The Scene of Disciplined Seeing

Shanti Morell-Hart from McMaster University writes the third entry in the series dedicated to The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

The Scene of Disciplined Seeing

Shanti Morell-Hart

“What is the most AMAZING thing you’ve ever found?” This is the question dogging archaeologists, right now, this very second, while we sit on planes, wait in doctors’ offices, and visit school classrooms. There are two common types of answers: the sensational kind, and the kind with intellectual merit. If you’re lucky, these overlap in a perfect Venn region, maybe something like an ancient golden statue depicting rare sexual acts in Pharaonic Egypt (that also happens to transform the way we understand ancient Egyptian sexuality and expands the known range of gender performatives).

I used to go for intellectual merit right off the bat. I’d start: “One time, I found this really old Nicotiana seed—that’s tobacco, maybe tabacum or rustica—it was a lot stronger back then, not like the stuff now that people smoke for fun. Anyway, it was in this flotation sample I was sorting through—really beautiful reticulated surface, there’s no mistaking it….” I’d trail off, lamely. I would see vague disappointment shifting into obvious disappointment. The Latin binomials were alienating; also, smoking kills. I’d clear my throat and give it another try: “Uh, so there was also this time where I was excavating a tomb with a team in Peru and we found a sacrificed baby llama that still had a leash around its neck….”

Somehow it’s easier to explain life-sized things than microscopic things, to talk from a shared mind’s eye. It’s easier to evoke a scalar perspective-in-common, where you’re staring at something the listener can (virtually) point at and poke at along with you. It’s also easier to generate interest in the kind of findings that would hit tabloids if they took place in the contemporary world.

The intrinsically exciting Nicotiana (tobacco): an archaeological seed. (Photo by the author.)

For paleoethnobotanists, it can be hard to express the excitement of the find. What gets us into it? In my case, I was interested in food, I wanted to be able to analyze food residues myself, and I didn’t want to deal with roadkill for my reference collections (so sorry, zooarchaeologists). This meant learning the trade of paleoethnobotany, with long hours at the microscope and a rich payoff in plants.

Plant payoffs, moving from the microbotanical to the practical:

The work of paleoethnobotany takes place at many scales: the monumental (wooden Viking longboats), the macro (woven yucca sandals), the micro (grass starches on Neanderthal teeth), and the chemical (theobromine signatures of chocolate). For those of us lodged at the microscopic level– a realm of seeds, phytoliths, pollen, and starch grains– the practice of archaeology holds a special set of practices and problems. We experience back pain, eye strain, headaches, tendonitis, and even ganglion cysts. Health issues related to the ergonomics of microscope use can be found in a variety of places) but the neurological effects are less well documented. I suspect a wide range from mild discomfort to madness.

But the visceral experience of microscopic practice is not all discomfort and tedium. We are also drawn into exotic and mysterious worlds. The first time I peeked into a microscope while sorting flotation residue, I felt like Jacques Cousteau. My god, the things in dirt. We take germs on faith and most of us have seen earthworms up close. We know–or are pretty sure we know–those things are in there. But there is so much more to see. Never mind the chemistry of it all, which is way outside my pay range.

Macrobotanical under microscope
Charred wood, seeds, insect legs, modern rootlets, egg casings, and god knows what else, in a macrobotanical flotation sample.

If looking at flotation samples is like scuba diving, studying microbotanical remains is like flying through another galaxy. Extracted sediment and artifact residues, suspended in liquid and mounted on slides, present strange psychedelia. Acrocomia mexicana endocarp phytoliths appear as planets; Zea mays starch grains as 1960s beanbag chairs.

Rorschach test #1: Coyol palm (Acrocomia mexicana) phytoliths, viewed at 100x. (Photo by the author)
Rorschach test #2: maize (Zea mays) starch grains viewed at 400x with polarized light.  (Photo by the author.)
Rorschach test #2: maize (Zea mays) starch grains viewed at 400x with polarized light. (Photo by the author.)

Visually, you feel suspended alongside the residues. Your eyesight becomes disarticulated from the regular workings of your body. An awkward shift in physicality takes place. Your normal manual dexterity is fitted with giant clown hands to manipulate objects smaller than you can see with the naked eye. Trying to get silicified plant cells to roll over, to view their 3-D morphology, involves some measure of agility and some measure of luck. Gently depressing the slide with a blunted probe will sometimes get phytoliths to rotate, but not always. Yelling at the slide is futile. The last thing you need is to turn the microremains against you.

While at the microscope, the miniscule becomes “life-sized,” and you experience a set of layered realnesses. You sense an envelope of lab smells (dust, mysterious liquids evaporating from jars, someone’s leftover pasta cooking in the microwave), gossip (who shortchanged who last beer night), podcasts and music (strains of Finntroll coming from the speakers), temperature (always overly warm). But your eyes are in another place, a here and not-here; or two half-real places. It’s almost like playing a videogame. Although the meatspace houses the bodily you, sitting at a microscope, your findings are actually taking place in an entirely different location: microscospace.

The “scene of disciplined seeing” (to borrow a phrase from Dennis (1989:342) is part embodied discipline, with all the necessities of proper posture and focus. It is also part disciplinary perspective, with all its rules, affordances, expectations, and perspectives. Early use of the microscope by the 17th century British Royal Society was a unifying endeavor. If we are to believe Robert Hooke, it was a way of “exceeding the Ancients” through scientific labor. At that time, according to Michael Dennis, “instruments imparted a distinct sense of the past and the future, uniting men holding otherwise diverse philosophical positions” (1989:310). Modern archaeologists, however, take to this same instrument intending to connect the past with the present, and our pursuits can divide people holding otherwise similar philosophical positions. (One example: the current philosophical centrification of STEM disciplines [including archaeological science] across political divides, yet persistent denial of evidence of anthropogenic climate disruption recovered by these same disciplines.)

What is the role of disciplined seeing outside of archaeological science? Early appetites for micrographic images—Hooke’s 1665 volume Microphagia was a certified bestseller—are not what they once were. The fruits of disciplined seeing are no longer exclusively harvested through the magnanimity of the Royal Society. Basic instrumentation has become affordable. Gentlemen scholars under moneyed noble patrons are no longer the sole gatekeepers of every microscopic finding. The ready availability of scientific instrumentation has helped to democratize scientific practice, and microscopic images can even be captured and posted using smartphones.

These are all welcome changes. But the “watering down” of academic imagery has made it harder to evoke the excitement of archaeological science through the simple presentation of pictures. Representation, through interpretation, helps to elicit such excitement. This is not a simple process. Representation is subject to other rules and expectations, including those of anthropology and the public. Ultimately, our seeing is disciplined by visual, experiential, academic, and political fields, and our findings are only as relevant as our audiences allow them to be.

So how can we recapture that magical Venn region where the sensational and the academic merge? Maybe the answer is “blog posts.”

Bourdieu, Pierre
1993      The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Columbia University Press.

Cooke, Bill, Carol Christiansen and Lena Hammarlund
2002      Viking Woollen Square-Sails and Fabric Cover Factor. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 32(2):202-210.

Crown, Patricia L. and W. Jeffrey Hurst
2009      Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(7):2110-2113.

Dennis, Michael Aaron
1989      “Graphic Understanding: Instruments and interpretation in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia”. Science in Context 3 (2): 309–364.

Henry, Amanda G., Alison S. Brooks and Dolores R. Piperno
2011      Microfossils in Calculus Demonstrate Consumption of Plants and Cooked Foods in Neanderthal Diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(2):486-491.

Hooke, Robert
1665      Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. J. Martyn and J. Allestry, London, UK.

Latour, Bruno
1988      The Pasteurization of France. Harvard, Cambridge, MA.

Morell-Hart, Shanti, Rosemary A. Joyce and John S. Henderson
2014      Multi-Proxy Analysis of Plant Use at Formative Period Los Naranjos, Honduras. Latin American Antiquity 25(1):65-81.

Morgan, Colleen Leah
2012      Emancipatory Digital Archaeology. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Turpin, Solveig A.
2003      Walking the Line: A Preliminary Sandal Chronology from Coahuila and Southwestern Texas. Journal of Big Bend Studies 15:27-53.

