My paper today will explore the intersection of digital technologies, Mediterranean archaeology, and transdisciplinary, synergistic research. This work has grown from my thinking about the newly created Working Group in Digital and New Media and some recent opportunities to talk about the role of agency and technology in the field of archaeology.
When people think of digital technology, I am pretty sure that Mediterranean Archaeology is not the first field to come to mind. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to identify any fields more steeped in traditional approaches than Mediterranean, or as we used to call it, Classical Archaeology, Ancient History, or Classical Philology. While these fields did have digital pathbreakers, for example David Packard’s efforts with the Packard Humanities Institute and his famous Ibycus computer, the field never developed a reputation for embracing the cutting edge of technology.1 The same may be said for History (where I make my disciplinary home here on campus) which despite the important work of groups like the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, still features individuals sufficiently skeptical of technology to publicly declare themselves Luddites – and to understand the radical implication of Ned Ludd for academic modes of productions (think of that next time the email server is down!).2 All this is to say, that when I refer to trenches in my talk title, I am not just playing on archaeologists’ predilection for spending time in holes, but the rudimentary state of digital awareness in our field.3
While Mediterranean archaeologists and historians have traditionally lacked technological savvy, the study of the ancient Mediterranean has a sound foundation in the area of synergistic research and teaching. Its inclusion in the field of Classics or Classical Studies places archaeology among the disciplines of Classical philology, history, anthropology, art history, literary criticism, and the history of religions – as well as numerous subfields each with their own disciplinary practices like epigraphy, numismatics, silography, and the study of ceramics. The location of Mediterranean Archaeology within this transdisciplary space has produced a field perhaps more comfortable than most in disregarding disciplinary boundaries.4
Its from this background that I’d like to argue today that technology holds out the prospect of disrupting disciplinary boundaries in a far more profound way than traditional trans or interdisciplinary work has before. The intersection of digital technologies and archaeological (and historical) practices, in fact, “threatens” – and it is clear that some people will see this as a threat – to destabilize the longstanding professional and disciplinary core of these fields of study.5 Technology offers the ability to transform the networks through which we create archaeological knowledge and in the process to create a dynamic and hybrid field that may resemble more a space of engagement than a discipline – at least as discipline are conceptualized within the academy today. To use the words of our administrators here, I imagine such spaces of engagement as particularly susceptible to synergistic (or is it synergistical?) relationships that will transform the social organization in the humanities, create a more inclusive model of academic life, and provide perspectives on intellectual problems that more accurately reflect present realities. To demonstrate my point, I will present two case studies that reveal my theoretical position on both the discipline of archaeology and the role of technology. In doing so, I will outline some practical implication of digital technology in the field of Mediterranean archaeology as it stares into its digital future.
Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a body of archaeological data generated from a field project conducted between 1979 and 1982 in the immediate hinterland of the ancient city (and now modern village) of Thisvi, in Boeotia. A team from Ohio State University under the direction of my graduate adviser Timothy Gregory collected the data from the field using the technique of intensive pedestrian survey. Today the material is under study in collaboration with a larger project directed by Archie Dunn of the University of Birmingham in the UK.6 The goal of this project is to re-write the post-Classical period at the site of Thisvi by integrating our intensive pedestrian survey data into more recent work done in surrounding regions and in the modern village of Thisvi.7 To accomplish this, Archie invited Tim Gregory and me to re-discover and reanalyze the data collected some 30 years ago. The first step in this process was to produce a digital data set from the “analog” records preserved in the project’s various field notebooks. Since its initial recording 30 years ago, the data had been effectively lost both from academic scrutiny and from recent developments both in the region and in discipline. This was in large part because it did not exist in an easily portable or accessible format and consequently remained the possession of the original project director.
