Let’s talk about digital archaeology

Andre Costopoulos lays down a series of provocations in his opening editorial for the new Digital Archaeology section of the Frontiers in Digital Humanities journal. So far, there doesn’t seem to have been much response – Twitter chatter, for example, simply draws attention to the article without comment (except perhaps in one instance where it may or may not be addressed tongue-in-cheek – such is the danger of social media!).

Mimi and Eunice – (CC BY-SA 3.0)

He starts by saying simply:

“I want to stop talking about digital archeology. I want to continue doing archeology digitally … I would like to lay the groundwork for the journal as a place primarily to do archeology digitally, rather than as a place to discuss digital archeology”.

There’s certainly nothing wrong about a journal focussed on digital archaeological applications, but what’s wrong with talking about digital archaeology? He goes on:

“In the social sciences and humanities, we have an unfortunate tendency to make approaches and tools into objects of study (literally, we essentialize them) and to organize the conversation around them. There are meaningful and even heavy conversations about the implications in other fields of the use of new digital tools. We will have those conversations in this journal. But those conversations in other fields have tended to facilitate rather than impede the setting up of things … Those conversations have been immensely productive, but they have been more focused and results oriented than I feel they have been so far in archeology.”

A superficial reading of the article suggests a degree of weariness and cynicism here. But it seems to me that the article potentially questions the very legitimacy of what I understand by digital archaeology.

There’s no doubt that every archaeologist is a digital archaeologist, in the sense that everyone uses a computer to some extent at some point in their work. As Costopoulos points out, this is evident in the way that data are collected, curated, analysed etc. However, not everyone is a digital archaeologist in the same sense that not every archaeologist is a bone specialist, or a pottery specialist, or an excavation specialist. So let me introduce some capitals to Digital Archaeology, just to emphasise that what I’m talking about is the field, sub-field, sub-discipline or whatever, not the widespread, increasingly fundamental application of digital tools across the discipline as a whole. Or, to put it another way, archaeologists may be digital, but it is Digital Archaeologists who design, develop, implement and to some extent, still build the digital tools used by digital archaeologists. This ranges from the recognition, adoption and demonstration of tools such as GIS before they become mainstreamed, through to the creation of complex data management systems for onsite recording, processing and digital archiving. I’m not attempting to ring-fence digital archaeology by somehow claiming that only Digital Archaeologists can do digital archaeology – it’s simply that without Digital Archaeologists, digital archaeology would be a very different creation, in all probability one almost entirely predicated on commonplace everyday tools – word processors, email, spreadsheets – and reliant on the likes of Dropbox, WordPress, Flickr, etc. alongside a handful of geographers, computer scientists and others using archaeology as a convenient testbed.

Nor have these developments happened without conversations about their implications, and to suggest otherwise is to deny the range of critiques and debates that sit behind many of the digital tools used in archaeology today. That’s not to say they are perfect – indeed, I’ve argued that they are lacking in many respects (e.g. Huggett 2012) – but nonetheless, they provide a context for the introduction and implementation of the range of tools we use and so I would argue that they do facilitate rather than impede the setting up of things. Hence, it is not the case that “progress has often been quite removed from the conversations about digital archeology”, although perhaps these conversations have taken place outside the white heat of mainstream journals for the most part.

So is there a problem with making these approaches and tools into objects of study and organising conversations around them as Costopoulos suggests? In my view, not to do so would be an abrogation of responsibility and indeed, seems to negate the very idea of having a digital archaeology section in a journal called Frontiers in Digital Humanities. Can we seriously discuss working on frontiers and seeking to extend those frontiers without considering the tools that we’re using and the implications of their use? Can we really assume that digital tools are neutral and have no effect on their subjects, and hence discussions of them largely consist of examining the academic fluff in our digital navels? Perhaps the implication of the suggestion is that we’ve gone about it the wrong way, and I’d certainly agree that there is room for improvement here, but that’s a very different argument.

Instead the implication seems almost to be to leave it to others to have these conversations in our place. To my mind this would appear to deny that archaeology and archaeologists have a contribution to make to these larger debates. As a subject predicated on the study of material culture, to not apply an archaeological eye to digital material culture would be more than just a wasted opportunity. That said, it is certainly true that we can often seem largely unaware of highly relevant debates taking place in other areas – Costopoulos makes specific reference to virtual archaeology, for instance:

“Much of the online reconstruction of the past and the bulk of online debate about how to accurately represent past contexts has escaped the orbit of professional archeology and been captured by the computer gaming community. One need only look at the often informed and sophisticated debates taking place about realism on forums dedicated to historically based computer games to see that the full range of archeological concerns, from the details of material culture to economic and social organization, are explored by a globally distributed community that dwarfs professional archeology by several orders of magnitude.”

