ZEITGEIST: Stuart Eve

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.

Distances in landscape archaeology

Distance is one of the easiest geographical attributes archaeologists can measure these days. The availability of digital data and the existence of free data providers such as Google Earth mean that the location of virtually every place on the Earth can be measured in relation with another. Computerized tools such as AutoCad or Geographical Information System allows measuring distances with precision; in addition, the latter allows manipulating distance measurements in different ways and creating visualisations of different kinds of distances. However, not all distances are archaeologically significant.

Distances have to be substantiated in archaeology. They have to relate to something tangible, something material. Distance is a corporeal quality in a physical world. We have to find dating evidence to measure distance between two ancient towns, different archaeological sites or two find spots. In addition, there is a cost to be measured and this can be measured in distance, energy or speed. Now matter how the measurement is made it has to connect two points that had significance in the past.

Distances do not exist only on the paper maps or digital coverages but in our minds. We evaluate distances and attach values to them. We consider affordances (Gibson 1979) and take journeys on that basis. We use our subjective mental maps (cf. Ekman and Bratfisch 1965; Gold 1965; Gold and White 1974; Downs and Stea 1973; 1977) and behave accordingly (cf. Guttenplan 2000, 17-26).

People have through time had different preferences. These preferences guided travel and potentially made daily lives different from one period to another. One can map these taskscapes (cf. Ingold 1993) through distributions of chronologically distinct finds (Rajala in press). Potentially significant distances can be measured between entities. In my own research I have measured the distances between a central place in a territory and datable finds. This approach has shown that the relationship between the ancient town of Nepi and taskscapes changed through time.


View Nepi in a larger map

Naturally, the distance from Nepi, settled from the 9th century BC onwards, did not correlate with the amount of prehistoric flints in any way. On the other hand, prehistoric pottery (Neolithic – Late Bronze Age/ Early Iron Age) was found farther away from Nepi than any other material group. A respectful distance was left between proper sites; this is confirmed by the existence of the bronze age Il Pizzo at Nepi. There was no correlation between distance from Nepi and the amount of Orientalising and Archaic pottery. However, the distribution was slightly skewed towards longer distances and variance was higher than with any other category. This suggests that the distribution originated from both settlement and funerary sites and was influenced by many varied processes. Dissimilarly, distance from Nepi was almost significantly different between the units with and without Roman pottery; Roman pottery was found nearer the centre. This shows how intensive the Roman land use was and how rural settlement started from the outskirts of the town unlike during the previous periods. The town had pulling power.

On the other hand, the distances affect archaeologists intellectually. We have our own mental maps moulded by our interests, attitudes and values. The archaeological attitudes towards meaningful change and this can be measured in distance. I showed some time ago (Rajala et al. 1999) how road networks defined landscape in archaeological survey in central Italy during the 20th century. Roman archaeological remains as a dominant feature guided archaeological research in the area (cf. Ashby 1927; Fredriksen and Ward Perkins 1957). Archaeologists followed the Roman roads and looked for visible remains in their vicinity.

This classical emphasis became weaker towards the end of the 20th century when blanket surface survey became a standard method. For example, Potter’s (n.d.) survey in the southern Faliscan area as part of the groundbreaking South Etruria Survey (cf. Potter 1977; Patterson 1998; Coarelli and Patterson 2008) on the western side of the Tiber aimed at exploring sites in all accessible fields with surface visibility. This can be measured by defining the distances between the known Roman roads and the surveyed sites and comparing them to those by Fredriksen and Ward Perkins (1957). The difference between two surveys and their mental landscapes can be visualised through GIS maps (see Figs. 1 and 2). The visualised distances are Carthesian; if the cost of movement, i.e. the roughness and steepness of landscape, would have taken into account, the difference may have been even clearer.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 2

The proof of the bias came through a simple statistical analysis. Nearly all sites visited by Fredriksen and Ward Perkins (1957) located less than 500 metres from a Roman road. A one-sample chi-squared test confirmed that the H0 hypothesis could be rejected with complete confidence. This showed that Roman roads affected the discovery pattern and that this survey method resulted in a distorted picture of the real settlement pattern. In contrast, the sites Potter surveyed (listed in Potter n.d.) located in average at 550 m from the Roman roads. The chi-squared test showed that the chi-squared was clearly lower than the µ-value at the 95 % level of significance. The distance from Roman roads did not affect the finding of sites.

Bibliography

Coarelli F., and Patterson, H., 2008 (eds). Mercator Placidissimus – The Tiber Valley in Antiquity: New Research in the Upper and Middle Valley, Rome, 27–28 February 2004 (Quaderni di Eutopia 8). Rome: Quasar.

Downs, R. M., & Stea, D., 1973. Image and environment: Cognitive mapping and spatial behavior. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.

Downs, R. M., and Stea, D., 1977. Maps in minds: Reflections on cognitive mapping. New York: Harper & Row.

Ekman, G., and Bratfisch, O., 1965. ‘Subjective Distance and Emotional Involvement: A Psychological Mechanism’, Acta Psychologica, 24, 446-53.

Frederiksen, M. W., and Ward Perkins, J.B., 1957. ‘The ancient road systems of the central and northern Ager Faliscus (notes on southern Etruria, 2)’, Papers of the British School at Rome 25, 67-203.

Gibson, J. J., 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gould, P.R., 1965. On mental maps. Discussion paper no. 9. Ann Arbor: Michigan Inter-University Community of Mathematical Geographers.

Gould, P.R. and White, R., 1974. Mental maps. London: Penguin.

Guttenplan, S., 2000. Mind’s Landscape. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell.

Patterson, H. and Millett, M., 1998 ‘The Tiber Valley Project’, Papers of the British School at Rome 66, 1–20.

Potter, T. W., n.d. An archaeological field survey of the central and southern Ager Faliscus. Unpublished manuscript.

Potter, T. W., 1979. The changing landscape of south Etruria. London: Elek.

Rajala, U., in press. ‘Political landscapes and local identities in Archaic central Italy – Interpreting the material from Nepi (VT, Lazio) and Cisterna Grande (Crustumerium, RM, Lazio)’, in S. Stoddart and G. Cifani (eds.). Landscape, ethnicity and identity in the archaic Mediterranean area. Oxford: Oxbow.

Rajala, U., Harrison, A., and Stoddart, S., 1999. ’The enhancement of the south Etruria survey. GIS in the study of the research history of the southern Faliscan area’, in Archaeology in the age of Internet. CAA97. British Archaeological Reports, International Series (CD).