From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology

This week the Society of American Archaeology annual meeting takes place is Vancouver, B.C. Unfortunately, I won’t be attending, but I will be there in person as my colleagues Derek Counts and Erin Averett deliver a paper that looks at how digital archaeology and digital publishing will work together to reshape the future of the discipline and archaeological knowledge making.  

Check out our paper, below, and download some cool publications in digital archaeology from The Digital Press.

“From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology”

Session: Archaeological Epistemology in the Digital Age

Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), Derek B. Counts (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), William Caraher (University of North Dakota), and Jody Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology)


Before we get started, I wanted to offer two prefatory remarks: First and foremost, on behalf of my co-authors, I want to thank Rebecca and Michael for the kind invitation to offer a paper in this session, which positions itself nicely as digital approaches to archaeology continue to transform the field. Secondly, I must apologize for our title and the published abstract… and especially to those who have attended our paper on the promise of what we proposed. Seven months ago, Derek, Bill, Jody and I were in the trenches, battling the nuances of digital archaeology on several fronts as we made the final push to complete our book, Mobilizing the Past (Averett et al. 2016), which appeared in October (and is still available free to download at!). At the time, we thought a paper for this session provided a wonderful opportunity to synthesize what we had learned – and to discuss the ins/outs of our publication process and how we harnessed the promise of “digital” and “open” to build our book.

Fast-forward seven months. The title makes less sense and already seems dated. Things are moving that fast. Mobilizing the Past captured a moment in the evolution of digital archaeology. And, while we recognize that archaeological projects have incorporated digital technologies unevenly —especially if you scan the landscape outside of the Mediterranean—most agree that the move to ‘born-digital’ is well underway. Still, archaeologists haven’t fully articulated the benefits and problems of replacing traditional methods of field recording with digital technologies. And, while our recent publication was a step in the right direction, it was more about tools and technology than it was about process and products.  So – the first part of our original title – “From Trench to Tablet” –  is no longer useful for two reasons:

  1. The ship has sort of sailed on paradigm-shifting conversations about iPads; folks are using mobile devices in the field to do archaeology; and
  2. Because it imposed a limit on the conversation by separating the process of field recording from interpretation and analysis.

Field Recording is thus also no longer the focus per se of this paper, in part, because it may not be particularly useful to think of it as a discrete “stage” or “step” within the practice of archaeological knowledge making.

For the record, our title is now: Interpreting and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology. We think this title embraces more fully how digital practices in archaeology impact the entire process from interpretation to publication.

Mobilizing the Past: Goals and Moving Forward

To start, I want to return briefly to Mobilizing the Past. The book grew out of a rather selfish need: as the Athienou Archaeological Project decided to move to digital recording methods in 2011, we struggled with the logistics of incorporating new technologies and digital data into our legacy workflow. On a practical level, we understood that other projects were struggling with the same concerns, but there was a surprising lack of published discourse. Thus, the idea for an NEH-funded workshop and publication was born. Our initial goal was to convene a forum that might begin to establish best practices and protocols for mobile computing in digital archaeology with respect to technologies and approaches to both in-field recording and the dissemination of the results. We structured the workshop sessions around the development and use of software, tools, and systems, but also pedagogy, data curation, and critiques. It soon became clear that our original focus on the practical aspects of digital technologies could not be separated from larger theoretical questions concerning field methods and interpretation. Some of this is apparent in the volume, which while remaining biased toward practical perspectives on the turn toward the digital, often left as tacit issues relating to the interpretation and publication of this rapidly expanding and diversifying body of “born-digital” evidence.

This point was not lost on folks who have commented on the volume. For example, Morag Kersel, in her response paper in the volume, notes her “shock” at the lack of attention to publication in Mobilizing the Past, remarking on “the lack of engagement of what to do with the increasing amount of data produced as a result of these new technologies—most of the submissions stopped at the edge of the square or in the analysis stage of fieldwork; very few mentioned publication” (Kersel 2016: 486).  In a series of blog posts, Dimitri Nakassis criticized the contributions for focusing too heavily on accuracy and efficiency in collecting data at the expense of interpretation.[1]  Making his point provocatively, he notes that the word “data” appeared 1619 times, while variations on “interpret” appear only 164 times.

At the same time, most of our contributors recognized that the perceived division between data collection and analysis is more closely related to the physical organization of archaeological work on the ground than the intellectual organization of the task involved in structuring an archaeological project. This division between physical and intellectual work, while a persistent idea both in archaeology and the larger organization of labor and humanity, has more to do with the separation of the field from the lab or office than any intent to isolate collection from interpretation. Thus, the distinction identified by Nakassis is more illusory than real. Data collection is interpretation. If we’re serious about digital technologies being part of a dynamic ecosystem of practice, then interpretation, and by extension publication, is more than just the result of digital work, but an essential aspect of what we do in the field. 

