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I’m very excited to announce that the Society for American Archaeology‘s (SAA) journal Advances in Archaeological Practice has recently launched a new section to appear in all future issues of the publication. We’re calling this section “Digital Reviews”.

You can read more about these Digital Reviews here (via the journal’s online presence) or on my academia.edu profile. The reviews will be short, critical commentaries on digital media produced for archaeology and heritage audiences. By digital media, I mean any computer-based communication form meant to engage wide groups of people. These could include YouTube videos, podcasts, Snapchat or Facebook or Instagram or Twitter sites, subReddits, TED talks, apps, video-games, blogs and other online forums, digital TV programmes or news channels, online collections, virtual museums, SoundCloud accounts or other audio files delivered through digital means. Effectively any kind of digital communication platform that’s been deployed in the name of archaeology / heritage is open to review.

The intent of these reviews is to critically evaluate archaeologically-themed media with the same rigour as we apply to book reviews. We’re following a model akin to the reviews section of Internet Archaeology, with a concern for the full range of media being produced for public audiences about heritage/archaeology. Every issue will focus on a specific type of media: August’s Advances will feature a review of Minecraft applications at heritage institutions by Eleanor Styles; November’s Advances attends to online news reporting about archaeology, authored by Adrian Maldonado.

We are in the fortunate position of being able to offer authors a payment for their contributions – to be distributed upon final publication of the review in the journal. We’ve established a flat-rate fee for authors, so please approach me if you’d like more detail.

Following publication in the journal, authors can upload an openly-accessible copy of their reviews on their own webpages or other online profile (with credit to Advances in Archaeological Practice as the original publication venue). And we are amenable to any and all suggestions about types of digital media to review. I’m particularly keen to see a selection of impactful heritage-themed blogs, e-books, online collections, virtual museums, YouTube (or other) videos, podcasts (or other audio products), and mobile apps subject to critical reflection through Digital Reviews.

I’ve reprinted our author specifications, as outlined on the SAA’s webpage, below. As I’m now the Digital Reviews Editor for the journal, please contact me if you’re interested in writing a review, if you’d like to talk through possible review subjects, or if you know of others who we might approach to prepare future reviews. Very much looking forward to reading your reflections on archaeology’s various digital applications and otherwise building the presence of the SAA’s Advances in Archaeological Practice journal. I hope to hear from you!

Digital Reviews

Digital Reviews are 1500-2000 word assessments of digital media applications that have been produced to engage general and specialist audiences with archaeology and heritage. Going beyond standard book or exhibition reviews, these commentaries are intended to subject current initiatives directed at archaeology’s digitally-savvy publics to comparison and critical reflection. They might explore discipline-relevant blogs, YouTube videos, virtual reality or augmented reality applications, TED talks, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat sites, web-based crowdsourcing projects, online collections, video games, virtual worlds or other media of interest to wide markets. Review authors will provide constructive, professional and courteous – yet critically-engaged – appraisals of the content, significance and impact of these media. Each review should be oriented around a discussion of one, two or three medium-specific digital initiatives (e.g., mobile apps or virtual museums), briefly summarizing them, contextualizing them against one another (and against related initiatives), and offering thoughtful critique of their presentation, methods, objectives and emotional, physical and intellectual effects upon audiences.

Reviews should be written for a wide readership and at a level that high school students can comprehend. Authors are encouraged to reprint their reviews on their personal or professional webpages (giving clear acknowledgment to Advances in Archaeological Practice as the original publication venue), in order to broaden the reach and accessibility of the commentary. Reviews should (1) rigorously evaluate archaeology’s digital media; (2) showcase to readers the breadth and depth of relevant digital media production today; and (3) provide a space of comparison between – and critical engagement with – such productions to enable others to build upon them.

