What is Digital Archaeology?

We’re currently writing the very first draft of our integrated DHBox virtual-machine-and-textbook for digital archaeology. It’s aimed at the same crowd as a regular intro-to-archaeology text, that is, first or second year students with little digital grounding. It won’t cover everyone’s wishlist for digital archaeology, but it will with care be a solid foundation for going further.

What follows is an excerpt from the opening chapter, ‘Going Digital’ and the first subsection, ‘So What is Digital Archaeology Anyway?’

This is a rough draft; indeed, I call it the ‘barf’ draft where you are just struggling to get ideas out, in the hopes that eventually it will come together, and the errors, omissions and non-sequiturs are ironed out. Use with caution; comments welcome. Feel free to annotate with Hypothesis.

I post this today in honour of the Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference in Atlanta, (updates from which follow on Twitter at #caaatlanta.)

1 Going Digital

Digital archaeology should exist to assist us in the performance of archaeology as a whole. It should not be a secret knowledge, nor a distinct school of thought, but rather simply seen as archaeology done well, using all of the tools available to and in better recovering, understanding and presenting the past. In the end, there is no such thing as digital archaeology. What exists, or at least what should exist, are intelligent and practical ways of applying the use of computers to archaeology that better enable us to pursue both our theoretical questions and our methodological applications. (Evans and Daly  2006)

While we agree with the first part of the sentiment, the second part is rather up for debate. We believe that there is such a thing as digital archaeology. Digital tools exist in a meshwork of legal and cultural obligations, and moreso than any other tool humans have yet come up with, have the capability to exert their own agency upon the user. Digital tools and their use are not theory-free nor without theoretical implications. There is no such thing as neutral, when digital tools are employed. This is why digital archaeology is – or should be – a distinct subfield of the wider archaeological project.

In a conversation initiated on Twitter on March 10, 2017, Graham asked the question, ‘is digital archaeology the same as using computers in archaeology?’ REF.

The resulting conversation ranged widely over everything from the topic of study (ref tinysapiens ref) to the ways in which computational power enables the researcher to ask questions that were not previously feasible to ask (ref CD Wren). Other researchers sounded a note of caution against the kind of ‘technological fetishism’ (ref Lorna) that digital work can often fall pray to, especially given the larger issues of gender and ‘solutionitis’ that emerge given the white, 20-35 year old demographic of many tech workers (for criticisms of technological solutionism or utopianism in archaeology, see the work of Colleen Morgan (ref phd thesis) Joyce, Tringham, Morozov, Kansa ). Others sounded a warning that to think of digital archaeology as something distinct from archaeology risks ‘going the way of DH’ and instead appealed for a holistic understanding (ref Gruber).

Hanna Marie Pageau succintly captured these issues, when over a series of tweets (REF) she wrote,

‘Digital archaeology has an obvious digital component. However, saying it’s simply using a computer is like saying being a computer scientist means you use a computer to do science. There is an implied addition [to the] topic of specific methods that brings you from an archaeologist using a computer to being an archaeologist who studies digital archaeology. I would argue that archaeogaming is the most straight forward example. Because while gaming is usually thought of as digital, it could study table top gaming and not technically be digital in nature. However if you’re studying ethics of representation in games you’re going from just using a computer as a tool to it being THE medium.’

In which case, an important aspect of digital archaeology that differentiates it from the use of computing power to answer archaeological questions is this question of purpose. In this section, we take up this question beginning with the question of teaching digital approaches. We progress by suggesting that digital archaeology is akin to work at the intersection of art and public archaeology and digital humanities. We provide you the necessary basics for setting up your own digital archaeological practice. Entrance into the world of digital archaeology requires organizational ability and facility with versioning files. It is allied with the practice of open notebook science, and it attempts to future-proof by using the simplest file formats and avoiding proprietary software where possible. These are the basics on which the rest of digital archaeological practice is founded.

