Archaeological Clutter & Dumpster Diving

Richard Urban points me (thank you!) to the Second Life Dumpster which aims to explore those very questions mentioned in my earlier post. Fantastic! Second Life (and of course, archaeological VR in general) is just far too clean and tidy. I wonder if they can get the trash to be deposited in layers… what might be the mechanisms of deposition in a virtual world? In RL, the general principle is that older stuff gets deposited first; but in SL, would it be deposited by region, or a user’s IP? I wonder how it would pattern… it is interesting that the questions these artists are asking are, by and large, very similar to the ones that archaeologists ask. Colin Renfrew wrote a book on that very theme, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Blurb about the book:

Contemporary art and modern archaeology are increasingly seen to share much common ground yet their interactions have yet to be fully investigated. This innovative volume explores key themes, including the role of display in art, in the practice of archaeology and in daily life, and the material transformations which underlie the physical reality of the archaeological record as much as the creative processes of the contemporary artist. Prominent practising artists Simon Callery and Antony Gormley provide seminal papers considering the role of materiality and embodiment in their own work, exploring issues that are directly relevant to current archaeological thinking. They are joined by archaeologists actively involved with visual approaches, including Anwen Cooper, Christopher Evans, Steven Mithen, Joshua Pollard, Nicholas Saunders, Aaron Watson and the editorial trio. The book is lavishly illustrated in colour. 170p (McDonald Institute 2004)


10 thoughts on “Archaeological Clutter & Dumpster Diving

  1. I was just thinking about dumpsters and archaeology. Where I live city recycling bylaws have created a group of people who roam the streets at night collecting bottles and other detritus to return for money and sell to other people. To me this seems an ideal way to look at Binfordian Logistical Collector vs Optimal Foraging strategy.

    I suspect that optimal foraging will turn out to be the most common technique as they make their rounds collecting resources.

  2. Where I live is a rather poor region (second poorest in the province, apparently). There has long been a tradition here where people comb the ditches along rural roads looking for beer bottles and aluminum cans to return for the deposit. Truthfully, I’d never thought about that activity from an archaeological point of view. How would you propose doing such an analysis? If you go into Second Life at all – I wonder if similar strategies might be employed by people trying to find decent clothing, gear, etc for their avatars…

  3. I was pondering it last night. The 1st would be an ethno-archaeological study, perhaps following them an their daily round. The 2nd would be purely archaeological looking at the material culture, mapping the locations of resource spots, looking at the amount of exploitation, and a metric on how much energy is expended vs gained through various strategies.

    From the sounds of it where you are it sounds more encounter based strategy than where I am (Vancouver, BC), where we have dumpsters which would serve as high grade resource points.

    Re Second life, people behave very different in virtual world (does trolling exist in real life?) and I’d expect many of the things we take for granted in analysing behaviour in the real world, such as the amount of energy put into gathering a specific resource, to be distorted . As such those distortions are interesting in themselves but they would prevent any crossover between the two.

    Which brings us to another interesting question. Is the virtual world so different that we need to create a fundamentally different set of archaeological questions to look at it?

  4. That’s the thing, right there. I’ve taken to calling archaeology in virtual worlds, ‘xenoarchaeology’, because it is such a foreign place. If we ignore for the time being what people *do* in a virtual world, and just look at what *does* get left behind… are we perhaps dealing with a kind of landscape archaeology (I’m thinking along the lines of British prehistory)?

    You mention ‘amount of energy’. Perhaps the only really important variable in a virtual world is time – the amount of time spent doing various tasks, activities. A successful sim is one that keeps its visitors there, makes them want to come back for more. So whereas in the archaeological literature we’d talk about energy and resources, maybe we should be looking at time-traces… just thinking out loud here, had too much coffee today. But do you see what I’m saying? Am I making sense?

  5. No. I don’t think magic bean has affected your sense of what’s what. However, I think “Xeno” doesn’t really capture something so ubiquitous yet so different.

    I mean what we’ve got here is a separate magesteria of material culture, which exists only within certain classes of traditional hard objects (computers). We have everything outside of Computers and everything in them. “Is there a greek/Latin Tag for existing within an electrically powered box”

    If we’re looking at the record of the expression/end result of human action then time traces (server logs?) are one method of looking at it. But how much can we really tell from such information?

