Tag Archives: Archaeology

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

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Later this week I am presenting a paper in Dan HicksArchaeology and Photography session at the Photography and Anthropology conference at the British Museum. Here’s the abstract for my talk:

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

But isn’t a photographer who can’t read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate?” (Walter Benjamin, 1968)

Archaeology has a long, complex, and fascinating entanglement with photography, a relationship that continues into the digital age. To understand the florescence of digital photography in archaeology, we must inhabit an interdisciplinary space, a space that lies between the compound field of visual studies and archaeology but that also attends to issues of representation, authority, and authenticity. Being conversant in visual analysis can help to create more robust visualization strategies in archaeology, but can have unintended consequences. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of both analog and digital archaeological photographs exposes interesting disciplinary shifts and uninterrogated power dynamics in the field. While digital photography is changing the way that archaeologists are thinking about and doing archaeology, it also reveals the complexity of the relationships present on an archaeological project, in the local community and online. In this, photography can act as a dangerous supplement for archaeology, a Derridean concept W.J.T. Mitchell ascribed to disrupting the cohesion of traditionally defined disciplines.

In this paper I will discuss the process of creating a theory-laden practice of archaeological photography, using the photographic record from the sites of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Tall Dhiban in Jordan. Through this record I will investigate photography and visualization as a particularly productive instance of the dangerous supplement. Finally, I will explore the implications of merging this theory-laden practice with emancipatory strategies to achieve a more inclusive, reflexive archaeological praxis.

Archaeology in Action on Flickr

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“KRG3 cemetery. Attacked by small biting flies in the late afternoon, Kurgus, northern Sudan.” – Scott Haddow

The Flickr group that I sporadically moderate, Archaeology in Action, is almost a decade old! I try to go in every couple of months and clean out the travel photos and such that inevitably creep in there. I’m always happy to see the fantastic contributions that the group attracts.

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“At the end of excavation, the final rites. Mapungubwe, 1995, inhabited around 1200 AD is now a World Heritage Site. This was one of the last large scale excavations done on the site.” – Marius Loots

In some ways, it is an interesting practice in defining representation of the field. No, that isolated artifact in the museum is not “archaeology in action.” But if the conservator is working on it–sure. Ultimately, I have an audience in mind: those who want to see archaeologists at work in various contexts.

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“Horton excavations 2013.” – Wessex Archaeology

While Flickr has been neglected over the years, and then overhauled in horrible, horrible ways, it is still a relatively good resource as an archive of photos that you can self-curate and distribute with Creative Commons licensing.

Here are past updates about the group:

Archaeology in Action Update
Archaeology in Action, Another Update

If you curate your photos on Flickr, I encourage you to contribute your photos of archaeology in action to the group here:

Archaeology in Action

 

New Article Published! The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment

Matt Law and I have published our co-authored article in Present Pasts, The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment: Online Sustainability and Archaeological Sites. Matt had a very nice small data set on the closure of Geocities and how it affected archaeological websites. I keep citing it in my presentations, so I’m very happy to see it published formally. My deep thanks to Matt and the fantastic team at Present Pasts!

Here is the abstract:

After 15 years of hosting millions of user-built webpages, in April 2009 Yahoo! announced that they would be shutting down their United States Geocities webpages. Geocities was once the most common hosting service for low-cost personal webpages, including hundreds of public outreach sites about archaeology. Were the webpages moved to another hosting site, archived, or just abandoned? We tracked and recorded the fate of 88 of these webpages, eventually sending a survey to the webmasters asking them a range of questions. While we received relatively few responses, the answers to the questions were illuminating. Much of the current digital outreach performed all over the world relies on ‘free’ services such as Twitter, Flickr, WordPress, Google Pages, or Facebook to host their content. What can the fate of archaeological content on Geocities pages tell us about the benefits and risks of using commercial infrastructure for archaeological outreach? We propose that sorting through the digital wreckage of past outreach efforts helps us to evaluate the eventual fate of the archaeological presence online.

 

Digital Ghosts

(a placeholder post, of sorts)

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As digital archaeological workflows become common and increasingly regimented, we must ensure that there is time and space for the playful, creative exploration of the past. In this talk I will (briefly!) discuss the pushing the aesthetics and poetics of digital archaeology through collaborative research projects that emphasize lateral thinking, experimentation and making.

Alidades & Archaeology: “It’s the Bloody Steampunks!”

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The Grand Canyon survey of 1902.

I have the great fortune to be next to the room with all of the departmental field kit. This office (apparently once the kitchens of King’s Manor) also hold our lovely tech specialists, and I was chatting with them while admiring the lovely wooden tripod we have in the department.