1.1 So what is Digital Archaeology?

If you are holding this book in your hands, via a device or on paper, or looking at it on your desktop, you might wonder why we feel it necessary to even ask the question. It is important at the outset to make the argument that digital archaeology is not about ‘mere’ tool use. Andrew Goldstone in Debates in the Digital Humanities discusses this tension (Goldstone 2018). He has found (and Lincoln Mullen concurs with regard to his own teaching,(Mullen 2017)) that our current optimism about teaching technical facility is misplaced. Tools first, context second doesn’t work. Alternatively, theory first doesn’t seem to work either. And finally, for anything to work at all, datasets have to be curated and carefully pruned for their pedagogical value. We can’t simply turn students loose on a dataset (or worse, ask them to build their own) and expect ‘learning’ to happen.

Our approach in this volume is to resolve that seeming paradox by providing not just the tools, and not just the data, but also the computer itself. Archaeologically, this puts our volume in dialog with the work of scholars such as Ben Marwick, who makes available with his research the code, the dependencies, and sometimes, an entire virtual machine, to enable other scholars to replicate, reuse, or dispute his conclusions. We want you to reuse our code, to study it, and to improve upon it. We want you to annotate our pages, and point out our errors. For us, digital archaeology is not the mere use of computational tools to answer archaeological questions. Rather, it is to enable the audience for archaeological thinking to enter into conversation with us, and to do archaeology for themselves.

Digital archaeology is necessarily a public archaeology. This is its principal difference with what has come before, for never forget, there has been at least a half-century of innovative use of computational power for archaeological knowledge building.

Ethan Watrall has drawn the histoy of computational archaeology/digital archaeology all the way back to the pioneering work of James Deetz in the 1960s, who used computers at MIT to perform stylistic analyses of Arikara ceramics (Ethan Watrall 2017, Deetz (1965)). Most early interest in computation for archaeology was centred on the potential for computational databases, although ambition often out-stripped capability. By the 1970s, serious efforts were being put into work to build the infrastructural knowledge necessary to make and usefully query archaeological datasets. One can see this concern play out by considering a topic model (Shawn Graham 2014) of the early volumes of the Computer Applications in Archaeology (a topic model is a way of deducing latent patterns of discourse within text, based on patternings of words (See Graham, Weingart, and Milligan 2012)):

topic 1 – computer, program, may, storage, then, excavation, recording, all, into, form, using, retrieval, any, user, output, records, package, entry, one, unit

topic 6: but, they, one, time, their, all, some, only, will, there, would, what, very, our, other, any, most, them, even

topic 20: some, will, many, there, field, problems, may, but, archaeologists, excavation, their, they, recording, however, record, new, systems, most, should, need

The beginnings of the CAA are marked by hesitation and prognostication: what are computers for, in archaeology? There is a sense that for archaeologists, computation is something that will be useful insofar as it can be helpful for recording information in the field. By the 1980s desktop computing was becoming sufficiently widespread that the use of geographic information systems was feasible for more and more archaeologists. The other ‘killer app’ of the time was computer-aided design, which allowed metric 3d reconstructions from the plans drawn on site by excavators. Yet, computational resources were still limited enough that computing was not something that one could merely ‘play’ with. Software was costly, computation took time, and training resources were put into learning the proprietary packages that existed (rather than coding knowledge). By the 1990s, the introduction of the cd-rom and the shift in PC gaming technologies from primarily text-based to graphical based games led to teaching simulations for archaeology, most notably T. Douglas Price and Anne Birgitte Gebauer’s Adventures in Fugawiland. Watrall identifies the emergence of the web as being not so much a boon for computational archaeology as it was for public archaeology (although the pioneering journal Internet Archaeology was first published in 1996); nevertheless, the birth of the web (which it must be remembered is distinct from and overlays the internet) allowed for a step-change in the effectiveness of the dissemination of open-source software and code, including practices for remote collaboration on code that are now beginning to percolate into scholarly publication.

