What archaeologists do

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.]

On Friday my colleague, Dr Colleen Morgan, and I will be co-delivering a paper at the University of Bradford’s Archaeologies of Media and Film conference in Bradford, UK. For anyone not familiar with the still-emerging field of “media archaeology,” this is an exciting event, featuring some of its pivotal thinkers (e.g. Jussi Parikka, Thomas Elsaesser), and a diversity of researchers discussing everything from 19th century stereoscopy to statistical diagrams and animated GIFs. As the organisers stated in their Call for Papers, the conference is a gathering of various interests, all converging on “an approach that examines or reconsiders historical media in order to illuminate, disrupt and challenge our understanding of the present and future.”

Colleen and I are talking on the last day, in the last block of parallel sessions, in a line-up of speakers who appear to be the only other archaeologists at the event. While I’ll delve into the details of “media archaeology” in a subsequent post, it is notable that archaeologists effectively never feature in this stream of enquiry. Rarely do archaeologists or heritage specialists attempt to overtly insert themselves into the media archaeological discourse (Pogacar 2014 is arguably one exception), and neither do media archaeologists typically reach out to archaeology for intellectual or methodological contributions (but see Mattern 2012, 2013; Nesselroth-Woyzbun 2013). Indeed, the media archaeological literature has explicitly distanced itself from archaeology, with the editors of one keystone volume writing:

“Media archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media—cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way. Industrial archaeology, for example, digs through the foundations of demolished factories, boarding-houses, and dumps, revealing clues about habits, lifestyles, economic and social stratifications, and possibly deadly diseases. Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations move fluidly between disciplines…” (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011).

I’ve been curious about this trend of archaeology-free media archaeology for a while now, particularly after attending Decoding the Digital last year at the University of Rochester (see Matthew Tyler-Jones’ excellent review of the meeting in two parts: I and II). At this conference, one of the attendees with an obvious media archaeological bent lamented the difficulties of studying abandoned virtual worlds wherein direct identification of human beings was essentially impossible (for all that was left in these worlds were fleeting digital traces). The implication was that few methodologies were available to negotiate this seemingly hopeless interrogative exercise.

However, to an archaeologist, the study of abandoned worlds is an everyday affair—and an exciting and hope-filled one at that. Our work is complicated by the fact that these worlds aren’t actually abandoned, but part of complex and ongoing histories of creation, use, reuse, discard, interference, reworking and appropriation. To manage these complexities, we have accumulated massive epistemological and practical toolkits, honed over centuries in collaboration with a variety of interdisciplinary agents—both human and non-human. I wondered, and I continue to wonder, why our toolkits thus wouldn’t be the go-to points for anyone researching such issues. I am suspicious that the disconnect here lies in the narrow academic appreciation of what archaeologists do.

My curiosity about these issues is further heightened by a lot of reading that I’ve been doing lately about expertise with digital media, the future of (digital) knowledge, and what it means to nurture intellectual change and experimentation. In his recent Theses on the Epistemology of the Digital, Alan Liu, in an attempt to provide provocative points of development for the new Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge, suggests that

“digital age humanities scholars should be encouraged to complement their dominant discourse with other kinds of discourse – including challenging collaborative work, difficult and innovative acts of data collection and analysis, and research outputs…that do not sum up in a critical/interpretive monograph. The other proposition is that…scholars should not be engaging solely in discursive acts at all. Instead, it is already clear in the field of the digital humanities…that a gestalt-shift is underway that recasts acts of discourse as acts of “making” and “building.”

Earlier in these theses, Liu indicates that “A key test for the proposed Centre for Digital Knowledge…will be whether it is willing at least on occasion to accommodate non-standard forms of knowledge organization, production, presentation, exploration, and dissemination acclimated to the digital age or open to its networked ethos”, and he concludes by noting that “Whatever the program, the goal is to engage the topic of what it means to “know” in the digital age in a spirit of serious play – at once disciplined and exploratory of new paradigms.”

By my reckoning, if such propositions are truly indicative of the future of (digital) knowledge, then archaeology is already at the vanguard, as this is exactly what many archaeologists do – and have long done. Indeed, many of our York-based projects have precisely these dimensions, including the recent Heritage Jam, our Heritage and Play sessions, and our annual Heritage Practice field school and Digital Heritage summer school.

