Dissecting Digital Divides: Mostly Final Draft

There’s one more week before the start of classes, and I’m trying to wrap up some small projects that have been lingering around all summer.

The first one on the list is putting together the “almost final version” of my paper for last fall’s DATAM: Digital Approaches for Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at NYU’s ISAW (I wrote a little review of that conference here). The Digital Press is going to publish a small, but intriguing collection of papers from that conference with a short introduction and conclusion. 

My paper considered the various digital divides in my classrooms at the University of North Dakota. The first divide is the conventional difference between students who have access to technology and those who do not. This shapes how they engage and use technology in their everyday lives. The second-level divide involves the willingness of individuals to produce as well as consume digital media. Finally, because I really can’t help myself, I offered a critique of how prosumer culture has shaped the way that I taught in a Scale-Up style classroom. Some of this critique came from an unpublished paper that I wrote with a graduate student many years ago (you can read that unpublished paper here).  

If you’re interested in my paper, “Dissecting Digital Divides,” you can check it out here and stay tuned for the volume later this fall!! 

Resilient Scholarship

Yesterday afternoon I took some time to read Jeremy Huggett’s most recent article, “Resilient Scholarship in the Digital Age” in the latest issues of the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology. Huggett is one of my favorite scholars and this article demonstrates why. Not only is it complex and sophisticated, but it also zeros in on a crucial place where digital scholarship can make a difference. The article considers how digital scholarship can foster resilience, but not in the sense that has made the term popular among university administrators. Instead, Huggett has argued for a resilience that protects and cultivates a sense of community and individual strength and security even as digital tools have increasingly come to define the relationship between the individual and their institutions.

Huggett contrasts the use of digital tools in the neoliberal university to control, assess, and surveil faculty, researchers, staff, and students with the work of digital scholarship particularly in archaeology which has increasingly set itself in opposition to digital practices in society and in the 21st century university. Lorna Richardson’s take on punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, and most importantly  Katherine Cook’s recent call for more radical and inclusive digital archaeologies seek both to amplify individual agency, identity, and affective practices while at the same time recognizing the often problematic relationship between digital tools and our goals. That so much digital scholarship emerges from university settings and it is frequently coopted by administrators who wish to harvest metrics, to demonstrate “cutting edge research,” and to pay lip service to their latest vision of cross-disciplinary academic practices. At the same time, Huggett reminds us that our work in digital practices and with digital tools can be subversive and care for individuals and communities that the rapid grind of the neoliberal university wishes to reduce to interchangeable parts. 

A few months ago, I got into a debate on The Facebooks about whether digital humanities had fulfilled its potential. (To be clear, I don’t consider myself a digital humanist, but some of my work is “digital humanist adjacent.”) I argued that the digital humanities were too beholden to the neoliberal technocratic culture that gave rise to them. Others argued that this is exactly what made the digital humanities so potent and gave them the potential to be so subversive. As a scholar, I’ve tended to regard this promise with some skepticism and critiqued rhetoric in digital scholarship that smacked of technological solutionism or the like. Huggett’s piece (and my discussions with colleagues on social media and in person) has given me pause and pushed me to trace the implications of my own work in digital archaeology into more productive spaces. I need to digest this article more fully in the coming weeks. 

A Visit from the E-Curators Team and Digital Time

Yesterday, Costis Dallas and Seamus Ross from the E-Curators project visited the  Western Argolid Regional Project study season to talk to us about our use of digital tools and digital practices. We spent most of the day in either formal interviews or informal conversations about how we used technology to produce know on WARP from the practices of our field teams to our analysis and plans for archiving, publishing, and disseminating our datasets. The conversations were honest, practical, and balanced between a formal script and a casual conversation. The interview was part of a larger collaborative project to document digital practices among archaeologists in the field and in their interpretative strategies.

The interviews offered a chance for me and Dimitri Nakassis to reflect on not only how we used digital tools, but the larger strategies that we employed to collect information in the field, how we converted this information to data, and how we analyzed this data. The most revealing thing was how much, in hindsight, we relied on the shared expectations and understandings with our remarkable team leaders. Our team leaders ensured that the information collected in the field was rigorous and consistent, but also managed the day-to-day functioning of the project from making maps to guide their teams to deciding which team would survey which fields.

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One of the simple pleasures of field work is revisiting sites. This week we returned to a small tower at the site of Ay. Dimitrios that stands in a pass that leads into the Inachos Valley. 

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We flew the drone for the third time at the site and have worked to refine our technique for creating highly accurate orthomosaics (<.20 m) of sites for illustration and study. Needless to say, flying the drone is not overly technical, but it takes time and is pretty boring. The third time, in particular, is tedious and probably is the tipping point in terms of using newfangled tools to do things quicker and more efficiently. We probably could have drawn the dang thing in about 8 hours.

