Critique of Archaeological Reason
5. Excerpts and summaries

Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor and Christopher Witmore

Laerke Recht – August 2014

Back to top: Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor and Christopher Witmore

Excerpts from Olsen &al 2012 Things

Defining archaeology p. 3      One can read the notion that archaeology is the discipline of things in many ways. Our own reading is deeply practical; that is, centered upon what it is that archaeologists do. When one contemplates the hundreds of labor hours spent measuring, plotting, and drawing scenes on Corinthian perfume jars (aryballoi) by a practitioner interested in the development of ceramic design; when one considers the thousands of photographs deployed in documenting the excavations at Hissarlik in the waning decades of the 19th century, it seems trivial for an archaeologist to underline the point that words cannot provide an adequate expression for the ways the world actually exists. Words alone fail us with respect to matters of ontology. Therefore, we maintain also an elliptical drive to the expression, "archaeology is the discipline of things", as we are not seeking to hammer out a fixed meaning.
      The proposition that archaeology is the "discipline of things" does carry both rhetorical and etymological weight. Rhetorical, because in looking for the "Indian behind the artifact" many archaeologists (but by no means all), whether through embarrassment or an urge to engage with vanguard intellectual debates, disregarded and ultimately forgot the very matter they know best - things (Olsen 2003; 2010). Etymological, because one may translate "ta archaia", one of the two components of the word archaeology, literally as "old things". Put this together with the second component logos and one might speak of the "science of old things". Of course, the question of what both these components are is by no means straightforward (consider Shanks and Tilley 1992).
      Practically speaking, the empirical fidelity of archaeology has always been to (old) things ...
p. 157      Archaeological research occurs at the hinge between materiality and immateriality, culture and artifacts, people and things. Archaeology has a unique view because of its long-term, comparative perspective on these relationships, with archaeological sources being our sole access to most of the one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-year history of our species.
Embarrassment of the discipline p. 2      There is an old and deeply rooted inferiority complex among some archaeologists, encapsulated in a self-image of archaeology as a second-rate, social science. This is often accompanied by an embarrassment that archaeology studies "just things," in contrast to the supposed cultural richness and subjective presence of text and voice. There is also even outright ambivalence and obscurity concerning the character and scope of archaeological practices.
Disconnect between past and present p. 6      What then do we do with the designation "old things"? Antiquities, remnants, ruins, traces, vestiges; the bracketing of things in terms of an erstwhile existence, as the material past, has tended to fall into a scheme where the past is taken to exist apart from the present. That this separation has largely occurred through significant connecting chains of labor invested in typologies, classification, and standardization; that this has rested upon the management of legions of artifacts with the aid of minions of instruments, rooms, and corridors is often overlooked. It is partially through taking archaeology's own achievements for granted that we forget how much work has gone into creating this divide between past and present. To assume the past is gone accords the things of archaeology the position of intermediaries rather than full-blown mediators. We run afoul of things when we assume a demarcated, disconnected past as the ontological starting point for what we do in the present. Archaeology does not discover the past as it was; archaeologists work with what has become of what was; what was, as it is, always becoming.
p. 147      The notion of discovery is a familiar modernist trope. To discover a past on one level presupposes degeneration, loss, and an absolute break. In assuming a purified past, material entities are revelatory of someone, something else, something more important (cf. Shanks and Tilley 1992). Thus, as vestiges, old things are regarded as the outcome of events. Yes, but they are many other things in addition. This assumption of a past as past deflects from many other ontological co-possibilities, and it is within such simultaneous exchanges that time's brewing occurs.
Symmetrical archaeology pp. 13-14      Finally, another important aspect of a symmetrical archaeology is to take leave of the dominant paternalist idea that things depend on people and are of interest to us (and even exist) insofar they involve humans. Symmetry involves an extended concern that includes how things exist, act, and affect one another apart from any human relations, whether or not this interaction eventually also affects human life. While there is no possibility of thinking humans outside the realms of things and natures, the other option is of course viable. Snow, ice, wind, sea, and penguins existed and interacted in Antarctica prior to being encountered by humans.
