Digital Practice as Meaning Making in Archaeology

Gareth Beale*1 and Paul Reilly2

1. Centre for Digital Heritage, University of York, Department of Archaeology, The University of York, YO1 7EP
2. Faculty of Humanities, University of Southampton, Avenue Campus, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BF
*Corresponding author:

Cite this as: Beale, G. and Reilly, P. 2017 Digital Practice as Meaning Making in Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 44.

Keywords: archaeology, cognition, tools, embodiment, narratives, making, gaming, practice, multivocality

1. Introduction

Discussions of the interplay between creative practice and archaeology have become commonplace in recent years with concepts developed in the arts frequently re-imagined and re-deployed within an archaeological setting. These ideas have performed a disruptive role; providing a counterpoint to the perceived formalisation and systematisation of archaeological practice (Bradley 1997) but they have also provided an important argument for the relevance of interpretive and subjective modes of thought and practice within the discipline

During this time we have seen field archaeology re-cast as a 'craft activity', with knowledge emerging out of the interplay between archaeologists, their tools and the material environment (Reilly 1985; Reilly and Rahtz 1992; Bradley 1997; Berggren and Hodder 2003; Edgeworth 2003; Lucas 2012; Wendrich 2013; Caraher 2016). We have also seen transformations of archaeological theory and practice emerge from external dialogue with the arts including experiments with theatre, sculpture, painting and photography (Pearson and Shanks 2001; Renfrew 2003). Archaeological visualisation in particular has embraced the creative through the critical examination of established forms of practice and by referring outwards to the fields of fine art and the creative industries (Reilly 1989; 1991; 1992; Molyneaux 1997; Smiles and Moser 2004; Llobera 2011; Wickstead 2008; 2013; Beale et al. 2013; Edmonds and Ferraby 2013; Abdulla et al. 2016; Carter 2017). The most remarkable feature of archaeology's creative turn has not been the widespread adoption of artistic technique or modes of thought but the development of new, distinctively archaeological, praxis revolving around ideas of creativity (McKee and Galle 2000; Russell and Cochrane 2014; Wickstead 2008; 2013).

Over the same period we have also witnessed the emergence of digital archaeology (Beale and Reilly, this issue). The appropriation, adaptation and development of technologies by the archaeological community have led to the creation of unique archaeological approaches to data science, spatial analysis, visualisation and publication (Brughmans et al. 2014, Gillings 2012; Morgan and Winters 2015). In each of these areas, and in many more besides, archaeology has found new expressions that are intertwined with established archaeological traditions and epistemologies but which are distinctly digital in nature.

Digital technologies and concepts of creativity have both been catalysts for great innovation in archaeology. However, the way in which this innovation has been understood and represented within archaeological discourse has been very different. The interplay between computing and archaeology has been less explicitly theoretical and less discursive than the interplay between the arts and archaeology. In spite of the intensity of the technological changes that have taken place, there has been a tendency to downplay the theoretical implications and to characterise methodological transformation in terms of technological innovation (Daly and Evans 2006). One only has to scan the pages of the more than 40 years of the proceedings of Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) to see that the introduction of new devices, techniques and theories of technology have dominated the discourse of archaeological computing. This is not to say that innovative theoretical work has not taken place in archaeological computing. Often though, external critique of digital methods has been required in order for the theoretical underpinnings of this digital practice to be articulated in full. Largely lacking from this discourse, however, has been a recognition of the emergence of traditions of practice that are distinctly digital but which are rooted in archaeological epistemologies or, in other words, the development of a digital archaeological praxis.

