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.

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.

I’m so excited to be able to announce a forthcoming roundtable that Colleen Morgan, Laia Pujol-Tost, Kathryn Killackey and myself are hosting at the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) conference in Glasgow, 2-5 September, 2015. We would like to extend an invitation for participation to all of you in the archaeology and heritage communities who are grappling with questions around the nature and future of analogue/digital material relations. 

In other words, are you investigating issues at the intersections of the physical and the ephemeral? Are you enrolling digital technologies into the production of tangible experiences, or alternatively, aiming to better understand the digital through tangible forms of interaction? Have you eschewed the digital in favour of analogue engagements in your archaeological/heritage work – or have you rethought the dimensions of one via experimentation with the other? How are you materialising digital practices? And how is our very conception of materiality being reconfigured (or not) by analogue/digital innovation?

We seek reflections on how physical materials and digital materials are shaping one another, how these intersections are altering the unique dimensions of each, and how such work is shifting (or solidifying) human understandings of the ‘real’, the ‘thing’, the ‘fact’, presence, embodiment and knowledge-making more generally.

Given that archaeologists are understood as the experts on material culture and materiality, we want to dissect and anticipate how we contribute to conceptual and methodological discussions about the context of, continuities between, and technological changes to physical and digital artefacts.

We are in the distinctive position of being able to extend our roundtable beyond the bounds of the EAA, to engage the wider anthropological community prior to the conference. In August, selected short position papers will be posted on Savage Minds, the eminent anthropology blog, to establish and foment a broader discussion regarding existing and emergent media in archaeological interpretation. More detail on the nature of the position papers and their dissemination through Savage Minds will be circulated to participants following confirmation of your contribution to the roundtable.

Conference participation MUST be confirmed by 16 February, 2015, at the EAA Glasgow website: http://eaaglasgow2015.com/

For questions, email colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk

Roundtable Title: Analogue/Digital: Productive Tensions in Materiality and Archaeology

Colleen Morgan
Sara Perry
Laia Pujol-Tost
Kathryn Killackey

Due Date: February 16, 2015


As we integrate digital workflows into every aspect of archaeological methodology, it is increasingly apparent that we are all digital archaeologists (Morgan and Eve 2012). Yet archaeology has a long, productive and unfinished history with “analogue” media. Illustration, photography, dioramas, casts, paper-based maps, diagrams, charts and artistic renderings have all been – and continue to be – used to interpret and present archaeology to specialist and general audiences. Walter Benjamin argued that reproductive media destroys the “aura” of traditional artistic media (1968), and it has since been argued (Bolter et al. 2006) that digital media perpetuates a permanent crisis of this aura. As the premiere scholars of materiality, archaeologists can contribute to discussions of the context of, continuities between, and technological changes to these media artefacts. In this session we ask, in what ways are we using the digital in constructive interplay with the analogue? What can digital affordances reveal about analogue methodologies, and vice versa? And how are we pushing beyond skeuomorphic archaeological recording and rethinking the possibilities of media artefacts overall? We aim here to prompt reflective debate about, and speculative design of, the future of analogue/digital experimentation.

We hope you’ll join us! Please spread the word and contribute to the conversation (both at the EAA and on Savage Minds) by confirming your participation.

En route to Canada and the USA for my sabbatical: the start of 10-weeks of research leave.

En route to Canada and the USA for my sabbatical in late October 2014: the start of 10-weeks of research leave.

One of the greatest things about my job at York is the regular sabbatical opportunities that academic staff in the department of archaeology have available to them. We do not need to compete for these opportunities – we do not need to earn buy-out monies to fund them; they are part of our everyday benefits, accruing with each term that we work. I feel fortunate to be associated with a department that recognises, unconditionally, the value of research leave. It has been an important, cathartic experience for me; a necessary one that has had a deep impact on me both intellectually and personally. I wanted to share this experience with you, because in my efforts to prepare for it, I researched the process, hoping to learn from others’ sabbatical exploits, capitalise on the opportunity, and not let the time pass me by unmindfully. In scanning the literature for counsel, however, I found very little meaningful information to guide me,* and hence I went into my research leave naïve, with unrealistic expectations, and burdened – to a point of real anguish – by feelings of great pressure to perform. Below is my account of managing those feelings, readjusting my expectations, and regaining a sense of myself as both a scholar and a contented individual.

My first-ever sabbatical was due in January of 2014, but owing to my heavy teaching load in the spring/summer of every year, it was pushed back to the autumn. It has allowed me a 10-week period of leave that began in October, and is now effectively over as the holiday season begins and I look ahead to my normal pedagogical/administrative commitments that resume at the start of 2015. I created a week-by-week list of targets to meet, which – on reflection – was unreasonable, especially because it didn’t allow for any flexibility whatsoever: I had to output at a rate that did not account for any interruptions, miscalculations or added responsibilities. Consequently, I was almost immediately derailed.

