"Archaeology is whatever you want it to become" (Clive Gamble, Archaeology. The basics)

21 March 2017

NEARCHing Factory – Review

By Emily C. Arauz, PhD Candidate
Dept. of Archaeology and History of Art, Graduate School of Social Sciences & Humanities
Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey

Upon exiting the San Martiño Pinario Monastery conference hall on the final day of the NEARCHing Factory, a fellow attendee made the cursory remark to myself and a colleague that this will go down in history as one of those conferences where, years hence, everyone will be asking one another: “Were you at the Nearching Factory in Santiago de Compostela, January 30th – February 1st, 2017?”

Fortunately, I was one of the lucky 96 attendees who took part in this unique experience over the course of two and a half rainy and cold days in the Galicia region of Spain. The meeting, deemed a ‘factory’, was a public and interactive component of the NEARCH (New ways of Engaging audiences, Activating societal relations and Renewing Practices in Cultural Heritage) project[1], organized in coordination with INCIPIT, CSIC[2], CYTED, and with support from the European Union, Santiago City Council, Galician Culture Council, and EMPRENDIA network. According to the website, NEARCH is a five-year project (2013-2018) conducted by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) and has established a cross-European network of 14 partners from 11 countries. The NEARCHing Factory was a step towards increasing networks and expanding dialogues among professionals.

With archaeology at the center of the three-day event, the sessions were organized with a goal of “creating new scenarios for archaeology […] to re-think the practice of archaeological activity (i.e. archaeological as a way of life and of making a living).”[3] As one of the few in the conference room who could claim to be neither an archaeologist nor currently working with archaeologists, I provided a counter-view to the main discourse, often finding myself in disagreement with many of the hegemonic perspectives propagated by a select few of the core group of NEARCH. This difference in perspective was also heightened by my own professional context of Turkey, which seemed incompatible at times with the viewpoints put forth by those working in the UK, Sweden, or France, among others. Similar to previous archaeology conferences, a striking dichotomy between northern and southern (or [south]eastern) Europe was apparent among the perspectives and case studies presented throughout the sessions. Non-European viewpoints were represented by participants working in South American contexts who were members of the parallel session organized by CYTED and conducted in Spanish. This helped expand the discussions yet, overall, the European perspective remained dominant.

Nevertheless, the discussions were pushed farther and critical views were more constructive than at many heritage or archaeology conferences I have attended recently. This success was certainly a direct result of the organizers’ democratic sensibilities and desire to expand the notion of what archaeology should and can be. The structure of the three working days and the additional, complicated methodology of using post-it notes to establish discussion points were critical in establishing a participatory framework, supported by an extensive social media presence which expanded the platform and audience.

The first day of the NEARCHing Factory began semi-traditionally with a key-note but was followed by a live interview about cities and mapping conducted by a local Galician journalist with two practitioners working in Cuba and Colombia. Following the theme of mapping, the afternoon activity was a walking event, for which participants were divided into small groups and led to different parts of Santiago in order to brainstorm about the cultural values of the city. As most conferences tend to imprison their participants, this activity was a welcome addition to the program as it is important to recognize and experience the cultural space in which an international conference is held, a particularly critical aspect for cultural practitioners.

The second day of the event was a full working day, divided into two segments of ten parallel sessions – five in the morning and five in the afternoon – with an additional session conducted in Spanish by CYTED. Each session was given a lengthy four hours for discussion which served to foster more in-depth discussions. However, this also limited the number of sessions in which each attendee was able to participate, an unfortunate consequence of the constrained time-frame.

The theme of the sessions varied greatly, ranging from art, professional ethics, heritage values, sustainability, digital technologies, place-making, archaeology of the present and for the future, social innovation, entrepreneurship, education and participation. The structure of each session also varied and resulted in different outcomes. For instance, the session on “Heritage & Participative Strategies,” managed by Hayley Roberts from Bournemouth University, was organized around participants’ short presentations which fostered topics and diverse case studies for discussion. Contrarily, the afternoon session on “Heritage Value(s),” began with a presentation on the history of the topic by the session manager, Dr. Margarita Diaz-Andreu, based at Barcelona University. This didactic introduction was followed by an impromptu survey of some of the available local residents regarding the user-determined values of a popular public park in Santiago. While this participatory aspect put into practice the topic of discussion, it also highlighted the fact that the concept of heritage values is itself a structural format imposed on heritage sites and managers by UNESCO. Hence, the discussions during this afternoon session did not lead to any new conclusions and did not advance the concept of heritage values; rather, it served only as a didactic session on what those concepts involved, how they had evolved and how to put them into practice.