This process of digitizing this data revealed a good bit about the nature of archaeological data, the practice of digitizing, and the networks in which archaeological data of all kinds exist.8 (And here you might hear some echoes of recent work in Actor-Network analysis in archaeology and the study of material culture more broadly. 9)
As with most intensive survey projects, the Ohio Boeotia Expedition recorded Thisvi data with any eye toward quantitative analysis. The 1970s saw Mediterranean archaeology embrace the principles of New Archaeology with its emphasis on, among other things, statistical models and analyses. So the data was recorded from the field with an eye toward quantitative goals. At the same time, the project began before computer technology had come to exert the strong influenced on data collection that we see today. Consequently, while there was proper quantitative data collected – for example artifact densities from the field much of the finds data – that is the description of the artifacts recovered from the field – was not normalized for analysis. The ceramicists assigned identical examples of the same type of archaeological material different names, descriptions, and even slightly different chronologies. This was not based on an archaeological reality, but on the vagaries of data capture – in other words: how the ceramicist wrote down the entry in the notebook. So, the first step in reanalyzing these tiny fragments of archaeological interpretation was to normalize it in order to make these bit of information susceptible to integration over the course of larger scale analysis.
The idiosyncratic nature of the archaeological knowledge recorded in the field and its preservation in a paper notebook revealed the tenuous place of the original “analog” data in our knowledge universe. The only place where 3 field seasons of data collection existed was in paper notebooks stored at a secure excavation house in Greece. They were only as secure as the excavation house and access to this data (provided one knew how to find it) had to be arranged through the excavation director personally. The process of keying this data into a database and normalizing it made it not only more susceptible to analysis by means of a computer database, but also make it somewhat less perishable in that any responsible computer user backs up their hard drive regularly.
As I worked away on these bits of archaeological knowledge, it became clear that my work normalizing the data was more than just a response to the changing methods of computers analyses but also a response to the changing technology surrounding the curation of archaeological knowledge. So, by entering the data, I produced a small number of digital copies. These copies, however, were still neither particularly discoverable nor stable. As we all have experienced, data formats change quickly and isolated datasets will almost certainly fall obsolete through neglect. This is especially true if they remain the possession of the individual archaeologist and depend upon that individual’s data curation practices. Many scholars now suggest that the next step in responsible curation of data involves releasing encoded bits of archaeological knowledge into the wilds of the internet.10
In fact, it may be that this step in the curation process is the most important. On the most basic level, both server architecture and the structure of the internet ensures that data is backed up typically on multiple servers in multiple places. Once data made accessible on the web, it becomes possible for other people to gain access to this data and, if the data is present in a sufficiently accessible way, to preserve another copy. Finally, the more public data is, the more likely it is to becomes embedded in the scholarly discourse. Simply put: visible data can receive multiple human made links and, this is alone is more likely to attract the attention of an automated archiving site like the Internet Archive, if more formal archiving arrangements are not made.11 Moreover, the more central the data becomes in academic discussions, the more likely it is to receive digital curation and remain in up-to-date formats.
In this environment the key to the curation of archaeological knowledge is for data to be available to a dynamic network of potential end users. The traditional approach to archeological data has sometimes worked counter to this impulse. I’d argue that the technology of data collection and archives, most notably the long term use of paper notebooks to record preliminary analysis of archaeological material, have reinforced certain characteristics of archaeological culture to discourage the circulation of archaeological information.
Traditional practices of recording in notebooks rely upon the careful protection of a very limited number of paper copies typically maintained at either the location of actual fieldwork (e.g. at a museum or workroom of a project) or in the possession of some individual or institution responsible for the work (university archive, faculty member’s office, et c.). It seems to me that these practices emanate from and reinforce, an older, “heroic model” of scientific knowledge which associates the results of an experiment or excavation with an individual or an institution.12 For example, it is common for archaeologists today to refer to notebooks by the name of the excavator – Carl Blegen’s notebooks or Dimitrios Pallas’s notebooks – although this practice is certainly on the wane. [Slide of “Blegen’s” notebook from Zygouries]
This is not to suggest that keeping excavation notebooks presupposes an exclusive or “heroic” model, but there seems to be a clear parallel between the need to curate very carefully the results of fieldwork in a pre-digital age and the concern for the intellectual legacy of the individual and institutions involved in the collection of data. The continued tendency to limit access to the “data” produced by archaeological fieldwork, whether intentionally or not, seems to represent the lingering legacy of the heroic model.
