2. Digital Fieldwork and Digital Lab Activities in Archaeology

This interest in simulating fieldwork activities is not recent or entirely new. In 1982 Patricia Rice (1982) published Site Simulation in Teaching Archaeology: A Hands-On Approach, where she discussed the use of simulated sites to teach fieldwork methods. The simulated sites were material replicas of original sites. To give an example, she created a replica of an Upper Palaeolithic rock shelter site similar to one found in France. She defined the reconstruction a "site", using quotation marks, since the simulated site was just a wooden box containing the debris of nine successive cultural groups. Students were asked to evaluate the activities represented in the simulated site, with the outcome of recognising the value of this experience for gaining a better understanding of archaeology and the profession of archaeologists.

With the increased use of computer technology in the classroom today, several virtual applications have been created to teach archaeological fieldwork. Many web-based examples of virtual digs can be found, but most of these programs intend the virtual excavation as a series of pictures or scientific drawings showing and explaining the excavation process, the tools used, and the archaeological records that can be found during the excavation of particular archaeological contexts. Virtual interaction with the excavation area is non-existent or limited. One of the first examples of interactive applications in the discipline is Excavating Occaneechi Town: Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina (Davis et al. 1998; see also review by Bateman in Internet Archaeology 6). This is a CD-Rom containing the report of the excavation carried out at Occaneechi town. The CD-Rom was designed for three different audiences: scholars seeking for the excavation record of this site, people interested in the archaeology of the Occaneechi tribe, and students interested in learning about how fieldwork is conducted. The electronic dig section is introduced thus: "This section allows you to re-create, on the computer, the experience of excavating an archaeological site, without actually getting dirty!". For the "excavation" students are provided with a 2D interactive plan view of an archaeological grid. They can choose the squares (1m x 1m) they want to dig and, once they have finished selecting squares, by clicking on the excavatebutton, the plough zone is automatically removed from the selected squares revealing the features below. No information is provided about the method and tools used for the excavation, and the grid does not give students any sense of the three dimensions. Nevertheless, this was one of the first applications of 2D and later 3D programs.

A similar but more advanced application, Virtual Dig: a simulated archaeological excavation of a Middle Paleolithic site in France (Dibble et al. 2000), has been adopted in several US colleges to teach how to organise and run fieldwork in lower-division classes. This is an application created using real data from the excavation of a Middle Palaeolithic site in the Dordogne region of southern France, Combe-Capelle, excavated in the early 1990s. The section dedicated to the excavation is a 2D virtual simulation of an excavation area within the site. The 2D simulation teaches students how to excavate using the arbitrary method per levels. This time students are provided with a 2D profile of a 1m x 1m square. They can choose the tools to use for excavating the squares, and, after clicking on the excavating button, based on the tool chosen, they obtain information on the time needed to excavate the unit and the buckets of dirt produced. Even if this example of a virtual dig is more detailed than the one mentioned above, students, once again, cannot grasp the materiality of the excavation process.

A creative and effective attempt to give a sense of the materiality of fieldwork comes from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Web users are provided with the opportunity to carry out a virtual dinosaur dig, recover the bones and bring it to the museum where the skeleton will be re-constructed and exhibited. This virtual application is interactive and very clear. There is an attempt to give a sense of the material work of palaeontologists, but it is still in two dimensions.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields have been similarly engaged in virtual reconstruction. In biological sciences, for example, a study on 3D virtual frog dissection, conducted in 2009, showed the effectiveness of this kind of virtual reality on high-school students' learning outcomes (Lalley et al. 2010). The authors compared virtual and real dissection and demonstrated that the virtual group of students learned more than the real one. Moreover, even though there were no differences in retention between the two groups, students could improve their retention by repeating the virtual experiment without any additional cost for the school. Also, as James Lalley and his colleagues argued (Lalley et al. 2010, 196), retention is linked to practice and through practice the skills and information learned become automatic. Physical dissections are in general offered once, in one day, because of economic and safety reasons, and ethical issues, while virtual dissections can be repeated at the student's convenience without additional costs. This research reveals an important value for students' learning and retention, and can be considered a good starting point for developing similar applications in other fields. Similar 3D applications have also been used to teach other disciplines, such as molecular structures to chemistry students (Garcia-Ruiz and Gutierrez-Pulido 2006), geometry (Yeh and Neson 2004) and anatomy (Sturm et al. 2008).

These examples illustrate how technology supports, and even heightens, learning outcomes.


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