I mentioned this idly on Twitter and got the usual round of fascinating responses. As part of my new, more relaxed, Caraher 3.0 reimagining, I sort of regret posting something about this on The Twitters, but I will say that I don’t think that there’s much of a difference in the traditional output between a hand drawn top-plan on site and one produced through dronoscopy. Maybe some bleeding edge publications could host a 3D model of the site based on structure-from-motion images produced from our drone photos, but these kinds of publications are relatively few and far between. Hand drawn plans remain the standard form of publishing fortifications in Greece. The drone images offer a more robust dataset for the future, but most archaeology – for better or for worse – focuses on documentation methods geared toward the now.

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Chatting all day with the E-Curators folks, I came to appreciate the links between how we worked and sometimes unconscious or at least unarticulated ideas of outcomes. These outcomes are mostly conventional and it becomes easy to fall back on conventional practices as a result. Changing the kind of outcomes that we expect from archaeological work – whether its in terms of dissemination or the kinds of knowledge produced – will invariably change the social organization and technologies that we use. 

End of Blogs?

Last week Neville Morely wrote a little piece on his declining blog statistics over at his Sphinx blog and has since followed it up with a new podcast. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet and I should have commented on his blog post when he asked other bloggers to chime in on their statistics. I feel like I let the community down.

If I look closely, I can tell that my visitor and page view numbers are down. At the same time, my monthly averages appear steady (or even slightly improved) over the past five or six years. My March numbers, for example, were 106 page views per day which is the highest since 2015 and the fourth highest total in the last 9 years. Two very popular posts, however, in the first half of the month drove a good bit of the traffic. These posts circulated rather widely (for me) on Twitter and Facebook, and social media platforms accounted for over 500 page views (or about 18% of the traffic). In an ordinary month, Twitter and Facebook account for 5%-8% of views. Despite my erratic use of social media to promote my blog, it is notable that for 10 of the last 12 months, my page views have been high than the previous year and for 8 of the last 12 months, they’ve been the strongest since 2015.

It is worth noting, however, that my 2014 and 2015 page views were also buoyed by a series of very prominent posts that led to spikes in traffic. Most of these spikes, like the publication of Punk Archaeology or Visions of Substance, tended to have a much longer tale and while they were abrupt, they attracted readers to my blog for months. 

It may be that the shorter term spikes in my blog’s page views reflects the function of blogs within at least American academia has changed. When I started my blog I wanted both to draw the public into my research and give them a bit of a perspective on how scholars (and, in particular, archaeologists) build their arguments. In fact, I celebrated the fuzziness of the knowledge making the process and the ragged edges of what we know. This seemed like a good thing to do at the time when fetishization of “facts” was undermining the careful work of scholars in the humanities to present a world where structures, power, and practice matter more than black and white judgements. Today, this mission seems more problematic and my audience, perhaps, less interested and sympathetic.

Today, my most popular posts serve as open letters which attempt to address issues that face my discipline and academia more broadly. The audience is more academic, more engaged with social, political, and economic situation within academia, and less curious about how knowledge is made in my little corner of the discipline. This isn’t meant as a critique or even criticism of my readers, blogging, or academia, but speaks to the shifting landscape of blogging as practice. Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields. This is not a bad thing, but it creates a different rhythm of blog viewing. 

Quick Thoughts on Open Access

Over the past week I’ve been thinking a good bit about publishing and disseminating archaeological data and yesterday I had some thoughtful conversations with Becky Seifried who was fresh from a recent conference in Athens on the topic (pdf).

I don’t really have anything profound to say about data except the observation that for archaeological projects, the more stakeholders involved, the harder it is to determine how best to disseminate project data. On the one hand, it is easy enough to envision how open data will allow our data savvy community to “dig into” the results of our field work. Moreover, those of us publishing both data and analysis of our projects can understand the value of making the link – no mater how fuzzy – between field work and interpretation clear. In fact, our field increasingly embraces this kind of transparency and openness as both a way to allow researchers and communities to engage with what passes as “raw material” in archaeology.

At the same time, we also recognize the rights of communities to control their own pasts and realize that the past – and its material and digital surrogates in the present – operates within diverse spatial, political, economic, social, and discursive regimes. As a result, openness in data can at the same time be decolonizing and colonizing, progressive and regressive, and collaborative and “going rogue” all at the same time. In fact, the more stakeholders invested in the data and the work, the more openness is seen as a challenge especially among communities who already feel that their control of their own past is vulnerable. 

What’s interesting, of course, is that we often position open, digital heritage as a way to engage more diverse communities in the process of understanding their own past. For archaeology, sharing archaeological data invariably engages those who want to use public data for personal gain (e.g. looters), those who see the digital surrogates of archaeological objects as deserving the same protections as the objects themselves (e.g. limited or highly curated access), and those who see the tools necessary for digital dissemination of archaeological data as a barrier to access.

