Archaeology 2.0? Review of Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration [Web Book]

Reviewed by Michael Shanks1 and Christopher Witmore2 (October 2012)

1. Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford
2. Associate Professor, Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures, Texas Tech University

Cite this as: M. Shanks and C. Witmore 2012 'Archaeology 2.0? Review of Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration [Web Book]', Internet Archaeology 32.

Kansa, E., Kansa, S. and Watrall, E. 2011 Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration, Cotsen Digital Archaeology series, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UC Los Angeles Available:

Another new archaeology?

The Cotsen Institute in Los Angeles has launched a new publishing initiative in 'Digital Archaeology'. Its first book, Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration, edited by Eric C. Kansa, Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Ethan Watrall, makes a grand claim, if only in its title, that archaeology has undergone, or is about to undergo, changes that bring about a completely new version or kind of archaeology. The analogy is with the World Wide Web. Just as the IT world embraced radical changes of software design and web delivery nearly ten years ago and announced that this was Web version 2.0, so too archaeology is changed, the authors claim, and enough to warrant the designation version 2.0.

We disagree and argue that the claim is not well supported. Moreover, we hold that the book misunderstands the implications of Web 2.0 and its aftermath. The well-meaning authors do make a valuable contribution to debates about uses of information technology in archaeology, and particularly data management. But their perspective is hopelessly narrow, looking back to the circumscribed concerns of professional field archaeologists with their data, its dissemination, use and survival. The authors focus mainly upon their own projects, expressing little interest in the scope of contemporary archaeology, digitally enabled as it all is, through heritage and everything to do with the representation of the material past in the present, an interest surely begged by the overt reference to the global changes associated with the notion of Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 — from desktop to services in the cloud

Let us provide some context for the book's topic. Over the last decade we have witnessed a profound shift from an Internet and its World Wide Web centred on professionally generated content to one centred on user-generated sharing. If Web 1.0 was a publishing system, Web 2.0 is a decentralised networked communication medium. Beyond the personal computer running applications and accessing information sites, epitomised by the stand-alone Office suite of Microsoft and its browser Internet Explorer, Web 2.0 offers authoring and sharing services like Google, Flickr, Facebook, and platforms as opportunities for developer applications serving diverse needs and functions. We now rarely look up information through carefully structured directories and portals, but search through vast free-form fields of data and information. Application programming interfaces and open source software, social software and peer-to-peer interaction, distributed application services and content management systems are now the core of the experience of information and communications technology. Why pay hundreds for MS Office when Prezi offers an online remote presentation environment that reveals how dysfunctional a bloated application like Powerpoint can be. Google Docs offers a free authoring system with built-in collaboration and sharing. You can keep all of your photos on Flickr; Picasa, now in version 3.9, will even let you edit them. Mobile-media devices are ubiquitous and free the user from the desktop PC. Oh, and let's not forget our favourite apps — at the moment it is a toss-up between a subscriber service for The Guardian newspaper, an elegant effort at digital journalism, and Camera Awesome, a photo app that turns your mobile phone into a playful yet powerful photo capture and sharing system. It won't be long before Facebook figures out how to deploy customised ads, based upon data harvested from user profiles, upon these devices.

This is all very familiar to us, well, most of us, today. The latest developments involve further enhancement of these services through access to 'the cloud' — remote storage and processing. Witness the growth of services provided by the likes of Dropbox and, as well as cloud extensions of their products offered by Apple and Amazon. Consider Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Apple TV: these are media services, quite independent of any particular mode of delivery via DVD, TV broadcast, books or cinema. These are subscriber services distributed across myriad servers in server farms. The familiar organisation of media industries is under challenge.

The growth of blogging and mobile media sharing is posing considerable challenges to news corporations. People don't read newspapers anymore and the commercial viability of professional journalism is in doubt. Does this portend loss of dominion for big media? Far from it — commercial media arrive via many of the top Web 2.0 websites, with Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Yahoo! rounding out the top four of the most visited sites on the web (these statistics from News is simply now more about aggregation and curation than on-the-spot reporting.