The 2000s have seen, insofar as digital archaeology is concerned, a replay of the earlier episodes of computational archaeology, concommitant with each subsequent web ‘revolution’ (ie, so-called web 2.0, web 3.0 etc). Works such as (Evans, Daly, and MyiLibrary 2006) and (E. C. Kansa, Kansa, and Watrall 2011) are broadly concerned more with questions of infrastructure and training, while the more recent Mobilizing the Past deal with problems of training, and the ethical issues that the emerging digital surveillance permitted by our networked society presents to the practice of archaeology (and public archaeology). Perhaps the most promising new digital technologies to emerge in recent years include methods for linking open archaeological data via the web (ie, freeing various ‘silos’ of disciplinary knowledge so that the semantic connections between them can be followed and queried) and various mixed-reality approaches (virtual reality, augmented reality, 3d printing, and the so-called internet of things or the practice of wiring everything that can be wired to the web). The 2000s have also seen a growing realization that our digital tools and their algorithmic biases not only permit interesting questions to be asked about the past, but also inhibit points of view or impose their own worldviews upon the past in ways that may damage communities and/or scholarship. This reflective critique of computation in the service of archaeology marks digital archaeology within the ambit of the digital humanities (despite the division between anthropological and humanistic archaeologies).

1.1.1 Is digital archaeology part of the digital humanities?

In recent years – certainly the last decade – an idea called ‘the digital humanities’ has been percolating around the academy. It is a successor idea to ‘humanities computing’, but it captures that same distinction between discussed above. Digital archaeology has developed alongside the digital humanities, sometimes intersecting with it (notably, there was a major archaeological session at the annual international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) DH conference in 2013).

The various component organizations of the ADHO have been meeting in one form or another since the 1970s; so too the Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference has been publishing its proceedings since 1973. Archaeologists have been running simulations, doing spatial analysis, clustering, imaging, geophysicing, 3d modeling, neutron activation analyzing, x-tent modeling , etc, for what seems like ages. Happily, there is no one definition of ‘dh’ that everyone agrees on (see the various definitions collected at http://definingdh.org/; reload the page to get a new definition). For us, a defining characteristic of DH work is that public use we discussed above. But, another characteristic that we find useful to consider is the purpose to which computation is put in DH work. This means that digital work also has to be situated in the contexts of power and access and control (which sometimes means that digital work is mis-characterised as being part of a ‘neo-liberal’ agenda to reduce knowledge work to base profit motifs, eg Brouiellet; more thoughtful work about the confluence of the digital with neoliberalism may be found in Caraher xxxx and Kansa xxxx and Greenspan xxx. We discuss the ethical dimensions to digital work more fully in [The Ethics of Big Data in Archaeology].)

For us, a key difference between the kind of computational archaeology of the last years of the twentieth century versus the emerging digital archaeology of the last decade lie in the idea of the purpose behind the computing power. Trevor Owens, a digital archivist, draws attention to the purpose behind one’s use of computational power – generative discovery versus justification of an hypothesis (tjowens 2012). Discovery marks out the digital humanist whilst justification signals the humanist who uses computers. Discovery and justification are critically different concepts. For Owens, if we are using computational power to deform our texts, then we are trying to see things in a new light, to create new juxtapositions, to spark new insight. Stephen Ramsay talks about this too in Reading Machines (Ramsay 2011, 33), discussing the work of Samuels and McGann, (Samuels and McGann 1999): “Reading a poem backward is like viewing the face of a watch sideways – a way of unleashing the potentialities that altered perspectives may reveal”. This kind of reading of data (especially, but not necessarily, through digital manipulation), does not happen very much at all in archaeology. If ‘deformance’ is a key sign of the digital humanities, then digital archaeologists are not digital humanists. Owen’s point isn’t to signal who’s in or who’s out, but rather to draw attention to the fact that:

When we separate out the the context of discovery and exploration from the context of justification we end up clarifying the terms of our conversation. There is a huge difference between “here is an interesting way of thinking about this” and “This evidence supports this claim.”