I recognize that people have thought seriously and expansively about the challenges  of open publishing and digital heritage in practical and theoretical terms. I tend to be so deeply immersed in the data themselves (and the processes of moving data from the survey unit to the final database) to think very hard about these issues. It’s only now as parts of our dataset has taken on its final shape that I’ve had reason to think about its open or not so open after life. 

Plans and Tables

Yesterday was uncharacteristically muggy her in Ancient Corinth and that fit my mood. Not only did I forget to save an ArcGIS project and lose a good bit of work when it crashed, but I also found myself mired in some curious database quandaries that while fun to work through, were frustrating. Whatever the weather here, I’m facing a few more days of similar data oriented challenges.

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On the other hand, staring at data from both my own project – the excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria – and the half-century old project at Isthmia in the Corinthia (not to mention the Polis on Cyprus) has pushed me to think about the future of archaeological publishing in new ways. Our data isn’t tidy because archaeology isn’t tidy. More than that, linking our not-so-tidy data to efforts to make compelling (and tidy arguments) reveals the inevitable disconnect between the data that we have and the arguments that we (ideally) believe. 

Nowhere in the archaeological process do we feel this disconnect more intensely than when we’re preparing material for publication. I wonder how much the aesthetics of our efforts to prepare data obscure the reality of archaeological knowledge making… 

From Cyprus to Greece (and an advertisement for myself)

Yesterday, I wrapped up the first of my of three little study seasons and traveled from Cyprus to Greece.

As a kind of poetic gesture, our long-gestating article on the South Basilica at Polis appeared yesterday in Hesperia 88 (2019). Here’s a link to it (and if you want an offprint and don’t get the Hesperia, drop me an email or a DM on the Twitter). 

The article offers an archaeological argument for the date of two phases of the South Basilica. The second phase will likely be of most interest to architectural historians for Early Byzantine Cyprus because it involves the conversion of the church from a wood roofed structure to a barrel vault. We also managed to phase, and date, the construction of the narthex and a portico that ran the length of the southern side of the basilica. Plus, there’s a massive “French drain” (and who doesn’t love Mr. French’s drains?) designed to help deal with the flow of water against the south wall of the church. 

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The weakest part of the article is our discussion of the urban context for the basilica, and, in fact, this is a work in progress for our understanding of the site of Polis and the arrangement of Early Christian churches in the changing urban landscape of Late Antique Cyprus more generally. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll undoubtedly know that this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately

We’re also happy that this article involved links to our publication of data from Pyla-Koutsopetria in Open Context. This summer, we’ve started to work a bit on the “digital backbone” for Polis in Open Context (as well as preparing the data from our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla). This involves making our notebooks available as well as our analysis of the context pottery. The inventoried finds from Polis are already available on Open Context in draft form, but they will acquire addition significance only when linked to descriptions of the excavations and other material from the trenches. This is a big job for the area of E.F2 (in the Princeton Polis grid) which includes the South Basilica, but we hope to produce a model for organizing the E.F2 data using the smaller and more manageable area of E.F1 over the next few months.

Thinking about digital publication and curation of archaeological data is always good thing! For the next week, my old buddy David Pettegrew and I will be working with Jon Frey and Tim Gregory with some Isthmia Excavation data and trying to wrangle and think about how best to organize, disseminate, and curate their data. More on that over the next week or so…  

Legacy Data as Data

In January, I am contributing to a panel at the annual Archaeological Institute of America meeting on legacy data. I’ve already blogged a bit on this last week

One of the unanticipated aspects of this work is that I’ve had to think about what constitutes “data” in an archaeological setting. For example, we’re studying a small corpus of lamp fragments from a particular area at the site of Polis. The “legacy data” consists of a notebook of preliminary observations from a scholar who has more or less abandoned the project. The notebook entries range from cursory descriptions to detailed documentation with measurements and comparanda. There is little in the way of analysis or synthesis.

At the same time, these legacy notebooks are data points that can be integrated into larger contexts. In fact, part of the lamps data already exists on Open Context where a version of the inventoried finds database for Polis currently lives

Recontextualizing legacy data was perhaps the most interesting part of our work this summer. Part of the challenge is negotiating the flow between streams of data that constitute arguments. As I think more about flow – whether workflow or flow in a Deleuzian sense – I’m wondering about the relationship between flow and the character and structure of archaeological arguments. Historically, I think, archaeologists have seen data points as the structuring element of archaeological argument. In this highly empirical form of knowledge making (not to say positivistic) “data” forms foundation upon which stable archaeological arguments are built. In its most extreme manifestation, the presentation of archaeological data points can be rather “siloed.” In this situation it becomes difficult to navigate between examples of objects found at one site or in one region, for example, and those found at another site or another region. There is a tension, then, between describing objects at a site effectively and aligning an object with a type common across a region.

