Continuity, Practice, and Theory in Digital Archaeology

This weekend I read Sara Perry and James S. Taylor recently published article “Theorising the Digital: A Call to Action for the Archaeological Community” from Oceans of Data: Proceedings of the 44th Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. (Archaeopress 2018). On the Twitters, she asked her followers what they thought of the paper; so I figured that I’d oblige her by writing up my thoughts here on the ole bloggeroo.

First, this paper raises an important question: what is the relationship between the ongoing conversations about digital  technology in archaeology and the rest of the discipline? More significantly, what does the recent outpouring of thoughtful theorizing in digital archaeology offer to the larger development of archaeological theory? At present, it would seem, digital theory – ranging from how archaeologists design and conceptualize data recording schemes to the tricky issue of digital ethics in an era of remote sensing – rarely appear in standard treatments of archaeological theory and even pressing conceptual and ethnical issues central to digital practice fall remain marginal to larger debates.

While I suspect this larger trend is changing (note, for example, Giorgio Buccellati’s A Critique of Archaeological Reason (2016)), I think the point that Perry and Taylor make is still good. The relationship between the discourse in digital archaeology and the larger discipline remains ambiguous. As they note, this, in part, represents a view of digital technology as a set of tools that can be applied to accomplish particular goals within archaeology as any tool in any contexts. This approach regards digital tools as no different from, say, a trowel or grid or, maybe, a Harris Matrix, whose place within archaeology is largely defined by its immediate utility. Of course, most archaeologists do recognize that the tools that they use define the kinds of knowledge that we produce, but the line between very basic tools – like a trowel or a pick – and more complex tools – like an iPad – is relatively ill-defined. As a result, there seems to be a tendency to under theorize tools and field practices, in general. This tendency maps relatively neatly onto the dichotomy between physical work and intellectual work; the former is done by diggers and grounded in embodied and craft knowledge whereas the latter is done by project directors, supervisors, and specialists and grounded in science. This is a false dichotomy, of course, but one that remains only rarely unpacked (although see Edgeworth, Everill, and Ixchel M. Faniel et al.) or critiqued.  This isn’t a very satisfying situation, of course, and certainly one that a growing awareness of the impact of digital practices on archaeology in general could revise.  

I also suspect that the role of digital tools in a theorized archaeology is a question of continuity in archaeological practice. For example, if digital tools represent another version of the modern, industrial tools and practices that arose alongside archaeology (e.g. photography, surveying tools, industrial organization, et c.), then they do not require any particular theorizing outside of the larger critique of archaeology as a modern discipline. On the other hand, if you see digital tools representing a “paradigm shift” or a “rupture” with earlier practices, tools, and methods, then this requires a new set of theoretical presuppositions. Disciplines rarely excel at making this kind of determining in part because they rely so heavily on fundamentally conservative institutional frameworks to produce knowledge that practitioners deem relevant. A greater attention to the contributions of digital practices and technologies to the nature of archaeological knowledge would not involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but in an era where “innovation,” “disruption,” and “acceleration” are closely associated with changes to long-standing economic and social relations, there is a well-founded reluctance to recognize transformational change in archaeological practice. In other words, if you see the much ballyhooed changes in technology as something that is leading to greater disparities of wealth, power, and security in the world, then there are real reasons to avoid imagining these same technologies in the same way in our field. I’m not saying that this is good, but I see it as a way to tame the potential of digital practices through the weight of tradition.

This does, of course, push us to consider the place of archaeological practice within an increasingly specialized archaeological discipline. The emergence of specialists in digital archaeology with specialist journals, conferences, and institutions, has served to incubate a dense, practical, and (to my mind) fascinating discourse around technology in the field, the lab, and in publishing. At the same time, this specialization has isolated these conversations from other specializations within the discipline in the same way that specialists in lithic, pollen analysis, or even intensive pedestrian survey methods tend to exist within relatively specialized boundaries that only rarely offer the kind of practical or intellectual permeability that allows these sub-specialities to shape the larger field. The difference, however, for digital archaeology is that digital practices are both ubiquitous within the discipline and also demand new and distinctive sets of skills.

The discipline is already navigating the tensions between familiarity and specialization through the appearance of more and more papers that use sophisticated digital tools in traditional archaeological environments. For example, a recent panel on Cyprus at the ASOR annual meeting included two papers that performed network analysis using a range of new and dynamic digital tools and practices. These papers were not sequestered to a digital panel, but occurred within the broader context of historical and archaeology research on Cyprus. One might hope that over time, digital practitioners and problems will appear more and more regularly at the usual range of meetings that attract topics on theoretical archaeology, ethics, and archaeological practices. It might even be useful to see a decline in the number of specialist journals and meeting dedicated to digital archaeology as archaeologists increasingly roll digital practices into ongoing discussions on methods. Of course, this implies a certain continuity and commensurability between long-standing practices and digital techniques and technologies and that loops me back to the start of this post.

Perry and Taylor’s article is a good read and thought provoking and parts of it strike to the core of what it means to do digital archaeology or to think about technological mediated practices in the field. It asks us to reflect critically on how we locate within the discipline certain specialties, which are, in and of themselves, a consequence of modern disciplinary practices that fragment the whole into smaller parts.   






  1. There are some interesting contradictions in there which remind me of how those devoted to “critical theory” (critical of what, exactly???) never seem to reflect all that closely on what they’re saying.
    Apparently “consensus” and “individualism” are both bad, because they’re “neoliberal” (a word so abused as to have become almost meaningless).
    Somehow making technology (and archaeological rhetoric, as championed by Tilley) more elitist – more difficult – is in some way a virtue, because… it will be less elitist, more accessible???
    And I’m not really sure why archaeologists (but not physicists, biologists, etc.) should be so concerned with the “political consequences” of our discipline… we have our hands full keeping up with rescue excavations; what can we do something about “sustainability, equality, democracy, wealth and poverty”???


    1. “We speak from facts, not theory”!


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