Disciplinary Vision, Disciplined Seeing, and New Technologies of Enchantment

Andrew Roddick

Shanti Morell-Hart’s contribution to “Then Dig” highlights the sense of excitement that can come from our engagement with instruments, ways of seeing that can catch not only our colleagues’ attention, but generated interest from students and the greater public. Morell-Hart shows that these technologies of enchantment (sensu Gell 1992) are modes of disciplinary and disciplined seeing, relying on particular mediated and trained ways to engage with our materials. She brings us into her piece through the familiar anecdote of the typical conversations we encounter as archaeologists on planes and other public places. I imagine, however, many archaeologists have discussed with their undergraduates how our disciplinary way of seeing can bring into focus a range of multi-scalar phenomena, perhaps the multi-temporality of agricultural landscapes, the systems of garbage disposal within large cities, or the re-daubing of buildings in religious centers. A few of those interested students will follow us to the laboratory, to develop their disciplinary seeing into a form of “disciplined seeing”, whether within Morell-Hart’s paeleoethnobotany lab to identify phytoliths, or perhaps a lithics lab to record bulbs of percussion on pieces of obsidian.

As Morell-Hart demonstrates, technical ways of seeing always introduce issues of representations and translation. I remember several years ago at the Institute of Andean Studies Annual Meetings in Berkeley, the Andeanist Dr. Gary Urton was giving a public talk on the khipu, the knotted string technology used by the Inka. Despite detailed slides and well-explained graphs, a member of the public could not quite follow the way that Urton was seeing these knots. What followed was a difficult interchange between the two. The difficulty came down to the kinds of disciplined seeing that Dr. Urton has spent a career developing from a wide variety of disciplines. In other words, despite his careful lecture, there still remained some presupposition that the audience and the presenter shared a particular way of seeing.

I like Morell-Hart’s use of the concept of “disciplined seeing”, and appreciate her highlighting of Dennis’ interesting article. Dennis clearly shows that for Hooke, the microscope could reveal the power of human art, but it also brought into harsh contrast the difference between products of culture and products of nature. Unlike an archaeologist, Hooke had little time for artifacts: “There are but few Artificial things that are worth observing with a Micro­scope …. For the Productions of art are such rude and mis-shapen things, that when view’d with a Microscope, there is little else observable, but their deformity …. And the most smooth and burnished surfaces appear most rough and unpolisht. (Hooke [1665] 1961: 8; quoted from Dennis 1989: 335). In stark contrast were the divine details seen in natural objects. The argument was that the scientist was a “transparent observer” – here there was no interpretation at the ocular lens. Rather nature revealed the purity of god (I suspect Hooke might spend some time with Morell-Hart’s statement “My god, the things in dirt!”). But it did require a sort of “disciplined seeing”, a standardization of perceptions gained through reason disciplining the experience won through the senses.

As Morell-Hart demonstrates, this notion of disciplined seeing might benefit from further reflection in archaeological science, a set of conversations around not just the microscope, but a range of instrumentations and their mediations within archaeological practice. In taking up Morell-Hart’s provocative riff on Hooke, I’m just as interested in where the scene of disciplined seeing are emerging in new forms of technical archaeological practice. She points to the relatively low tech of smart-phones, and how this democratization might also include the “watering down” of academic imagery (although if the petrography community on social media and Flickr is any indication, I think I’ve seen the opposite!). So let me briefly go to the other end of the spectrum to the high-tech, where the cost and learning curve results in some inevitable gatekeeping, but where we see the emergence of new kinds of “disciplined seeing”.

Then Dig_Roddick (May)_-1
Working towards a disciplined form of seeing a CT-scan of a ceramic vessel at Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario

For the past few months I have been visiting Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario for a pilot study of CT-scanning ethnographic and archaeological pottery. There are, in some ways, rather crude objects, things that surely Hooke would disparage. But flying through artifacts at the tiniest of scales is an amazing thing, and this truly is an area where the sensational and the academic merge. For instance, I challenge you not to be amazed at the CT scan of this charred piece of a deciduous hardwood. Or better yet, of a 16th-century Northern European wooden prayer bead, with an interior showing the Last Judgment. Surely even Hooke, who suggested cultural materials had no mysteries within them, would be impressed! But while we can enjoy the voyage through other artifacts, my work requires more than passive enjoyment, and the difficulties of developing a disciplined form of seeing is quite clear with this technology.

I am interested in using micro-CT scanning as a way to probe the traces of skill involved in the production of archaeological ceramics, and we are struggling to figure out a way to compare large datasets. While my interests lie in the images and the interpretations, those working so hard to develop a systematic approach of this amazing technology to archaeological materials (Greene and Hartley 2007; Jansen et al. 2001; Kahl and Ramminger 2012; Sanger et al. 2013) impress me. What standardized protocols can be developed? How must we standardize the software but also our perceptions to create working typologies? What kinds of analytical filters and image analysis program are required to highlight not just Hooke’s divine natural world, but also the complexities of the cultural? Like Morell-Hart, I still need my plane conversation for the greater public (I always go back to either the 2,500 year old red painted skull we found in 2001, or the perfectly preserved 1,500 year old potato), but this emergence of a new way of seeing is also part of the excitement of archaeological science. It is here that we can see the “rules, affordances, expectations, and perspectives” develop, and reflect on our connections and divergences in scientific practice since Robert Hooke’s days. Like the camera or microscope, these are technologies of enchantment that can have powerful effects on our imaginations.

Gell, A.
1992 ‘The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology’, in J. Coote and A. Shelton (eds), Anthropology, Art, Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 40–67.

Greene, A. and C. Hartley
2007 From Analog to Digital: Protocols and Program for a Systematic Digital Radiography of Archaeological Pottery. Eur. Meet. Ancient Ceramics.

Jansen, R. J., H.F.W. Koens, C.W. Neeft, and J. Stoker
2001 Scenes From the Past CT in the Archaeologic Study of Ancient Greek Ceramics1. Radiographics 21 (2): 315-321.       

Kahl, W.-A., and B. Ramminger
2012 Non-destructive Fabric Analysis of Prehistoric Pottery Using High-resolution X-ray Microtomography: A Pilot Study on the Late Mesolithic to Neolithic Site Hamburg-Boberg. Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (7): 2206-2219.\

Sanger, M., J. Thostenson, M. Hill, and H. Cain
2013 Fibrous Twists and Turns: Early Ceramic Technology Revealed Through Computed Tomography. Appl Phys A 111:829-839.

Disciplined Visualization

Colleen Morgan

Last week during one of our Heritage & Play sessions–a series of workshops at the University of York loosely structured around a topic, theory, or making session using play as a productive means to engage with heritage–we tried out an Oculus Rift. After previously trying out Google Glass and Google Cardboard, most of us preferred mixed reality, not a fully (or at least visually) immersive experience. As Morell-Hart describes her immersion in the microscopic world, we were similarly between worlds– while surrounded by a virtual Tuscan villa, we would still be talking to other Heritage & Play participants, still partly present in the classroom.

I’ve found the concept of telepresence to be very useful in describing such situations, or, where you are when you are talking on the phone (Morgan 2009). Not really with the person you are talking to, but not entirely within the place where you happen to be while you are talking on the phone. While we were using the Oculus Rift, participants felt like they were farther away from other people in the room. I find this similar to archaeological investigation, wherein we are not entirely in the present, nor are we entirely in the past. The boundedness of social persons, our subjectivity, is thrown into question through the delegation of perception to technological mediation.

As a digital archaeologist, my primary mode of research is translating disciplined seeing into disciplined visualization. I am challenged by Roddick’s example of the public unintelligibility of the khipu–what kind of intervention could have made Urton’s interpretation obvious? Could we create a 3D reconstruction of the khipu that would be navigable at the microscale, showing the warp of the threads, highlighting the intervals of the knots, annotated by Urton? How can we create data-rich interpretive media that do not fetishize technology but productively use them to show how we see?

Finally, though I consider myself still very oriented toward excavation as my preferred way of archaeological performance, I have spent relatively little time in the field versus behind a computer screen. My “finds” these days are more related to interpretive projects and the links between genetics, bioarchaeology, virtual reconstructions, and avatars. These excite me, but make for hard plane conversations, so I usually revert to the heyday of my time behind a trowel and describe murals and various dead things. So in this I may be failing my own remit–can I create a remediation of my visualization process that will enchant an audience as much as scraping the dirt?

Louder Than Orange: a chromosonic sense of archaeological usewear photography

Our second entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Brian Boyd, at Columbia University. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.


Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 12.14.43 PM

Louder Than Orange: a chromosonic sense of archaeological usewear photography

 Brian Boyd

You are looking at a series of colour photographs of the surfaces and edges of worked bone artefacts (pointed objects) from the Late Epipalaeolithic (Late Natufian) levels at Hayonim Terrace, Western Galilee (Israel). They were made and used around 11 thousand years ago. The artefacts that is, not the photographs. The photographs were taken during 1994 and 1995 in the East Building of the McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge, using a Leica Wild Photmakroskop M400 stereo microscope with a Schott KL1500-T light source, to which was attached a Leica Wild MPS52 camera operated by a Wild MPS46 Photautomat. The light source used was an Instralux 6000. The film used was Fuji Reala (ASA 100). The purpose of this microscopy and photography was to identify microscopic traces of the manufacture and use of the objects. You can read all about this research in detail HERE.