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Screenshot of some of my Master’s students’ medium.com shares on Twitter, using hashtag #yorkchm2

As some of you know, I’ve been experimenting this term with the integration of a new mode of digital engagement into my Master’s-level teaching at the University of York. The term has just ended, and the experiment has proven to be far more successful than I could have hoped. In spite of a couple of hiccups along the way, my students have authored a series of truly fascinating and thought-provoking heritage-related articles on medium.com. A background on the project is articulated here. The full range of publications (seven in total) is viewable here (or search for hashtag #yorkchm2). For those interested in pedagogy, it’s perhaps worthwhile to look at the background document first to get a sense of the rationale for applying medium.com. Among other things, I am limited to just 2 hours of in-class contact time per week with my cohort of nearly 50 Master’s students, so I have long been looking for ways to extend the classroom beyond its physical walls and logistical constraints. These publications represent one mode of learning and engagement that weave together with a series of other modes – both digital and analogue.

To briefly introduce the articles:

  • When is a museum not a museum but an experience? Read “Small Museum, Big Impact? Two kings, two gates, one city” – a lively discussion of two of The Jorvik Group’s visitor attractions by Noah Todd, Sally Toon, Celeste Flower, Natasha Anson, Katherine Anderson and Claire Boardman.
  • For an inspiring and entirely original application of the MuseumHack concept to the York Art Gallery, do not miss “Hacking the Gallery! How to Get Teenagers into Art” by Louise Calf, Katie Campbell, Meghan Dennis, Alice Green, Andrea Marcolongo, Benjamin Richards, and Inez Williams
  • For those keen on mobile apps, check out “Debates in app-cessibility: Is the use of mobile apps in heritage contexts enhancing or impeding?” by Gill Bull, Laura Saretsky, Jason Kosh, Amedeo Viccari, Veronica Smith, Aimee Hardy, and Olivia Morrill
  • If you are interested in innovations in digital exhibition and memorialisation, see Geneviève Godin, Valeria Cambule, Charlotte Jenkins, Ben Culpin, Alexander Mitchell, and Nadine Loach’s critical review of the fantastic Project Mosul: “A Digital Afterlife for Destroyed Heritage”
  • Have you heard of the estate of Park Hill? Interested in how to manage the many histories and values of contemporary urban sites? Then see the proposal “Park Hill: Past and Present” developed by Joelle-Louise Hall, Benjamin Gill, Joy Kemp, Caitlin Crosby, Hannah Page and Georgina Pike.
  • If you’re concerned about issues of access, and interested to experiment with extending the reach of already-known heritage spots, please check out the proposed project of Alison Edwards, Apoorva D. Goyle, Matthew Hargreaves, Aoife Kurta, Charlotte Roden, Helen Simmons, and Alice Trew, “Lowry’s York: Your York”.
  • And to witness amongst the most ambitious projects that I’ve ever seen developed and implemented in just a few weeks’ time, view and contribute to the exhibition #CurateMyLife – a full multi-media campaign launched by Lucie Fletcher, Emma Grange, Ana Paz, Margaret Perry, Ben Philips & Eleanor Styles. As the authors/curators describe it, #CurateMyLife aims to “help all generations of people to view heritage as a truly fluid aspect, which surrounds and encompasses every aspect of life, and, by sharing this personal heritage, it…help[s] to blur boundaries between different individuals and maybe even usher in new forms of educative liberalism and awareness of life, in addition to providing new inspiration for future exhibitions.”

I would be very keen to receive your feedback regarding this project overall, as well as regarding my students’ specific publications/responses to the project brief. If you can, please do comment either here (on this blog) or on the medium.com posts themselves. With a couple of tiny tweaks, I’d like to continue this experiment in the future, so your thoughts, recommendations, and constructive critiques will go directly towards informing its next iterations. Your input will also be combined with more formal evaluation data that I’ll be gathering with the students from next week, which I’ll then weave together alongside the official module feedback and share with you in future posts.

Thank you in advance for your help and interest!

Just a quick post to direct your gaze to the fantastic anthropology blog Savage Minds, as Colleen Morgan and myself are guest bloggers for the next month. In this capacity, we are coordinating a series of posts with some of our most inspiring archaeology/heritage colleagues, so pleased keep your eyes peeled. I’ve kicked us off with a reflection on recent work in Turkey, and we’ve already received some positive feedback.

We’d love to have you join the conversation! Check it out.

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.] This is the first in a series of posts, coordinated with Colleen Morgan, on the relations between analog and digital cultures. Over the next month,…

Source: Mobile apps and the material world

Some of you might know that I’ve spent the past three months in Egypt, living literally next door to the pyramids of Giza and working about an hour’s drive away at the site of ancient Egypt’s first capital city, Memphis (now partially covered by the modern town of Mit Rahina).