      Things also exceed any ability to come to terms with them. No entity can ever encapsulate another, and this has implications for the nature of our empirical practice. A fortress, a ruined aqueduct, a hearth, or a perfume jar will always hold something in reserve, something that will not be brought forward in a given set of relations (Harman 2005; Olsen 2010). Things resist our attempts to articulate them. They are thus irreducible to our representations of them. This suggests that things are more than things-for-us; they hold and guard an otherness and integrity that require an attitude that does not subject them to sameness, but respects things for what they are in their own being.
p. 138      With the democratic ontology we are laboring to articulate, we need not hold to a modern historicism that strives to maintain a radical chasm between past and present by attributing a separate and derivative position to things. Given that the past is no longer past, we are now obliged to question what happens when collectives enter into simultaneous exchanges with ta archaia, the old things.
p. 197      In this chapter we conclude the book with an appeal for "collective care," specifically, symmetrical care for people and things (and all non-humans), and the rapports between things, a care that is more responsive to the "wicked problems" characterizing the complexly interdependent circumstances of our contemporaneity. Furthermore, we urge archaeologists to practice their discipline with trust and confidence. What is needed today is an archaeology that looks back at its own past with neither embarrassment nor contempt, but with wonderment combined with the will to revitalize its important legacy.
p. 209      Ironically, archaeology's most significant theoretical asset has been its name, which has become a popular catchphrase among philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and literary critics. Even if few of those attracted by its metaphorical payoff have bothered to think seriously about what an archaeological contribution to the topics they address might actually look like, the fascination with the term still points to something genuinely and intellectually appealing about the archaeological project. However, to reveal its potential it is necessary to repatriate archaeology from its intellectual staging as a convenient but semantically obligation-free metaphor in social and cultural theory.
      This book is an attempt to achieve this by exposing the archaeological project as a distinct, content-filled, and intellectually rewarding undertaking. Archaeology is first and foremost a concern with things and inasmuch as things are once again the subject per se of social and cultural discourses, archaeologists, arguably their most dedicated students, should naturally make their voices heard. Our long-held concern with things constitutes an intellectual skill that is clearly highly relevant to these debates. Moreover, given our concern with things, it is appropriate that writing and reading theory from an archaeological point of view should make a difference. Our theorizing, although in part dedicated to common materials, objects, and things, and the processing of similar philosophies, should be distinguishable - at least to some extent - from other theoretical discourses. Archaeology's habitat is unique and rich.
Digital media p. 123      The "digital turn" fundamentally changes how "data" are achieved, that is, how they are assembled, archived, distributed, and engaged with. In archaeology, these changes collectively shift the work that media do, how the archaeological "record" is assembled, the modes in which an archive may be engaged, and the overall political economy of the past.
p. 124      The steps involved in achieving digital media augment qualities that may be mistaken for ephemera - "the ghost in the machine." But emergent media do not fade; rather they are configured as vibrant assemblages of humans and nonhumans - software engineers, server farms, start-ups, routers, IT staff, laser scanners, bandwidth, and bloggers. Readers of Bruno Latour will be familiar with applying such a nondiscriminatory appellation to the "actors" of analog media (Latour 1986). Digital media too are collectives. These sociotechnical networks perform digital media. They perform the archaeological for us to engage with; whether as publication, presentation, museum, or archive (Pearson and Shanks 1999). Digital heritage comprises ongoing events.
pp. 126-127      The important point is that binary code allows wrinkles between poles of spectrum (viz., local/material/rich to the standardized/accessible). This capacity of the digital allows different sets of the rich detail and background noise of the material world to be included in our reportage. The digital affords fewer of the laborious steps necessary to transform its analog counterpart into wieldy, usable form (Gibson 1986, 137-38; cf. Coopmans and Woolgar 2007). In this way, the digital gives richer manifestation (more "continuous"), while compositionally more discrete (fractal, code) (Manovich 2001). This paradox of digital media is at the root of a series of other counterintuitive observations.