Again, this seems to me like an opportunity for archaeology to make a contribution beyond its traditional boundaries, rather than a case for letting others get on with it and living vicariously off their results. Ultimately, this argument comes across as a development of the anxiety discourse in digital archaeology (e.g. Huggett 2013), but one in which the conclusion drawn is that we delegate the debates to others and simply get on with ‘doing’ it.

Costopoulos is undoubtedly correct to draw attention to the way that developments in digital curation and distribution, for example:

“… keep bringing up serious problems of standardization, intellectual property, funding, ethics, and so on. These problems are not new. They are not unique to digital archeology or even characteristic of it. They belong to archeology as a whole. Some will gradually be solved, and some will remain, as they have, since the dawn of the discipline. Let us not get hypnotized by their current ephemeral incarnation. Let us treat them as the timeless things they are and focus on their essence.”

However, nor should we assume in the process that these issues constitute the sum total of debates within digital archaeology – far from it. Questions surrounding the introduction, development, and implications of new technologies within the subject go far beyond questions of standardisation, ethics etc. in addressing the very fundamental stuff of archaeology and its interpretation – or, at least, they should do. A failure to do so to any great extent may well lie behind Costopoulos’ critique and is an aspect I’m particularly interested in (e.g. Huggett 2015).

Costopoulos concludes:

“Forget the label. We are building a digital archeology by doing archeology digitally. This is what we do.”

Quite, but unless doing digital archaeology includes the conversations surrounding doing archaeology digitally it will be only a partial archaeology, subject to the vagaries of fads and trends, underdeveloped, undervalued, and underwhelming.

In all of this, of course, I have a vested interest and I’m grateful to Andre Costopoulos for putting the debate on the table, because otherwise I might as well pack up this blog and do something else altogether. Which you might think would be a good idea … 🙂


Costopoulos, A. 2016 ‘Digital Archeology Is Here (and Has Been for a While)’. Frontiers in Digital Humanities 3:4 http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2016.00004

Huggett, J. 2012 ‘What lies beneath: lifting the lid on archaeological computing’. In: Chrysanthi, A., Murrietta Flores, P. and Papadopoulos, C. (eds.) Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process. Archaeopress: Oxford, pp. 204-214. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/61333/

Huggett, J. 2013 ‘Disciplinary issues: challenging the research and practice of computer applications in archaeology’. In: Earl, G., Sly, T., Chrysanthi, A., Murrieta-Flores, P., Papadopoulos, C., Romanowska, I. and Wheatley, D. (eds.) Archaeology in the Digital Era. Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, pp. 13-24.  http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/92301/

Huggett, J. 2015 ‘A manifesto for an introspective digital archaeology’. Open Archaeology, 1(1), pp. 86-95. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/104047/


3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about digital archaeology

  1. Dear Jeremy,

    Thanks very much for the comments. You are correct that the editorial was born partly out of a certain sense of weariness, but also out of a longing for further growth and maturation of the field. I agree that we must have conversations about capitalized Digital Archaeology, and as I note in the article, I fully intend that these will happen in the non-pages of the journal. On the other hand, I do think that we need to emphasize some of the practical ways in which DA and DH are actually done. Venues dedicated to DA haven’t emphasized this enough in my view.

    We’re all digital archaeologists yes, but not all self-consciously so. And yes, just as most archaeologists do a bit of ceramic analysis and a bit of lithic analysis etc, we still need people who worry primarily about advancing the way we do these. Same for DA. But my sense is that DA will mature when it stops being a “thing” that only digital archaeologists do. I very much want to see it become a more integral part of the disciplinary fabric. I hope to do this by fostering a forum in which people can publish their everyday implementations of DA as well as their ideas on how to advance it.


    • Thanks for the response, Andre – and apologies for not noticing the ‘comments’ box at the foot of your paper!

      I rather think we’re in agreement here, although interestingly we may be arriving at similar conclusions from different perspectives. I do think that there is already a good deal of evidence of the practical applications of DA within the wider subject, but then my sense of weariness comes out of hearing yet more presentations about “a GIS/database/3D model I have built” (insert preferred application here!) and not enough thought about the ways these technologies operate on us as well as for us. DA needs to not only create better tools, but also initiate new and innovative ways of thinking about the past. This last is where I feel DA falls short at present – we both agree that archaeologists are already digital in many respects, but, as Marcos Llobera argued back in 2011, how much of archaeological practice has actually changed as a consequence, or are we simply doing technically enhanced versions of much the same things? It’s in this context that a while back I proposed the creation of ‘grand challenges’ for DA, although I’ll grant you that so far this has seen more talk than action, though action is the ultimate objective. But for DA to be taken seriously, for it to be perceived as more than simply a supplier of technical methods to the broader discipline, it has to be better-theorised and hence there is an intellectual as well as a practical challenge to be pursued if, as we both believe, a mature DA should be a more integral part of the disciplinary fabric.


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