deeply -fulfilling, artisanal work of a pot-healer who repairs damaged ancient vessels, with the emptiness of modern existence. For Dick, the authenticity of an object – its shift from a commodity to a singularity – depends on time.

OB III THE OBJECTS6

As commodities like iPad, software programs, and drones become increasingly ubiquitous in archaeological practices but also more remote, disposable, and depersonalized, archaeological work becomes mediated by “things out of time” (to use a Dickian phrase). It is strangely alienating for archaeologists to come to depend so fully on objects that barely have biographies. It would seem that archaeologies of the future and the future of archaeology is only more enmeshed in this commodified world through which we give objects life.

OB III THE OBJECTS7