Join us to theorise the digital: Announcing the first 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:

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.

Blogs as exhibitionary media

My senior-level undergraduate course on Visual Media in Archaeology has been running this term—the second time I’ve taught it since I started at York in 2012. As per last year, my students are working on the production of independent blogs, and whilst I previously left the specifications for those blogs quite broad (the students simply had to tell a story about a subject of their choice), feedback from last year suggested that the brief needed to be more tightly focused.

This year, then, I redesigned the task to centre upon the creation of public blogging campaigns to promote objects, sites, archaeological features or figures of the students’ choice for an audience who would otherwise know little or nothing about them. As you can see, the students have taken a variety of approaches, and I am truly impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far, for reasons that I articulate further below. Some are using their blogs as modes of inquiry into larger archaeological and anthropological ways of thinking (My Student House, One Nation Under CCTV), archives (The Pursuit of Mitfords, The Wonderful World of Dahl), and intellectual and methodological practices (The Archaeology of Painting, Virt Arch). Some are exploring the characters of historic figures (Turpin Time, Diary of a Wimpy King)—and/or are constructing their own such characters in order to comment on and narrativise about material remains (The Cloud Man of Peru) or heritage sites (Legend of the Connacta). And still others are interrogating the histories of different buildings (The King and his Manor), towns (Toton Histories), museums (The History Shop), human material remains (What’s this Mummy Doing in Bolton?) and historic documents (The Bill of Rights 1689).

For some, this marks their first independent experience in doing class work that goes beyond traditional essay-writing. The project, therefore, has not always been easy, because live, creative production for the public, that draws upon more media than simply the written word, is exposing. Indeed, it is experimentation in the sense that Tim Ingold (2011:15-16) uses it: “to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors…[to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things.” As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that none of the students have experienced before.

But this project is important, I would argue, because to borrow from Darren Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. Especially as regards visual media, we are often only taught to deconstruct and critique other people’s outputs—a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of making. Ingold (2011:224) puts it nicely when he says that the “spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind.” In other words, to truly understand a type of practice—to truly see—we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because, as per Ingold, one is conditional on the other. It’s dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation—we couldn’t possibly carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.

I am very proud of my students, and I’m lucky to have such an engaged and engaging group to work alongside. I’m not sure that every teacher would say that they thoroughly look forward to their upcoming classes—but I do, because it’s never quiet; it’s never untimely or peripheral to current events; it never lacks in debate or informed dialogue. I hope you’ll consider joining in on our journey by providing your constructive thoughts on the students’ efforts and encouraging them with their projects by commenting directly on their blogs and associated Twitter and social media sites. These have been risky endeavours for the students, but it’s also opened up spaces for them to push their expertise further—to create, to do, to care. I’ve been at the American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago this week where Maria Vesperi (professor and editor at Anthropology Now) said it nicely: to produce for public audiences is how you learn–you write to let go. It’s in this release, then, that real knowledge-making happens.

You can access our aggregate site here:

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Newbury, D. (2011) Making arguments with images: Visual scholarship and academic publishing. In Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 651-664. London: Sage.

The thesis!

Sara's Thesis
Sara's Thesis, photo by me.

Wonderfully, I submitted my PhD a few weeks back &, amongst other things, am now preparing for my viva voce exam (aka my thesis defense).  I’ve posted below the abstract of my doctorate, in case there’s any interest in knowing what I’ve been toiling over for the past three years!  Here it goes…


Doctor of Philosophy


by Sara Perry

Archaeologists have long scrutinised the relationship of images to disciplinary knowledge creation.  However, to date, very little attention has been given to archaeological visual media and visual methods as generative tools.  Visualisations work to make things possible—income, infrastructure, status, security, ideas and expertise—and their shrewd application has significant consequences for professional development and conceptual/methodological growth.

The following thesis embarks on a micro-scale study of the mid-20th century establishment of the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) at the University of London to demonstrate the extent to which visualisation is embedded in, and accountable for, the foundation of academic archaeological studies in Britain.  Drawing on results from extensive archival enquiry and interviews, this research stands as an account of institutional development told not through the standard lens of biography or intellectual evolution, but through analysis of the strategic management of visual material culture and graphic performance (i.e., photographs, illustrations, models, display collections, TV, exhibitions, illustrated lectures and conferences).  It traces the early history of the IoA through a series of formative events from the mid-1920s to the end of World War II wherein visual media are mobilised to dramatic effect in the coming-into-being of scholarly archaeology in London, and in the post-war regeneration of British culture.  Particular attention is paid to the entanglement of visualisation in the IoA’s pioneering work on the first archaeological television programmes; the standardisation of archaeological photography; the acquisition and display of the Petrie Palestinian collection; the launching of one-of-a-kind graphic industrial/laboratory units; and the training of the earliest generations of accredited field practitioners.

This project is prompted by a desire to overturn two fundamentally unsustainable standpoints.  Firstly, visual culture tends to be fallaciously constituted in archaeology—and beyond—as a recent phenomenon whose origins stretch back no more than a few decades (conveniently coinciding with the rise of digital graphic production).  However as I argue here, calculated and skilful manipulation of optical media has a deep legacy, implicated in even the most basal levels of the discipline’s intellectual and organisational consolidation.  Secondly, visual representation as a sub-field of enquiry is often relegated to the sidelines of ‘legitimate’ practice—dismissed as ephemeral and unrobust, or irrelevant to the fundamentals of archaeology.  I counter such perspectives by outlining the rich and prescient history of critical graphic studies in the discipline.  I then demonstrate that savvy visualisation can, in fact, breed concrete professional outcomes for archaeologists, providing the infrastructure to develop and refine our methods, the cognitive tools to reconceptualise aspects of the archaeological record, and the commercial capital to sustain and propagate the field.

At once a chronicle of the IoA’s heritage and a testament to the power of visual media, this thesis situates imagery as a forcible actor in the struggle for disciplinary sovereignty and scholarly authority.  Ultimately, it speaks not just of the importance of visualisation to archaeology’s past, but so too of its potential for negotiating our future.