Digital Archaeology vs Digital Humanities, or Why Labels are Important



In his foreword to the Digital Archaeology section of the Frontiers in Digital Humanities online journal, Andre Costopoulos writes that, “I want to stop talking about digital archaeology.  I want to continue doing archaeology digitally.”  In a series of provocative statements, Costopoulos suggests that conversations concerning the implications of new digital tools are somewhat obsolete as digitisation continues regardless.  He finishes by saying, “Forget the label.  We are building a digital archaeology by doing archaeology digitally.  This is what we do” (Costopoulos).  In his response to Costopoulos’ piece, Jeremy Huggett writes,

There’s no doubt that every archaeologist is a digital archaeologist, in the sense that everyone uses a computer to some extent at some point in their work….  However, not everyone is a digital archaeologist.

It is Huggett’s view that to avoid having conversations concerning the implications of new digital tools would be an “abrogation of responsibility” (Huggett, Let’s Talk About Digital Archaeology).  At first glance, both contributions seem directly applicable to Digital Humanities and that is how they were read by many participants in a recent group discussion, myself included.  However, on closer reading the relationship between Digital Archaeology and Digital Humanities becomes tenuous.  Should we read the debates within Digital Archaeology as though are synonymous with those in Digital Humanities?



The answer to this question largely depends on how we define Digital Humanities and the relationships between Digital Humanities and independent humanities disciplines, including Digital Archaeology.  As Matthew Kirschenbaum points out, this is a question to which the multiplicity of answers now constitutes a genre (Kirschenbaum, 1).  For me, Digital Humanities is a transdisciplinary field of study, not a sub-field or sub-discipline and it is equally grounded in the theoretical, the methodological and the practical.  To my mind, such a definition attests to the applicability of digital technologies across the humanities whilst giving sufficient recognition to the fact that Digital Humanities constitutes an independent field of study.  I do not consider myself a Digital Humanities scholar because I apply digital tools to Medieval Irish material (or perhaps more accurately I intend to apply digital tools to Medieval Irish material).  If such work required a label, I would say that I am a Digital Medievalist.  What sets Digital Humanists apart from those who employ digital tools within their independent disciplines is that they have considered the wider institutional, cultural and political issues.

Perhaps more telling, however, are the attitudes of Digital Archaeologists and Digital Humanists themselves.  In 2012, Stuart Dunn wrote that the relationship between archaeology and Digital Humanities has been curiously lacking (Dunn).  In a paper, referencing Dunn’s work, Huggett writes that “digital humanists are not queuing up to access DA and digital archaeologists are not knocking on the door of DH” (Huggett, “Core or Periphery? Digital Humanities from an Archaeological Perspective”, 92).  In 2015, he highlighted the divergences in the developmental histories of the two fields and argued in favour of a “third wave” for Digital Archaeology which greatly differs from the “third wave” proposed for Digital Humanities (Huggett, “A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology”, 89).  From a Digital Humanities perspective, Figure 1, originally published in 2002, maps the various methodological commons of Digital Humanities and archaeology is notably absent.



I am not suggesting that discourse within Digital Archaeology cannot be beneficial to Digital Humanities scholars, or vice versa.  There are undoubtedly many strong parallels between Digital Humanities and Digital Archaeology.  However, one should exercise caution when reading Digital Archaeology material and should not assume that Digital Archaeology is synonymous with Digital Humanities.  To paraphrase Huggett in his article cited in the above introduction: there’s no doubt that every archaeologist is a digital archaeologist, in the sense that everyone uses a computer to some extent at some point in their work.  However, not every Digital Archaeologist is a Digital Humanist.


Further Reading:

Costopoulos, Andre. “Digital Archaeology Is Here (and Has Been For a While).” Frontiers in Digital Humanities 3 (2016): 1-4. Web.

Dunn, Stuart. CAA1 – The Digital Humanities and Archaeology Venn Diagram. N.p., 206AD. Web.

Huggett, Jeremy. “Core or Periphery? Digital Humanities from an Archaeological Perspective.” Historical Social Research 37 (2012): 86-105. Web.

—. “A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology.” Open Archaeology 1 (2015): 86–95. Web.

—. Let’s Talk About Digital Archaeology. N.p., 2016. Web.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments.” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 1–7. Web.

