Sometimes Survey Makes Sense: A View from Chelmis

The formation processes that produce the surface context studied through intensive pedestrian survey are really annoying. They hide things that you know MUST be there (like Late Roman material on a prominent coastal height overlooking a Roman to Late Roman settlement). They make visible things that have no rational explanation (like the famous one sherd of Classical black-slipped pottery on a lonesome hillside). Various formation processes scramble and smear and move and interrupt and complicate assemblages across the landscape and force survey archaeologists to keep stepping back and back and back until the picture comes into a kind of blurry focus. Outliers are noted, but major patterns become the basis for analysis.

This past week, I’ve been working on an article with Grace Erny on the houses of Chelmis in the Argolid which we are study as part of the Western Argolid Regional Proect. Grace is going to give a paper on our preliminary results at the annual Archaeological Institute of America meeting next week (check out a list of all the WARP papers here). These are “Early Modern” to “Modern” period houses around which we conducted intensive survey in 2016. To get a sense for the impact of the houses on the distribution of artifacts in their immediate vicinity, we did 10 m of very intensive documentation counting all the roof tiles, ceramic artifacts, and other objects around the houses. We grouped our survey into three units on each side: one of 2 m in width walked by a single walker and two of 4 m in width walked by 2 walks. These units produced largely consistent patter of a 65% percent drop off between the 2 m unit and the first 4 meter unit and then a 25% drop off between the first and the second 4 m unit.


Not every house produced this distribution, but it was consistent enough both at Chelmis and at the two other sites where we conducted intensive survey to qualify as a pattern. And this is worthy of note in a universe where the trickeration of formation processes often makes any small scale patterning of artifact densities in the landscape either rare or suspect.

Hoping that all your survey assemblages pattern predictably in the new year! 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s almost the end of the year, it’s -1 here in North Dakotaland, and the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World team is more or less comfortable by the fire. 

I have a pretty good feeling about 2019 and some ideas rattling around in my head that could be pretty fun, kind of interesting, and, if nothing else, neat.

If nothing else, there’s a pretty great list of works entering the public domain on January 1, 2019 including J.B. Bury’s A History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. And Freud’s The Ego and the Id.

If these don’t tickle your fancy, maybe there’s something else in this list of quick hits and varia:

IMG 3501Mr. Caraher, tear down this wall!

Siteless Survey and Artifact Densities

This week, I’m continuing to work on producing a preliminary report for the Western Argolid Regional Project. One of the particular challenges in writing a report is the tension between the granularity of our survey data and the size and complexity of our survey area. As a project committed to conducting siteless, “artifact-level” survey, field walkers spaced 10 m apart collected all artifacts visible on the surface from their 2 m wide swaths. These artifacts were all analyzed and given a chronological range, a functional category, and, whenever possible, a place within existing artifact typologies. At the same time, we also counted each visible artifact using a clicker counter allowing us to have an almost instant assessment of the quantity of sherds present in each walker’s swath and each unit. We recorded this data, along with basic environmental data collected from each unit, on a survey form that we then entered into the project database and projected into our project’s GIS.

In a traditional intensive survey, artifact densities serve as an indicator of sites in the landscape. These projects then documented these sites with a different level of intensity usually through gridded collection or some other more spatially rigorous sampling strategy. This allowed survey projects to distinguish the assemblages produced by these “on site” practices from those produced by “off site” survey practices which generally involve larger transects and less intensive sampling regimens.

Artifact level survey, in contrast, tends to emphasize a consistent method for sampling the landscape, in part, because they recognize the complexities of site formation in the landscape and approach any definition of a site with skepticism. In fact, my colleagues and I argued over a decade ago that many sites in the Corinthian represented the complex interplay of assemblages from multiple periods rather than a single “multi-period” site with recognizable continuity in activity. In this context, then, overall artifact densities offer only the coarsest indication of activity in the landscape or, worse, are illusory when they occur only when the edges of unrelated, narrow-period scatters overlap. A growing awareness of geomorphological and geological processes, varying levels of artifact visibility, and changing vegetation, the presence of background disturbances and the character of the surface clast, further complicate any argument that high density sites produce meaning in the landscape. 