Alternatively, and to the credit of the manager and the participants, the session on “Participative Strategies” produced a more productive round of discussions and arguments. As a result, this dynamic group decided to prepare a working document on what participation means and guidelines for how it may be implemented. While the case studies presented by the participants cemented the understanding that site-sensitive applications of participative strategies was necessary, and that a gap existed in some cases between archaeology and heritage practices, the participants of the session nevertheless agreed that some form of a statement would benefit the wider community. This document is currently in an early phase of preparation and will be shared at EAA in Maastricht this fall. It intends to propose a guideline and common language for those already working on the topic and serve as a form of education for new practitioners.

Other sessions resulted in a similar diversity of results and conclusions, but no other group decided to prepare a working document to be presented at EAA. However, the NEARCH group will be leading a discussion session at EAA, most likely complete with post-it notes and extensive social media documentation. The session is titled, Creating new scenarios for Archaeology: NEARCHing Factory reloaded.[4] Be sure to attend the session if you are at EAA this year in order to experience an alternative to the standard EAA sessions and for a more in-depth overview of the event.

The final, half-day of the factory was a culmination of the working groups as each manager gave short, six-slide, six-minute presentations on their sessions’ results. This was followed by a group discussion organized around the final round of post-it note comments and questions collected during the managers’ presentations. While the post-it note discussion topics were being collated by the discussion leaders, a final participatory activity was organized: each participant was asked to give a 40-word response to the NEARCHing Factory experience. The short version of the video of participants reading their statements is available online.

NEARCHing Factory Day 3

Overall, despite some critiques on the sessions and the frigid cold of the meeting room, the NEARCHing Factory was a success. Let us hope that those who were in attendance in Santiago will bring their energy and collaborative experience to the European Association of Archaeologists Meeting in Maastricht this fall. While these smaller and intimate conversations are exciting and useful, nothing will change on a grander scale unless the audiences in platforms like the EAA, AIA or the WAC recognize and place value in expanding the critical discourse on archaeology and heritage. My final ‘post-it note’ on the factory, recommended that we are clear that “heritage” does not equal “archaeology”, one term should not be interchanged with the other for convenience or a particular political agenda. Going forward with this discussion among professionals and amateurs, a more critical approach to the language used and concepts explored, as well as attention to the diversity of cases and practitioners, will help the field and the practice develop in productive and sustainable directions. 

[1] NEARCH Project website: http://nearch.eu/
[2] Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas [CSIC] & Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio [INCIPIT] website: http://www.incipit.csic.es/es/Default.aspx

10 March 2017

Volume 6 is out!

We are very happy to announce the publication of AP: Online Journal in Public Archaeology Volume 6

Migration to Open Journal Systems took some extra work and time but we hope you will like the new platform and enjoy the new volume!


The editorial team

Jaime Almansa Sánchez, JAS Arqueología S.L.U., Spain
Elena Papagiannopoulou, Independent Researcher, Greece

Assistant Editors
Amanda Harvey, NASA, United States
Kaitlyn T. Goss, Americorps, United States

Reviews Editor
Alexandra Ion, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge and Institute of Anthropology "Francisc I. Rainer" of the Romanian Academy, United Kingdom

Assistant Production Editor
Alejandra Galmés, Universitat de les Illes Balears, Spain

25 February 2017

EDITORIAL: Change and conflict


At the time of writing this editorial, as the new year is already underway, we are taking an introspective glance balanced with rational self-criticism. To begin with, even though the debate about current publishing models is ongoing, there is no internal conflict surrounding our work for the journal. It is our firm belief that the quality and accessibility of academic publications rather than impact factor and quantitative metrics should be a priority. We work with this principle in mind, aiming at the same time at being as inclusive and representative as possible. The downside of our model, apart from time constraints, is that we rely entirely on the donations we receive. Thus, there is no funding stability, the latter being one of the key sustainability factors. On the bright side, we are still here and our model’s virtue, apart from being freely and fully available for readers around the globe provided that they have internet access, is that publishing with us does not involve open access fees for authors.

