Understanding Digital Archaeology

I had a bit of a fun(-ish) surprise when a few of my colleagues directed my attention to a recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology where the authors cite a personal correspondence with me (!), but also, Visions of Substance, the most recent book published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. (To be fair, one of the coauthors of the article, Brandon Olson, was also a co-editor of the book and an alumnus of both the University of North Dakota’s MA program in history and the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project).

The article was authored by Christopher H. Roosevelt, Peter Cobb, Emanuel Moss, Brandon R. Olson, Sinan Ünlüsoy documents in great detail their system for digital recording and 3D imaging at the Kaymakçı Archaeological Project in Turkey. In almost every way the article is a model presentation of innovative archaeological procedures. And, it’s available open access so go and read it now!

The article sets out in great (and commendable!) detail, the digital systems and infrastructure put in place to allow excavation teams to document their trenches and contexts in as careful way as possible. I have taken to describing the kind of highly nuanced and details documentation practices as part of a move toward “post-stratigraphic” excavation. This does not mean that archaeologists like Roosevelt’s team ignore stratigraphy, but rather that they approach documentation in such a way that stratigraphic relationships represent just one type of archaeological context documented during excavation. For example, their system allows for them to record single objects as discrete contexts and this unique contextual situation remains the primary identifier of these objects within their recording system. At the same time, the incredibly sensitive photographic, volumetric recording techniques documented in the article capture subtle aspects of archaeological work, such as the fine lines produced by the brooms used to clean the trench for photography, that do not reflect to stratigraphic processes. Finally, the emphasis on volumetric reconstruction of archaeological contexts moves the project beyond the “black boxes” representing stratigraphic contexts in the Harris Matrix and opens a space for more subtle reading of site formation processes that can, for example, distinguish between simple and continuous depositional events. This is all very cool.    

The article also represents a particular strain of archaeological thought summarized in its title, “Archaeology is Destruction” which strikes through the word “destruction” and replaces it with “digitization.” The core idea behind this particular line of archaeological reasoning is that one major goal of archaeology should be to document as thoroughly as possible the contexts and relationships destroyed through excavation. As a result, documenting for the sake of documenting is a reasonable approach to archaeological field practices and procedures. Digitization and digital tools can provide a more efficient and robust means for gathering information at trench side.

The other strain of archaeological thinking views the work of the archaeologist as primarily creative. Excavation is the work of producing archaeological knowledge and it a fundamentally productive endeavor. Following this approach, the goal of archaeological practice is to produce arguments that shed light on both the past and our present. 

To be clear, these two approaches to archaeological work are rarely mutually exclusive in practice. Most archaeologists both engage in field work to answer specific questions and recognize archaeological evidence as a particularly fragile and limited resource. As a result, good archaeologists engage in excavation and field practices in a deliberate, careful, and systematic way and remain aware that their research goals represent a point in an ongoing conversation about the meaning of the past. Since archaeological evidence is – to some extent – limited, archaeologists constantly seek to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” by balancing the arrogant view that one’s work will produce the final word on a subject against practices that serve primarily as an apologia for the destructive character of excavation. If the balance tips too far in either direction, archaeological practices diminish the ethical justification for the discipline.

The Roosevelt et al. article steers well clear of these two potential pitfalls (as does most archaeological work). They demonstrate that their sophisticated, integrated, digital approach to field recording can document excavation both in a more detailed way and with greater efficiency. The authors do not, however, explain how their post-stratigraphic (to use my term) approach actually results in new archaeological knowledge.

My name was invoked by the authors as someone who has argued that a greater focus on archaeological efficiency through digital tools runs the risk of de-skilling archaeologists. I have argued in various places that “traditional” archaeological practices (which rely on older forms of technology) like writing in trench notebooks longhand, drawing individual contexts, and separating extraneous details from relevant evidence at trench side, locates the primary space of archaeological interpretation at the edge of the trowel, trench, or context. In other words, the act of excavation is not destruction, but the production of archaeological knowledge, and while I admit to the need for intermediate steps that document the way in which the archaeologist produced this knowledge, the ultimate goal is always the archaeological argument. Trench side documentation is an extension of argument making.

