What archaeologists do: Research Design and the Media Archaeology Drive Project (MAD-P)

For the past two weeks, Colleen Morgan and I have been outlining the background to an actual “media archaeology” project wherein we extend the intellectual and methodological toolkit of archaeology into the study of media objects (especially, digital media objects). The impetus for this project is outlined here, and the theoretical context here. Having set up the framework, we delve now into our actual research programme, which we affectionately refer to as MAD-P: the Media Archaeology Drive Project.

As our aim here is to model good practice, and to benefit from the collective intelligence of Savage Minds, we present below the project research design for constructive critique. In brief, we’ve excavated a found hard drive, and while in the next post we’ll document for you our process, our written and photographic records (stay tuned for a Harris Matrix), and our interpretative outputs, here we detail the nature of our field site and field method, ethical engagement with our excavation, and sustainability/access to our data.

Colleen is the principle author of this research design, and it’s important for me to say that I’ve learned much through my collaboration with her. As someone who has spent the past 10 years outside of the excavation trench, it was very meaningful for me to jump back in—using single context recording no less!—with Colleen as my guide. Here is the project whose results you’ll see reported over the next week on Savage Minds…

Media Archaeology Drive Project (MAD-P): Research Design

MAD-P Staff


Hard disk drives have been used to store data of all types since their introduction by IBM in 1956. Since that time, hard disk drives have gotten progressively smaller and less expensive, thus integrating them into the daily life of most people in industrialized nations. Even as they have become pervasive in daily life, they are rarely visible until they stop functioning, sometimes resulting in a catastrophic loss of data. The term “Data Archaeology” has been created to characterize both the attempt to recover data after the failure of a hard drive and to investigate obsolete data formats. Similarly, the term “Digital Archaeology” is used to characterize the investigation of old, out of date websites, and the growing body of digital practice in archaeology. Until recently there has been relatively little overlap between these fields (Law & Morgan 2014; Pogacar 2014).

The MAD-P team has targeted the hard drive for an investigation into the connections between Foucauldian media archaeologies and archaeological practice as understood by archaeologists. From this investigation MAD-P hopes to realize the potential for an “archaeological media archaeology,” with this excavation prompting critical examination of both fields. There are several key questions that prompt the excavation of a hard drive: is an archaeological fieldwork methodology useful for understanding the contents and structure of a hard drive? Can archaeological methodology be adapted in a way that is useful for media archaeologists? What does the archaeological investigation of a hard drive tell us that a more historiographical approach cannot? Can the excavation of a hard drive build on the previous work of contemporary archaeologists that productively makes the familiar unfamiliar (Buchli and Lucas 2001)?

To address these questions we have designed a program of research that addresses a single hard drive, with the potential to expand the project into other hard drives, but also into other forms of media archaeology. In this document, we provide the background of this work, describe the history and context of our field site, detail our field methodology, and then discuss the future of MAD-P investigations.


MAD-P was conceived as part of an ongoing series of collaborations between digital archaeologists at the University of York (UK). The University of York has cultivated a network of digital archaeologists through a series of initiatives. As the home institution of both Internet Archaeology, an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal, and the Archaeological Data Service, which has supported archiving of archaeological data since 1996, the Department of Archaeology at the University of York has been involved in digital archaeology on an institutional level for nearly 20 years. More recently the Centre for Digital Heritage was founded in 2012 as an international collaborative venture, with an annual conference, field school, and funds for start-up initiatives.

In this context, MAD-P was conceived as a project that would explore the boundaries of digital archaeology, and test the utility of materials-based archaeological excavation for understanding media archaeology.