In this context we have recently taken an important decision with the aim of improving the journal’s quality and reach: we have now migrated to Open Journal Systems, hoping it can offer a better platform for the management and diffusion of the journal. Therefore, starting with Volume 7, all submissions will go through the new system. This is a step forward for us and we really hope you like the change. In line with our improvement efforts we have also opened a profile at Quality Open Access Market (QOAM) and we invite you to evaluate us by completing a 2-minute Valuation Score Card. Your comments and suggestions will help us identify our weaknesses and work on them.

This past year has been an important year for us, not only because of the platform change but also because of the publication of a new Special Volume last June, "The How and Why of Archaeology Outreach", edited by Elizabeth Wright and Matt Law, marking a new milestone with 100 authors involved in all the different sections of the journal. Our statistics keep improving, although with the introduction of OJS we will lose one of them, namely the number of registered users, as registration will not be required anymore. However, after data mining our old database, we identified subscribed colleagues from almost 100 countries, giving meaning to our work. We did so in order to show some statistics at the Third InternationalConference in Heritage Management, organized by the Initiative for Heritage Conservation in Elefsina (Greece), where we presented a paper about our publishing model, our audience, the journal’s impact and challenges, as well as our goals for the future. Hopefully, all our efforts will play their part in removing barriers and achieving our main goal; to become more inclusive for all, with engagement of professionals as a community being a particularly important aspect.

Before presenting the current volume, we wanted to stop for a second on a directly related with public archaeology ─and sadly severe─ issue: conflict. The impact of the eruption of Daesh on archaeological heritage is dramatic. The rampant destruction of archaeological sites, monuments and other cultural manifestations, not to mention looting, is only surpassed by the unfolding humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing from conflicted areas and the record numbers of deaths that hit us daily in the news. We strongly condemn the barbarian outcomes of war in all fronts and, although it seems we are trapped in a vicious circle of violence and destruction, we hope it will cease as soon as possible, as long as conflict resolution does not involve even more violence.

Cultural heritage (i.e. that of the ‘enemies’) has always been a target during armed conflict, causing irreparable losses, and the reality of Syria and Iraq is just one of many examples. World Heritage in particular is being targeted, in confirmation of a sad fact: the so-called Outstanding Universal Value that UNESCO attributes to World Heritage Sites is not shared universally by all communities (at least as we understand it). And, as hard as it may sound, radical groups are heritage communities too. The example of Daesh is not the only one of an ongoing conflict today. Resolving such conflicts is a complex process requiring urgent and concerted efforts that cannot be sustained through Twitter campaigns (as perhaps was the intention of the #Unite4Heritage campaign).

But the issue goes far beyond large international conflicts and reaches into the small scale, day-to-day practice; small local issues constantly arise, resulting in a destruction of cultural heritage that never reaches the media. We could talk about general trends, such as Globalization and Capitalism and so on, which, little by little, standardize our lives and cultures and commodify the last remains of ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ that we preserve, but instead we prefer to focus on those other conflicts where archaeology becomes a burden for people. We tend to prioritise archaeological heritage over people, and one of the roles of public archaeology is (or so we think) to put people before archaeological heritage with management plans sensitive to the needs and concerns of local communities; because archaeology can be not just present but also more active and engaging in everyday life, with small actions and practices that help build communities around cultural heritage for a mutual benefit. Resolving such conflicts is possible, having one eye on people and one on heritage. This is why this Volume’s cover is an image from one of our articles, showing a cleaning activity in the surroundings of a heritage property. But what do we have in this volume?