Changes, however, are afoot as the heroic model gives way to what I’d like to suggest is a “small science” model which recognizes the production of archaeological knowledge as a collective enterprise, but one of limited scope and resources.13 Projects across the Mediterranean have begun to invest the necessary (and sometimes substantial resources) into presenting their data on the web in ways which make it visible not only to individual, human, researchers but also search engines and aggregators.14 This allows others to access results of small science and to combine them with other data sets to produce big science conclusions. Toward this end, projects are making their data available not just as complete data sets – like digitized notebook pages -- but as individual pieces of archaeological data that can be critically referenced, recombined, and redeployed across any number of contexts and media. This work is being facilitated by the creation of standards to mark up this data to make it useable. The near future will bring terms like ArcheoML, XML and RDF more to the attention of archaeologists and forge new ties to people capable of data-mining, text-encoding, and querying. As you might imagine, things get more complicated as the types of data collected – ranging from descriptions of artifacts to GIS produced maps, text files, and quantitative data – proliferate across multiple platforms, adopt varied standards of naming, and, perhaps most significantly, derive from more complicated professional and archaeological contexts.
Preparing a digital copy of the paper notebook from the Ohio Boeotia Expedition is only the next stage in the life of this archaeological knowledge. The first stage saw it from the artifact through the archaeologist’s mind, through a pen, and into a paper notebook stored in an archive; this next step will open these bits of archaeological knowledge to a another network of active participants who will both reproduce the physical object of archaeological knowledge and deploy it in the service of new ways of understanding the past.
The move from a heroic model of data curation where a single institution or individual was responsible for the archaeological knowledge produced by a field project, to a model more in keeping with recent efforts to integrate the results of “small science” research has parallels with the shifts in the way archaeologists conceptualize the very data that they collect. Scholars like M. Shanks, I. Hodder, and C. Tilley have problematized the assumptions and processes that shape archaeological data collection and worked to undermine any naively scientific view of archaeological research.15 Just as collective models of data curation explicitly presupposed distributive models of knowledge production, scholars are increasingly recognizing archaeological projects themselves as dynamic, collective, efforts to document an engagement with the remains of the past. This open-ended approach to the production of archaeological knowledge subverts the authority vested in modernist, disciplinary approaches to the past by undermining a neat linear relationship between hypothesis, data collection, and conclusion.16 It is easy to recognize in the traditional mode of archaeological knowledge production the modernist legacy of disciplinary models. Like elsewhere in the social sciences and humanities, archaeology has increasingly come to embrace research that recognizes diverse, mulivocal ways to understanding and explaining the past. This makes sense: just as objects from our contemporary world – like archaeological notebooks – draw upon complex conceptual networks for meaning, the material remains of the past exist within diverse networks that impart objects with meaning at every instant and situation within the archaeological process. In other words, the work of archaeological interpretation stretches from the moment of discovery, through the process of recording and preservation, to the object’s presentation, and, the formal interpretation of an object’s function in the past.
The recognition of the diverse meanings generated when individuals and communities engage material culture from the past has led to a corresponding emphasis on the processes that produce archaeological knowledge. The first part of my paper today has explored the role that technology has played in the ability of individuals to gain access to the process of archaeological knowledge production. The second part of this paper will look at how simple technological changes are forcing open the archaeological process even further and cultivating the performative aspects of archaeology.17 The role of technology within the increasingly transparent and community oriented process of knowledge production has led some scholars to see parallels between archaeology and the embodied knowledge of craft production.18 In this assessment, technology ironically – situates archaeology in relation to premodern forms of knowledge that act as a dynamic counterpoint to the stagnant authority of modernity’s fixed interpretative products.
It is important to note, that the growing emphasis on process and embodied knowledge does not preclude the traditional forms of systematically collected data – whether these are qualitative or quantitative – but looks to these data as fragments of archaeological knowledge dependent as much upon the immediate processes of production as larger interpretative regimes. As one result, the last few decades have seen a growing emphasis on documenting the dynamic environment where the production of that knowledge (or the performance of that knowledge) creates a space for understanding the past.
