Category Archives: outreach

Origins of Doha Re-Photography Featured on CNN

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I was happy to see that a mash-up that did a while ago for the Origins of Doha project was featured on the special Qatar Foundation section of CNN. The photo is near the Souq Waqif, and we located and re-shot the photograph using one of the few landmarks left in that area, a small minaret visible above and to the left of the men walking toward the camera. The black and white photograph comes from the Bibby and Glob expedition to Doha.

I posted some of my initial attempts here:

http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/rephotography-in-doha/
http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/take-two-rephotography-in-doha/

You can see the full feature about the Origins of Doha Project, as linked from the project webpage HERE, and includes the print versions of the article in Arabic and English.

Heritage Jam Video Series Complete

Over the weekend I finished up the series of short videos for the upcoming Heritage Jam and I’m fairly pleased with them. I have a much larger video project coming up for EUROTAST, featuring the incredible work of the research fellows, and so it was a good way to get back into the video-making groove again.

Each of the videos is a challenge to the participants of the Heritage Jam, as outlined by Dr. Julie Rugg.

Challenge One: Dynamism

Challenge Two: Visibility

Challenge Three: Class

In each video Dr. Rugg identifies some interesting challenges for visual interpretation in cemeteries. I enjoyed learning about cemeteries from her as I edited the videos.

I’m never quite 100% satisfied with the videos that I make either, as there’s always more that can be done. When I teach filmmaking to archaeology students, I tell them that you can pretty much spend an infinite amount of time editing a video, making it as perfect as possible…but I have other projects, so finding “good enough” is not wholly satisfying, but does get the video out there for other people to view. If anything, all of this just makes me appreciate the professionals that much more!

Even if you aren’t participating in the Heritage Jam, the videos may make you look at cemeteries in a different way–they certainly did for me!

(PS: Try to watch them in HD if you have the bandwidth!)

Archaeologists Making Libraries: Di Hu

After working for several years near Pomacocha, Ayacucho, Peru, UC Berkeley archaeology PhD candidate Di Hu was approached by teachers at the local school. They needed quality books to help educate their students. In Di’s words:

High in the Peruvian Andes, the historic village of Pomacocha is nestled among high cliffs, rivers and volcanic mountains. With a population of around 800-1000 people, Pomacocha boasts a preschool, a primary school, and a high school. Despite the curiosity and enthusiasm of the students, Pomacocha does not have a public library. The schoolchildren have only basic textbooks that emphasize memorization of facts. Because of the lack of resources in Pomacocha, the schools cannot afford to buy non-curriculum books.

With all of the high-tech public archaeology and community outreach going on in archaeology these days it is easy to forget that some of the communities we work in still need basic amenities. Things that we take for granted. To serve this relatively low-tech need, Di started a crowdfunding campaign last April on Indiegogo:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/first-public-library-for-schoolchildren-in-a-rural-peruvian-village

She did incredibly well, beating her goal by $350! I was happy to contribute a little bit to the project, and I’ve been getting updates as Di has made back to Peru. I was very touched when she sent me a photo of the books that I sponsored, with a specialized nameplate:

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The books are:

Muerte en la Vicaria by Agatha Christie (I asked for murder on the Oriental Express, but it was taken already!)

La Mujer en el Tiempo: Cronologia ilustrada que abarca mas de 20 siglos de personajes y eventos que marcaron la historia

500 Años de patriarcado en el nuevo mundo

Good stuff. Thanks, Di!

The New Gig: EUROTAST

Two of the research fellows in the EUROTAST project, looking at samples in the lab at the University of Bristol.

Last December I had the immense good fortune to join the Archaeology Department at the University of York as a EUROTAST Marie Curie Research Postdoctoral Fellow. I’ve been finding my legs in my new job for the last few months, getting the required equipment, and generally settling in. In practical terms, the position is familiar territory for me—digital media and public outreach—but the subject matter is a radical shift: new scientific methods of investigating the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While my first excavation investigated the home of formerly enslaved Dallas residents, with Dr. Maria Franklin at the University of Texas, and I have worked on historically disadvantaged and enslaved populations since that time, it was not my major research focus. Also, I understood (to a certain extent) the developments in archaeometry of the last decade, but the specifics were a gloss: I put the sample in a bag and sent it to a specialist who dealt with it.

