Category Archives: writing

New Publication: Afterword – The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage & Video Games

I was happy to see VALUE’s volume The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage & Video Games released today. There are several fantastic, thought-provoking chapters in it, and I highly recommend you check it out, and it’s free to read online. I wrote a short afterword for it:

West of House

You are standing in an open eld west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

>open mailbox
Opening the small mailbox reveals an invitation.

>read invitation
“WELCOME TO ARCHAEOGAMING!
ARCHAEOGAMING is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!”

>|

The blinking cursor at the beginning of an interactive text adventure held all the expectation in the world. A universe of words waited for you, and simple commands propelled you headlong into a maze of spoonerisms, chasing ghosts, solving puzzles; the blinking cursor could lead you to meet Zaphod Beeblebrox or get eaten by a grue. Zork – the game referenced above – seemed endlessly complex, sending you to Hades and back for treasure. It is within this breathless anticipation of fun that we find archaeogaming, a term usefully coined by Andrew Reinhard. Archaeology’s constant collisions with digital media, storytelling, and co-creation made this eventuality inevitable, and archaeologists are rapidly forming the lexicon for understanding how to speak ludology. I find Janet Murray’s germinal Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) essential to this discourse; archaeogaming and other expressive forms of digital archaeology are what Murray terms as incunabula, an infant medium, untested and unwise in methodology and scope. Perhaps this is why they are so compelling….

(read the rest here)

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Recent Ramblings on Digital Archaeology

A quick update, I’ll be at TAG Southampton, presenting a paper:

Title: The Queer and the Digital: Critical making, praxis and play in digital archaeology

Abstract:

Visual archaeological depictions have long reified heteronormative representations of the past. Feminist critiques have destabilized the representation of people in the past (Berman 1999; Gifford-Gonzalez 1993; Moser 1992) and queer theory in archaeology has pushed this even further, finding “silences” in heteronormative depictions of families and activities (Dowson 2007) and identity and status in the past (Blackmore 2011). Though experimental visualization is increasingly available through the growing accessibility of creation and publication through digital tools, current depictions of archaeological practice and the past have remained largely static. People are largely absent from digital reconstructions of the past, and when they are present they are an afterthought. This is similar to depictions of current archaeological practice. There is a corresponding absence of discussion of digital tools for emancipatory practice in feminist and queer archaeologies (but see Joyce and Tringham 2007 and Morgan and Eve 2012). In this paper I discuss the potential for an expressive, queer digital archaeology that incorporates critical making, praxis and play.

And I have a new(ish) publication about the transition from analog to digital photography in archaeology:

Title: Analog to Digital: Transitions in Theory and Practice in Archaeological Photography at Çatalhöyük

Abstract: Archaeology and photography has a long, co-constructed history that has increasingly come under scrutiny as archaeologists negotiate the visual turn. Yet these investigations do not make use of existing qualitative and quantitative strategies developed by visual studies to understand representation in archaeological photographs. This article queries the large photographic archive created by ongoing work at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey to consider the visual impact of changing photographic technologies and of a shifting theoretical focus in archaeology. While using content analysis and semiotic analysis to gain a better understanding of the visual record, these analyses also unexpectedly reveal power dynamics and other social factors present during archaeological investigation. Consequently, becoming conversant in visual analyses can contribute to developing more reflexive modes of representation in archaeology.

And I edited a volume of the SAA Archaeological Record about Video Gaming & Archaeology. Sadly some of the articles (including mine) were bumped to a future issue:

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Check them out and let me know what you think!

Becoming Jacquetta Hawkes

It was spring when I began to write and now September has put cool fingers and a few leaves into the air. While I have written, the sea has swallowed a gobbet of land in one place, released a few square yards in another; there have been losses and gains in the flow of consciousness. Again I see the present moment as a rose or a cup held up on the stem of all that is past. Or is it perhaps after all that spiral shell in which I once heard the call of the plover; into which I can look to see all things taking shape and where the bottom-most point is one with this last convolution? From A Land.

