Survey and Scopophilia, Part 2

After I posted about the survey that we’re conducting at Fuwairit, my UC Berkeley cohort member and friend James Flexner reminded me of some of the writing he’s done regarding analog and digital planning and survey. He’s also leading a session at the upcoming Society for American Archaeology meeting titled Archaeological Cartographies on 1 April that looks really interesting–I will probably try to attend, as the Blogging Archaeology session isn’t until the day after.

Anyway, in his article, Where is Reflexive Map-Making in Archaeological Research? Towards a Place-Based Approach, James provides an overview of the literature on reflexive map-making in archaeology and talks a bit about his plane-table and alidade approach in mapping during his fieldwork in Kalawao, Molok’i, Hawaii. I had the pleasure of helping James excavate and draw in Hawaii (we wrote an article together about utilized glass–okay, he mostly wrote it, after I looked at his glass artifacts and made a comic about it), and he taught me how to use the alidade to draw–we planned the first Mormon church in Hawaii together.

I agree with him that the plane table map was an interesting, evocative tool to learn to use in drawing the visible architecture. James argues that drawing the buildings, “stone by stone, tree by tree, artefact by artefact” helped him visualize the site in a way that was more sensual, and perhaps more consistent with the vision of past inhabitants of the site. What he does not elaborate upon is the unequal relationship between the person at the plane table and the person holding the measuring staff and of the reversal of this relationship while using an EDM. (and this is probably where I lose all but the most dedicated of survey nerds)

While you are using a alidade and plane table there  is more immediate communication between the two people conducting the survey. There is a  person holding the staff and a person at the table and the person at the table directs the staff-holder, and the plans finish with the person at the table going to inspect the architecture to fill in the gaps on the plan by representing the individual features of the buildings in more detail. This power relationship is reversed while using the EDM, as the person with the staff is in essence inscribing the landscape invisibly, drawing a plan that first appears as a point cloud and then emerges as outlines of buildings and features during data processing, while the person at the EDM is mostly looking through the scope and pushing buttons. Ideally the plan is then printed out and inspected in a discussion during a site walk over by the survey participants, in a way that is similar to lifting the plane table from the tripod and drawing in the individual elements at close range. Also, while it is important for one person to finish segments of land individually, the person behind the EDM can change places with the staff-holder and continue work, generally without too much disruption in “drawing” style. (There is some give in this latter point, in that some people “draw” more jaggedly than others who take more points and provide smoother contours.)

I don’t think that the desired reflexivity is necessarily reflected in the tools, or in contrasting the “cold eye” of the total station with a more humanistic plane table approach, but in the discussion of the people planning the site and the consciously interpretive act of remediating a landscape. Representing sites may require more or less technology, and there are many times that I’ve been on site with an EDM where a dumpy level would do just fine, and probably even be better.

I enjoy drawing, and I would have enjoyed planning Fuwairit with a plane table and an alidade. But I find the invisible inscription of landscape fascinating, and using an EDM as a mental pencil works well for my reflexive experience of place. Regardless, James’ article is worth a read & it is good to know how to use different tools–even ones that are now kept in the departmental museum.

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4 responses to “Survey and Scopophilia, Part 2

  1. Hi Colleen,

    That’s a really interesting point about power relationships. In my experience of contract archaeology in Britain, the power balance between the person at the EDM and the person holding the staff is the opposite of what you describe though. The EDM operator – the ‘surveyor’- is viewed as a specialist, and only a minority of archaeologists get the training to become surveyors, despite it being quite easy training to give. As a digger, I think it’s been about 4 years since I last used an EDM. As you say though, the person with the staff should be making the decisions.

  2. I’m not sure it’s such easy training, especially setting up a topo survey that aligns with the national grid and coming up with the kinds of point designations that we need to differentiate the architecture. The surveyors that we’re working with–Cord and Dave, you may know them–have been trained at UCL and can set up engineering surveys for bridges and the like. You’re right, spot heights aren’t much of a problem, but we shot 1,100 points today, most of them on lumpy bumpy scrappy deflated architecture. So I guess what it comes down to is the type of surveying you are doing.

  3. That’s true, only *some* of the training is easy to give. As you say, it comes down to what you’re doing. I wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with more than a very basic excavation survey, if I can even remember how to do that.

  4. Pingback: Alidades & Archaeology: “It’s the Bloody Steampunks!” | Middle Savagery

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