Archaeological Infomatics: Beyond Technology

Themed issue edited by Jeremy Huggett and Seamus Ross


Jeremy Huggett* and Seamus Ross**

Cite this as: Huggett, J. and Ross, S. 2004 Themed issue edited by Jeremy Huggett and Seamus Ross, Internet Archaeology 15.

In common with the world at large, the penetration of Information Technologies into all aspects of life has transformed our outlook on life. In archaeology, the spatial integration of data has been one of the key developments in recent years, as has the development of tools for searching distributed datasets held in different places and managed by different organisations. For example, the increasing use of Geographical Information Systems has helped fuse the different elements of archaeological recording — databases, maps, plans, etc. — through their spatial association and in the process both streamlined and enhanced the investigation, analysis and presentation of our data. Similarly, the increasing availability of online data resources (for example, the National Monuments Record for Scotland's CANMORE and CANMAP systems and the Archaeology Data Service's ARCHSearch catalogue and holdings — as discussed by Murray and Richards) have transformed access to archaeological information and are changing our approach to local and regional research through the provision of vast information resources and comparanda at our fingertips.

The use of information technology and information processing methods has changed practice in archaeology. An un-enunciated realisation that archaeology itself is about information and not about material remains in and of themselves lies behind this change. This recognition that information about the interrelationship, meaning, and socio-cultural constructs of information lies at the heart of archaeological discourse and presses archaeologists to seek new methods and approaches to investigating the past. Mathematics, and even arithmetic, played a role in archaeological interpretation certainly from the 19th century onwards, although at times it was used to draw fantastic conclusions from the imagined mystical meaning given to some numbers. While Taylor (1948) and others as early as the 1940s demonstrated the power of statistical analysis as a tool for extracting information from archaeological datasets, it was really those who followed Spaulding (1953) who began the transition that saw the computer move from being a device for handling the manipulation of archaeological information to a tool that enabled representation, analysis and theory building. For those who worked in the pre-computer days — and for many who work now — the mathematical and statistical tools and other technologies the computer offers (e.g. visualisation methods) provides the opportunity to conduct more and more sophisticated analyses of datasets to draw richer and richer conclusions. While this is laudable, something far more fundamental has taken place in the archaeological world. The methods and theories that underlie information representation and processing have revolutionised the way we ask questions about the past, the way we verify our conclusions, and the way we present our results. In any discussion of information technology we must recognise that for much of its application it is not providing us with new theoretical perspectives, but with better tools to conduct our studies (ranging, for example, from databases to viewshed analysis, discussed here by Ryan and Wheatley respectively) or tools to conduct research that could not be done before.

Substantial amounts of work undertaken so far by archaeologists using information technology has concentrated on taking advantage of computational power of the technology, with less attention having been paid to the semantic potential, the possibilities of enabling variability in interpretation, or the multi-modal communication opportunities that they can enable. Increasingly technologies are enabling richer and higher impact communication with popular audiences through the use of virtual reality (VR), geographical information systems (GIS), and web-based publication opportunities. The emerging representational mechanisms now enable us to present dynamic phenomena, to show processes in action rather than static descriptions of them, and to vary the narratives to respond to the needs, experience and interests of our varied audiences without necessarily sacrificing the archaeological integrity of our arguments. Some areas of communication (such as VR) enable the roles of actor and observer or presenter and interpreter to shift, thereby broadening kinds of participation in archaeological study. Denning reminds us that in order to ensure that we are making the most effective use of technologies to communicate we need both to improve our e-literacy and develop a richer understanding of what different parts of our public want from access to archaeological narrative and how they interact with them, aspects which are also clear from Holtorf's contribution (and Wheatley's response). Goodrick and Earl see e-literacy as one of the obstacles to the broad take up of VR as an investigatory and explanatory tool in archaeology. Other factors include data consistency and quality.

There can be little doubt that computational techniques have benefited from, although have not necessarily led, the increasingly precise recording carried out by field archaeologists. The interpretative potential of newer applications of technology is being greatly enhanced where the quality of the data itself is richest. This applies to their accuracy, diversity, detail, and currency. As interpretative and presentational opportunities expand, research depends on more substantial datasets as well as increased computational power. The latter is easy. In the case of some fieldwork activities new technologies have provided tools to improve recording, but much description depends on processes that can not be automated, but which rely on field skills.

Computational technologies bring the data collector into closer focus and communication with the data presenter. The semantics of information creation and its syntactical representation provide continuing challenges to the archaeological community. Semantic representations need also to ensure that they handle uncertainty and provide mechanisms for interpretative presentations to track uncertainty lineage.

For some archaeological research, museum and excavation archives provide fundamental resources. Collection management systems have created opportunities for heritage institutions to record and provide access to information about their holdings, which had been impossible before the advent of ICT. At many institutions a tremendous amount of effort has gone into building descriptions of the holdings, but only a small percentage of the material in need of description has so far been covered. While there is much more to do in the area of describing we need greater emphasis on enabling the interoperability between archaeological information resources (discussed here by Richards). This interoperability of data representations is not only necessary at institutions holding the material remains collected by archaeological excavations, but essential across all activities creating information. However, it is worth noting that the availability of information resources does not necessarily result in its effective use for archaeological research, as Gilman reports in his examination of sites and monuments records. Various explanations might be postulated. For example, the research skills of both field and academic archaeologists may not have kept pace with changes in the information landscape, or that while there is a lot of information available it is not sufficiently interoperable. Alternatively it may be that we have not yet created a critical mass of both skills and digital archaeological records.

