Digital Archaeology Practice Workshop: A Review

Last week, I spent an enjoyable few days in lovely Western Massachusetts at the Digital Archaeological Practice Workshop hosted by Eric Poehler at the University of Massachusetts. The goal of the workshop was to bring together scholars who are using digital tools in the field and to discuss critically both new directions and possible liabilities of these practices. The papers were good, filled with practical examples, and generally balanced in their enthusiasm for new directions. Eric should be particularly praised for integrating undergraduates and graduate students into the conversations. The undergraduate papers were very well done and moved the conversation forward almost as surely as faculty and graduate students papers.

1. The long view of technology. Many of the papers had a (relatively) long term approach to the use of technology emphasizing how the current tools fit over 30 years of digital tools in the field. This provided a cautionary perspective to some extent as the group could all appreciate false starts, overly ambitious adoptions, and (to paraphrase Shawn Graham) “glorious failures.” It also provided a bit of a road map moving forward as developments in technology provided faint traces of future directions. The first talk of the conference offered visions of extrasensory technologies that would record more than just visual data but also touch, scent, and sound (at a higher resolution that currently available). Later talks explored the potential (and need) for new ways to structure data leaving the limitations of relational databases behind for RDF “triples” and new ways to document the chemical make up of artifacts.

2. Archaeology as Text. Shawn Graham’s talk opened up some new vistas for me. I’ve been interested in text mining and topic modeling for a few years, but I’ve never quite managed to use the modest tools at my disposal to get results that I could understand as meaningful. Shawn’s talk once again motivated me try to do some topic modeling and text analysis and he and Sebastian Heath reminded us all that much of archaeology is frequently about TEXT. Excavation notebooks, published reports, survey documents, all produce unstructured textual records for archaeological sites. In some sense, our ability to make sense of the material past is only as good as our ability to understand its textual representation. Just as we have invested energy into using more and more sophisticated digital tools to capture archaeological data at the edge of the trench, we need to explore the resources available to analyze bodies of text.

3. Deskilling and Social Impact of Digital Tools. I introduced the term deskilling to the conversation in my paper on Thursday afternoon, and it reverberated – in various ways – throughout the conference. It made sense that we considered how digital data capture in the field transformed the practices, skills, and disciplinary structure of archaeology. I introduced my talk with a confession of disciplinary and profession anxiety. I am nervous that my skill set will not only become obsolete or, worse, render me obsolete, but also undermine the value of discipline specific skills in the field of archaeology. At its most alarmist, my perspective offers a future where digital tools in the field marginalize the interpretative ability of individuals or remove the space of interpretation from the side of the trench or the walk through the landscape to the laptop computer, office, or computer lab. Few at the conference embraced this pessimistic view, but we all agreed that the increasingly significant role that technology plays in archaeological data gathering holds for risks for archaeologists and the discipline of archaeology.

4. DIY. One of the coolest confirmations that came out of the conference was just how many projects are using do-it-yourself solutions to technological problems. From DIY aerial photography and XRF to deploying a range of text and topic modeling applications to published and unpublished texts, it is clear that the rapid diffusion of technologies and the growth of the “maker” community across the entire range of disciplines and technological interests has intersected with the long-standing tendency toward improvisation in archaeology to make digital archaeological practices a hotbed of DIY. What makes this particularly intriguing is this DIY culture exists at the same time (and sometimes in the same place) as high-profile collaborations between archaeological projects and the tech industry. This suggests, of course, that the DIY instinct is not so much a manifestation of some kind of strict DIY ethos (which celebrates the autonomy of the maker in response to the increasingly pre-packaged, commodified, prescribed world of technology) as a DIY of convenience. In other words, archaeological DIY reflects its roots in the improvised and ad hoc approach to challenges in the field, limited resources, and difficulties accessing tools designed for every circumstance from remote locations. This distinct genealogy is almost enough to define a distinct species of archaeological DIY.

5. Future Proofing Your Workflow? One of the extensions of archaeological DIY is that we began a conversation about how to future proof our archaeological workflow. For example, using an ad hoc solution to a technological problem might continue the flow of data over a field season or a field project, but it becomes more of an issue when the ad hoc solutions rely on proprietary software or a series of fragile links between applications or temporary solutions. The problem is, of course, the more we rely on software to analyze our data, the more we have to work to preserve both the data as well as our the tools that we used to produce our data. Propriety software is an obvious problem, but this is equally problematic with DIY solutions that are difficult to maintain and replicate over time. So, we all thought a bit about how to future proof our research not only to maintain consistency season-to-season, but ensure that what we did could be understood by future archaeologists.

6. Metaphors. Finally, it was fascinating to hear and consider the metaphors that archaeologists were using to describe their digital processes. Data flowed in streams, but was also expelled as vomit. There were rivers to cross and bridges too far. Data breathed, it could be hard or soft, it collected in archives, and it possesses magic. It is clear that we were both at ease talking about data as an abstract, atomic version of archaeological evidence, but we also struggled to think about data literally. I wonder how long it’ll take for Mediterranean archaeologists to articulate a clearer vision of how data functions to produce analysis and meaning?

The conference was as thought provoking as it was informative. I learned as much about digital practice as I did about concepts and theory. This is a pretty rare thing these days and I enjoyed myself immensely.

One Comment

  1. Bill, Great summary of/response to a great workshop. Particularly agree re: the undergraduate participation. There’s hope for the future.

    A personal follow-up to one part of my contribution. In the final panel discussion, I offered some pretty vague thoughts about “How to get started”. I haven’t reviewed the “video tape”, but remember thinking that what I said was perhaps not really useful. Here’s what I should have said had I been able to think more cogently on my feet:


    On the panel I mumbled about thinking about research goals beforehand. That’s a fine thing to do. But I use all caps above to try and warn decision-makers away from a phase of data entry in which some person has the job of entering records which then sit unexamined in a FileMaker or Access database.

    This leads to poorly organized data that doesn’t meet strategic goals when it comes time to publish. As you soon as you start entering data, start searching it. Start asking questions of it. You’ll find out what you’re doing wrong. And you’ll also find lots of little data-entry errors that you can fix in the field.

    This isn’t an earth-shatteringly original observation. But perhaps useful to get it in the conversation while the back-and-forth is still fresh.


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