This is important in the wider conversation concerning how we evaluate digital scholarship. We’ve used computers in archaeology for decades to try to justify or otherwise connect our leaps of logic and faith, spanning the gap between our data and the stories we’d like to tell. We believe, on balance, that ‘digital archaeology’ sits along this spectrum between justification and discovery closer to the discovery end, that it sits within the digital humanities and should worry less about hypothesis testing, and concentrate more on discovery and generation, of ‘interesting way[s] of thinking about this’.

Digital archaeology should be a prompt to make us ‘think different’. Let’s take a small example of how that might play out. It’s also worth suggesting that ‘play’ as a strategy for doing digital work is a valid methodology (see Ramsay (2011)). (And of course, the ability to play with computing power is a function of Moore’s law governing the increase in computing power time: computing is no longer a precious resource but something that can be ‘wasted’.)

1.1.2 Archaeological Glitch Art

Bill Caraher is a leading thinker on the implications and practice of digital archaeology. In a post on archaeological glitch art (Caraher 2012) Caraher changed file extensions to fiddle about in the insides of images of archaeological maps. He then looked at them again as images:

The idea … is to combine computer code and human codes to transform our computer mediated image of archaeological reality in unpredictable ways. The process is remarkably similar to analyzing the site via the GIS where we take the “natural” landscape and transform it into a series of symbols, lines, and text. By manipulating the code that produces these images in both random and patterned ways, we manipulate the meaning of the image and the way in which these images communicate information to the viewer. We problematize the process and manifestation of mediating between the experienced landscape and its representation as archaeological data.

Similarly, Graham’s work in representing archaeological data in sound (a literal auditory metaphor) translates movement over space (or through time) into a soundscape of tones (Graham 2017). This frees us from the tyranny of the screen and visual modes of knowing that often occlude more than they reveal (for instance, our Western-framed understanding of the top of the page or screen as ‘north’ means we privilege visual patterns in the vertical dimension over the horizontal (Montello et al. 2003)).

These playful approaches force us to rethink some of our norms of communication, our norms of what archaeology can concern itself with. It should be apparent that digital archaeology transcends mere ‘digital skills’ or ‘tool use’; but it also suffers from being ‘cool’.

1.1.3 The ‘cool’ factor

Alan Liu (Liu 2004) wondered what the role of the arts and humanities was in an age of knowledge work, of deliverables, of an historical event horizon that only goes back the last financial quarter. He examined the idea of ‘knowledge work’ and teased out how much of the driving force behind it is in pursuit of the ‘cool’. Through a deft plumbing of the history of the early internet (and in particular, riffing on Netscape’s ‘what’s cool?’ page from 1996 and their inability to define it except to say that they’d know it when they saw it), Liu argues that cool is ‘the aporia of information… cool is information designed to resist information… information fed back into its own signal to create a standing interference pattern, a paradox pattern’ (Liu 2004, 179). The latest web design, the latest app, the latest R package for statistics, the latest acronym on Twitter where all the digital humanists play: cool, and dividing the world.

That is, Liu argued that ‘cool’ was amongst other things a politics of knowledge work, a practice and ethos. He wondered how we might ‘challenge knowledge work to open a space, as yet culturally sterile (coopted, jejune, anarchistic, terroristic), for a more humane hack of contemporary knowledge?’ (Liu 2004, 9). Liu goes on to discuss how the tensions of ‘cool’ in knowledge work (for us, read: digital archaeology) also intersects with an ethos of the unknown, that is, of knowledge workers who work nowhere else somehow manage to stand outside that system of knowledge production. (Is alt-ac ‘alt’ partially because it is the cool work?). This matters for us as archaeologists. There are many ‘cool’ things happening in digital archaeology that somehow do not penetrate into the mainstream (such as it is). The utilitarian dots-on-a-map were once cool, but are now pedestrian. The ‘cool’ things that could be, linger on the fringes. If they did not, they wouldn’t be cool, one supposes. They resist.

