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!

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.

Time and Archaeological Legacy Data

With the ASOR annual meeting not even begun, I’m already being gently nudged to think about my paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in January. Fotini Kondyli and Jon Frey have organized a panel on legacy data in archaeology, and according to the abstract that I wrote a few months ago, my paper will talk about flow and how scrutinizing the concept of flow can help us understand the archaeological argumentation and narrative.

Here’s my abstract

The more that I’ve thought about this paper, the more the first couple of lines in the abstract have stuck with me: “The notion of legacy data is an artifact of contemporary digital archaeology. Archaeologists define legacy data as information that is incommensurate with contemporary digital practices and standards.” 

This got me thinking about how legacy data fits into our notions of archaeological time. It seems to me that archaeologists generally have three notions of time in mind when they do their work. They tend to function in slightly different ways and can accommodate each other n varying ways.  

1. Archaeological Time. This is the basic framework for most archaeology. It assumes that the object of archaeological study is in a different time from that of the archaeologist. It allows us to see a past as “the past” and to think about what we do as “objectively” in the sense that it is fundamentally separate from who we are. The division between our time and archaeological time historically has tended to frame our object of study as part of the not-modern or pre-modern world. It’s not just the past, but a past that is distinct enough from the present to represent something discrete and worth studying through archaeological methods.   

2. Methodological Time. Methodological time represents the modern assumption that archaeologists are constantly improving our methods and practices. As a result, the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the present is better than the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the past. The best example of this kind of time is in the name of the SAA’s journal of archaeological methods: Advances in Archaeological Practice. Archaeological science, archaeological methods, and archaeology in general advances to produce a better, clearer, or improved view of the past.

3. Ethical Time. I am still attempting to understand completely what ethical time is an archaeologist. It manifests itself most frequently in debates over the repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists understand, of course, that returning say a Greek or Egyptian artifact to the modern nation of Greece or Egypt does not under any systematic understanding of the word “repatriate” return an object to the same people or state or even cultural entity that existed in the past. We are not returning an object to ancient Greece and in some case, like the Parthenon Marbles, we’re not not even proposing to return an object to the same political entity from which they were taken. This is particularly complicated for debates over the repatriation of artifacts to say, Lebanon, from Turkish museums. In many cases, these objects became part of these collections when Lebanon or Syria were part of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman state no longer exists. At the same time, the post-Ottoman nations of Lebanon and Syria have claims to their pre-Ottoman past in the service of modern nation building and in the construction of narratives that produce a meaningful past to communities living in those areas.

This is a complicated time to understand as an archaeologist and unlike the more or less linear time of archaeological methodologies or the fragmented time, stratigraphic time of the archaeological past, ethical time in archaeology tends to be recursive, spiraling, and grounded in contemporary commemorative practices that many scholars will argue emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a counterpoint to the dour rationality of historical thinking that so often seems to contravene the work of nation building.

(4. Material Time? One could argue that archaeologists are increasingly coming to recognize material time especially as we have come to address the “material turn” in historical and archaeological thinking. This time reflects the varied ways in which material change and how we understand the persistence of particular material as fundamental to shaping the archaeological record. This is different from archaeological time because it recognizes that objects carry with them a multiplicity of times that allow them to exist both in the past and in the present.) 

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Legacy data itself exists at the intersection of methodological and ethic time in archaeology. On the one hand, much of the conversation concerning legacy data – or publishing the results of past archaeological work – is grounded in the ethical assertion that because archaeology is, in some ways, “destructive,” (or perhaps better, involve “recontextualizing” material) we have an obligation to justify the recontextualization of this material through publication. Unpublished material, even if it remains secure in a storeroom, is no different than looted material in that its context is not made understandable. By publishing our work, we recontextualize material and “restore” it to a particular kind of time. This has nice parallels to the work of archaeologists to repatriate finds and restore these objects to a chronological and political context that benefits (generally speaking) a colonized community’s ability to produce a meaningful historical and commemorative narrative for their own society.    

On the other hand, legacy data presents a problem for archaeologists’ sense of methodological time. Because we have tended to see our discipline as always advancing toward new ways of recovering the past and contributing to the present, legacy data is often seen as flawed or, worse still, obsolete. Our field continues to privilege new projects, especially for the career advancement of early career scholars, at the expense of the long and frequently compromised grind of legacy projects.

My work at Polis is a great example of how legacy projects force us to think in three times at once. On the one hand, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition was probably the last major American excavation in the Mediterranean not to employ a stratigraphic system in excavation. Instead they dug in levels and passes which may or may not have been stratigraphic. They also regularly ignored “last in, first out” and had multiple contexts open at the same time. 

It is possible, of course, to restore some sense of stratigraphic control to the excavation because many of the excavators understood the concepts of formation and depositional processes. Moreover a simple application of the rules of superposition still apply allow us to broadly understand that lower levels are earlier than higher levels whenever we can safely assume some kind of controlled of systematic deposition. With a few basic understandings cobbled from the methods of contemporary archaeological work, we can start to reconstruct the past at the site of Polis. 

Moreover, this offers us an ethical way to recontextualize the excavated material at the site. The value of this material is that we can make it speak through contemporary methodological expectations to the past. 

Finally, we might even argue that our work to address the legacy material from Polis has pushed us to think about how various kinds of legacy data exist within their own material worlds. We started with the paper notebooks produced over the course of excavations at the site and the artifacts from the dig dutifully stored in wooden trays and paper boxes. We then converted these artifacts into digital objects in databases which allowed us to recombine them in new ways. We’ve also started to think about how to publish or at very least archive our digital data in ways that ensures that they are more widely available than paper copies of records and artifacts in storerooms. We also anticipate, in some way, that our digital artifacts might last longer than the paper records produced by the site. The time of the varying materials shape our strategies. 