By this logic, archaeologists are the prototypical media archaeologists—studying media (in its broad conception, as discursive and material means to a plurality of different ends/processes), inventing and tinkering with media to progress such studies, and skilfully deploying other media to circulate this work. All of the archaeologists whom I consider the catalysers of meaningful change in the discipline are savvy in these multiple lines of media scrutiny and management. I would welcome other examples to add here, but prime cases include Colleen and her pioneering PhD on Emancipatory Digital Archaeology; the research and teaching of digital humanist and archaeologist Shawn Graham, which are premised upon craftwork and nurturing expert capacities to create and experiment; ‘punk archaeologistsAndrew Reinhard (well known of late for the Atari Landfill excavations) and Bill Caraher; Katy Meyers (of Bones Don’t Lie) and Kristina Killgrove (of Powered by Osteons) whose engagements via blogging and linked social media have had profound reach and impact on a variety of publics; the quartet of archaeological specialists behind the long-needed TrowelBlazers site; Lorna Richardson, Jim Dixon and the Public Archaeology 2015 collaborative, who are collectively testing what it means simply to do archaeology, as they put it, “in ways that make meaning for others”; and Stu Eve, Guy Hunt and the L-P Archaeology team, where commercial archaeology, public knowledge exchange, digital experimentation and theoretical boundary-pushing coincide.

When media archaeologists advocate for an “archeological sensitivity” (Snickars and Vonderau 2012, 5) but without reference to the sensitivities that archaeologists themselves have refined over hundreds of years of practice, I do suspect a rather ungenerous academic rejection of (or, at least, an illiteracy in) our discipline. By the same token, when Colleen and I discussed the cross-fertilisation that could come about through knowledge sharing between archaeology and media archaeology, it became obvious that our methodologies might not be entirely legible to media archaeologists, nor amenable to certain artefacts (including many communications technologies) that should actually be standard units of study in our discipline.

Over the next few weeks on Savage Minds, in what we consider to be a style true to our conception of ‘media archaeology’ (developed in conversation between multiple people and things, focused on discursive and material enquiry into a specific media artefact, and elaborated through online mediated dialogue), Colleen and I will lay down a methodology for literally excavating media objects. We will provide further context on the nature of “media archaeology”; make clear some of the practices of archaeology that we consider to be unique to the discipline and deeply (although not unproblematically) linked to innovation and intellectual transformation; outline a research design, methodological tools, and a traceable procedure for digging into media artefacts; and then present for comment, critique, refinement and reconfiguration our preliminary efforts at the excavation of one such artefact: a discarded hard drive.

Alongside critical consideration of ethics, impact, digital labour, community, making and craft, this is a trial run at an archaeological media archaeology. We aim to complicate and elaborate our understandings of what archaeologists do, open up a conversation about the potentialities and promise that lie at the core of excavation, and invest collectively in the playful, energising, fundamentally collaborative practice that is archaeological fieldwork.

Archaeological media archaeology: excavating an abandoned hard drive
Archaeological media archaeology: excavating an abandoned hard drive (Photo by Colleen Morgan)


Sara Perry is Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye (saraperry.wordpress.com) and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

5 thoughts on “What archaeologists do

  1. Yes! John, that’s exactly it – heavily Foucauldian, with a range of other theoretical points of view used to elaborate and extend the approach. We’ll review some of these (and the related critiques of their application to media arch) in a blog post that I’ll put up in a couple of days.

  2. This is a fantastic discussion and I’d love to hear more about the talk you and Colleen are giving- will it be published/posted/streamed anywhere?

    Looking forward to the next media archaeology post!

  3. Hi, a very nice outline of the possibilities in enhanced dialogues and networks that I definitely endorse. When we wrote about the need not to confuse media archaeology with archaeology proper it was merely to underline to the broader academic field that media archaeology and its history is not a subdiscipline within archaeology. It was not meant to stop from developing fruitful projects where recent material culture opens to such multi-methodolgoical collaborations. There is a lot that both fields can share in terms of the understanding of the material that is often irreducible to notions of hermeneutic meaning or textuality.

    Within media archaeology, itself such a broad field, the work by my colleagues at Winchester School of Art has drawn on collaboration with our university archaeologists. New methodologies that archaeology and other interesting fields can offer are exciting; it gives sometimes more concrete research methods to top up the theoretical ideas in media archaeology.

    There’s prob. a lot to be said about the epistemological and ontological assumptions , and histories of disciplines, of both of these directions and lots of interesting ways in which the drive towards material culture irreducible to historical modes of narrative can produce something really interesting. Will leave this response short however, but with a thank you!

    ps. this is a great line: “to an archaeologist, the study of abandoned worlds is an everyday affair—and an exciting and hope-filled one at that. Our work is complicated by the fact that these worlds aren’t actually abandoned, but part of complex and ongoing histories of creation, use, reuse, discard, interference, reworking and appropriation.” (And a great paragraph)

    /Jussi Parikka

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