Volume 6 opens with our third forum on looting with the theme “Beauty and money: a market that feeds looting”. The forum was postponed in 2015, and this past year has not turned out as expected either. However, and despite the fact that it includes only one piece, we decided to publish it without delay. To begin with, Jaime Almansa offers a brief, personal and reflexive account of his time as a young collector of stamps and modern coins and moves on to share some reflections on the link between collecting and looting as an introduction to the forum. He concludes by posing some questions about the issues surrounding looting; the questions, both practical and moral, are not easy to answer but need to be addressed with high priority and with a view to resolve the issue under discussion. Our hope is that not only will you find this small forum interesting but also that it will be a prompt for future submissions on any one of the topics listed in its introduction. Christos Tsirogiannis raises a crucial issue for museums and cultural institutions; the issue of repatriation of illicit antiquities. By using a long-delayed repatriation as a case study, the paper explores the underlying reasons why delays in addressing repatriation claims on the part of institutions involved in the acquisition of illicit antiquities persist in practice. The author highlights the fact that, despite existing guidelines, gaps between theory and practice in museum ethics occur more often than not. Thus, the need for ways to bridge these gaps comes through not only as a central idea in this paper but also as a major challenge faced by institutions and heritage policy makers alike.

What follows is a collection of papers that we believe you will find interesting. In our first article, Veysel Apaydin explores an issue that is crucial for the protection or neglect for heritage: by means of qualitative and quantitative analysis of the curriculum and history textbooks in Turkish formal education as well as interview data, the author examines to what extent and how topics related to archaeology and heritage are presented, and discusses the implications for heritage perceptions and awareness.

Next, Jaime Delgado Rubio examines social participation as viewed and practised by the Mexican state and institutions through participatory heritage management plans, juxtaposing the latter to the dynamics and processes of other, specific micro-scale cases of community participation. The author suggests a revision of the current top-down approach in participatory heritage management and argues that alternative, more inclusive methodologies and models need to be sought.  

Finally, José Mármol examines new ways to ‘view’ archaeology. In recent years, archaeologists have explored the potential of the so-called Creative Archaeologies that blur the boundaries ─ not only those between disciplines and practices but also spatial and temporal boundaries. Starting from the premise that archaeological practice should address the problems of the present rather than merely study and interpret the past, and that Creative Archaeologies can contribute to the interpretation of the past, the author uses three different, parallel discourses that lead to a discussion of the opportunities and impact of integrating creative practices into the archaeological.

This volume also features our regular Points of You section, only this time it includes two pieces. Rogers and Case discuss native peoples’ perspectives in US archaeology. The authors examine academic and tribal archaeological approaches to artifacts, alongside authority, power and representation issues, through specific examples that illustrate the power dynamics between involved parties. Finally, Rogers and Case stress the need for more collaborative work and more inclusive practices, and propose a set of guidelines for working alongside native peoples. JoštHobič offers his own viewpoint on the present of archaeology, its public image and its value not only for local communities but also for–and starting with–professionals in Slovenia and elsewhere. The author acknowledges that there is room for improvement and argues strongly for community archaeology.

As always, this issue concludes with a selection of reviews of some of the most interesting books published in the last couple of years on topics that pertain to public archaeology. Although book reviews are usually undervalued, they are a highly valued component of AP Journal and an integral part of dialogue in any discipline. We consider the reviews we publish equally important for authors and readers alike, thus we really hope they prove useful. Finally, we would like to remind you that we regularly publish reviews of events as well as links to Open Access theses in our blog.

This Volume, as every Volume we publish, is the culmination of months of hard work by the editors, editorial team, and contributors, all committed to making public archaeology research openly available and making open access the default for research. At this point, we should thank all those that have made it possible for us to continue up to this day: our authors and guest editors, our editorial team, our readers, and our donors. As usual, we hope you will enjoy our new volume and find it useful. We would like to close this editorial with our standard calls:

1.      Call for Debate:
We welcome guest blog posts on a wide range of topics related to public archaeology as well as event reviews. You can send your posts in a Word document with image files attached to our email. We also encourage your feedback and comments, after visiting our blog, as well as discussion via our social media. If you have any specific topic in mind that you want to write about, we are open to suggestions. Don’t forget our forums that are always open to discussion and comments.

2.      Call for Papers:
Volume 7 is set to be published in 2017. Because of the delay in publication of the current volume, the deadline for submissions is extended by one month, and will be 31 May 2017. We wish to receive papers for our next volume as soon as possible so that there will be enough time to get things done in a timely, consistent manner. For more information about the submission procedure, please visit our website. In case you have any questions or doubts, please feel free to contact us.