These changes in archaeological epistemology, methods, and procedures took place in parallel with a number of crucial technological innovations (including many of a non-digital nature). Over the last couple of decades, the quickening pace of digital innovation has played a key role in redefining the kinds of data that we can collect from the field. In particular, digital devices have combined with the idea of archaeology as a process to eliminate the distinction between a kind of “objective” primary data collection and the subsequent analysis and dissemination of this data.
Transmedia and Social Projects
At my archaeological project on the island of Cyprus,19 we’ve witnessed and facilitated the gradual increase in the number of digital devices and media set to document the archaeological discovery process. We have used portable voice recorders to conduct impromptu interviews in the field, edited and unedited digital video, digital photography, and a wide range of regular blog posts describing the process of archaeology from a wide range of perspectives. The goal of these projects is to capture the collaborative, synergistic nature of archaeological knowledge production. This is crucial for two, interrelated reasons: first, the proliferation of technology in an archaeological context works to obscure the line between the modern, professional, and disciplinary production of archaeological data and the production of data either intentionally or unintentionally outside of these constraints.
Second, by obscuring the difference between disciplinary and “non-disciplinary” archaeological knowledge, technology reveals knowledge production as anything but a linear processes. In this way, it challenges the linear model of the heroic excavator who asks the question, produces the data, and validates the hypothesis. Research questions change continuously in a reciprocal relationship with the data produced in the field and in conversation with other specialists on the archaeological project. Thus, like the curation of archaeological knowledge, data collection is made visible as a dynamic, social, collaborative process.
For the final part of this paper, I will focus in particular on the collapse of the barriers between “official” data production and “unofficial” knowledge production. These examples are technologically simple and relatively easily integrated in an archaeological context, but I think their simplicity speaks to how technology works to redefine the practice of everyday life by affecting real changes in archaeological practices.
In the last 5 years, high-resolution digital cameras have become commonplace among participants in an archaeological project.20 Whereas even a decade ago, a project might have several, or even only one, designated film cameras to produce official publishable photographs, now every member of the team has the ability to produce their own, high-resolution archives of the archaeological experience. The ability of students and staff to take and circulate their own photos and the photographs of their colleagues, breaks down many of the mechanical difference between the official gaze of the project director and the gaze of the participant. In fact, any insistence on a singular authoritative photograph of the trench or object will erode in the face of myriad, equally valid, photographs of the same space or object from the field. To be clear, it’s not that archaeologists will not continue to produce definitive, publishable, and authoritative photographs; it is that technology alone will no longer establish these photographs’ authoritative character.21 [Slide of Ryan’s, Susie’s and an official photo]. In fact, project directors now regularly struggle with too many archaeological photographs or we’ve been forced to confront the difficult issue of how and whether to limit what photographs can be circulated publicly while the excavation is occurring.
Digital video is clearly the next frontier in laying bear the archaeological process, and in some ways represents the opposite challenge from that offered by the proliferation of digital photography.22 In the past, the production of film was expensive, involved complex equipment and processes, and required considerable technical expertise. These technological issues, to some extent, fortified the position of the film industry and the “mass media” in creating an image of the archaeologist. [Slide of Indiana Jones and Naked Archaeologist]. Today, archaeological documentaries can be produced by even modest sized projects. Moreover, high-quality footage can be disseminated “on the fly” and footage can be produced with widely available and inexpensive technology. Services like YouTube have made it simple to expose the archaeological process to millions of viewers around the globe. The point here is not to suggest that there is no longer room for a well-made archaeological documentary or that the aesthetic vision of a filmmaker has lost value, but rather to suggest that the availability of technology has created an environment where almost any project, not to mention participant, in the production of archaeological knowledge could produce video, edit and distribute it. This democratization of the recording, editing, and distribution process complements the growing interest in reflexive archaeology by making it possible to open to the entire project, the ability to document the reflective and collaborative nature of archaeology.
