• Digital Archaeology

    A topic I’m interested in examining is Digital Archaeology. I’m not sure if there are any archaeologists besides me in attendance (a shame if it’s the case, considering how much amazing archaeology there is in the Chesapeake), but I think there is a fantastic discussion to be had about what is being done and what can be done in digital archaeology. At this point, digital archaeology has emerged in three areas: Field Technology/Methodology, Research Databases, and Public Engagement.

    Field Technology has always been a field that has adopted technologies from other fields and applied them to archaeological methods. GIS and advanced survey equipment have been the major technological adaptions, but the recent use of the iPad in Pompeii opens the door for (finally) people to conduct paperless excavations.

    A number of digital research databases have emerged, including the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture and the Digital Archaeological Archives of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), housed at Monticello. These databases allow researchers to easily access numerous reports and data sets about archaeological sites, making comparative analysis that would have otherwise been expensive and time consuming a much more affordable venture.

    Public Engagement has been the most evident use of the digital environment. Archaeology has a long tradition of “public archaeology”, and new technology provides us with a number of alternatives to how we conduct our operations. Most popular are the digital reconstructions of towns and buildings such as at Colonial Williamsburg, where they are in the process of recreating the entire colonial city as it was in 1776. Such a venture is heavily reliant on archaeological research conducted at the museum. At Monticello, there is a fantastic digital representation of the entire plantation, highlighting the archaeological projects conducted throughout. Also, my work with the MSU Campus Archaeology Program has used digital social media as a means of engaging the public in learning about the process of archaeology, and to make discoveries along with us in the field. You can read a bit more about my work here (The use of digital media and digital technologies to engage community in the process of our work is a separate topic. I can write more if there’s interest. Post a comment below!).

    So, my questions are this: What are some of the challenges faced by archaeologists with these emerging technologies? How do we train students to use and engage with these technologies? How do we present them as useful things worth investing in to our colleagues/advisors/administrators? How do these technologies change the way we operate when collecting data? Do we need to change the way we think about collecting data so that it is more appropriately geared towards new technologies? What types of data would be useful for non-archaeologists, such as museum professionals, to be able to use in the public engagement portion of our discipline? What are some other new technologies that could fit into these categories, or what are some other categories of archaeology that could be added to the picture?

    These are some of the things I’m thinking about…feel free to add on below!

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7 Comments


  1. Wayne Graham says:

    Do we ever have a lot to talk about next month!

    One of the hardest things I’ve encountered with my own Chesapeake interests is actually getting data in the first place! So much of that data is locked up in gray literature (or worse, as incomplete analysis in a folder somewhere), that it makes it difficult to do aggregate analysis. Beyond that, the wildly differing methods of recording information can make it difficult to analyze many sites (worked with full, formal reports, to literally a note on a post-it).

  2. Profile photo of Terry Brock Terry Brock says:

    Data acquisition is an enormous problem. I know that places that have funding are trying to get their gray lit up online. I believe Maryland has been gradually moving across the state, for example. As far as differing methods of recording is just something that I don’t think will ever be formalized…it’s a headache that everyone deals with, be it digital archaeologists or non-digital. Certainly something discuss!

  3. Ethan Gruber says:

    Hi Terry,

    This is an interesting topic, to be sure. I hesitate to call all this “digital archaeology,” however. Computer applications have been a mainstay in archaeology for more than 30 years. These applications are tools just like the trowel and meter stick. Their use for a variety of purposes is becoming routine, so I wouldn’t call them “emerging technologies.” On the other hand, your position may indicate the state of North American archaeology, which seems to me to be on a divergent methodological trajectory than archaeology in Europe/Egypt/Near East. I’m not sure that it is fair to say that North American archaeology is “behind” European with respect to adoption of technology as typical tools for data capture, analysis, visualization, and formulation of hypotheses, but perhaps the tools are underrepresented? Thus, I wouldn’t call Steven Ellis, who implemented the iPads on the Porta Stabia project at Pompeii, a digital archaeologist. He’s an archaeologist using all the tools available to him.

    There are more applications for computer technology in archaeology than the three listed above. I would add to point #2 (databases) that data capture, dissemination, and documentation should be included. Semantic web is a growing part of the field. 3D documentation, including scanning and photogrammetry, is also getting to be pretty common.

