Digital Archaeology in Review

Over the weekend, I got a chance to read Colleen Morgan’s thoughtful review of digital archaeology published in the Annual Review of Archaeology this past month. The piece surveys recent trends in digital archaeology and, more important, urges the discipline forward toward a more reflective, ethical, and meaningful directions.

Unlike many approaches to digital practice in archaeology that trace the emergence and advantages associated with particular technologies, Morgan’s article steps back and focuses on how technology and practices produce new forms of knowledge (and new ethical problems and perspectives) for archaeologists to consider. To do this she focuses on four areas: (1) craft and embodiment, (2) materiality, (3) the uncanny, and (4) ethics, politics and accessibility, which she develops sequentially across the article.

The first two areas were pretty relevant to how I think. Her review of recent work that considered craft and embodiment, for example, makes clear how the changing skill sets associated with archaeological practice create new forms of archaeological knowledge. While my work, especially as associated with slow archaeology, has tended to view certain forms of technological change which shape our bodies in new ways and produced new forms of knowledge. On the one hand, this asks us to consider matters of commensurability between knowledge produced today and knowledge produced using older techniques and technologies. Morgan pushes this further to ask how contemporary digital approaches complicate our ability to empathize with people in the past and the present. The former are almost always the object of archaeological inquiry and the latter should be a concern of anyone working in archaeology especially as labor conditions in both academic and commercial archaeology have become a growing concern for the discipline.

I also very much appreciated her consideration of the materiality of digital practice. Not only does this force us as archaeologists to reflect upon the increasingly disposable character of the technologies that we use, but also the human costs of the networks of production and discard that make this technology possible. Here Morgan’s work intersects with both media archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world. Her call for us to reflect on climate impact of digital archaeology is important. This not only involves the literal climate but also the social conditions necessary to produce the technologies (in their material and immaterial forms) that digital practices require.

The penultimate consideration of the article is perhaps the most provocative. Morgan considers the capacity of digital practices for creating uncanny encounters with the past. These uncanny encounters – manifest in their most simple forms as certain kinds of immersive digital environments and in more complicated ways as “deep fakes” – have the capacity to evoke emotional responses that range from the unsettling to the playful. How digital archaeology develops this heightened capacity for the uncanny will almost certainly exert a powerful influence over the future of the discipline.

Finally, Morgan explores the ethical and political landscape of digital practices. This is a complex matter, of course, that will invariably continue to exert a massively formative influence over discussions of digital archaeology for years to come. The gender make up of the field, our obligations to communities who don’t have access to the same technologies and skills, and the fate of digital data in both archives and online reflect the emergence of a new series of significant political commitments in the field. The capacity for digital archaeology to create “interventions” that allow indigenous communities to communicate their heritage and traditions expands on the potential for digital archaeology to produce politically meaningful knowledge. 

This article is short, but its utility and significance should be long. There is a tendency to see the landscape of digital archaeology to be a changing one and contributions to the field as ephemeral as the next technological leap. While the references in this article will not stand the test of time, I do suspect that Morgan’s framing of the debate will influence future discussions of digital practice for some time to come.

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