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.

Media – in the broad sense, as agents for doing/saying/sharing/conveying things – are a (if not the) primary means through which archaeologists come to enter the speciality, then learn how to do, think through, and communicate the discipline. They are the bridge not simply between academic and non-academic audiences, but also between specialists themselves. Media are often our first encounter with the field and with subsequent fieldwork output, so to consign their discussion to the conclusion (in the vein of an afterthought) or to pop culture (as if such a bounded and prejudiced category of humanity exists) guarantees that they will continue to be marginalised within the subject area.

It is no wonder, then, that media archaeologists themselves might not routinely turn to archaeology for insight. Archaeologists have often not challenged the flattened conception of their own discipline that circulates within both the archaeological and the media archaeological scholarship, and as such, there continues to be a need to robustly map out the productive, multi-stranded, impossibly entangled relationships between media and archaeology. In doing so, that map must attend to what media archaeologists are themselves scrutinising. This means asking questions about how archaeologists construct knowledge about media; how these media reverberate back into the construction of archaeological knowledge itself; how archaeological analysis can constructively contribute to media archaeologies, and how media archaeologies might themselves enable archaeologists to rethink their subjects.

Many have attempted to define ‘media archaeology’, and despite endless references to its impalpable nature (as an ‘indiscipline’ or ‘travelling discipline’ or a ‘mobile field’ or ‘variantology’, etc.), their definitions tend to rotate around what Cronin (2011) calls efforts to “excavat[e] forgotten, neglected and suppressed media-cultural phenomena, helping us to probe deeper into a culture’s canonized narratives so as to unearth: ‘discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation’ present in all historical analysis (Foucault 2002, 23).” Media archaeologists identify with a range of scholars, including not just Foucault, but Friedrich Kittler, Siegfried Zielinski, Walter Benjamin, and Marshall McLuhan among others. Their work, as Goddard (2014:3) writes, is effectively a playing around with these multiple streams of enquiry to achieve “a reading of both contemporary media and media history against the grain…a common rejection of dominant teleological accounts of media and technological history.” And, as per Parikka (2012), it often converges around four themes: modernity, cinema, Foucauldian histories of the present, and alternative/alternate/imaginary histories.

As is characteristic of all emerging fields, media archaeology has been subject to a range of critiques, generally centred upon its lack of a cohesive methodological toolkit and an intellectual eclecticism that spins it off in innumerable, often unmanageable directions. Barreneche (2013) describes it as a “rather slippery notion”, Nicoll (2013) as an enigma, Potts (2012) as loose. While many value this “anarchic status” – as praised by Shoback (2011) – suggesting that it is in such disorder that revolution and unanticipated discovery manifest themselves, others – like Goddard (2013) are clear about its faults: “it is debatable whether this in itself is enough to constitute a media archaeological project that is sufficiently systematic to warrant the term, rather than being simply particular or impressionistic.” This lack of systematisation is drawn out in various critiques, which question the methodological rigour of media archaeology and call for deeper consideration of, as Soon (2014) puts it, “what happens when the blackbox is opened.” Elsewhere, Goddard (2014:8) is necessarily critical about media archaeology’s common abandonment of linear temporality and temporal shifts, which “risks becoming only a series of eternal moments of invention…plucked out of the economic, social and technological modes of development they were embedded in and given a semi-eternal status as the great inventions of great men with an undisguised uncritical act of constructing media archaeological heroes.”

There is an irony in the fact that media archaeological work almost always validates itself through reference to its transdisciplinary nature—capitalising on the theoretical and practical toolkits of a range of subjects (e.g., see Huhtamo and Parikka 2011; Parikka in interview with Hertz 2010)—yet virtually never cites archaeology. At the same time, one does wonder if the same critiques might be applied to archaeology, particularly some of the recent archaeological studies of contemporary material culture, including contemporary media. Here we find that some of the methods are no more circumscribed than in media archaeology, and that there is often little evidence of systematisation of archaeological analysis of all media components, comprising their hardware (the material culture of the media object), their discursive content, their interfaces, and – if digital – their code.

Nevertheless, we find the void in knowledge cross-over between archaeology and media archaeology regrettable because, by our reckoning, archaeology has the capacity to flesh out many of the existing instabilities in the media archaeological framework – and vice versa. As Colleen put in it our talk last week at the media archaeologies conference, archaeologists are critically interested in context, what Marshall McLuhan terms a “galaxy or environment” — in the active processes that reshape people and technologies. Similarly, we have a range of standard tools in place to enable robust interrogation of such contexts. Moreover, archaeology’s alliance with the media archaeological framework has constructive epistemological consequences for both fields of practice. Such consequences are already hinted in the existing ‘archaeological media archaeology’ scholarship, including studies by Christine Finn, Cassie Newland, Rodney Harrison, Mark Edmonds and Chris Witmore (see Angela Piccini’s summary of these projects in the abstract for the Media Archaeology’s conference session).

