Humans in Digital Humanities

Stephen Plog Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse

A series of interviews with faculty, staff, and students working in the digital humanities at the University of Virginia. The series spends time with the fascinating and talented people who are fortunate enough to work at the exasperating, unpredictable, and deeply interesting juxtaposition of humanities and digital technology.

Stephen Plog is the David A. Harrison Professor of Archaeology and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007. He began the Chaco Research Archive in 2002, focusing on integrating widely dispersed archaeological data from excavations at Chaco Canyon since the 1890s. The project received generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation, and has partnered with numerous museums, libraries, archives, and federal parks. The project has offered graduates and undergraduates a chance to contribute to an important addition to Southwest archaeological scholarship. The Archive has been called “a benchmark against which all other similar efforts should be measured.” His own research centers on culture change and social organization in Southwest native cultures.

Stephen Plog
IATH Fellow

How do you describe yourself?

I identify myself more as an archaeologist than an anthropologist, because I think that they're such different fields. Most anthropologists are working with living people and they're talking to them, and archaeology is dealing with the same kinds of societies but dealing with what's coming out of the ground. Then there's the whole matter of interpretation and how you understand it and how you put the pieces together is so different. And I think that archaeology resonates with the public more than anthropology does.

I grew up in the Southwest. I was born in Roswell, NM, and grew up in El Paso. My mother and my grandmother had both had an interest in Native Americans, but I never really thought about being an archaeologist or getting a Ph.D. until my brother did. When I graduated from high school and was mowing lawns, he was at an archaeological field camp up in Arizona and he arranged for me to come up for a week. I had a good time and at the end he said, “So, what do you think of it? Would you like to come back next summer and wash dishes? I've talked to the director and he's willing to hire you.”

He was looking for labor?

Yeah, but it was in my brother's nature. He was five years older than me, and he tended to look out for me. I feel like he had this all planned.

The next summer, working at the camp was the best paying job I could get. I went up and washed dishes and waited tables for the workers and did odd jobs. If it broke, I learned to fix it. I was the camp photographer, which sounds more impressive than it was. Maybe two or three times during the summer, the excavations would be at a point where they wanted some formal photographs, so I had to learn some things about photography. And when I was out taking photos, they would show me what they were doing.

After a summer washing dishes in the field, I began to get interested in archaeology. Part of the dig's support came from the National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Support Program, and they could recruit undergraduates and give them stipends to do research projects during the summer. So while I was out there washing dishes, I decided that I could do one of these research projects, too. That got me hooked and I went back the next summer and did it again. Then I transferred to the University of Michigan, which had one of the best archaeology programs in the country.

The next two years, I went with one of their faculty, Kent Flannery, down to southern Mexico, to the Valley of Oaxaca and worked down there. It was good experience, but that project was winding down and I was married and had a child. I went back to the Southwest for my dissertation project. My brother had started a field project in Arizona, so I worked with him.

There's a sense of inevitability in the way you tell it, but, when you were washing dishes, what was it that appealed to you?

It's the puzzle-solving that really intrigues me. Having a job where you can be indoors during the school year and outdoors in the summer is great, but what really grabbed me was the process of taking evidence from the ground and putting it together into a coherent whole that allows you to understand the lives of the people who lived there. You are working with pieces of a puzzle that is even more fragmented than a puzzle –

But you don't have the picture on the box.

Yes, you're looking for patterns and asking questions. That's what I've always found challenging and what drove me. If you want to learn about religion, how do you go about it? If you want to learn about trade ties and exchange relationships, what are you going to do to try to get that evidence?

Once you know a little bit more about the American Southwest from about 800 AD until the Spanish entered the area, you realize that it's an incredibly dynamic period. There are major population increases and drops, there are areas that are densely settled but twenty-five years later no one is living there. There are overarching big questions and specific questions. How were they making it out in this arid environment? We know that they were farmers, so how were they farming successfully? Most were living in really small villages of 10-25 people, and they were moving fairly frequently, every 10-15 years. Trying to understand that dynamism is one of the things that attracted me to this area. Just in a 700-year period there was tremendous culture change.

