Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (Part 2)

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With summertime coming around again, it is time for archaeologists to post photos of breathtakingly dangerous practice. I wonder sometimes if the digital age will eventually help improve practice at archaeological excavations through public censure and raised awareness. I’m not sure–my first Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (part 1) was posted in 2011 when I was shocked and outraged at stunning disregard for the wellbeing of workers displayed in photographs in the New York Times. But have things changed? Apparently not.

I was alerted to this particular instance from BAJR’s Facebook page, and there are nearly 100 similarly outraged comments below the link. The university backing the project has been notified by members of BAJR, but can we all agree to stop this now? This is not something that we should be teaching students. Projects that post photos like this should not be funded and should come under serious censure.

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We need to do better. We need to teach proper health & safety to the next generation of archaeologists. We need to require project directors and supervisors receive rigorous training.

This 2x1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.

This 2×1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.

Curious about health & safety on archaeological sites? A good start is the CIfA’s Risk Assessment documents:
http://www.archaeologists.net/codes/ifa

Lest you think this is UK-only, you can garner a very handsome fine from OSHA:
http://www.saa.org/portals/0/saa/publications/saabulletin/15-3/saa12.html

OSHA guide for trenches & excavation:
https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA2226/2226.html

OSHA Trench Excavation Fact Sheet:
https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_Hurricane_Facts/trench_excavation_fs.pdf

* All trenches over 1.5 meters require a protective system.
* All trenches require safe means of egress at all times.

As I said in my previous post:

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

Telepresence, Cyborg Archaeology and the Molecular Age

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Come Around, Lost Or Found, by Kendal Murray

Perhaps the greatest gift of my postdoc has been the crash introduction to the Molecular Age. As a digital archaeologist, I have been immersed in all things technoscience, but it was still a revelation to understand the incredible, diverse detail archaeologists can glean from a single tooth. Finding the interfaces between molecular bioarchaeology and digital methods is incredibly exciting, especially as it allows me to articulate a cyborg archaeology–drawing from Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz and N. Katherine Hayles to understand archaeology, artifacts and bodies.

Found, Hound, Common Ground by Kendal Murray

Found, Hound, Common Ground by Kendal Murray

A theme running throughout my research over the years is telepresence, where you are when you are talking on the phone–not with the person you are speaking to, but not quite in the room you are standing in either.  Telepresence is an incredibly productive metaphor for research on the past, not entirely where you are, not in the past, but somewhere in the middle. These themes within archaeology and science came up in the recent Then Dig themed issue: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science.

Telepresence is deeply implicated within the Molecular Age; archaeology must now telescope between vastly divergent scales of analysis, from the traces of aDNA to network analyses of regional and temporal change. Digital technology is the connective tissue, our telephone call to the past. But, it turns out, so is art.

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Discreet, Sweet Deceit by Kendal Murray

Kendal Murray’s artwork immediately struck me–her playfulness of scale, in the artifacts containing lifeworlds, microcosms that surround the artifact forever implicated in the artifact. Growing trees from pollen grains found on shoes. With molecular analyses we can hint at those lost lifeworlds, and with augmented reality we can reanimate those lifeworlds, and tie them to the artifacts.

So, yeah. Welcome to my research.

Breaking Blocks and Digging Holes: Archaeology & Minecraft

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Archaeologists have been playing with Minecraft to present the past and the play around with reconstruction. Shawn Graham, as always, is at the forefront of developing archaeological landscapes in Minecraft and if you’d like to try it out, I suggest you read up on Electric Archaeology. I used his instructions to import a digital elevation model (DEM) from the famous Mesolithic site of Star Carr, currently being investigated by Nicky Milner at the University of York.

After a few tweaks, I managed to get a fairly nice, smooth landscape–Star Carr, now a lovely undulating field, was once on the edge of Lake Flixton. Organic materials such as wood preserve very well in the waterlogged peat and so they find lots of spear points, platforms and a deer frontlet or two.

Red deer antler head-dress from Star Carr at the British Museum.

Red deer antler head-dress from Star Carr at the British Museum.

