Archaeology Day 2014 my day

Where did you say you left those epistemological cleavers and ontological chisels?
Where did you say you left those epistemological cleavers and ontological chisels?

July 11th, 2014 was this year’s designated Day of Archaeology, a day for any archaeologist to share some aspect of their working life with the world at large. Here are some of the things that were preoccupying me that day.

Early that morning, I walked down a mountain through olive groves, with the pre dawn breeze wafting me gently on, to catch a bus from the SE Cretan town of Makrigialos which took me to ancient and modern Irepetras, Europe’s most southerly port city, and from there onwards to Heraklion Airport from where I posted my Day of Archaeology blog. It was a beautiful scenic route, taking in sections of both of Crete’s impossibly sapphire-blue south and north coasts, and a pass though island’s eastern massifs, gorge riven, and pine forested, and of course ancient groves filled with contemporary olives. The shaded coolness of the air conditioned buses provided a stark contrast to the solar sintered landscapes through which the the bus wended its way. En route I passed by the Minoan impregnated places of Vasaliki, Gournia and Malia. The past endures in Crete. It’s persistent.

So, a journey to sit back and reflect.

This was the second time I’ve been to the island this year. I talked at a conference in March, held in Rethymnon, another beautiful city; ancient, persistently Venetian. The inaugeral conference of ‘Computer Applications in Archaeology – Greece’ was very inspirational. I contributed some thoughts on ‘Additive Archaeology’ a term I coined with my friend and colleague Gareth Beale to explore the potential impact of additive manufacturing, most commonly seen in 3D printing, on archaeology. We argued it had potential for a new kind of ‘virtual archaeology’, another term I coined in another millennia which has become, bizarrely, at least to me, strangely persistent.

While travelling, I reflected on some of the things I’d read over the previous weeks. You see, I’d been on holiday and was heading home to UK where I’d soon join a team of archaeologists conducting field work at the Iron Age hillfort on Moel y Gaer, Bodfari in North Wales. I’m interested in the material persistence of archaeological assemblages, or entities, and how they emerge through interaction with other entities, including archaeologists, theories, interpretations and tool kits. Chris Fowler has eloquently summed it: ”whereas the present is fleeting, the past is what endures: fleeting moments are entangled within an unfolding past”.

The theorists I’d been reading reflect a major shift in thinking by some parts of the archaeological community. My colleague Andy Jones and Benjamin Alberti for example argue for “a reorientation from questions of an essentially epistemological nature — what constitutes archaeological knowledge and how do we go about securing it — to concerns of an ontological kind. What are archaeological entities and what is the real character of archaeological thought and practice?” This latter approach, known variously as a post interpretive or non representionalist position, draws attention to the fluid ecosystem of polytemporal relationships arising beween all the perpetually interacting agents implicated through archaeological research practices ( e.g., theories, archaeoloists, institutions, materials, technologies, instruments, techniques, and methodology). The corollary according to Fowler is that since all this knowhow and wherewithal “is equally real, copresent and entangled, it is impossible to separate reality from theory or interpretation and test one against the other”. Put another way, there aren’t archaeological facts ‘out there’ awaiting discovery, no stable singularities ready to be clove off with epistemological cleavers. Rather, all these elements are relational, real but conditional. They are chiseled out and sculptured. In the words of Jones and Alberti “rather than interpreting the meaning of the artifacts they excavate through contextual analysis, archeologists shape and compose the assemblages that they excavate; through this process of composition, interpretation and evaluation arises”.

At CAA Greece, and later in the spring at CAA Paris, we highlighted how when a new technology is introduced into archaeology, the change in practice often makes explicit the craft knowledge, that invisible tacit knowledge, characterised by Bruno Latour as ‘black boxed’. Through such windows of time, of practice, we are given another chance to reassess those techniques, methods, tools, truths and theoretical assumptions before they are again reified within the instruments, technology and praxis of contemporary archaeology, time, in other words, to reflect on the ontological multiplicity, of these ‘new’ multifaceted, ‘extended objects’ which emerge when we look at things from a ‘new’ perspective, and thereby make a new translation, a new instantiation. All our previous notions, theories, measurements, facts, and assumptions are still intact, we have just added some new dimensions to what was there previously. Once again Fowler sumsmitbup neatly: “Each time we instantiate a network, assemblage, or phenomenon, it is different: a unique configuration. Yet, …, many of the components, actants, intra-actions, and so on do endure in similar ways from one instantiation to the next. One assemblage bleeds into others. These “new” assemblages are not exactly the same as the previous instantiations, but some of their properties seem to endure from one set of relations to another.”

The latest, potentially disruptive technology on the archaeological horizon called, generically, additive manufacturing, but popularised and hyped now as 3D printing, has been around longer than virtual archaeology, and encompasses a set of far more mature technologies that have long since passed over the peak of inflated expectations, through the trough of disillusionment, and are steadily advancing up the slope of enlightenment to the stable plateau of productivity, according to industry analysts Gartner. 3D printing is already causing fundamental changes to our interactions with the finds record and other archaeological assemblages. The Smithsonian museum, for example, has embarked on the ambitious X3D project, which aims to digitalise all 137 million iconic items in its collection, and make them available for 3D printing anywhere in the world. In so doing, we should note, they are also making them available for transcultural discourses within ethnographic archaeologies, in the sense of Castañeda and Mathews. Imagine, if you will, that we might also print, the ‘context’ (assemblage, constellation, entity) in which these artefacts were ‘discovered/recovered/re purposed’ – materially vibrant translations imbued with more cognitive depth, more memories.

Additive manufacturing is just one technology enabling the spirit of virtual archaeology to generate new challenges to transform archaeological practice positively. Printing artefacts, monuments and cultural landscapes is established technologically, and is already starting to disrupt both transcultural and disciplinary discourses and narratives as direct access to these e-cultural entities by almost anyone, almost anywhere, to aggregate and disaggregate, to materialise and rematerialise them in any transcultural space, effectively disintermediates the opinions, interpretations and ‘authority’ of archaeologists and cultural resource managers. A richer multivalent archaeology is emerging. The implications of this abbreviated, and much truncated, thesis for archaeology are immense. Releasing the spirit of virtual archaeology thus will add a further technological nuance to the debate on the ontology of archaeology. Additive manufacturing provides a credible challenge to current archaeological practice, if we persist.

Photo caption Trench 3, Middle rampart Bodfari Hillfort excavations: where did you say you left those epistemological cleavers and ontological chisels?

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