This themed issue of Internet Archaeology was conceived in order to allow archaeologists to explore these emerging traditions and to reflect upon their own digital practice. Some of these accounts describe the subtle influence of digital workflows upon existing forms of practice while others describe the conscious development of radical and highly distinctive digital archaeologies. What all of the articles presented here have in common is that they provide an impetus for archaeology to revisit questions of how we as archaeologists encounter things and manage the horizons of technological possibility. In many ways they serve as a rebuttal to the accusation of creative timidity that has been repeatedly levelled at the domain of computer-based and digital archaeological research. Irwin Scollar, for instance, has twice analysed the proceedings of the longstanding CAA organisation and has drawn attention to what he termed 'hand-me-down' technologies that were, by and large, rapidly accepted and deployed in the discipline (Scollar 1982; 1999). CAD, GIS, and 3D are all categories of technology that conform to this picture. The implied admonishment is that archaeologists have been largely passive, and perhaps uncritical, borrowers of tools and techniques developed in other disciplines, fields and industries for non-archaeological purposes. If this is an accurate portrayal then the downstream consequences of such uncritical co-option are of paramount concern, since the adoption of these categories of technology must fundamentally, if unconsciously, (re)structure our work and our thinking about the role of technology within our discipline. It also seems an exceedingly odd way to shape our methodological strategies.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Evolution of theory, computerised methods and digital technology in archaeology

2. Excavating Digital Praxis

If we were to think more in terms of research goals, current theoretical positions (Figure 1), or simply in terms of the stages of archaeological activities we typically pursue (Figure 2), then we might expect technological solutions to present themselves in completely different ways. In other words, to produce solutions that may not respect current sub-divisions of archaeological computing or digital archaeology.

Figure 2
Figure 2: The archaeological endeavour in practice (animation) [JPG]

This is hardly a new problem, but in an era of digital ubiquity and increasingly widespread digital literacy it has taken on a new form. Jeremy Huggett cautions vigilance against uncritically outsourcing cognitive tasks, echoing Scollar's (1982, 192) misgivings concerning the naive adoption of particular software by a previous generation. He warns that, increasingly, archaeologists have little or no control over the development and manufacture of many important digital tools (something that Gavin Lucas calls archaeological cyborgs) because their 'internal modes of operation have to be taken at face value' (Huggett, this issue). While acknowledging that many such black boxes are in widespread circulation (see also Caraher 2016) their opacity is not necessarily debilitating (Lucas 2012, 239; Mudge 2012), as Huggett himself points out. As we shall see later, we can point to a growing number of instances where the archaeological community has begun to unpack, transform, repackage and rethink digital technologies new and old in order to create new born-digital archaeologies.

The application of critical thought and practice represents a persistent and growing trend within archaeological computing and it is the purpose of this issue to give voice to some of these emerging themes. Here, digital practice in archaeology is not a school of thought, or a methodological approach per se. Instead it might be thought of as a mindset, a predisposition that promotes the development of the critical skills that are necessary in order to actively and consciously participate in this discussion about, and to influence positively, the forms that technology take within our work. This then is also in part about recognising, exploiting and mitigating the influence of technology on our work. But, of course, not all digital-enabled departures will be immediately, or even ultimately, fully successful.

The application of CAD and GIS for the digitisation and management of spatial data collected in the field are two cases in point. Peter Jensen reminds us that CAD was a technology originally developed as an architectural design tool but was press-ganged into the uncomfortable service of archaeological mapping. GIS too, with vast spatial analytical capabilities and, albeit limited, embedded databases, was ultimately inherently constraining for the simple reason that 3D archaeological data collected in the field are straight-jacketed into 2D abstractions (i.e. 'layers'). Ultimately the introduction of both CAD and GIS technologies seems, so far, to have contributed significantly to the detrimental effect of creating standalone silos of spatial data that are rarely fully integrated with non-spatial, textual data, or what we might more broadly consider as the archaeological documentation (Jensen, this issue). As such, they are open to the charge of having stifled the development of digital standards of recording by perpetuating outmoded analogue recording conventions from a previous century.