The digital academy

So how is all this relevant to archaeology? Are we now really in version 2.0 of archaeology?

The colossal impact of IT on the kind of computational analysis pursued by archaeologists is a familiar story. We have long used computers for number crunching, generating statistics, and for data visualisation. Geographic Information Systems are a mainstay of current archaeology. Data and archival management is another familiar story that features archaeologists again as early adopters alongside the information experts of libraries, museums and archives. Mike Keller of Stanford Libraries introduced the term 'cybrary' to indicate how deeply this world has changed with IT. Web 2.0's impact upon archaeologists has been profound simply because we are professional academics, project managers and communicators. E-mail, class websites, journal editing, peer-review, through to lecture presentations, are less conceivable now without the services called Web 2.0.

Some of these changes have raised questions for the academy. What future for academic publishing, when print-based media are less financially viable? How to assess the authority and expertise of information sources, when anyone can publish online? What future for the traditional academy, with digitally enabled learning programs, when pedagogical resources are much more widely distributed and available, no longer associated only with attendance at academic institutions? This is all about the generation and authorisation of knowledge, access and dissemination — matters of discourse, in the Foucauldian sense.

The political economy of digital media — focus and trust

Does Web 2.0 exacerbate the information overload much mentioned in relation to digital media? A network of several hundred colleagues generates a lot of actual and potential exchange and traffic; a Google search returns many lines of possible research. There is simply so much on the Web. How much is too much? Regulating information has always been an issue, we suspect. The issue today is the availability of information. In spite of major and rapid changes, debate still revolves around old matters of the political economy of media: supply, access, personal participation and, of course, resources. Who owns or controls the means of production and access to media assets? For many people the political economy of digital media comes down to two persistent questions: focus and trust. Focus — how do you filter data, how do you contribute, is it worth your time to intervene, where and what do you contribute to information flow? Trust — which media products carry authority, are more worthy than others? Think Wikipedia versus the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; writing a journal paper using a word processor, uploading a dataset to an archival web site. The daily experience of resolving matters of focus and trust is the incessant circulation of spam, finding what you seek, and making sure that what you have found has value. In this new world of information availability it is all too easy to find the information that suits your worldview. The academic concern is therefore about the accreditation and authority of sources, connecting (re)sources and allies in arguments that are taken to carry weight, and maintaining both in the face of the constant flow, turbulence and instability of digital media.

These are actually old academic matters of source criticism and citation, when anyone may pose as an expert, and when the derivation and status of information may be quite opaque. In this flux it is now perhaps only safe to assume that nothing can be assumed.

Archaeology 2.0 — a conference session

Archaeology 2.0 takes a line through these key contemporary experiences. It is the outcome of a conference session held in 2008 at the Meetings of the Society for American Archaeology, for better or for worse. For better — because a conference can be a great opportunity to share topical and current concerns. For worse — because the task of editing what are typically provisional statements, of offering editorial framing, and upholding high and consistent standards of debate is a difficult one; and it shows.

We have indicated how the book's topic of Web 2.0 implications is rather broad. This is not lost on the contributors, as might be expected. The collection is deliberately selective. The book's ten chapters, along with four section headings, an introduction and a conclusion, provide a series of sketches and introductions to some projects that are mainly concerned with the application of communication technologies to data management in professional archaeology in the UK and north America. The bulk of the book comprises quite technical discussion of such projects run by the contributors. Editorial framing provides some background, but it is a background of limited scope, which the editors recognise. Unfortunately, it means that most chapters provide similar abbreviated introductions to the issues surrounding Web 2.0 in archaeology, which snowballs in the course of reading into tedious repetition and redundancy.

