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Katy Meyers

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October 6, 2011

Defining Digital Archaeology

October 6, 2011 | By | 2 Comments

Within the last ten years there has been a myriad of ‘digital’ disciplines cropping up. What sets each apart from the analog version is their use of digital technology in their respective field of study. As noted by Cohen and Rosenzweig (2005) “new media and new technologies have challenged historians [and other academics] to rethink the ways that they research, write, present and tech about the past. These digital scholars engage with their research through technology at any level, from data collection, interpretation and dissemination. The most active of these is the Digital Humanities, which has been actively attempting to define and delineate the discipline, while at the same time is engaging in a wide range of computing technologies in their research. While this interdisciplinary group attempts to determine who belongs in their “big tent” of the Digital Humanities, archaeologists have yet to engage not only with the Digital Humanities, but even the role of digital in their own discipline. As Watrall (In press) argues, “most archaeologists are so far from the tent that they can’t even see it”.

While archaeologists may not be engaging with questions of how technology is changing the ways we study, or critically assessing the way that we are using it to inform our work, digital technology has been widely used by archaeologists and successfully integrated into the discipline. These digital tools, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), statistical programs, databases, and Computer Assisted Design (CAD), are now viewed as simply part of an archaeologist’s toolkit. Despite this, there is resistance against a move to “digital”, and there is little movement towards creating a “digital archaeology” that could stand as a disciplinary equivalent to the “digital humanities”. As argued by Kansa (2011), with specific reference to the World Wide Web, archaeologists need to “better understand how the Web is transforming the professional practice of archaeology”. The introduction of new digital technologies into archaeology is inevitable. Instead of holding steadfastly to tradition, archaeologists need to engage with the changes in order to understand how they will affect the way we practice archaeology.

The first step in this process, just as was done at the beginning of the Culture-History movement (Lyman, O’Brien and Dunnell 1997) or the introduction of Processualism (Clarke 1968), is to define the scope of Digital Archaeology and what this means to the larger discipline. Digital archaeology has come to have two contrasting meanings. The first is the archaeology of digital materials, including excavation of code, analysis of early informatics and interpretation of early web-based materials. The second is the focus of this argument; digital archaeology as the use of digital technologies in the study of past human societies through their material remains. Digital in archaeology has come to be synonymous with method, rather than a specific approach towards our research. However, a digital approach is more than just a tool- it can inform all levels of our research from excavation to interpretation to presentation.

Two questions arise then, what makes Digital Archaeology separate from the Digital Humanities, and what makes it separate from the rest of the discipline as a whole? There are a number of reasons for the division between Digital Humanities and Digital Archaeology, the primary ones being those that divide the non-digital disicplines in general. Archaeology is a theory constructing discipline, where the humanities is traditionally not. Further, there is a major difference in the types of data being used, with archaeological data being more complex and at a much larger scale than the humanities. Finally, the standards that can be used across the humanities like Dublin Core for metadata organization, cannot be used in archaeology because of the range of questions being asked due to time, space and theoretical approach. The two disciplines definitely overlap, especially in the realm of history and classics, but the focus on theory and the difference in data changes the approach of archaeologists towards using digital.

The second question is how Digital Archaeology is different than archaeology. This is much harder to deal with since technology has been a major part of archaeology throughout its history. I would argue that rather than being a separate discipline and separate approach, digital may just be a different specialization like having a focus on ceramics or lithics. While digital tools and approaches do permeate the discipline as a whole and should be integrated into all aspects of our work, certain aspects of digital do require specialized knowledge. Like the introduction of statistics or GIS, taking a digital approach will require a different skill set. Using digital databases, sharing work through open access, linking data, and visualizing through new technology can all aid in creating more nuanced interpretations of the past. Do all archaeologists need to engage with digital technology? To some extent, yes- just like we are given a basic knowledge of statistics or lithic analysis or systems theory regardless of our actual usage we at least need to know what is available and when it is appropriate to integrate. As Eiteljorg II (2004) argues “Although it is now a given that any archaeology project will involve the use of computers, it is not a given that the project directors will know how to use them well or have the requisite skills to find helpers who do”. The goal at this point, is to get archaeologists to realize the potential of digital and incorporate into their research in new and innovative ways.

Works Cited

Clarke, David. 1968 Analytical Archaeology. London: Methuen.

Cohen, Daniel and Roy Rosenzweig. 2005 Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Electronic Document. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory.

Eiteljorg II, Harrison. “Computing for Archaeologists.” A Companion to Digital Humanities. Ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.

Kansa, Eric. Introduction. In Archaeology 2.0. Electronic Document. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1r6137tb

Lyman, Lee, Michael O’Brien, and Robert Dunnell. 1997 The Rise and Fall of Culture History. New York: Plenum Press.

Watrall, Ethan. In Press. Archaeology and the Big tent of the Digital Humanities.

Comments

  1. Hi Katy. Thanks for this post. I remember some feelings of estrangement when I came to MSU for Great Lakes Thatcamp realizing that the brand of digital humanities going on here at MSU is in some senses very different from what’s going on in the beltway. Not being an archaeologist, you’ll have to forgive my admitted ignorance on this topic. Still, I am intrigued by Ethan’s statement that archaeologists are so far from the “tent.” A lot of what is at stake here is a matter of what exactly DH is, something I’m not sure there’s a conclusive answer to.

    I am a little confused by your statement that the humanities are not a “theory constructing” discipline. Moreover, I think in some ways you’re conflating the humanities which contain a multitude of disciplines in a way which suggests they are more homogeneous than they are in practice.

    The comparison you’re making with digitality as a specialization is useful. Going forward, the issue of digital archaeology is likely to become extremely important since we will need a bevy of specialists to read, understand, and decode digital materials of the past. In some ways, digital archaeology is uniquely poised to open the black box of computing as historical technology. I think this possibility is a very exciting one.

    As for the difference between archaeology and digital archaeology, I would not sweat it. If the digital offers new and useful methodologies, then it should be used. At the same time, I see many projects which are self-branded as digital humanities which offer little in the way of progress for the humanities. I think we should work against a determinist view of the digital as “the future” in order to realize and utilize the methodologies that best do the required work at hand, whether they are digital or not.

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