Digital Innovations in European Archaeology

This weekend, I read Kevin Garstki’s little book Digital Innovations in European Archaeology, which is part of the Cambridge Elements: The Archaeology of Europe series.  When I described it as “little” it is literally only 90 pages, but these are pages as dense with ideas and citations as they are easy to read. This is a rare feat for any book and true t the idea that this work is elemental for anyone interested in digital practices in archaeology.

It is also available this week for FREE. Go here to download it. And while you’re at it, consider downloading this book’s close cousin: Visualizing Votive Practice by Derek Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Michael Toumazou, and the very same Kevin Garstki!

At 90 pages, it does seem very useful to review the volume. After all, you can grab a copy for free and read it on a lazy holiday afternoon. I will highlight four things that I found compelling in the volume and which would make it a great little book for a class on digital archaeology.  

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[If you click on the images in this piece, they’ll take you to the data behind them which is drawn from a simple text analysis of Garstki’s book!]

First, Garstki has a knack for identifying areas where challenges exist in our use of digital technology in archaeology. As you might expect, the book begins with an assessment of digital technologies associated with field practices. It was gratifying to see my work on slow archaeology make a cameo in the book and for Garskti to think carefully about the way in which our enthusiasm for the efficiencies gained through the use of digital tools can sometimes obscure the way in which various kinds of digital data collected in the field can shape our analysis. Unlike my sometimes overwrought critiques, Garstki is more balanced, thoughtful, and practice-based in his assessment of the use of digital tools in the field. We need to be attentive to situations when digital tools become technological “black boxes” (in a Latourian sense), but also realistic about the benefits that will come from our ability to collect more data more quickly.

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Garstki is also clear and thoughtful in his discussion of the fate of our digital data. He highlights the ongoing challenges associated with copyright, openness, and ownership of digital data. On the one hand, he is clear that you can’t copyright data. On the other hand, he recognizes that archaeological data from 3D scans to geographic information is connected to real world concerns about cultural property, heritage, and community. It is now commonplace, for example, to obscure the specific location of certain sites not only as a way to acknowledge cultural sensitivities of communities, but also to protect vulnerable sites from looter or others who might want to do them harm.

Issues surrounding the ownership and use of 3D models, on the other hand, remain a bit less clear. As Garstki notes, from a legal standpoint, a 3D model, like a photograph, is not the same as the object and is not subject necessarily to the same limits on the circulation and display of these objects. 3D images become even more complicated in that we have technology to produce highly accurate models from artifacts. In fact, these models might contain more information than is visible on the object itself (e.g. multispectral data or scans that capture microscopic details). As digital surrogates for objects become more common, the prospects for a kind of digital colonialism looms. It is already possible to store and disseminate collections of digital surrogates at a far lower cost than what is necessary to store and curate the physical originals. These digital scans are on the verge of supporting sophisticated and robust analyses. It is concerning to imagine a near future where repatriation of objects is not an acknowledgement of a destructive and alienating colonial legacy, but a cost saving measure which burdens the countries of origin with the expense of storage and curation while preserving the benefit of access to the object through digital means. 

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Garstki also acknowledges the opportunities and challenges associated with using the web and social media for outreach. It is one thing to share 3D images of objects as a way to expand access to these objects, but another to create a meaningful interpretative space for these objects on the internet. The increasingly politicized character of social media, for example, has increased the personal and professional risk for any scholar looking to engage a wider audience. This reality offers a useful counter point to the growing calls for public scholarship in archaeology and the humanities and social sciences more broadly.

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Finally, no publication on digital archaeology is complete without a discussion of “big data.” The term has become synonymous with unlocking the untapped potential of digital information, but also has become associated with the risks of digital overreach. The growing recognition that archaeological data requires robust metadata and should follow standards that support linked-data protocols supports a vision that encourages big data approaches to archaeological knowledge making. While our datasets might seems too small to qualify as big data, the tendency of archaeology as a discipline to produced standardized and formally organized information means that the quantity of structured data available in our field is particularly high. At the same time, the examples of analysis driven by large, multisite, structured data remains relatively few suggesting that the big data revolution in our discipline is still on the horizon. In short, the potential of a data driven digital archaeology on a regional or trans-regional scale remains untapped.

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As you probably can guess, I’m a fan of this little book. It’s an cutting edge assessment of digital practices in archaeology that has obvious value in the classroom, but is also thoughtful and at time provocative enough to engage even a seasoned scholar in the digital archaeology scene. Check it out! 

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