Until just two days ago, we weren’t able to speak in detail to the wider public about the nature of the project owing to permissions, but I’m now so pleased to say that my collaborators, Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), have just published our first press release:

and our generous primary funder, USAID, has used social media several times over the Autumn to hint at our activities:

There’s so much to say about the programme that we are running and the incredible history of the site of Memphis (it was the political and religious centre of pharaonic Egypt for thousands of years, the pyramids are part of its cemetery complex, it is the home of the Apis House (the only site of its kind! …where bulls were mummified as part of an elaborate ritual process), Alexander the Great sacrificed to the Apis bull and was crowned king here; it was long a tourist and pilgrimage destination for everyone from ancient Romans to Greek philosophers to antiquarian travellers, and it was ‘lost’ – no one could quite locate its remains – until just two centuries ago.

I’ll save more of the details for our collaborators to tell you about when we launch our webpages and social media in the future. In the meantime, if you’re keen for views on ancient Memphis, check out this impressive Facebook page run independently by one of AERA’s alumni. Also, make sure to learn more about AERA’s fabulous and long-standing research and teaching efforts in Egypt.

For now, I just want to briefly mention the fieldschools that we’re leading, which form one of the principal outputs of the project (and are a new addition to AERA’s portfolio). Herein, we are training Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and related Egyptology and museums professionals in archaeological site management, heritage interpretation, tourism development and community engagement. This training is an applied programme, delivered via a combination of lectures, classroom-based production, and on-the-ground development of Memphis as a tourist destination (including construction of a walking trail/interpretative route around eight of Memphis’ principal sites). Just yesterday, at the Ministry of Antiquities headquarters in the Zamalek district of Cairo, we celebrated the graduation of our first 32 Egyptian trainees and 4 Egyptian supervisors, who work at key heritage and cultural locations around the country. I was excited to see that one student, the excellent Shaimaa Magdi, invited her journalist friend to the event, so you can catch some of the diploma ceremony on YouTube:

and if you read Arabic, you can learn more about it all here.

What’s been the most special aspect of this project for me? Definitely my contact with Shaimaa and the many other Egyptians who’ve studied with me, my small team from York, and AERA. These students are truly the most wonderful human beings that I’ve ever encountered. They have touched me in a way that I couldn’t have fathomed, and I feel like my faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity has been affirmed by my interactions with them. I can’t say enough how much happiness, laughter, kindness and warmth they’ve shared with me. I looked forward to every day of teaching them because they made me feel hopeful for the future, and they made our many challenges seem slim and even manageable because of their individual and collective good spirit and generosity. On a personal level, then, I’ve been changed by them.

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Fieldschool 1 and 2 at Memphis. Photo by Amel Eweida.

But as I teacher I’ve been changed too. This is a direct result of my students’, AERA’s, and York’s shared eagerness to learn together, to revise and edit and rethink our outputs together, to challenge common understandings of heritage management, to work six days a week, at least 9 hours a day (and, on many days, up to 12 or more hours per day!!) on panels and guidebooks and websites and more, and to create something completely new out of a very difficult archaeological site that’s been virtually forgotten. It has been inspiring, and it’s profoundly altered my professional practice.

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Myself and Amina, one of the graduates of our first fieldschool, on graduation day – Tuesday, 15 December 2015. Photo by Ian Kirkpatrick.

Moreover, often on a daily basis, I’ve received the most touching feedback from the students – the kind of feedback that makes you cry with joy – that reaches right to your soul – that warms your heart and leaves you feeling empowered and capable of changing the world. I’ve asked permission from one of my students, the exceptional Sara Komy, to quote her words, because I would be lying if I said that the project wasn’t full of challenges, but it is the highs that come from these comments that instantly boost your confidence and motivate you in the face of difficulties:

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This message of Sara’s is just one of a series that have touched my heart, given me strength, and further heightened my deep love for Egypt. As you can imagine, even though I only flew home yesterday, I miss my students tremendously. Everyone should be so lucky to meet people who make you feel as if, together, you can genuinely transform the course of history and construct a better world.

