Shawn Graham, Andrew Reinhard, Eric Kansa
Received October 30 2020
Citation: Graham, Shawn; Andrew Reinhard; Eric Kansa. 2020. “Datacore” Epoiesen
Creative Commons License

Shawn Graham is Full Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University ( ORCID: 0000-0002-2887-3554.
Andrew Reinhard is is the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society ( ORCID: 0000-0001-7987-8227.
Eric Kansa is Program Director for Open Context ( ORCID: 0000-0001-5620-4764.

In the middle of the field…

Standing in a late summer field in Italy; the heat of the day lifts the scent of the tilled earth, crickets buzz, and in the distance, the sound of the occasional lorry trundling down the secondary road. The regular clicks of the magnetometer provide the metronome for the day’s work. Sweat on my brow, careful step after careful step, a human-machine scanning beam moving across the face of the earth. Click… click… click.

R. Murray Schafer taught us to attend to the way ambient noises overlaid or intersected with physical spaces (1994) to understand more of the meanings of space. Tim Ingold suggested that ‘scapes’ of all kinds create the temporal experience of space (1993). Archaeological field work is a sensual experience: it engages our senses in the moment of the creation of data, and it requires a sensual imagination to create an archaeological landscape from these pulses of electro-magnetic radiation, mixing together with more tacit materials like potsherds - and even potsherds require sensual engagement to be activated, rubbing between the fingers to feel the slip, the grit, to trigger our knowledge of past encounters with the texture, the physicality, of this detritus.

A sensual engagement with the past is an archaeological act of imagination.


Archaeology is necessarily a creative act. Like Pete Townsend smashing a guitar after a show, its destruction is creative: there is no assemblage, no active agencement (“a collection of things which have been gathered together or assembled”, Wikipedia) helpfully glosses) without the destruction wrought by archaeological method. But it’s a creative act that always seems to be secondary; we seem to be embarrassed by the act of creation. If we weren’t, there’d be more projects like Soundmarks (Ferraby and St. John,, or for instance work like that of all of the contributors to a special issue of Internet Archaeology on the intersections of art and (digital) archaeology, which demonstrate something of what we’re missing when we don’t attend to creation.

So we are, in some corners and despite everything, comfortable with the idea that there is a role for creative expression in archaeology; that the archaeology (the things that emerge as a result of archaeological method) emerges in creative ways, different for each practitioner.


…we sense more than we see.

In this piece, we want to consider the re-activation of digital data through sound as a way of fostering a sensual engagement with archaeological imagination.

Cristina Wood writes,

Whereas soundscapes paint with ‘found’ sounds–the auditory snapshot of a location at a given time, at a given place –sonification is an act of translation, or re-mediation and so is the aural equivalent of mapping, graphing, or charting to tell a story. I propose that sonification can also be an act of de-formance,or the deliberate re-interpretation of a text, and that this is a reminder of the constructed nature of data (Wood 2019)

Sonification maps aspects of the information against things like timbre, scale, instrumentation, rhythm, and beats-per-minute to highlight aspects of the data that a visual representation might not pick up. It’s also partly about making something strange—we’ve become so used to visual representations of information that we don’t necessarily recognize the ways assumptions about it are encoded in the visual grammars of barcharts and graphs. By trying to represent archaeological information in sound, we have to think through all of those basic decisions and elaborate on their implications. Historians like Michael Kramer sonify historical images to understand how the historical gaze has been constructed (Krame and Noël 2020; Kramer 2018). “I did not see this until I heard it” they write…

…the use of digital sound design has made it possible to “amplify the meaning” of a historical event […] by inviting us “to hear an image while listening to its digitized data”, [we establish] a new kind of historical hermeneutics of visual sources. (Kramer & Noël 2020)

In a similar vein, while we are not sonifying images, in our discussion below we detail how we sonified the digital traces of the archaeological engagement with Poggio Civitate and expressed this ‘soundscape’ within particular genres that themselves have implications for state-of-mind and engagement. Going further, we see this kind of transgressive bleeding of data across different states of being and different modalities as being an act of seeding creativity, and we will conclude by suggesting other digital modes that could be similarly seeded.