    As an archaeologist I’ve alway struggled to say something meaningful about the modern world through material culture. Yes you can tell different groups and different ways of looking at the world through different sets and organizations of material culture. Big Deal. No-one besides post modernists intent on preying on the west’s guilty conscious really can use it or even register it. The traditional strength has always been to reveal and study the forgotten or unknown.

    Hence my return to proccessualist approaches. But enough of that rant. I think we need to go back to the beginning and work with typologies and then the questions that our data can answer will be apparent.

    One thing that strikes me about the net is how much is 2- D and as fascinating as second life is it’s still the part of the tiny minority within a two D web. There have been a few attempts to look at the whole web within a 3D framework ( being the most prominent I can recall).

    Within Second life I think more traditional landscape archaeology is sound, yet I would be hesitant to apply landscape archaeology wholesale to it. Like most British Archaeological Theory, it is ponderous and Full of INTENT, where as second life seems to constructed on whimsy, and caprice.

    I think there is an opening to do a rigorous, materialist, proccessualist analysis of the internet. Or even a paper in Antiquity.

  6. Within Second life I think more traditional landscape archaeology is sound, yet I would be hesitant to apply landscape archaeology wholesale to it. Like most British Archaeological Theory, it is ponderous and Full of INTENT, where as second life seems to constructed on whimsy, and caprice.

    Is this actually a valid statement in archaeological (or anthropological) terms? If we apply archaeological tools to a study of Second Life, surely it is precisely this assumption of “whimsy and caprice” that we will be analysing, and these intentions–serious or otherwise–that we are identifying.

  7. There is indeed whimsy and caprice in Second Life, but if you’ve ever tried to *build* something there, it is not at all as easy as it looks. Therefore my earlier comments regarding time. Time spent building in Second Life is time not spend going to Rotary, playing with the dog, reading the newspaper. Therefore, the whimsy, caprice we observe – and there’s much more to Second Life than simple playground – should be as significant as other more ostensibly ‘serious’ pursuits.

    (Archaeology is about understanding the human condition from material culture. Electrons do have some mass, however negligible, so even this virtual world and its digital material culture has some real physical presence. But that’s a minor point.)

  8. I guess I should have been more specific on what I meant regarding “Intent”. I used it in the term that I was brought up with as in reifiying class relations/conflict/contradiction/resistance etc. Of course whimsy and caprice are intentional in themselves and can be studied.

    I didn’t mean to side track us, away from the nature of an archaeology of the internet, and the original question of dumpster diving in binfordian terms.

    How would we start on archaeology of the internet? The same as we started with prehistory, Typology and classification then moving on to the more sophisticated approaches?

  9. Indeed, that would bring us full circle to the initial problem posed in this post: how do you classify the material culture, when Second Life and other virtual worlds are forever cleaning up after themselves? But yes, I suppose the first step would be to create typologies. Are there particular kinds of material culture that correlate with particular regions in SL? or with particular sub-groups? Do Furries tend to make particular kinds of objects appropriate to their avatars? Sarah Robbins calls the choice of avatar a kind of ’embodied rhetoric’. This might be a useful point of departure for looking at the artefacts people create… are they appropriate to their real-life identity, or to their second-life?

    And from the point of view of landscape… in the real world, people force particular views, or constrain movement along particular paths, to reinforce or create particular messages… How does that play out in Second Life? Probably easier to explore in those areas that constrain the avatar to the ground. Take a look at Caledonia for a sim with an excellent ‘urban image’ (apologies to Zanker!)

  10. Consider this quote from Earnest Adams

    “Architecture — meaning both landscapes and structures — is what turns the bare grid of the chessboard into the living world of the computer game. Its importance is on a par with character design in creating the player’s visual experience. Character design tells you who you are; architecture tells you where you are. But more than that, it also tells you what might happen to you there, and even sometimes what you ought to be doing.

    Perhaps there will come a time when student game artists in college routinely study Viollet-le-Duc and Vitruvius, Gaudí and Gropius. I hope so. Our games can only be the better for it.”

    I like that thought: ‘architecture tells you what might happen to you there’. Adams is writing from the point of view of a game designer. In a place like Second Life, where the design is done by the player, does architecture play a similar role? That’s what I meant by ‘rhetoric’. The builder of a sim in Second Life has an idea of what might take place in their space, and they build accordingly. Are there universal tropes that emerge throughout SL? Does this architecture function the way its builders wish? Are certain kinds of interactions inhibited or facilitated by this architecture? Does the architecture imply a certain kind of (virtual) material culture?

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