The esteemed Dr. James Flexner taught me how to use an alidade in the field, and is the author of a great article on Reflexive Map-Making in Archaeological Research. Each survey method requires a slightly different approach to measuring the landscape, whether you are hitting a button on a GPS every once in a while or getting sunburned while squinting down an antique.

Anyway, I’d love to try my hand at the alidade & plane table once again, but I’ve been informed that the prices of them are now astronomical. This has been attributed to fans of the steampunk aesthetic, who are buying old scientific instruments and putting them in their drawing rooms and dismantling them to make costumes. Funny ol’ world.

“Steampunk Girl” by HyperXP.

CFPo: THEN DIG – The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science

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I’m very excited to be co-editing a new issue of THEN DIG – the Open Access, Open Peer Review archaeology blog with Dr. Andrew Roddick. Here is an excerpt from the Call for Posts:

In this issue of Then Dig we explore encounters with the past in the context of archaeological science. From the abstract expressionist appreciation of ceramic thin sections, to the treasure hunt for phytoliths under a microscope, to the severe precautionary costumes of the Clean Room, we investigate the aesthetic, the multisensorial, and the profound in archaeological science.

After a small hiatus, the blog/journal has been thriving. I’ll be posting the last submission associated with the Zeitgeist theme very soon, and there’s a great line-up that Dr. James Flexner has put together from a conference on Oceania that will also be going up shortly.

I’ve also very much enjoyed the Open Peer Review style. It is non-confrontational, productive, and synergetic. In the very small world of archaeological publishing, most of the authors cannot be anonymous anyway, and the cloak of reviewer anonymity invites a level of nastiness that is counterproductive. I’ve joined John Hawkes in signing all of my reviews anyway. I should probably send samples of my hair as well, so the authors can make a proper doll to stick with pins.

Anyway, consider submitting to the issue! It should be a good one.

Here’s to experimental publication types in archaeology!

Trespassing…for Science

This is of a site in Dorchester by Wessex Archaeology. I'm sure it was legitimately taken and is only used as a demonstration of the technique!

This is of a site in Dorchester by Wessex Archaeology. I’m sure it was legitimately taken and is only used as a demonstration of the technique!

Sometimes you need the shot.

The ladder isn’t high enough, and climbing up on the crane is out of the question. But you need an aerial photo of the site you are working on. So…it’s up to the rooftops!

This is a uniquely urban solution, as I realize that many sites are out in underpopulated landscapes. Sadly, most buildings are closed off to the public, even more so if you have a camera. Ideally you would build a relationship with the surrounding neighborhood, but it can be hard to get in touch with official property owners and such. Asking permission takes time and often comes back with a negative result.

Caveat: I officially do not condone any of the following actions and if you are foolish (or bold) enough to try them, don’t blame me. Also, privilege can be in play with any kind of social hacking.

Key points in gaining access:

* Look like you belong there. This can be difficult in work-a-day archaeology rags, but your high-viz vest, hard hat and a clipboard can go far. Wear this combination and you magically become invisible.

* Enter and walk with purpose. This is part of looking like you belong–you have an aim: get to the highest point you can over your site and try to ignore anything in your way.

* Don’t show off your camera. If you can, conceal it until you get in place. Photographers are not welcome on private property.

* If you do get stopped, be nice. Ask for directions to the bathroom. If the person is still waiting for you when you get out of the bathroom, tell them you are an archaeologist working next door and you’d like to see the site from above, can they help you? Don’t mention taking photos. If they tell you no, then take off.

* Keep an eye out for doors that automatically lock. Not so great to get caught out on a roof.

So, in summary: Don’t break anything! Don’t steal anything! Take your photo and go. More tips can be had from the fine folks interested in Urban Exploration.

Stop Saying “Archaeology is actually boring”

I understand the temptation. You want to show the mundane, you feel that there is too much Hollywood glamor attached to the profession. So you begin your article, or your Introduction to Archaeology course, or public lecture with some variation of the following:

I know you all think that archaeology is all whips and snakes, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft, but it is actually a set of methods that can involve long, boring episodes in the lab, counting things, and general tedium.

STOP. Stop this now. Take it out of your lexicon. Not only is it one of the most lazy, overused introduction strategies, but it actively works against the profession and is terribly bad form in science education.

When archaeologists introduce their work with this cliché, they are attempting one of two things:

1) They are trying to tell their audience that their work is actually Very Important and Very Scientific. You do not need to contrast this with Indiana Jones’ breaking-and-entering approach, you can relate it through your enthusiasm for the science.

DO: “Let me tell you about the magic of Lidar and what it is doing to change everything we know about the archaeological landscape of Brazil.”