I did manage to stay firm on my commitment to myself not to reply to non-urgent emails/requests for assistance; not to compromise my time by focusing on administrative duties that could be handled by others; and not to be discouraged when the inevitable sense of being disconnected from day-to-day affairs set in (see Bill Caraher’s reflections on this disconnection here). I also believe that I achieved a fair amount, although I have no point of comparison to use here nor any specific means by which to measure my performance. I’ll say more about these achievements in January, but they variously include four journal articles (one in press; two now out for review; one near completion), two grant applications, one fieldwork report, one magazine article, two co-curated exhibitions, two major conference presentations/academic sessions (in Chicago and Washington DC), one workshop for anthropologists, and a series of mentoring sessions for anthropology students. As well, I was confronted with multiple unanticipated and unavoidable obligations that presented themselves; some very energising: e.g., producing supplementary content for a major project bid that is now in the last rounds of adjudication; some perhaps less so: e.g., submitting a full draft of my academic CV for a routine professional task, formatted according to our university’s laborious requirements, including c. 35 separate sections of content. The CV alone took me 5 days of work and, honestly, was a rather deflating experience as 10+ years of accomplishment were reduced to a series of homogenised bullet points.

I had originally aimed for far more than what’s listed above, and it’s taken me a while to come to terms with the fact that I haven’t met my goals. The greatest source of tension for me here is a conflict between simultaneous feelings of underachievement and overexpectation—both seemingly self-imposed, but framed by a broader and insidious culture of relentless productivity that pervades academia. I’m perturbed by not having done as much as I wanted to do; just as I’m perturbed that I could have ever thought it reasonable to actually do as much as I wanted to do. I’m annoyed at myself; and, at once, I’m annoyed at the larger, enabling intellectual climate. (Although, as I’ll reiterate below, my department has been nothing but supportive; my concern sits at a much higher level.)

The roots of this conflict are complex, and arguably all-too-familiar to most of us, especially those of us who work in the British university system in the twilight of the REF 2014. I understand them to be tangled into what Mark Carrigan (with Filip Vostal) calls the “acceleration of higher education.” Carrigan’s recent blog post on the philosopher/cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek – “Life in the accelerated academy: how it’s possible for Žižek to publish 55 books in 14 years” (also read the post’s comments for critique) – hints at the dynamics of such stimulation, where Žižek is a “product of the neoliberal academy”—at once a brand, a commercial venture, a thinker, and a phenomenally prolific writer ripe for ‘metrification’. In this way, he seems to generate mixed feelings of wonderment, idolatry, impotence and futility among followers—feelings that, I would suggest, are familiar to many academics aspiring to succeed. We variously admire our mentors, strive to meet (exceed) their accomplishments, and struggle to reconcile these desires with sentiments of despair about their realities: the practicalities, accountabilities, personal sacrifice, duress and subjugations that accompany high-impact professional life. Borrowing from Davies, that life appears to be increasingly one of “managed unhappiness,” where audit culture and austerity combine into a kind of control economy. Herein, “one is never finished with anything” (Davies citing Deleuze) and is therefore left to endure a combination of what Davies variously calls “psychological torture,” “the feeling of earned failure,” and “suffering…through stress, guilt, self-blame, isolation from colleagues…reducing their desire to stick with it.” Of key concern (and arguably the goal of the economy itself), as he notes, is that “everyone has a limit regarding what they can tolerate.” The number of posts that I see on a regular basis which either question why one would ever enter academia in the first place, or which reflect on why one now needs to leave academia for other work, all seem to be wrestling with precisely these issues of control, competitiveness, un/happiness, toleration.

It’s important for me to say that my department at York has imposed nothing upon me for my sabbatical. Indeed, an incredible colleague and advisor (to whom I am greatly indebted) sat with me before I left York in late October and encouraged me specifically to stop giving myself away—to take the time to reclaim myself, my interests, my priorities and inspirations. It made me start to consider who I’d become since enrolling on my PhD programme in 2007. I’ll speak more about this in a future post, but – in thinking about how higher education has changed me – I was immediately drawn to the words of archaeologist Kate Ellenberger, who speaks of her graduate experiences as follows:

the first years of graduate school, I put every bit of energy, compassion, and power that I had into my education. I was determined to do well, and I did. I wrote, I read, I discussed, I taught, I sometimes even ate and slept…Unfortunately I also suffered the consequences of putting my all into school: I got burned out. I’ve spent the intervening time trying to avoid being exhausted and resentful of how my past self left my well-being on the back burner.