My final example focuses on social media and blogging in an archaeological context. Blogs have received a decidedly ambivalent response within academia. Blogs are neither the fish of peer-reviewed publication nor the fowl of informal (and perhaps largely obsolete) academic correspondence. At the same time, blogs are free, easy to use, and designed to facilitate entrance into intellectual and social networks. The low bar to access and relatively powerful medium presented by blogging has carved out a hybrid, middle space between traditional methods of publication (i.e. books and articles) and presentation of archaeological knowledge in a format open to continuous critique. My project in Cyprus makes a whole series of blogs available for participants and considers part of the project all the day-to-day activities, impressions, and reflection recorded in these blogs. Blogs and other new and social-media applications have expanded public access to archaeological knowledge production by disseminating text, images, and video quickly. They also open a whole range of archaeological knowledge to critical comments from a wide audience. This is not to suggest that blogging will replace the peer-reviewed article or archaeological monograph, but they have already proven to be an easily manipulated platform for publishing an interactive, communal, transmedia discourse. Like digital photography and video, the blogger whether an undergraduate, a graduate student, or a senior staff member presents a kind of archaeological knowledge to the community and contributes to the larger archive of archaeological knowledge in ways that economic and technological issues (as well as theoretical and intellectual) would have barred just decades ago.
It is clear that the future offers many more such low-cost, high-resolution, collaborative platforms for archaeological work. For example, Google Earth and Maps provide easy access, collaborative platforms for producing georeferenced archaeological datasets.23 Low cost GPS units allow individuals to map a landscape at with a remarkable level of precision. In fact, my camera has a GPS unit in it that is more accurate than a GPS unit costing thousands of dollars just a decade ago. Recently I’ve been intrigued by the possibility of aggregating individual photographs, GPS points, and text descriptions to produce richly nuanced archaeological datasets for landscape type analysis. This data will not be the product of a directed investigation, but rather collective efforts of numerous individuals with individual goals, but developed on a common platform. In other words, the technology itself is the agent facilitating integrated analysis.
To return to the present, our work in Cyprus is manifestly the product of a dynamic synergy between a wide range of collaborators with a range of abilities, interests, perspectives, and goals. As a result, the archaeological knowledge that the project has so far produced ranges from typical qualitative and quantitative excavation and intensive survey data to far more reflective digital video, audio, writing and photographs. This disparate and faceted body of archaeological knowledge both provides a dynamic and extensive effort to document the archaeological process and challenges narrowly held perspectives on the production of archaeological knowledge.
Towards a Conclusion
What I have tried to argue in this paper is that intersection of archaeology and digital technology present a model for the kind of synergistic behaviors so favored by university administrators across the country. As a means of conclusion, I’d like to suggest that technology has created an understanding of archaeological knowledge that resists modern and, frankly, industrial paradigms of knowledge production.24 The proliferation of digital technology has made it possible to reveal some of the mechanisms which have long defined disciplinary knowledge as an exclusive right of the adherents to particular epistemological, socio-economic, political, or institutional position. The power vested in the archaeologist’s access to a proper camera or to institutionally held notebooks gives way when confronted with free access to data or the technology necessary to produce archaeological photographs.
When a traditional discipline encounters digital technologies and commits to using and understanding them as more than “simple tools” for facilitating archaeological work or collecting data more effectively, these technologies can undermine the restrictions and limitations that, in fact, define the discipline. This is not to suggest that these new approaches to producing knowledge are completely dependent upon digital technology or completely independent from the production of traditional disciplinary knowledge.
After all, the parallel between archaeology’s focus on process and pre-modern methods of craft production suggests that attacks on the modernist organization of knowledge can derive as easily from the most distinctly un-modern aspects of academia as those most closely tied to a post-modern future. Nevertheless, digital technology has made clear archaeology’s dependence on the larger scholarly community, on the members of the project, on the local community where the project is located, and even on outside observers of the project. As a result, the character of what constitutes archaeology has changed.
While I am optimistic that the professional practitioner of archaeological methods will continue to occupy a place within the archaeological discourse after all disciplinary organizations still control certain technologies, resources, and, as a result, methods – I am equally confident that technological changes will consistently threaten the intellectual, methodological, and institutional basis for this ascendency.
The end of disciplinary knowledge in some ways represents the adaptation of the university and academia to the new conditions created by the interplay between new technologies and existing epistemologies.
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