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2015

Slow Archaeology: Technology, Efficiency, and Archaeological Work


William Caraher
University of North Dakota
Paper delivered at
Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: the Potential of Digital Archaeology
Boston, MA
27-28 February 2015
Introduction
The phase slow archaeology came to me while I was giving a paper last year at the University
of Massachusetts at a conference organized by Eric Poehler. On my flight from eastern North
Dakota to western Massachusetts, I had happened to read a paper on slow teaching, and had
ample time to think and reflect while my trip endured several travel delays brought on by an early
spring snow storm. My paper at UMass, which I think is available on my blog, considered the impact
of digital tools on archaeology as a craft. I appealed to recent observations on the deskilling of
academia, the long conflict between craft and industrial modes of production, and some anecdotal
observations about archaeological practice in the field. Since then, Ive co-edited a small volume on
the international slow movement that included a small reflective essay on slow archaeology.
That little essay continued to nudge my distracted mind to parse my thoughts on digital practices
in archaeology into three interrelated lines which I will explore briefly here. First, and probably
foremost, I continue to have a strong interest in the way that digital tools are shaping field practice.
This involves everything from physical orientation of the archaeologist toward the trench or survey
unit to the time spent on various procedures. Next, I want to briefly consider the interplay of digital
tools as parts of larger digital ecosystems. The interplay between tools in this ecosystems shape the
potential of digital tools and the ways that they are used. The distinct workflows required of an
increasingly digital practice extends, of course, to the shape of social and spatial organization of
archaeology. So, for the final section of my paper, Id like to reflect on the physical place of
archaeological objects and work in a digital world. The use of digital tools has allowed us to produce
portable digital surrogates of archaeological objects, to borrow a term and an idea from Adam

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Rabinowitz, and carry them away from their physical contexts. In fact, recent advances in 3D
scanning has allowed us to reconstruct entire archaeological environments on our laptops and
mobile devices. My hope is that slow archaeology goes beyond just being a little more deliberate in
the field, to become a useful term to discuss the larger contexts for both our work as archaeologists
and the objects that we study.
Earlier versions of this paper have emphasized the profoundly modern character of archaeology
as a discipline. Archaeological practice over the past century has appealed to modern methods
ranging from the adoption of photography and standards of technical drawing, to the organization
of labor along industrial lines. Artifacts of craft persisted in the discipline, of course (as Latour
reminds us we have never been (fully) modern), but with the arrival of the New Archaeology of
the late 1960s and 1970s and the rapid adoption of computer applications in archaeology, the craft
elements in field practice have seen a steady decline.
The acceleration of the archaeological workflow tends to complement the increasing pace of
academic life. The drive to publish for tenure and promotion and policies in host countries that
limits the extent and duration of field work pushes us to work more quickly and to develop
efficiencies wherever possible. So the increase in pace over the past century may seem quite natural
embedded as it is in changing archaeological methods, technologies, and realities, but it nevertheless
needs to be interrogated for archaeology to continue in a critical way.
Digital Practice [SLIDE]
The most commonly expressed reason for the increased use of technology in the field is
efficiency. By doing things faster without losing accuracy or precision, archaeological projects can
collect more information, typically encoded as bits of data which allows them to reconstruct
archaeological contexts more completely in less time. Digital tools have assisted archaeologists in
standardizing their practices and reinforced trends emphasized in New Archaeology. [SLIDE] As
Catalin Pavels oddly wonderful little books has demonstrated, these archaeological methodologies
manifest themselves in the slow replacement of trench diaries or notebooks with detailed forms that
became widely used in the last decades of the 20th century. While most forms preserve space for
interpretation and analysis at trench side, the dominant trend has been toward more atomized