As this approach to intensive survey fundamentally questions the value of artifact densities as the basis for the historical analysis fo the landscape, are artifact densities meaningful in siteless survey? 

As I work on the WARP preliminary report, I argue that they are for three reasons. First, artifact densities do provide a measure of artifact recovery rates from a particular unit especially when combined with surface conditions like visibility. A unit that produces a high artifact densities in relation to visibility is probably a unit with a significant quantity of material obscured by the independent vagaries of surface conditions. Knowing this kind of information, for example, allows us to consider more carefully issues like the extent and continuity of an artifact scatter datable to a particular period. While we may not be able to control for all the site formation processes that shape a context as complex as the surface, we can sometimes control for the variables that impact artifact recovery from the plowzone.

The second advantage of collecting density data for intensive survey is that it provides a context to measure the diversity of the assemblage present in a unit. We recognized in studying data from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey that the chronological and functional diversity of an assemblage tends to increase with artifact densities. In other words, we had very few examples of units where a single period – or even artifact type (think: modern tiles) – increased artifact densities in a significant way. We then applied this realization to lower density units that often result from compromised surface visibility or other conditions. In these contexts, we discovered that some units with low artifact density tend to produce more diverse assemblages than others. These high diversity, low density units may provide windows into more complex scatters that the vagaries of surface conditions and site formation obscured. 

Finally, artifact densities do provide insights into large-scale, diachronic patterns in the landscape. Diachronic intensively survey has some chronological challenges in that artifact level survey tends to push us to fragment the landscape into the finest periods possible. In some cases, these periods are quite narrow (final decades of the 4th century) and in other cases quite broad (Medieval or Classical-Roman).  The broadest and narrowest periods create some challenges of commensurability as they tend to produce vastly different meanings in the landscape. A narrowly dated artifact, for example, might well represent a particular activity – such as a funeral practices or household activities – whereas a broadly dated artifact tend to represent broader and more persistently uniform functional categories: storage or roofing. Understanding the relationship, then, between landscapes defined by narrower chronological (and usually functional) categories and and those defined by more broad categories is difficult and always risks stripping from countryside the temporal aspect of persistent activities while pocking it with episodic behaviors tied closely to more precisely datable artifacts. Total artifact densities offer a big picture way to see human activity in all its complexity and consistency across the landscape. These densities must, of course, be read critically and contextually, but that’s true of all archaeological evidence.



A Year in Blogging

Over the past couple of years, blogging has attracted some renewed interest. Folks have become increasingly wary of social media for obvious reasons. There continues to be an interest in long-form writing on the web, and the long-standing interest in public outreach and low cost of entry has always made blogging an appealing option for scholars in the humanities who want to expand the audience for their work. 

At the same time, blogs have become a bit passe and fit awkwardly into changing Internet culture. On the one hand, this risk of exposing oneself to the wilds of the internet feel greater than ever as social media has accelerated and amplified growing coarseness and incivility in public discourse and created a space for the worst elements in our society to operate behind a veil of relative anonymity. On the other hand, the rise in podcasts, email newsletter, and a new generation of high-quality multi-author sites (and the decline of blogrolls, aggregators, and other web infrastructure that made the famous blogosphere possible) has created a new web landscape that makes blogging seems rather more pointless than maybe it was a decade ago.

That all being said, I did somehow manage to write slightly over 158,000 words in 225 posts on my blog this year. That’s just over 700 words per post which is the longest average post since I started blogging in 2007. This year also saw the fewest post since 2008. 

As far as traffic goes, I’ve had about 28,000 views from 17, 378 visitors. This is slightly higher than the last couple of years, but nowhere near as busy as 2013-2015. The main drivers of traffic is search engines, followed by Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress Reader, the WARP website, and various places that have reposted or linked to various posts. The most popular posts for the year were my review of Donna Zuckerberg’s book, my list of links to various ASOR Annual volumes, a post on Wesley College at UND, a review of Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming book, and my little discussion of Sarah Murray’s recent article on Hesperia.  