I’ll leave you with a couple more images of all of the happy times that we’ve had together (and there have been many!).

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Singing together and enjoying the bus trip back from site with some of fieldschool 1.

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One of our supervisors takes an extra candy while on a break from touring Hathor Temple and Apis House at Memphis. Photo by Amel Eweida.

I look very forward to returning to work with my Egyptian collaborators again in 2016. I’m off now to catch up on everything I’ve missed here in York!

digiTAG

The Digital Theoretical Archaeology Group (digiTAG), launching in Spring 2016…

Alongside my colleagues James Taylor (University of York), Åsa Berggren (University of Lund, Sweden) and Nico Dell’Unto (University of Lund), I am co-organising a session at the 2016 Computing Applications in Archaeology conference in Norway at the end of March/early April. James, Åsa, Nico and myself have been working together for many years now, debating the philosophical dimensions of digital technologies for archaeological practice, yet regularly finding that the practicalities of these tools tend to eclipse meaningful critique of their implications.

Although critical conversations about computer applications in archaeology have a long legacy, it is usually precisely the applications of computers that become the central and overwhelming focus of discussion at our conferences, in our edited volumes, and often in our classrooms too. In contrast, how these applications intersect with larger local and global socio-politico-economic systems—

how they perpetuate or challenge structural inequalities—

how they contribute to wider patterns of consumption, excess, loss and waste—

how they are folded (if at all) into the institutional status quo—

and, so, how they shape not only our thinking, but our ways of being-in-the-world—are matters that habitually go unspoken.

The trend to value the technical above the theoretical is one that is seen across many disciplines, made worse by the fact that it tends to betray itself again and again as any new piece of gear is added to disciplinary toolkits. The CAA itself, with its moniker “Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology”, hints at the predicament, as applied methodology is foregrounded, and richer qualitative analyses of the digital are trapped on the backstage. Despite this, the CAA has consistently encouraged discussion on the theoretical implications of the ‘digital turn’ in archaeology and the heritage sector, and for more than a quarter-century now, a host of associated individuals has attempted to push back against any ‘atheoretical’ disciplinary tendencies (see, recently for example, Hacιgüzeller 2012, Huggett 2015, Watterson 2014, among others). It is with these efforts in mind that we launch the first digi-TAG (Digital Theoretical Archaeology Group) session.

Digi-TAG seeks to draw the power of the TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) enterprise – with its concern for sustained, engaged, collective and provocative theoretical discussion of archaeological issues – together with the CAA, the primary forum for the showcasing and discussion of digital technologies in archaeology. While digi-TAG is by far not the first manifestation of digital critique within TAG (e.g., Daly and Evans 2006, which emerged from TAG 2000), we see it contributing to a larger, lasting campaign of critical knowledge construction around digital archaeology/heritage that eventually embeds itself into standard practice. Right now, such critique still seems to be pursued at a limited, individual level, arguably thus circumscribing wider intellectual and structural change.

With these points in mind, we seek a small number of contributors to complement our line-up of speakers for the first digiTAG, to be held as a session at CAA in Oslo, Norway, between 29 March to 2 April. We particularly encourage junior academics – students and early career researchers from any part of the world – to apply. The full digiTAG description is below. Please submit 300-word abstracts (for 20 minute papers) through the CAA system by 25 October at the latest: http://ocs.caaconference.org/index.php?conference=caa&schedConf=caa2016&page=schedConf&op=cfp

We also welcome comments and queries by email, so please do connect with us. We are keen to nurture digiTAG into a long-term affair, hence we encourage your input and direct involvement in this process.

Hope to have you join us in Oslo next spring!

Theorising the Digital: Digital Theoretical Archaeology Group (digiTAG) and the CAA.

James Stuart Taylor (University of York)

Sara Perry (University of York)

Nicolò Dell’Unto (University of Lund)

Åsa Berggren (University of Lund)

Computing and the application of new digital technologies in archaeology and the heritage sector more generally have been advancing rapidly in recent years. This ‘digital turn’ is reflected in the growth and success of the CAA international conference, and in the emergence of a range of dedicated interest groups and associated digital outputs around the world. In concert, pressure has been increasing to situate the application of digital technologies within a wider theoretical framework, and with a degree of critical self-awareness, thereby allowing for rigorous evaluation of impact and disciplinary change. This is something that the CAA, as a nexus for the discussion of applied digital technologies in archaeology, has explicitly addressed throughout its history, and particularly in recent meetings, with a range of round tables and theoretically-engaged sessions that have proved popular amongst the digital community.