Jensen attempts to break free of these anachronistic shackles by exploring and testing born-digital 3D recording technologies such as SFM and Range Imaging, GPS, and laser scanning in current practice. He deliberately adopts a open-minded approach to begin the process of conceptualising new types of data and data representation in archaeological documentation, accepting that they probably will not fit into our usual concepts of interpretation, and in all likelihood will require changes in our methodologies and workflows, potentially signalling a paradigm shift, redefining explicitly what we actually want to do with our spatial data. It becomes important to recognise the conversational nature of this exchange. Jensen's self-consciously explorative and negotiated approach epitomises a healthy discursive relationship between archaeologists, digital technology and praxis. Far from being passive consumers of technology, archaeologists need to be involved in a constant negotiation with technology, informed by cultures of research and practice

3. Digital Narrative and Bodily Engagement

Copplestone and Dunne adopt a similarly critical approach to the exploration of new narrative forms emerging from research in games and interactive media. They explore the affordances of distinctly digital media and examine the reflexive interplay between interactive digital media and archaeological knowledge. They acknowledge that these narrative structures are distinct from traditional narrative forms and when used within archaeology they have the capacity to shape our perceptions of archaeological data and of the past. The potency of digital media in influencing the structure, form and content of archaeological knowledge is also acknowledged by Morgan and Scholma-Mason as they discuss a medium (the GIF) that they identify as having retro, activist and anti-corporate overtones.

Within Morgan and Scholma Mason's and Copplestone and Dunn's articles there is a recognition of the agency of media and of the pre-constituted force that media can exert upon archaeological thought, practice and communication. Also present within these articles is an embracing of the imperfect fit between technology and practice and of the need to acknowledge, even to celebrate, our reflexive discourse with technology.

Creative approaches to narrative need not take digital form, even where they are deeply implicated in the use of digital technology. For Ferraby the geophysicist is also a kind of data artist who consciously manipulates her data to lend coherence, stimulate inferential processes, and create prepositional meaning within the geophysical images she produces. Here, the act of making anomalies 'clearer' introduces another layer of cultural mediation to the landscape. Ferraby describes her use of a wide range of digital and analogue media for the interpretation of geophysical data. The use of media forms that may not ordinarily play a part in empirical research, such as sketching and screen printing, help to highlight the interpretative activities that are very often integral to digital archaeological practice but which are rarely acknowledged.

Furthermore, Ferraby's work forces us to re-think preconceptions about the borders of analogue and digital practice. Her description of her practice places a strong emphasis on the creation of knowledge through tactile and material engagements with data that are inherently digital in their character despite being performed in an analogue medium. Her work provides an outstanding example of the value that creative practice, whether analogue or digital, can play in enriching our experience of digital practice and helping us to critically examine practice through creative discourse conducted as collective conversation or as a personal activity through conscious engagement in craft practice.

The links between analogue and digital research methods can take a variety of forms and in Kate Giles' article we see the augmentation of analogue research methods into buildings archaeology with digital practice. As in Ferraby's work we see an interplay between different ways of working and different methods of negotiating meaning. Both contributions describe discursive and reflexive forms of practice. In the case of Ferraby's work this discourse is primarily internal, negotiated through a range of analogue and digital media, while in Giles' work there is an external dimension to the discourse, with the research driven not only by the production of new knowledge but the communication of this knowledge to new audiences. This work encourages the audience to engage with the architecture of Stratford Guildhall at a profound level and to consider the ways in which the changes, evident in the fabric of this building, have helped to shape the material and cultural environment that we inhabit today. Technology in this instance mediates our engagement with built heritage and to build tangible connections in the mind of the viewer that may not already be present.