    A fourth point is Hypothesis and Analysis. Computers enable archaeologists to formulate hypotheses that otherwise never would have been considered. This is especially true with respect to visualization. Additionally, computers can create models and perform analysis much faster than humans, so a previous scholar’s life’s work may instead be conducted in a few years. The example I always use is the Forma Urbis project at Stanford (formaurbis.stanford.edu/). Many fragments from a marble plan of Rome ca. 200 CE were scanned with a laser scanner to form 3D models, and a combination of more than a hundred different types of lines, fragment edges, and other physical features were analyzed, and pattern recognition software matched many fragments that scholars were unable to since the Renaissance. The methodology has been applied to Roman frescoes and Egyptian friezes, among others. Some work that I have done has involved lighting simulation of Roman houses to recontextualize artwork in the house at various times of day, which indicated the architects’ deliberate use of light to illuminate certain works of art. Lighting simulation can be applied to any 3D reconstruction of any site. Other analyses have been made with GIS (with visualization and least cost paths), so GIS isn’t exclusively a survey technique.

    I think that acquainting students on the undergraduate level to the variety of technologies that exist and how they are used is of vital importance to the field of archaeology. All of them will be required to use at least one of the things listed above at some point in their career–maybe even on their first excavation–so students should be aware of all of these technologies. They don’t have to be experts in using them, but just understand how they are relevant to their own research.

  4. Terry Brock says:

    Thanks for your comments. Certainly, the field is much more engaged with computer technologies than I briefly discussed, and I think your addition of hypothesis and analysis is spot on. I should have thought a little harder about my discussion of GIS, computer statistical packages, and so on, as they are very important to analysis and modeling.

    I chose the word digital largely to make it fit with the theme of the (un)conference, and to suggest that archaeology has a place at the table in conversations about digital humanities. However, a discussion about “what is this?” and “what do we call it?” is a good thing to discuss, as well.

    I think that, yes, there may be an underrepresentation of some of these tools in North American archaeology, or I just haven’t worked at places or with people who either a) see the value or b) have the resources to implement these tools. For some, the digital camera is still an “emerging technology”, so the use of that term is certainly one that is on a sliding scale depending on your context.

    At any rate, looking forward to more conversation!

  5. Profile photo of Nate Kreuter Nate Kreuter says:

    I’m really, really interested in the idea of, and possible implications of this term you guys are using, “gray literature.” This isn’t a term I’ve heard before, let alone one active in my field, but I think I intuit its meaning, which is something along the lines of unfinished research or unsorted data. Is that more or less correct?

    How would you all define “gray literature”?

    I could would love to hear some sort of discussion of gray literature, and perhaps the implications of researchers making their gray literature open source–which has big time digital implications in terms of access, interface, and epistemology.

    As an additional strand, is gray literature something you all would be willing to talk about at the unconference? I’d love to hear more about it.

  6. Terry Brock says:

    Of course! Grey literature in archaeology is primarily made up of archaeological reports that are conducted my private archaeology firms, museums, and so on. They are the reports that are completed after excavations, which present te data, what was found, and basic interpretations. This lit is most commonly the product of projects falling under section 106, which dictates that construction projects that use federal funds must under go an archaeological survey. Cultural resource firms conduct this work, write up a report, submit it, and move on to the next thing. Sometimes they’ll publish an academic paper, most times not. So, gaining access to this grey lit is always an issue for archaeologists. In Maryland, there are repositories for this literature, at some archaeology labs and certain libraries, but it’s often a chore figuring out what’s there, what it’s about, and so on. Creating digitized, online database would be the best solution…So there are certainly things to talk about!

  7. Terry Brock says:

    Just to give you guys an idea as to the kinds of things being discussed at Archaeology Conferences, here’s an abstract for a Forum at the upcoming Society for Historical Archaeology Conference: (www.conftool.com/sha2011/index.php?page=browseSessions&form_session=70)

    Into the Cloud: Archaeology and Media in the Borderless information World

    Organizer(s): Dennis I. Aig (Montana State University)
    Chairs(s): Dennis Aig (Montana State University)
    Panelist(s): Dennis Aig (Montana State University), Annalies Corbin (PAST Foundation), Sheli Smith (PAST Foundation), Keene Haywood (New Media Consortium), Katherine Martell (Montana State University)

    The explosion in web-based communication, audiovisual access, and social networking during the past two decades has fundamentally changed the practice, review, and discussion of archeological field work and reporting. There is also a new imperative in the research equation: academic and funding agency pressure to make both process and findings publicly accessible. Uplinking a film or video is no longer adequate. Scientists are expected to allow colleagues and interested non-specialists to “experience” the research through all stages from field work to publication. This forum will examine these developments with an emphasis on the following: new media options and adaptability; impacts on field work, conservation, analysis, and publication; the significance for archeology of the crisis in scientific communication; funding implications; and possible fundamental changes in scientific method. Media from high definition through iPhone apps will be discussed in the context of archaeology’s evolution. Both terrestrial and underwater issues will be discussed.

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