The inter-relatedness of the steps in the information chain are apparent when we consider the use of non-destructive prospection techniques, remote sensing (e.g. satellite imagery) and geophysical surveys (e.g. magnetic or resistivity surveys). Experimental design and the capabilities of available processing technologies and visualisation tools impinge on the possible interpretative conclusions (see Schmidt). They pose analytical, representational and interpretative challenges.

Archaeological analysis has always relied on hypothesis and model making and testing. The advent of information technology has enabled us to generate a diversity of types of models and to test them against real and hypothetical datasets. Here though, as Orton notes, model selection, test design, and data quality (e.g. sample strategy) are central. Huggett stresses that the shifting balance in the approaches to information use should lead us to move away from 'positivism and linearity in our use of information technology'.

Concepts that underline the Semantic Web, which may or may not be realisable, certainly would support the notions of fluidity and interconnectedness of archaeological information and knowledge. Earlier attempts to represent archaeological knowledge (e.g. expert systems and knowledge management tools) did not achieve their full potential — there are many reasons for this. Semantic Web technologies might in a decade or so enable us to generate more robust studies of broader archaeological phenomena, but they again will depend upon greater rigour in the representation of archaeological information and the creation of portable and extensible archaeological ontologies.

As new tools for analysis, mechanisms for representing archaeological information, and the expectations of our audiences (ranging from other archaeologists to the general public) develop, our work will continue to change. While contemporary access to archaeological information has been facilitated by new technologies, the ephemeral nature of these technologies means that the assets themselves are currently at greater risk of loss than those earlier archaeological results which had been recorded and disseminated primarily on paper. There is though no turning back — we recognise the vast potential of the technologies from recording to representation to interpretation to dissemination and finally to interaction. The conservation of the digital record, like the archaeological materials themselves, must be addressed. Curation of archaeological data and transparency of the processes of archaeological analysis depend both on long-term access to archaeological resources and on an increasingly refined understanding of the implications of information use.

However, despite all these developments and changes, relatively little has been said by archaeologists about the implications of the application and use of information technologies for the way that the discipline of archaeology is practised — almost everything that is written or said about the use of computers within archaeology relates to hardware and applications. Indeed, one of the characteristics of being in the midst of dramatic changes is that it is often easy to lose sight of what is happening around us. The speed of change becomes taken for granted: problems will be solved by the next piece of hardware or software that is just around the corner, new developments rapidly become the norm and then obsolete, and a short-term collective memory emphasises the immediate future rather than the recent past. In the wider world it is increasingly realised that the consequences of new technologies are themselves part of the driving force behind the adoption of new ways of working and the introduction of still more new technologies, and there is little reason to suppose that archaeology is not itself subject to similar consequences in its use of information technologies.

It was with this in mind that the Beyond Technology workshop was set up, from which this collection of articles is derived. The aim was to look beyond (or behind) the technologies we use, and consider the motives, forces, logics, and impacts of their use in a variety of different aspects of archaeology. If, as is generally accepted, information technologies are changing the world, what are the effects and implications for archaeology? What can we learn from the ways in which we go about implementing and using the different tools that we use? To what extent are these tools, and the resources they provide access to, actually changing the subject? In short, the aim was to break away from a straightforward acceptance of change, and to consider the nature of that change, the theory and practice behind the use of archaeological informatics, and to attempt to predict sustainable directions for the future.

The articles which follow demonstrate that there are different ways of thinking 'beyond technology'. They also demonstrate that it is not an easy thing to do. Some focus on the ways that particular categories or areas of applications are implemented and used, and the implications of this for archaeology. Others look at the motives behind the development of larger-scale systems, at why they come to be the way they are and where they might go in the future. Others are more introspective still, and consider the broader implications of information technologies for archaeology and the effects of their infiltration and integration into the field. The very fact that there is no overall consistency of approach underlines the unfamiliarity of the ground being trodden, and in the process avoids the excessively utopian or dystopian perspectives that often colour such investigations in the wider world. It also emphasises that this is clearly not the final word!


Not all the presentations made at the workshop appear here, and we would like to acknowledge the contributions of Ewan Campbell, Ian Johnson, Dominic Powlesland, Ed Southworth, and Judith Winters. The Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII, University of Glasgow) and the Department of Archaeology (University of Glasgow) sponsored the workshop. We would like to thank Professor Chris Morris for his opening remarks at the workshop, Ann Law for logistical and organisational support, and Lorraine McEwan for work on the illustrations.


Taylor, W.W. 1948 A Study of Archaeology. American Anthropologist 50(3.2), Memoir No 69. Washington DC.

Spaulding, A.C. 1953 'Statistical techniques for the discovery of artifact types'. American Antiquity 18, 305-313.

Sponsored by the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute

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Jeremy Huggett
Department of Archaeology
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ

Seamus Ross
Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ


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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004