TAG, another well-established conference, with a long history of fostering progressive and critical debate in archaeology, has never explicitly aimed to address the various theoretical consequences of the digital turn. As such, this session seeks both to broaden the TAG family to attend to the rapidly-growing computational sphere of archaeological practice, and to work with the CAA to consolidate its own efforts to theorise and encourage critique and evaluation of the effects of the digital turn.

We invite participants to deliver papers that question, challenge, appraise and reconceive the epistemological and research-oriented implications of the digital turn—as well as its larger social, political and economic consequences. In short, what is the actual impact of the digital turn upon archaeology and the wider heritage sector? The session will culminate in a chaired discussion amongst all contributors, with a focus on both debating the future of the concept of ‘digiTAG’ and rethinking critical engagement with digital practice in archaeology and heritage overall.

Our 2015 team, clockwise from left: Ali, Ozgur, Laia, Katrina, Andy, Jenna, me, & missing Angeliki, Gamze and Ian. Photo by Jason Q.

Our stellar 2015 team, clockwise from left: Ali, Ozgur, Laia, Katrina, Andy, Jenna, me, & missing Angeliki, Gamze and Ian. Photo by Jason Q.

I write this post from the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, where me and my team have been working for nearly four weeks this summer in our capacity as interpreters of the archaeological record for visiting audiences. We are responsible for all of Çatalhöyük’s on-site interpretation—the signage, maps, guidebooks, brochures, Visitor’s Centre displays, and presentation of the replica house. We evaluate visitor experience; we’ve been developing mobile applications and experimenting with more embodied, sensual engagements with the archaeological record; and this year we’re redesigning the Çatalhöyük website, and have initiated a short-term social media plan (see the site’s Facebook and Twitter feeds; we’re running them until Monday).

Kerrie and Gozde preparing materials for the Visitor's Centre in 2014. Photo by me.

Kerrie and Gozde preparing materials for the Visitor’s Centre in 2014. Photo by me.

Most readers of this blog will know that I’ve been working at Çatalhöyük for seven (!) years now. It’s been a major influencing factor on my career trajectory and my personal development, so much so that I think it’s difficult to articulate the profound impact it has had on who I am. I don’t think I’m unique in feeling such—indeed, given that I am on site for just a few weeks per year, as opposed to 2 months or more like many of the rest of the team, I would imagine (indeed, I know) that others have been impacted on a deeper level. For me, personally, I would describe the experience as a seesaw of emotions—from deep awe to real heartache, from rapture to exasperation. Moreover, I’ve worked at the site through very turbulent times, across a period of massive change in the longstanding team, and I first came to the project as a student, unknown, with little experience, and wholly intimidated by Çatalhöyük’s legacy. My entire professional orbit has thus been set in place during my time here.

I would say that I’m regularly filled with reverence when I walk around the site. The phenomenal thinkers that you have the opportunity to interact with, and the intellectual landscape of the research programme here, are unparalleled. But more so, the archaeology itself—the art, the burials, the stacks of interwoven homes, the view down 20+ metres of excavated earth, spanning more than a 1000 years of continuous human occupation—is breathtaking. And if you’re ever on the verge of becoming complacent about these things, then you need only give a tour of the site to visitors. Through them – people who’ve travelled across the world to get to this remote part of Turkey – it’s easy to see Çatalhöyük anew, full of wonderment and countless questions about the intriguing nature of social and material practice in the past. It’s inspiring and hopeful – it reminds you of everything that archaeology (and life more generally) has the capacity to be: a powerful connector of individuals at a local and a global level; a trigger for curiosity across space and time; a prompt for consideration about the future (see the fabulous Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage project for another stimulating example); a provocateur of critical questions about what it means to be human, about all that we share among us, and about how humanity differs—sometimes nearly incomprehensibly—both at any given moment and between generations. By this account, archaeology, at its best, can be a transcendent practice, creating a space for diversity, for self-reflection, for marvel, beauty, cooperation, change, critique and forethought.