History and context of our field site

After consulting with Neil Gevaux, the Department of Archaeology Computer Officer, we identified several potential hard drive candidates for excavation. As we were interested in the contents of the drive, we requested a working hard drive that had been rendered redundant. We selected a 40GB Samsung Hard Drive, model SP0411C. The hard drive had been made in Korea in September of 2004, and bought by the archaeology department shortly after. At the time of purchase, 40GB was a relatively small amount of storage space as 80 and 160 GB drives were readily available, and a 500GB drive was available by 2005. The drive cost about 50 USD. It is unknown if it was bought as part of a pre-assembled computer or on its own. Since the time of purchase, the history of ownership of the hard drive has been lost.

That the history of the hard drive had been lost was ideal for us, as MAD-P wanted to approach the hard drive as an unfamiliar landscape; as Buchli and Lucas suggest, alienation from familiar objects exposes the transgressiveness of archaeology, an “almost perverse exercise in making familiar categorisations and spatial perceptions unfamiliar – a translation from an everyday perceptual language into an archaeological one” (2001, 9). The drive had been rendered obsolete after a decade and had been discarded.  Archaeologies of consumerism incorporate “all aspects of consumer societies – political, religious, educational, legal, leisure, economic, aesthetic, and so on” (Majewski and Schiffer 2001, 27). As such, these categories will be examined in our final report.

Field Methodology

MAD-P documentation (Photo by Colleen Morgan)
MAD-P documentation (Photo by Colleen Morgan)

The excavation of this hard drive will be modeled on the Museum of London Archaeology recording system. This recording system follows the single context planning system which records each stratigraphic “event” in sequence. Each of these events is given a context number, photographed, recorded in a standardized form, drawn by hand, and then removed to reveal the next event.

Without knowing the full extent of the data stored on the hard drive, MAD-P decided to employ a sampling strategy that involved following folder structures of the hard drive, drilling “down” through the layers and recording the contents of a single set of folders on the drive. Preliminary investigation revealed that the drive was relatively unpopulated, so we were able to select a sequence of folders that offered a greater “depth” of deposited data.

MAD-P Recording
Sara working on MAD-P recording (Photo by Colleen Morgan)

After the folder structure has been explored through this selective sample, MAD-P will commence the physical excavation of the hard drive, disassembling it piece-by-piece. As this is an irreversible process, Neil Gevaux attempted to back up the hard drive to preserve any data, yet permissions on the drive prevented the storage of some material. After consideration, MAD-P decided to follow through anyway, as this irreversible process more closely reflected the affordances of archaeological methodology as a destructive investigation.

Each component of the excavated drive will be appropriately labeled and stored for further analysis. A future repository for both the excavation material and the archive has not yet been determined, but they are currently in locked storage at the University of York.


The investigation of this hard drive had the potential to reveal inappropriate or indiscreet information about students or colleagues in the department; even were it not so, a discussion about the ethics of research is a necessary component to an archaeological research design. Hard drives can hold vast quantities of personal information that could be used for fraudulent or hurtful activities, as well as more indirect information, not intended for public scrutiny, that could be wielded with deleterious consequences for a variety of audiences. While these are potentially interesting for archaeological enquiry, connecting these activities to individuals was not a desired outcome of this research. This marks perhaps the greatest deviation of digital archaeological practice from data archaeology, as the specific information is not necessarily as interesting as the configuration of these data.  As such, MAD-P decided to (1) avoid disclosing the identities of the drive owners if there was personal information available on the drive, (2) inform any identifiable individuals of this research, and (3) give these individuals the option to remove themselves from this research.

Future investigations

After the results from the current MAD-P investigations are fully reported, further inquiry into hard drive archaeology may involve excavations of additional hard drives. The MAD-P team would very much like to involve a more multidisciplinary team, including engineers, hard drive recovery specialists, and media archaeologists to fully investigate the social context of the hard drive. As these excavations continue to proceed, we will fully document the process and make the archive available for other researchers, and we urge that future work be made available in the same way. At this stage we will employ a Creative Commons Attribution license, to encourage the broad dissemination and re-use of this research.

MAD-P Recording (2)
Colleen working on MAD-P recording (Photo by Sara Perry)



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.

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