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recording designed to improve accuracy, regularized description for later comparison, and to
facilitate computerized data entry. [SLIDE] Todays use of iPads or other tablet computers at trench
side or in the field reproduce the character and structure of paper forms and further streamline
archaeological documentation. I am currently working with the Western Argolid Regional Project,
and we relied on paper forms and afternoon data entry sessions to transcribe data from around 2400
survey units. This was a remarkable drag.
[SLIDE] In addition to neatly delineated recording forms and their digital versions, 3D
structure-from-motion photography offers a method to streamline trench and artifact illustration.
By breaking a trench into a series of individual photographs, we can use software like AgiSoft
photoscan to produce an accurate 3D model of the trench. On a day-to-day basis, it is possible to
use these methods to document individual strata in a trench or at least capture the spatial
arrangement of various important contexts at a much greater speed than traditional trench
illustration. At the end of an excavation season, when time always seems at a premium, my project
on Cyprus - the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project - was able to use structure-from-motion
images that reproduce overhead trench photographs without the inconvenience of erecting a
scaffolding or hiring a lift. The time saving possibilities and increases in efficiency are notable and
real.
To achieve these efficiencies, both standardized recording and structure-from-motion
photography transform the archaeologist and archaeological information in similar ways. First, both
techniques involve the archaeologist breaking the site into fragments. For recording sheets, this
involves dutifully filling in a series of predetermined descriptive fields ranging from soil Munsell
color to dimensions, elevations, and features. It is hardly surprising that survey projects which
developed directly from the ideas expressed in New Archaeology relied on forms and digital
recording from the start of the famed second wave surveys in Greece. Structure-from-motion
photographs are likewise fragmented views of the trench that rely on computer algorithms to
reconstruct their proper relationships.
The process of producing these fragmented data sets changes the pace and focus of the
archaeological work. While attention to detail has always been central to good archaeological
practices, the inefficiencies of traditional archaeological field work often provided opportunities to

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consider contexts as whole. Some of these opportunities for slow archaeology derive from timeconsuming processes like preparing trench plans, drawing scarps, or describing complex
stratigraphic or horizontal relationships on blank notebook pages. Other opportunities, however,
require intentionally pulling back from efficiencies to give archaeologists an opportunity to
understand space as a unified whole. For example, in the Western Argolid, we asked team leaders to
stop recording their detailed forms periodically throughout the day and to look across the landscape
to understand the larger context for their work. In excavation, the time to handwrite and to draw
not only slows down the work, but might also improve our ability to remember relationships. The
reasons for this are partly haptic: the act of writing and drawing has been shown to improve recall. It
is also partly to encourage excavators to discern important moments in the field by marking it with
different actions. In other words, moving away from the structure of forms and technical
requirements of proper recording creates a record that corresponds, in some ways, to the
difference between a technical and personal photograph. The former serves to reproduce an object
or situation faithfully, whereas the latter serves to reproduce a memory of an event.
Digital Ecosystem [SLIDE]
The fragmented, if more comprehensive, records created by digital practices in archaeology
almost always require reassembly after the archaeologist leaves the field. To do this, archaeologists
leverage an expansive digital ecosystem. Data collected on either digital or paper field recording
forms becomes the basis for Filemaker and Access queries, Excel and SPSS calculations, and
ArcGIS maps. These pieces of software, as well as the hardware used to collect data at trench side or
in the survey unit, function as parts of a larger digital ecosystem. This ecosystem requires qualified
personnel and additional levels of vigilance to maintain the system in which these bits of data make
sense. Compared to the relative simplicity of an excavation notebook which requires almost no
particular technology to read and understand, the modern excavation or survey database is a virtually
meaningless mass of encoded data.
Our dependence on technology to reconstruct archaeological contexts becomes even more acute
when dealing with data produced by 3D imaging technologies, for example, which rely on either
bespoke or proprietary software to produce legible results. (I understand, of course, that point
clouds for 3D data are actually quite simple to decode and understand, and archival digital formats

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for photography exist, but these pieces of the process are different from the 3D models themselves.)
Moreover, as participants in this workshop realize as much as anyone, our ability to produce 3D
models has existed for quite some time, but they remains difficult to publish outside a few academic
publishers, and remain challenging to preserve in a reproducible way. These limitations do not
diminish their potential utility, but reveal one side-effect of fragmenting our archaeological data in
an effort to manipulate it in more efficient (and also more dynamic) ways. Without attention to the
larger digital and social ecosystem in which our data functions, we run the risk of decontextualizing
our archaeological processes.
Digital Space [SLIDE]
The final part of my paper picks up on the theme of the digital and social context of archaeology
and hopefully returns it to a more familiar debate at the center of traditional archaeological practice.
I want to appeal to arguments made for the relationship between time and space in a digital world.
So far Ive argued that digital methods are part of a larger trend to seek efficiency and speed by
parsing tasks more finely. These practices have gone a long way to solve the practical problems
associated with limits in time, funding, expertise, and workforce and reflects century-long trends in
industry, academia, and even archaeological methodologies. At the same time, the ways in which we
have implemented digital tools in archaeology has complicated our efforts to reconstructing the
archaeological context of our excavations (or survey units) and ultimately the past. Id like to try to
argue - or at very least suggest - that the quest for efficiency (and speed) has had a concomitant
effect on how we understand archaeological context and space.
To make this argument, I appeal to work of geographers like David Harvey who describe a
phenomenon called time-space- compression. For Harvey, the increase in speed associated with
capitalism (and Late Modernity) has resulted in the annihilation of space by time. In a very basic
sense, Harvey is arguing that as we reduce friction in the movement of capital, workforces, and
information, the challenges of space begin to decrease. Ill apply this argument in a rather loose way
to archaeology, but I think we can mostly agree that one of the ways in which digital practices have
increased the efficiency of field work is by moving the place of analysis from the side of the trench
to the storeroom, the laboratory, the library, or the faculty office. Field work becomes focused on