It has been incredibly eye-opening both in terms of the vast wealth of information that DNA and isotopic analyses has to offer in archaeological research and the emotional toll of studying what can only be described as one of the most tragic chapters in history: the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

(After I finished that last sentence, I sat and looked at it for ten minutes. The TAST takes all the words away.)

So. While my postdoc is incredibly amazing—I heard that it was called the “unicorns and rainbows job”—there is…this. How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? There’s also contending with the rather large new body of literature. I find this a benefit, as it provides an outside perspective that is valuable in outreach in demonstrating the interest and vitality of a subject that feels tedious to a long-term expert in the subject. Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.

Finally, it is fantastic being at the University of York. There’s great momentum in the Archaeology department and beyond, with the Centre for Digital Heritage, the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, and the presence of top researchers who are willing to try new things. And we do have some delights in store.

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. 

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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/

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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.

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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

Reddit and Archaeological Outreach

EDIT: Sadly, only hours after I posted this, one of the founders of Aaron Swartz, committed suicide. The world lost a brilliant soul, who was facing 50 years in prison for sharing academic articles:

http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully

————–

There’s been a growing amount of attention to Reddit in the past year or so, culminating with very prominent appearances on the website including Q&As with President Obama, Ira Glass, Molly Ringwald, and Bill Nye (the Science Guy!). The website is reminiscent of early newsgroups, with “subreddits” devoted to most every topic under the sun. The popular subreddits appear on the default front page and are primarily devoted to photographs of cats, arguments about American politics, atheism, science, and miscellaneous “meme” humor.

The key to reddit is an up/down-voting system that determines the prominence of the content and rewards frequent, useful, or clever posts with “karma” points. This is a boon and its burden, but more about that later. There is also a heavy emphasis on anonymity.

I started using Reddit to read the Crossfit subreddit, which contains work-outs and advice, but soon started looking over a handful of other subreddits, including:

http://www.reddit.com/r/Archaeology
http://www.reddit.com/r/Anthropology/
http://www.reddit.com/r/AskSocialScience/
http://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/

The Archaeology and Anthropology subreddits are relatively low-volume with a mix of news stories, students looking for help with homework or advice about field schools, and questions about specific topics from the more general Reddit population. Sadly, these subreddits are not as robust as they could be, as the emphasis on anonymity undermines discussion of most of the topics. Answering questions and helping students is not particularly valued and can even result in backlash from the students–if you voice an unpopular opinion, Reddit downvotes can bury the discussion, even if this opinion is informed.

More structured subreddits such as AskSocialScience and AskHistorians require areas of credentialed expertise to receive badges signaling this knowledge. These subreddits are also more strictly moderated with stated rules in the sidebar. The outreach potential of these two forums is fantastic, and questions range from “How injurious was tarring and feathering” to “What came first, dance or music?” to “What was the Arab world like before Islam?”

There are also AMAs – “ask me anything” wherein anonymity is shed and the expert invites any questions. An archivist and a curator from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted a AMA and then discussed their engagement with Reddit later in a fantastic blog post on Engaging Museums. Sadly it appears that their participation in the format ended with the AMA and they have not continued to participate as named experts on Reddit.

Most people seem to separate their Reddit accounts from their identities, and Reddit heavily discourages posting personal information of any kind. As such, I have not posted my name to Reddit, but it would not be too hard to figure out who I am.

Reddit offers a venue for archaeologists to directly communicate with interested, engaged, online stakeholders and to answer questions about the past. It is not without its own pitfalls–the anonymity of the userbase and the up/downvoting system can both obscure the credibility of authors and promote a culture of consensus that punishes legitimate opposing voices. Still, with some dedicated work from archaeologists, Reddit could be a useful addition to an outreach toolkit. For archaeologists with a book or a dig to promote, an AMA can raise awareness of your research to a broader audience than a blog or a twitter account.

Failing that, Reddit also turns a fantastic trade in small cute animals. I mean, LOOK at this baby zebra!

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.