2) They are thinking that they can tap into a pop-culture figure as a way to relate to their audience. This is fine, and can be done in interesting ways. But to contrast you and your work with this character in an effort to disabuse your audience of romantic notions of the field, and, further, to offer extreme examples from your graduate career of the 100,000 obsidian flakes that you counted as some kind of badge of honor is wrong-headed.

You are not telling people that archaeology is boring, you are telling them that YOU are boring. Can you imagine a job talk starting with, “Well, I know that you think that the analysis of Bronze Age pottery from the Aegean is all rockstar magic and crazy Octopus eyes, but let me tell you how absolutely soul-sucking it truly is.”

DO: “While digging in Belize I found a vast, incredibly rich cache of obsidian flakes, but the true revelations came in the lab when I looked at them under a microscope.”

Show your excitement, show your enthusiasm, don’t patronize your audience by denigrating their passion for YOUR field. Don’t be blasé in some sort of effort to show how “over it” you are as a big, important archaeologist. Worse, don’t show your deep insecurity or ambivalence about the relevance of your work. If you hate your research topic, it kinda shows. Talk about an aspect of it that you find truly fascinating. By this I am not saying to hide the tedious bits. By all means, after you tell your audience how exciting and important your work is, highlight how your results were supported by sorting 600kg of oyster shell in a museum basement.

As more and more archaeologists become involved in science communication, whether by blogging, or television, or public lectures we cannot have the same failures over and over (and over) again. By calling archaeology boring you are not serving an important function in rectifying pop-culture. You are not imbuing your work with some kind of scientific importance. You are not showing a reaction against positivism with your post-modern indifference. You are stealing the limelight from the parts of your research that are absolutely fascinating. You are diminishing the reasons you became an archaeologist, and the reasons that you are compelled to tell people the story of your research.

Tell me what you do and why it is important.

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.

A-Z Archaeology Films: The Antikythera Mechanism: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery

Title: The Antikythera Mechanism: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery
Year: 
2008
Length: 14 minutes 
Made by:
  McMillian Publishers Ltd. 
Genre:
 expository 
Authors:
Martin Freeth worked for the BBC, but is now producing short documentary films for Nature and the British Medical Journal as well as corporate clients.

Sadly, the video seems to be broken on The Archaeology Channel, so I watched it at this slightly disturbingly named website:

https://shootingpeople.org/watch/54489/the-antikythera-mechanism-decoding-an-a

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Nothing like starting your film with a citation. So this film appears to be an overview of an article about…you guessed it…The Antikythera Mechanism in Nature. Cool.

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Oooh, nice CG of whirly clockwork things inside the mechanism. Nature must have a capital-B Budget. Of course they do! And the the professional narrator tells us that the video is timely–it tells us about the time table for the earliest Olympics.

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Possibly a relation of Martin Freeth, our filmmaker? Anyway, Tony is one of the authors of the paper, and according to his website, a mathematician and filmmaker.

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No beards yet, but just LOOK at this photo of Derek de Solla Price. The very soul of an academic. He’s a physicist, by the way. So far we have an astronomer (Mike Edmunds, a mathematician and a physicist checking this thing out. Anyway, de Solla Price figured out the basics of how the mechanism worked, but now we have…BIGGER AND BETTER SCIENCE!

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I bet you wish you had a forklift-load of Science. I certainly do. It’s an 8 ton x-ray machine that they brought to Athens to get high-rez data of the mechanism.

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The images that the x-ray produced “provide the basis for many of our revelations.” Heeeey, visualization in action!

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Tony Freeth sits with an engineer of medieval clocks and they explain the dials to us. There’s an eclipse predictor, a moon phase calculator, and the Olympiad dial shows which games are going on that year.

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We are told that the elderly clockmaker (Don Unmin?) will produce a reproduction, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it online.

The Antikythera Mechanism, as an impossibly old, incredibly complicated bit of gear-filled wonder, brings out both the hardcore scientists and the lunatic fringe  for theories about the thing. As such it is fantastic to have a video as an exact explanation of what it is, how we know what it is, and how it works. Would that more journal articles would have accompanying videos that show how the written results came to be. This video shows the interdisciplinary nature of research and how incredible things can happen when you bring together different academic fields, technology, and ancient artifacts. Oh, and large wads of cash.

5/5 – Movies about complicated peer-reviewed articles that also debunk theories about aliens and time travelers and show how ancient people did amazing stuff without extraterrestrial help get full marks from me.

Beard count: 0, zilch. No archaeologists featured. But it was full of older white dudes, natch.

BONUS:

Here is the Antikythera Mechanism…in LEGO.