Be sure to read all of Kate’s post, because it’s a powerful one. It also resonates with something that a very important person in my life said to me before I headed off in October; namely, that I should spend time on my sabbatical learning to “be quiet.” That guidance—the idea of trying to train myself to be quiet—has really affected me. It’s affected me because I’ve discovered that it’s a surprisingly hard thing to master. But it’s also affected me in reframing my expectations of myself. In fact, I’ve taken these words to heart, and it’s meant that my sabbatical has become a transformative experience—beginning in angst, and ending in a state of calm that I would never have anticipated. It’s provided me with time, space and a kind of silence that has been healing for me. While I don’t want to overstate its effects, I do think the sabbatical has given me a perspective and a sense of purpose that I had otherwise lost track of. It is something that my department provides to me unconditionally, and in this respect, it gives me some hope that the control economy is not an inescapable, totalising phenomenon, but one that we can challenge, disrupt, push back against, or altogether eliminate.


*If you have constructive resources to share, please do!

GoogleGlassWe are hosting a Heritage & Play session today at York to test out & brainstorm about the possibilities of both Google Glass and Google Cardboard for heritage and archaeological practice. For those who have already used these tools and who would be keen to share your experiences, I’m making available our brainstorming document to you at this link. Similarly, if you haven’t used them, but have constructive ideas to share about their potential applications, do feel free to contribute your views. If you add your voice to the document, I’d be very grateful if you’d acknowledge your name, avoid deleting other people’s notes and otherwise engage respectfully with the document. And if you’re in York, please join us!

More details on the event are below:

The Heritage & Play group returns for a new academic year of fun, experimentation and socialising Wednesdays at lunchtime. The Autumn term launches with a session of demo-ing Google Glass and Google Cardboard & then brainstorming about their possibilities for heritage studies & archaeology.

Ever wanted to test out these new technologies? Now is your chance! All are welcome.

Heritage & Play: Google Glass & Google Cardboard

22 October, 2014

13:00 – 14:00

Room: K/159

The Heritage & Play group is an informal meeting organized by Colleen Morgan, Sara Perry and Gareth Beale to creatively experiment with cultural heritage and expression. Each meeting is loosely structured around a topic, theory, or making session, but focuses on Play as a productive means to engage with heritage in new ways.

This week’s topic: Google Glass & Google Cardboard Demo & Brainstorming Session: How might we apply these tools to archaeology? 

During this week’s Heritage & Play, we will demo Google Glass, & build and demo Google Cardboard, and then engage in an extended, collaborative digital brainstorming session about their potential applications to archaeological andheritage practice. We’ll use Google Draw & Google Docs to facilitate the brainstorming, accessible via this link.

Bring your curiosity, your tablet, laptop or smartphone (if you have one – if not, just bring yourself), & your lunch.


Colleen Morgan and I have posted our last Savage Minds blog on our archaeological media archaeology project. Please check it out – if for no other reason than to see Colleen’s Harris Matrix of a hard drive. For us this is just the first stage of a longer research endeavour, and I hope you’ll stay tuned to our progress on our own web profiles & related publications.

We’ve had a nice number of shares of our method (thank you so much!), and we’re very keen now for feedback: who else is doing such work? what other disciplines are engaging with related questions of potential relevance to us? what have we missed? what data would you like to see collected? what questions would you have asked of the hard drive? which other professionals outside of archaeology/anthropology might be keen to discuss refinement of this programme of investigation?

We’ve been so pleased with your support & interest, and we hope to keep up the conversation as we move on to the next phase of our investigations. Thank you!

MAD-P Harris Matrix

MAD-P Harris Matrix by Colleen Morgan

Colleen and I have just published the research design for our media archaeology project on Savage Minds. MAD-P – The Media Archaeology Drive Project – is indebted to our colleague Neil Gevaux, who has helped us to secure the materials at the core of our studies. Your comments on the design are so much appreciated, and stay tuned for our forthcoming posts on the recording, analysis and interpretation of our field site: a found hard drive. Read more here: http://savageminds.org/2014/09/22/media-archaeology-drive-project/

MAD-P documentation

MAD-P documentation (Photo by Colleen Morgan)

Colleen and I have recently posted the second instalment in our series on archaeological media archaeologies to the Savage Minds blog. Here we explore the intersections between the disciplines of archaeology and media archaeology, point readers in the direction of current archaeologists and heritage specialists who are already engaging to some extent (often implicitly) with each, and then make overt the features of these disciplines that we believe to be particularly relevant to crafting robust futures for the analysis of media artefacts.

As we were joking with some of our close friends and colleagues, it seems an irony to be posting this blog entry simultaneous with an incident that we’ve had at the European Association of Archaeologists’ conference where much digital media was subject to burglary. But if nothing else, we’re carving out a method here to begin to deconstruct these media’s histories when/if they are recovered!

Read the post here: http://savageminds.org/2014/09/13/what-archaeologists-do-between-archaeology-and-media-archaeology/

Archaeologists doing media archaeology: A Memory Stick in the Mud by Gabriel Moshenska (thanks to Gabe for permission to reproduce here)

Archaeologists doing media archaeology: A Memory Stick in the Mud by Gabriel Moshenska (thanks to Gabe for permission to reproduce here)


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