The real Jacquetta Hawkes

The real Jacquetta Hawkes

On the surface of it, Jacquetta Hawkes and I are as different as two female archaeologists could be; she’s the “cool and formal” daughter of a Nobel prize winner who had an idyllic, genteel childhood and received a first from Cambridge while I’m a tattooed American who was bounced from one mediocre public school to the next, dumpster-diving and attending community college before I got into archaeology at the University of Texas. So when I received the invitation to participate in Raising Horizons as Jacquetta Hawkes I was flattered but confused, with the first twinges of imposter syndrome that I’ve had in a while.

As an avid theorist and maker of archaeological media, I’d looked into Jacquetta’s role in creating a film on British prehistory, and found myself immersed in Christine Finn’s excellent biography. Jacquetta was legendary, one of the greats of our profession–check out this blog entirely about her achievements. She was able to move within scientific and artistic circles, leading a remarkable life full of love and adventure.

To celebrate 200 years in geoscience, Trowelblazers is dressing up current women in archaeology in vintage costumes, taking their portraits and exhibiting them to provide role models for girls who want to get into science. How could I resist? So I trundled down to London with my baby daughter in tow for a costume fitting at a professional costume supply company, Cosprop. They dressed me up in a tweedy skirt and wellies, stuck a scarf on my head, and there was Jacquetta. I have to admit, still a bit dumpy at four months post-partum, I felt more like I reflected my indifferent roots than the patrician Englishwoman I was meant to portray.

The second trip to London was for the actual photoshoot, and I brought along a copy of A Land that I had kicking around, but shamefully had never read.

Oh–ohhhhhh! Then I got it. While I never had the benefit of posh private (UK public) schools and genteel conversations over tea, I read voraciously, desperately. I was the kid who was always ashamed, saying words the wrong way because I learned them from reading. And writing too–I wrote, wrote, wrote, notebooks full of narratives, poetry, love letters, mostly garbage, really.

When I cracked open A Land on the train, I immediately recognized another prolific, catholic abuser of the English language. Jacquetta is delightfully turgid, catastrophically broad, jumping from Rodin to Mary Anning, to lumbering sea creatures through the appreciation of the Blue Lias geological formation. Yes, she had the good sense to write bestselling books while I witter away in a blog, but still! We both worship at the altars of Proust & DH Lawrence, love adventure, and tap out great gushing gouts of purple prose. Okay.

The Fake Jacquetta Hawkes

The Fake Jacquetta Hawkes

So look out for me and Nicky Milner and Shahina Farid and other fantastic women posing as our honored predecessors in the coming weeks. But also, please support the Raising Horizons campaign.

We want to ensure that women in the sciences not only receive recognition for the accomplishments of a previous generation but also to show girls that they too can grow up to pursue a life of discovery, adventure, and fascination with the past.

Springtime in Arabia

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Qatar, 2011.

In the desert there is a perfect proportion of dun sand and blue; a Rothko division between land and sky that horizontally bisects the lens. I can’t help but pop the colors on my photos of the desert, it is a magical saturation of yellow-orange and blue abused by movie directors into banality. Yellow! Blue! Yellow/Blue! By mid-March the colors are slowly bleeding into bright white, the desert is overexposed, blurring into shimmering haze.

I arrived in Qatar during a rare, late series of thunderstorms that pelted perfect circles into the dust on our windshields. I delighted in the lightning and rolling thunder–I had missed weather–and the odd green dusting left on the desert by the uncommon wet. It rumpled up the landscape of Qatar, coaxing the small creatures out and painting new eddies and rivulets in the sand. I realized that I think of Qatar very much like I think of a crisply folded white piece of paper, sharp, unsparing, a bit clinical, the knife-crease of a freshly starched thawb. But everything is a bit sandier after the rain, and it was nice.

