I will start by saying what I am not. I am not an archeologist and I am not an Egyptologist, but I will be talking about these matters regardless. What I am is a 3D specialist, and as the only 3D technology specialist ever invited to join the IFA Egyptian Abydos archeological excavation, I had the opportunity to develop a new area of my own practice while also re-framing and extending the established methods of this archeological mission.
My research took place from January to March of 2019 at North Abydos Expedition, this ongoing research project will culminate in an online database of 3D models from the Abydos expedition. It is my hope that a searchable online database will provide access to scholars, researchers, and students who do not have the funding to directly study these ancient objects and structures at Abydos. This database would serve to democratize archaeology and make accessible its artifacts.
This project is invested in ‘greening’ archeological practices. I am referring to two things when I am talking about ‘greening’ archeological practices: distance studying and the democratization of information. First, archaeology is the often destructive practice of studying human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. During archeological digs, there are various physical incursions made into the landscape by anything from a small gardening trowel for scraping back dirt to a large pickaxe for breaking up larger sections.
Environmentalists build the world back up, while archaeologists dismantle the world around them through excavation. While technological advancements are often seen as environmentally problematic, like the energy impacts of server farms that host cloud data, in the case of archaeology, advances in digital imaging may actually be the solution. Second, not everyone has access to the information available at an archaeological site. This project wishes to further complicate the issue of intellectual property. As it is, excavating archaeologists have publication rights to the material they excavate. While this is initially beneficial to those who have invested money and time into a site, it becomes problematic if the information is not published in a timely fashion. It is such a prevalent issue that the AIA’s Code of Professional Standards has to state, “Archaeologists should make public the results of their research in a timely fashion, making evidence available to others if publication is not accomplished within a reasonable time.” As archaeologist George P. Nicholas of Simon Fraser University and environmentalist Kelly P. Bannister of the University of Victoria note about archaeology involving Indigenous communities, “Rights to intellectual property have become a major issue” and it is important to examine “the forms these rights take, and the impacts of applying intellectual property protection in archaeology.” My project purports that local scholars and students around the world who are currently are restricted from access to unpublished material should be granted the right to study what information a site has on hand.
I have always been enamored by archaeology, but I have always been struck by two of its biggest problems: you have to break up the existing ecosystem to learn anything about the past and the people who run the archeological dig sites are going into countries that are not their own and digging up another group's cultural remains. With both problems, I see new technologies like 3D scanning, Lidar, and MRIs as a much-needed greener alternative to these established destructive practices. Right now, this project is only utilizing 3D technologies, but the introduction of new technologies into archaeology force us to ask the following questions: Can we leave artifacts and architectural sites undisturbed? Is it possible to study ancient artifacts without ever touching them? Without ever moving them? Without ever changing the landscape? Is it possible to preserve the cultural heritage of an archeological dig site and post our research online for all to see? Archaeology is important because it allows us to learn about the past, but there has to be a future where we are able to study it from a less destructive distance.
My project was funded in part by the Horn Fund for Environmental Research. I gave a talk on March 19th, 2019 about my research at CEFAS in Kuwait. This talk was funded by the Failaka Arts Residency. North Abydos Expedition, an archaeological project sponsored jointly by the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and Princeton University. I have already co-authored an article about my contributions to the excavation process.
Works Cited: George P. Nicholas and Kelly P. Bannister, "Copyrighting the Past? Emerging Intellectual Property Rights Issues in Archaeology," Current Anthropology 45, no. 3 (June 2004): 327-350.