3.      Call for Special Issue Proposals:
We invite guest editor proposals from those who wish to discuss particular topics and areas of research that fall within the aims and scopes of the journal. Special issues provide a great opportunity to review a specific topic, examine aspects that remain unaddressed, discuss, suggest and develop novel approaches, and encourage new research models. Feel free to contact us for guidance on preparing your proposal.

4.      Call for Donations:
The philosophy of this journal—and of its editors—is to provide the widest access at no cost for both authors and readers. AP is—and will remain—a free-access and not-for-profit journal, thus, sustainability is always an issue. The publisher, JAS Arqueología, will continue to take care of it for as long as it exists. The material costs of the journal are less than 100€ per year, which is affordable for the company in case donations are low, but keeping it a fully open-access and ad-free publication means its future depends on your support. So if you find any stimulation in AP Journal, please consider a modest donation. No matter how small the amount, it can make a big difference. At this point, we should warmly thank and express our gratitude to our donors. Should you wish to support AP Journal, you can do so either directly or indirectly, by buying a hard copy of any of the existing volumes:
  • Direct donation via PayPal on our web page.
  • Purchase of the hard copy. There is a fixed price of 10€. Just ask us.

30 November 2016

Heritage magistra vitae - The 3rd International HerMa Conferece in Elefsina, Greece

The 3rd IHC International Conference in Heritage Management (HerMa) took place in Elefsina, Attica, Greece, from the 30th of September to the 2nd of October. Organized by the Institute for Heritage Conservation, an NGO aiming to promote good practices in heritage management, the event was more than a conference, being part of the Aeschylea Festival, organized by the Municipality of Elefsina. The coexistence of the Festival with the conference combined with the fact that the city’s candidateship for European Cultural Capital of 2021 nomination was successful, transformed those three days to an inundation of diversified heritage practices.

The old olive factory with the conference logo (credit: Sophia Zakoura)

All those parameters provided a fertile ground for the development of the conference. Moreover, the broad topics covered by the various panels stimulated the interest of professionals in various disciplines and resulted to a diverse audience ranging from architects to managers, from archaeologists to education professionals and attorneys. 

The first session, dedicated to archaeological landscapes, was of particular interest. It combined concepts of archaeological theory and philosophy with case studies for the interpretation and management of such sites. The keynote speaker, prof. Ganiatsas of the National Technical University of Athens, initiated the series of presentations with a review of the different theoretical approaches towards landscape archaeology, ranging from the ‘quantitative’ processual approach to the ‘phenomenological’ aspect of post-processual archaeological theory. The aim was to evaluate different theoretical methodologies in order to suggest a best practice for the management and the enhancement of values of given sites. He reminded us of the value of phenomenological approaches throughout the history of archaeology, having challenged the positivist and mathematical models of interpretation of archaeological landscapes. Furthermore, he suggested researchers to empathize with the particularities of each case in order to interpret a site or to create the best suited management plan.

The old olive factory, view of the interior in plenary session (credit: Sophia Zakoura)

Overall, the conference demonstrated effectively the dialectic relations between heritage and its sub-disciplines through the evaluation of many good practices. The ideas of Mike Corbishley (UCL) on how to approach diverse audiences through education and make them experience heritage in the making were intriguing. Although, for many, indifference is a quality assigned mostly to scholars when it comes down to communicating knowledge, Corbishley suggested ways to cultivate public interest from simple urban projects to complex excavations. Amongst other contributions, the project at Gonies (Crete) which started as an archaeological investigation of three Minoan Peak Sanctuaries but evolved into a huge ethnographic fieldwork, revealed how a local community might participate in – and to an extent shape – a scientific investigation.

I feel that by neglecting the issues raised in the other sessions, I fail to communicate the values of the event to their full complexity, yet all sessions shared the same values of heritage, most notably its openness, stressing interdisciplinary communication. Based on this fact, I decided to paraphrase Cicero (de Oratore) who argued that historiae magistra vitae (est), suggesting that today heritage is the teacher of everything. In this conference thoughts and arguments were raised on how heritage, as a body embracing history, archaeology, ethnography, education, management, and other disciplines, can be used to provide an understanding of the world and reveal its aspects to the public and with the aid of the public. To this end, the discussion on the diffusion of scientific knowledge through open access journals was timely and well received.