The Origins of Doha project started excavations at Fuwairit this year, and I was excited to go back, after surveying the kilometer-long site in 2011. I wrote about the site then, and it’s funny to see that I discuss the same things–unusual rain, being at home in the desert. My role has shifted from excavation to handling digital media and outreach. I’ll be releasing several videos about the project shortly.

After backfilling the trenches on the beach, we moved on to Oman, where Dan is doing his PhD work. Where Qatar is stark and bright, Oman is a piece of colorful velvet left out in the sun. Hot, hot, slightly faded on the surface, but full of plush depth and texture when you part it with your fingers. I’m not sure it is entirely productive to have a synesthetic approach to the feel of entire countries, but I guess it at least breaks up the great, homogenous other of Arabia.

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Oman return/return to Oman.

Where Qatar was archaeology on a beach next to a mangrove, in Oman we’ve been walking through the dry wadis, finding purplish squared rocks in lines in the ground perched on the sides. I fell in love with such a site last year on our grand tour of all things Bronze Age and otherwise oldish, but tried to stamp it out, as I thought there was little chance of us doing more there. But we went back there this year, and there are plans for more work, and I’m trying to keep it cool and detached when all I want is to dive in with with both hands. A feverish, adolescent oh-god-oh-god-should-I-text-him sort of anticipatory glee that is truly improper when it comes to scatterings of 4,000 year old pottery in the desert. I guess I’d be more of a scientist if I didn’t have such a great love for this stuff.

I’ll be back in England next week, where the creep of spring doesn’t come in bold swashes of Hollywood color, but pushes small flowers into the air; the leaden gray skies breaking up into miscellaneous and slightly whimsical feather-clouds. In the meantime, I’m trying to wrap the desert around me, keep it close, an immaculate yellow/blue geometry cross-cutting my mind.

Palmyra: A Lamentation

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I could write about the strange aesthetics of annihilation, iconoclasm, nationalism, symbolism, weaponized cultural heritage and the murder of people, a place, an archaeologist. I am supposed to be an expert in this, after all. Intimate of the ancient.

Or, on a more personal level–how Palmyra blushed toward the blue desert sky. How I was ragged sick so I didn’t take very many photos, but dragged around the site anyway, sitting in the shade of columns. Picking out details. Petting the friendly cats in the ruins. Now every time I hear about something else being destroyed I go back over the same photos. How it was the same when I found out about the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, the Al-Madina Souq, Crac de Chevalier, Bosra, the Dead Cities–a UNESCO listing is a death sentence. These are only the big, well-known sites, there is extensive looting, destroying sites beyond all recovery.

It is easy to be glib (oh, now we can get to everything underneath! they were recorded anyway!) or post-modern (it’s only my white, western, colonialist/orientalist thinking that makes me care about old stacked stones), or relativistic (concrete houses & Greco-roman art, it’s all the same) and I’ve struggled through and re-written these scant 267 words. Yes, I care about people, I care about places, I care about things.

But I’m supposed to be an expert in caring about heritage and I still can’t find any fucking words. (though these help tremendously)

So I have my photos. And I give what I can when I can. And wait to study the new ruins caused by murderous men.

On Night, Darkness & the Past

Tokyo, from Thierry Cohen's Darkened Cities Series

Tokyo, from Thierry Cohen’s Darkened Cities Series

This morning I woke up thinking about darkness. It is getting close to the summer solstice; right now the sun sets at around 9:30, but it takes a long time, hovering behind the horizon in indecision. This lingering solstice sun woke me up this morning, too early, turning our small bedroom into an intense white cube. Last year Dan and I were in Iceland at around this time and we never saw darkness, always falling asleep for the hour or so that the sky dimmed. I don’t miss it–I remember too well the gloom of January in the North.

One of the things I miss the most about field archaeology is the stars. In Turkey and Jordan I’d sleep on the roof, watching shooting stars and satellites, feeling the depth of space all around me. In cities, hell, in most places, all the artificial light flattens the sky, makes it a far-away, vaulted ceiling. In moonless nights in the desert the night sky consumes you, so dark and so complete that you feel like the hood ornament stuck on this great globe of ours, crashing face-first through the universe.

