The investigation of digital cognitive artefacts can be visualised as a form of cognitive archaeology in the sense of extracting cognition from a digital artefact layer by layer (after Edmondson and Beale 2008, 129): from its conception, through its implementation in algorithmic form as code, its incorporation behind interfaces in software, and ultimately its use in an archaeological context. These layers represent an accretion of practices, decisions, and compromises by a host of different agents, by no means all archaeological, many of whom will be unaware of each other. Already a complex challenge, this situation is heightened by the fact that these digital artefacts were not created with a view to making their cognitive processes recoverable in the first place (Edmondson and Beale 2008, 129).
Although considering the computer as a digital cognitive artefact highlights these challenges, they are equally true of other digital artefacts – even a device as comparatively straightforward as a total station or a digital camera relies for its operation on algorithms that for the most part we cannot access. It has to be remembered, however, that it is not necessary for a user to recover the cognition within an artefact to make successful use of it (Edmondson and Beale 2008, 129). Nevertheless, the ubiquity of digital devices within archaeology makes it important to study and understand their integration into archaeological practice, and the different dimensions of cognitive artefacts help to characterise the agent/artefact relationship and the extent to which archaeological cognition is supported and complemented. However, as we find ourselves using digital devices that transcend our own abilities and which in some instances create the phenomena that we are seeking to record, when devices operate in ways we do not fully understand, and when designers seek to make devices more 'user-friendly' and in the process disguise their mode of operation, it becomes all the more important to investigate the role of cognitive artefacts within archaeology and the relationships and dependencies that exist within the digital ecosystem we are creating.
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