5. Towards Digital Practice in Archaeology

Virtual archaeology offered a new perspective on archaeological computing in the sense that it contained a recognition of the need to critically examine the relationship between emerging technologies and existing cultures and practices of archaeology. The term became completely, and perhaps irrevocably, associated with the use of 3D computer graphics within archaeology. However, the need to critically examine relationships with technology and to examine the theoretical assumptions that technologies carry with them has now been recognised across the humanities (e.g. Stern 2003; Edgerton 2006; Berry 2014). The language of technology and the theoretical assumptions that inform the development of technology are very often uncritically imported into humanities discourse (Stern 2003). It is therefore essential to find a means of meaningfully incorporating new technology into our discipline and a way of developing new conceptions of technology that are shaped by the intellectual themes and methodologies of our own practice (Stern 2003, 370).

According to Stern (2003), this disparity between the theoretical conception of technology and the practicalities of implementation has now long since become an endemic feature of technologically orientated research within the Humanities. Stern asserts that this disparity can be attributed to the uncritical adoption by Humanities researchers of epistemological assumptions that were developed elsewhere and in isolation from the specific disciplinary demands and sensitivities of the Humanities. These ideas draw upon Bourdieu's development of reflexive sociology in response to the commercial and political pressures that he perceived to be shaping the sociological research agenda (Stern 2003; Wacquant 1987; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 251). Stern suggests that the research agendas and conceptual language of technologically focused discourse in the Humanities are frequently influenced by pre-formed ideas that have not been the subject of sufficient critical attention. He argues that an epistemological break is required in order to critically engage with technological subjects and that in order to do this, disciplines must assert their intellectual independence by drawing upon their own traditions of theory and practice. The purpose of the epistemological break or rupture in Stern and Bourdieu's writing is to describe the process of self-conscious re-examination of terminology, practices or ideas that have been uncritically incorporated into a research area.

Among the Humanities, archaeology has probably been unique in the success with which it has critically assessed technology (although for contrary perspectives see Scollar 1999; Forte 2015). Readers familiar with the history of archaeological computing will be aware of the long-running theoretical discussions that surrounded the growing role of GIS or VR as archaeological tools. However, as others have remarked, critical discourse has been inconsistently applied and has been primarily confrontational in nature (Lock and Brown 2000; Huggett and Ross 2004; Chrysanthi et al. 2012; Huggett 2015). Furthermore, technologies that are less prominent, less widespread in their adoption or that fall outside of the sub-disciplinary purview of archaeological computing (digital photography, additive manufacturing, mixed reality and gaming being examples) have received far too little visible critical attention.

The challenge set by this article is to consider whether critical approaches to the adoption of digital technology can emerge from 'grass roots' use of technology for archaeological purposes. Digital imaging, additive manufacturing, mixed reality and gaming are just a few technologies enabling digitally literate archaeologists to harness the spirit of virtual archaeology to generate new insights and create fresh challenges to transform archaeological practice positively and in a way that is informed by the intellectual and practical traditions of the discipline and by the emerging desire to create increasingly diverse communities of practice. The use of digital technologies within archaeology has had a tendency to be dominated by technological specialists but in each of the instances presented here (and within this issue) we see examples of digitally literate archaeologists working with (or inspired by) different communities. Each example represents an innovation rooted in a profound understanding of the subject and of the ways in which technological interventions might be of benefit. The proliferation of digital technologies and the growth in digital literacy across diverse archaeological research communities has the capacity to vastly expand involvement in the processes of adopting, developing and using digital technologies. The landscape of archaeological technology was once characterised by a limited number of technologies that were usable (for reasons of complexity and cost) by a limited number of professional researchers. The ability to operate and to employ sophisticated digital technologies within an archaeological context has spread as levels of digital literacy have coincided with a proliferation of sophisticated hardware and software.

Increasingly these new digital technologies allow us to renegotiate archaeological concepts and entities, most crucially the relationship between the physical and the intellectual. Additive manufacturing, digital imaging, gaming, mixed reality and interactive media all present an opportunity to mediate, represent and play with archaeological knowledge and forms of archaeological knowledge production.

Critical appraisal of digital technologies, their theoretical underpinnings and the language and concepts that they carry with them should be far more prevalent, and take the form of positive, imaginative and constructive discourse rather than the anxiety discourse that Huggett (2015) identifies as having characterised the discipline (see also Ryan 2001; Frischer et al. 2002; Goodrick and Earl 2004; Forte 2015; Forte et al. 2006; Pujol 2008; Llobera 2011; Huggett 2012; 2013). These necessary changes reflect a fundamental shift in the way in which technologies are discovered, introduced and applied within archaeology. The vast majority of theoretical writing on technological adoption has been rooted within traditions of academic research. The reality of contemporary archaeology is that the vast majority of field practice and a substantial proportion of archaeological research take place outside of academic research. Uptake of technology within commercial archaeology has necessarily differed significantly from uptake within the research sector as a result of having been driven by a different set of motivating factors. Discourse has also failed to take into account the growing role of independent and voluntary research in the formation of the archaeological record. Voluntary groups are likely to play an ever-increasing role within archaeological and heritage work (Culture, Media and Sport Committee 2010). Commercial and voluntary archaeology is largely beyond the reach of academic discourse and publication, meaning that discussions regarding the potential benefits or risks of technological adoption taking place within the academic sphere may have limited impact. Furthermore, the proliferation of technology and of technological expertise means that it is unsafe to assume that novel applications for technology within archaeology emanate from research organisations.

Within this changed (and ever-changing) research landscape there has been a reorientation of the role of the digital archaeology specialist. Increasingly it is necessary to have an awareness of a variety of emerging and rapidly developing technologies and to be able to negotiate with, and implement them, within a range of methodologically diverse settings. Specific skills and approaches are required in order to create a customised methodology and technological response to a specific archaeological question or scenario. These skills are diagnostic and require that the archaeologist has an awareness of technique, method, data and how all of these factors will work within different archaeological settings.

In part, as demonstrated within this article, these skills are already present within the digital archaeological research community. As the archaeological use of technology enters a new phase of rapid innovation and diversification, archaeological researchers are effectively exploiting new avenues for research. A need remains for strategies that enable us to effectively operate within this new world of rapid and highly diverse technological development (see, for example, Historic Environment Intelligence Team 2015). It is essential to ensure that we remain open to new developments and that we continue to invest resources in considering the possibilities and dangers presented by ongoing change.


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