Manifest Destiny: Colonialism, Archaeology, and…Video Games?

You are the monster.

In her brilliant Story Collider podcast, Uzma Rizvi perfectly captures the rupture of graduate school, when, as she states, it becomes obvious that archaeology is “a colonial, racist, epistemically unjust system of knowledge production” and you ask yourself “how did I get here?” It is a question that archaeologists should be asking themselves every day. How did I get here? And how do I proceed?

It’s a bit of a wobbly path–unstable, uncertain, PROCEED WITH CAUTION black & yellow tape dangling in the wind. And yet, as cautious and de-centering and as sensitive as you can be, you are, often, still the monster. You are investigating the remains of the past, sometimes in another country, sometimes in your back yard, and you are navigating through your own cultural perceptions and the colonialist, racist foundations of your discipline to tell a story that might or might not be “true” or even important. This instability, I think, makes a lot of archaeologists & heritage scholars actually hate archaeology. It is actually not an entirely irrational decision, but I can’t agree. It’s too important.

It’s important that there are archaeologists who carry around the millstones of our own discipline’s past, that we have critical self-awareness and continue to engage anyway. It is our challenge to confront these disciplinary monsters and come away humbled yet still persistent. Because we need to continue to intervene in grandiose narratives, to rub dirt and stone and rubbish into histories that exclude women, indigenous people, people of color, the poor, the “othered” and to remove the props that hold up the crap politicians and power structures who use the past to justify present oppression.

And…guess what? The magical thing is that we can do this through traditional & alternative venues of publication, teaching, public outreach and…video games!

Manifest Destiny is an entry into Ludum Dare, a regular online video game jam wherein participants take on a challenge to create a game alone or with a team in 72 hours. Go ahead, fire it up and have a play and then come back.

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This entry was made by Tara Copplestone and Matt Sanders and is described as “a ‘hack n slash’ with a twist.” The name, Manifest Destiny, is an expansionist impulse to conquer, to colonize, one that is associated with the spread of white settlers across the continental United States in the 19th century.

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You are a towering figure with a cape, crushing tiny people and structures in your path, getting more points for your efficient destruction. And you have a trail of blood behind you. Sounds pretty accurate, right?

The game goes through four levels with different reconstructed cartoon landscapes, each corresponding to a season. You gain points and you gain dominion, partly represented by the devil horns that point out of your head. You also destroy structures and people with death spikes that come out of the ground. It’s not terribly subtle, but neither was Columbus.

Manifest Destiny is an incredibly detailed game for a 72 hour game jam. The music, upbeat but still slightly sinister, turns dire when you find out the truth of it all.

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I tried to play the game a few different ways. Yes, first I blew up all of the structures and people, then I tried just exploring without destruction. Finally I just stood there, and waited through the levels. The result was the same. In this last play-through where I stood and didn’t do anything, I noticed that the small people were at first running toward you, then milling around, then finally would run away from you.

The result is the same in each case–perhaps the only way to win is not to play at all. Though this message might have been reinforced by a different result if the character just choose to do nothing.

A “Learn More” button on the final screen points toward the EUROTAST webpage, which is a slightly unwieldy match, though appreciated. It did make me think that we need more in-depth online resources that are easy to point to that are arranged around current issues. What does archaeology have to teach us about state oppression? What does anthropological study have to say about forms of marriage?

Manifest Destiny is a creative, appreciated intervention that explores game conventions to highlight historic injustices.

Minecraft for Archaeological Outreach

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The “Real Tools of Minecraft”

We ran a “Virtual Dig” event for Yornight again this year, refined and improved from last year’s effort. The event was wildly popular once again, and utterly wiped out the researchers participating.

I re-structured the event so that there is something for each of our expected demographic–we had kids that had never played Minecraft who participated last year, as well as a few bored parents. We were able to address the former with a papercraft event, but as the papercraft was based around Breary Banks, we decided to eliminate it this year and focus primarily on Star Carr, for consistency across the activities.

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Steal me!

For the younger kids we expanded on our “real tools of Minecraft” event last year. It was very successful for connecting the analog world to the digital world, and gave us a way to talk about the spectrum of archaeological tools. Minecraft has pickaxes, shovels, buckets, a compass, and flint, and we had the kids match up the tools from a print-out. Of particular interest was the flint, as many children did not make the connection from the digital representation to the rocks in their backyard.

I’ve uploaded a printable pdf of the Minecraft tools. I also made a sheet with a few letters that you can have the kids place next to the real tools. Feel free to steal the activity, but pleaaaaase tell me (colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk) if you do so I can show my department how useful it is to muck around with video games.

We also had our usual server running with the Star Carr landscape installed, which I wrote about making last year. I actually had to re-make it this year in a single day, due to the old version accidentally getting wiped out. Ooops!

Once again we also showed Anthony Masinton’s Yorkshire 9000BC on the big screen in back. It’s made in Unity, so we tied it to Minecraft by saying they were both video games AND both of them were based on the same digital elevation model. I’d point at the houses he’d placed on the landscape, talk a bit about how hard it was to reconstruct houses based on postholes, then end with an entreaty:

Can you build a 10,000 year old house in Minecraft?

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Fabrizio, showing off his ADS viewer to Julian Richards & Gareth Beale

For the older kids and adults we had Marie Curie Fellow Fabrizio Galeazzi present Star Carr data on his ADS viewer, to show the detailed visualizations of stratigraphy within a research database. It was a great link for showing the research potential of archaeological visualizations.

