Not a Good Paper: The Art of Digital Archaeology

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on some kind of paper for a special edition of North Dakota Quarterly, the long-standing literary journal published at the University of North Dakota. The goal of this special issue is to collect voices of the digital humanities across campus in an effort to demonstrate how the journal is relevant to the community and to make it feel like something that has meaning in the 21st century. I’ve blogged about it here and here.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with this article and finding a way to articulate the influence of the digital on both traditional archaeological art and the discipline of archaeology. Instead of a traditional article, with footnotes and literature review, I tried to write it as more of an essay. What has resulted, however, feels more like an awkward undergraduate essay than a learned exploration of the issues.

Here is, warts and all. I think have about 1000 words remaining for revisions, but I think the structure of the essay will have to stand (as other responsibilities are beginning to catch up with me). 

Digital Archaeology as Digital Art


The study of the old has never precluded embracing the new. Archaeologists have embraced new technologies to document sites, to disseminate the results of their research, and to train the next generation of practitioners. Mediterranean archaeologists have been a bit slower than our colleagues in the New World to adopt the newest advances in technology, but over the last few decades, we have begun to make up for lost time. From the use of iPad to document excavations to open access data repositories, 3D imaging technologies, Geographic Information Systems modeling, and growing engagements with social and new media, Mediterranean archaeologists have moved with growing confidence into the area of digital archaeology.

The question driving this collection of essays is what is digital art. Archaeology has generally regarded itself as involved more in the study of art than the production of art. At the same time, archaeology has attracted artists, architects, and even the occasional poet or musician to mediate between the physical material remains present at a site and the wider world. The best-known examples of the archaeologist’s art featured elegantly inked (and sometimes colored) illustrations. By the 20th century, high-contrast black-and-white photography challenged the utility of illustration. In recent times, color and, now, digital photography have slowly supplanted the austere beauty of black-and-white prints. Illustration software, Geographic Information Systems software, and even typed field notes have replaces the distinct hands of individual archaeologists and skilled illustrators. In comparison to mid-20th century archaeological publications, contemporary works seem impersonal and mechanical with their precise line drawings, standardized maps and plans, and cookie cutter illustrations.

A similar trend has appeared in how texts and data serve to describe the archaeological process. Archaeological recording has gone from being personalized notebook sometimes maintained as the private property of the excavator to standardized forms preserved in project-owned databases, presented in elaborate charts, and analyzed using statistical models. The highly-structured data then circulates on the internet where a growing community seeks to integrate it with similarly produced datasets to address to questions that exceed the perspective of single excavators, projects, or sites. The goal of this increasingly standardized art and data is to present in a transparent way the experience and results of field work. Over the past half century, the growing encounter with the digital has sought to standardize the rules of archaeological mediation.

If we consider digital art new mode for mediating archaeological work, then we must observe the shift from the distinctive archaeological documentation of the first three quarters of the 20th century to the increasingly standardized practices of our digital era. My essay for this volume considers the remarkable irregular methods through which Mediterranean archaeologists develop the skills associated with digital art and documentation, the intersection of archaeological documentation and new media, and finally how these new practices, both as theoretical expressions of archaeology’s arrival in the digital age and as a practical manifestation of the archaeologist craft.

Engaging the Digital

I received my Ph.D. in 2003 with a generation of archaeologists emerging on the cusp of the formal definition of a digital archaeology. We had experienced from the trenches both the growing ubiquity of digital tools in the field and the increasing reach of the internet. We also understood and had grown to appreciate the first adopters of digital methods in archaeology who they had drawn the abilities of computer specialists to the Mediterranean world and even 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 with the humorous juxtaposition of modern technology and antiquity.

We also encountered this juxtaposition first hand. My first season in the field, in the mid-1990s, was surrounded by computers. A team of scholars 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 the computer team toiled 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 would 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 at first, 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, and I 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.

We learned more that summer than our article every showed. We developed techniques and procedures for managing how digital data mediated between our field experience and the past. For example, we quickly produced a series of queries that revealed how our project’s two ceramic analysts regularly interpreted the pottery differently. The results of these queries told us much more about how pottery was recored than what was on the ground (and we 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 a 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 and 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.

Digital Writing on the Web

In 2003, after a period of digital apprenticeship on other projects, I began my own archaeological project. We adopted and adapted many of the same basic practices that we had learned through my earlier experiences refining how we used technology whenever we were able and innovating whenever technological allowed. As we did this, we were vaguely aware of the growing body of “best practices” in archaeology that sought to define more clearly the relationship between digital artifacts and physical artifacts. We also understood that digital practices in archaeology provided a way to introduce new levels of transparency to what we did in the field. The portability of digital data allowed us to continue to share our work among everyone on the team. The reach of the internet and its ability to bring together images, texts, video, and audio also nudged us to consider how digital technologies could make our analytical processes, deliberations, and conversation more visible to the world. In effect, we wondered whether digital portability of the traditional output of archaeological work could extend to the process of archaeological analysis. This is especially relevant for my research focus on methods and interest, to quote Brian Eno, in “process not product”.

