We need to talk about how the digital impacts on archaeology

On the face of it, it is hard to argue with Costopolous’s view.  It is true – digital archaeology has been here for a while and it is here to stay!  There is plenty of evidence of the widespread adoption of digital technologies, but why does Costopolous “want to stop talking about digital archeology” (Costopoulos)?  Why would we not talk about it, or about anything else that represents a significant way in which work is done and through which we arrive at understanding?


Modern Archaeology

Modern, professional archaeology, as scientific study and analysis, is a relatively new profession and one that has a recent history of changing and adopting new tools to suit its needs. Each new generation exploits and incorporates tools and techniques that were not available to the previous generation.

With the benefit of hindsight, a modern archaeologist might consider excavations undertaken a hundred years ago as little more than a treasure hunt, lacking as they did, an understanding of stratigraphy, the discipline and techniques of excavation, or modern approaches to finds analysis and sampling. Modern methods brought profoundly different understandings of the meaning and significance of individual sites and to the antiquity of sites and of humanity itself, overthrowing what had been understood prior to that.


Archaeology in the Digital Age

The adoption of borrowed digital tools in archaeological practice and research is in essence not a departure but a continuation.  The use of digital surveying equipment, geographical information systems, geophysical survey as an alternative to or preparation for excavation, computing applications for cultural resources and data management and various analytical and investigative techniques are now common practice.  But just as the new approaches of modern archaeology were not ‘neutral’ neither are developments in more ‘distant’ methods of data capture, structuring, networking or representation neutral.  With our understanding of the historical development of archaeological practice it is a natural progression to want to ‘gain a greater understanding and appreciation of these technologies within their disciplinary context’ (Huggett, “A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology”)


Archaeological Methodologies

As with any archaeological practice, and in common with other professions that seek to create knowledge and understanding, there is an onus on the archaeologist to explain and defend the methodology chosen.  It is only with this level of reflection that the true value of a methodology can be assessed, with its advantages and shortcomings, and be set out for others to assess for themselves.  Research and publication of findings along the lines of the recent RIA study on the impact of digitisation of selected medieval manuscripts (Royal Irish Academy) adds to our understanding of the value of the methodology.

Because of the novelty of some digital technologies there can be an absence of critical engagement but not all technologies available will become mainstream in archaeological practice.  At the very least there must be a continuous cost / benefit analysis for the discipline, especially as archaeological practice is largely publicly funded.

Archaeological Specialisms

In order to develop and grow as a discipline there will continue to be those who push boundaries and explore opportunities in the application of emerging technologies to the field.

The modern discipline has always had specialisms.  Not every archaeologist is a Prehistorian, not every archaeologist who excavates human remains is an Osteo-Archaeologist.  Likewise, not every archaeologist who uses digital tools is a Digital Archaeologist but we do need those specialists to explore new applications and benefits.

Huggett differentiates between ‘digital archaeologists’ and ‘Digital Archaeologists’ and I tend to agree with the distinction (Huggett, Let’s Talk about Digital Archaeology).  In many ways though I find the term ‘Digital Archaeology’ unhelpful, because there is an implied opposition to the pre-digital profession.  It is unhelpful too because it can be understood very differently by different people referring as it does to a broad range of distinct specialisms, which may have in common only that they use digital technologies. So, maybe what we need to talk about instead is the impact of all things digital on archaeology, rather than the less meaningful and differently understood term ‘Digital Archaeology’.


Costopoulos, Andre. “Digital Archeology Is Here (and Has Been for a While).” Frontiers in Digital Humanities, vol. 3, Mar. 2016. CrossRef, doi:10.3389/fdigh.2016.00004.

Huggett, Jeremy. “A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology.” Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2015. CrossRef, doi:10.1515/opar-2015-0002.

Huggett, Jeremy. Let’s Talk about Digital Archaeology. https://introspectivedigitalarchaeology.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/lets-talk-about-digital-archaeology&/#8230.

Royal irish Academy. Researching Our Medieval Irish Manuscripts: Impact of Digitisation. 2017, https://www.ria.ie/news/library-library-blog/researching-our-medieval-irish-manuscripts-impact-digitisation.