I have chosen to paraphrase Cicero in the title in order to raise a concern regarding one aspect of the HerMa conference; the session on the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin. It seems to me that it contradicted the concept of open access to knowledge as, in contrast to the other panels, the participants demanded the session not to be filmed [1], due to legal issues. Moreover, Colonel Mathew Bogdanos begun his presentation on the topic thieves of Baghdad, from Al-Quaeda to ISIS claiming that he “will tell the truth about what he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan”. Although legal issues are a strong argument, since no one would like sensitive information to fall upon the wrong ears, the Colonel’s statement further suggests that the session communicated with a different language.

Heritage, or at least one of its aspects, having its roots in the humanities and social sciences, is based on the ability to argue for or against specific viewpoints. Nevertheless, this panel established two barriers between the authorities and the audience. The prohibition of filming or photographing followed by the eyewitness statement challenged the dialectic spirit in its most fundamental sense because no debate can be made possible through eyewitness narratives when the audience is neither authority in legislation nor eyewitness. Two subjective leaps are attached to this claim. One cannot oppose to a subjective viewpoint of events he was absent from and challenging the author’s viewpoint may be perceived as questioning his integrity, fact that doesn’t promote dialogue in most cases.

Truth be told, no one would object that the American Colonel and his men did everything in their power to collect back the looted artifacts taken from Baghdad’s museum and channeled into the illegal market. This assertion is widely accepted under the ontological claim that the Coalition Forces did absolute good in the Middle Eastern countries they invaded. Yet, if this ontological claim is challenged to another political understanding, which regards the Coalition Forces as pieces in the imperialistic and neo-colonial chessboard of the 21st century, then the political use of heritage and the efforts for its repatriation might be seen as a means to legitimize those invasive wars [2]. Under this theoretical framework, eyewitness testimonies lose substantial weight and reality appears to be more complex than the bipolar good versus bad argument, as it should have in a HerMa conference.

Reaching the conclusion, it is evident that in most of the cases the multidisciplinary approaches bound under the term heritage provide important tools in order to face the challenges that humanities are facing in the 21st century. Thus, heritage replacing history, in Cicero’s case brings forward two major considerations. The analytical tools used throughout the conference, from archaeological theory and philosophy, to education, digitalization and management are the obvious advantages in the quest of making knowledge accessible to wider audiences. On the other hand, heritage as a discipline has a long history through the centuries, especially if considered, amongst others, a by-product of history and archaeology. It possesses the central place in the discourse but its roots lie within the long dialectic and evolutionary processes of the humanities. Therefore, it cannot afford the luxury to remain unaffected by the earlier battles that archaeology and history, as scientific entities, gave in order to detach their colonial attitudes from themselves. Thus, I believe that heritage through the deep understanding of the humanities and social sciences should hold its wings away from militarized approaches, engaging the public with causal relations and dialectic means.

*The side events of the conference, visualized with pictures below, aimed at those very ends - the causal (and casual) relations and dialectic means according to which heritage operates. 

Re-used heritage

Re-used heritage: The abandoned industrial facilities of “Paleo Eleourgio” (Old Oil Factory) revive through their new use as cultural multi-space. The reuse concept is not limited to the material field, but incorporates its everyday objects with cultural and social values. Heritage furniture of immigrant families in Elefsina and nearby neighbourhoods are reused as material witnesses of an era. The user is encouraged to process the past, the present and the future not only of the object but also of its very existence through the awareness of the current values it bears. (Concept Credits: Theodosia Maroutsi, Foteini Giannoulidi, Association of Greeks from Asia Minor of Elefsina, Anthi tis Petras. Image copyright: Jeff Vanderpool).