Finally, I’ve been toying the idea of doing something different with the blog. Maybe making a weekly or month newsletter to draw attention to my post, as well as those by other people, that I really enjoy. I’ve toyed with the idea of opening up my blog to more, different voices. I’ve even pondered ramping it down to three posts a week or focusing more on projects in 2019. In the end, this is all probably unlikely, because as much as I probably need to change things up, I’m more pre-occupied with other projects to have time to think through what this change could and should be. In short, look for more of the same in the coming months.

Happy New Year!

An Advertisement for Myself: Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

This is a time of year that many people think about the historical origins of archaeology. The synoptic gospels, particularly Luke, are explicitly historical in the way that they frame the birth of Christ.  Within a few centuries of Christ’s birth and the Gospel narratives, proto-archaeologists started to search for material remains associated with these stories. Excavations in search of the “True Cross” conducted at the request of Helen, mother of Constantine, revealed both the cross of Christ and those fo the two others crucified by his side. In short, the history and archaeology of Early Christianity are almost as old as the narrative itself.

The confluence of history and faith during the Christmas season makes it an appropriate time for the release of the book that I edited with David Pettegrew and Tom Davis, The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology.  The book ain’t cheap, but maybe if every major library in the world orders it, it’ll come out in paperback at a lower price. The goal of the book is provide an up-to-date over view of the archaeology of the Early Christian world to scholars and students of the period as well as to introduce the largely European field of Early Christian archaeology to an Anglo-American audience. 


One thing that is nice is that the entire introduction is available on Google Books. This was one of the most entertaining and interesting writing experiences that I’ve ever experienced. David and I wrote an almost 30,000 word essay that we then trimmed, pruned, compressed, and coppiced down to about 12,000 words or so. While cutting and pruning is never easy, the opportunity to stretch out and write truly long form in our first draft was truly worth it. Maybe at some point we’ll release our full draft – which is pretty raw – just to share a bit of writing process. I think that the final published product is both good and, more importantly, useful. I hope everyone else finds it useful too and finds the entire Oxford Handbook a worthy addition to your local library. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

The gorgeous hoar frost again this morning in North Dakotaland seems to be nature’s way of decorating the landscape for the holidays especially as it glittered behind dancing snow squalls on my way to campus. As the long weekend approaches and the last of the holiday shoppers make this purchases from The Digital Press (or order subscriptions from North Dakota Quarterly), I feel more ready than ever to take a few days away from the ole laptop and maybe even read a novel. 

Before I go, however, I feel like I should offer a little gaggle of quick hits and varia.

IMG 3469

A Book by its Cover: Epoiesen Volume 2

We’re getting pretty close to having Epoiesen 2 ready for publication. Followers of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota may remember that we published Epoiesen 1 in early 2018. It’s a collaboration between The Digital Press and Shawn Graham and colleagues who publish Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology. If you haven’t checked out Epoiesen 1, you really should. It really showcases the range of creative ways that thoughtful and critical folks are engaging with the past. You can even buy a paper copy for $6.

The process of publishing Epoiesen has been a particularly fun challenge for The Digital Press because it involves transforming content published in a digital format into paper. In some sense, the act of mediating between the born digital and the paper (or the ersatz paper in the case of the PDF) is an example of creatively engaging with the past. 

There are just a few tweaks to the text and a quick scan of the paper galley proofs, and it’ll be released into the wilds. While are plan was to make it available for everybody’s Christmas wish lists, the end of the semester and some delays caught up with use and now it should be available in early 2019.

That being said, we do have the cover ready, though! Katherine Cook provided the cover image, and we continued with Andrew Reinhard’s basic cover design. Katherine Cook’s illustration evokes Shawn Graham’s editorial in the volume, “Citation as an Act of Enchantment,” which discusses the role that citation plays in I stuck with bright, non-primary colors and decided to go with this rather pastel purple.

Stay tuned both here and to The Digital Press page for publication!

