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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