Defining Digital Archaeology.
There are inherent difficulties when defining an object/discipline. I’ve written about it elsewhere, using the word ‘henge’ as an example of the dangers of being too rigid, and how archaeology could pick up a trick or two from taxonomy. If you’d like to read it as background, it’s here. It’s nothing too serious – I’m 37% sure it was used as the basis for a question on QI, and if the QI pixie who follows me on Twitter wants to confirm/deny this, I’ll let you know.
The discipline of archaeology it seems is not so flexible as the science of taxonomy. After the upheavals of the 90s it is still a little insecure about its own definition.
Once upon a time it was enough that archaeologists displayed their credentials by saying ‘sherd’ instead of ‘shard’, and ‘kyst’ instead of ‘cyst’. Another defining quality was that they were so fascinated by old things that they would go out into the countryside and dig up fields in the hope that they may find some of them.
This will no longer do – in an attempt to define itself archaeology now imports philosophies wholesale – it welcomes with open arms every box of theory smuggled over from the continent. It feverishly tears the box apart, holds the contents up to the light, and then tries to make it fit in much the same way as an anteater might attempt to squeeze snugly into a ball-gown. It may well manage it. It may well manage it without tearing great gashes in the fabric of it. It may even, with help, do up the laces at the back. It will still be, however, an anteater in a ball-gown.
And it is because archaeologists sometimes feel as self conscious as an anteater in a ball-gown that they cling to their archaic peccadilloes instead of casting them aside and getting on with the job of being an anteater. Or possibly an archaeologist. I’ll be back in a minute, after this short walk.
Right. Better. One of the problems produced by a change in nomenclature is the lag before the new version becomes commonplace, which is why it’s important to get the definition as close to right as you can to begin with. For instance, Brontosaurus hasn’t existed since 1903, when it was reclassified as Apatosaurus. But I’ll bet a pound to a pinch of salt you grew up thinking you knew what a Brontosaurus was. Brontosaurus rolls off the tongue more readily that Apatosaurus and is arguably a matter for the specialist to worry about – the lag for non-specialists was entirely understandable. Though it would be surprising if the transition from ‘henge’ to something more applicable took as long as the Brontosaurus transition. Far fewer children, for example, receive plastic replicas of henge monuments at Christmas, and are therefore less likely to compound the error over time by passing on the description to their offspring.
Anyway. Where were we? Oh yes. Digital Archaeology. What’s that then?
An example of a misapplication.
I’ve managed to trace one misapplication back to the last century. This may seem an unimaginably long time ago to the post-Thundercats generation, however I’d like to take this opportunity to reassure them that both words and computers existed back then. In 1993 Wired magazine ran an article about ‘Digital Archaeology‘ which focused on the problems arising from storage formats and compatibility issues. The writer – Michael Gruber – foresaw that ‘cybernauts cruising the Matrix will spot professors in virtual pith helmets directing virtually sweating graduate students digging for – what? Checking accounts from 1957? The margarine sales of Safeway store #103 for 1971?’
‘Cybernauts.’ I know! It’s how people used to talk in those days. He said ‘Matrix’ too – I saw. However, regardless of how far into the past these virtually pith helmeted investigators reach, they won’t be archaeologists. They will be archivists. As I was typing that sentence I received an email alert (subject: Digital Archaeology) with a link to this story about data retrieval from 5.25 inch floppies from the early 90s. They are not alone – it is a common mistake.
An example of a failed application (a failure to apply, that is).
In June 2011 the BBC broadcast an interesting program about the study of Egyptian archaeology using remote techniques – namely data retrieved using satellites. During the program (and in an accompanying news article on their website) Dr Sarah Parcak was alluded to as a ‘space archaeologist’ a number of times. However, space archaeology is an existing branch of archaeology devoted to the study of the material remains of human activity in space. It’s not clear where this error originated. For all I know the BBC researchers were diligent, and pointed this out to the producers of the show. And the producers of the show may well have failed to take note of this information, and decided instead to go with ‘space archaeologist’ because it sounded cool. We’ll never know. Or possibly care.
However, what Dr. Parcak was doing was in fact digital archaeology. Which, should you be the kind of person who finds the phrase ‘space archaeology’ cool, probably sounds cool too. Should you also be a television producer, you could consider using it. That would be both cool and accurate.
It’s the application of digital technologies in the study of archaeology.
Just because a lot of people are using it incorrectly, doesn’t mean it should come to mean something which is incorrect. Hold the line. Be pedantic. Embrace your inner anteater.