The power of making – or what it means to do archaeology through creative experimentation with media

I’m oodles of days overdue in contributing to the annual Day of Archaeology (11 July 2014). The delay relates in part to what I’ll discuss below – The Heritage Jam – and in part to the fact that I’m simultaneously prepping to leave for fieldwork at Çatalhöyük on Sunday, finishing multiple articles and reports, and preparing for the adventure that will be the next five months of my life, wherein I’ll be abroad for my sabbatical (more on that another time!). But being late in writing this post has given me a bit of time to reflect—and most importantly, to collate reports from others—on the event that consumed my Day of Archaeology, not to mention all of the days leading up to it, and all of the days immediately after.

On 11 July 2014, supported by the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, and the Centre for Digital Heritage, we hosted the first ever international Heritage Jam. The Jam was a variation on the jamming sessions common in the gaming industry, where adhoc groups congregate for intensive periods of time to produce game prototypes. But instead of games, we were keen to put a spotlight on the many different media that comprise the portfolio of heritage interpretation – from illustration and art to moving-imagery and animation to photography and design to sound and tactile interventions. And instead of live in-person sessions only, we were keen to open up participation to both remote and local registrants, weaving together the online and offline worlds.

The Heritage Jam

Flo Laino and Julie Rugg discuss the York Cemetery, gathering resources for the Heritage Jam. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

The Heritage Jam ultimately coalesced into a multi-part project, all of which is documented on our website, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. The goal was for individuals or groups to create some kind of visual output (whose process of creation was also documented in a paradata paper) for upload to our online gallery and for physical display at the University of York. The entries were judged on a series of assessment criteria, and had to attend, in some fashion, to the theme of burial (literal or metaphorical, of humans or non-humans). For in-person contributors, we decided to focus the Jam Day efforts on a particular case study site—the York Cemetery—which was necessary to provide some focus to what was an otherwise vague directive (i.e., “work with an assigned group to make new interpretative materials”). And our team created a series of multi-media resources to support understanding of that site, including videos, photos and compilations of archival records.

By my reckoning, the day was a success, attested to not only by the phenomenal outputs submitted by an incredible range of contributors, but also by the feedback we’ve received from those involved and those who’ve viewed the gallery, some of whom have documented the constructiveness of the approach & its outputs on their personal blogs & Day of Archaeology posts (see links below). Coupled with a specific social media use/evaluation plan that we’ve designed for the Jam, we’re analysing experiences and engagement with the project for a larger report that we’ll file at the end of the month. But the superficial numbers (which will soon be blended with qualitative data to provide a rich, contextualised understanding of participation) indicate that we had 92 registrants from most continents of the world, 17 official entries submitted by 37 contributors, 249 Twitter followers & 161 tweets, and 474 Facebook followers from more than 40 countries, speaking more than 30 languages, with a total reach of posts to over 6600 people. Given that we only launched the project in May, we’re pleased with the visibility it’s received—but more so with the quality of the entries, which are truly fantastic.

You only need to browse the entries in the gallery to see the remarkable talent that infuses the tiny proportion of the heritage sector that registered for the Jam. This is important, because there is ample evidence that creative experts working in the heritage sector are undervalued, underpaid, underestimated and often undermined. Part of the intent of the Jam was to expose the depth and breadth of expertise amongst the professional community, and the possibilities that come with actually investing in such expertise. My colleague Anthony has worked to summarise each contribution, and others have gone further, with the brilliant Archaeogaming blog (a forum for exploring video games as they intersect with archaeology) reviewing in detail the winner of the Remote Team Heritage Jam category – Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham’s Buried: An Ergodic Literature Game. Buried (created with the open-source, nonlinear, interactive storytelling tool Twine) is ingenious, thoughtful, fun and sensitive, and I encourage everyone to give it a try. As Archaeogaming’s Andrew Reinhard writes, “Buried is both a game and not a game. It is a playable book, and one with exceptional replay value. Archaeologists and archaeology are both portrayed realistically, and at the same time are neither boring nor sterile, proof that archaeology can stand on its own without resorting to gimmicks or stereotypes…Buried is playful, but also provides plenty to discuss regarding what is a game, and how our personal experiences are brought to bear on choices made within this kind of media, and on this story specifically.”