This is why it’s an irony to me that, on a human level, I’ve found the fieldwork at Çatalhöyük very challenging. These challenges play out both intellectually (see below) and emotionally. In terms of the latter, it seems ludicrous to suggest that one can be lonely whilst constantly (and inescapably) surrounded by 100s of specialists and other site staff. And yet, if you’re not attached to a well-established group, and if you don’t spend the full field season on site, you become a bit of a free-floater, searching for companionship amidst a crowd that has already solidified its relationships. I would say I’m one of those floaters, trying to bond with others, but often thwarted because of my affinity for close, private friendships, which are hard to establish or maintain with so many people around. As a consequence, one’s confidence seems regularly on the verge of collapse, and a feeling of isolation—compounded by the fact that we are already relatively physically isolated—immediately sets in and affects day-to-day existence. My experience on other field projects has not been as acute as on this one, I presume because of their smaller scale.

On the other hand, since I moved to York and have been able to bring my own students with me and simultaneously work closely with many Turkish tourism undergrads, I’ve managed to make some of the strongest bonds ever. Over my period at Çatalhöyük, I’ve been involved in the training of dozens of students, and I’ve watched their careers bloom, seen them move on to incredible life adventures, and been galvanised by who they are and who they’re becoming. These have been amongst the most satisfying of fieldwork experiences for me, at the same time as I struggle with the sadness of letting go of them and learning to rebuild myself with a new team every year. It’s that instability—that ongoing reassembling of oneself in the wake of the loss of what’s effectively your family, and hence having few or no close confidantes on a persistent basis on site—which takes the most toll on my spirit.

Intellectually, working here has always been demanding. I’ve given several conference papers on this topic, and I’m writing up two articles on the subject right now, but my teams have been attempting, since 2009, to implement and evaluate a reflexive method for heritage interpretation, using Çatalhöyük as the primary case study. One would assume this would be the perfect location for such research, yet it has been a constant struggle here not only to have heritage interpretation recognised as an actual epistemologically-productive investigative endeavour (see more on this here), but to be granted access, resources, time, support and true consideration for our ‘slow’ philosophy (akin to Caraher’s work), our bespoke approach, and our multivocal paradigm. Shahina Farid’s brilliant critique (her whole chapter seems to be freely available on Google Books – please read it because it’s a must-know piece on the realities of reflexive practice) gets at many of the issues we face – although she speaks specifically from the point of view of excavation practice. In many ways, I feel the whole field of heritage studies compounds our problems, because so much of it amounts to little more than caustic criticism with scarcely any concern for the practicalities of everyday, on-site labour, expectation management or resourcing. Duncan Light (2015:192) touches on these matters in his review of Russell Staiff’s (2014) fascinating book Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation: Enchanting the Past-Future when he writes:

But while Re-imagining heritage interpretation is a forensic critique of current practice, Staiff offers little in the way of a road map to interpreters about how they could do things differently (beyond pointing to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia as a possible model). Indeed, the author rather sidesteps the issue by stating that this book is not a heritage interpretation manual.

Anyone who has worked at a site which aims to impact upon tens of thousands of visitors per year, on a miniscule budget, with a tiny timeframe for execution, modest (or few) technical resources, and a small or fleeting staff, knows just how difficult it is to be true to one’s philosophical ideals—to be experimental, vulnerable, and critically demanding—while staying accountable and achieving the required deliverables. It is in negotiating these dimensions, and understanding how they fold together and can come into compromise, that I think the most productive (albeit arduous) heritage practice emerges.

Ibrahim, Ian, Sian and Flo handmaking an interactive exhibit for on-site display in 2013. Photo by me.

Ibrahim, Ian, Sian and Flo handmaking an interactive exhibit for on-site display in 2013. Photo by me.

Despite such challenges, I’m confident that at Çatalhöyük we’ve put in place a meaningful, replicable model for heritage interpretation which is true to the always momentary, fluid and flexible motto of the site. We’ve used a similar approach in our fieldschools in York, and I’ve increasingly been running short-term PhD courses internationally (I’ll be at the University of Oslo in September to lead students through 2 days of app development, and I was in Paris in April as part of the terrific DialPast programme) where I teach hands-on critical heritage interpretation.