To get that more humane hack that Liu seeks, Liu suggests that the historical depth that the humanities provides counters the shallowness of cool:

The humanities thus have an explanation for the new arts of the information age, whose inheritance of a frantic sequence of artistic modernisms, postmodernisms, and post-postmodernists is otherwise only a displaced encounter with the raw process of historicity. Inversely, the arts offer the humanities serious ways of engaging – both practically and theoretically- with “cool”. Together, the humanities and arts might be able to offer a persuasive argument for the humane arts in the age of knowledge work. (Liu 2004, 381).

In which case, the emergence of digital archaeologists and historians in the last decade might be the loci of the humane hacks – if we move into that space where we engage the arts. Indeed, the seminal anthropologist Tim Ingold makes this very argument with reference to his own arc as a scholar, ‘From Science to Art and Back Again’:

Revisiting science and art: which is more ecological now? Why is art leading the way in promoting radical ecological awareness? The goals of today’s science are modelling, prediction and control. Is that why we turn to art to rediscover the humility that science has lost?

We need to be making art. Digital archaeology naturally pushes in that direction.

1.1.4 Takeaways

  • Digital archaeology is a public archaeology
  • Digital archaeology is often about deformance rather than justification
  • In that deformative practice, it is in some ways extremely aligned with artistic ways of knowing
  • Digital archaeology is part of the digital humanities, and in many ways, presaged current debates and trends in that field.

All of these aspects of digital archaeology exist along a continuum. In the remainder of this chapter, we give you a ‘boot-camp’ to get you to the point where you can begin to wonder about deformation and the public entanglement with your work.

1.1.5 Exercises

The first steps in going digital are quite easy. They are fundamentally a question of maintaining some basic good habits. Everything else flows from these three habits:

1. separate _what_ your write/create from _how_ you write it.
2. keep what you write/create under version control.
3. break tasks down into their smallest manageable bits

Have you ever fought with Word or another wordprocessor, trying to get things just right? Word processing is a mess. It conflates writing with typesetting and layout. Sometimes, you just want to get the words out. Othertimes, you want to make your writing as accessible as possible… but your intended recipient can’t open your file, because they don’t use the same wordprocessor. Or perhaps you wrote up some great notes that you’d love to have in a slideshow; but you can’t, because copying and pasting preserves a whole lot of extra gunk that messes up your materials. Similarly, while many archaeologists will use Microsoft Excel to manipulate tabular data (artifact measurements, geochemistry data, and so on), Excel is well known for both corrupting data and for being impossible to replicate (ie, the series of clicks to manipulate or perform an analysis differ depending on the individual’s particular installation of Excel).

The answer is to separate your content from your tool, and your analytical processes separate from your data. This can help keep your thinking clear, but it also has a more nuts-and-bolts practical dimension. A computer will always be able to read a text file. That is to say: you’ve futureproofed your material. Any researcher will have old physical discs or disc drives or obsolete computers lying around. It is not uncommon for a colleague to remark, ‘I wrote this in Wordperfect and I can’t open this any more’. Graham’s MA thesis is trapped on a 3.5″ disc drive that was compressed using a now-obsolete algorithm and it cannot be recovered. If, on the other hand, he had written the text as a .txt file, and saved the data as .csv tables, those materials would continue to be accessible. If the way you have manipulated or cleaned the data is written out as a script, then a subsequent investigator (or even your future self) can re-run the exact sequence of analysis, or re-write the script into the equivalent steps in another analytical language.

A .txt file is simply a text file; a .csv is a text file that uses commas to separate the text into columns. Similarly, a .md file is a text file that uses things like # to indicate headers, and _ to show where italicized text starts and stops. A script, in a play, tells you what to say and do. A script for a language like R or Python does the same thing for the computer, and has the advantage that it is human-readable and annotatable as well, because its format is still a simple text file. Scripts you might encounter could have the .r or .py or .sh file extensions. You can open these in a text editor and see what the computer is being instructed to do. Annotations or comments in the script can be set off in various ways, and help the researcher know what is happening or is intended to happen at various points. Let’s begin by creating some simple text files to document our research process, in the Markdown format.