The technics of Digital Humanities, virtual research environments, and the digital archive

All the projects are heavily, if not entirely, the result of grant funding coming from the likes of JISC in the UK, Mellon and the NEH in the US. This focus upon projects managed by the authors benefits the concerned reader as it gives us an understanding of their management perspectives in Digital Humanities, virtual research environments, digital archiving, and digital database management in these project-based funding environments. But it also means that the reader might well share our unease that the collection is somewhat self-serving, precisely because of the tight personal focus and limited framing, when the issues touch so many people who are similarly invested in the professional implications of Web 2.0, in archaeology and many closely cognate fields. The first-hand experience also unfortunately entails a lot of technical discussion that is unlikely to be of much interest to non-experts.

Managing archaeological data — a question of people and community

While the book's title is about communication and collaboration, the main topic of the book is the management of archaeology data. As recognised by several of the authors, the management of data concerns the management of archaeology more generally: workflow, professional standards, interoperability of systems and functions, and the role of organisations in establishing common practices. Much of this hinges on the actions of the individual archaeologist in relation to community and institutions. Curation and longevity are also major concerns — whether or not it is good enough for the mid- and long-term preservation of the results of archaeological research to have only sustained individual interest, when institutional commitment has been so difficult to secure. The issue of authority recurs throughout the book, particularly in relationship to the range of diversity that can be incorporated in the production of archaeological materials. Here one looks in vain for the specific contributions of a collaborating community of field archaeologists to data generation, an issue that seems so central to Web 2.0 and to which we return below. Of larger concern is the longstanding question of how to reconcile standardisation of archaeological data with diversity of stakeholder interest and the potential for changes in the future.

The book doesn't delve deeply into Web 2.0 and its origins or into work within archaeology and anthropology that deals with its implications (see Shanks 2007; Webmoor 2008). The term Web 2.0 is largely taken as shorthand for participatory content management systems, for how colleagues, audiences and clients can comment on data generated in conventional archaeological workflows and processes. There is no engagement with debates and definitions on the web itself, for example the readily available commentary that has come through Wired magazine and which includes the very relevant insights of the likes of Bruce Sterling. The ways that information technology connects with changes in archaeological thought and practice are likewise unexplored; there is even a tendency towards technological determinism, or at least information technology takes primacy. We might well ask that if the authors' archaeology is 2.0, after Web 2.0, what was Archaeology 1.0? Surely not everything that came before the projects in this book.

Connecting the diversity of archaeological data — a key concern

The book does very clearly outline some of the main challenges facing this particular evolution of archaeological data management, and presents some successful attempts at addressing them. These challenges centre on the presentation, coding and aggregation of disparate archaeological datasets resulting from fieldwork undertaken with different aims, methods and standards. These are crucial concerns of a contemporary professional archaeology that cares about the future: the organisation of data; the generation of metadata and indeed aggregate datasets that can be shared and used by others, if at all; the problems with sustaining such efforts. A sharp contrast is drawn throughout the book between centralised top-down definition of databases, infrastructures and standards, and bottom-up involvement of dispersed interests and parties. There is a cautious optimism throughout that top-down and bottom-up data management can be made complementary. This is qualified by a pragmatic acceptance of the great challenges involved in securing broad institutional commitment to data preservation.

The tight focus might be argued to be justified on pragmatic grounds, that there is simply too much to cover under a heading of archaeology after Web 2.0, that therefore a useful tactic is to look at certain implications for professional practice. Treat the title and references to Web 2.0 as rhetorical gestures aimed at inflating the importance of the book and you still have a book that is useful. We suggest, however, that we would fall short as critics, and participants, if we left it at that.

Missed opportunities in the work of archaeology

To indicate how this book has missed an opportunity to make what we think is an important argument for an archaeology that might indeed qualify as a new version, though it might well be version 4.0 or 5.0(!), let us take up four points.

Media as modes of engagement

Let us elaborate this point about media. For us, media are modes of engagement with the past; that is, they are media work done on what remains. They permit and shape, they amplify and restrain the character and form of archaeological association and action (McLuhan 1994 [1964]). Media matter: just as field photography affected excavation by prompting rigorous clean-up and the presentation of a site suited for photography, what can be termed the hygienic practices of excavation, so too digital media are transforming the protocols followed in, for example, removing the fill of a pit — pause for the video diary. Our archaeological practices are mediating practices, and new media, such as those called Web 2.0, are emphasising the breadth of what can be called the archaeological.

