Archaeology and the Panopticon

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(a dissertation snip)

Working on archaeological projects is often like living in a fishbowl, and this was especially true at Çatalhöyük (Ashley 2004). When we were not being watched by the daily site visitors, there would be specialists or guards, and sometimes artists or anthropologists would wander through. This feeling of being watched was especially true when videographers or people recording sound would come on site without warning. It was disconcerting to look up and realize that you were being filmed—what was I saying? Chadwick and his colleagues “found the cameras at Çatalhöyük intrusive” (2003:103). The availability of inexpensive video tape allowed a more casual use of filming around the site, and the zoom lenses and directional microphones allowed videographers a false proximity to excavators who may or may not be aware that their actions and conversation were being captured and subsequently used without their knowledge or permission. As previously mentioned in Chapter Three, after conducting a video interview with Roddy Regan, one of the long-time archaeologists at Çatalhöyük, he gave me a direct look and said, “I’ve filmed hundreds of these things but I’ve never ever seen any of the results.”

Surveillance is deeply implicated in the lineage of new media. Lev Manovich traces the history of the computer screen from photography, through radar, and then the development of tracking software by the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) command center that controlled U.S. air defenses in the mid-1950s (2001). With nearly instantaneous online publication available for videos, there is the potential for embarrassing or inappropriate content to become widespread before the subject of the film can take control of the content. This behavior is relatively innocuous compared to the notorious, ubiquitous tracking of social media companies who use and sell data about your interests and your interactions with your friends (boyd 2011). Yet there are “discriminatory social implications of panopticonism” that reveal the differential social status of those under scrutiny and those who hold the cameras (Elmer 2003:232). While this has abated somewhat in light of the growing availability of video cameras, there still remains a certain wariness of archaeologists toward filmmakers.

Film is not the only means to surveil the members of excavations; mandatory site diaries or “blogs” can be framed as a reflexive measure yet without reciprocity throughout the team and an explicit assurance that they will not be used against the individuals who express their opinions, the blogs quickly become dry accounts of stratigraphy. To remedy feelings of surveillance while taking photographs and videos on site there should be a relationship of trust, that the filmmaker would not abuse the trust of the subject by videotaping while the subject was unaware of the person, nor would they publish any media without the permission of the subject. I discuss the issues of assent and Human Subjects Review in regard to video later this chapter, yet it is relevant to note that feelings of surveillance can be mitigated by the position of the filmmaker within the team. If the person is another archaeologist or a long-trusted site media expert, there is an intimacy and trust present in the media that is completely absent in media made by outsiders (see Chapter Three for discussion of this phenomenon in photography).

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One response to “Archaeology and the Panopticon

  1. This makes me glad that I excavate esoteric provincial sites that no one cares about. When a journalist comes calling we can give him or her a good time, some nice shots, some pithy comments. But for the day-to-day work of digging, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a constant stream of visitors and filmers. Interesting post, though. Its nice sometimes to see how the other half lives.

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