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.

MSCD_FS1 and FS2 Students Site Tour _10/11/2015

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.


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!).


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

MSCD_FS2_Students Final Site Tour_13/12/2015

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!


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.

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.