This growing interest in blurring the distinct between digital products of field works (themselves a more portable and dynamic version of the earlier analogue products) and our process in creating these products coincided with a the rapid development of social and new media platforms on the internet. Our project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project on Cyprus, commenced in 2004. This coincided with Google’s purchase of the blogging platform Blogger in 2003 and the appearance of WordPress in 2004. The rise of easy to use blogging platforms fueled the first generation of academic bloggers who attracted interest in the trade press around the same time. In 2006, Facebook opened itself to the world and a year later, Twitter and Tumblr appeared. These tools made it possible to communicate to an audience in close to real time. Blogs easily accommodated photographs and other media as well as long or short form writing. Social media services like Twitter and Facebook allowed us to communicate immediately with an audience.

In 2007, I began our project’s first blog, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, with the explicit goal of keeping “our friends, families, donors, and colleagues up to date on our work both in the field and back in the office.” The first steps were tentative and halting. It was hard to know how much to reveal and whether we’d have an audience. I remember the exhilaration of averaging more than 10 page views a day (over the first 6 months, I averaged a heady 16 views a day!). In my first three months of blogging, I mainly provided mundane updates on the lead up to our work on Cyprus, some daily updates on our work there, and, general notes on activities in the field of Mediterranean archaeology. At a few junctures, I invited my colleagues to post to make blog posts concerning the various debates we had about how our project should run. These posts combined with our regular journalling about our activities to provide a day-to-day view of the project and to capture some of the spirited, but good natured debates about our work. We combined this with some on-the-scene podcasts and some video taken by a professional videographer to bring a slightly more dynamic sense of our work to the blog. Bandwidth restrictions limited how quickly we could disseminate video or even podcasts on the blog.

I recognize that blog posts and databases do not typically qualify as art, but archaeologists have made them function in some of the same ways. There are structural similarities, of course, between the archaeological notebook, arranged by date and location, and the organization of the blog. The ability of the blog to integrate text, photographs, and illustrations likewise parallels the nature of an excavation notebooks to use various media to document the relationships present in the field. At the same time, the use of video and audio files extend how we can document field experiences and archaeological reality into new media.

Toward a Digital Future in Archaeology

Blogging can both embody certain key aspects of the archaeological notebook and extend it in digital form. The practices associated with these kind of digitally mediated expressions of archaeological knowledge derive less from a formal set of best-practices, and more from experimentation and apprenticeship among likeminded colleagues in the field. As a result, there has been a tremendous amount of creativity in efforts to make field experiences and archaeological data available in digital form.

If the product of archaeological work fits into a tradition of art – albeit of a technical kind – then the emergence of digital practices in archaeology marks the appearance of digital art in the discipline. The traditional emphasis on mediation between field experiences, objects of study, and an audience has shaped certain expectations of transparency. The reader of archaeological art expects to see both the archaeology that they represent and to the past itself. The art mediates the viewer and the archaeological practice and experiences and the history of the site.

At the same time, the diversity of digital output from the field ranging from robust, interactive datasets to maps, blog descriptions, video, audio, and 3D images, derives in part from the dynamic nature of digital media and from the irregularity of the social context for the emerging practices of digital archaeology. As this generation of archaeologists comes to terms with the rapidly changing digital media through which we make our experiences and sites known, our output comes into contact, and sometimes conflict with established practices. The publication of peer-reviewed datasets, for example, asks the archaeologist to operate as the curator of their dataset by making it understandable to both their peers and a larger audience. Blogs represent a more ambiguous product as their content can range from momentary impressions to legitimate scholarly material. The former have always fit awkwardly into academic publishing (at least since the demise of short correspondences in academic journals) and the latter tends to defy the expectation of peer review central to our standing as progressional “truth speakers”. Even photographic images and illustrations, the traditional expressions of archaeological art, have entered a dynamic age where traditional images form the basis for 3D models and illustrations derive as often through sophisticated photogrammetry programs as careful autopsy.

The framing question of this collection of essay is “what is digital art?”. I have offered a response that probably reflected on the “how” more than the “what” of digital art in the discipline of archaeology. My experience of the processes at play in the production of digital art range from my first engagement by my colleagues in the first decades of the 21st century to the adoption of digital tools for disseminating their work in blogs and social media applications to the dynamic experimentation with digital forms of publication. Our desire to use digital tools to mediate between our field experiences and the past encouraged the development of a set of digital objects that, like archaeological art from the earliest days, provides a legible and transparent window to our work.

Perhaps as a side-effect of this digital age, the product of this generation of digital scholars in archaeology has favored process as much as product. Our work has sought to reveal not only our analytical conclusions about the past, but also the data that produced these conclusions as well as the false starts and contingencies that shape our knowledge. The awareness of digital technology as a tool learned mainly through the informality of experience opened it up as an object of reflexive study. Because it lacked the authority of best-practice or a disciplinary cannon, we were attentive to the idea that we needed to justify ourselves. This ensured that the art of digital archaeology was as much about the art and the process as the analysis.

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