This darkness, now precious and scarce, was ubiquitous and terrifying in the past. One of my favorite books to recommend to archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike is At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekrich reminds us of how oppressive and thorough darkness was without electric lights, how evening figured so prominently as to have many names: gloaming, clock-shut, grosping, crow-time, daylight’s gate, owl-leet, shutting-in. Night unravelled and spun out and had to be shielded against–of all things that we forget about the past, I think this is probably the most blatant, night, the dusky elephant in our ruins.

I make virtual reconstructions of the past, and one of the most common and early revelations is to be able to model different times of year and levels of light in architecture. An evening in the Neolithic, right before the moon rises? Sure. But we are seeing these as displayed on a liquid crystal display that pushes the images as flickering light into our retinas. How can we model the dark, the true dark of Lascaux, the moment before a struck spark brings a wildfire of Aurochs crashing down around us?

Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows describes the transition between candlelight and electric lighting in Japan. Candlelight, fire, that ever-murderer of Japan, is romanticized and he extends this metaphor too far, into an essential quality of Japanese people and materiality. Still, candlelight revealed the true beauty of lacquerware to Tanizaki, and to me as well–I always thought the stuff was a bit tacky next to the creamy curves and perfect imperfections of Japanese pottery, humble brown bowls mended with gold. Lacquerware should be seen by candlelight:

Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie.

I think of the glossy sheen of obsidian–sure, obsidian can be clear, gold-flecked, green, smoky, but I think of the black stuff, with traces of light reflecting and pooling in the rippled scars of removed flakes. The faintest touch effortlessly slicing flesh.

I wonder if our constant light has seeped into our current material culture, what do we design for firelight, only for viewing by the faintest sliver of crescent moon? What textures do we make for a sure grip at midnight? Do we value the dull gleam of lacquerware less because we can’t take a proper picture of it with our phone?

Mornings in the Manor

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It was all so new, a year ago, when I described the over and under and through of my commute to work, walking through a microcosm of English history. Now it passes in a blur, I’m either in my headphones listening to a podcast or buzzing by on my lovely Gazelle–the sturdy Danish bicycle that I steer over frozen cobblestones and muddy, overgrown pathways.

I was delayed this morning by a brief flurry of snow, predicated by an Easter pink and yellow sky. I don’t notice my commute much, and a lot of the culture shock has worn off. Now I hear my previous self in other Americans, going on and on about the subtle differences, the quirks, the realignment of world view, and I hope that I wasn’t that completely tedious. I probably was.

I can understand most of what people say these days, even the most York-shure, and I don’t get as many looks of utter incomprehension when I ask for eggs or butter. Verbal code-switching has become comfortable and useful, though there’s still the occasional confusion with “shop” and “store” and a few other things.

So I was in my at-least-partially-acculturated haze this morning, wheeling my bicycle over the big stone pavers of King’s Manor, when I crossed paths with one of the lovely porters. We don’t really have porters in the States, they’re sort of watchmen/caretakers of the building, but not janitors or rent-a-cop security. They are constantly kicking me out of the building, as I often work until closing time–19:00 (7:00PM)–shockingly early in academia-land. But they do it with a smile, especially after I engaged on a military-esque campaign of extreme friendliness until even the most curmudgeonly porter relented.

As usual, I greeted the porter with a big smile and wave, and, code-switching without a thought, asked him if he liked the snow this morning. He returned my smile and said, in the most charming of accents:

“No, no. We never like the snow.”

Something about his cheerfully brusque response, the big old medieval walls rising around me, and the clatter of my bicycle wheels over the pavers pushed me out of my acculturation and made me notice again, back to being a stranger in a strange land. But I’m okay with that. If anything it made me happy to be reminded of how far I’ve been, how much I’ve changed, and how many adventures are yet to come.