Directly beneath the photographs you are reading a series of observations, interpretations and speculations based upon the results of the microscopic and photographic analyses.

Together, the above photographs and descriptions were presented as a visual contribution to an exhibit mounted at the May 2014 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) titled “The Archaeologist as Artist: research photography in a new context”, organized by Kaeleigh Herstad and Elizabeth Konwest. I called the piece “The Points of No Return”, in reference to articles by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen in which they argued that the Epipalaeolithic Natufian “culture” was the “point of no return” on the social evolutionary trajectory towards settled agricultural life in the Levant around 10,000 years ago (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989, 2000).

But the real point of the piece was to think about the use of colour in usewear photography of archaeological artefacts. Microwear photographs are usually black and white. Obviously the financial restrictions of most publications is a major issue here, but there are other interesting theoretical considerations to explore. Do colour usewear images give us something more than black and white/greyscale photographs in terms of analytical and interpretive value? On viewing the photographs, several TAG participants thought they were abstract pictures of landscapes, perhaps computer-enhanced aerial shots of ancient fields and river terraces. This got me thinking about colour studies in archaeology.

In the 1980s, we were told “archaeologists don’t attempt a technicolor version of man’s early life” (Binford 1983). So what does this early life look like once all the colours have been drained away? Another TAG session (Stanford 2009) on “The color of things”, and Jones & MacGregor’s Colouring the Past (2002), worked to address this problem. Both however highlight the conventional archaeological focus on colour – the use of pigments, dyes, colour in material culture studies, the colour of things, objects. Only occasionally do these studies go beyond the material and into the realms of what art historians, philosophers, industrial and organic chemists have long dealt with: the social lives of colours, the “mysteries” of colour.

Maybe in recent “sensory archaeology” we see a similar reaction to that of Wittgenstein – “colours spur us to philosophize”; a move away from the “boring” questions about colour (Taussig 2009) or a “chromophobia” (Batchelor 2000) towards a concern with perception, cognition, semiosis, language and signs, and so on.

Colour allows something else into the picture, or the narrative: the language available – saturation, luminosity. At the technological level – the tips and shafts of those bone points were often burned/heated to achieve a desired hardness, robustness, strength. They were worked not until they reached a certain temperature, but a certain colour. When an object reached that exact colour it was ready to be used, a brownish-black. If it starts to go white it’s too late, too brittle. In the discussion to Jones & MacGregor (2002), Chris Scarre called for not only colouring the past, but also making it sound. The sound/noise of manufacture/production: scraping, sharpening, polishing. The two media are entwined in a sound/colour relationship, witness C.S. Peirce’s “red trumpets”, Winston Smith’s (Orwell’s) “yellow note”. Kristin Hersh’s “louder than orange”. A chromosonic sense of objects emerges.

Techniques of sensing (and sensing techniques) in and out of the laboratory

Andrew Roddick

Moments before setting down to read Brian Boyd’s contribution I finished giving a lecture in my class “Religion and Power in the Past”. In this course we are exploring ritual and religion through archaeology, in essence flipping Hawkes’ well-known inferential ladder. For the past week and a half we have been considering the potential for a “sensory archaeology”. To encourage students to question the visual dominance of our narratives, we watch an extract from the film Perfume (, a film which encourages the viewer to consider the multi-sensorial. (Is this is what the past looks like if the color has not been drained away, but also if the sounds and smells are re-inserted?) We then discuss Classen’s study of Andean and Amazonian sensory orders, before moving to some archaeological case studies including the sound and touch of South African rock art, auditory archaeology in the Britain and Peruvian highlands, and the tastes of colonial Africa.

Boyd similarly engages with a multi-sensorial past, from the chromatic richness of projectile points to the potential acoustic elements of their production. He specifically enters this discussion from the perspective of the microscope, a technological extension of the senses that “channels perception along modality-specific lines” (Howes 2013). Boyd shows how such a focus on the microscopic can blind us to obvious variation in color, and its related analytical and interpretive value. But even more interesting to me is his suggestion that we must push our analysis of tool production to a larger sensory realm, to consider also the sounds, and even tastes of particular material practices. Those of us working at the microscope might also consider, for instance, potters tasting and smelling their clays, a common practice in many potting regions today, and not altogether different from the practices of modern geologists, who sniff and taste rocks to seek out the presence of minerals such as sulfur, halite, sylvite, and kaolonite.

potters' clay-1
The colors of potting clay in highland Bolivia…but what about their taste?

In a recent chapter, Krysta Ryzewski (2013) explores how the traces of sensory perceptions might be explored in crafted iron goods from historic Rhode Island. Much like Boyd, she suggests a sensory archaeology have real consequences for those exploring the microscopic, impacting not only our interpretations, but shifting the very questions we ask. For instance, “what happens to conventional models of the chaîne opératoire (Leroi-Gourhan 1964) of forging an iron tool when the archaeologist is asked to account for concurrent sensory variables” (Ryzewski 2013: 359)? Drawing on Ingold’s “textility of making” (2010), she discuss the sensory aspects of iron working: “How material properties are harnessed by the ironworker and made to interact in the process of making—as the iron is exposed to heat, to repeated blows from the hammer, and to flux and as decisions are made by the experienced crafts-person—exemplifies the relations between material properties, sensory clues, and the reading of these clues by the craftsperson. All of these decisions must mix with each other effectively in the generative process of making an iron object successfully.” (Ryzewski 2013: 360)

Boyd makes an important step in critically reflecting on the multi-sensorial aspects of his projectile points, at both the macro and micro-scale. Ryzewski argues that micrographs of various iron artifacts reveal microstructures, but also larger sensorial engagements. Ryzewski suggests that the details gained through the microscope must be re-inserted into practice. She explores such a step by combining her laboratory analyses with experimental work, taking part in a form of apprenticeship in practice (see also Keller and Keller 1996; Lave 2011): “[T]o understand how the crafts-person follows materials in his or her work, so too must those who study that work also study the material. In other words, as the archaeologist joins and follows forces and lows of material that bring the form of work into being through countless sensory mediations, the micrograph, in this case, invites the viewer to join the craftsperson and the archaeologist as a fellow traveler.” (Ryzewski 2013: 364) Much as Ouzman (2001) asks about the relationship of rock engravings in South Africa to the nearby “gong rocks”, perhaps we too need to widen our understanding of a truly contextual archaeological science, to consider the larger landscape of practice and senses associated with production. To understand the sensorial and embodied experiences of production, we must send our findings back out from the laboratory.

Howes, David
2013 The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies.

Ingold, Timothy
2010 The Textility of Making. Cambridge Journal of Economics 34:91–102.

Keller, Charles M. and Janet Dixon Keller
1998   Cognition and Tool Use: The Blacksmith at Work Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lave, Jean
2011   Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Ouzman, Sven
2001   Seeing Is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-visual. World Archaeology 33(2):237-256.

Ryzewski, Krysta
2013   The Production Process as Sensory Experience: Making and Seeing Iron in Colonial New Englad, In Making Sense of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology. Edited by Jo Day, pp. 351-370. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.


Colleen Morgan

Zoom in/Zoom out - shot at Dhiban, Jordan, 2009.
Zoom in/Zoom out – shot at Dhiban, Jordan, 2009.

Archaeological photography has woven a bright ribbon through the last decade of my research; in my thesis I discussed photography as a way to understand the affordances of media making and the digital turn within archaeology, mixing theory and practice as part of a methodology based partly on critical making. The above photograph is an example of such work–the object of interested is highlighted in black and white, the serious, publication format for archaeological finds. The frame for the object is messy technicolor chaos, the kind that I would usually wave my hands about, insisting that it was tidied away before any kind of photography took place.

But I liked it, the small, “scientific,” desaturated moment surrounded by all of the don’ts in archaeological photography. The shadow, the context folder, dirt, the bucket full of finds, sample bags in a radiating halo, exhausted student archaeologist leaning against a broken ashlar–it’s a tongue-in-cheek comment on the context of this scientific photograph. Art historian Frederick Bohrer states that “at its most scientific, archaeology seeks to approach the photographic image as document, not to look at the photograph so much as to look through it to the object pictured” (2011:26). This photograph invites a telescoping view–instead of taking the importance of the black and white object, with the totemistic scale placed in parallel for granted, it can be re-situated as a pause in action, a moment cut from the whole cloth of archaeological process.