[…] sonification also points to some interesting, if rather strange and philosophical, methodological questions about history itself. We might say that history itself is acousmatic, in the sense that we can never precisely return to the origin point of a historical activity once it has passed. Instead, we are always listening (and looking) back to it through its artifactual representations, which are resonances of the original. As Jean-Luc Nancy argues, “To listen is tendre l’oreille. – literally, to stretch the ear.” [S]onification asks us to extend our senses, to heighten our awareness about an artifact, an archive, and history itself in terms of how we access it (Kramer & Noël 2020)

We might argue that using any kind of digital trace as a seed for remediation in another medium/mode stretches our conceptual ears similarly.



“The ‘click track’ “is a series of audio cues used to synchronize sound recordings […] The click track originated in early sound movies, where optical marks were made on the film to indicate precise timings for musical accompaniment. It can also serve a purpose similar to a metronome, as in the music industry, where it is often used during recording sessions and live performances” Wikipedia.

What is the click track of archaeology? What keeps us all in sync? It isn’t ‘time’, however recorded. Dates smear. They’re unsteady, dependent, relative. Extraordinary effort is required to reconcile dates and dating systems (just look at the heroic work of No, the click track, the thing that keeps us all in line, is perhaps ‘the context’ or locus. It is a single row in a database.

In our experiment, we began by using data downloaded from Open Context, from the excavations at Poggio Civitate, but loaded into the web-toy TwoTone. TwoTone is a simple tool for mapping one column of data to a single voice. One row, one whole note. Click…click…click. The data is simple counts of objects from Poggio Civitate, which were rendered as arpeggiated piano lines over three octaves (ie, the count was scaled to a note on the 88 key keyboard, and then that note was used as the anchor for the arpeggio); average latitude and average longitude were calculated for each class of thing thereby making a chord, and then each class of object had its own unique value (thus the further into the database we progress, the higher the note). Why did we arpeggiate? The arpeggio is a nod back to the original confusion and messiness of excavation (especially a training excavation, as Poggio Civitate was).

We took these four original tracks based on the 3,000-year-old data and began to play, iterating through a couple of versions, ultimately remixing a 5-minute piece that has movements isolating one of the four data threads, which sometimes crash together like waves of building data, yet are linked together. The final mix moves along at 120 bpm, a dance music standard.

The remix was accomplished using the open source Audacity audio software application. The first four tracks are the piano parts generated by TwoTone, staggered in such a way as to introduce the data bit-by-bit, and then merged with 16 other tracks—overburden or matrix. In the beginning, they are harmonious and in time, but because of subtle variations in bpm, by the time the song ends the data have become messy and frenetic, a reflection of the scattered pieces within the archaeological record, something that happens over time. Each movement in the song corresponds to an isolated data thread from one of the original piano parts, which then loops back in with the others to see how they relate.


Shawn Graham · Reflexivity (instrumental)

(or download ‘Reflexivity’ here.)

Kramer again:

…I propose a more adventurous mode of data sonification in which artistic tactics of collage, fusion, Cagean “chance operations,” and formal experimentation might allow historians to hear things in their artifacts, evidence, and data that they might not otherwise perceive. Why not embrace the full potential of computers as re-representation machines? Why constrain our capacities to perceive previously unnoticed aspects of the archival record through creative digital manipulations of our materials?” (Kramer & Noël 2020)

3,000 years ago, at a plateau in the tufa landscape of southern Etruria, people lived their lives, only to have their debris carefully collected, studied, systematized, counted, digitized, and exposed online. No longer things but data, these counts and spaces were mapped to simple sonic dimensions using a web-toy, making a moderately pleasing experience. Remixed, the music moves us, enchants us, towards pausing and thinking through the material, the labour, the meanings, of a digital archaeology (Perry 2019). Should this song ever be performed in a club, the dancers would then be embodying our archaeological knowledge of Poggio in their movements, in the flows and subtle actions/reactions their bodies make across the floor. In dancing, we achieve a different kind of knowledge of the world, that reconnects us with the physicality of the world (eg Block and Kissel 2001). The eruptions of deep time into the present (Fredengren 2016) – such as that encountered at an archaeological site – are weird and taxing and require a certain kind of trained imagination to engage with. But by turning the data into music, we let go of our authority over imagination, and let the dancers perform what they know.