Sadly we did not reconstruct the frontlets–building things in Minecraft is a lot like using Lego. Not fancy, specialist Lego like they have these days, but the basic set. So I got a reasonable model of Star Carr up and running for Yornight, which highlights European Union-funded research at York. I had a lot of help from other people in the department affiliated with the Centre for Digital Heritage.

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Outreach!

We had several computers running on our own local server and kids (mostly boys) went pretty crazy for it. Our set up:

Well, archaeologists working at Star Car have found these circular houses with evidence of postholes, and we’ve made reconstructions based on that. But we aren’t actually sure what exactly the houses looked like. Can you help us think of different ways the houses might have looked?

The virtual world of Star Carr!

The virtual world of Star Carr!

That was pretty much it. A few of the kids tried to build round houses, but as you may have guessed from the Lego-ness of Minecraft, they were still pretty blocky. Some built other houses, out of brick, some built giant flaming towers, and a few somehow made guns and started shooting at each other! I’d say it was a success.

The dungeon-like barrel vault added to the atmosphere.

The dungeon-like barrel vault added to the atmosphere.

We also had a papercraft Breary Banks, another University of York excavation site, and kids colored and cut out models of the camp. I found that having a mix of tactile and digital activities was more inclusive–kids didn’t have to feel forced into doing anything they weren’t used to or were uncomfortable with.

Breary Banks in papercraft!

Breary Banks in papercraft!

Finally, we had the “real tools” of Minecraft, and that seemed, oddly, to be the most popular. It made the connection between tools that archaeologists used and the virtual tools in the game. We had a big nodule of flint, which is used in the game but many kids never made the connection to rocks.

We’re running it again for the local Young Archaeologists Club and for the upcoming Yornight, which will also feature some experimental Oculus Rift visualization. Digital shenanigans continue apace!

#CritBlogArch Virtual Roundtables

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I’m very pleased with the new dedicated issue of Internet Archaeology, Critical Blogging in Archaeology, first conceived at the 2011 Society for American Archaeology sessions in Sacramento. That it has taken so long to publish is entirely on me–working in Qatar and finishing my thesis left me spread a bit thin.

Happily, my postdoc here in the Archaeology Department at the University of York put me in the perfect position to publish the issue in Internet Archaeology, the Open Access journal embedded in the department, edited by the fantastic Judith Winters. Judith put a tremendous amount of effort into producing this issue, and I am deeply grateful for her willingness to be a bit experimental.

We decided to use Open Peer Review, which means that the authors and the reviewers are identified. I’ve found this works really well on Then Dig–peer review becomes less adversarial and more cooperative. Combined with the small group of people doing research on this topic and the complete inability to make these article double-blind, it seemed like a good choice. You can read more about the process in my editorial for the issue.

The other features that we decided to include is the ability to directly comment on the articles and to archive the uses of the #CritBlogArch hashtag on Twitter, to preserve the feedback and conversation surrounding the issue. So far the uptake has been mixed and without clear direction so we decided to create a series of round tables, identifying dates and times to discuss particular articles. The articles are all Open Access, so there should not be any barriers to discussion.

Join us on the following dates and times to discuss these articles on Twitter with the #CritBlogArch hashtag, or leave comments on the articles themselves.

June 16 (16:00 BST)
Mapping the Structure of the Archaeological Web – Shawn Graham
From Blogs to Books: Blogging as Community, Practice and Platform – William Caraher and Andrew Reinhard
Micro-blogging and Online Community – Lorna-Jane Richardson

June 23 (16:00 BST)
Crime, Controversy and the Comments Section: Discussing archaeological looting, trafficking, and the illicit antiquities trade online – Meg Lambert and Donna Yates
Blogging the Field School: Teaching Digital Public Archaeology – Terry P. Brock and Lynne Goldstein
Changing the Way Archaeologists Work: blogging and the development of expertise – Sara Perry

June 30 (16:00 BST)
Online Resistance to Precarious Archaeological Labour – Sam Hardy
Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology – Katy Meyers Emery and Kristina Killgrove
Vlog to Death: Project Eliseg’s Video-Blogging – Joseph Tong, Suzanne Evans, Howard Williams, Nancy Edwards and Gary Robinson

We also encourage responses to Fotis Ifantidis’ photo essay (peer reviewed with other photo essays from Steve Ashby and Jesse Stephen) on Instagram, or Flickr–please drop a comment with a link on Ifantidis’ essay.