This perceived dichotomy between data and interpretation, however, belies a general schizophrenia in critical approaches to digital archaeology: as some call for more introspection with respect to the integration of digital approaches in field archaeology, others push for more discussion of how digital technology at large is changing interpretation and publication. Most projects started ‘going digital’ in the last five years—that process is still young, and so is the data that those excavations have produced. Moreover, as Shawn Graham recently blogged: this first phase (and maybe no phase) of digital archaeology is not efficient. It’s experimental; it’s slow; it rarely goes “click, bing! result.”[2] It is difficult to avoid the feeling that chastising archaeology done digitally for not offering ‘more on interpretation and more on publication’ reflects a sense that digital archaeology is somehow ‘faster’ (which it is not) and that somehow it allows its researchers to get to answers and new interpretations more quickly (why would it?).

This view of digital practices that demands efficiency in many ways embraces the linearity of the assembly line that starts with the “lowly” technical and physical task of data recording in the field, progresses through collating and processing the data in the lab, and ends with the most respected phase of interpretation – the final publication. The result of archaeological fieldwork, in this process, is the definitive work: the book or the article. This result carries marks of authority from its form as a printed text through exaggerated expectations of persistence and the symbols of authority imparted by a largely commercialized publishing industry. In this system, the authority of the final publication overwrites interpretations at the trowel’s edge, the selection of technology, or even the iterative process of analysis.  To put it another way, our current model of knowledge production exchanges the authority of methodologically sophisticated, consistent, and rigorous fieldwork for the authority imparted by the publication process itself. Critiques that noted the absence of interpretation in Mobilizing the Past do so because data isn’t recognized as fundamentally interpretative in our current model of producing knowledge, not because interpretation was absent.

While acknowledging that this view of traditional publishing is a wee bit (!) polemical, we wonder if part of the current schizophrenia in the discussion of digital practices could be overcome by embracing a non-linear model of publishing that values reflexive approaches and interpretation that take place at every phase. This isn’t to throw the baby of high quality academic work out with bathwater of traditional publishing, but rather to suggest that critical attention to digital field practices needs to extend through the entire publishing process. The goal isn’t interpretation as an end (pace Nakassis), but ways to demonstrate the interpretive moves that take place throughout archaeological work. These perspectives, of course, aren’t new and are part-and-parcel of post-processual archaeology (see recently Berggren et al. 2015). For example, Morgan and Eve (2012) demonstrated how digital technology could mediate a decentered and participatory approach to fieldwork at the Prescot Street excavations in the UK. Caraher and Reinhard (2015) and Zubro (2006), using slightly different terms, argued that communities of practice extant across social and new media sites provide ways for archaeological information to disseminate to wide audiences with relatively little friction. These models of publishing can be both dynamic and fluid without the unnecessary stigma of being provisional (or relegated to “mere data collection”) if we de-emphasize the linear process of knowledge of production.

The technologies and conventions already exist for more dynamic publishing conventions that both embrace the core values of scholarly publishing and reflect the continuous nature of archaeological publication. Despite persistent anxiety, there are ways to preserve even academic standards such as peer review with platforms like ( and MIT’s PubPub ( allow for threaded conversations to develop texts in ways that go well beyond the limits of conventional paper publishing, and to allay concerns of persistence with the rapidly maturing infrastructure of the stable web with projects like the Internet Archive ( More importantly for archaeologists, however, is that there is a basic consensus for practices fundamental to a linked, open data infrastructure that many of the people on this panel understand. The approaches taken by Open Context (, (, and Pleiades ( provide foundational structures for de-centered, but consciously curated, strategies of publishing archaeological contexts and artifacts, periods, and places respectively. The decisions to embrace digital media both in new ways and within existing scholarly conventions is at least partly in the hands of the archaeological community. At some level, we set the standards for what constitutes legitimate disciplinary knowledge through our own practices of citation and participation.

There are, however, legitimate complications. For example, some countries remain hesitant to allow for digital publication of archaeological data, and it goes without saying that all forms of publication, but particularly those presented in a highly accessible way, must remain sensitive to the cultural interests of communities impacted by archaeological work. A less linear publication model will only exacerbate the overwhelming proliferation of scholarly outlets, publications, and resources (for a similar critique, see Witmore 2009 and Bevan 2015 on the “data deluge”). On a more subversive note: academic and professional institutions increasingly are beholden to the use of standardized metrics to assess research productivity and these tend to be calibrated to traditional publications; it is not unappealing to take approaches to knowledge production that intentionally break that system. But we must also recognize that such institutions tightly regulate tenure and promotion processes that might undervalue (or not acknowledge) forms of publication that do not adhere to the traditional modes. There are long-standing attitudes toward the book as a physical object that makes manifest in its form, a finite and apprehensible body of knowledge, and this stands in contrast to the seemingly limitless space of linked, digital knowledge on the internet.

