In 1990 Virtual Archaeology constituted an invitation to creatively navigate the intersection between emerging digital technologies and archaeological practice. Today, the technological landscape has altered fundamentally. We have moved from an era of personal computing, in which digital technologies were few and represented a novelty, into an era of technical abundance and digital ubiquity. Opportunities for innovative archaeological practice have increased in line with the proliferation of technology but are still under-exploited. Even as new technologies become available, technologies that have been established for years or even decades (computational photography, additive manufacturing, games and mixed reality all fall into this category) continue to offer a wealth of unexplored avenues for archaeological research. Virtual Archaeology was motivated by the need for archaeologists to think creatively about the role of new technologies in archaeological thought and practice. In an era of ubiquitous digital technology and as more and more areas of our lives are technologically mediated, this need is more urgent than ever. The selective adoption of digital technologies to be used alongside essentially analogue ways of working and thinking about archaeology reflected the reality of digital culture in the early years of personal computing.
However, the proliferation and ubiquity of computing in the early 21st century has helped to ensure that the use of technology (even at a very sophisticated level) is no longer the preserve of experts. Computational practice is embedded into all walks of life, with activities such as digital photography and publication forming a conventional part of archaeological practice (Morgan and Winters 2015). Cultures of digital creativity abound, with well-publicised movements such as Maker Culture sitting alongside less visible but no less significant trends towards home-made game making and media production. The role of the digital archaeologist is no longer limited to the development of expertise in a particular established field of archaeological computing (although this remains valuable) but extends to include the imaginative, perhaps even surprising, appropriation and recognition of the opportunities for digital practice that permeate multiple spheres of work and leisure.
Capitalising on the availability of technology requires distinct skillsets that are increasingly available within archaeology but which are unlikely to be evenly distributed. Growing emphasis upon high-level computational skills within the education system (Cabinet Office, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills 2014) means that increasing numbers of archaeologists will enter the profession with the essential skills necessary to develop and use software in dialogue with other, analogue, forms of archaeological practice. We argue that the skills necessary for novel approaches and departures - both theoretical and methodological - and effective digital practice should be actively promoted and recognised as an essential part of the archaeologist's toolkit.
We propose that in order for digital archaeology to meaningfully assert its creative authority at the forefront of archaeological practice we must consciously and deliberately revitalise those imaginative and possibly disruptive channels of enquiry that were integral to the original conception of Virtual Archaeology as set out in 1990 (Reilly 1991). Here we are in complete agreement with Bill Caraher's Slow Archaeology approach, which also calls for a critical appreciation of the accelerated pace that digital tools have brought to increasingly industrialised practices in archaeology (Caraher 2016). Both approaches acknowledge the need to recognise skills relating to the creative use and appropriation of technology. In other words, we need to stop thinking about archaeology and archaeological communities of practice as passive consumers of technology and start thinking about them as active participants in its development and value chain. This can be technical development (archaeologists and participants in archaeological research will increasingly have the necessary coding skills) but it can also be methodological development, wherein technology is sufficiently well understood to meaningfully integrate it into an archaeological workflow.
There can be little doubt that the skills necessary to develop, and explore creatively, new digital applications for methodological and theoretical gain has risen among archaeologists in line with the increased use of technology in professional and personal life. Such creative use and appropriation of technology within archaeology can begin with skills that have been developed through encounters with technology elsewhere. However, in order to maximise the benefit to archaeology from digital technology it is necessary to ensure that archaeologists have the appropriate level technical skills needed to manipulate and to develop digital technologies.
In a digitally enabled society creative digital practice in its broadest sense can and should emerge not only from communities of technical specialism but from across the archaeological community. Computational thinking is no longer the preserve of computer science or a small community of archaeological computing specialists but is pervasive and integral to contemporary culture. It is important that archaeology moves towards the explicit recognition of the processes through which technologies are adopted, appropriated and developed and that the role that creativity and skill play in these processes is acknowledged.
Skilled technology use can be a locus of archaeological theory generation. Embodied skill is a form of critical discourse in which skills are learned and developed in dialogue with and under the supervision of peers. Such discourse between the craftsperson, tools and environment is a unique and undervalued nexus of discovery, often only tacitly understood by users. Increasingly, however, these users are not the preserve of self-identified technical specialists but are life skills. The discipline of archaeology should recognise and acknowledge practice-based knowledge and skills and bring them to the forefront of critical discourse in the field and promote the active, informed and iterative reconfiguring of the possible in creative digital archaeological practice.
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