Brian Boyd invites us into the technicolor dream of usewear photography, paired with captions of “observations, interpretations and speculations” such as “the point that was heated and pierced a cattle hide” and the “point that points to invisible evidence.” The usewear photos, arranged in a grid, are meaningless without captions, and Boyd chooses to forgo the tricks of analyses and didactic locative information and jumps straight into the story of these objects, the moment that these objects came alive through microscopic damage.

Boyd then goes on to consider color in usewear images. As he states, “microwear photographs are usually in black and white” due to the financial restrictions of publications–though this is becoming less of an issue as publication goes digital. Why not have both color and black and white? Why not have a version that contains a roll-over caption, or an animated GIF of the object in motion, showing the usewear from each side? Or a QR code leading to a download of the 3D scan of the object, to be directly loaded into your 3D printer, so that you can run your fingers over the plasticky, simulacra divots and ridges?

Yet black and white photography connotes a collection of past moments in visual technology, moments that drifted through photography, to film, to television, each eventually erupting into color like Dorothy in Oz. So perhaps archaeologists could and use black and white as a preferred visual mode of representation to better convey both our affinity for the past and our previous interpretations of the past. When presented side by side, old interpretations of the past could gray-out, flicker and tear, supplanted by the new, the colorful, the high-definition versions that will eventually convey their age through technological affordances.

Bohrer, F. N. (2011). Photography and archaeology. London: Reaktion Books.

The Beauty and Frustration of Single Moments, Frozen in Time

Our first entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Lisa-Marie Shillito, at the University of Edinburgh. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

Lisa-Marie Shillito

It wasn’t until I became a micromorphologist that I understood how beautiful even the most unremarkable bit of earth can be, or that I truly understood context. I’ve previously described thin section micromorphology as ‘excavation under the microscope’ – observing deposits, describing their physical characteristics, determining the stratigraphic relationship between components, and reconstructing the processes by which they have formed (Shillito 2013). The sediments themselves become part of material culture. Produced as they are directly by human activity, understanding their mode of formation can aid in the interpretation of the activities that produced them.

The moment where you peer down the lens of the microscope and a picture comes into focus, you may find yourself glimpsing at that elusive ‘frozen moment in time’, a true single depositional event, preserved for prosperity between layers of glass. The moment where you can see the single layer of paint that was applied to a wall and subsequently covered and covered again; you can see the hand of the person that so carefully replastered and painted those walls over and over. The moment where you look at a sequence of floors and see a layer of fine dust less than 1mm thick that accumulated beneath a mat, the everyday dirt that escaped the fastidious sweeping of floors. Beyond buildings we may see the tell-tale undulations and orientations of particles within soft midden sediments that indicate where a person (or creature) once walked, perhaps taking a short cut to a neighbour over the way or making a rest stop to relieve themselves (we see evidence of that too…).

The closer we look, the more we see; the very process of examining archaeological deposits under the microscope gives a new understanding of the past. It is only by examining deposits at the microscale that you can gain a true understanding of ‘single context’ and how the tiny traces from individual activities combine to form cumulative palimpsests (to use the terminology of Bailey 2007) even in cases where we may think we have a ‘single’ context in the field. That moment you realise that ‘in situ’ is a relative concept, and materials we assume are intact have often undergone a series of post-depositional disturbances that have consequences for how they can be interpreted. At one magnification we may be looking at an event that occurred within a single moment; change magnifications and suddenly the temporal resolution shifts.

The implications of Schiffer’s ideas on formation processes are frustratingly obvious at the microscale. How can we really link that date with that artefact, when even in the same layer some small creature has come along and mixed things up a little? And how do we even know this disturbance has happened without using the microarchaeological eye? These processes occur more often than not, yet without microarchaeology, they may go unrecognised. It has been suggested by Smith (1992) that we cannot isolate and analyse instantaneous occurrences in archaeology and even if we could (as is sometimes the case with micromorphology) how do we decide what to analyse? The picture becomes so complicated I wonder if we can ever have a ‘true’ understanding of the archaeological record. Of course the answer is always, ‘it depends’. We can observe deposits at higher and higher resolutions, but the resolution that is necessary depends on specific research objectives.

Unlike specialisms such as zooarchaeology and lithic analysis where you can handle the bones and stones, pointing to features, however subtle, and explain your interpretations, my speciality lies in the unseen, the hidden worlds, the intangible. Explaining is not as straightforward. Explaining the importance of microarchaeological research and being transparent in how you arrived at an interpretation requires the visual. Under the microscope stratigraphy becomes differentiated, the relationships between components within a deposit become apparent and the mechanisms by which materials ended up in their positions can be directly observed in a way that is simply not possible at the macroscale.

Like single context archaeology, one of microarchaeology’s greatest contributions lies in sites with well-preserved stratigraphy and architectural features (Morgan 2010), and its true value can only come from collaboration between specialisms, and considering the sediment as part of the assemblage along with all the other materials we uncover. The sediments can speak their own stories about people in the past, but they also provide important constraints on the myriad of possible interpretations of other artefact and ecofact assemblages, going some way towards reducing their equifinality. It can be disheartening being the specialist whose greatest contribution is in pointing out the taphonomic problems with a favoured interpretation. Luckily, the beauty of the world under the microscope (mostly) makes up for its frustrations.

Bailey, G. 2007. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, vol 26, no. 2, pp. 198-223.

Colleen, M. 2010. Where is single context archaeology? [blog post]

Matthews, W. 1998. Report on sampling strategies, microstratigraphy and micromorphology of depositional sequences, and associated ethnoarchaeology at Çatalhöyük Çatalhöyük Archive Report.

Schiffer, M.B. 1987. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque

Shillito, L-M. 2013. Archaeology Under the Microscope. The Post Hole.

Smith, M.E. 1992. Braudel’s temporal rhythms and chronology theory in archaeology in A. Bernard Knapp (ed) Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory. Cambridge University Press pp.23-34.

Tracing the Past under the Microscope

Andrew Roddick

Lisa Marie’s reflections highlight the analytical quandaries, the frustrations, but also the new interpretive and aesthetic worlds that open up through the microscopic gaze. This exploration of the unseen and intangible might be considered as an exploration of the trace, an archaeological element of an entirely different scale than the impressive houses and mounds at Çatalhöyük. Rosemary Joyce (2006: 15) contrasts the trace, which is subtle and contextual, with the monumental, which are those realms of material culture with external hierarchies of value meant to convey sets of meanings over time.  Joyce argues our job is to work at “rematerializ[ing] traces of practices in the past” (Joyce 2012: 121). Such rematerializing requires the specialized tools, learned techniques, and careful theoretical insight and reflection, all essential to our modern disciplinary practice.

As a ceramicist I have been thinking recently about the relationship between my craft of archaeology and those craft producers in the deeper past who produced the vessels I study, and the traces I follow. Just as potters transformed into clay into a vessel through learned technical practice, the pottery is transformed again as it enters my laboratory. I must first decide which traces of the past I’m interested in following, as this choice will determine the next step of the transformation; the sample must be cut either vertically, horizontally or tangentially, each of which will produce distinct traces.  Each step in following these traces also introduces new problems: Are these micro structural traces evidence of clay mixing, or simply bioturbation? These mundane objects introduce monumental issues at the microscale. But like Lisa Marie, these moments are disrupted by aesthetic appreciation, producing a kind of pause similar to that of a sun setting over an important monumental heritage site. Exhibits by archaeological scientists such as David Killick ( suggests there may be reason to invite a much larger public to peer down the microscope with us, demonstrating the beauty behind even behind the dirt beneath your mat, or the awe in an old clay pot.

Joyce R. A. 2006. The monumental and the trace: archaeological conservation and the materiality of the past. In Agnew N and Bridgland J (editor) Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 13-18.

Joyce R. A. 2012. Life With Things: Archaeology and Materiality. In Shankland D (ed.) Archaeology and Anthropology: Past, Present and Future. Proceedings of the British Association of Social Anthropologists. London: Berg Publishers, 119-132.

El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas
El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas

The Microarchaeological Eye

Colleen Morgan

What is a context/archaeological unit? How can archaeologists deal with stratigraphic deposits that are too fine to feel, that disappear under the trowel? I find myself alternately defending the craft of archaeological excavation and now, wondering if field archaeologists are actually equipped to excavate at all. Lisa-Marie Shillito’s microlayers: fingerprints, the stroke of a paintbrush, the dust under the mat, a breath, the barest whisper of a deposit, are terrifyingly ephemeral. How soon until we are able to excavate a painting stroke by stroke, unmaking masterpieces in reverse? Recent work in 3D printing fine art paintings by Tim Zaman may make this possible in the near future.