Cover Epoiesen2 DigitalFinal

Writing WARP Wednesday

Over the last week or so I’ve been working on writing a draft of the preliminary report from the Western Argolid Regional Project. Yesterday, I returned to one of the more interesting issues facing intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean: the matter of intensity.

WARP was a siteless survey and we took this quite literally. We did not return to sites after our initial survey to conduct more intensive investigations or gridded collections. In fact, we tended not to talk about sites at all (outside of the commonplace naming convention associated with particular known ancient places in our landscape, like the walls of the polis of Orneai) and assumed that high density scatters in the landscape could as easily represent a single period as the overlap of a number of periods through time. (Our experience in the Eastern Korinthia had suggested that many areas of high artifact density in the landscape reflected the overlap of single period scatters that may or may not be contiguous.)

This being said, we did recognize that more intensive practices – such as total collection or intensive sampling across small grid squares or other forms of “hoovering” – produced more robust assemblages of material. We experimented a bit with this on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeologcial Project and while our results are very, very boring to read, they demonstrate that careful collection with our noses to the ground produced artifact densities that we much higher than traditional field walking. At the same time, the uniformity of the assemblage at Pyla-Koutsopetria ensured that more intensive collection strategies did not produce a more diverse assemblage. In other words, on PKAP, where our assemblage was pretty uniform, doing more intensive artifact collection did not yield more nuanced results.

In the Western Argolid, the situation is a bit different. The survey area is larger and encompasses a generally wider range of environmental conditions. Moreover, our artifact scatters across the survey area tend to reflect more complex and varied historical processes than we found at our “large site survey” on Cyprus. As a result, it seemed like a good place to run another series of experiments to see whether more intensive collection strategies produced different kinds of assemblages across the survey area. In particular, we were interested in seeing whether more intensive collection strategies revealed the presence of “hidden landscapes” consisting of pottery that tends to be overlooked during traditional survey field walking.

To do this, we set down slightly over 100 2m radius total collection circles across our survey area. These resurvey units fell within our existing units and we intended to use them to compare the resurvey assemblages to the assemblages produced by traditional intensive survey.

This proved pretty challenging for a number of reasons. Some involved research design. Our resurvey units were total collection circles with a 2 m radius (i.e. 12.57 sq m) and we typically did two per unit for about a 1% sample of the survey units which averaged about 2500 sq m. This sample could then be compared to the must larger, but less intensive ~10%-20% sample collected using typical survey procedures of field walkers spaced at 10 m intervals looking 1 m to each side. This comparison, of course, isn’t all that great. First, we recognize variation in the surface assemblage across the unit so it makes sense that our resurvey circle may well capture an assemblage with a different character than the assemblage produced by field walking. Ideally, they two assemblages are similar in some way, but some variation is likely to reflect that, short of total collection of the entire survey area, surface sampling is not designed to discover an example of every kind of sherd present in every survey unit, but a representative sample of the area generally. More than that, there was a general tendency to locate the resurvey circles in areas with higher visibility than the average visibility across the survey unit in general shifting slightly the recovery conditions for material.

That being said, our preliminary analysis of the material has produced some other challenges as well. First, it’s very difficult compare complex assemblages. We have remarkable ceramicists who are capable of defining pottery in very granular ways both in terms of typology and chronology. This granularity makes it difficult to compare two assemblages because the variation inherent in how we analyze ceramic artifacts. For example when I compared the resurvey and the survey assemblages this past summer, the vast majority of assemblages showed little chronological overlap based on the specific periods assigned to each chronotype. On the one hand, this meant that our resurvey circles were producing different kinds of chronological information from the larger survey units in which they were situated, but, on the other hand, this chronological need not result in substantively more knowledge about the artifact scatter. An artifact datable to the “Late Hellenistic to Early Roman” period is different from a “Hellenistic to Early Roman” artifact, to be sure, but this kind of granularity is as likely to represent the irregular distribution of chronological knowledge across a typology than it is to represent a general pattern of artifact dates that would influence the identification of the function of the site, for example. (I.e. some kinds of pottery, say fine ware, can be dated more specifically than other kinds of pottery.)  