One of the only literal excavations of media that we are aware of in the published archaeological literature is Moshenska’s (2014) excavation of a memory stick, brilliantly encapsulated in a self-authored comic strip (which, again, demonstrates the media-dynamic expertise of archaeologists), and documented in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology. During routine excavations, Mosheska’s team uncovered a USB stick 30cm below ground. They sent the stick to a University College London conservator, then plugged it into the computer and went through the files, noting that it was a mix of schoolwork, porn, and music, probably belonging to a male school student. As Moshenska writes,

“I predict that in the near future we will, by necessity, look to the specialist field of digital data recovery for skills, analogies and analytical concepts to borrow, just as we have already borrowed from fields such as forensic science and performance art… Archaeologists studying the digital world will need to draw on these [librarianship, archiving] fields of expertise, as well as the experience and abilities of computer scientists and data recovery experts, if we want to even begin to make sense of this vast and intricate body of knowledge.”

I would extend his comments to suggest that we can also work productively with media archaeologists, and they with us, because – in combination – these fields are well-poised to drive forward (digital) media theorising and practice. As Colleen outlined at our conference talk, amongst many things, archaeologists bring with them:

  • a rigorous methodology based in documentation, one that encourages and hones attention to detail, to mundanities, to careful, long term and systematic study of minutiae and the everyday via embodied process
  • an emphasis on recording observations through such embodied process (including drawing); as archaeology is a destructive practice, preservation via record is a priority
  • a focus on fieldwork, situated learning, and collaborative knowledge generation through team work, including extended periods of time over multiple seasons attending to a task via collective practice; this routine and familiarity provide a distinct depth of knowledge (sensory knowledge, historical knowledge, collective knowledge); such practice also appreciates that group participation and the valuing of multiple perspectives have greater value than independent approaches
  • a well-tested, long-term focus on material culture that has generated (or incorporated) tools such as the chaîne opératoire, typological analysis, ethnographic analogy, seriation, object biographies, experimental archaeology, phenomenology, and material sciences

And, for us, media archaeology is especially notable for its:

  • explicit, unapologetic concern for the interplay between past, present, future; its concern for critique, political commentary, and social change
  • valuing of play, performance, exploration, messiness, chaos; its willingness to embrace, rather than dismiss or supress confusion
  • overt efforts to decentre and defamiliarise common interpretations
  • concern for storytelling and narrative-building about media objects and media effects/affects

What is arguably needed now is a rigorous research design and adapted methodological toolkit to pull these fields together and provide a baseline against which similar studies in the future might be built, critiqued, shaped or otherwise positioned.

Stay tuned!

Archaeologists doing media archaeology: A Memory Stick in the Mud by Gabriel Moshenska
Archaeologists doing media archaeology: A Memory Stick in the Mud by Gabriel Moshenska (thanks to Gabe for permission to reproduce here)
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.

3 thoughts on “What archaeologists do: Between archaeology and media archaeology

  1. Interesting. But you do not appear to have addressed the question of what social purpose archaeology serves. If you can define a purpose to doing archaeology, one that provides a potential benefit to society (other than entertainment or general interest of the public), you will be able to define in quite precise terms the difference between ‘media archaeology’ and ‘archaeology’.

  2. Personally, I find the argument presented here both lucid and compelling. What I would like to do is expand its scope. substituting “anthropology” for “archeology.” It seems to me that the same sorts of questions concerning the relationship of academic discipline to media can and should be raised about all forms of anthropology. I must acknowledge, however, that I am riding my own hobby horse.

    It seems to me that my own subfield, social and cultural anthropology, has long been in thrall to the myth of holistic understanding, rooted in the image of the heroic anthropologist who finds an unknown people and learns all there is to know about them. But to imagine that a year or two of fieldwork in a place where our language skills are limited and our street smarts on a par with those of a toddler is enough to understand “the native point of view” (which native is that, pray tell?), let alone everything else that might go into an explanation of why the behavior we observe happens, is intellectual hubris. If we are honest with ourselves, we are all in a position similar to that of an archeologist who rummages through a midden and attempts to say something useful about the fragments of this or that found buried in it. We need every bit of context that other disciplines can provide (and, yes, I do include physical and social sciences as well as humanities). As Clifford Geertz observed in his introduction to Islam Observed, the value of what we take to be anthropological insights acquired in particularly, microscopic settings can only be tested in larger conversations. The discipline as a whole would be much better served if we all brought to those conversations those things that Colleen attributes to archeologists alone.

  3. Thanks so much for your comments. Jonathan – just to clarify, part of the point is that there is no difference between archaeology & media archaeology. They deploy similar questions and they have similar values at their core. Harrison, in his discussion of critical heritage studies (which I’ll draw on here, as I see heritage & archaeology as part of the same enterprise too) puts it nicely: “heritage actually has very little to do with the past, but instead emerges out of the relationship between past and present as a reflection on the future…[it] is not inert or passive, but has the potential to engage directly with questions of contemporary global concern. Thinking of heritage as a creative engagement with the past in the present focuses our attention on our ability to take an active and informed role in the production of our own future”(Rodney Harrison, 2013, Heritage: Critical Approaches, 228-229).

    John, yes, you’re totally right & in fact both Colleen and I were trained as four-field anthropologists first, so it’s an oversight on my part not to have extended the scope of the argument, as you suggest, to anthropology more broadly. I’d not thought of the direct parallel you make between the anthropologist as rummager through culture, just as the archaeologist (and media archaeologist) rummages through culture. I’d like to probe that further.

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