I spent a few days in January in the company of artists at the Van Eyck Institute as part of NEARCH, and after the lectures were done, we compared art practice and archaeology practice. How are we funded? Who is our audience? This process of making our professions intelligible was fascinating, but now I think we might have missed the main point. Archaeologists are un-doers, unravellers of the skein of time, picking out the stitches, ruining the weft. Perhaps that is why some of us refuse to re-knit the past back together again, it is too personal, we are too inexperienced and can only produce a vague, warped parody of the original.

Still, I think about the gestures involved in unpainting a painting. The tiny, precise swipe of the removal of a stipple. The broad slash, peeling off a jagged stroke. What would the Harris Matrix of a Mondrian look like? Squares and lines and red on black? Would the reverse-Pollock matrix be a tangled cloud? How does our arcane, chronologic, geography of a site describe and inscribe the parameters of human action?

One of the artists, Leyla Cárdenas at the Jan Van Eyck Academy specialized in a kind of microstratigraphic excavation. She peeled apart layers of paint, pried apart wallpaper to make an exploded stratigraphy of sites. She is interested in palimpsest, in sections sawed through art. I wonder if there is a microarchaeological movement in art?


CRAFT copy

William Caraher is organizing a series on Archaeology & Craft. From his Call for Posts:

From my perspective there are three significant issues involving craft in archaeology (but I’m sure there are more!):

1. Craft in the Field. How and where do craft approaches exist in archaeological practice and how have recent trends in archaeological methodology limited the influence of traditional craft approaches to field practice (for better or for worse). In craft, the master craftsman has intellectual and bodily control over the entire productive process. How do we reconcile craft modes of archaeological production with those grounded in more industrial modes?

2. Craft in the Discipline. While the modes of knowledge production associated with craft have sometimes taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years, they can also carry forward a set of deeply conservative attitudes regarding access to the field (both literally and figuratively) and the authority to produce archaeological knowledge. In many cases, the authority within a system of craft derives from vaguely defined notions of “expertise” and “experience” which while important in archaeological work, tend to reinforce hierarchical social arrangement and privilege certain groups who have had traditional access to field work opportunities, material, and the previous generation of archaeological masters (e.g. old, white, men). In contrast, in professional archaeological knowledge is a product of rigorous adherence to modern, industrial, field practices (often mediated by technology) which could be acquired through the study of published work on methodology. This had the advantage of opening of the discipline to a wider group of practitioners by undermining field practices that reproduced traditional social hierarchies. Do appeals to archaeology as craft present real risks for archaeology as a discipline?

3. Craft and Technology. In recent years, it appears that archaeology’s increasing engagement with technology would bring about a revolution in field and publication practices. With more data collected in more sophisticated way and at a faster rate, technological changes has accelerated the slow process of field documentation. This has ensure that we have more information from our time in the field, and less time for the deliberate and contemplative aspects of the archaeologist craft. I realize that juxtaposing craft with practices mediate by technology is not entirely fair or accurate; at the same time, I can think of few technologies used regularly in archaeological work that explicitly reinforce the kind of haptic, embodied knowledge of traditional archaeological experience. Does archaeology used technology in such a way to marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft?

For more information, read the rest of his post here:

Contributions will be ongoing, to submit please contact billcaraher [at] gmail [dot] com

DEADLINE EXTENDED: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science

The deadline for the THEN DIG issue, the Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science has been extended.

Please see the original call for posts here:

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to:


Dr. Stuart Eve, Research Associate at University College London

This post is written as part of the Call for Papers over at ThenDig, looking at Zeitgeist in archaeological research and how to follow it, keep up with it, or create it. As will be clear from the previous posts on my blog, I am interested in using Mixed and Augmented Reality to aid in archaeological research. Augmented Reality (AR) is currently just over the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ of the Gartner Hype Cycle meaning that it has been hailed previously as the next Big Thing, but has not quite lived up to the hype and so now needs a lot of work to make it a sustainable and useful technology – I have previously written about what this means in terms of archaeology here.

As I have just finished editing the final version of my PhD thesis on the use of AR in archaeology I decided to write this post to give some brief reflections on what it has been like trying to surf the Hype Cycle, whilst still producing 85,000 words of scholarly research on the topic.

Twitter is your enemy

Perhaps a controversial statement, but for one attempting to sit down and write intelligently about something that is currently the zeitgeist Twitter is not your friend. I don’t say this because of the many wasted hours of procrastination that goes into reading and obsessively checking a million and one tweets (although this is certainly true), I say it because when working on something at the bleeding edge of tech Twitter provides hundreds of teasing snippets of the amazing research that other people are doing. This isn’t just other researchers, but also companies and hackers who seem to have all the time (and money) in the world to make cool proof-of-concept videos. While initially amazing and a great source for early ideas and ways in which to give your research the ‘wow-factor’, it quickly becomes disheartening – seeing what other people are achieving whilst you are stuck still making sure your bibliography is formatted correctly. It provokes the need to be blogging/creating/making/hacking almost continually to keep up with everyone, and show that you are somehow simultaneously surfing the Hype Cycle. In my experience there is always going to be someone who has done it better so for anyone who wants to have a life outside of their research, my advice is keep your Twitter usage limited to finding new dubstep tracks and getting irate at the state of the world today.

Remember your roots

One of the key things to remember when using new tech is that no matter how deeply you immerse yourself in the tech world, when you emerge you need to convince other archaeologists that what you have been doing is useful. Archaeologists are notoriously wary of new technology and will be your biggest crtics – and this is A Good Thing. Every new digital method or gadget should only be developed to further archaeological method/theory and our knowledge of the past – not simply for wow-factor or as a result of a ride on a Hypegeist bandwagon. If it won’t work outside in the rain or you can’t convince a colleague of the usefulness of it without resorting to fancy videos or Prezis then don’t bother.

Every surfer loses a wave

Be prepared to fall off the wave, and watch other people riding. It is going to happen anyway and by being patient, sitting back and watching other people ride the wave you can learn just as much as you can by constantly doing. It is less tiring and often very much more rewarding. I have found that acknowledging you are always going to be behind the curve promotes a feeling of calm reflection that is vital for properly researching what you are doing, and gives you the knowledge to choose the right time to jump back on the crest.

Take your time

Whilst blogs are great for working through ideas, writing academically makes you consider every word and sentence and forces you to find other research that backs up or challenges your claims. As someone who researches new technology everyday, a digital detox is almost unheard of. However, taking the time to unplug everything, sit down and write the paper or thesis makes you critically examine everything you are saying or promoting with a clear unhindered perspective.

I am convinced this is the reason that baking is so zeitgiest at the moment. People are craving time away from the digital world to watch their sourdough grow and savouring the time it takes for a loaf to prove and bake puts you back in the real world. Sadly, however, they are tech-ifying sourdough too.

PEER RESPONSE: James Stuart Taylor, University of York

Initially I wondered whether I might be the correct person to offer peer comment on Stuart’s Zeitgeist post. I do not blog (no time!) and I rarely tweet, maintaining a belligerent cynicism about the usefulness of this particular social media (this may be softening as I increasingly find I’m not averse to live-tweeting at conferences – which for me has the joyously irreverent feel of passing notes in class). But I am not a technophobe and I do get it. As a field archaeologist I have always maintained a deep interest in applied computational technologies, amongst other things they help us in our work as tools for data acquisition, analysis and dissemination – and in this sense I’m very open to the ‘bleeding edge’. I found myself smiling wryly at Stuart’s commentary on the problems of balancing popular hype and academic engagement of bleeding edge technologies, and at the same time nodding in agreement, reflecting upon the deeper issue here.

My research focuses upon applied GIS as a tool for getting to grips with intra-site spatiotemporal data from archaeological excavations. Being a computing technology that had its genesis nearly 50 years ago, GIS is far from the bleeding edge. My tech is well over the crest of its hype wave in archaeology (clawing its way out of the trench of disillusionment I’d say!). Indeed GIS is now a well-established technology in archaeology. Yet I am researching a fundamental that has never been satisfactorily addressed in the development of GIS: the interconnection (or lack thereof) of space and time. Important for GIS you’d think – critical for archaeologists; but rarely considered academically. Surely people should have solved this problem a long time ago? – apparently not! Why? – because it’s complicated…

Complexities and the challenge of overcoming them is ultimately whatdrives research, but a fundamental from an academic perspective is often low priority from a technical perspective. As a discipline it is easy to lose focus upon more tricky issues as we ride the tide of technohype that Stuart is alluding to: lidar, laser scanning, 3D modeling, drones, hyperspectral cameras, ‘space archaeology’, are part of a seemingly endless list of technological applications which vie with augmented reality (and the now passé GIS) to take a turn on the crest of the hype-wave. And like the stereotypical surfer that the metaphor alludes to, these technologies tend to be trendy, fun, immediate, impressive, but ultimately can be shallow in their application – this is a shame.