For archaeologists, interpretation and analysis is often about resolving this tension. At its best, archaeological work is tied to organizing and understanding objects, buildings, and contexts between the level of the site and that of the state, region, time period, or proposed trajectory of development. In other words, archaeology is concerned less with objects (however defined) and more with the relationships between objects. These relationships are navigated – vividly in a digital context – by the flow between sets of data. Workflow describes both the production of datasets from contexts and negotiating and structuring the relationships between contexts.

Analyzing and interpreting legacy data is all about finding this flow.

Making Digital Archaeology

I read with considerable interest Ethan Watrall’s very recent article in Advances in Archaeological Practice, “Building Scholars and Communities of Practice in Digital Heritage and Archaeology.” The article is very useful outline of how Michigan State has worked to train and develop the next generation of digital archaeologists through a series of three initiatives. (The article can be read productively against two recent article co-authored by Paul Reilly: one with Jeremy Huggett and Gary Lock, “Whither Digital Archaeological Knowledge? The Challenge of Unstable Futures” in the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology and one with Costas Papadopoulos, “The digital humanist: Contested status within contesting futures” in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.

Watrall’s article is unabashedly top down and offers an interesting template for developing the next generation of digital archaeologists, social scientists, and humanists. The programs developed at Michigan State and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities cultivate the ability to plan, organize, and develop digital projects in real time. They emphasize skill building, collaboration, project management, and shared, public outcomes. These are indeed the building blocks for developing archaeologists comfortable with digital approaches and tools and present a model that is consistent with the kind of “high impact” practices that are increasingly common across the U.S. Participants work in groups, develop key skills through rapid development project, present regular updates, and deliver a product that whenever possible is public, open, and relevant. This is good stuff in terms of providing a framework for practical engagement with not only digital practice, but, one could argue, any collaborative project in the social sciences and humanities. I suspect this thoughtful, contemporary design also contributed to the generous funding that these initiative have received from the NEH and Michigan State.

One things that I was particularly intrigued by was the idea that the approaches developed in these programs cultivated communities of practice. Watrall offered a furtive glimpse into how these communities of practice functioned. For example, in the NEH funded Institute on Digital Archaeology
Method and Practice participants found a home on Twitter (with the hashtag #msudia) to communicate eschewing applications like Slack designed to support collaborative research in primarily a corporate environment. Another hint at the way in which communities of practice began to develop was the tendency for groups to change over time with members shifting from one collaborative environment to another. Obviously, the long term results of programs like those developed by Watrall at MSU and whether they develop sustained communities of practice will be difficult to evaluate. At the same time, the particularly dynamic character of the digital world magnifies the need for resilient and sustained communities dedicated to navigating the challenges of new technologies, new social and institution structures, and new ethical parameters grounded in practice.

It’s also intriguing that these communities of practice will have to carry on the work of producing a digital archaeology long after the institutional work and institutional communities provided (funding and staffing and access to technology) by the NEH and large universities like Michigan State disperse. As Reilly, Huggett, and Lock have suggested, the future of digital archaeology may well rely on this kind of institutional support to ensure that communities of practice thrive. At the same time, there are, as Watrall himself recognizes, other models for a healthy digital archaeology in the future. This doesn’t undermine or diminish the success of Watrall’s Michigan State initiatives, but makes it clear that existing communities of practice will continue to shape the future of the field.  

Legacy Data

I might be giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in January on legacy data. Because of that, I’m trying to be particularly reflective when working with legacy data here at Polis on Cyprus. Over the past ten years (yikes!), I’ve been working with notebooks from the Princeton Cyprus Expedition and working with some colleagues to understand the architecture, stratigraphy, and artifacts from the site.

The notebooks qualify as legacy “data” inasmuch as they document the excavations, and we couple this data with some freshly minted data based on our analysis of the finds and time at the site. We’ve been tempted to ask for permission to excavate a bit more, but never have. At its heart, our project seeks to produce meaningful analysis from what already exists.

This summer, for example, we’ve started to work on pulling together all the basic information prepared in the past for the analysis of the Hellenistic to Late Roman lamps at the site. Most of the original notes on the lamps are in notebooks written between 1997 and 2004. There are some photographs dating to those years and earlier as well as some taken in 2012 and 2013. This information is particularly significant because many of the lamps were stolen when the project’s storeroom was burglarized in 2013. The proxy data – notes, photos, database entries, and archaeological context – are all that remains.

IMG 3767Legacy data with dried apricots for scale 

The first day working on a project like this always causes me anxiety as the tasks of recoding data, linking photographs, and interpreting someone else’s notes makes me fear that new knowledge isn’t possible. At the same time, there is something vaguely liberating in being able to reflow this information in different ways without the burdensome material affordances of the objects themselves (although to be fair enough still exist to pass judgement).