3 thoughts on “Digital Archaeology vs Digital Humanities, or Why Labels are Important”

  1. I think the debate is not so much over whether or not Digital Archaeologists and Digital Humanists are synonymous with each other, but that the attitude toward Digital Archaeology from within archaeology is similar to the attitude towards Digital Humanities from within other humanities subjects. Both Digital Archaeology and Digital Humanities are effectively the way of the future. Both of them entail the incorporation of digital technology and techniques into existing disciplines, though Digital Humanities is transdisciplinary in a way that Digital Archaeology is not. While Costopoulos believes that there does not need to be a distinction between Digital Archaeology and archaeology as it is presently practiced, Huggett believes that the distinction represents the different role played by a subsection of archaeologists, and envisions Digital Archaeology as being the answerer of the question of “how have digital technologies influenced, impacted, and changed both archaeology and archaeologists?”
    I, for one, don’t believe that the burden of answering this question should fall solely on Digital Archaeologists. I feel it is a question which all archaeologists have a responsibility to reflect on.
    However, I do feel that while Digital Archaeology and Digital Humanities are not synonymous with each other, the debate around Digital Archaeology is reflective of the debate around the definition of Digital Humanities. Are Digital Humanists merely developers and technicians, or are they analysts as well? Similarly, while all archaeologists are arguably digital archaeologists, are Digital Archaeologists capitalised merely technicians and theoretical question-answerers? There is a definite difference between Digital Archaeology and Digital Humanities – the most obvious difference being that one is a subdivision of a discipline and one is a discipline in and of itself – but the debates surrounding both do share undeniable similarities.

  2. To begin, a very good question was posed at the start of this blog p as to whether these debates about Digital Archaeology can be synonymous with the Digital Humanities. Of course, definition of the Digital Humanities is key to answering this question as Michelle points out, and the applicability of Digital Humanities to other fields of study is largely the reason as to why it isn’t always viewed or talked about as a field in its own right. However, there is a difference between those who use Digital Humanities tools and those who actively participate in the Digital Humanities as a field considering the wider issues around development, research, and application of such tools.
    The methodologies, attitudes, tools and overall purposes differ between Digital Humanities and Digital Archaeology in many respects and of course there are different concerns and issues brought up in each respective field. Logically, I’d agree with Michelle that these field should not be viewed as synonymous – supported by “Core or Periphery? Digital Humanities from an Archaeological Perspective” in the Additional Reading. However, many aspects of the debate raised by Hugget in Digital Archaeology is here (and Has Been For a While)” hold true like “There are meaningful and even heavy conversations about the implications in other fields of the use of new digital tools.” This would work both ways, and while labels are important some of the issues spoken of here in relation to Archaeology and Digital Archaeology are applicable to humanities and digital humanities aswell.
    And Costopolous may be talking about Digital Archaeology specifically, but there are similar attitudes to Digital Humanities from many others who work in different fields. “In the social sciences and humanities, we have an unfortunate tendency to make approaches and tools into objects of study (literally, we essentialize them) and to organize the conversation around them.” (Costopolous) Part of the problem is that digital tools are largely seen as an extension of this practice by some, and this generalization which is the bone of contention for many in Humanities areas, as talking about digital tools generally seems vague in comparison to application to their specific fields. Especially now that computational methodologies are growing more and more popular across the humanities as a whole.
    Works Cited
    Costopoulos, Andre. “Digital Archaeology Is Here (and Has Been For a While).” Frontiers in Digital Humanities 3 (2016): 1-4. Web.
    Huggett, Jeremy. “Core or Periphery? Digital Humanities from an Archaeological Perspective.” Historical Social Research 37 (2012): 86-105. Web.
    —. Let’s Talk About Digital Archaeology. N.p., 2016. Web.

  3. I would have to disagree in part with Shauna’s assumption that archaeology is not transdisciplinary in nature. Transdisciplinarity is something that can be achieved in any field of research and the very act of collating a site report (or other traditional forms of scholarship with an archaeological slant) pulls data from a multitude of sources and sub-disciplines from environmental sciences, GIS, survey, history, ethnography, traditional excavation practices etc. As with humanities research however, it is project specific. It is as capable as being traditionalist and reductive as any other humanities discipline.

    I do however agree that (especially within Ireland) that there is a reluctance within the discipline to embrace digital archaeology. Much of this is centred I feel, around its applications in archaeological research in Ireland to date, issues pertaining to ethics, contributions to the field and also issues of copyright and right of access. It is also linked with the overarching reluctance to embrace open data models within scholarship.

    While I see the benefits of removing distinctions between sub-disciplines, I think it comes down to a case of semantics and practicality. I am an archaeologist but more specifically I am an archaeobotanist. This distinction is necessary when synthesising a report or site evaluation as I as an archaeobotanist am more qualified to discuss or implement certain practices. This however should not stop archaeologists as a whole from embracing the importance of environmental archaeology practices and having a fundamental understanding of its importance and role in augmenting research practices. The same can be said of digital archaeology. The divisions should only exist in assessing qualifications, it should not serve to act as a divisive statement.

    While there are certainly similarities in the Digital Archaeology and Digital humanities debate (and I feel digital archaeology could mitigate a number of issues engaging with the latter narrative) I don’t necessarily think they should be read as synonymous either.

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