Stuart’s final message is important – as a discipline we do need to take time to think academically about the technology we apply, to reflect upon the theory that drives these new methodologies (or which they recursively help generate), to look for meaningful and practical applications which will outlive the zeitgeist, so that they can stand the test of time and answer key research questions. Perhaps moving away from the endlessly cloned variants of that ‘pointless’ conference paper we’ve all seen a thousand times: “Look at the Size of my Point Cloud”.

PEER RESPONSE: Dr. Holly Wright, Archaeology Data Service, University of York

As someone who wrote a PhD a few years back on the Semantic Web and archaeology, I feel Eve’s pain in trying to create a nuanced, scholarly understanding of a technology that has now entered the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. Only now do I feel we are starting to face the reality of what it’s going to take to make Semantic Web technologies useful for archaeologists, and just how much hard slog will be involved in realising it. Those riding the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ headed for the hills long ago, giving those of us who are left a quieter place to work, and that’s no bad thing.

The deeper tension I feel Eve has hit upon here, is one I think is pervasive in the realm of digital archaeology, but seems to be rarely discussed: the fact that we sit between two very different disciplines and have to try to make sense of both. Archaeology is so interdisciplinary; I know we all feel the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ anxiety at one point or another. When manifest in its negative form, archaeologists don’t engage with the wider external discipline they are incorporating into their work, lest they be proven less than competent practitioners. For example, if we ask a statistician to look at our use of statistics in archaeology, we might find out we aren’t very good at statistics, so best not. For most of us however, we do our best to stay abreast of current good practice, and make sure we consult or collaborate with those who know the realm better than we do.

As Eve has pointed out, for archaeologists working with digital technology, the pace and chatter of the technology realm feels unrelenting, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hype that creates, to the detriment of the archaeological research we are trying to serve. I would argue we need to spend more time understanding and articulating the value of choosing to sit in between these disciplines, to both sides, and to each other. Understanding how to bridge two very disparate things is as much an area of deep expertise as knowledge of Roman fortification or Linked Data. Virtually all of my colleagues here at the ADS are both archaeologists and digital practitioners. I go to work every day with a group of people (all with very different backgrounds), for whom sitting between these two disciplines is our profession, but I think that is rare. We tend to be scattered and embedded in other groups, and I think that makes it even more difficult to resist hype and find useful and sustainable balance, so all the more reason to explore ways to come together and value this work. We can also share our favourite bread recipes.

CFPo: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science


Archaeological science is a critical area of current archaeological practice. Analyses of ancient DNA from the teeth of long-dead ancestors, isotopes found in the remains of broken pottery, and the chemical signatures from flakes of obsidian are radically altering our understanding of the past. Unlike the pervasive fieldwork-based narrative of archaeology, these major discoveries take place far away from the trenches in the clean, well-lit laboratories of major academic institutions. Yet these discoveries are no less impactful, causing in some cases radical shifts in the kinds of stories we tell. Indeed the archaeological scientist is, much like the fieldworker, engaged in the craft of archaeology (sensu Shanks and McGuire 1996).

In this issue of Then Dig we explore encounters with the past in the context of archaeological science. From the abstract expressionist appreciation of ceramic thin sections, to the treasure hunt for phytoliths under a microscope, to the severe precautionary costumes of the Clean Room, we investigate the aesthetic, the multisensorial, and the profound in archaeological science.

Authors might reflect on how the centering of the micro-scale and the abstract are brought to bear, and how the interplay between scientist and materials present the unexpected. We also encourage contributors to consider the embodied moments of lab work and discuss those findings that produce visceral reactions and new understandings of the past.


Dr. Andrew Roddick, McMaster University
Dr. Colleen Morgan, University of York

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to:


Only Time Will Tell: Some musings on archaeology, heritage and preservation

Dr Burcu Tung, University of California, Merced

Recently a good archaeologist friend of mine asked me for some references on heritage for her work. She wanted more grounding in how archaeologists consider heritage as a field of study as she considered the connections of her palaeobotanical work to food heritage. We discussed our colleagues who have recently turned to heritage studies (including myself) and wondered if it was a means to an end or an end in itself.

Is heritage the emerging zeitgeist of 21st Century Archaeology?

In practice, legislation surrounding cultural heritage, in the United States and other developed countries from the 70s onward, provided a solid foundation for the application of specialist knowledge, thereby creating the greatest number of jobs in our field. In the academe, an increasing number of archaeologists draw on heritage issues and opportunities to justify the relevance of their research to assure funding. And archaeologists now make up much of the faculty within heritage programs across the world.

Recently Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg (2013) criticized the lack of futuristic insight within heritage studies at large, despite the common mantra of “preserving the past for the future” used both by practitioners and institutions alike. They note heritage may be more relevant for the future if we actually begin assessing the effects of our policies and practice over different increments of time. How will future generations cope with the nuclear waste they have inherited from us in the next thousands of years, they ask? They wonder about rogue radio waves that have been transmitted in the last century and those that continue to be transmitted today. How might they affect possibilities of extraterrestrial communication thousands of years later?


1. Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy clusters and colliding galaxies some 8 billion light-years away, giving some perspective to our own delicate existence.

To me, these discussions evoke a sense of heritage as being nestled out of time. In discussion of what heritage is, Holtorf and Högberg connect it to the human pursuits of self-enrichment, altruism and ever sought after immortality (2013, 741). While they raise important concerns surrounding superficial decisions on preservation, little acknowledgement is given to the socio-political realities of these decisions, or heritage in time.

Identity, interpretation, tourism, access, use and copyrights are important issues within heritage practices and sites. All of these issues are highlighted at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük where I direct the excavations within the North Shelter. Just like my colleagues and the students that work there, I have had to learn to be oblivious to the gaze of tourists that have exponentially increased since the site was inscribed to the World Heritage List. The creation of this World Heritage Site has started to spark the local economy and at the same time continues to provide local politicians and archaeologists a stage for their professional development.

2. Tourists visiting the North Shelter at Çatalhöyük. Photo, Jason Quinlan.

Admittedly an oft-cited case, Çatalhöyük exemplifies how archaeological practice is embedded in global networks, and how in time, sites take on meanings and realities often not anticipated. While a 9,000 year old Neolithic site might be considered out of context in the construction of Turkish national identity, it is clearly part of some consciousness: in the introduction of the new constitution of the country, which is still under debate, Çatalhöyük is referred to as a site ‘inherited’ by the nation.

Decisions on the use of such sites to meet certain political ends or economic needs can’t simply be monitored and controlled. Forty years after our discipline’s “loss of innocence”, there should be no question of our work’s malleability. Perhaps our incessant desire to preserve is due to this malleability, since as the saying goes, time will tell.

3. The Church Trap, created by Rebekah Waites with Scott Froschauer, Jena Priebe, and Tom Pine in 2013. Photo, Scott London

But will each instance tell us something different? And what if our preservationist obsession is obstructing other forms of development? The communities and networks surrounding Black Rock City, a permanent city formed for an annual event called Burning Man, have only grown larger with the burning down of more than a dozen temples and hundreds of art installations. The ephemerality of the moment expressed by destruction has produced some of the most impressive collaborative modern art works of our times. In the production of this active heritage, thousands of individuals take part in an experiment of expression.

What are some of the insights such an experiment can provide to our ‘conservation ethos’? How can we resolve some preservationist dilemmas, particularly with our position in an unfettered capitalist expansion causing the destruction of cultural resources and yet opening new avenues of cultural production? Finally, in the spirit of heritage, as we accept the malleability of our field, and the uses to which it is put, can we ever just do archaeology? Only time will tell.

References Cited:

Holtorf, Cornelius, and Anders Högberg 2013 Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen. S. Bergerbrant and S. Sabatini, eds. Pp. 739-746. Oxford: Bar International Series 2508.


Dr Sara Perry, Lecturer, University of York

I think we are at a point (and arguably we have been at this point for a while now) in heritage studies, and more specifically in archaeology, where critiques of the retrograde nature of our practice—or its lack of progressiveness or forward-thinking orientation—are somewhat misguided. As Tung begins to hint at here, there are plenty of active projects that not only have avant-garde vision, but that attend to the realities of the ‘now’, the everyday and the immediate, and that therein have the potential for directly impacting on how we live and understand our lives in the present and near future. Burning Man itself is already subject to a large-scale integrated archaeological/anthropological line of enquiry by a team at the University of Nevada-Reno, which has been working over the past couple of years to promote and otherwise publish (e.g., see Carolyn White’s chapter in Graves-Brown et al. 2013) ongoing research into the ephemerality and dynamism of these temporary gatherings.