It is worth noting, however, that in general, standard survey units produced more artifacts with narrower chronologies than the resurvey units did. While this, in and of itself, is not meaningful (as, for example, prehistoric pottery dated quite specifically still tends to have wide chronological ranges than historical period pottery), it suggests that our standard survey practices produced assemblages that were susceptible to chronological analysis that are at least comparable and perhaps more fine grained than our total collection circles.   

To mitigate this, I started to generalize the chronological categories a bit, grouping the finely honed chronology offered by our ceramicists into “Prehistoric,” “Greek,” “Roman,” “Greek/Roman,” “Medieval,” “Modern,” and “General” for artifacts only dated to broad spans of time. This aggregation, predictably, made the comparison between our two assemblages easier. For example, it showed that over half of the assemblages produced pottery of broadly the same date. Moreover, it allowed us to observe that the smaller the assemblage the less likely overlap occurs. In other words, our smallest assemblages from either standard survey or resurvey were not just producing worn, undiagnostic pottery that we tend to aggregate into more general chronological categories, but that they also produced variation. 

It also gave us a way to see if the resurvey units had any particularly telling trends. It appears, however, that the resurvey units did not yield, as a general pattern, assemblages that could be dated to narrower periods than their standard survey collections. This tells us that our more intensive collection circles are not producing more narrowly datable pottery in general, but not necessarily that they don’t produce pottery datable to particular narrow date ranges.   As an example, the only the resurvey assemblages produced any examples of Final Neolithic and FN-Early Helladic I in those units that we resurveyed. Other units in the survey area, of course, produced material from those periods.  





Lyon’s Garage and the End of Past Futures

Grand Forks is a pretty interesting little town if you pay attention to what’s going on. This past week, the long simmering news became pubic that Lyon’s Garage, a Tudor Revival style building built in 1929. It will be replaced by a predictably bland, brick-clad, steel and glass “mixed use” building with commercial or retail space on the ground floor and modern apartments above.

1280px Lyons Garage 214 218 North 4th Street Grand Forks ND

What has drawn my to the story of Lyon’s Garage is that it is the last operating business from the old automobile district in downtown Grand Forks. According the National Register nomination and a quick scan of the Sanborn Maps showed that as early as 1916, the northern part of downtown Grand Forks had become home to a number of garages and auto repair businesses. Their location at the edge of the commercial district downtown was convenient because it provided access to travelers on the Meridean Highway and the U.S. Route 2. Travelers stopping in Grand Forks could get their vehicles serviced or park their cars over in one of the several garages in the area. Grand Forks residents could purchase their vehicles in this neighborhood as well, and Lyon’s Garage sold some rather more obscure brands – including the humorously named Hupmobile – across the street from the Oldsmobile dealer. To the northeast of Lyon’s stood the Norther Pacific passenger depot and to the southwest was the Great Northern railway siding in town. In other words, Lyon’s Garage stood amid a network of roads and rail connection linking Grand Forks to the rest of the nation.

The decision to tear down Lyon’s Garage speaks a bit to how we current view the history of Grand Forks. There is no doubt that a light industrial outfit like Lyon’s fits awkwardly within the developing plans for the city. The emphasis on making downtown Grand Forks a walkable city with street level shopping and higher density residential space makes the rather single-story buildings with generous set backs rather less efficient uses of space. In fact, most efforts to promote new urbanism frown on the inefficient use of space associated with downtown car dealerships, even though they were a regular feature in mid-20th century communities (See for example, the efforts to move Select Ford from downtown Williston, North Dakota.) The effort to reimagine downtowns remain steadfastly nostalgic, however, even as they overwrite part of the urban past in the name of new urbanism. The loss of Lyon’s Garage – and the closing of Odin’s Service Station on Belmont – mark two of the older, and continuously functioning, monuments to Grand Forks automotive past. The automobile and Grand Forks developed more or less simultaneously and even today single family homes and tidy neighborhoods extend north and south along the thoroughfares that follow the line of the old Meridian highway. In effect, Grand Forks was designed for sprawl and suburbanization. The disappearance of Lyon’s Garage (and possibly Odin’s!) erases some of the historical monuments that defined the early-20th century character of Grand Forks. 

