The heartache of fieldwork: The many vagaries of my practice

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.

Why are heritage interpreters voiceless at the trowel’s edge? A plea for reframing the archaeological workflow

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.


CAA2015.SaraPerry
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.

Visual Things and the EAAs

After a hectic month and a half, I’m about to head off again to put the final touches on my PhD thesis, so a brief blog update seems to be in order…  We returned at the end of August from three weeks at the phenomenal site of Çatalhöyük.  Several photos were taken of us while we were there for inclusion in an article that the University of Southampton is preparing on our work, and since most of those pictures haven’t made the final cut for publication, I’ve put one to good use here!:

Working at the end of the season in the North Shelter, Çatalhöyük, Turkey, August 2010. Photo thanks to G. Earl.

I’ll post a link to the article when its ready, and will provide info on some of our activities at the site as soon as our reports on the season are complete.  Generally, though, we have a very broad remit and have been attending to everything from the design and display of public signage to critical museum engagement and more theoretically-based visual critique.

Immediately upon returning from Çatalhöyük, I left for the European Association of Archaeologists meeting, where Katherine and I chaired a session on ‘Objects and Images in the History of Archaeology.’  We’ve received positive feedback on the content of the session, and from my perspective, there were a couple of very clear themes.  The first was a recurring tension in the illustrative archives (from sites around the world) between the production of an archaeological image as an end in itself, and the production of that image for more probative investigation of the lives and meanings of the depicted people/things.  In other words, there were repeated examples in our session of archaeological illustrators making pictures that were apparently not then exploited to understand their subjects.  Thus the pictures seemed, effectively, to terminate the analytical process.  Some of this tension was hinted at in Cathie Sutton’s interesting paper on the archaeological outputs of Edward Bawtree in 19th century Canada, wherein one draftsperson on Bawtree’s project was quoted as suggesting that her job was “to copy not to invent.”  So too did Justine Wintjes speak of illustrators striving to depict ‘what they saw’ versus ‘what they knew.’  Such statements made me wonder about the preconceptions that illustrators bring to their work; about how these affect (or are shaped by) the interpretive practices of archaeologists themselves; and about the dearth of biographical information on illustrators in the history of the discipline (many of whom were female; sometimes married to the field excavators/directors).

The second theme that stood out for me was archaeologists’ lack of knowledge of how new visual technologies have been introduced and absorbed into the field.  This issue was evident in multiple papers where novel media like photography or television were launched in a kind of explosive fashion into the discipline, only to then be utilised in what seems — on a superficial level — to be a fairly conservative manner.  There are interesting underlying questions here about what is and is not ‘revolutionary’ in terms of visual media, and how far—and with what ramifications—one can push the boundaries on archaeological representation at different points in disciplinary history.

Anyway, I’ve been left with much to think about!  On that note, I begin my research fellowship at the Society of Antiquaries of London in October, and hope to provide regular updates on my progress there.  A general appeal has been circulated to Fellows of the Society for any details on people’s past engagements with the artist Alan Sorrell.  We’ve had what I perceive to be a fairly significant number of responses, and I’d love to hear from others with information or recollections.  Adieu until October!