Far beyond Burning Man, however, the heritage sector is also deeply invested in probing matters of surveillance, homelessness, undocumented border crossings and human rights, global warming and sustainability, organised crime, unpaid labourspace, nuclear technologies, disaster zones, war and checkpoints, neo-liberalism—effectively most of the topical issues of the contemporary world. Some of this research has a relatively long history, and is concerned not so much (if at all) with preservation, as with cultural critique and social change. Heritage policies themselves, and heritage thinking more generally, increasingly incorporate or respect what Tung calls the malleable nature of the archaeological/historic record (also refer to the conscientious efforts of Networked Heritage). This is an important development that effectively just returns the discipline to the more fluid and flexible set of practices that characterised archaeological work prior to its institutionalisation in the early to mid 20th century.

As I see it, heritage is a space of innovation and experimentation that allows us the opportunity to invest in different methodologies (excavation, ethnography, archival study, cartography, conservation, visual and computational data production, etc.) for varied intellectual purposes, with different forms of material culture providing the nuclei of these investigations. In its current conceptualisation, not only is heritage historically-oriented, but so too is it eminently relevant to the current-day. Given the changeable nature of our disciplinary cultures, we cannot be sure what to expect in the years to come—but what I do believe to be true today is that we can make a difference in the past, present and future through contemporary forms of heritage practice.

ZEITGEIST: Dawid Kobialka

Star Trek into Archaeology: Captain James T. Kirk and Heritage from the Future

Dawid Kobialka, PhD Student, Adam Mickiewicz University

Definitely, it was not a good day for Theodor Adorno (2005: 25), otherwise great German philosopher, when he honestly admitted in Minima Moralia: ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse’. What Adorno despised was not only Hollywood movies, but generally, popular culture per se that was part of culture industry. However, it can be said that today there are many interesting things taking place in cinema that can inspire archaeologists. One of them concerns heritage; the subject that is very close to our hearts.

For many decades cultural heritage was seen through the lens of great monuments/buildings from the past (e.g. Stonehenge). Nonetheless, some new trends have been recently observed within the heritage sector. That is to say, more and more ordinary, day-to-day things are recognized as cultural heritage. This is one of the faces of spirit of our time (Zeitgeist): even an ordinary object has its own historical and cultural value (figure 1). By the same token, cultural heritage seems to be everything what we inherit from the past. Popular culture gives conceptual tools to slightly correct this point of view. To put it paradoxically, cultural heritage is also everything what we inherit from the future.

Figure 1 (1)
Figure 1: Heritage from the recent past: a bottle of vodka (author Dawid Kobiałka).

Star Trek is, without any doubt, one of the greatest cultural goods created in the US. It is a series of novels, comic books, TV series and movies, about the crew of the starship Enterprise and its different stories that happen during the exploration of the universe. The Captain of the starship is my beloved hero from childhood: Captain James T. Kirk. And he might be the key to understanding archaeological Zeitgeist, so to speak.

In Riverside, Iowa is a small plaque (figure 2). It commemorates the fact that captain Kirk will be born in this town on March 22, 2228. The plaque is very ambiguous. It does not concern with some true event from the past as it is usually in the case of such monuments. On the contrary, it says about a fictional, future event. The usual logic is turned around here. The plague might embody some trends of crucial significance for today’s archaeology. In other words, instead of focusing on hard data and heritage from the past, archaeologists need to focus also on the role of fiction (popular culture) and heritage from the future for contemporary society.

Figure 2 (1)
Figure 2: Heritage from the future(1).

The Captain Kirk plaque is not the only example that indicates the increasing role of popular culture heritage from the future. Another one that was also extremely popular on the Internet is Rä di Martimo’s pictures took in the desert of Tunisia and Morocco (e.g Gorence 2013). What made the pictures so intriguing is the fact that they present buildings and other facilities from George Lucas’ Star Wars. One is seeing in them ‘real’, ‘material’ buildings from the planet Tatooine. It is as if reality and fiction became one. The point to be made here is very simple: these buildings, although belonging to a different universe (as it is known to every devotee of Star Wars, Taooine is located in Outer Rim Territories), are our common heritage. But this heritage comes from the future….

Archaeology is a social and cultural practice. In accordance with that, to be important for contemporary society, archaeology needs to address topics of general interest. One way of doing it goes, in my opinion, through the links between popular culture and heritage (from the future). The heritage of popular culture is the one that we as archaeologists should more carefully reflect upon. Who knows?: perhaps contemporary archaeologies and the heritage sector should be more about the future than the past (see also Holtorf & Högberg 2013).


[1] See [accessed October 1, 2013].


Adorno, T. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott. London & New York, Verso.

Gorence, A. 2013. Remnants of abandoned Star Wars Sets in Morocco and Tunisia reminiscent of ancient ruins. Feature shoot, February 1, 2013. Available at: [accessed October 1, 2013].

Holtorf, C. &  Högberg, A. 2013. Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In: S. Bergerbrant & S. Sabatini (eds.), Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kritisian Kristiansen, BAR International Series 2508. Archaeopress: Oxford, pp. 739-46.


John Roby, Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania

As a lifelong science fiction fan, I was fascinated to read Dawid Kobiałka’s thoughts on a sort of “future heritage” pinned to the delightfully anachronistic, extant material culture of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would like to briefly raise one concern and one point of expansion.

Leaving aside the vision of Theodor Adorno sitting in on the latest Star Trek film, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of the culture industry runs deeper than mere dislike. To Adorno and others, the troubling thing about a cultural production like a film was its ability to create a false sense of choice and freedom in the viewer, while reproducing the structural conditions within which that viewer was enmeshed (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982). A material object, of course, has a use-value, while a cultural production has value only in the way it instills prestige and knowledge in its consumer. The culture industry manipulates those created needs, thus appearing to provide what consumers want, while actually training them to want more things that are of less value. Just as “the diner must be satisfied with the menu,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982: 139), the viewer must be satisfied with the film. So goes the criticism.

Yet I have trouble accepting that as the end of the discussion. To me, the best science fiction articulates a hopeful vision of human possibility. This is particularly true for Star Trek, with its celebration of unity in diversity and its future history in which we have moved beyond superstition and want and war. To that end, I find the memorialization of Captain Kirk’s future birthplace to be, as Kobiałka notes, quite compelling. I agree that the concept of heritage can, and perhaps should be, extended to a vision of the future, and I suggest that memory offers a way out of the “hard data” bind to which Kobiałka makes reference.

The immateriality of fiction appears to be a hurdle to using a certain vision of the future to organize praxis in the present. But this hurdle is itself illusory: Archaeology is in the business of presencing the absent, “enfranchising it as an object of social discourse” (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 174). Fiction’s locations are by definition absent, but monumental buildings and memorials can concretize that absence, serving as foci for remembrance. Moreover, as Joan W. Scott (2001) makes clear, history (and, I would add, heritage work) constructs its object, it does not discover it. In light of this, there is no particular reason an object or locus inspired by a work of fiction cannot serve as a site of cultural memory (Connerton 1989, 2009).

My concern is with what memories and memorial practices would be foregrounded at such a site. Kobiałka suggests greater attention to the heritage of popular culture. The term itself is too vague to suit me; I tend to lean toward the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture and the capitalism-serving consumption that it engenders. Star Trek, though, is different. A monument that serves to recall the values it lauds and suggests concrete practices to achieve them is a small step to making that future less fictional and more possible.


Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas. 2001. “Presencing Absence.” In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, edited by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, 171-174. London: Routledge.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connerton, Paul. 2009. How Modernity Forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1982. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.

Scott, Joan W. 2001. “After History?” In Schools of Thought: Twenty-Five Years of Interpretive Social Science, edited by Joan W. Scott and Debra Keates, 85-103.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Sanctifying Our Sites: Self-reflection on an archaeological dig

Ceri Houlbrook, PhD Researcher, University of Manchester

If I had to propose a title for my line of research – and the label-loving realm of academia suggests that I do – then I would declare myself a folklore archaeologist. Basically, I employ archaeological methodologies in my study of folkloric objects and structures.

But these archaeological methodologies rarely include excavation, and so, even though I’ve been dipping my toe into non-research-related digs over the years, I’m really – in the literal and metaphorical sense of the term – an archaeologist without a trowel. However, in September 2013, I had my first opportunity to get my hands dirty in a dig that was relevant to my research.

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For my thesis, I’ve been studying British coin-trees, which are exactly what they sound like: trees which have had coins embedded into their barks for various folkloric purposes, such as luck or wish-fulfilment. I’ve catalogued over 200 of these trees, ranging in date from the late 18th century to the present day.

