Category Archives: new media

ASOR Blog Post: Turning Dirt into Pixels

I was honored to be asked to contribute to the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR)Archaeology in the Digital Age theme this month on their blog. Check out an excerpt here and follow through to read the whole blog on the ASOR site:

CLEAN * PHOTOGRAPH * DRAW * LEVEL * RECORD * SAMPLE * DIG * SORT ARTIFACTS * REPEAT

In archaeological field work it is easy to become entranced. We have a cyclical mode of work, and it is this work that field archaeologists like the best, the kind that happens when the sun is shining, there’s a cool breeze at your back, and the archaeology is making sense.

We clean the context, we take a photograph of it, we draw it, take levels, start a record of the context, take a sample of the context, excavate it, sort the artifacts, finish the record, then start all over again. While there have been accusations of this mechanizing the archaeological process, single context excavation is more akin to a refrain, a rhythm of work that you must fully understand and internalize before extemporaneous invention. Against this background beat, work can become “fluid and flexible,” emancipatory, or just another day toward a beer and a paycheck.

Read more at:
http://asorblog.org/?p=4775

The “Tomb Raider Temple” – Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat

What have you seen?

It’s a common question in Siem Reap, home to the many hostels and hotels that feed tourists to the Angkor Wat temple complex. Sunburnt tourists trade stories while cooling off in the bar with a can of cold, cheap Angkor beer–the famous temple on the label collecting beads of condensation. A list generally follows the question. Oh, I’ve seen Bayon, Angkor, Banteay Srey, the waterfall and the Tomb Raider temple. 

jolie_angkor

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft at Ta Prohm.

In his 2002 article for the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Tim Winter  outlines the history of Angkor, as UNESCO terms it, “a geographical region, an archaeological site and a cultural concept”. Angkor “emerged as a major seat of power early in the 9th century AD and lasted until the capital’s abandonment in the middle decades of the 15th century” wherein god-kings would construct an irrigation network followed by statues of deceased parents and then a mountain temple dedicated to the king himself. This culminated in Angkor Thom, an extravagant city complex built in the 13th century, the demands of which are cited as contributing to the empire’s eventual decline.

Angkor was “discovered” by French botanist Henri Mouhot in 1862; the overgrown aesthetics leading him to claim that Angkor was a lost civilization, though the local Khmer (Cambodians) would surely disagree. The French colonial administration constructed Angkor as the apogee of Khmer civilization, the abandoned state of which showed Khmer in decline, their culture lost. It was up to the French, of course, to restore this culture, therefore legitimizing their rule. Even after French rule and the totalitarian regime of Pol Pot, Winter notes that “the deeply symbolic national significance of Angkor within contemporary Cambodia” still remains.

When scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were filmed at Angkor Wat in 2000, tourism was already on the rise. Winter establishes the heritage simulacra used by the film producers, who were mimicking the video game world in the real world, dissolving the boundaries between physical and virtual. Sets were built around Angkor Wat, further Orientalizing the Khmer–Angkor was now in the middle of an exotic, chaotic village on stilts in the water. A woman is cooking in a shack as Lara Croft paddles up the the shore amidst the cacophony of a “fallen” society–echoes of the French colonial interpretation of Angkor remaining intact nearly 150 years later.

Ta Prohm, a temple about 3km NE of the main Angkor Wat complex, has been left largely unreconstructed and is being conserved as a partial ruin. This has been intentional, to preserve the photogenic and atmospheric experience so that the tourist may imagine themselves as an early (white, western) explorer, perhaps Mouhot himself. Tim Winter documents “the tourist encounter” at a similar temple, Preah Khan, also being conserved as a partial ruin. The World Monument Fund director who was responsible for preparing Preah Khan for tourism wanted to create specific routes for tourists so that they may “experience Preah Khan the way it should be experienced” and thus create a “more authentic spatial narrative across the site”.