In contrast, Fabrizio Galeazzi and Paola Di Giuseppantonio di Franco contend that their 'systems can also be viewed as non-mediated places where a user can interact with a simulated past either independently or with other virtual users and create both personal and collective narratives of past environments thanks to an embodied experience with the virtual space'. They emphasise the diverse narrative possibilities allowed by different 3D visualisation systems and make powerful arguments for 3D visualisation systems as a nexus for knowledge generation quite as important as the archaeological excavation or archive. Di Giuseppantonio di Franco and Galeazzi place a strong emphasis on the requirement for interdisciplinary collaboration in the execution of the kinds of research projects that they describe; the skills required are very rarely possessed by a single researcher and invariably require the involvement of interdisciplinary researchers with a wide range of skills. As well as providing the skills necessary to complete technologically complex projects, interdisciplinary research teams are also well placed to provide a range of theoretical perspectives. The strength of this approach is also evident in Murphy et al.'s article. The work that they describe was made possible by a sophisticated blend of scientific and creative skill and presents an entirely unique perspective on the representation of cultural heritage. This is not archaeological representation as it has been conventionally understood, but the work describes new intersections between digital heritage research and creativity taking place with a wide range of audiences in mind. Murphy et al.'s research is a pertinent reminder to the archaeological research community that meaningful engagements with the past, whether through research or through contact with mediated content, frequently emerge from beyond the limits of our discipline.

Stuart Eve takes a different approach to the inclusion of 'extra senses' which, he argues, demand users take account of the 'extra data' thereby introduced into analyses. Besides vision, sound and haptics he also calls for more pronounced olfactory triggers to be introduced in situ (i.e. smellscapes) to facilitate more fully embodied and kinaesthetic explorations of, and deeper engagement with, archaeological landscapes, as demonstrated in the evocatively named Dead Man's Nose project, which is part of Moesgård Museum's archaeological trail. At a fundamental level, what we see here (highlighted in Eve but distributed across the board) is the increasing complication by digitally orientated researchers of the interplay between technology and materiality.

4. DIY

Diversity is an increasingly prominent characteristic of digital heritage research as well as the interdisciplinary studies that we have described above. Understandings of the past are a central component of the formation of cultural identity and it is essential therefore that we, as archaeologists and researchers, look beyond the limits of our disciplines and institutions. There has also been a proliferation in grassroots research using low cost and widely available digital methods (Beale and Reilly). The need for DIY approaches to digital archaeological practice as identified by Morgan and Eve (2012) is in evidence in many of the articles in this issue of Internet Archaeology, as is a recognition of the political significance of digital archaeology. Mhairi Maxwell highlights the role that communities of practice without technical specialisms can contribute to the digital recording and interpretation of sites and objects that are of great, though perhaps previously unrecognised, significance. Morgan and Scholma Mason's article is also a powerful example of the potential of simple and ubiquitous digital technologies for archaeological work. Both of these contributions demonstrate that theoretical and methodological creativity can be effectively de-coupled from ideas of technological innovation to generate new forms of archaeological practice using widely accessible technology. In the case of Morgan and Scholma Mason's article we see an example of archaeological practice that emerges from a 'grassroots' digital creativity that has been popularised in non-archaeological settings, while in Maxwell's contribution established archaeological practices are modified and even subverted in order to suit the needs of different communities of practice.

In Jude Jones and Nicole Smith's article we see an exploration of the performative and tactile characteristics of digital recording. As in Ferraby's article described above, we see the laying bare of the experiential richness of digital archaeological practice. As a low cost and open-source digital imaging technology, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) has been increasingly widely employed by archaeological researchers. RTI is a novel form of representation and analysis but it also allows new and often extremely intimate engagements with archaeological material and can provoke fresh (distinctively digital and archaeological) ways of seeing. This article demonstrates the emergence of distinctly archaeological forms of practice involving digital technology and explores the diverse kinds of data and knowledge that result from archaeological recording.