There was one particular coin-tree which took my interest; a dead hawthorn in Argyll, Scotland, which I was having difficulty dating. One source claimed that it was ‘centuries’ old, whilst the landowner opined that the custom had begun in the 1920s. The coins embedded into the tree, however, all post-dated the 1950s. And so when the evidence on the ground doesn’t proffer the information you need, what do archaeologists do? We dig.

I’m not writing this post to discuss the results of this excavation, which will be published elsewhere (although for the sake of the curious reader, I’ll briefly remark that the landowner’s estimation of the 1920s doesn’t appear to have been far off the mark). Instead, what I’m aiming to discuss are the processes of an excavation from the perspective of someone who’s new to those processes. Because, even though I’d been to this coin-tree site before, it suddenly felt very different – because this time I wasn’t there as a folklorist, but as an archaeologist.

There’s something about designating a place an ‘archaeological excavation site’ that gives it more prestige – even, to a certain extent, a sense of sanctity. The ranging rods, surveying equipment, array of buckets, shovels, trowels, and measuring tapes, all contribute to this shift, as if they imbue it with greater importance. They are props, removing it from the surrounding landscape, marking it out as something ‘special’. Archaeologists are often accused of desecration; in the hackneyed words of Mortimer Wheeler, ‘Archaeology is destruction’ (1954: 15). However, I would argue that we do the opposite. We don’t desecrate; we consecrate.


Although I’m always careful around coin-trees, I’ve never felt the same excessive anxiety as I did on this excavation. I was suddenly incredibly cautious about how I physically engaged with the site; I was reluctant to touch the tree, and whenever I moved around in its vicinity, I did so gingerly, as if so much as breathing on the coin-tree would bring the whole thing crashing down. It was a strange transition from my last visit, when I’d viewed the coin-tree as a natural part of the landscape rather than as a fragile monument, and it really struck me that archaeology doesn’t just explore sites; it alters them.

And we alter ourselves to accommodate them.

From what I’ve observed, people don’t revere these coin-trees. They don’t perceive them as solemn or consecrated, but as interesting features that they can touch, climb over/under, sit on, and hammer their own coins into. They don’t worry about the fragility of these structures; to them, it’s inevitable that the coin-trees will eventually fragment and decay. And so there’s nothing conservative about the ways in which members of the public interact with these monuments.

But as archaeologists, we don’t class ourselves as ‘members of the public’. To an extent, we don’t class ourselves as ‘people’. We’re like time-travellers; we’re scared to interfere lest we alter something that shouldn’t be altered, and so we remove ourselves from time and place. We treat our sites as sacred; we handle our finds not as if they were objects meant to be handled, but as artefacts, fragile and enshrined.

Now I’m not suggesting that all archaeologists everywhere change their approach. There’s a reason we act the way we do. But what I am suggesting is that in some cases perhaps, in order to gain both a fuller and deeper understanding of a site, we should allow ourselves to engage with places and structures the way everyone else does. To experience them as people rather than just as archaeologists.


Sara Gonzalez, Assistant Professor, University of Washington

Much like Ceri describes, I too approach the practice of archaeology with a sense of reverence.  I understand the sites where I work as belonging to a living heritage; their spaces and materials as deserving of proper treatment and care. Care here refers to the attitudes and practices one observes while working with cultural heritage.

Yet, this perspective is not so much an artifact of my training, as it is the result of my experiences working with Indigenous communities in California and the Pacific Northwest.  In these contexts the science and trappings of archaeology neither consecrate nor make an ancestral place sacred. In fact, archaeology can, and often has, achieved quite the opposite effect (Deloria 1969; Mihesuah 2000; Trigger 1980).  This colonial legacy has led many within the field to re-configure the practice of archaeology so that it is informed by both archaeological and Indigenous values and principles.

Let me illustrate using an example of my work with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians at Fort Ross State Historic Park in northern California where I am working with the tribe and the California Department of Parks and Recreation to develop a cultural heritage trail.  Given Kashia concerns over the practice of archaeology on ancestral sites, the project worked with the community to develop a research methodology that integrates Kashia worldviews into the management and representation of their ancestral homeland, Metini (Gonzalez 2011).

The disturbance of sacred sites with profane acts—which is how the Kashia define archaeological practice—is potentially spiritually dangerous.  Hence, despite a long history of collaboration with anthropologists in the early 20th century, the tribe refused to participate in archaeological research until it was reframed as a ceremonial undertaking (Dowdall and Parrish 2003).  This reframing was achieved through observance of Kashaya cultural laws in our daily practices wherein we regarded Kashia ancestral sites as part of a sacred, living landscape that requires sacrifice on the part of individuals.

To borrow Ceri’s words, in altering ourselves to accommodate these places, we mitigate the danger of archaeology and demonstrate our respect for both the tribal community and their ancestors. This was the primary way we moved away from creating knowledge about the Kashaya to creating knowledge with them (Tamisari 2006:24).  The distinction here is forming reciprocal, non-hierarchical relationships that respect the individual contributions of collaborators.  In this way we came to view the knowledge we create as the result of social relationships that proceed from a place of mutual respect, honesty, integrity, and trust.  This, in turn, fostered an openness of communication so that tribal elders, scholars, and community members could remember and share histories of Fort Ross and Metini, thus contributing to the development of interpretation for the cultural heritage trail.

We each have our own way of relating to our work and to the places we find ourselves in.  But I would urge archaeologists, as Ceri does, to explore how local communities engage with their cultural landscapes, as this knowledge broadens our imagination and approach to the places and spaces of our work.


Deloria, Vine 1969 Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.  Macmillan, New York.

Dowdall, K. M. and O. O. Parrish 2003 A Meaningful Disturbance of the Earth. Journal of Social Archaeology 3:99-133.

Gonzalez, S. 2011 Creating Trails from Traditions: The Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail at Fort Ross State Historic Park.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley.

Mihesuah, D. A. (editor) 2000 Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Tamisari, F. 2006 “Personal Acquaintance”: Essential Individuality and the Possibilities of Encounters. In Provoking Ideas: Critical Indigenous Studies, edited by T. Lea, E. Kowal and G. Cowlishaw, pp. 17-36. Darwin University Press, Darwin.

 Trigger, B. G. 1980 Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian. American Antiquity 45:662- 76.


Matt Law, Faculty Member at Bath Spa University

The Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL next month will explore how archaeology has provided food for tales of the supernatural. Ceri’s work highlights another interesting aspect of archaeology and the supernatural, namely how archaeology can contribute to understanding how folkloric practices originate and persist. As a newcomer to archaeological fieldwork, she also provides some important insights into what archaeological investigations can mean.

The idea of consecrating places through designating them as archaeological sites is especially interesting, and feeds the idea of archaeology as social or political action. As Don Henson (2009, 117) has noted, archaeology is ‘inherently elitist’, as archaeologists seek to maintain their position as the experts, and it has a tendency to become ‘a self-selecting clique, defined by references to itself and reinforced through adopting particular methods of communication and practice’ (Henson 2009, 121). But this idea of sanctifying sites shows that archaeology –especially when it is conducted with people outside of the discipline – has the power to instil broader value on places that may be of immense social importance, but overlooked because of the transient or marginalised nature of the groups to whom they are important (e.g sites used by the homeless or vulnerably housed (Kiddey and Schofield 2011); or those related to clandestine crossings on the US-Mexico border  (De León 2012). Folklore and superstition are prone to being overlooked in modern Britain.

The objective nature of the archaeological process is rightly identified here. Often, this is a way of attempting to ensure scientific objectivity, much more rarely a coping strategy when faced with particularly harrowing finds. My own experience is that archaeologists’ emotional engagement with their sites is seldom as dispassionate as the language of the reports they later produce would suggest. Of course, many do explicitly discuss experiential aspects of the site, especially from the perspective of the population being studied (this can even be attempted from analysis of snail shells from the site (see Evans 2005), and both objective and subjective approaches to archaeology should be (and often are!) seen as complementary, although care should always be taken not to privilege the excavator’s worldview, which may not reveal much about life in the past.


De León, J., 2012. “Better to be hot than caught”. Excavating the conflicting roles of migrant material culture. American Anthropologist, 114 (3), pp. 477-495.

Evans, J.G., 2005. The snails, in D. Benson & A. Whittle (eds.) Building Memories: the Neolithic Cotswold long barrow at Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 55-70.

Henson, D., 2009. What on earth is archaeology? In E. Waterton & L. Smith (eds.) Taking archaeology out of heritage (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) pp. 117-135.

Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J., 2011. Embrace the margins: adventures in archaeology and homelessness. Public Archaeology, 10 (1), pp. 4-22.