Tomb Raider has reinforced a site narrative at Angkor Wat of discovery, adventure and exploration that has not always been beneficial to the preservation of the site. Winter quotes a Canadian tourist who explained why she climbed over the temple’s delicate rooftops by stating that it made her “feel like Lara Croft exploring the jungled ruins of Angkor.” Ta Prohm is now called the “Tomb Raider Temple” in both guide books and buy the local tuk tuk drivers, which, as Winter writes, blurs the “boundaries across authenticities, realities and fiction” until Angkor is reduced to “a culturally and historically disembedded visual spectacle.”

Ten years after Winter’s article was written, I was not sure what to expect from the “Tomb Raider Temple.” Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have no little notoriety in the archaeological world (Cornelius Holtorf has a nice piece written here about Indiana Jones:
http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/archaeolog/2008/03/hero_real_archaeology_and_indi.html
that is further elaborated in his Archaeology is a Brand!) and I briefly wrote about Lara Croft as an “unavoidable cultural figure for women in archaeology” in 2007: http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2007/05/15/toward-an-embodied-virtual-archaeology/

CLM_8609

What I found at Ta Prohm was extraordinary beyond my expectations. A large section of the temple was closed, as it was being conserved. It turns out that preservation-as-ruins was not working out so well for the site as the giant Banyan trees were making the temple perhaps a bit too ruinous and atmospheric. It was a large construction site, yet not a single tourist mentioned this in their description of the site. They were still lining up to take their photographs in the same spots that featured in the film. The process was fascinating. The subject of the photograph and the photographer would wait in a crowd, then the subject would run up to the spot and the photographer would carefully frame the photograph so that the subject would look all alone at the abandoned/forbidding ruin, an early discoverer/adventurer. Sometimes the subject would pose as if they were climbing up the ruins.

CLM_8613

This is not all that uncommon; many photographs of heritage are composed by editing out the hoards of fellow discoverer/adventurers, thereby creating the experience of the site as singular. This was especially fascinating at Ta Prohm, as the tourists self-consciously performed the explorer/discoverer/video game narrative. Remarkably, a girl came up to us and said, “did you notice that the layout of this temple (we were at Angkor Thom) is just like Temple Run?” I did not know what Temple Run was, but Dan did–it’s a popular game for the iPad wherein the adventurer (a female, incidentally) moves through exotic locations looking for treasure. Go figure.

How Tomb Raider and other popular depictions have acted on our imagination of cultural heritage and how we in turn reenact these tropes while building our identity through digital media and online presence is pretty fascinating stuff. The question of what have you seen becomes what are you actually seeing and what are you intentionally editing out of your heritage experience?
ResearchBlogging.org
Winter, T. (2002). Angkor Meets Tomb Raider : setting the scene International Journal of Heritage Studies, 8 (4), 323-336 DOI: 10.1080/1352725022000037218

Take Two: Rephotography in Doha

Should that be re-rephotography?

I wasn’t entirely happy with my last attempt at rephotography, so we tried again. This time, we went while the area was somewhat deserted and took photographs across a wide plane of vision, then stitched them together as a pano. I would have liked having people in the modern photograph, but they tend to move, which is not so good if you are trying to stitch photographs together.

Instead of just getting a small window of current Doha within historic Doha, we were able to make them equal players, which I like. This was a much easier photoshop job as well, just two layers, a mask, and a gradient and there we have it. I thought about masking some of the details out near the mosque in the background, but some confusion in the overlay is a good thing–not a seamless past melting into the present, but a hodgepodge–this appeals to my sense that reconstructions should present the messy palimpsest that archaeological interpretations entail.

“Don’t put this on your blog.”

I’m delighted to contribute to Sara Gonzalez and Darren Modzelewski’s WAC-7 session: Activist Archaeology: Connecting the Academic with the Personal with the following paper:

“Don’t put this on your blog.” – An online, activist #archaeology

The current prominence of social media enables archaeologists to broadcast their personal and professional lives online. Updating a blog, using twitter, and commenting on message boards in a professional role can give the online public unprecedented access to archaeologists, bringing forth the best aspects of public intellectualism. Yet the practice is not without considerable detractions and many academic and professional archaeologists do not have the time, lack the technical knowledge, or are simply not trained to engage with the public in a legible manner. Adding a personal dimension to an online presence can be risky for a professional career, yet removing yourself from your discussions of archaeology is disingenuous, especially while writing for the public. Additionally, there are often prohibitions regarding public discussion of archaeological work imposed by the government, the excavation staff, or the indigenous stakeholders and community members involved with the site. Given the complications involved, a meaningful, political social media archaeological outreach schema can be difficult to attain. In this paper, I discuss my experiences “living out loud” and doing online archaeological outreach, including ten years of personal, political, archaeological blogging.

