Digital Archaeology

’It could be considered that Archaeology from its inception embraced new technology. This included Cartesian mapping and early photography, ground based and aerial, both balloon and fixed wing. The Atomic era brought carbon14 dating, Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) exploration introduced LiDar, geophysical survey using proton magnometry or Ground Penetrating Radar. Jeremy Huggett suggested “the idea that objects contain embedded within them representations of aspects of their socio-technical and economic circumstances of creation is not unfamiliar to archaeologists”, could this be an ‘aura’. It could be considered that the dig and abstraction of artefacts by human hand are still applicable, the rest, Digital or otherwise simply speeds the process along. A prime example in the use of Digital Archaeological sub-set disciplines would be the discovery of Richard III’s body. A mechanical digger remove the first 30cm of surface material, not a mattock in site. From GPR to dig team, carbon 14 to Osteoarchaeology, CT scans to Archaeogenetics led to his identity being discovered. While the use digital tools and approaches are available to all archaeologists and should when possible be integrated into all aspects their work, many avenues of digital archaeology need a specialist’s knowledge. The introduction of many new tools comes from far outside traditional fields of archaeology, the IMS and GPS used in aerial LiDar is originally from missile technology. Archaeologists implement digital databases in comparative studies, this shared work and experience can be available through open access, linking all data, and optimising the link through new technology can aid in creating more refined interpretations of archaeology. There is a need for the next generation of archaeologists to engage with digital technology. Even to be given a basic knowledge of the many aspects of analytical or research systems irrespective of how often it is used; simply to know that tools are available to speed up complicated processes. There is no doubt that many archaeology projects presently involve the use of computers, it is not necessary that their project leaders know how to use them but they should have people in their department who do, Andre Costopoulos makes this point clear. In Ireland, the availability of dig information provided by the NRA online in incredible. There is an ongoing process to get archaeologists to realize the potential of digital archaeology using it as a new tool or sub-field and to eventually incorporate it into their research. Archaeology has come far since academics dismissed the first radiocarbon dating in the nineteen forties as archaeologically inacceptable. As computer technology becomes more compact and computers became more powerful and human-readable computing languages became more prominent.
The time is here to embrace the technology for what it is, a way of speeding up ancillary processes, overlaying tracing paper on google earth photos of the site to get a sketch map, GPS for distances and scale or identifying dig pits with GPR, reducing the use of test pits. In a generation, Archaeology, will be just be one of many disciplines revolving round Digital platforms. ‘Who commands the future conquers the past’ (Orwell 1949)
Costopoulos A Digital Archaeology Is Here (and Has Been for a While). Front. Digit. Humanit. 3:4. doi: 10.3389/fdigh.2016.00004
Huggett J.A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology
Wenger R. Visual Art, Archaeology, and Gestalt
Leonardo Vol. 30, No. 1 (1997), pp. 35-46, The MIT Press

2 thoughts on “Digital Archaeology”

  1. I think your blog is very good, John! I unreservedly agree with the majority of your arguments. The points that you make about traditional/digital archaeology are valid and are extremely difficult to argue against. I have no doubt that Augustus Pitt Rivers would have scoffed at the idea of a device or fully functional computer that could calculate binary mathematic equations. This was realised in 1943/46 when the ENIAC computer was invented by J. P. Eckert and J. Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania. Archaeologists such as Stuart Struever, a North American Archaeologist, pioneered the use of computers to record and categorize data from archaeological sites in the USA (Archaeologists: explorers of the human past by Brian Fagan).

    In my own opinion, digital technology has made archaeological research, analysis, recording and curation much more accurate, and faster, as you emphasised, John. There are academics, such as Andre Costopoulos, who have thrown scorn on aspects of virtual archaeology. Costopoulos stated that the computer gaming community had taken the lead on the debate about online reconstruction of the past instead of professional archaeologists. Whilst this may be true to some extent, it is also a hypocritical attempt by Costopoulos to criticise a technological development that will eventually become entrenched in archaeological methodology.

    I think the only part I disagree with you on, John, is that the transitional process from traditional archaeology to digital archaeology will not take a generation. My opinion is that Digital Humanities is a new field, and you can even see that this field has one foot stuck in computer science which uses computational theory, methodology and many other aspects which are alien to archaeologists. I, myself, studied archaeology for four years and I rarely, if ever, came across augmented and virtual reality, for example. I think traditional archaeology and digital humanities should be amalgamated into one degree, or TSM. In addition to merging the two disciplines, there is also the huge issue of universal standardisation, intellectual property, funding and ethics which Costopoulos mentioned in his article, with Huggett also agreeing. In conclusion, I think that this may never happen in my life time, and if it does, I will be happily surprised because I feel it would be beneficial to archaeology in general.

  2. I like your exploration and examination of archaeology and its history of embracing technology. It really shows how archaeology has existed in close proximity to technology through out its history. I also feel as you said that the “time is here to embrace the technology for what it is “ but the question then arises to what exactly technology is and what exactly does it entail? Huggert expresses the anxiety that technology can have on the archaeological process. Painting technology as an outside invader to the practice of archaeology. I agree with your statement partly that technology is an ancillary process rather than Huggert’s definition. That it plays the role of a subsidiary. I also disagree at the same time as it is not exactly a subsidiary but as I explained in my blog post that we embody technology. Therefore it is our processes which form technology. Your ending quote is also interesting ‘Who commands the future conquers the past’. As Costopoulos discussed there is a “poetic symmetry in the fact” that archaeologists who are so concerned with the past have pursued the cutting edge in technology to examine it. The concept brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s Dialectical image the interplay of past, present and future. I feel the key part of Orwell’s quote is “conquers the past”. With our processes of technology are we examining the past or conquering it? I feel this reminds us that Huggert also has a point to make. This is the reflective nature of the processes we use. We can not apply our processes without asking and questioning the scope and perspective they will lead us to. This is not due to technology though it is due to the fact we should question and express reflexivity in any interactions we have when interacting with the past.

Comments are closed.