Colleen Morgan

Archaeology Hack-a-thon! The Heritage Jam, Cemeteries & Audioscapes

Still hungover from the team spirit of The Heritage Jam, an archaeology hack-a-thon, Stuart Eve and Colleen Morgan decided to blog in dialogue for the Day of Archaeology.

CM: I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the basic outlines of what a “Jam” should be in the tech/gaming world–everyone comes together to hack on a project together to see what kind of results you can get with very intense focus for a short amount of time–but how would that play out in the world of interpretation and heritage? I just knew that I was excited to finally have a chance to work on something with other visualizers, some of whom I’d known for years. We started out bright and early at 9:00, went through introductions, got an outline of a plan together, then went to York Cemetery to gather primary data.

After a lot of discussion (and an inadvertent stop in a retirement home for lunch), we went to work. Very quickly each of us were able to step into a niche that worked toward a final product. We elaborated on Shawn Graham and Stu Eve’s Historical Friction/Story Whisperer to create a cacophony in a cemetery–geolocated stories emanating from graves that would increase in intensity with the density of burials in different areas. The final product was a website, an app, an interactive map, a short video to show the concept in action and a well-written paradata document. It might have been overkill. Working with a whole team of creatives was an unbelievable rush. We were able to rely on each other for different pieces of work, as well as draw inspiration from the team. We ended up working for 12 hours!

Stu Eve and Kerri Hoffman

SE: The Jam for me was a refreshing example of ‘doing’. I had heard of ‘hack-a-thons’ or code sprints, where hackers get together and make an app in a day, so it was great to try something similar in archaeology. The real beauty of the day was that each one of our team had discrete skills, and each one of us brought those skills to bear to create something really rather cool. It was frantic, and at one point everyone was huddled around their various computers or drawing tablets working intensely for an hour almost without speaking – but somehow we were all working in concert. At the start of the final hour before submission, everyone started swearing and it looked like we would have nothing, but as is always the way when working with v. talented people when we all swapped our various files, videos and drawings it all fitted together perfectly! It helped that Shawn and I had previously worked on the Historical Friction project, as it meant we started the day with a solid idea to build upon – and could concentrate our efforts on developing the idea and finding out where our skillsets would be useful. The real question for me is where the collaborations and the prototype app goes from here. One of the main problems with hack-a-thons is that the prototype is built, but then all development stops. Hopefully we won’t let that happen with Voices Recognition.

CM:  As Stu says, while it was fantastic to get together and make something, it would be ideal to have funding to develop the ideas further. We are exploring options to that end. It would also be great to partner with an active project or institution who wants their data to be explored and visualized in new ways. I’d really like to make the other film/auditory walk, but who knows when I’ll have time? The Jam did reveal a lot about our individual processes and abilities. I was happy making the film, but when it came to audio editing, I found myself considerably behind the curve. To create the auditory layering, Alexis Pantos and I frantically searched YouTube for potential Creative Commons licensed sources of Northern/Yorkshire accents, male and female and of various ages. Then it came to layering the sound within the film and I absolutely knew there was probably a better way to do it in Final Cut Pro X, but I didn’t have time to learn! So I used the relative brute force of keyframes to try to manipulate the sound. I also appreciated the insights to the workflows of other project members. We would help each other out when we found ourselves at a loose end–Sam Kinchin-Smith would finish writing a narrative, grab another group member to do the voice acting/recording, give the file to me, I’d slam it in the video, get Kerrie Hoffman to geolocate the sound in the cemetery on her interactive map, then repeat!

Alexis Pantos and Sam Kinchin-Smith

SE: Where Colleen was learning new methods of hacking Final Cut Pro, I was busy wrestling with GIS and javascript – which is often what I do in my day job. The main problem that I had was a lack of data. The burial records were available, but all as PDFs scanned from paper documents and for only a small proportion of the cemetery. We briefly flirted with running them through an OCR program to wrangle them into something useful – but quickly moved on choosing instead to make a hypothetical (read faked-up) dataset to work with. This is one of the unfortunate sides of doing everything fast, is that you are creating an impression of what the final thing would look like – but the back-end data is not always there. However, in the end I spent quite a long time using GIS plugins to create random grave locations and adding fictional data to them. In retrospect, the OCR scanning might have been quicker and more useful in the long run!

I think one of the key parts of the project was to make sure that any of the stories we created for the people buried were based on real data, and Sam did a great job on mining the online census records and literally digging up the facts and figures of the handful of people we had time to research. In the real version this would all have been done programmatically via fancy linked data algorithms (as there are literally thousands of burials) – but Sam’s creative writing background and also the skills of the voice actors really brought it to life.