Archaeologists — thinking and working with things

So we might profitably ask how Web 2.0 changes the way we think and work with things. There is much to this. Many of the authors consistently treat data as a stable field of information, irrespective of the mode of documentation. There is certainly little discussion of how data are not 'given' but made, because, according to our propositions here, the what and the how are never separate (Olsen et al. 2012). Despite some lip service to the contrary, particularly in an intelligent contribution from Boast and Biehl, those old Platonic divisions of labour between primary research and secondary dissemination, and between content producers and technical personnel, are left unquestioned.

Different media entail different modes of association and engagement, affecting divisions of labour and definitions of function and interrelationship in something like an archaeological project. Web 2.0, never stable or coherent, is but one recent media manifold. Modes of publishing, authoring, expertise, the commons, access, learning were in similar flux with the transition from antiquarian to archaeological practice at the end of the 18th and in the first half of the 19th century (Shanks 2012). The flux settled with the consolidation of professional academic and museological practice, and with the definition of archaeologist and curator intimately connected to particular mediating practices, the way the remains of the past were to be expertly and systematically documented, conveyed, stored, disseminated, through archives, journals, monographs, catalogues, narrative syntheses. Associations of practitioners and constituent communities, collaborating or not, representing and communicating in particular ways, were a key component. This, we suggest, is the importance of this book's topic, unrealised by the authors (though, again, we refer to Boast and Biehl's reference to some of these issues).

Take the matter of speed. Web 2.0 is often seen to amplify and accelerate pluralism by reducing the gulf between peers (authors and audiences) through participation. This is one factor in the topic of collaborative authorship, though more precisely it is about latency — the gap between sending and receiving a signal. Speed and time/space compression, the transport of text and image over distance, were key factors, of course, in the changing production of knowledge in the 19th century: the book trade, printed plans and maps and reproduced images, including photography, mail and increasingly rapid and pervasive systems of transport. The book begs this kind of sociology of knowledge, or, better, the broader interdisciplinary field of science studies. Because this is how we might understand the ways new digital media are part of the contemporary cultural politics of stakeholder community participation, of investment in pasts, preservation and conservation, as well as the production of academic knowledge.

Digital media — part of the way the past comes to exist in our experience

Returning to issues of control in such a political economy of archaeological media practices, digital infrastructures are themselves ontologically generative (Bowker 2005). By ontology, a term used throughout this book without clarification, we are not referring, as in information science, to the structural frameworks built upon a shared vocabulary and taxonomy in the organisation of information. Rather, we deploy the term in a philosophical sense: the way(s) in which the world actually exists (see Alberti et al. 2011). Digital infrastructures circumscribe the conditions of possibility for how data are co-realised, for how pasts are remembered, through acts of re-collection of past in the present. In this there are trade-offs between signal and noise, between standards and redundancy or what is taken as background noise in the active articulation of past/present (Witmore 2009). Media imply ontology; mediation is the way the world comes to exist in our experience. This is why Web 2.0 was, and is, a political concern about access and participation in sending and receiving messages, and the very construction of the world we inhabit. Scrambling for authority and control has always been a modus operandi for some, but not all, of those who seek to understand and control the workings of a medium — the link between media and power spans the deep time of humanity!

What archaeologists get up to

'How is the Web transforming the professional practice of archaeology?' The book assumes a narrow vision of what archaeology is. Our broader and more diverse field of archaeological practices encompasses things-termed-heritage, organisations and institutions, pedagogy, politics, experiences, and much more. This scope is clearly evidenced in our decade-long series of interviews with archaeologists, soon to be published under the title 'Archaeology in the Making' (Rathje, Shanks and Witmore 2012; see particularly Witmore and Shanks 2012). The professional practice of this sample of archaeologists was far from anything represented by the textbooks of archaeology's history, theory and method, and instead encompassed all manner of experiences and institutions that, yes, could be called archaeological, because they were aspects of what these archaeologists do.