This is the original abstract for the paper–I had to cut it substantially to fit in the program. There were several other WAC sessions that I really wanted to participate in, but I will be organizing some other aspects of social media outreach during the conference so I had to limit my commitments to just this one session. Additionally, I really wanted to get to the SHA this year, but I couldn’t schedule them both and still work here in Qatar.

Finally, there is an initiative to present WAC online, using crowdfunding. Please direct all questions regarding this effort to the project creators, as listed on the webpage:

http://www.pozible.com/index.php/archive/index/12860/description/0/0

AAA 2013: A Digital Ecology of Sharing Archaeology

Sorry to post yet another abstract, but the American Anthropological Association has come to San Francisco and I’m presenting in a fantastic panel titled, Sharing Anthropology: Theorizing Anthropological Research in the Age of Social Media. All of the rest of the presenters are anthropologists (except for Ryan Anderson, who is a sneaky former archaeologist) so I’ll be one reppin’ the field.

Sadly my slides aren’t going to be quite as fantastic as the ones I previously posted, but what can you do? Here’s my abstract:

A Digital Ecology of Sharing Archaeology

Clean. Draw. Photograph. Level. Record. Dig. Sample. Sort Artifacts. Share.

Share?

Archaeologists are increasingly recognizing the benefits of an online presence. Field school blogs and project Facebook pages have become standard outreach fare. Yet this outreach is often an afterthought, relegated to undergraduate students and rarely cultivated as a legitimate expression of archaeological research. I argue that unless digital sharing moves beyond a rarely-updated Facebook page and is integrated into all aspects of archaeological practice it will always be considered an illegitimate by-product, remaining at the fringes of our profession, a poor shadow of the potential that digital outreach has for communicating with the public. This integration involves disrupting our professional customs to re-frame our research in terms of expressive, teachable moments. Contrary to the opinion that sharing at an intimate level would compromise our research, I argue that sharing can introduce reflexivity into the archaeological process and increase multivocality among project participants. Creating a digital ecology wherein archaeological research is made available “at the trowel’s edge” and rewarded as a legitimate undertaking is risky, unpredictable, and utterly necessary to usher archaeology into the digital age.

Archaeology and the Panopticon

Image

(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).

Ruth vs. the Intercutting Firepits

The QIAH has been conducting work at Freiha since 2009, revealing dense, complex occupation. This video is a time lapse of my good friend (and coworker) Ruth Hatfield excavating a series of intercutting firepits. Photo and Video Credit: Qatar Museums Authority – QMA.

We built a small structure over a fraction of the firepits to provide shade and then Ruth did her thing, digging all of the firepits under the shade in two hours. This time lapse demonstrates the principles of single context recording on a microscale–Ruth would dig and record the fills and cuts, all in stratigraphic sequence, showing which of the pits were dug last and working back in time. The last little bits were dug (and burned) first and truncated by later firepits. In some ways it is too bad that the camera was on a timer–you only see Ruth measuring or taking photos a couple of times. I’d like to do a time lapse that shows the entire recording process for each feature–but that might be just too tedious. Sadly I had to use iMovie to edit–my old Final Cut Pro license expired and the new FCP is appalling.

Incidentally, the font for the video is one of my favorites, Lavanderia, inspired by the writing in the windows of the San Francisco Mission:
Download Lavanderia

The music is licensed under Creative Commons and is available on Soundcloud:
Kitab el 3omr by Yussof El Marr

Please comment and let me know if you show the video in your classroom so that I can report back to the QIAH and the QMA and show them that making these things is time well spent!