Obviously all these ideas need further refinement and expansion, but there will be time for that…  

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!! 

End of Blogs?

Last week Neville Morley 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.

Indexes and the Bakken

I’ve recently become fascinated by indexes. Partly this stemmed from a rather arduous effort to index our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology (2018). Partly my interests stem from thinking about how and whether indices matter in the age of digital books. The ability to search a document for a particular word, for example, makes the conventional index of proper names and key terms irrelevant.

Indexes also have strange relationship to the world of the hyperlink. On the one hand, an indexes represent a one-to-many relationship. One terms links to many places. Hyperlinks are one-to-one links that connect one term to one place. In this sense, a conventional index is a helpful thing. 

On the other hand, most relationships in a text are actually many-to-many. In other words, a range of possible relationships exist for any location in a text. These range from the relative simple relationship between words or concepts that are either identical lexically or so similar to be virtually synonyms to the much more complex and fuzzy relationship between related ideas, concepts, or even antonyms that require their opposite to produce meaning. Indexes, then, could relate to clouds of meaning, perhaps derived from text mining or other automated analysis of a work. This would offer a non-linear way to read a text and to understand its meaning.  

Recently, however, there have been some creative efforts to engage with the indexing as an explicitly creative act. Anyone who has prepared an index (or edited someone else index) recognizes the intellectual and creative work necessary to make it a useful tool for engaging a work, but this is rarely noted explicitly. Indexers, for example, are rarely formally credited for their work. 

In Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s new book, The Hundreds, the authors invited five colleagues to prepare indexes to their book and these indexes with their authors offer strange wonderful, and intriguing ways of engaging the text. In Ana Paula Pais and Carolyn F. Strauss’s edited Slow Reader, they run the index on the margins of the page allowing a reader to find similar passages in other contributions and read across these passages rather than in a simply linear way.

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to get a volume of interviews from the Bakken oil patch published, titled Voices of the Bakken and edited by Bret Weber. At various times, we’ve even released little previews of it. One of the challenges that we’ve faced is how to organize these interviews. Do we arrange them chronologically to map how attitudes toward the Bakken Boom changed over time? Do we arrange them thematically? Do we organize them according to location or the position of the individual interviewed? 

Here’s a word cloud based on that document.

Voyant Tools 2019 04 25 09 12 09

One way to produce this book is not to worry very much about how the chapters are organized in the volume. After all, someone is unlikely to read this volume start to finish. More than that, since the book will be published as both a digital and paper form, simple queries can be conducted digitally with the search function on any PDF reader. Complex queries, however, require more complex reading and indexing the volume. More than that, more complex queries depend upon more subtle readings that are invariably idiosyncratic or, at very least, dependent on the particular questions and interests of a particular reader. I’d be particularly intrigued by an “affective index” that looks to understand the moods, feelings, and emotional character of the interviews. This would not, of course, preclude more conventional kinds of indexing that, say, explored relationships between individuals, a sense of home, or even just places or objects in the text.

What if we invited five or six readers to compile their own indexes to the interviews? These readers could engage these interviews in a range of ways that reflect their own research interests, which they could justify in a brief essay? Rather than indexing by page, we’d index by interview and include the key words that generated by the indexers at the conclusion of each interview, attributed to the authors, and with references to the other interviews.

This could get more wild, of course. We also have thousands of images that I started to analyze last year before getting distracted by other projects. These photos also need some kind of indexing to be useful and engaging. I’ve long considered publishing this data via, say, Open Context, but I wondered about the utility and value of a slightly organized dump of images. Maybe these images would be more useful if they were indexed according to some of the same criteria that our indexers would create for the Voices of the Bakken volume. After all, our interviews and archaeological investigation of workforce housing in the Bakken informed one another. There are obvious links between these two data sets, but also the potential for more creative ways to link these two sets of documents.

A project that links the interviews and the images would embody some of the ideas behind “slow data” that archaeologists have discussed recently. It would also demonstrate explicitly how publishing and curating data is work that creates new constellations of knowledge that revolve around critical engagement that starts in the field and continues through the organization of data for publication. 

To be clear, I haven’t yet convinced the editor of these interviews to go along with this kind of approach, and I’m not sure that I could find willing indexers. More than that, indexing thousands of photos seems like a daunting task, but one that would be worth it even if done on a relatively small scale. 

Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

I’m off to New York this morning to give a paper at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. I’m also hoping to convince the participants (and hopefully some of the other folks who are doing using digital approaches to teach the ancient world) to publish a little book of the paper with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The hashtag is #DATAM and since the usual ancient world twitteroti will be in attendance, I suspect the twitter stream will be vibrant. Who knows, I might even flex my twitter fingers a bit.    

Conference Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean  Institute for the Study of the Ancient World 2018 10 25 05 57 48

If you follow the link above, you’ll see that there are some pretty interesting papers. For my part, I’ll be presenting on my use of the Scale-Up Classroom at UND to bridge digital divides. My paper is here.

Long time followers of the ole bloggeroo, will recognize that this paper is a version of a larger and more buttoned-down paper that I wrote in 2013-2014 on my experiences teaching in UND’s Scale-Up room. I still would like to send this out somewhere, but right now, it’s a pretty low priority!

 

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work…