A Tempest in a Digital Teapot


It was hot, but that was not unusual. We woke up at the first call to prayer to be on site at sunrise. I would trudge through the dimly-lit streets of the village, up to the ancient tell, and sit next to my trench until I had enough light to see my paperwork. The cut limestone went from dull gray, to a rosy pink, then that brief and magical moment called the golden hour, when the archaeology would become clear and beautifully lit and I would rush around trying to take the important photos of the day. Then the light would become hard, white-hot, and often over 100F. By lunchtime all of the crisp angles of the limestone would disappear into a smeary haze, hardly worth bothering with a camera. Photographs of people were impossible too—everyone was dusty, hot, irritable, half in shadow under hats, scarves.

I picked up my camera and climbed out of the Mamluk building I was excavating, on my way down the ancient tell of Dhiban and back up the neighboring tell of the modern town of Dhiban. As I walked between the Byzantine, Roman, Nabatean and Islamic piles of cut stone, a faint trace of smoke made me hesitate, then come off the winding goat path. Two of the Bani Hamida bedouin who worked with us on site were stoking a small fire on the tell. While making fires on the archaeology was certainly not encouraged, the local community had been using the tell to socialize for a long time. I greeted the men and they invited me to sit and have qahwa, a strong, hot, sweet, green coffee served in many of the local hospitality rituals and customs. I refused once, then twice, then looked over my shoulder at the vanishing backs of my fellow archaeologists, on their way to breakfast. Then I accepted a cup. But first, I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo.

When I’m feeling ornery, I tell people that I wrote a whole chapter of my PhD thesis about a photograph of a teapot. Even worse, a digital photograph of a teapot. And it’s not really a teapot, it is a coffeepot, perched on a small twig fire on top of a tell heaving with archaeology, and tended by these two men, Atif and Zaid, who did not want to be in the frame. They are represented by two slightly blurry sticks, hovering in the foreground, a present absence. The photo isn’t even all that good.

See, in my thesis (Emancipatory Digital Archaeology) I was working through what digital artifacts do in archaeology. What does it mean to take a digital photograph of a pot sherd, a woman swinging a mattock, a teapot coffeepot in the desert sun? How is the analog-turned-digital moment mobilized to create archaeological understanding? Can a virtual reality model of a Neolithic house change the way we understand the past, and, can we start making these things, these digital ephemera, in a better way, to create a more participatory, multivocal, craft-based archaeology?

A tall order, right? Especially running headlong into archaeology’s hot mess of colonialism, imperialism and nationalism, oftentimes burned into celluloid next to ancient monuments. Yeah. It took a while.

So what did I find out? I came up with a pretty good methodology for digital archaeology that investigated each object (and its multiple) in context, explored the concepts of multivocality and authorship in digital object creation, and evaluated the relative transparency and ability to share each of these objects. As part of this, I explored digital materiality–that stuff-in-the-cloud that is actually in big noisy server farms in the countryside. I tried, in my way, to address N. Katherine Hayles’ question: What would it mean to talk about materiality in an era in which simulations are everywhere around us?

From http://windows95tips.tumblr.com, by Neil Cicierega

After presenting some of this work at the British Museum, thrashing through this analog-to-digital shift, Helen Wickstead asked, (and I badly paraphrase) “Can we productively query the analog with the digital?” Can I draw a circle around this thing called digital archaeology and use it to try to understand analog technologies and representations? What can the flexibility and ubiquity of cameras on smart phones tell us about the glass lantern slide?

I’m still working on it.

(Part of this month’s Analog/Digital series, thanks to Savage Minds for hosting!)


Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Centre for Digital Heritage Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

She received her PhD in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and her BA in Anthropology/Asian Studies at the University of Texas. Since that time, she has worked both as a professional and academic archaeologist in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, England, Greece, Texas, Hawaii and California, excavating sites 100 years old and 10,000 years old and anything in-between.

She remains deeply interested in excavation methodology, high falutin’ theory, interstitial spaces, skeuomorphs and good bourbon.