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Early in the night!

Overall it was chaotic but fun–we didn’t always have a chance to collar the kids with research before they started bashing through Minecraft. I’ve yet to have a chance to see what kind of carnage they enacted upon the Mesolithic landscape. I look forward to it though, as it’s an archaeology of its own.

Heritage Jam 2015!

The University of York Archaeology Department is hosting the Heritage Jam on 25 September at the King’s Manor. Last year we hacked cemeteries, and this year it will be Museums & Collections.

You can see why I’m usually behind the camera. Tara & Paul did a great job with it, but I can’t actually watch this whole video without running screaming out the room.

Photo by Dun Deagh

Photo of a doorway at King’s Manor by Dun Deagh

BONUS: If you participate in the Heritage Jam, you have the option of sleeping over at the King’s Manor, a fantastic Grade I listed building.

There’s a huge amount of information available on the website, sign up before it is too late:

http://www.heritagejam.org/

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New Publication: Dig Houses, Dwelling, and Knowledge Production in Archaeology

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.29.57 AMScreen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.24.22 AMI was tempted to title our article, “protracted conversational barking” in honor of this hilariously cantankerous quote from Petrie. Dan and I just published a new article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology titled Dig Houses, Dwelling, and Knowledge Production in Archaeology which was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing an article. Here’s a link to the final draft, as it seems that most people don’t have access to JCA yet, and I couldn’t find the budget to publish it OA. Sorry.

Sadly a lot of the historical research did not quite make it into the article, but we managed to get in a wide range of archaeological dig houses, from Petrie’s tomb to the “palace” headquarters of the Tell Asmar excavation, barasti huts in Bahrain, Villa Ariadne and Harriet Boyd Hawes’ sanctified bone yard. We also looked at modern dig houses, often hotels, and tried to make a case for more lively places of knowledge production on excavations. And we sneaked in a bit about dig houses hearkening to Goffman’s total institution. But maybe that’s just Çatalhöyük.

Speaking of Çatalhöyük, our case study in the article describes the destruction of a re-purposed building on the project called the “Chicken Shed,” which we argued was an example of what Stewart Brand calls a “low road building”–good to think in, and a great place to come together and remove structural barriers in a project. It was torn down in 2011, in a way that became very symbolic to much of the former team as the end of an era. The virtual reconstruction of the Chicken Shed shared a similar fate, after the end of Okapi Island in Second Life.

Anyway, give it a read and let me know what you think about our “archaeology of us.” If you’d like a copy with the figures, drop me a line.

Morgan, C. & Eddisford, D. (2015) Dig Houses, Dwelling, and Knowledge Production in Archaeology. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2.1 169-193.

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.

Analogue/Digital Archaeology Session at the EAA

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Join us at the European Association of Archaeologists meetings in Glasgow on Saturday, September 5th from 8:00 – 10:00 in Room 361 for our discussion panel:

Analogue/Digital: Productive Tensions in Materiality and Archaeology

Abstract: As we integrate digital workflows into every aspect of archaeological methodology, it is increasingly apparent that we are all digital archaeologists (Morgan and Eve 2012). Yet archaeology has a long, productive and unfinished history with “analogue” media. Illustration, photography, dioramas, casts, paper-based maps, diagrams, charts and artistic renderings have all been – and continue to be – used to interpret and present archaeology to specialist and general audiences. Walter Benjamin argued that reproductive media destroys the “aura” of traditional artistic media (1968), and it has since been argued (Bolter et al. 2006) that digital media perpetuates a permanent crisis of this aura. As the premiere scholars of materiality, archaeologists can contribute to discussions of the context of, continuities between, and technological changes to these media artefacts. In this session we ask, in what ways are we using the digital in constructive interplay with the analogue? What can digital affordances reveal about analogue methodologies, and vice versa? And how are we pushing beyond skeuomorphic archaeological recording and rethinking the possibilities of media artefacts overall? We aim here to prompt reflective debate about, and speculative design of, the future of analogue/digital experimentation.

We have a fantastic set of participants:

Colleen Morgan (University of York) – Analogue/Digital: Spectrum, Landscape, Minefield?
Laia Pujol-Tost (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) – Mixed exhibits. The best of both worlds? & Pixel vs pigment. The goal of Virtual Reality in Archaeology
Sian Jones (University of Manchester) & Stuart Jeffrey – Material/Digital Authenticity: Some thoughts on digital 3D models and their material counterparts
Christine Finn (FSA) – Field Work in the Cubicle, and Other Computer Histories,
Kostas Arvanitis (University of Manchester) – Material Objects and Digital Avatars
Sara Perry (University of York) – Redefining Media in Archaeology

As Sara wroteare you investigating issues at the intersections of the physical and the ephemeral? Are you enrolling digital technologies into the production of tangible experiences, or alternatively, aiming to better understand the digital through tangible forms of interaction? Have you eschewed the digital in favour of analogue engagements in your archaeological/heritage work – or have you rethought the dimensions of one via experimentation with the other? How are you materialising digital practices? And how is our very conception of materiality being reconfigured (or not) by analogue/digital innovation?

My Day of Archaeology: Meeting the US Ambassador

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For the Day of Archaeology this year, I wrote up my experiences at the US Ambassador’s House talking about Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), including my archaeology photo in the “distractingly sexy” campaign:

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For more, read the entry at the Day of Archaeology webpage.