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The potential for Audience Engagement with 3D Digital Visualisations


I was somewhat surprised to read in Stuart Jeffrey’s paper that, in the context of digital archaeology, that  ‘there is little broad community engagement with digital visualisation (Jeffrey 145)’ and interested to read his views both on the potential for engaging multiple audiences and the impact he envisages, in terms of what he refers to as a potential Golden Age of heritage visualisations.


Jeffrey sees the ‘aura’ of the digital object as fundamental to how it is perceived by audiences and he is concerned with and argues for ‘the potential for digital objects to manifest, or accrue, auratic qualities’ (145).  While interesting intellectually, the consideration of the potentiality for aura to migrate from an original to a 3D visualisation brings little to the central question of audience engagement, because, I would argue that what is most important in terms of engagement is the point of interaction with the audiences rather than the question of what may be inherent or may have migrated to the object.


Cultural theorists talk in terms of the ‘meaning’ of cultural objects.  Tilley, for example, sees meaning ‘not of objective fact, but of social construction, the ideological basis of which can be unravelled, or ‘de-constructed’(Pearce 4).  All things, whether physical or digital, have the potential to have meaning for audiences and that meaning can change over time (in the life cycle of the object) and across cultures and within different communities of interest.  Audience engagement work in cultural organisations considers the location of meaning, not solely within the cultural resource or object itself, but crucially, it ‘emerges fully in the interaction between that resource and the person engaging with it’(Council of National Cultural Institutions (Ireland) et al. 17).


Projects such as Roscommon 3D, amongst others, demonstrate that there is interest as well as the potential to engage audiences as co-producers in heritage visualisations.  The inherent novelty of 3D visualisations, or the very weirdness that Jeffrey finds problematic, can act as a vital hook to engage potential audiences but unless planned for there can be a danger that the visualisation itself can become the focus of interest, rather than the original that it is attempting to represent.


In order to know the potential for the use of 3D visualisations in audience engagement, we need to interrogate the notion that there is little broad community engagement with digital visualisation and consult with potential audiences to find out why and how engagement could happen meaningfully.    Without this, the quest for a golden age seems to be more about those within the digital heritage world than about the potential audiences.  Without  front end evaluation, it will be difficult to assess not only the potential for heritage visualisations as a resource for public engagement but also the impact of any engagement projects.



Council of National Cultural Institutions (Ireland), et al. A Policy Framework for Education, Community, Outreach (ECO). Council of National Cultural Institutions, 2004.

Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2015. CrossRef, doi:10.1515/opar-2015-0008.

Pearce, Susan M., editor. Interpreting Objects and Collections. Transferred to digital pr, Routledge, 2006.

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Comparing data modelling techniques


What is data modelling?

Data modelling is essentially the structure in which data (information and knowledge) is collected, managed and represented.  It is intended to describe the concepts or objects of concern to an individual or organisation in order to represent both the concepts and objects and the relationships between them.

Data modelling techniques

There are currently two main data modelling techniques used in computer systems.  These are database systems and graph systems.  Of the database systems, in the last few decades since it was proposed in 1970 by Codd, the relational model has become the de facto standard for information representation (Martinez-Cruz, Blanco, and Vila).  However, in the last decade ontologies, expressed in graphs, have emerged and have grown in popularity to represent a viable alternative to relational databases, particularly because of their application in the Semantic Web.

Comparing techniques – similarities and differences

As the basic intention of data modelling is to describe things and their relationships to each other, it is not surprising that there is a strong degree of correlation between the organisation of databases and ontologies.  Both use a formal language and have types, properties and constraints.  A relational database ‘entity’ can correspond to an ontology ‘class’, a relational attribute to an ontology ‘property’.  However, the focus of databases is the data, while the focus of ontologies is communicating meaning and shared understanding.