It’s interesting to think of places like Lyon’s Garage as an expression of the tension between Grand Forks as a “logistics city” that supported the regional and national flow of material through its borders and Grand Forks as a central place that privileges residents over participation in the global supply chain. The auto district of Grand Forks, served the movement of people and goods through our community (as well as residents).

More than that, it embedded the mechanics of Grand Forks as a logistics city in its urban fabric. The rail lines, auto district, warehouses, and boarding houses that characterized the northern and western parts of downtown created opportunities for genuine mixed use development. Over the past decade, however, many of the older light industrial sites in Grand Forks have moved further outside the city, in part to take advantage more, cheaper space and better connections to rail and the interstate. This shift to industrial activity outside the city itself, however, impacts downtown as it transforms the diverse environment supported by genuine mixed use urbanism into a more homogenized space of commercial, retail, and residential. In fact, the absence of light industrial activities in the urban core may well mitigate against a certain amount of economic diversity as these installations likely syncopated the spread of higher rent and high cost development that would ensure both space for less well-heeled operations and moderated the expense of downtown living. The risk of a downtown built on higher cost residential, white collar commercial, and retail and service is that the folks who work in those street level retail outlets and in the service industry can’t live downtown. As a result, they have to drive to work in the walkable urban core.  

As a brief coda to an admitted rambling post, I was struck by the rise of new businesses in town that have adopted the formal character of the garage. Sickie’s Garage for example, is a burger place that initial built a garage-like building well outside of downtown before moving into a restaurant space in East Grand Forks that they have decorated to look a bit like a garage. Vinyl Taco, another new eatery – uses garage doors to open their restaurant to the outdoors during the three or four weeks a year which this is desirable. While, I’d be loath to suggest that a place like Lyon’s Garage or Odins become local “bar ’n’ grills,” but they stand as nice example of our nostalgia for these kinds of light industrial landscapes. The visible presence of brewing equipment in both of the downtown breweries similarly evokes and tempers urban industrial landscapes making them safe for upscale retail and service. All this both reminds us of a more dynamic urban past while keeping the smells, working class people, and noise of real industrial work at a distance. It’s a local version of the famed Meat-Packing and Garment districts of New York City.

All this is to say that it will be a bit sad to see Lyon’s Garage disappear. It’s not that it was such a remarkable building or that I even patronized the business (I did, however, got to Odin’s regularly), but I do appreciate what that kind of business stood for in a town like Grand Forks and wonder whether our walkable future would do a bit better to preserve the working class landscape of our city’s automobile past. 

Continuity, Practice, and Theory in Digital Archaeology

This weekend I read Sara Perry and James S. Taylor recently published article “Theorising the Digital: A Call to Action for the Archaeological Community” from Oceans of Data: Proceedings of the 44th Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. (Archaeopress 2018). On the Twitters, she asked her followers what they thought of the paper; so I figured that I’d oblige her by writing up my thoughts here on the ole bloggeroo.

First, this paper raises an important question: what is the relationship between the ongoing conversations about digital  technology in archaeology and the rest of the discipline? More significantly, what does the recent outpouring of thoughtful theorizing in digital archaeology offer to the larger development of archaeological theory? At present, it would seem, digital theory – ranging from how archaeologists design and conceptualize data recording schemes to the tricky issue of digital ethics in an era of remote sensing – rarely appear in standard treatments of archaeological theory and even pressing conceptual and ethnical issues central to digital practice fall remain marginal to larger debates.