      Most of us are already familiar with the benefits of this capacity of digital tools. There is, however, a farther-reaching implication. Apart from these sorts of conveniences, which arise from the affordances and composition of digital media, there is a more fundamental change. There is a new infraphysics (Latour 1993, 128). That is, assembled digital media have a different force, different action. One of these "strengths" is being more robust due to programmability and combinability, but robust in a specific manner. Drawing up qualities on both ends in the figure above, digital media allow for a rich manifestation of the past, while at the same time being more easily networked together in this binary "meta-language." Digital media are ready-made networks. Mathematized into programmable binary code, digital media are highly fungible and reproducible; readily mixed and allied with other digital media formats. They are easily copied and dispersed. This is the sense of "force" or robustness: an ability to enroll many other bits of information and extend their network and capacity for engagement in so doing. In contrast to the recognizable architecture attesting to analog repositories, the strength of networked digital media is less apparent. There are fewer archives, museums, or filing cabinets. It is an unassuming solidity. Its network largely "underground," with rhizomatic branching formed through connections linking bytes of media content. None of which is apparent at the interface of the display screen.
p. 131      Remaining an e-book or digital-only manuscript - not simply digitized as a .pdf that can be downloaded - this text could continue to transform and change as comments were made, omissions or errors rectified, additional images or videos embedded. It would be a much more cumulative and collective work, simultaneously revealing the work of producing it while resisting closure as a final, black-boxed document. Online documents are ongoing, open works.
p. 133      We underscore this point: the nature of engagement with the past changes in digital media. Digital media may at first seem to distance us from the past. This is due to their perceived immateriality. In fact, digital networks are anything but immaterial. Interactive, responsive, and animated, digital heritage responds rapidly to engagement.
Digital media, archaeology and memory p. 15      [Chapter 5] builds an understanding of media, not as mimetic copies, but as active modes of engagement through which archaeologists co-produce the past.
      Our media also afford the possibility of future action upon, and engagement with, the past, and this brings us to the question of memory practices. With the recognition that things present themselves in styles other than language or the visual, and are therefore not reducible to spoken or visual forms of translation, comes the responsibility to assess how we carry the material past into the future in terms of archival and digital practices.
p. 80      Visual media are indispensable in the process of documentation, that is, the practice of transforming the things of the past into manageable, malleable forms. From reconnaissance surveys to excavation of features to laboratory analyses and interpretation of glyphs, the work archaeologists perform could not be accomplished without proxies of our vision of the past. This holds all the way from research methodology and project planning to information design and presentation of results. Understanding the past, making archaeological knowledge, is primarily about the process of making and using media.
p. 81      Archaeologists mainly focus on the final products, particularly those that summarize and argue for a particular point of view or interpretation. We elide numerous transformative steps linking different media and their referents (Witmore 2004b). We "black box" the archaeological process as if there were only "inputs" and "outputs," with little inspection of the messy middle (Latour 1999, 304).
pp. 81-82      The archaeological image is akin to a prosthesis - an artificial substitution to replace a loss or absence. The past cannot be known without media, and archaeology works in this charged middle ground - a fundamental point that lies behind our elucidation of the political economy of archaeological data.
p. 88      This transformative power of visual media is amplified through digitization. And the extraordinary power of digital media is perhaps encapsulated in geographical information systems (GIS) and VR software, which offer the potential of connecting data to spatial coordinates, fleshing out site and landscape, and rendering simulated pasts in photographic detail, all on the scale of world building - as complete a model of the past as possible; a "digital heritage" (Webmoor 2008). We might become enthralled with the "cool factor" and get caught up in a technological optimism aiming at such simulation and accept mimetic correspondence as achievable, at least in some circumstances (Solli 2008). But the epistemological conundrums remain, and we suggest that it is better to think of archaeological work in a different way, not as mimesis, modeling, simulating, or representing, but as a fundamental transformation or translation, work done in the spaces between old things and the stories they hold in the present - meditation.
pp. 100-101      In this archaeological work, representation and "accuracy" come second to the critical need to move back and forth, to retrace the connections between the material remains, the evidence, and their stand-ins or proxies, the texts and visuals. This stabilizes the past, however provisionally, through connecting a host of humans and nonhumans. The measure of media is therefore their ability to afford such movement, such engagement, and to what extent they afford the possibility of future action upon and engagement with the past.
