In the lead up to the Mobilizing the Past for the Digital Future workshop at the end of the month in Boston, their social media coordinator (aka R. Scott Moore) posed a pretty straightforward question from the conferences twitter feed: What is the one digital tool that needs to be in every archaeologist’s toolkit today?
As I pondered this question and shot off a gut-feeling response: GIS. A few people tweeted back to agree and some suggested other things: relational databases, statistical packages (SPSS), et c. It’s hard to disagree that these are important things for a budding (or experienced) archaeologist to know. Archaeology programs, even in the most traditional areas of archaeology, are gradually ramping up their offerings in both of these areas. Moreover, these areas are interrelated as they involve understanding how data structures work with GIS simply being a database with a spatial component, and most statistical programs being only as good as the data that goes into them.
At the same, I began to think about how working with data in archaeology has changed over the past decade or so. The mastery of standard database applications (like Filemaker or Access) and GIS (ArcGIS) remains useful, but is also barely enough to manage an archaeological workflow of any complexity. Today, in field recording often leverages different technologies than the project uses to process and analyze the data. Maps produced in GIS almost always derive from data collected using a Total Station or, more frequently, a differential GPS unit. These data collectors each have their own idiosyncrasies in both software and hardware. The growing interest in 3D imaging involves an understanding both how to manipulate point clouds, wireframes, and photographic textures in applications designed for the production of 3D images and how to integrate this data within existing digital workflows. Publishing data either as part of a larger analysis or as a stand alone dataset requires another set of skills as moving data collected in the field and analyzed by proprietary software to an open format remains more complicated than necessary and still requires an understanding of the digital ecosystem in a way that mastery of a single piece of software does not.
All of this is to say that our concept of a digital tool or a digital tool kit feels more and more outdated. What archaeologists need today can no longer be limited to the concept of a tool (any more than a carpenter can work with a single or even just a single set of tools), but involves a wide ranging understanding of the archaeological data ecosystem that begins with trench or survey unit scale data collection and extends to the publication and preservation of data.
Over the last six month, I’ve read and reviewed a number of articles focusing on digital applications in archaeology. One thing that has consistently alarmed me is that the authors fail to consider the place of the new technology within existing digital ecosystems in practice or the discipline more broadly. In other words, our view of digital archaeology should change from an appreciation of individual tools to one focused on ecosystems. The former emphasizes the utility of a particular application for a particular task or problem, while the latter prioritizes the place of any particular application or process within a larger digital workflow that starts with trench side practices and culminates in archival datasets.