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?

Colleen in Oz (Kinda)

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Are you coming back?

In 2012 when I was writing my dissertation I would post a very small part of an ongoing pulp fiction series each time I’d finish a chapter. I’d fight in space, ride a horse in the Wild West, you get the idea. So when I finished the whole thing, I imaged that I’d finally met the Wizard. The Wizard of Oz.

So I finally went. To Oz, that is. The last few months (make that years, really) I’ve been traveling a lot. The esteemed James Flexner and I (of previous Kalaupapa fame) applied for a visitor’s grant from Australia National University for me to give a couple of seminars and come rub brains with archaeologists down under.

I ended up giving two talks, Critical making, creativity and play for disruptive heritage practice and Archaeology, Augmented Reality, and Avatars, two of my favorite research topics at the moment, met several people in the department, and was generally impressed by the state of things academic. I didn’t really have a lot of time to dwell on the fact that I was in Australia—I have been buried by deadlines for just as long as I’ve been traveling. At that point I was working on an upcoming publication on difficult heritage online, the Introduction to Critical Blogging in Archaeology, and the processing the big Genetics/Heritage conference in Liverpool that I had organized with EUROTAST.

This is where I was, 99% of the time.

This is where I was 99% of the time.

So I didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing. I was able to check out the requisite koalas and kangaroos, and went on a lot of long runs up and down hills in Canberra. It was Fall (in May) so the leaves were turning yellow and it was getting chilly. The architecture was very modern, and pretty much felt like America, except for all the massive birds.

I think that was the most disconcerting thing—the extremely large birds, just hanging out like pigeons. Cockatoos, parrots, massive, beautiful preening things, scooting around in parking lots and pestering people. So, America, but with big birds everywhere. Strangely, I was accused of not caring about being in Australia and not trying hard enough to experience it. Admittedly I was half dead from jet lag while I was there, and not on holiday. But I was constantly asked, “Are you coming back?” and I couldn’t provide an answer that satisfied anyone in the least.

I want one.

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

Look, a zine machine!

Anyway, I like more improvisational travel these days. It’s a little miscellaneous, but serendipity can be a lot more fun than a brutal itinerary.

Contested Stonehenge: Battle of the Beanfield

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Last term I guest-lectured in Sara Perry’s MA students course on Visualization, Ethics, and Dark Heritage. I was looking into sites of “dark” or difficult heritage–heritage that hurts–in the United Kingdom. Many do not realize that one of English Heritage’s most beloved monuments, Stonehenge, is one of those sites.

June 1st marks the 30 year anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; 500 ‘travellers’ were arrested and 200 vehicles impounded by a confrontational, violent police force who forbade their entry to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. In her excellent Stonehenge: Making Space, Barbara Bender talks about the contested landscape of Stonehenge, and the uneven power relations that surround the site.

There is very little acknowledgement of this violent suppression at the country’s foremost heritage site, though £23,000 was later awarded to plaintiffs in the case for ‘assault, damage to their vehicles and property, and for not being given the reasons for their arrest.’ When I last enquired, there is no mention of the Battle of the Beanfield in any of the Stonehenge interpretive material or at the site museum, and though people may enter the monument during the winter and summer solstices, it still remains deeply contested.

Who is Stonehenge for? When do conservation principles translate into brutality against vulnerable people? Can we stay open to alternative understandings of the landscape? Bender’s statement still rings true:

If this chapter is…somewhat polemic, that is because it was, in part, spawned in anger at the efforts of English Heritage and parts of the Establishment to promote a socially empty view of the past in line with modern conservative sensibilities.

I hope that more progressive forces within English Heritage can win out over this suppression of the contemporary heritage of Stonehenge, but in the current political climate, with vast cuts to heritage spending, that may be a big ask.