Also, in September I will be taking up the reins of a new and incredible project—in Egypt. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to work in Egypt, and more than this, it’s been made possible by the receipt of my first major academic grant, which buys me out of some of my academic post and gives me the freedom to expand my practice, to learn from others, and to continue to bridge the gap between archaeological theory and method, reflecting on the real-world intricacies of heritage interpretation via a series of site-based fieldschools in Egypt over the next two years. As I wrap up one field season here at Catal, then, and prepare for new horizons beginning in September, I’m feeling heartened. This is due in no small part to my girlfriends Michelle, Laia and Sophie who’ve taken me under their wings while here at Çatalhöyük for the past four weeks and given me strength in the face of many challenges; to Ian K. who arrived a few days ago and has energised us all; and to my amazing students and team who’ve exceeded all expectations and have become lifelong friends.

Thank you so much for your support – including all of you who read this blog from afar and have been generous over the years with your kind words, constructive critique, and belief in the power of archaeology to craft a better present and future.

Yesterday I gave the closing talk in James Taylor‘s & Nico dell’Unto‘s session ‘Towards a Theory of Practice in Applied Digital Field Methods’ at the Computer Applications in Archaeology conference in Siena, Italy. Prior to my presentation I’d been feeling quite anxious about the whole affair, not only because of massive travel problems that led me to reach the conference only minutes before I was scheduled to speak, but also because it would be the first time I would formally vocalise many of my deep concerns about the persistent lack of criticality in contemporary digital archaeology.


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I was conscious of the polemical nature of my argument, the potential that I might offend some (or all!) of my audience, the possibility that I would be accused of hypocrisy given that I’m a great advocate of the power of digital (and analogue) media for disciplinary – and larger socio-political – change, and the chance that I might thus let down my great friend and colleague James (who, if you don’t already follow, you must: his field experience, theoretically-engaged mentality and methodologically-experimental work make him one-of-a-kind in the profession).

Fortunately, my talk went well – and, indeed, I was moved by the response I received from the audience, both in person and online. There aren’t that many occasions when I finish a presentation and feel like it might actually have made a difference to the audience – in fact, I would say a lot of the time it’s the opposite: I leave deflated, exhausted from the performance of it all, and disappointed in myself for the experience. But yesterday I was genuinely taken aback by the positive reception, and I’ve copied below some of the tweets that really impacted me–especially because they so succinctly and effectively captured the nature of my argument [and they made me smile :) ]. I’ll prepare my talk for publication soon, but as it touches on so many issues that I grapple with in my everyday working life, I wanted to blog informally about some of its dimensions here.

My professional expertise is in both studying the process and effects of—as well as experimenting with the creation, curation and distribution of—media for different archaeological/heritage specialist and non-specialist audiences. By media I mean everything from illustration and photography to film, exhibition, mapping, virtual/augmented/mixed reality apps, audio recordings, animation, etc. I make these media or teach others to make them (see examples here, here, here), or, most often, collaborate in their production; and I spend an equal amount of time making, teaching and collaborating in their critique and evaluation.

All of my most profound moments of learning have come about in navigating this boundary between creating and critiquing – because, done separately, they can both be highly satisfying and dangerously seductive affairs; but done together they are a reality check: they reveal both your own limitations and prejudices and those of your technologies of production; they expose all of the contradictions of the world around you (eg, the demand to achieve ‘impact’, but with no resources or budget; the expectation to create resonant experiences for your audiences, but shackled to the bureaucracy and the often inflexible accountability mechanisms of your employer); the deep frustrations of trying to inspire people without reducing yourself to superlatives, and while simultaneously trying to cultivate reflection and critical thinking. In this way, the process keeps you grounded: you never achieve the perfect output because your critique/evaluation always keeps you aware of the many small and large scale weaknesses involved in the practice, in your tools, and in the broader supporting infrastructures.