Was this a good strategy for sonification? Doesn’t matter.

This playful sonification of data allows us to see archaeological material with fresh eyes . . . errrrrr ears . . . and by doing so restores the enchantment we once felt at the start of a new project, or of being interested in archaeology in the first place. Restoring the notion of wonder into three middle-aged archaeologists is no small feat, but the act of play enabled us to approach a wealth of artifacts from one site we know quite well, and realize that we didn’t know it quite like this. Using the new music bridges the gap between humans past and present and in dancing we (and hopefully you) embody the data we present. It’s a new connection to something old, and is experienced by bodies.

… In my view, and to my ears, it is in the artful interplay of computer operations and the human sensorium, in using aesthetic approaches to the computational transit between image and sound, seeing and hearing, that we might discover the past most robustly.” (Kramer & Noël 2020)

click…click…click The human/machine scans across the landscape, marching to the click track set by the demands of magnetometry. The results of the magnetometry inspire our best guess where to dig; we dig with inexperienced students and help them tell the story of their trench; we smoosh all this indeterminacy into rigid boxes on a digital recording sheet. Each beam of data, each collapse of possibilities to a single point, each point of data in a database, is a seed from which an encounter with the archaeological uncanny can grow.


There are at least 50 wikipedia articles about English words with the suffix -core . Core, from coeur, meaning the heart of the matter. From the apple core, we get the seeds that form the orchard. From the datacore, we get….. what, precisely? “Datacore” is suggestive of various musical styles that create music based on data sets. Datacore seems like it should also be a synonym for a database. Could datacore mean more? Could these seeds in our archaeological databases be used to generate other kinds of art? Data-driven 2- and 3-D visual and sonic painting (as in the work of Ferraby & St. John)? Could it be soundscapes at an active dig or lab? Or ambient recordings in a modern landscape containing an ancient site? Perhaps archaeologists think too much about a kind of data being used for a kind of result. Opening data up to other interpretations through non-traditional methods and means could both delight and surprise, adding more context from both human and machine as we work towards a more complete understanding of what it is we do, we collect, we analyze


As I walk across the field, I stop to take a break, setting the magnetometer down carefully. There are poppies growing in this field, their seed pods little rattles on the end of impossibly long stems. I pick one, and flick its cap off with my thumb. Little seeds spill out, and are wafted away on the soft breeze. I can’t imagine - not yet - what’s under my feet. I resume my task.

click… click… click...


Block, Betty, and Judith Kissel (2001). Dance: The Essence of Embodiment. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 22(1), 5-15. DOI: 10.1023/A:1009928504969.

Ferraby, Rose, and Rob St. John. (2019). Soundmarks.

Fredengren, Christina (2016). Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time Enchantment. Bog Bodies, Crannogs and ‘Otherworldly’ sites. The materializing powers of disjunctures in time. World Archaeology 48(4), 482-499, DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2016.1220327.

Ingold, Tim. (1993) The Temporality of the Landscape. World Archaeology 25(2), pp. 152-174.

Kramer, Michael J. (2018)“A Foreign Sound To Your Ear”: Digital Image Sonification for Historical Interpretation”, in Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, Whitney Trettien, ed., Digital Sound Studies, Duke University Press: Durham NC. Pp.178-214.

Kramer, Michale J. and Jean-Sébastien Noël. (2020) “Remediatizing Visual Media as Sonic Data. Sonification and Cultural History” , Revue d’histoire culturelle 2020(1)

Perry, Sara. (2019). The Enchantment of the Archaeological Record. European Journal of Archaeology, 22(3), 354-371. doi:10.1017/eaa.2019.24
Schafer, R.Murray. 1994. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.

Wood, Christina. (2019). Songs of the Ottawa: A Sonified Environmental History of the Changing Riverscape from the Chaudière Falls to Kettle and Duck Islands, 1880 to 1980. MA Research Essay, Carleton University.

Cover Image Detail from with data from Poggio Civitate

Masthead Image by Sarthak Navjivan unsplash