Home > The New Media, Web/Tech > Heroic Archaeology, Digital Data, and Disciplinarity: A Draft

Heroic Archaeology, Digital Data, and Disciplinarity: A Draft

I’ve been invited to give the Elwyn B. Robinson lecture at the library at the end of the month. This is a fun event where a nice cross-section of the university community shows up to commemorate the life and work of the historian Elwyn Robinson. So, as per usual, I am being overly ambitious in putting together a paper for this event and trying to articulate the historical and practical links between technology, practice and basic assumptions about archaeology as a discipline. In practical terms, I am trying to tout our new Working Group for Digital and New Media by arguing that digital technology (broadly construed) holds particular potential as a medium for cross/trans/post-disciplinary dialogue.

To make this argument, I first suggest that a kind of “heroic archaeologist” characterized the earliest days of “modern” archaeology in the Mediterranean. Think Carl Blegen, not Indiana Jones. The vision of these heroic archaeologists adhered closely not only to the data that they produced, but also the conclusions they drew from this data. The legacy of these men’s work can be seen even today when we refer to certain archaeological field notebooks as “Blegen’s Notebooks”. The importance of the paper notebook as the locus of the primary data that these men collected from the field (and through which they actualized their vision of a scientific archaeology) led to incredible steps being taken to prevent these notebooks from being lost or damaged. As a result, we have the notebooks today, but access to them, up until very recently, has been limited. I think that this is both institutional and technological. In the case of the former, these notebooks became so closely related to the heros of archaeology’s early days that they acquired relic status. The preservation of the notebooks was regarded as an crucial requirement for the preservation of knowledge in part because notebooks were and are fragile. Moreover, publishing raw notes by traditional means was both prohibitively expensive and perhaps even intellectually risky as it exposed the heroic underpinnings of archaeology to the outsiders’ gaze. To get access to the notebooks then, the institutional keepers of the data had to approve. This was both a matter of preserving the fragile media and preserving the past’s heroic legacy. In the most extreme cases, notebooks become family possessions and completely removed from any academic circulation.

For the past decade, this trend has reversed. Digital technology has made it easier and easier to publish archaeological data. Numerous projects are underway both to preserve and make accessible archaeological field data once hidden deep within the bowels of the archive. The increasing use of digital technology in the field has increased the amount of born digital data and streamlined (in most cases) archaeological workflow to the point where it is feasible in some cases to release data directly from the field into circulation. For example, at the end of every season on my project in Cyprus, we can circulate a completed (albeit provisional) data set that encompasses plans of trenches, (some) finds data, study photographs, and preliminary analyses, and we are far from unique in this respect. The born-digital character of this data makes it particularly easy, then, to circulate data sets. Moreover, the act of circulating even relatively “raw” (that is unanalyzed) data serves as a means to curate this data as well. This is the opposite of the old style notebook which is locked away (after perhaps being copied) at the excavation house under the careful eye of the excavation as an institution or the director. The responsibility that the institution or the person of the director feels toward this data contributes to the status of the notebook as the property of the excavation (or, in some cases, the director). There are obviously other issues at play as well, but I’d contend that the tremendously fragile nature of the archaeological notebook is a significant contributor to the idea that archaeological data is property.

With the increasingly easy circulation of archaeological field data, however, there is a growing sense that the data collected from intensive surveys and excavations in the Mediterranean should be made freely available. Sebastian Heath is among the biggest advocates of this idea and he has explored some of the intellectual justifications and consequences of this movement in his blog. He makes, for example, the link between curating archaeological data and sharing it. On the simplest level: when digital data is shared it is inevitably copied. When archaeological data is made available, the community will put forth increasing efforts to make sure that it is preserved. The simple practice of circulating data freely from a server will not only ensure that at least several copies of the data exist as a result of server architecture, but it will be accessible for people to download and copy onto their own computers, backing it up, and then recirculating it. In effect, the curation is left to the community because the data becomes their possession. The solitary, heroic, archaeologist gives way to the collective community who replace the person or institution as both archive and interpreter of data.