We can connect this insight, that archaeology is what archaeologists do, with the narrow vision of the book. Archaeology 2.0 is the publication of a session of papers at a conference in the quite conventional format of a volume of separately authored chapters with editorial continuity, and a degree of editorial intervention in the authoring and compilation of the chapters. One familiar rhetorical purpose of such a conference proceedings is to disseminate the recent results of projects suited for presentation at a professional gathering. A conference is a participatory environment where presenters aim to establish credibility and recognition. Workshop formats may aspire to collaborative effort, but the typical format of presented prepared paper read to an audience with limited question and answer is not an effective means of generating live and persistent conversation. Notoriously, professionals go to conferences less for the papers and more for the opportunity to meet with colleagues in the social events and opportunities. We are missing this conversation in Archaeology 2.0. That the authors don't seem to be particularly communicating with each other, and rather just acknowledge the work of others, is the strange irony of a book that champions the opportunities of Web 2.0. It is perhaps too much to expect this to be remedied by tight editing and editorial framing (an attempt made with 90 contributors to the book Interpreting Archaeology, Hodder et al. 1995). We might even ponder whether the lack of discussion and intercommunication is not a function of the pressure upon individual academics and professionals to establish their unique personal expertise in such venues and publications in order to secure authority, funding and thereby institutional buy-in. The circumscribed subject matter of the book, in spite of the practical difficulties of coping with everything that is going on in the world of archaeological media, reinforces this suspicion, which is also expressed by Fredrick Limp in his commentary at the end of the volume.

Web 2.0 and beyond — design challenges for archaeologists

It has become something of a cliché to say that Web 2.0 is an attitude not a technology. It is both. We propose that the topic raised by Archaeology 2.0 is the political economy of archaeological media and practices. This is to put people first, their agency in certain kinds of transaction, here particularly involving past and present. And these political issues involve far more than issues of personal empowerment. As Howard Rheingold (2012) has recently argued, informed actions in this mediated world are necessary to maintain our freedoms. We have to make the effort to learn how to engage these media, and he offers a toolkit and set of guidelines.

This is a design challenge, as is actually very clear in the book. Web 2.0 is one manifestation in digital media of shifts towards user-centred design and engineering. We are indeed invited to consider the bottom-up/top-down design practices of Silicon Valley software engineers, their start-up culture, the clustered creative economy, the combination of raw capitalist venture interest and Californian countercultural politics, the agile management and iterative design practices of rapid prototyping, the curious sociology of innovation that pushed Web 2.0. Our archaeological things and sites, so crucial to contemporary memory practices that generate individual and collective identity, demand new modes of engagement (Olsen 2010; Olsen et al. 2012; Shanks 1991; Witmore 2006). Imagine the convergence of augmented reality with mobile media and how it will shape our experience of a former Roman auxiliary fort in County Durham in the UK. Mobile media are the future. Imagine what happens when search undertaken by machines offers a major contribution to your research into late Bronze Age perfume trade in the Aegean…

We must leave off with our exhortation, which we share with the authors of Archaeology 2.0. We owe the Cotsen Institute some gratitude for publishing this contribution to the debate about ICT in archaeology and the recent shift that the book concisely summarises as Web 2.0. We too have been committed over this last decade (which is 70 Internet years by Bruce Sterling's reckoning!) and more to exploring the implications. Our own contribution has been a series of experimental works pursued by an open network of interested parties, the majority of whom are not archaeologists (their activities are most conveniently to be found summarised at We have also pursued and encouraged work studying archaeological practices, the history of their institutions, agents, instruments, people, things. We suggest that our colleagues published in Archaeology 2.0 look up from their professional and technical interests to this broader horizon of possibility in promoting and sharing concern and care for all things archaeological.


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