Equally astounding is the winning entry for the In-Person Group Heritage Jam category: Stuart Eve, Kerrie Hoffman, Colleen Morgan, Alexis Pantos and Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Voices Recognition. As Morgan summarises it on her and Eve’s joint Day of Archaeology post about the work, it was an effort “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.” In true collaborative fashion, it drew upon previous experimental efforts by the great Shawn Graham in partnership with Eve, which Graham describes in evocative fashion: “I want to develop an app that makes it difficult to move through…historically ‘thick’ places…with a lot of noise when you are in a place that is historically dense with information. I want to ‘visualize’ history, but not bother with the usual ‘augmented reality’ malarky where we hold up a screen in front of our face. I want to hear the thickness, the discords, of history. I want to be arrested by the noise, and to stop still in my tracks, be forced to take my headphones off, and to really pay attention to my surroundings.”

This is exactly what Voices Recognition achieves in its prototype form, put together after a 30 minute trip to the York Cemetery and about 10 hours of intensive group work in a classroom at the university.

I have to admit that when the group presented their output at the end of the day, I was truly awestruck, so much so that it rendered me quite emotional. For it was a glimpse into what great things can be accomplished when you’re able to nurture the right context: an incredible idea (tested out previously with Graham) comes together with an incredible team of people (some of whom were strangers to one another), all converging here into something with a real and profound power to resonate. As I said to Morgan after the event, it was inspirational – and it really was; it made you want to learn how to do such work; it made you want to use the app; it made you want to join their team, and create with them, and be energised and motivated by their ideas, and to experience the cemetery through this lens that they invented right there, in the moment, on the Day of Archaeology.

These entries are just two of 17 that deserve your attention and perusal, so please browse through the gallery, and add your comments to the site or to our Twitter or Facebook feeds. There are contributions from around the world, articulated via a plethora of media, submitted by both new and established practitioners.

The Heritage Jam

Touring the York Cemetery for the Heritage Jam. Photo by Colleen Morgan

I won’t pretend that all the comments we got about the Jam were positive (although the vast majority were), nor that there’s no room for improvement. It was a massive amount of work; it depended on a team of 11 organisers; it required openness to creating things quickly, which means making mistakes and wrestling with practicalities and exposing one’s process, and hence one’s potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses; it demanded doing just as must as intellectualising, which can be problematic given how theoretical much extant ‘archaeological representation’ discourse is; and the in-person event hinged upon teamwork, which as any educator will tell you, can go horribly wrong—but, in the best cases, can equally blow you away in admiration.

In our effort to provide some definition to the exercise of heritage jamming, we did consciously choose to focus on a particular site – the York Cemetery – and this caused some concern around why we were privileging that environment. But archaeology has these tangible dimensions to it, and as much as we wanted to leave the Jam brief entirely open, we also wanted to create a project that knitted the material and the immaterial, the online and the offline, the tangible and the intangible, the process of abstract thinking with the real-world, concrete act of making.

To have eliminated the cemetery would have returned the event to the intellectual exercise that the subject of ‘visualisation in archaeology’ has long been. Moreover, to have deprived Jammers of the opportunity to visit the cemetery would have meant depriving them of a series of experiences—from the reflectivity that’s encouraged through walking, to the camaraderie and knowledge that are built through shared embodied engagements with a physical landscape. In her blog post about the Jam, Holly Wright of the Archaeology Data Service, speaks about of the nature of the cemetery, a breathtaking and deeply reverberating space which is barely known in the York community (despite the fact that it houses the history of much of that community). There is value cultivated for heritage spaces through both our analogue and digital—and our physical and intellectual—engagements with them. The cemetery provided us with a site to experiment with the weaving together of it all.

I’m proud of what we achieved through the Heritage Jam and I would encourage others to consider this format for their own work, particularly if you’re directing the outputs into larger, targeted, useable resources. The fleeting composition of the Jam belies a venture with a longevity to it that extends beyond the Day of Archaeology, so I hope you’ll keep your eyes on the project to see how it develops from here.

The Heritage Jam

Heritage Jamming at the University of York. Photo by Colleen Morgan,

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!

Burst of Creativity

Did some good reading on young people’s engagement with heritage this afternoon and was inspired to write a few paragraphs for the report I’m working on. I can see more clearly now where archaeology needs to be more aware of its wider context in working with young people. That was quite fun.

Now it’s tea time. Time to make my pigeon breast omelette!

More reading this evening I think.