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6.2 Language

In broadening the community of practice to explicitly include all archaeologists, not just computer-users, a further element of reinforcement employed is the development of common languages or terminologies. For example, Dobres (2000, 30) identifies three seemingly neutral and value-free rhetorical tools used to write archaeology:

Links to information technology can be recognised in each of these elements. Without stretching the point, each can be cast in technical terms, and those technical terms may well be implicated in their development and use in the first place. For example, an emphasis on numerical computing has already been discussed above. Similarly, numerical coding of descriptive data is commonplace, and whilst it may have originated as convenient shorthand it nevertheless facilitates computer input and is in any case a requirement for the subsequent application of statistical methodologies. Indeed, it has been claimed that computers skew analysis to the quantitative because they take as input only that which can be put into a quantifiable form (Johnson 1994, 161). Be that as it may, just how much information might be lost in the compression to a numerical form is also open to question. The implementation and application of substituted numeric codes can disguise any amount of nuanced meaning, and of course takes no account of initial decisions about what to record and how. Numeric coding in the sense of storing textual data as binary information has less immediate impact, but still relies upon initial recording decisions, and, more importantly, the structures imposed upon that data (discussed later).

Of course, the issue of standardised terminologies has dogged the history of archaeological computing. Proponents and opponents have chewed away at standardisation for many years (for example, see Richards 1985b; Cooper 1985; Reilly 1985; and contributions to Larson 1992 and Hansen and Quine 1999). To oversimplify, opponents of standardisation tended to argue that it stifled creativity; proponents saw it as vital for comparability across the large datasets made possible by computerisation (hence a whiff of technological determinism may be detected). To a degree, the teeth of the argument have been drawn through the development and use of metadata in archaeology (for example, Miller 1996; Wise and Miller 1997). Used to define the way data was originally described, it also enables its re-location by providing a high-level catalogue for resource discovery, and is capable of mapping different sets of terminologies onto each other. This makes a compromise possible between those calling for large-scale national standards and those who, while they accepted the need for a degree of standardisation, argued that this was appropriate at a much lower level.

A rider can be added to the identification of these rhetorical tools:

'… it is important to recognise what goes hand-in-hand with the use of a technical and seemingly neutral language: the erasure of explicit consideration of human technicians actively engaged with each other in their material and social reproduction of the world.'
(Dobres 2000, 31).

To a very real extent this same depersonalising effect can be seen in the discussions concerning standardisation, and, as already noted, statistical methods. There is always a risk that technical issues — here, formal terminologies, for instance — get in the way of focussing on the real subjects of study.

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