WARP 2019: kill your computer

Directing (or rather co-directing) an archaeological project for the first time is like teaching for the first time: it seems impossibly difficult at first, and you wonder how (and maybe why) anyone does it. But with every year it gets a bit easier, so although our first field season in 2014 seemed so hard, in 2015 and 2016 things seemed much more under control, as we found little ways to streamline our operation and the staff had more experience and more familiarity with each other.

But the learning curve with field seasons doesn’t translate to the other phases of the project. This summer I worked together with a small team (no more than 6 people were working at any one time) whose job was finalizing the study of our material, preparing our data, and writing for publication. That’s a different sort of challenge altogether, and this summer I experienced feelings like those in 2014. In 2014, I kept asking everyone, “Why are we doing this? Why does anyone direct archaeological projects?” This year, I kept suggesting to everyone that our lives would be better if we deleted all of our data, destroyed our finds, and wrote an old school archaeological monograph short on data and based almost entirely of our (faulty) memories of what we found and where we found it. I mean, if a figure as distinguished as Dimitrios Pallas can publish a site in such a way that its location is impossible to find, why can’t that be good enough for us?

I’m not (and wasn’t) being serious, of course. But I do think that it is true that the digital both makes our lives incredibly easy and introduces new difficulties. On the one hand, having really good GPS points and a drone orthophoto allows us to map fortifications with methods that are incredibly simple and produce really good, accurate drawings that are immeasurably superior to what survey projects produced back in the day. Photogrammetry is a great way to document architecture. On the other hand, digital infrastructures are precisely what allowed our survey to adopt data-rich strategies. We collected a lot of pottery, in part because we had confidence that our ceramicists would be able to say a lot about it — but this year I felt like I was drowning in our data.

Of course, a survey, even one like ours, doesn’t produce nearly as much data as many excavations. So I found myself thinking this summer that I sort of understand — even if I don’t like it or find it ethical — why so many projects never publish their results. Looking directly at our data is frightening.

I don’t mean to imply that the new difficulties of digital data are bad things. I actually think that they’re good. Good archaeology is hard. In a 2004 paper in Side-by-side Survey, Tim Cunningham and Jan Driessen wrote that “Modern intensive survey techniques have produced data on a level that is far more precise than is necessary in many cases, while at the same time often restricting interpretation to a general, coarse-grained summary of results.” After this year, I feel that I understand why that’s so. Our data is probably too precise, but coming up with interpretations that do justice to our data is going to be hard. A responsible project is expected to produce a “final publication” in a timely manner that definitively presents the evidence and interpretation of the project, but the kinds of interpretations that our data demand are hard and take time.

Something else that Cunningham and Driessen wrote in their 2004 paper was “We need to get rid of the concept of ‘final publication’ and consider exactly what is needed, who needs it, and how to get it to them.” That’s something that I thought about a lot this summer, too. We talked about the publication of our digital data, for instance, the best and most responsible ways to do that. We think that we can achieve that fairly quickly. A descriptive treatment of our survey and its finds will take a bit more time, and is the goal of our “final publication.” Of course there will be plenty of interpretation in that volume. But that, for me at least, is really just the first step. A rich, layered interpretation of our project probably isn’t something that can be part of a timely “final publication,” but is rather something that will require a more long-term engagement with our data and the region.

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