  1. A nice place to practice writing in markdown that shows you immediately how your text might be rendered when turned into html, pdf, or Word doc is Dillinger.io. Go there now to try it out. Write a short piece on why you’re interested in Digital Archaeology.
  1. Include a blockquote from the introduction to this book.
  2. Include two links to an external site.
  3. Embed an image.
  1. In ODATE at the command line, you’ll now write a markdown file using the built-in text editor nano. Everywhere in this book where you see the $ symbol, we mean for you to type whatever follows after the $ at the command line. The $ is the prompt. Enter the command $ nano my-first-md-file.md. This tells the machine to use the nano text editor to make a new file called my-first-md-file.md and to allow you to edit it right away. (If you just wanted to create an empty file, you could use $ touch my-first-md-file.md). The screen that opens is a simple text editor. Re-write what you wrote for 1 but add subheadings this time. To save your work, hit ctrl+x. Nano will ask you if you want to save changes; select y. It will then prompt you for a file name, but my-first-md-file.md will already be inserted there, so just hit enter.
  2. Make a new markdown file called ‘todo list’ or similar. Use bullet points to break down what else you need to do this week. Each bullet point should have a sub-bullet with an actual ACTION listed, something that you can accomplish to get things done.

As you work through this book, we encourage you to write your thoughts, observations, or results in simple text files. This is good practice whether or not you embark on a full-blown digital project, because ultimately, if you use a computer in your research, you have gone digital.


Goldstone, Andrew. 2018. “Teaching Quantitative Methods: What Makes It Hard 9in Literary Studies).” In Debates in the Digital Humanities.

Mullen, Lincoln. 2017. “A Confirmation of Andrew Goldstone on ‘Teaching Quantitative Methods’.” The Backward Glance. http://lincolnmullen.com/blog/a-confirmation-of-andrew-goldstone-on-teaching-quantitative-methods/.

Ethan Watrall. 2017. “Archaeology, the Digital Humanities, and the ‘Big Tent’.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016th ed. Accessed February 23. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/79.

Deetz, James. 1965. The Dynamics of Stylistic Change in Arikara Ceramics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Shawn Graham. 2014. “A Digital Archaeology of Digital Archaeology: Work in Progress.” https://electricarchaeology.ca/2014/11/06/a-digital-archaeology-of-digital-archaeology-work-in-progress/.

Graham, Shawn, Scott Weingart, and Ian Milligan. 2012. “Getting Started with Topic Modeling and MALLET.” Programming Historian, September. http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/topic-modeling-and-mallet.

Evans, Thomas L., Patrick T. Daly, eds. 2006. Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. London ; New York: Routledge. http://proxy.library.carleton.ca/login?url=http://www.myilibrary.com?id=29182.

Kansa, Eric C., Sarah Whitcher Kansa, and Ethan Watrall. 2011. Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration. Cotsen Digital Archaeology. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1r6137tb.

tjowens. 2012. “Discovery and Justification Are Different: Notes on Science-Ing the Humanities.” Trevor Owens. http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/11/discovery-and-justification-are-different-notes-on-sciencing-the-humanities/.

Ramsay, Stephen. 2011. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. 1st Edition edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome J. McGann. 1999. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30 (1): 25–56. doi:10.1353/nlh.1999.0010.

Caraher, William. 2012. “Archaeological Glitch Art.” The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. https://mediterraneanworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/archaeological-glitch-art/.

Graham, Shawn. 2017. “Cacophony: Bad Algorithmic Music to Muse To.” https://electricarchaeology.ca/2017/02/03/cacophony-bad-algorithmic-music-to-muse-to/.

Montello, Daniel R., Sara Irina Fabrikant, Marco Ruocco, and Richard S. Middleton. 2003. “Testing the First Law of Cognitive Geography on Point-Display Spatializations.” In International Conference on Spatial Information Theory, 316–31. Springer. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-540-39923-0_21.

Liu, Alan. 2004. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. 1 edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.