While I suspect this larger trend is changing (note, for example, Giorgio Buccellati’s A Critique of Archaeological Reason (2016)), I think the point that Perry and Taylor make is still good. The relationship between the discourse in digital archaeology and the larger discipline remains ambiguous. As they note, this, in part, represents a view of digital technology as a set of tools that can be applied to accomplish particular goals within archaeology as any tool in any contexts. This approach regards digital tools as no different from, say, a trowel or grid or, maybe, a Harris Matrix, whose place within archaeology is largely defined by its immediate utility. Of course, most archaeologists do recognize that the tools that they use define the kinds of knowledge that we produce, but the line between very basic tools – like a trowel or a pick – and more complex tools – like an iPad – is relatively ill-defined. As a result, there seems to be a tendency to under theorize tools and field practices, in general. This tendency maps relatively neatly onto the dichotomy between physical work and intellectual work; the former is done by diggers and grounded in embodied and craft knowledge whereas the latter is done by project directors, supervisors, and specialists and grounded in science. This is a false dichotomy, of course, but one that remains only rarely unpacked (although see Edgeworth, Everill, and Ixchel M. Faniel et al.) or critiqued.  This isn’t a very satisfying situation, of course, and certainly one that a growing awareness of the impact of digital practices on archaeology in general could revise.  

I also suspect that the role of digital tools in a theorized archaeology is a question of continuity in archaeological practice. For example, if digital tools represent another version of the modern, industrial tools and practices that arose alongside archaeology (e.g. photography, surveying tools, industrial organization, et c.), then they do not require any particular theorizing outside of the larger critique of archaeology as a modern discipline. On the other hand, if you see digital tools representing a “paradigm shift” or a “rupture” with earlier practices, tools, and methods, then this requires a new set of theoretical presuppositions. Disciplines rarely excel at making this kind of determining in part because they rely so heavily on fundamentally conservative institutional frameworks to produce knowledge that practitioners deem relevant. A greater attention to the contributions of digital practices and technologies to the nature of archaeological knowledge would not involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but in an era where “innovation,” “disruption,” and “acceleration” are closely associated with changes to long-standing economic and social relations, there is a well-founded reluctance to recognize transformational change in archaeological practice. In other words, if you see the much ballyhooed changes in technology as something that is leading to greater disparities of wealth, power, and security in the world, then there are real reasons to avoid imagining these same technologies in the same way in our field. I’m not saying that this is good, but I see it as a way to tame the potential of digital practices through the weight of tradition.

This does, of course, push us to consider the place of archaeological practice within an increasingly specialized archaeological discipline. The emergence of specialists in digital archaeology with specialist journals, conferences, and institutions, has served to incubate a dense, practical, and (to my mind) fascinating discourse around technology in the field, the lab, and in publishing. At the same time, this specialization has isolated these conversations from other specializations within the discipline in the same way that specialists in lithic, pollen analysis, or even intensive pedestrian survey methods tend to exist within relatively specialized boundaries that only rarely offer the kind of practical or intellectual permeability that allows these sub-specialities to shape the larger field. The difference, however, for digital archaeology is that digital practices are both ubiquitous within the discipline and also demand new and distinctive sets of skills.

The discipline is already navigating the tensions between familiarity and specialization through the appearance of more and more papers that use sophisticated digital tools in traditional archaeological environments. For example, a recent panel on Cyprus at the ASOR annual meeting included two papers that performed network analysis using a range of new and dynamic digital tools and practices. These papers were not sequestered to a digital panel, but occurred within the broader context of historical and archaeology research on Cyprus. One might hope that over time, digital practitioners and problems will appear more and more regularly at the usual range of meetings that attract topics on theoretical archaeology, ethics, and archaeological practices. It might even be useful to see a decline in the number of specialist journals and meeting dedicated to digital archaeology as archaeologists increasingly roll digital practices into ongoing discussions on methods. Of course, this implies a certain continuity and commensurability between long-standing practices and digital techniques and technologies and that loops me back to the start of this post.

Perry and Taylor’s article is a good read and thought provoking and parts of it strike to the core of what it means to do digital archaeology or to think about technological mediated practices in the field. It asks us to reflect critically on how we locate within the discipline certain specialties, which are, in and of themselves, a consequence of modern disciplinary practices that fragment the whole into smaller parts.