5. Cognitive Entanglements

Jeremy Huggett, following the philosopher Richard Heersmink (e.g. 2013; 2015), introduces the concept of digital archaeological apparatus as 'cognitive artifacts', defined as human-made physical objects that assist us in performing cognitive tasks in archaeology. Cognitive artefacts are exosomatic extensions of the practitioner that 'encapsulate in various ways a mixture of techniques, calculations, and interventions that they employ on our behalf to explore, reveal, capture and characterise archaeological objects'. Digital cameras, total stations, laser and CT scanners, magnetometers, Ground Pulse Radar, sonar, and XRF spectrometers are all examples of archaeological cognitive artefacts. Cognitive artefacts precisely encode, and distribute more widely, some important, solidified, but limited aspects of practitioners' reasoning, procedures and modes of observation. The chimera of best practice, however, manifests itself locally, and only fleetingly, as the negotiated product of this encoded practice combined with the practitioner's creative ability to improvise how the instrument is most effectively deployed in response to immediate circumstances.

As the theorist Karen Barad argues, the relationships between observers, objects of study, instruments of study, and observations of phenomena can productively be thought of as being entangled within a relational existence where entities intra-act and meaning emerges (Barad 2007). One example that is particularly apposite for archaeologists is the application of ultrasound - a technology originally developed to detect submarines during WWI - now integral to the practice of obstetrics (Barad 2007, 201-12). Her account emphasises that neither the production nor the interpretation of ultrasound images is simple, and that improvisation is an essential skill for practitioners because a multitude of factors may influence the image produced on the screen (Barad 2007, 202). For example, different piezoelectric transducers using specific beam resolutions are required for different applications. Both mother and foetus possess different kinds of issues with varying acoustic impedances. Finally, the monitors employed to display the sonographic images may have a wide range of technical specifications and affordances. Barad clearly demonstrates that '[a]pparatuses are not preexisting or fixed entities; they are themselves constituted through particular practices that are perpetually open rearrangements, rearticulations, and other reworking. That is part of the creativity and difficulty of doing science: getting the instrumentation to work in a particular way for a specific purpose (which is always open to the possibility of being changed during the experiment as different insights are gained)' (Barad 2007, 203).

Archaeological geophysical anomalies and macula observed in satellite or aerial images are also in Baradian terms phenomena intra-actively produced and entangled with other phenomena, such as the properties of the subsoil, the characteristics of the probes, weather conditions, sampling units, and operator knowledge, experience and skill. Echoing Barad, but emphasising the perspective of an artist, Rose Ferraby (this issue) also underscores the importance of improvisation as she describes practitioners feeling their way through geophysical data and subtly tweaking the responses in order to achieve clearer results. Such creative practice, she notes, is in equal parts 'artistic' and 'scientific', requiring practitioners 'to imaginatively speculate about the abstract marks and tones that the data creates'. Interestingly, Ferraby distinguishes 'perceiving' from 'seeing' as a learned craft; 'to perceive the details and depths of the geophysical imagery takes attention, curiosity, practice and knowledge'. We can extend this craft aspect of remote-sensing to other techniques using other modalities, such as metal detecting and bosing, with their pronounced acoustic and frequently entangled haptic modes of sensing sound and vibrations in combination.

The articles contained in this issue each provide a demonstration of the extent to which creativity and embodied skill are routinely employed in the practice of digital archaeological work. It is our hope as the editors that these articles provide a catalyst for the continued discovery and recognition of the creative impulses that permeate, underpin and drive the continued development of even the most empirical digital archaeologies. The authors of these contributions have revealed something of themselves in writing these articles, which may not previously have been visible to those unfamiliar with the use of these technologies and ways of working. In so doing, these accounts encourage us to think differently about the work of the digital archaeologist. By recognising the richness and complexity of digital archaeological work they will, we hope, dispel any residual perceptions of the technical as being in any way simpler or less skilled than more widely recognised and celebrated areas of archaeological expertise. Far from being a definitive statement, we see these articles as being the opening words of a conversation that will continue indefinitely and which will provoke new ways of thinking about our discipline and those that work within it.


This issue was funded by a combination of grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC), the University of York Department of Archaeology and the Centre for Digital Heritage.


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