All posts 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 ( and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

Mobile apps and the material world

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.]

Ҫatalhӧyük, 2015
Testing of mobile app prototype with users at the archaeological site of Ҫatalhӧyük, Turkey. Photo by Sara Perry, 2015.

This is the first in a series of posts, coordinated with Colleen Morgan, on the relations between analog and digital cultures. Over the next month, through the contributions of a variety of archaeologists, we will explore the concept of materiality in an age where the nature of ‘the material’ is rapidly shifting. How do physical materials and digital materials shape one another? How does experimentation with the digital rethink the dimensions of the analog, and vice versa? How, if at all, do we distinguish between one and the other – and is this even necessary (or possible) today? How have our understandings of ‘the real’ – of ‘things’ and ‘facts’ – of presence and the body – of aura and authenticity – been shifted by interactions between physical and digital materials?

As the premiere scholars of materiality, archaeologists are well-versed in the continuities between, and changes to, artifacts. Here, we probe their boundaries through discussion of our engagements at the intersections of the analog and the digital. I begin with some critical comments on mobile apps: oft enrolled in visitor experiences at archaeology and heritage sites, are these digital tools actually valuable?

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Ethics, Visual Media and the Digital

As c.10,000 anthropologists descend upon Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological Association conference, my colleague Jonathan Marion (University of Arkansas) and I, alongside an international cadre of researchers, have joined a long-standing conversation about the relationship between digital cultures, visual media and ethics that will fully manifest on Saturday, but that exists online in multiple forms too (more below). That conversation is a complicated one, known to induce frustration, confusion, feelings of helplessness, despondency and, at times, defiance among those who engage in it. By this I refer to the business of negotiating (1) the ethical implications of our own research programmes, (2) the experience of formal ethical review, and (3) ethical issues borne out of the everyday actions of our communities of study. Such ‘business’ is seemingly made even more complicated when digital and visual media are brought into the fold.

Indeed, more than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure – are arguably more conspicuous now than in 2003. Today, their complexities appear to be extending as digital interactions themselves extend, and the consequence is an inevitably fraught landscape of practice with debatable outcomes.

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What archaeologists do: The site report & what it means to excavate a hard drive

Colleen Morgan and I are wrapping up the first chapter of MAD-P (Media Archaeology Drive Project), an experiment in extending archaeological method into the systematised analysis of media objects. This project began as a provocation — intended to prompt reflection (both within and beyond the discipline) on the place of archaeology in the wider media and cultural studies landscape. That provocation has exposed, we think, an obvious gap between what we do as anthropologists and what we could do, and the space that archaeology might occupy in variously exploring the past, exposing the present and anticipating or shaping the future. Our modest excavation of an abandoned hard drive hints at what happens when the taken-for-granted aspects of media products are subject to step-by-step archaeological recording. Such an investigative process draws your eye immediately to both the material and the discursive, to the layered nature of each, and to the impossibly entangled and slippery interconnections amongst them. The individual material constituents of the artifact, their assemblage, the labour behind their composition, and their various manifestations in both computer code and in complex virtual spaces are made obvious. Indeed, as discussed below, the entire concept of an artifact is destablised in such work. From our perspective, the productivity of such a project should not be underestimated in terms of its potential both to critique the past and to speculate about possible futures.

To facilitate MAD-P as a whole, Colleen prepared context sheets, using as a model those employed at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük. We recorded by hand and photographed or screenshot all elements of our process. We also kept an associated set of notes — perhaps the equivalent of a field diary, but logged electronically and as a combined output, weaving together observations that we’d made in dialogue with one another. Following the excavation, Colleen set about writing our archive report, a structured review of our field site, findings and interpretations, which we present here.

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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… Continue reading

What archaeologists do: Between archaeology and media archaeology

Archaeologists and antiquarians have been innovators, assemblers, critical interrogators, and remakers of media and media technologies for at least 500 years. Their outputs have been drawn into broader programmes of social theorising about modes of engagement, and they are often pioneers in the application of new media. While there are many people studying and broadcasting about these issues today – including a growing number of excellent blogs that deal directly or indirectly with the topic: see Digital Dirt|Virtual Pasts, Anarchaeologist, Prehistories, Archaeology and Material Culture, All Things Archaeological, Digging Deeper, Reimagining the Past, Rust Belt Anthro, in addition to some of the sites I highlighted in my last post), there still seems to be a conspicuous need to point out that this is not an uninterrogated subject matter.

