I’ve been working away on a new book. I’m sharing with you now the current state of the introduction. It doesn’t quite hang together yet, and I need to stop with the whole zombie schtick (‘golems’ are a better metaphor), but anyway. Would you read this book? I need a better title, too.
This book is about, in a narrow sense, the ways in which I’ve reanimated Roman society using agent based modelling and archaeogaming. But in a larger sense, it’s about digital enchantment in the ways that scholars like Sara Perry (2018), Russel Staiff (2014), and Yannis Hamilkais (2014) have written. It’s about responding to archaeology not as a crisis to be solved, but as source for wonder. It’s about whether digital archaeology is fast or slow, whether it is engaging or alienating, whether or not it is sensory and sensual.
What are computers for, in archaeology?
The question might seem absurd. What is a pencil for? A shovel? A database? Our tools are only ever appropriate to particular situations. Not every moment on an excavation requires a mattock or a pail; a dental pick and a dustpan might be called for. By the same token, maybe we don’t always require a computer to achieve a digital archaeology. Maybe a smartphone is all we need. Maybe an iPad. Maybe we just need what Jentery Sayers (2018, elaborating on Kershenbaum 2009) calls ‘paper computers’.
The point is, if we stop simply accepting that a computer is always necessary, we can see again some of the enchantment these amazing devices possess, and we can begin to imagine again the kinds of questions they might be best suited to. There is any amount of criticism of computing, of digital archaeology that focuses on the alienating aspects of the work. Caraher has argued that to use a computer as part of your process, whether in the field or in the lab is to somehow be pushed away from the tacit and sensuous ways-of-knowing that characterize the doing of archaeology (2015).
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions of these devices. For me, the use of computation in archaeology is a kind of magic, a way of heightening my archaeological imagination to see in ways I couldn’t. It lets me raise the dead (digital zombies?) with all the terror wonder, and ethical problems that that implies. Shouldn’t we raise the dead? Why shouldn’t we put words in their mouths, give them voices, and talk with them to find out more about their (after) lives?
In this book, I’m making an argument that a slow, reflexive, sensual, enchanted engagement with the past is possible (even desirable) when we use digital computational approaches. That is not to say that it is not a rigorous approach. The first step in this approach is a clear formalism, a clear re-statement in code about what I believe to be true about the past. It has to be that way, because the fundamental action of the computer is to copy. Decisions we take in a computational medium are multiplied and accelerated, so those initial decisions can have unintended or unforeseen consequences when they are rendered computational.
Such formalisms also have to be rendered as relationships as well. Research on artificial neural networks demonstrates that meaning can emerge through cascades of coordinated firings of neurones through weighted channels, backwards and forwards. These weights do not need to be known beforehand, but can be learned as the network is exposed to stimuli. To my mind, this points to a way of computing the past that does not rely on higher-level equations that describe a social phenomenon, but rather a way of letting interaction precede the equation. We set up the conditions for interactions, relationships, and networks to emerge. Understand that I am not arguing for a naive use of computing and letting answers percolate out. That is nonsense. Rather, I am arguing for the correct level of complexity to model, to put into a simulation. The first part of this book is a consideration of networks as a substrate; the second revivifies these networks, raising the dead through simulation.
These are games that play themselves, these simulations. Wouldn’t it be interesting to enter the game ourselves? This is part of the enchantment. In the third part of this book I discuss what it takes to make this happen, and what archaeogaming, chatbots, and other playful digital toys can offer to our research and more importantly for the audience for whom archaeology holds wonder. I weave throughout this book my engagement with what makes digital work sensuous and enchanting in the ways that Perry and Staiff describe. It is unapologetically a personal engagement.
Insofar as the actual archaeological data in this book and my computational engagements with them are concerned, I have collected together and edited some of my previously published papers that employ a variety of small thought experiments and agent-based models and toys. The computational parts are tools-to-think-with, rather than things that will prove an hypothesis. They are arranged in a logic that reflects the way that I have come to think about Roman society, especially cities and the social life within them. It seems to me that Roman cities and societies can be thought of as nodes of entangled systems, as biological processes that smear across boundaries and scales, and whose actions can be modeled upon those entanglements. With video game technologies, we can insert the researcher/student/public into the model for deeper learning, engagement: a first person perspective. Not I should hasten to add, a Roman perspective. Rather, a deformation of our own just-so stories we tell about the past with the authority provided by a disembodied narration. If there is truth in the stories we tell, then there is truth in the embodied perspective provided by a computational rendering of that story.
I have done my best to excise that part of me that writes in impenetrable archaeo-jargon. Forgive me my failures. I write this book not so much for an academic audience invested heavily in modelling and simulation, but rather for my history students afraid to engage with digital work. It is when things break and in the cleavages that we see most clearly the problems and potentials of technology, and so failure is a necessary part of the process.
The book shifts scales quite often. It begins with a focus on the flows of energy and materials necessary to sustain the exoskeleton of the City, its built fabric. We then expand outwards to consider the fossilized traces of the social networks that enabled that flow. Once we have a network, we consider ways in which the equifinality of networks can be used to iterate our deformations, our perspectives, and so the kinds of questions we might ask. Now that we are at a regional level, the next chapter considers a model of regional space, its interactions, and the ways local interactions give rise to global structures.The remainder of the book deals with ways we can use these simulations, and these archaeological networks, for generating insight into the social contexts of Roman power. The book returns to where we started, with the city, and concludes with new work exploring the ways that the city-builder genre conditions our understanding of ancient cities, and how we might subvert, divert, and repurpose such games to our own ends.