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data collection, primarily, and the understanding of those data collected can take place not only at
another time, but frequently, in another place.
To do archaeology in our offices, we have become increasingly attached to digital surrogates of
archaeological artifacts. I use the term artifact quite broadly here to include both traditional artifacts,
like pot sherds, statue fragments, and architecture, and evidence for archaeological relationships, like
stratigraphy, soil descriptions, and other environmental data recorded over the course of an
excavation or survey. With the most recent advances in easy, cost effective, and efficient 3D
scanning as the organizers of this conference have helped to develop, it becomes possible to
transport a 3D model of an object back to home institutions on a laptop computer. Databases, scans
of notebooks, photographs, and other digital records enable archaeologists to reconstruct
archaeological contexts thousands of miles from the location of the physical object.
It seems that the higher the resolution of our documentation, the greater the boon to the
archaeologist. To be clear, like most people in this room, I have found myself in my office cursing
some overlooked or misremembered detail invisible in photographs, descriptions, and even 3D
models. These moments of cursing, however, never fails to remind me that the original context of
the object matters, or, to evoke a slightly different discourse, provenience has value. Looted objects
are less valuable to archaeologists because the act of looting has rendered them out of place.
Moreover, most people in this room would agree that calls for the repatriation of artifacts - whatever
the modern political context for such gestures - is important because it enables us to understand the
connection between objects and their broader context. To bring all remaining fragments of the
Parthenon Marbles together within view of the Athenian Acropolis represents an effort to restore
the building, its sculptures, and Classical Athens to some kind of recognizable whole. Digital
surrogates, plaster casts, and scale models simply do not suffice.
[SLIDE] This being said, I obviously recognize that excavation involves some kind of
displacement. We compensate for this displacement of soil and objects by establishing an
archaeological context. This archaeological context, however, has traditionally had a physical
connection with the location of excavation or survey. We tend to localize these archaeological
contexts by connecting sites to museums, artifacts to storerooms, and ensuring that appropriate
archaeological authorities have final reports, copies of notebooks, and even subsequent publications.

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Lectures, site tours, and other kinds of outreach are becoming more and more common even at as
site as visually unremarkable as ours at Pyla-Koutsopetria. Like widely supported calls for repatriation,
something about archaeology remains unmistakably local.
Conclusion [SLIDE]
Slow archaeology is not meant to be a solution to a particular problem in contemporary
archaeology, but a point of departure for a more substantial critique of our digital future. To my
mind, the goals and practices of digital archaeology have often followed larger trends in
contemporary society that look to fragmenting processes and data to gain efficiency. This is
consistent with both the long-term modern trajectory of archaeology as discipline and responsive to
recent realities of both academia and field work.
At the same time, our quest for modern efficiencies has the byproduct of collapsing space as
much as time. The portable digital surrogates that our work produces recreate archaeological
contexts - of a sort - in our offices and provide the basis for our analyses. Even if we argue that
archaeological knowledge has always been portable in the pages of academic journals, monographs,
and technical drawings and illustrations, digital archaeology takes to another level our ability to
fragment archaeological experience and to use complex tools to assemble this experience in another
time and in another place. Slow archaeology suggests that these digitally-mediated acts of
displacement are unique products of the last 40 years of archaeological practice and require the same
critical attention that we lavish on objects, sites, and landscapes.

Slow Archaeology:
Technology, Efficiency, and
Archaeological Work

William Caraher
University of North Dakota