Despite these challenges, it is easy enough to understand how digital technologies can create wondrous new forms of digital publication. For example, several years ago, Derek Counts and I decided to incorporate 3D scanning into our study and recording of the limestone and terracotta sculptures from the site of Athienou-Malloura in Cyprus.  This new 3D documentation strategy invariably forced a new publication strategy. Most importantly, the broader arc of our research agenda—from data collection to dissemination—was conceived digitally. Recognition that each step in the process requires careful consideration of interpretive decisions with respect to tools, methods, and analysis, ultimately is yielding multilateral control of interpretations that we hope will transform the traditional catalogue. Our collaborator, Kevin Garstki, has just highlighted some of this, but also recently written about the importance of recognizing these interpretive, even editorial, stages in 3D scanning in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (Garstki 2016). Unlike a traditional printed catalogue, the digital catalogue will include dynamic 3D images with a variety of user-manipulated tools, but it will also harness the potential for multiple forms of complementary linked data not possible in print form from simple hyperlinks to GIS-generated provenience maps. The catalogue can be updated each season with links to new stratigraphic data or information related to new finds, associated artifacts, and existing comparanda. Sculptural fragments published previously can be reunited with newly-discovered joins. As objects are photographed, digitally modelled, formally described, and contextually analyzed, the more traditional interpretive facets of their existence can be integrated with digital dissemination. Narrative analyses can be easily updated and linked to new information and to the range of technical and grey literature, from excavation manuals to published records produced at trenchside, providing relational knowledge that supports various readings of the site, the objects, and archaeological work. In other words, such standard interpretive moves that locate an object within an archaeological context are thus disseminated in an innovative, organic, and open way.

The basic tools for this kind of approach already exist and models are appearing regularly that demonstrate how this or that element could work – from real time recording like Morgan and Eve describe at Prescot Street to artifactual records published by Open Context to the bewildering range of associated files types supported by online repositories like the Internet Archive and tDar ( On a very practical level, there is no need for us to imagine data collection as somehow un-interpretive and just a step toward publication. To the contrary, this type of publication embodies these fragments of archaeological knowledge as digital technologies provide a relational, linked, and largely open platform for a non-linear and transparent ecology of archaeological knowledge making.

When confronted by the potential and challenges of such boundless and infinitely-linked knowledge, it is helpful to return to the field and Mobilizing the Past. One of the major critiques of our book, which applies to many recent explorations of digital technologies and archaeological work, is that we continue to use the language of objective empiricism and industrial process to describe “data collection,” while at the same time acknowledging that we recognize the interpretive character of field work and the influence of digital technologies on the knowledge that we produce. Part of the reason for this perspective on fieldwork rests in the tradition of seeing archaeological knowledge production in a linear way with the final publication marking the culmination of an interpretive and analytical process. A more reflexive digital archaeology in the field, however, pushes us to think how publishing can capture these interpretive processes. Rather than seeing the interpretation at the trowel’s edge as a provisional stage in the way to a final analysis, we’re proposing a digital archaeology that explores non-linear publications to expose, to probe, and ultimately to destabilize the binaries that have come to dominate our field.


Works Cited

Averett, E. W., J. M. Gordon, and D. B. Counts (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016).

Berggren, Å., Dell’Unto, N., Forte, M., Haddow, S., Hodder, I., Issavi, J., Lercari, N., Mazzucato, C., Mickel, A., Taylor, J. 2015. “Revisiting the Reflexive Archaeology at Çatalhöyük: Integrating Digital and 3D Technolgies at the Trowel’s Edge,” Antiquity 89: 433-448. DOI:

Bevan, A. “The data deluge,” Antiquity 89 (2015), 1473-484. DOI:

Caraher, W. and A. Reinhard, “From Books to Blogs: Blogging as Community, Practice, and Platform,” Internet Archaeology 39 (2015).

Garstki, K. “Virtual Representation: the Production of 3D Digital Artifacts” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2016), DOI:10.1007/s10816-016-9285-z.

Kersel, M. “Response: Living a Semi-Digital Kinda Life,” in E. W. Averett, et al. (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016), 475-92.

Morgan, C. and S. Eve, “DIY and digital archaeology: what are you doing to participate?” World Archaeology 44 (2012), 521-37. DOI:

Zubrow, E. B. “Digital Archaeology: The Historical Context” in T. Evans and P. Daly (eds.), Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. Routledge. (London, 2006), 10-31.

Witmore, C. 2009. “Prolegomena to Open Pasts: On Archaeological Memory Practices,” Archaeologies 5 (2009), 511–545. 

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