Tag Archives: Archaeology

Teaching Ai Wei Wei & the 9/11 Cheeseboard


This term I’ve been teaching Visual Media & Archaeology, a class conceived by Sara Perry–I’m covering her teaching while she is on research leave in Egypt. It has been tough, as I did not have time to prep the class beforehand and I’ve been writing the lectures from scratch. But it has also been great to revisit a lot of my thesis material though, and gather my thoughts regarding topics such as Art & Archaeology in a more formal way.

I am happy to get back to teaching though, as have been primarily focussed on research for the last several years. The students have been fantastic–very smart, engaged and disturbingly keen.

I’ve enjoyed bringing up all the weird, interesting, fun and downright disturbing things that I have found over the years in visual representations in archaeology and have the students discuss them. Ai Wei Wei and his ill-treatment of Han pottery caused a fairly passionate discussion, particularly when I mentioned that it was worth more (in terms of money) after he broke the vases. I let that debate die down a bit, then (trying my hardest not to cackle or rub my hands together in a sinister way) brought up Maximo Caminero’s subsequent “vandalism” of an Ai Wei Wei exhibition.

During the Museums lecture, I brought this image up in a slide:


Yes, we debated the 9/11 Cheese Board. What is the appropriate commodification of memory? The cries of dismay were fabulous.

So while it has been hard work, I’ve been having a lot of fun. For their final projects, the students have been getting together blog/portfolios featuring their work. Please check them out! They are really chuffed by page clicks and feedback:

How the Past Met the Present: A Story of Augmented Reality and Heritage:

Archaeology TV:

Drawn into the Past:

Art & Religion in Prehistory:

Feeding Venice/Get Sidetracked:

Awesome Archaeology Women:

Plants and Animals “of the Home”:

The Heritage Sight:

DOHA: The Doha Online Historical Atlas

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I’m very happy to announce that DOHA: Doha Online Historical Atlas has been launched, just in time for CHNT: Cultural Heritage and New Technologies. DOHA brings together several years of research including archaeological excavations, historic documentation, and a whole lot of fancy GIS-based georeferencing work.

We are also looking for contributions from people living in Doha. We don’t have a seamless citizen science solution quite yet (involving tedious server complications, etc), but for now we are taking georeferenced media here:


It is difficult to visualize research that is spread out over an entire metropolis, so I am quite pleased that it has all come together. We also have a quick video showing how to use it:

It is in beta, so we would love any feedback on it:


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


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.


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?


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.


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:




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








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.