There are a series of factors that I think contribute to this predicament wherein archaeology is simultaneously recognised as both highly and hardly theorised in terms of its mediation. I’ve discussed it elsewhere, but media studies tend to be relegated to the last chapter of archaeological textbooks, to little more than a single sentence of acknowledgement in other manuscripts, or to a discussion curtailed around only a few select modes of mass communication (i.e., film, television, the web). Where it does have presence, it’s often collapsed into a focus on “the public”, generating analysis that gravitates around popular culture alone.

But this situation is contradictory and fundamentally nonsensical.

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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.

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Digital media and the everyday abuse of working adults

I live a lot of my professional life online. I’ve been running a personal research blog for over 5 years now, where I often post quite frank discussions of my experiences as a new academic. I have active scholarly Twitter, Youtube and Google Plus accounts. I teach my students to use Twitter, YouTube, Blogger, Google Hangouts (among other social media) in class, and I run workshops where I teach my colleagues and other professionals to use these same tools effectively in their working lives.

So not only is my own professional identity quite exposed, but I’m also engaged in training others to make their identities equally—if not more—exposed. I do this because I am very familiar with the productivity of digitally-mediated communication. These media make possible relationships, idea sharing, knowledge making and forms of epistemological change that are exceptional. And yet they can also be deeply dangerous—something that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last two years.

In 2011, just as I was finishing my PhD, I began to receive a series of private messages focused on my sexuality and appearance sent to my email and other personal online accounts direct from professional acquaintances of mine based at various institutions around the world. These tended to be detailed, fantasy-like descriptions, sometimes accompanied by photographs. There was no debate about the inappropriateness of such messages: they were explicit, sometimes verging on the perverted, often concerned with my physique and dress, or with asking me for certain favours which ranged from ‘cuddling’ with them to baking them cakes in recompense for their paid professional contribution to my academic projects.

I was so embarrassed about these communications and so confused about how to reply that I ignored them for nearly two years. However, when the fifth professional acquaintance of mine began to do the same to me in 2012, but this time on a more aggressive and persistent level, I responded by doing what I know best: investing in research on the topic.

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The travels of a head

Last year I contributed to the Wellcome Collection’s Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition, an examination of how brains have variously been collected, manipulated, used and abused by different bodies for different purposes across time and space. The exhibition (in its London showing, 29 March – 17 June 2012) saw around 105,000 visitors, and in the vein of most Wellcome productions, did not shy away from provocative displays and potentially controversial activities (e.g., the ‘hands-on’ Brain Jar public demonstrations).

In seeking out possible items to feature in Brains, I was reminded of a story that I’d heard during my PhD research about the head of the pioneering British archaeologist and anthropologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Labelled the “father of scientific archaeology” (Sheppard 2010) for his significant (if very contentious) roles in defining field methodology and in shaping archaeological practice and collecting activity in Egypt and Palestine in particular, Petrie was said to have donated his own head to the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) in London. Indeed, with some investigation (see Simon Chaplin’s contribution to Ucko 1998; Silberman 1999), it became clear that upon his death in 1942 in Jerusalem, Petrie’s body was buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion, and his head returned to England with the express purpose of processing it in order to add his skull to the teaching and research assemblages at the RCS.* But, what is critical for my purposes is that the head was never processed as per Petrie’s wishes.** Despite documented consent from Petrie for the use of his skull in the RCS collections, such consent has never been abided by, and his full head still stands off-limits today in the RCS’s laboratories. Continue reading

Creativity, Intellectual Freedom & the Field School

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.

I have spent a significant portion of the past 1.5 years designing and implementing a series of new courses for archaeology and heritage undergraduate and graduate students at my university. By far the most challenging of these experiences has been the creation of a nine-week field school for first-year undergrads enrolled on our BA in Heritage Studies—a programme intended to mirror the standard field school that archaeology-specific undergrads are obliged to complete. This topic is an interesting one for me not because of the difficulty of launching and directing such a course. Indeed, anyone who has led a multi-collaborator fieldwork project will be intimately familiar with the many logistical, conceptual, economic, emotional, physical and related challenges—although locating frank reflections upon these challenges is not necessarily an easy feat (but see Colleen Morgan’s blog posts on Archaeological Field Schools & Management Styles and Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field; also, if you have institutional access, see Harold Mytum’s 2012 Global Perspectives on Archaeological Field Schools).

Rather, what proved most problematic from my perspective was negotiating the creative tensions and partialities that the field school exposed between the different parties involved in its execution. This proved to be a struggle between, on the one hand, enabling students to freely and meaningfully do their own innovative interpretative work, and, on the other, managing professionals’ (e.g., established academics’) expectations about the analysis and presentation of the project data. The problem seemed to revolve around matters of control, trust and opening up the intellectual process to genuine intervention by new contributors—that is, students.

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