One other part of the day that really struck me, is that in the ’empty’ areas of the cemetery (those with no headstones) there are actually hundreds of burials. mostly of people who could not afford a grave marker. I wanted our app to highlight this by playing the thousands of voices of those buried in the empty quarters. So you only become aware of the volume of burials by the volume of the voices that are talking when you walk through them. However, we had no idea what these stories would be, what would their voices say? During the discussion afterwards, one of the participants said that by overlapping the voices of the burials we wouldn’t be able to hear the individual stories of the people in the mass burials, but would be privileging the stories of the those buried individually in the mausoleums as there wouldn’t be so many other voices trying to tell their story. Anthony Masington then pointed out that the people who had paid to be buried in an individual mausoleum had already privileged themselves, at first visually by setting their grave apart from the others, and now aurally by enabling their story to be heard in relative silence. It seems we didn’t just make a cool app, we actually created a new way of experiencing and exploring the cemetery and it made me think about it in a different way. Not bad for a day’s hacking! Thanks to the Heritage Jam for a fun and productive day!

ADS at the Heritage Jam!

ADS LogoI know the Day of Archaeology is meant to be about what archaeologists typically do, so I feel a bit odd reporting on something I’ve never done before, but it also sums up why archaeology is so great. You never know what’s going to happen… I’m at the inaugural day of the Heritage Jam; a concept dreamt up by Anthony Masinton, based on his experience incorporating gaming technologies into his digital heritage work.

I asked Anthony how the idea came to him, and he said he heard about a Game Jam that took place in Chicago, where game designers and museum curators worked together to produce innovative heritage-based outputs. While he didn’t want to create games, he saw the format of putting a group together to work intensively, and produce something over a short period of time as a way to explore heritage visualisation in a new way. In his experience, the creative discourse surrounding heritage visualisation is in need of development, and he saw the Jam format as a way to start building a canon for heritage visualisation. The Heritage Jam might have stayed an idea, but when Anthony talked about it with Sara Perry, she agreed and came on board to make it happen. They were able to secure some funding, and the ‘Jam team’ set to work to organise today’s event.

While the Chicago example took two groups of people with quite disparate perspectives and brought them together, today’s group is wonderfully mixed. Everyone has interests in visualisation and/or heritage, but come from a broad variety of backgrounds.  We have about 25 people in the room at the moment, including archaeologists, conservators, historians, artists, and digital practitioners. Even though we come from different backgrounds, its obvious what we really have is a room full of people who are combinations of all those things, and very comfortable moving into new creative territories, so the day is full of potential!

We started with a warm welcome by Sara, followed by an inspiring introduction to the Jam concept by Anthony, and a wonderful intro to the Jam topic of the representation of burials and burial spaces by Julie Rugg of the York Cemetery Research Group. Flo Laino then walked us through the extensive resources she pulled together to augment our visit to York Cemetery. Colleen Morgan also created a series of very interesting videos about the site, as well as challenges for the Jam participants, which are uploaded onto the Jam website, created by Ian Kirkpatrick. Knowing we would have lots of resources already to hand, we headed out together to the cemetery in the lovely sunshine. I must confess I’ve lived in York nearly 10 years, but I’ve never been to the cemetery, which is a pity, as it’s a fascinating place.

Walking to York Cemetery

Walking to York Cemetery

Not knowing much about the history of the place, I was immediately struck by how differently kept the site is. Everything is leafy and calm, but in some areas the landscape is manicured, while in others it appears the landscape is being encouraged to reclaim the graves. The ivy is so pervasive on the unkempt gravestones it gives the reclamation an almost aggressive quality. I walked around with one of the four groups, and we all seemed to focus on the general feel of the place, but didn’t really read the gravestones themselves. We lingered longest at the small, more private area set aside for babies. The multitude of objects surrounding the graves were markedly different from the restraint displayed with the adult graves, and we were all moved by it. After about 30 minutes, we headed back to campus, and I had a chance to speak with Julie Rugg about why some parts of the cemetery were left overgrown, while others scrupulously maintained. She said the cemetery had always been a commercial enterprise; closed in the 1960s, and left derelict until the 1980s. When the deterioration became concerning, York residents formed groups to reclaim it, though initially not as a cemetery, but as a green space. Since then, some areas are now back in active use, while others continue on as part of the green space, and the differences between the areas reflect this history.

Overgrown headstones in York Cemetery

Areas of the cemetery continue to be developed as green space.

Once back in the meeting room, everyone got to work. I spent most of the time with one group; Katie Campbell, Kat Foxton, Clara Molina Sánchez, and Mary Garrison. I got to listen to how they were interpreting the site, and the way they wanted to bring it to life visually. Ideas came from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, the Anekantavada, RTI, and well…hedgehogs.

Starting to create at the Heritage Jam

My group working through initial ideas after visiting York Cemetery in the form of a storyboard, with help and input from Julie Rugg. L-R: Clara, Mary, Julie, Kat and Katie.

At the end of the day, each group shared what they created over a glass of wine, including the paradata document (explaining their process and choices). They couldn’t have been more different, and I won’t try to explain them here. So much thought and work went into all of them, I couldn’t do them justice! They are already featured in the Heritage Jam website, alongside the twelve international ‘remote’ entries. Have a look yourself at the Jam Gallery! Brilliant day!