There are also aspects of the Southwest that enhance archaeological research. You can find an archaeological site in the American Southwest just by walking through the country. The vegetation cover is minimal so it's easier to discover to sites from distributions of artifacts on the surface and from landscape patterns. Also, the native peoples are still living there. You have to be careful not to project current cultures onto the past, since peoples and cultures change, but you can make connections that help you understand things that you're pulling out of the ground.

Beyond the intellectual interest, how are these long-gone cultures relevant to modern society? To be blunt, why should people care about this research?

In any of our modern institutions there is a hierarchy. This is a given in our society but it was not a given in all past societies. One of the questions that I have always thought important is, at what point do you start to see the development of those kinds of hierarchies? If you look at what we know about hunting and gathering societies, even though the ethnographies are somewhat post-colonization, most do not have strong social hierarchies. There are people recognized as better hunters or better at certain tasks, but no one person is directing the whole group. At some point in almost every area of the world you begin to see the development of formal social hierarchies. There are clearly some necessary pre-conditions. It's usually associated with people who have domesticated plants and animals and are staying in one place and farming fields for long periods of time. We usually find that fertility and population go up and I think that part of it is simply managing people and information. Without an overarching organization, there is the possibility of chaos.

But that doesn't necessarily explain how one person becomes recognized as a chief and becomes recognized as descended from a divine deity, which was the case with most European rulers, the Maya world, the Inca, and the Aztec. The highest individuals were descendants of or in some way tied to those divine individuals that govern the world. How and why does that happen?

Your research looks in part at social hierarchies and ritual.

In any of our modern institutions there is a hierarchy. This is a given in our society but it was not a given in all past societies. One of the questions that I have always thought important is, at what point do you start to see the development of those kinds of hierarchies? If you look at what we know about hunting and gathering societies, even though the ethnographies are somewhat post-colonization, most do not have strong social hierarchies. There are people recognized as better hunters or better at certain tasks, but no one person is directing the whole group. At some point in almost every area of the world you begin to see the development of formal social hierarchies. There are clearly some necessary pre-conditions. It's usually associated with people who have domesticated plants and animals and are staying in one place and farming fields for long periods of time. We usually find that fertility and population go up and I think that part of it is simply managing people and information. Without an overarching organization, there is the possibility of chaos.

But that doesn't necessarily explain how one person becomes recognized as a chief and becomes recognized as descended from a divine deity, which was the case with most European rulers, the Maya world, the Inca, and the Aztec. The highest individuals were descendants of or in some way tied to those divine individuals that govern the world. How and why does that happen?

In one of your articles, you analyze a remarkable burial site in room 33 in Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. About 14 or 15 bodies were found there surrounded by a staggeringly rich trove of turquoise. This might seem to indicate that the population there had made this mental leap.

Part of what led me to Chaco is that I worked in several areas where people were living in smaller villages. Chaco was flourishing during the same time period but it's different in so many ways. It's has multiple large buildings — Pueblo Bonito has 600 rooms — and incredible architecture that took tremendous amounts of effort. The walls are a meter thick, so they were quarrying tons of stone and they were fashioning the stones in the exterior walls in patterns. They were harvesting as many as 200,000 timbers from mountains that were 50 kilometers away to support multi-level buildings. The more I learned about the American Southwest, the more I realized that Chaco had a big impact on this period of time that I'd been studying.

Burial room 33 had always intrigued me. In most Southwest pueblos, when an individual dies, he or she is buried outside, in a sacred area so they can return to nature. At Pueblo Bonito, there is none of these cemeteries and mounds but there are burials inside the pueblo and they tend to be clustered inside certain rooms. This room is particularly unusual because it has so much turquoise and shell in it. One person did a study and said that room alone has four times as much turquoise as all other excavated sites in the Southwest combined. It's contained something like 52,000 pieces of turquoise — bracelets, necklaces, individual beads.

