Digital Archaeology?

#project52 week3 Upwards


I’m feeling a bit like the above today. Like I need to be up there somewhere and I don’t have a ladder.

I’m going to start this post with a bunch of disclaimers: I’m not an expert in any of the following things: public archaeology, 3D reconstructions, museums or heritage management. Anything I say here is strictly my own thoughts and has nothing to do with any of the places I’ve worked or studied. I might have a lot of this wrong.

I went to an excellent conference this week, in Gent. It was the ’rounding up’ of a very cool project, the RadioPasts project which brought together research institutions and companies from all over Europe and beyond to try to figure out ways to understand complex archaeological sites without destroying them by excavation. I am full of admiration for the overall project and the work that was done within its purview. Some truly excellent things have been accomplished, as the colloquium clearly demonstrated…

.. but it has left me with some worries (though to be fair, the colloquium just brought them into focus- we talked about some of this at CAA last year, and ISAP the year before). First of all, in the realms of just how far we should go with elaborate reconstructions that are based on one source of information; for example, a magnetic survey. Having studied alongside the virtual pasts people during my MSc at Southampton, I am aware of just how careful a balancing act is needed between producing something that looks good, and is palatable to the public and funding bodies, and staying true to the inherent complexities and uncertainties of archaeology.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the work presented at the symposium was done with a high degree of integrity and authenticity, but I know the software tools exist that mean that I (or someone even less trained) could put something together that was visually indistinguishable but totally ‘incorrect’ on the basis of a poorly conducted and over-interpreted geophysical survey. And if I can’t tell the difference, what about the member of the public, or the council funding officer? I worry about this on two levels: firstly, that it is easy to do it badly, and secondly, that projects that aren’t going to produce these spectacular films are going to find it harder and harder to attract funding, either because the project doesn’t feel a reconstruction is needed, or the type of archaeology does not lend itself to this sort of visualisation. How many more gorgeous Roman cities do we really need? What about projects studying medieval farms, or ephemeral sites that don’t make pretty pictures? Surely that research is just as important?

I understand the analytical benefits of making reconstructions- they are an important test-bed for the impossible in our interpretations, but to have these models as the only end-goal? I worry…

I also worry, in a more complicated way, about the truth-value that is being increasingly assigned to digitally captured archaeological information, for example, in terrestrial laser scanning and geophysics. Take the scanning of upstanding archaeology; walls and so forth. Yes, it is true that in the past the plans and sketches and scale drawings made by a trained expert will necessarily contain an interpretation, decisions made about what detail to record, how to describe something. Reading the material as text and translating it. But I think this is part of the inherent value of such drawings: without interpretation then it isn’t archaeology. The raw stones don’t contain any particularly privileged truth. They’re just rocks until we read them. Yes, scanning captures detail quickly and without pre-judgement, and yes, it means that several people can have a look at that wall, even if it is subsequently destroyed, and come to different interpretations. But don’t imbue the digital record with some sort of ‘truthiness’ because it has been captured by high tech wizardry. The same goes for geophysics. We are now able to capture huge swathes of the landscape, seemingly in their entirety, in one continuum of digital data. But I know that each technique has it’s limitations; the visibility of certain anomalies might vary seasonally, or there might be a whole monument or village that is invisible to your chosen technique. I worry that we are moving into a place where the survey is seen as the end product, not the interpretation and the understanding of blank spots and limitations. I worry that we are making the picture so big we’ve forgotten we still don’t really understand the smallest of the details, but have decided not to worry about it, because if you stand back and squint, it looks like a map…..

So, I worry. And I wonder if I will ever feel like I know enough about epistemology and philosophy and truth values and knowledge creation, and physics and chemistry and maths to put this together in a better way. I’m staring at the tower wondering how the hell I am ever supposed to amass enough knowledge and experience to feel like I get to stand at the top and demand answers to my concerns.

I am really hoping that smarter people than me are worrying about this too. Perhaps we can talk about it at UK CAA in February? But lets all be nice to each other, eh? At the end of the day, we’re all wanting the same things: better interpretations of the past, and better ways to protect it and get people to know about it.

(In other news, I had a good week, great weekend last weekend and got a lot of PhD writing done 🙂 )

1 thought on “Digital Archaeology?

  1. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology: why on earth? | Girl with Trowel

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