Memory and media p. 105      Memory practices are more than memory as it is commonly understood. They involve "legacy data" and enabling reiterative reengagement and recollection, so that information and accounts generated by archaeology will have longevity and be compatible with fundamentally different attitudes about and approaches to past and present. What will become of the information world generated by archaeology? How will they persist? We need to be able to stabilize material pasts with maximum usefulness, whether for now or for the distant future. This means that we should aim to mobilize what can be called variable ontologies, that is, leaving the past open to redefinition, reconstitution.
The perceived evil of things pp. 20-21      That things became conspicuously present in the mundane world a short century after Kant ironically did not help their reputation. On the contrary, to most philosophers and social theorists the mass-produced, mass-distributed, and mass-consumed object of the late nineteenth century was a sign of an illusory world conveying a deceptive image of the world as thing-made (Brown 2003). Proliferating in the ruined landscape left by the onslaught of capitalism and industrialization, things, consumer goods, and machines, these cold and inhuman technologies, became the incarnation of our inauthentic, estranged, and alienated modern being.
p. 22 Things were dangerous in their deceptive appearance; they were a threat against authentic human and social values. Whether intended or not, as humanism's other, things came to play the role of the villain, thus lending justification to them being ignored by disciplines studying what were seen as genuine social and cultural practices (Olsen 2003, 2010).
Excavation p. 48      The field report and, to a large extent, also the catalogue were, of course, directly to the most distinctive of all archaeological practices: fieldwork, and in particular excavation (see chapter 4). Needless to say, the normalization of digging was crucial for the disciplining of archaeology. First, by becoming widespread. ... Second, by becoming standardized.
p. 62      Fieldwork itself, as practice and experience, is mostly disregarded as a potential source of knowledge.
p. 65      Interpretation and other activities that build knowledge are being located again in the field; there is also a blurring of the "field" as the site for experiencing and retrieving information about the past.
pp. 65-66      If interpretation is taken from lab and office into the trench and extended to the trowel's edge, we should also acknowledge that practice and embodied experience are not exercises reserved for the field. Thus, while bringing home the material involves dislocation, displacement in the sense that things, sites, and landscapes are partitioned and parted, the work and involvement with the dislocated constituents is not purely an intellectual task.
p. 66      Removing things from their original "home" is seen as a process of loss, and fieldwork and postexcavation analyses become a means to minimize what is lost along the way. However, in epistemological terms, this process of bringing home (or removal) may also be seen as a productive enterprise that increases the potential meaningfulness of things.
p. 68      What then are the distinguishing qualities of archaeological fieldwork? In what ways, for example, is it really different from what anthropologists do in the field?
      Let us begin with the simple distinction that archaeologists dig for remains, while social/cultural anthropologists observe people and what they do, often as participants. Excavation is a physical engagement. Data cannot be obtained without hard physical labor. Archaeologists (or, in some cases, their proxy workers) have to engage directly with earth and stone, and information cannot be gathered by pure observation. Additionally, while the social and cultural anthropologist typically works alone in the field, archaeological fieldwork is a collective task, which cannot be accomplished without many people and things.
p. 78      We can no longer separate how we know from what we know. Whether excavating a trench or surveying on the surface, "archaeological work" is an inseparable mixture of intellectual reasoning and practical hands-on know-how. One of archaeology's most admirable skills is "thinking with one's hands" in following and being led by things. Modern science, in its Platonic tradition, has for too long elevated the contemplative activity of research above material practice. This division of activities and subsequent prioritization of one over the other is changing both in the field of science studies and within archaeology itself.