While this all sounds pretty cool, I am not naive, however, and recognize that some provision of long-term archiving must exist. After all, the collective effort to preserve the “most important knowledge” from antiquity has produced a body of texts filled with lacunae and hardly suitable to answer every question of significance for every age. Long-term, “deep” and stable storage of archaeological data should remain a key component of any archaeological enterprise, but the easy proliferation of digital texts will surely complement these efforts by creating an environment where the archiving and circulation of data are not incompatible.   

At the same time that digital technology and intellectual shifts within the discipline of archaeology has made it easier to access and circulate data from projects, scholars like Ian Hodder and Michael Shanks have pushed for a greater reflexivity in archaeological practice and have come to see archaeological knowledge as product of far more sophisticated forces than the singular vision of a project director or the weight of a seemingly enduring historical problem. The heroic archaeologist is under assault not just from the perspective of technological change. As scholars have articulated the profoundly anti-modern aspects of archaeological practice — some with closer parallels to craft production or even punk rock music, the hard edges of the discipline have begun to erode. For example, the growing recognition of indigenous archaeologies which articulate how traditionally alienated groups understand their material history has shown that archaeological practice in a modernist mode offers only one of any number of perspectives on the past. Even within the traditional boundaries of the discipline itself, the growing number of specialists involved on even a modest sized archaeological project has produced a space of overlapping and often times conflicting discursive, disciplinary, and even interpersonal agendas and practices. The heroically linear flow from the fieldwork to documentation to publication is now a very crowded space filled with voices. In such a context, archaeological knowledge is negotiated.

Digital technologies have made it far easier to document and to disseminate the negotiated character of archaeological knowledge. For example, my wife and I were just talking yesterday about our experiences on archaeological project not that long ago that had only one “official” camera. Typically, this was a pretty nice camera — often the nicest on the project or with the highest quality film. Now it is common for everyone in a trench to have a good quality digital camera. Unlike just 15 years ago, when developing and circulating slides was an expensive and time consuming process, now we can instantly develop and circulate photographs of the archaeological experience. While there might still be a limited number of “official cameras”, the official photograph of a trench is now just one of any number of competing photographs of that archaeological space. Moreover, it is possible to capture this diversity of perspectives and even to publish it on the internet at limited cost. The ease in disseminating the numerous perspectives on a project comes through with inexpensively captured digital audio and video. Consider how easy it is for archaeologists to produce their own documentary films that compete in quality and content with the professional productions of just decades ago. Low cost, HD video cameras and YouTube even hold forth the prospect of making everyone on the project a documentary filmmaker. At my project in Cyprus, we’ve used blogs to publish instantaneously myriad perspectives offered by undergraduate, graduate students, and even within the senior staff.

As the collaborative environment within archaeology reveals archaeological practice as inherently transdisciplinary. There are too many moving parts to subject archaeology to a singular disciplinary practice. This should be no surprise; the disciplines are a product of a particular moment in the development of the academy. The influence and faith in modernity and in systematic scientific approaches to knowledge about the past allowed archaeology under the watchful gaze of its heroic founding fathers to carve out a lasting place within the academia and the university. The archive of notebooks protected and preserved the modern disciplinary achievements of the archaeological method. Digital data, however, resists the enclosed space of the “finite” archive just as digital technologies make it more and more difficult to maintain a singular voice in archaeological research. Any effort to accommodate the myriad voices produced by any archaeological project challenges the notion of a “project” and an “archaeology”. The easy dissemination of both archaeological data (in a proper, modernist sense) and the various “unofficial” voices of archaeology make it impossible to limit the multi-vocal character of archaeological research and reinforce the centuries old disciplinary strictures. Moreover, the inability necessary to distinguish between data produces by “amateurs” and that produced by “professional” (professionalism is the hallmark of a discipline) suggests that the end of the discipline is near.

This is not suggest that people will not continue to use archaeological methods for studying the past; after all, the methods of indigenous archaeologists, undergraduate bloggers, fine art photographers, and casual videobloggers will not answer every question that an individual or community might have about the remains of a past community, building, or event.

Categories: The New Media, Web/Tech
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