Some, I think, might call my speciality ‘heritage interpretation’, but as I said yesterday, I hesitate to use the term because I find it limiting and misconceived. While I have many criticisms of the notion of heritage interpretation, my major one is its lack of recognition that it can apply to both non-expert and expert audiences, as opposed to non-expert audiences alone. The frequency with which you’ll see heritage interpreters recognised as potentially meaningful contributors to expert-to-expert dialogue is negligible (or nonexistent). The entire profession seems to have been built up around the idea that experts do their own kind of interpretation – and, separately, non-experts need a special kind of approach that heritage interpreters must facilitate, but that field specialists have no need for and/or from which little obvious ‘expert’ benefit can be derived.

For this reason, I think, it is rare to find heritage interpreters embedded in primary fieldwork teams. They are almost always tack-ons to the end of a project producing ‘non-expert’ output after-the-fact, and even where photographers or illustrators or other creative producers are part of the field-based team, the opportunities they are given to act as more than mere recording and output devices—ie., to actually experiment with their creativity and push other field specialists to engage in systematised dialogue about how such practice changes understandings of the archaeological record—are rare.

In what I see as amongst the more destructive and unthinking developments in archaeology of the last 20 years, ‘cyberarchaeology’ has entered the scene, claiming to be able to offer “unprejudiced” representation of the past by enrolling digital media into a campaign of achieving more and more precision, speed, resolution, supposed immersion, and purported objectivity and “virtual reversibility” of excavation via totalised forms of recording. There is often reference here to ‘time travel’, or suggestions that it will enable ‘anyone’ to relive the entire original excavation experience. (For immediate confrontation with much of this rhetoric, search academia.edu for ‘cyberarchaeology’.) The language used is obfuscating—deploying the wow-factor to draw people into what I would argue is an unproductive, and in many cases fallacious, conversation about the revolutionary nature of the methodologies.

As I described yesterday, I believe there’s some obvious confusion here between the sense of presence, immediacy and control of the cyberarchaeological environment, and the embodied learning that comes about in uncontrolled settings where messiness, improvisation, active labour, exchange and conscious narrative-building are the norm.

Most tellingly, today’s applied digital field methods often tend to cut heritage interpreters (people like me) out of the workflow altogether. If we have any role to play, it’s merely to regurgitate the already supposedly whole and immersive record created by the cyberarchaeological method. That method seemingly has presentation and dissemination inherent within it (e.g., see Levy et al.’s 2012 (p.5) model)—captured via its visual and other technologies—so any creative work by interpretation specialists would appear effectively redundant.

But the problem, I would argue, with this model of practice is that it is dangerously blind to the true power of heritage interpretation—and to the capacities of the digital (and analogue) media themselves.

Anyway, I have a lot more to say about the dynamics at play here, but I’ll save that for future publications/debate, and I’ll cut to the chase of my 20-minute paper.

We’ve been experimenting with what happens when you forcibly insert heritage interpreters into the primary fieldwork context. Last year, supported by a generous grant from the British Institute at AnkaraAngeliki Chrysanthi, myself, and our visualisation team from the University of York and Ege University, in partnership with the international CHESS project, used a mixed analogue-digital storytelling methodology with the Çatalhöyük Research Project’s on-site specialists in order to develop a prototype mobile app for site visitors.

We’ve described that storytelling methodology elsewhere (online, open access) and variations of it have been trialled across multiple cultural sites—all to great effect, not least because of its impact on experts. Enrolling Çatalhöyük’s site’s specialists into the narrative-making process changed the way many of those specialists thought about their own research and practice. You can read about some of their experiences here, but the point is that it stimulated a different, productive, rich methodological and theoretical debate, as well as conceptual collaboration, between those who often do not participate in the ‘heritage interpretation’ process. I don’t want to exaggerate the impacts of the story-making activity, but the response to it was positive, and even described as ‘liberating’ by some.

In the end, my aim is to suggest that heritage interpreters have an important place at the trowel’s edge, not only because they mediate between it and external audiences, but because they can do so with specialist audiences too. Heritage interpreters’ specialism is in inspiring people, facilitating dialogue, working through meanings. Their skillsets are relevant to everyone—regardless of whether those people are experts or not—and they have especial relevance at that crucial moment, on the excavation site itself, when this inspiration and meaning-making is really taking off. To have them missing from, or voiceless in, the primary archaeological fieldwork context is to suffocate archaeological interpretation overall.

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