Let’s talk about DA!

Lidar image of an archaeological site on the Kildare – Wicklow border, thanks to Noel Dunne, TII Archaeologist, KCC. (The tongue-in-cheek annotation is the blogger’s work)

“What’s wrong with talking about digital archaeology?” (Huggett, 2016)

This was the question posed by Jeremy Huggett in a direct response to Andre Costopoulos’ opening editorial for Frontiers in Digital Archaeology Journal.

“I want to stop talking about digital archeology. I want to continue doing archeology digitally”, was Costopoulos’ somewhat wearisome opening sentence. He continues, “This statement wants to be radical but is in fact a mundane recognition of a state of normality that has existed for at least 20 years …” (Costopoulos)

It is hard to argue with this statement given, what Huggett has described as, “the widespread, increasingly fundamental application of digital tools across the discipline as a whole” (2016).

Costopoulos takes issue with what he sees as the social sciences and humanities “… unfortunate tendency to make approaches and tools into objects of study …” (Costopoulos).

However, this debate is deeper than theory versus practice, or even praxis; it is about the philosophical foundations of digitally acquired archaeological knowledge.

Introspection is necessary to underpin the practices of Digital Archaeology (DH) with robust methodologies, but that is not unique to DA. More importantly for DA, is the necessity to delve deep into the epistemological influences that the use of technology may have (Huggett, 2015). How we construct knowledge starts with research questions. Research informs theory which is tested and debated in peer review journals. Generally some degree of consensus is built, which in turn feeds into best practice methodologies and charters of standards. Scrutiny must be sharpest when looking at the foundation stones of this knowledge building process; the research. Digital Archaeology’s dependence upon technological tools requires reflection to negate against the weak roots warned of by Floridi in his technological tree analogy. (Floridi)


Amongst those who utilise digital tools in research, what level of understanding exists of how the embedded algorithms produce the results that they arrive at? Is it good enough to trust, in a best case scenario, that the software is open source and that there is a community of developers and users who can vouch for the results being accurate and without misleading unintentional artefacts?

In a critical article entitled The Digital-Humanities Bust, Timothy Brennan throws an epistemological tongue twister at the Digital Humanities, “DH doesn’t know why it thinks it knows what it does not know. And that is an odd place for a science to be.” (Brennan, 2017)

It is fair criticism to some extent, and as Huggett suggests, it is perhaps the black-boxing of many digital tools that Brennan is resisting (Huggett, 2017). This is something which all those involved in serious research should resist. New technologies applied to archaeology demand new methodologies. However, the methodologies must not be designed to match the workings of a black box. Rather, technologies must be transparent boxes and the methodologies designed to ensure that the data is consistent, accountable and reproducible.

Both Huggett and Costopoulos view digital archaeology, not as a tool but rather, as a way of doing archaeology. The analogy of technology as a prosthesis, informed by the Heideggerian concept of “in-order-to”, rather than a mere tool, suggests a technological immersion so great that the technology is no longer considered in the conscious mind but becomes part of archaeology’s interpretative process (Huggett, 2012). If this prosthesis analogy is thought through, then we ought to be sure that the technologies archaeology attaches are not distorting archaeological senses, and therefore, archaeological interpretation.

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” (Culkin 1968,60)

Clukin’s idea that tools shape how we organise reality, and from an archaeological perspective, how we organise our understanding of the past, is very relevant to this debate. Archaeologists need to consider the technologies they use in the same terms as they view the introduction of new technologies in the past; as major influences on social, cultural, political and philosophical thought, whether intentional or unintentional.

Therefore, Digital Archaeologists need to consider that digital tools are not always theoretically neutral. Even data containers are not empty vessels into which data is poured (Huggett, 2015, 4.3, 90). Those utilising digital tools do not always consider, “the ways these technologies operate on us as well as for us” (Huggett, 2016, comment). If we do not reflect upon these influences, we remain, in the words of Huggett, “powerless consumers in the face of otherwise autonomous technologies” (2004, 82).

If we strengthen the roots of the technological tree, however, it will allow knowledge to grow and reach new heights (Floridi).

In the meantime, if DA research is open, transparent, and documents every processing step, then Costopoulos and all Digital Archaeologists should get on with doing Digital Archaeology and keep pushing the boundaries.


Works cited:

Brennan, T. 2017 ‘The Digital-Humanities Bust’, Chronicle of Higher Education 64 (8). http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Bust/241424

Chrysanthi, A., Murrietta Flores, P. and Papadopoulos, C. (eds.) Introduction. In: Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process. Archaeopress: Oxford 2012. pp. 7-13.

Culkin, J 1968 “Each Culture develops its own sense-ratio to meet the demands of its environment”, In Stern, G. (ed.) Mc Luhan Hot and Cool, 57-66. Harmondsworth.  Cited in: Chrysanthi, A., Murrietta Flores, P. and Papadopoulos, C. (eds.) Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process. Archaeopress: Oxford, 2017, pp. 204-214.

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

Floridi, L. ‘The information society and its philosophy: introduction to the special Issues on the philosophy of information’. The Information Society 20 (3), 153-58. Cited in: Chrysanthi, A., Murrietta Flores, P. and Papadopoulos, C. (eds.) Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process. Archaeopress: Oxford, 2017, pp. 204-214.

Huggett, J. 2004. Archaeology and the New Technological Fetishism. Archeologia e Calcolatori XV.

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, 2017, pp. 204-214.

Huggett, J. 2015 ‘A manifesto for an introspective digital archaeology’. Open Archaeology, 1(1), pp. 86-95. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/104047/ Accessed: 28/09/17

Huggett, J. 2016 ‘Let’s Talk about Digital Archaeology’. Introspective Digital Archaeology, 10 May 2016, https://introspectivedigitalarchaeology.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/lets-talk-about-digital-archaeology/. Accessed: 08/12/17

Huggett, J. 2017 ‘Is Digital Archaeology Busted?’ Introspective Digital Archaeology, 24 Oct. 2017, https://introspectivedigitalarchaeology.wordpress.com/2017/10/24/is-digital-archaeology-busted/. Accessed: 08/12/17

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