These particular case studies are wrapped in a larger argument about the proper role of computation in archaeology. In the end, I do not subscribe to a techno-chauvinism that sees digital responses as the obvious end-goal for archaeology, nor a techno-utopianism that describes what ought to be (cf Broussard 2018). Rather, I see space for a creative engagement with digital tools that opens up a landscape, a tasks cape, for returning some enchantment to what we do.
My first encounter with ‘real’ archaeology was as an 18 year old college student on his first real adventure out of the country (out of the back woods, in truth). We were working (paying to work) on an excavation in the Peloponnesus, in the hinterland of Corinth. In the bottom of the high mountain valley of Zaraka you will find lake Stymphalos, where Hercules defeated the Stymphalian Birds. Not much of note happened in this valley; the Romans marched through on their way to annihilating Corinth in 142 BCE; the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade built a monastery. During the second world war and subsequent Greek Civil War, bitter battles were fought for control of the area. Sometime in the 15th century a person was buried and their head lopped off, for future archaeologists to find, and to feed stories of Balkan vampires; but that’s about it.
My trench? My trench was full of bricks. The trench next to mine? That was the trench with the vampire in it.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m now in Rome, hot on the trail of aqueduct remains across the Roman countryside on a vespa scooter. Thomas Ashby and Esther van Deman had done this during the interwar years (without the vespa), but Rome and its countryside were a very different place, then. Armed with copious photocopies, a dog-eared copy of Trevor Hodge’s Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply, and a military topographic map (thirty years out of date) I zoomed down the lanes and byways and industrial estates on the modern periphery of Rome. When I found some ruins, I tried to correlate what I found with the descriptions in Ashby and van Deman. I measured, I photographed, and I drew. The point of these exertions was a massive Excel database that used my basic understanding of the geometry of solids (is it pie-r-squared or half the width times the height or…) to build a beautiful mathematical model of the finished aqueduct. I spent three months pulling this model apart to figure out the quantities of human labour and materials to make this structure. Back on the road, to double check, to find the missing pieces… a glorious summer of roadside picnics, coffees in truck stops, shepherd dogs chasing me from the fields, climbing down into ravines or up onto brick lined vaults.
A few years later, and it’s just me staring at a storage shed full of bricks. Roman bricks are heavy. They are large, and they are thick. They litter the fields of Italy. When they are collected, it is sometimes to take a geochemical peek at their composition. Where might they clays come from? More often, it is because they contain very complex makers’ marks, these bricks from near Rome. They tell you a year, an estate, a brick maker, a landlord. They remind me a lot of how marks on timber floated down the Ottawa River were used by the timber barons to keep records straight, for paying for the use of timber slides, for working out who owned what. I find them interesting, but in self defence against the teasing I receive – hey brickstamp boy! – I play up the boring bit. Hell, we’re archaeologists, we can’t always excavate vampires, right?
Raising the dead.
It’s about this point where I first encounter the idea of ‘social networks’ – a full decade before Facebook – and I start to wonder what I might see if I tie these estate owners, estate names, brick makers, makers’ marks and so on together.
In the blue glow of the cathode-ray monitor, the tangled hairball of connections starts to emerge and I begin to see changing patterns over time, patterns that begin to give life to these long dead workers….
This is a book about the practical magic – the practical necromancy? – that digital archaeology brings to the larger field. To use computers in the course of doing archaeological research does not a digital archaeology make. Digital archaeology requires enchantment. When we are using computers, the computer is not a passive tool. It is an active agent in its own right. The way it is built, the way the code is designed, contain so many elements of unconscious bias from all of its myriad creators (and blood: do not forget how much actual human blood is shed to obtain the rare earths and minerals upon which computing rests [reference to that alexa AI map]) means that the computer is our co-creator. In a video game, the experience of the player is not the result of a passive reception of representation by the game author. The player’s active engagement with the emergent representation of the rules put in motion by the author but interpreted in the context of the local game environment means that meaning of the game is the product of three authors. We can see this in video games, but it’s not always clear that this is also true of say GIS or 3d photogrammetry.
In that emergent dynamic, in that co-creation with a non-human but active agent, we might find the enchantment, the magic of archaeology that is currently lacking in archaeology. Sara Perry identifies the lack of magic, the lack of enchantment, in the ‘crisis’ model of archaeology that animates our teaching, our research, and our public outreach. If archaeology is always in danger, then every act of archaeology is an act of rescue, and every act of rescue implies a morality play, a this-is-good-for-you aesthetic to which the public should respond appropriately.
Is it any wonder that the History Channel is filled with ancient aliens nonsense rather than ‘proper’ documentaries? [Brenna Haslett on ghost hunters?]
Archaeology – academic archaeology – has lost its grip on wonder and enchantment and romance. This is not a plea to sanitize the past, or to pander to tired tropes (but remember: most of those tropes were created by archaeologists who went out of their way to communicate their research to the public. It is not their fault that subsequent archaeologists turned their backs on the public and let those tropes fester). It is a plea to find the magic and wonder in what they do. [St george and the vampire?]
And so I offer this book, a guide to practical necromancy, in that spirit. By pulling together the connective threads on nearly twenty years of work in simulation, agent modelling, video games, and Roman economic history, I want to map out a way for digital archaeology to connect with what Andrew Reinhard has identified as ‘archaeogaming’: if I take the fossils of a Roman social network, and reanimate them with autonomous software agents, just what kind of digital archaeology have I created? What other kinds are out there?