Slow Archaeology?

I tweeted the other day that I have problems with ‘slow’ archaeology. Here’s a quick post to try to outline some of the issues I have. It draws on some things I’ve written before, both public and private. My thoughts below are piecemeal and incomplete, and probably full of non-sequiturs. Caveat lector.

In the first instance, I do not recognize digital archaeology as being concerned with efficiency, as Bill writes. If we imagine digital archaeology as something involving creativity, messing around, where ‘you try things out and see what happens’, to create an ‘art of inquiry’, to explore correspondences with the world (as per Ingold, 2013:5-7), then we’ll see that efficiency has precious little to do with it.  I wrote as much a few years back in a guest post for Bill (here). I’ve written more for the ODATE project here. In the another discussion on twitter, Eric drew attention to digital archaeology and slow archaeology as both being about taking care (see below). ‘Careful archaeology’ or an archaeology of care: I can get behind that.

In Bill’s piece, he goes on to elaborate that because of efficiency concerns, there is no craftwork in digital archaeology. I’m not certain that there is no craftwork, no embodied knowledge (if that is what signals ‘crafty’ or ‘slow’ archaeology), in digital work. Indeed, the criticisms of the digital raised are equally admissible of all technologies used in archaeology, including pen and paper. I think there is indeed a difference between archaeological computing (which might be about justification, about proof, about supporting hypotheses, about the dream of the total excavation archive) and digital archaeology (as a mindful practice, a reflective practice, a deformative practice which is every bit as mindful and embodied as any other academic practice. See for instance Earl, 2013) Digital archaeology, as in the digital humanities more generally, unpacks the tacit hidden craft knowledge that is necessary to achieve anything digitally. I argue to students: neither art (because true art is always singular and exceptional) nor science (because it is not repeatable), but craft: Rules of thumb, skilled working with (or against) the grain of the materials. Digital work seldom goes click, bing! result. More like, click, ++out of cheese error++ (a little Terry Pratchett joke there).

To get the digital stuff to work involves a constant cycle of feedback and productive failure. ‘Digital archaeology’ is sometimes the slowest archaeology around. There’s nothing inherent in the craft aspect of ‘slow’ archaeology that isn’t also true of digital work. Digital work is inefficient in my view – it never works the first time. That’s its strength. It allows us to fail faster, and that’s where the illusion of ‘efficiency’ comes from. Let’s consider 3d photogrammetry. It is not the case that one clicks the button and *poof* a 3d model is born and we are absolved of having to know the artifact, the context, any less deeply than if we were drawing it. Indeed, this is something that my own students have commented on: that it is remarkably hard to produce a decent 3d photogrammetric model and in the process of taking the photos over and over again, building and rebuilding the model, they come to know the object very well indeed. It is because these steps are the ones that are intuitive when one puts pen to paper: the digital forces the students to think these normally unexamined steps out in full.

Bill mentions notebooks and site diaries, and the cognitive effects of writing materials down. This effect is well known; writing something down does make a difference in terms of recall. Does it make a longer term difference in terms of memory, or more importantly for the interpretation or understanding of a site, of archaeology? I am not convinced. As a grad student, I worked on the Tiber Valley Project, a significant proportion of which involved trying to decipher and understand the notebooks from the South Etruria Survey of fifty years’ prior. Whatever cognitive effect that was at play originally, was clearly moot in this case – and just as digital records decay, so too were the SES records spotty, incomplete, contradictory, or unintelligible. To what degree did these notebooks actually inform the final publications? To what degree do any of the field notebooks kept by the unskilled labour used in most academic excavations inform the final interpretation? Not much, in truth, I’ll wager.

Who gets to be an archaeologist?

I am reminded of this piece “The Dagger of Faith in the Digital Age: A vitriolic medieval manuscript illuminates how Google is destroying the act of reading” by Ryan Szpiech. It’s an interesting piece that is ultimately making a similar kind of argument: that you have to get your hands literally dirty to ‘really’ understand.

Let us take this argument to the extreme – only archaeologists who are ‘dirt’ archaeologists are real archaeologists, and the only ones who can really *know*. I’m not saying that this is what Bill is saying or doing, but that is one possible reading. Bill does acknowledge in the piece when he reflects briefly on his own position as a tenured prof with a field project of his very own. And understand that I’m not saying that Bill is doing this: but it other hands, ‘slow’ could smack of gate-keeping. I don’t get to dig. I don’t get to field walk. Can I engage with slow archaeology, if I cannot be in the field? Can there be a ‘slow’ archaeology for the woman employed in CRM? The state historic sites registrar? The sessional/adjunct? What would a ‘slow’ archaeology look like framed in those terms?

There is a danger also I think of ‘slow’ archaeology being used as a cudgel with which to bludgeon us all. The optics of the professor-in-his-tower, right? Branding is everything these days I’m afraid.

I like Eric’s framing. Maybe my own insecurity concerning my fear of not being a ‘real’ archaeologist is causing my reaction to ‘slow’. I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

I’ll finish up with asking cui bono, asking who ultimately benefits from a ‘slow’ archaeology, and with whom would the power rest in such a scheme? Perhaps a ‘slow’ archaeology that incorporated the productive failures of the digital could assuage the issues I raise here. Can we think of ways that are not zero-sum in nature to resolve this problem? Are there ways to be digital and not be alienating and oppressive?

Go slow, go with care, make through thinking and think through making, employ a method of hope, engage in the art of inquiry. Play.

Caraher, W. 2016. Slow Archaeology. Mobilizing the Past

Earl, G. 2013.’ Modeling in Archaeology: Computer Graphic and other Digital Pasts’. Perspectives on Science 21(2) p.226-244.

Ingold, T. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Routledge.

Szpiech, R. 2014. ‘The Dagger of Faith in the Digital Age’. Tablet

Featured image:, Nanyang Walk slow lettering 20060317, wikimedia commons

update: If you’ve read this far, now go and take a look at what Bill says which dovetails here.



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