Individuals were being placed in there over a 250-300 year period. This was a room that people knew about and remembered and regarded as a special burial crypt, but only certain people were being placed there. There are other aspects of the room that indicate that it's tied into Pueblo cosmology. Something about those people was special, suggesting that there was a higher stratum of society and only people from that higher stratum were allowed to be buried in that room.

Do you think that archaeology/anthropology is particularly conducive to the digital humanities?

Yes, particularly archaeology, since you are almost always working with other people. It's a collaborative field by nature. The collaborative nature of archaeology means that from one project you can have papers on ceramics, geomorphology, excavation, analysis of burials. Trying to take that information and put it together is part of the collaboration.

There has been so much emphasis on excavation — that was one of the things you had to do to prove yourself — and for every month you spend in the field you are going to spend five or six months analyzing the material and getting it published. As a result, a lot of data never makes it to publication. Even if the research gets published, publishers never want to include huge tables that provide all the raw data on which the analysis is based. Publishers don't want to publish a 200-page study with a 300-page appendix. And yet that's often critical to enable someone else to do something with that information.

One of the great things about the digital humanities is that it's a few kilobytes of information but you can it offers incredible depth that people can mine. We have the work of George Pepper, Neil Judd — not just the synthetic papers that were written, but the raw data, so someone can look at Pepper's field notes and catalog lists and all the artifacts that came out of the excavations. It provides a way of disseminating an incredible wealth of information that would never be possible in printed form.

In a lot of areas — Chaco is unique in this way — people have gone in at different times and it's a way of bringing this information together and facilitates synthetic studies that would be very difficult otherwise. We aren't putting everything out in exactly the form everyone wants, but it's there. Studies will be done in the next 10 or 20 years addressing issues that didn't even occur to us. The history of the research, the collaborative nature of the research, the sheer amount and importance of raw data mean that the digital humanities is simply the way to integrate all that information.

There would be enormous value in building similar archives for other sites. The problem is that there still are not many universities that have an institution like IATH. I never could have done the Chaco Archive if it hadn't been for IATH. We could not have combined the digital side of it and the archaeology side of it and made it work in the right way.

Was it hard, when you first began the Chaco Research Archive, to work through the initial exchange of information, explaining your research and learning about the technological challenges?

It was definitely time-consuming. I had some sense of it, but I did not know it would take a full year of regular discussion to really develop the tables and terminology that we would need to use before we could go to the archives and begin collecting information. But that process made me appreciate how carefully you have to think about these projects. It's not just something where you put pieces together. If you are going to make it work in an effective way, you must be able to think and debate and discuss back and forth.

Do you think that projects like this one will keep happening?

I think that people are going to the field with database structures in mind, and that they have some idea of what information they will collect and in what forms. More and more people understand that they have to think about these issues before they go and it's affecting the way that data is being collected in the field. I would say that it's pretty common now for information to be collected digitally, so you have advantages that you didn't have 20 years ago.

The most difficult summer we had was after the year of discussion. We had gathered the archival data and we needed to expand the database structure. Carrie Heitman, Abby Holeman, and I spent an entire summer on it, meeting every day for as long as we could tolerate and thinking about what tables we needed and how they would relate to each other. The problem was that we were doing this work post hoc — one person collected data different ways than someone else did, so we had to fit multiple projects together. The memory of that summer is still vivid.

When I went through graduate school, I learned statistics and quantitative methods. Relational databases weren't yet mainstream. I still think that statistical methods are important, but I would advise a graduate student to learn database design. That's what will serve you well down the road. Whether you're doing field work or collecting archival data, you are going to be working with massive amounts of information — descriptions of ceramics, stone tools, and the soils that they came from, as well as field notes taken by students — and trying to integrate it together. That's always difficult but putting it together digitally makes it much easier to move on to the questions that you want answered.

Of course, inevitably you think, “I should have done this in the field” or, “Why didn't we create a relationship between this table and that table?” You can't anticipate everything.

That's the human part of humanities computing.

Yeah.