I’ve tended to privilege practices that slow the process of documentation on the trench side and foreground deliberate, embodied knowledge grounded in practices like manual illustration and long-hand written, narrative style notebooks. My argument for the superiority of these practices has less to do with the results that they produce, which the last fifty or even 100 years of scholarship amply demonstrates, than the pitfalls that they avoid. For example, calls to excavate more efficiently and to produce more robust datasets redouble the pressure on archaeologists to publish not just their data (although that’s good), but also their analysis. Storerooms full of unpublished material are salutary reminders that digging more does not necessary result in the production of more disciplinary knowledge, and with increased efficiency comes the increased temptation to dig more.

Likewise, I remain skeptical of claims that more efficient documentation opens up time and opportunities for more reflective engagement with the archaeological process. One of the great claims of modern industrial life is that machines would make possible more leisure time for creativity, recreation, and family life. Any growth in leisure time over the past two centuries, however, owes more to the push back against the relentless pursuit of efficiency by labor critics and unions than any moderation on the part of industrial class. If archaeologists continue to occupy the rhetorical position that excavation is destruction, increased efficiency, detail, and documentation will persist as ethical imperatives that are difficult to dislodge in the name of trench-side analysis. I don’t doubt that it is possible to use technology to allow more opportunities to reflect, analyze, and interpret, but considering the tradition of technological innovation in modern, industrial societies, I think it is reasonable to expect that digital innovators demonstrate the interpretative gains from the use of technology.

I will continue to “fret” about the de-skilling of the archaeological workforce through practices that fragment the experience of field walking or excavating. The kind of embodied knowledge typical of pre-industrial craft production produced individuals who have command over most aspects of their work. Archaeology, of course, is a modern science and over the past century has sought ways to regiment knowledge production as a way of improving consistency, efficiency, and results. At the same time, archaeologists have clung fiercely to the idea of craft knowledge. Some excavators, illustrators, and even field walkers are better than others and, as a result, no amount of standardization in practice will achieve perfect consistency in data production. As workflows fragment, however, and narrative notebooks give way to standardized forms, context sheets, digital models, and other regularized expression of trench-side or survey unit knowledge, the significance of this embodied knowledge recedes into the background. Foregrounded, instead, is the systematized regularity of digital data which de-authorizes, overwrites, and “black boxes” the complexities of excavation and survey. The idea that digital technologies do less to deskill archaeologists and more to produce archaeologists as skilled, digital practitioners is similar to the claim that 19th century craft workers simply developed the new skills necessary to thrive on the assembly line. Archaeological skills are grounded in archaeology, not the attendant technologies relevant (or even vital) to the field. (And this comes not from someone who fancies himself a craftsman-archaeologist, but from someone intensely aware of the gap between the kind of knowledge that I posses as a manager of digital workflows and data and people with patiently acquired field knowledge.)

Finally, I continue to be disturbed by the tensions between spatial locus of archaeological work (and the imperative that our field continues to embrace that some forms of archaeology – objects, sites, et c. – remain local), and the displacement that occurs with digital recording of archaeological contexts. By recording spaces, objects, and deposits in such detail that archaeologists can remove these “digital surrogates” from the limits of the archaeological site, we begin to test the concept that that archaeological work is fundamentally local. While we’re not yet to the point where entire sites can be reconstructed in computer labs and 3D clones of objects studied, this is now within the realm of possibility. Soon, the only limit on our ability to transport highly accurate digital versions of artifacts and archaeological sites around the world will be our willingness to do so. 

So, articles like Roosevelt et al.’s tend to leave me a bit cold even if their willingness to share their innovation and work flows are commendable. Maybe I’d find their descriptions more compelling if they demonstrated how the increased resolution, efficiency, and technologies advanced the particular arguments that they sought to make about the history of the site or address particular nuances present in their project’s research questions. Or maybe I’m just a cranky, “old” archaeologist who would prefer to dance with the devil he knows than to take on a new partner.

One Comment

  1. Beautiful Roosevelt et al. article. Well-considered blog thoughts.


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