(Re)discovering Eleusis

(Re)discovering Eleusis: This side event consisted of a photo exhibition, placed around the old oil factory and in the perimeter of the archaeological site of Eleusis. The exhibits are the product of a photography workshop undertaken by the students of the MA in Heritage Management organized by the Athens University of Economics and Business and the University of Kent, under the supervision of the photographers and curators Jeff Vanderpool and Stergios Karavatos. The subjects of this exhibition were related to all aspects of the heritage of Elefsina. From the issues of branding and marketing of cultural heritage to the more complicated industrial heritage and the reuse of those spaces to the theoretical challenges of intangible heritage and how to capture narrations through the lens of a camera. (Organized by Jeff Vanderpool and Stergios Karavatos. Image copyright: the author)

[1] A selection of presentations from the conference is uploaded in the following platform: http://www.blod.gr/lectures/Pages/viewevent.aspx?EventID=638
[2] I would like to remind the reader of the relevant WAC 2008 debate that led to the following resolution: http://savingantiquities.org/world-archaeological-congress-weighs-in-on-archaeologists-advising-war-planners/

8 August 2016

Pikachu, the vandal

by Daniel García Raso

Would you abandon him now?
Until very recently, Nintendo, one of the giants of video games, had refused flatly (quite incomprehensibly from a business point of view) to create games for smartphones and other mobile devices, or even to allow their classic games (Mario, Donkey Kong or sagas like Metroid) to be available on these platforms.

But at a meeting of senior executives, someone had to bring Tatsumi Kimishima to reason because Miitomo, the first smartphone app of the Japanese company, was released on March 17 with terrific success: in less than a month it got 4 million downloads. In less than a month since its launch on July 7, Pokémon Go surpassed platforms like Twitter in terms of user numbers. Thanks to the fetishist momentum of casual gamers, some must be gloating in Tokyo... even recovering from the ‘bump’ of Wii U, until they stated a mere 32% of stocks in Niantic, the actual company that released the app. 

Pokémon Go is not only the first game application using augmented reality to harvest a great success, but also a game that has changed the behaviour of a huge segment of society, even within heritage (it remains to be seen if it's just the fever of novelty or if it will have a long-lasting effect). A new, sadomasochistic relationship between two forms of material culture that sometimes are almost one and the same: videogames and heritage, or videogames as heritage.Leaving aside the news that direct our attention to the true nature of human stupidity (e.g. several deaths caused by falls and even shootings at Pokémon-hunters believing they were thieves have been reported, and other ‘wonderful’ examples of the digital age: even the National Police in Spain had to issue advice on how to play Pokémon Go safely [!]), those relating to unfortunate incidents in a number of museums, monuments, squares, and other honourable heritage places, have been in no way less, as if Pikachu had become a barbarian such as those who passed through the Empire after the fall of Rome (or worse: a kind of pirate graffiti artist).

In Turkey, some want to ban Pokémon Go, before mosques are filled with teams of Pokémon-hunters. Auswitch Memorial in Poland had to ask visitors not to play inside, much like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in New York. But other heritage sites, and some museums, did not miss the opportunity to ‘capture’ potential visitors, using Pokémon Go as lure and embracing the hype via their social media accounts. However, after the news of the Pokémon-hunters-caused destruction at the MorikamiMuseum in Florida broke, some regretted it. In this category are also those who saw in this phenomenon a chance to create a fun way to learn or an informative way to play: searching pokémons in archaeological sites. Will Pikachu resist in Numancia?

Pokémon Go becomes then, with an entirely bipolar approach, threat and opportunity at the same time. More visitors would go to museums if they advertised (as it happened) that they contain pokémons; and more elements of heritage can be threatened by the digital commodification of their GPS coordinates. One might wonder which creatures can be found in some sites, the morality of which is constantly being challenged, in countries like Spain, where the Valley of the Fallen or Moncloa´s Victory Arch in Madrid are both symbols of the victory of fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Will we find there a weak Meowth or a powerful Mewtwo? Will the arrival of the hunters end up destroying the heritage character that exasperates many people in those places? We'll see... In the era of the Third Industrial Revolution everything is possible, especially when pokémons can be found even in our own toilet.

Literally in Jaime's toilet

However, some theoretical questions about material culture arise: could something similar have happened in the past, such as a sudden introduction of a new form of material culture that could have threatened or altered an existing one up to completely changing its meaning? It's just a thought to keep in mind. Who knows what can happen in the future if, for example, a Charmander is found on the remains of a new hominin in Olduvai. Will we descend then from a pixel? Where is the limit between relevant and incidental? Pikachu the vandal knows and is watching you, waiting for you...