Tag Archives: slow archaeology

Slow archaeology & the prestige economy

This blog post is a response to two other blog posts. First, Andre Costopoulos wrote a post entitled “The traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science.” Here is his argument, broken down into outline:

  1. “Archaeologists are traditionally defined by the material they know.” That knowledge is often defined regionally and temporally, e.g. the Late Bronze Age Argolid. These specialists act as gatekeepers to research (permits and grants) and publications. The reputations of these specialists are very important to their professional success.
  2. “It isn’t surprising then, that the road to an open science of archaeology is a slow and fitful one.” This where I disagree with Costopoulos, so I’m going to quote him to make sure I represent his argument faithfully:

Young archaeologists have, naturally, been pushing hard for the opening of databases and for the sharing of raw materials. Recognition by peers for mastery of these is coin of the realm. With some notable exceptions, their senior colleagues have been less eager to open up the vaults.

Whether they consciously realize it or not, the sharing of information is a threat to the prestige and even the livelihood of many established archaeologists, both academic and professional. Their status as keepers of the review process and holders of permits is devalued if the arcane knowledge on which it is founded is widely disseminated and easily available. The impressions on which the judgements of keepers depend are acquired over decades of digging, both literal and figurative. If the information that formed the impressions is suddenly democratized, what power will the clergy hold?

The second blog post I’m responding to is Bill Caraher’s response to Costopoulos. Bill re-interprets Costopoulos’s piece as a critique of “slow archaeology”:

I’ve insisted that slow archaeology depends upon deep familiarity with a site and its material. This kind of knowledge resists the kind of neatly-organized and regimented transparency that is sometimes presented as open science (although, to be fair, open science types have recognized the value of slow data). If we argue that archaeological methods and practices (and the knowledge that it produces) is more similar to craft and communicated through personal networks, apprenticeships, and experience, then it would seem that it is resistant, to some extent, to open science.

My ideas aren’t fully-formed here, so I might be barking up the wrong tree, but I think something important is being elided. Costopoulos talks about data and information. Bill talks about knowledge. But what’s really at stake in specialists defending their turf isn’t data or knowledge (exactly), but rather skill. My friend Kim Shelton could make all of her pottery databases available to me but that wouldn’t make me a specialist in Mycenaean pottery. I wouldn’t know what she knows, I won’t have seen what she’s seen. If I used her databases to write an analytical article about Mycenaean pottery, I wouldn’t be welcomed into the warm embrace of Mycenaean ceramicists. I wouldn’t be one of them. I wouldn’t have their skill or their knowledge, just their data.

I don’t think that open data will really democratize the archaeological academy. To answer Costopoulos’ question, “If the information that formed the impressions is suddenly democratized, what power will the clergy hold?” The answer is: plenty.

I’d suggest that if we want to democratize archaeology, much more important are (1) access to actual archaeological materials (and not just their digital ghosts) and (2) more mentoring on the part of specialists. (1) is clearly a problem in many parts of the world, including the part that I work in (Greece); (2) I think is less of a problem. Most specialists are incredibly giving of their knowledge and willing to train the next generation.


My grand challenges for archaeology

Doug Rocks-McQueen invited me to participate in a blogging carnival about the “grand challenges” of my archaeology. I meant to give this some serious thought and to write a blog entry (slowly, as is my wont) but I’ve been swarmed by a bunch of deadlines that I’m trying to keep, so instead this will be short and sweet. It will also be relatively undigested and maybe even stupid.

  1. Rapid publication. Everyone I know, including myself, thinks that rapid, open-access, digital publication is good. It is good. We have a duty, especially when our work is being publicly funded, but not just because of that, to publish our results (meaning data and interpretations) in a rapid, accessible way. The internet has made this a real possibility just when the amount of data being produced by archaeologists has sky-rocketed. That’s great. On the other hand, we don’t want a situation where data is being live-streamed at the trowel’s edge to the point that the producers of that knowledge have no ability to think seriously about it, because that’s also bad; bad for knowledge production, because real advances and good interpretations require careful contemplation (Bill Caraher’s slow archaeology extends beyond the trench’s edge to interpretation), but also it would be bad if field archaeologists were mere data-producers for high-minded armchair archaeologists who immediately accessed it, processed it, and produced narratives and interpretations in which the interpreters were entirely separated and disembodied from the archaeological process. This sounds oldy-timey, I know. But I have friends who spend an awful amount of time doing hard work in the field only to have it “scooped” when they present it at conferences or in blog posts or whatever. This isn’t a problem with rapid publication per se, but the rapidity of the process, while wonderful, has other consequences.
  2. Archaeology and the public. Where I work, in Greece, there is a tension between the official organs of archaeological practice and the public at large. Especially the rural public, where I work, tends to be suspicious and resentful of archaeologists who can threaten their livelihood by expropriating their agricultural land. The archaeologists, in turn, are suspicious of looters and looting. This is a difficult situation in which to work, because I want to have an open discourse with the local communities in which I work. My own feeling, which is perhaps naive, is that the best way forward for archaeology and archaeologists is to open dialogues with local communities and the public, to encourage a feeling that the cultural heritage in their backyards is their cultural heritage and ought to be something that they value and protect. At present, that’s not really the case. People tend to have a fairly pragmatic view of the ancient Greek material past where I work: if it can be monetized by attracting tourists (as at Mycenae, although most of the people I talk to don’t think that the inhabitants of that village have done a good job capitalizing on tourist revenues), that’s great; otherwise, it just gets in the way. From the perspective of the archaeologist, that’s clearly a problem, but at the moment, I feel caught in the middle: I want to open a dialogue to educate and inform – and again, I feel that this is my duty – but neither do I want to go against the wishes of the local authorities, whose job it is to manage and protect the cultural heritage of the Greek nation. I really respect the job that they do, and I want to help. I suppose that at the moment, I’m not convinced that business as usual will lead to a long-term improvement of the risks faced by cultural heritage in Greece.

These are not the grandest of challenges – I know that archaeologists elsewhere face much greater ones. And in a country suffering from economic recession/depression and doing its best to help refugees from drowning in its seas, these grand challenges seem especially trivial. But they are the things that I worry about.