A View on a Digital Apprenticeship in Archaeology

I am famous for turning relatively straight forward and easy projects into complex and painful ones. I wish I should say that adding complexity makes my work better, but the truth it that it usually just makes my work more complex.

True to form, I’ve been playing with an invitation to write something on digital art in archaeology for a special edition of North Dakota Quarterly. I wrote something last week on blogging as digital art, and I think that will form the third and fourth sections of this relatively short contribution (10 pages, which I’m reading as 3000-4000 words). Linking those sections to a general introduction to the digital art in archaeology will be a short essay on how I learned to do some digital things in archaeology. The hope is to show how learning to be digital in archaeology was less about following a set of disciplinary rules and best practices and more about engaging data in particularly social contexts. This pseudo-apprenticeship shaped my understanding of how digital methods mediated between my experiences in the field and the conclusions that I drew. As my post last week established how certain digital practices could make the act of mediating between field experience and historical and archaeological conclusions more transparent. This is as much a product of social conditions as the tools that we use.

So, with that obscure sentiment, here is part 2 of my five part essay:

Scholars of my generation (Ph.d. in 2003) emerged on the cusp of the formal definition of a digital archaeology with the increasing reach of the internet and the ubiquity of digital tools in the field. There were obviously earlier implementation of digital methods in archaeology and this drew the abilities of computer specialists and attracted the attention of high tech companies. A famous Apple advertisement from 1985 touted “While studying prehistoric Greece, John Cherry discovered the computer” celebrated the novelty of computers in archaeology and the humorous tension between modern technology and the ancient past. My first season in the field, in the mid-1990s, was surrounded by computers. The American archaeology team was digitizing notebooks, creating databases, collecting field data using total stations and electrical resistivity rigs, and creating plans using autocad and 3D models. My parents were in the computer business at the time so I was naturally drawn to the computer room beneath a village house where a team of computer guys with special skills labored in front of CRT monitors and nursed devices like the almost mystical Orb Drive through the dust and heat of the Greece summer.

By the early 2000s, the magical equipment in that room became part of our everyday routine as archaeologists, we’d venture inside in the afternoons to key data collected in the field into databases or to plot our daily progress on Geographic Information System maps. In fact, the digital world dictated a regular movement from the field to the computer keyboard. Our paper field recording forms smeared with Corinthian grime served as holding areas for archaeological knowledge for only as long as it took us to enter the data into the computer. Along they way, patient project directors tutored us on how the GIS and databases worked. The looked the other way as we pulled apart personal copies of the databases and attempted to streamline the endless series of textual reports required of a major archaeological project.

Although I hardly realized it then, I was beginning to understand the role that computers played in mediating between my experiences in the field and the past that we so eagerly sought to understand. Some of this came into focus while writing my first scholarly article. David Pettegrew, my colleague and co-author, sat across from one another in a tiny dig library, in plastic chairs, at laptop computers, running and rerunning queries from a database developed over five seasons of archaeological work. From this analysis emerged our conclusions which mostly touched upon archaeological methods and some very modest observations.

We learned more that summer than our article every showed. We developed techniques and procedures managing how digital mediated between the field and the past. For example, we quickly discovered a series of queries that revealed how our project’s two ceramic analysts regularly interpreted the pottery differently and vowed never to run that query again. We also noted that certain patterns in the distribution of artifacts across our study area revealed the subtle movement of settlement over centuries. These were patterns that were invisible to us in the field as our preoccupation with day-to-day activities and the objects at our feet prevented us from grasping the larger landscape. We understood that the careful analysis of thousands of bits of data collected from the field, mediated by databases and GIS maps, allowed us to make conclusions that went far beyond our individual experiences.

At the same time, we understood how the analysis of this data was the product of a social environment that granted us access to tools and expertise. We did not follow a path laid out by our field experiences or the data alone, but navigated our engagement with digital tools through the patient attention of colleagues and co-authors who trained us in software, verified the results of our queries, and discouraged us from hasty conclusions. In other words, technology’s role as the mediator between finds in the field and the conclusions that we draw is part of the larger social process of archaeological analysis.

One Comment

  1. Hi Bill ,

    I love reading your blogs . I have emailed you some queries if you have the time to respond i would appreciate your help


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