Relational databases, considered fully normalised when normalised to 3rd normal form, are highly suitable to data organisation and structure.  Because normalisation reduces or eliminates redundancy, they are also very effective for data collection.  Normalisation, however, requires the creation of multiple tables with joins between tables.  Querying across tables can be technically complex, can cause efficiency problems and can be expensive. Databases are often de-normalised to improve performance for data  warehousing and extraction.  What arises is multiple highly specialised individual databases developed to manage specific information by individual entities.  The databases and the data in them generally sit behind a firewall and are often only available on the internet through a customised application that has to be developed or customised for the individual database. Both the normalisation process and online access through another application can result in a reduction of specificity of the original dataset.


Ontologies are also highly structured.  Based on the Resource Description Framework (RDF) , a standard method for defining things and the relationships between them,  and designed for the Web to refer to any thing or any concept, the entire ontology can be viewed globally without restrictions or layers of interfaces.  Viewers are given access to the data rather than to html documents.  Using HTTP URIs as globally unique identifiers for data items and vocabulary terms, an ontology can be amended and added to at any time, unlike databases, which can be technically difficult and expensive to modify.  Being inherently scalable,  ontologies enable much quicker searching of vast quantities of data. 


While the strength of databases is in data capture and structuring, the strength of graph models lie in their ability to visually represent data and relationships between data and in the ease of sharing data on the web.  To access the data, however, both models require some prior knowledge, of the database schema or ontology structure.  Choosing one over the other will ultimately depend on the particular project and end user requirements.  Graph database technology is comparatively new and much less familiar to potential end users than relational databases, which are now commonplace and which have stood the test of several decades. Further research will explore and develop methods of effectively translating data in databases to graph models and as Martinez-Cruz et al suggest, it is likely that databases will remain important for some time for the capture and structuring of large datasets. 



Martinez-Cruz, Carmen, Ignacio J. Blanco, and M. Amparo Vila. “Ontologies versus Relational Databases: Are They so Different? A Comparison.” Artificial Intelligence Review 38.4 (2012): 271–290. CrossRef. Web.


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Some thoughts on Rural Broadband

In the digital age, there is unprecedented access to information for more people than ever before but is this a true democratisation of access to data and the possibilities that data promise for how we live and work?

I was interested to read a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times in reaction to a controversy over the cost of subsidising a rural rail line where the columnist put the focus instead on the issue of rural broadband  (Taylor).  Taylor sees provision of broadband as a highly significant long term investment by the government.  As a rural dweller, I agree. We live in a digital world and having broadband is now not a choice but a necessity for work, life and play.

The National Broadband Plan, announced in 2012 has had a slow start.  The 2012 plans were altered to extend the reach to 927,000 households and businesses.  This figure represents approximately 35% of the population.  Put that another way – 35% of the population currently have poor broadband connectivity. The national plan is still in the procurement phase and it is now likely that it will be mid to late 2017 before roll out can begin over a period that will extend to the end of 2022.  Even then, the speed being worked towards is likely to need to be increased.

Earlier in the same week another Irish Times columnist (Burke-Kennedy, Rural broadband speeds are up to 36 times slower) drew attention to broadband speeds in some rural areas that are up to 36 times slower than some towns and cities with only one quarter of households with speeds of 30 megabits per second (mbps), the minimum target set out in the National Broadband Plan.  Burke-Kennedy has been writing on this topic for some time and sees the urban / rural broadband divide as ‘digital apartheid’ – something that is having a devastating effect on small businesses, on education, on quality of life and on rural isolation (Burke-Kennedy, Can broadband plan end our ‘digital apartheid’?).

Those of us who live in areas of low broadband speed know the frustrations of not being able to see or access what other people can.  Whether it’s online banking or access to Netflix, as digital businesses grow and predominate, the analogue options shut down – a trade off that is unnoticed by the many but leaves some of us wishing we could forget about our troubles by watching the latest DVD releases from the local rental – if only the rental shop hadn’t closed last year!


Burke-Kennedy, Eoin. “Can broadband plan end our ‘digital apartheid’?” 2 June 2016. www.irishtimes.com. 1 December 2016.

—. “Rural broadband speeds are up to 36 times slower.” 15 November 2016. www.irishtimes.com. 1 December 2016.

Taylor, Cliff. “Broadband not railway lines the key to rural survival and development.” The Irish Times 15 November 2016: 16.

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