The Digital Age

Within the last five years or so archaeology, like every other discipline, has witnessed the creation of novel forms of digital archives and other electronic information sources. There have of course been digital archives for some considerable time, but there are significant differences in the depositories that are emerging today. In the first place, with the pervasive nature of digital technologies at every level, it is now clear that many archaeological data products may never exist outside an electronic medium. Today we frequently create primary data sources rather than capture pre-existing information stored in another medium. It is also true that the nature of some archaeological analysis, such as virtual reality modelling, is integral with digital environments (Gillings and Goodrick 1996). There is no place for these concepts or approaches outside the realms of the computer, and attempts to translate such studies into traditional formats have simply been futile (Gaffney 1997). Also, despite the voluminous nature of digital resources the storage and processing of data is also becoming less of a problem for archaeological organisations of even the most modest size, due to the availability of cheaper and more powerful hardware. Digital data creation is therefore as pervasive as the medium itself. The final factor in this heady situation is the astounding potential availability of the data itself. The World Wide Web has, of course, been the prime factor behind this and is, undoubtedly, the most important development in publication since the invention of the printing press.

GPS survey at Wroxeter: a purely digital product
GPS survey at Wroxeter: a purely digital product

But what, as archaeologists are so fond of asking, does all this mean? The pace of change may be so great that most of us need to stop and think. It is easy to be simply bowled over by the multitude of new global and proprietary technologies, all of which seem to offer so much but which, in the current climate of change, can themselves be left behind even before their full potential is realised. Assessing this impact is no easy matter but we should start by questioning what archaeologists have sought to do with publication.

Here it may be fair to state that most archaeologists are primarily concerned with understanding what happened in the past, and to interpret this for the benefit of our peers and the wider interested world. To a large extent the provision of authoritative, interpretative, syntheses has therefore been what archaeologists have essentially sought through publication. Both the Frere and the Cunliffe reports emphasised synthesis as the primary goal of professional archaeological publication, although the same could be said for any other associated medium – newspaper, television or film. In the pursuit of synthesis, post-Frere initiatives have therefore, cumulatively, been successful. However, if the final outcome of archaeological research was publication, and publication had come to be regarded largely as synthesis, it is important to note that the product was never wholeheartedly applauded by archaeology as a whole. Aside from paranoia concerning which authors would ever reach print, there has been an increasing concern over the emerging gap between data and interpretation (Hills 1993, 221). True, some authors have attempted to reconcile this situation within traditional formats. The Butser Year Book, for example, sought to publish raw data in a format that could be used for re-analysis (Reynolds 1988). However the paper presentation of such data actually made re-use of archaeological information difficult and unlikely except under the most limited of circumstances (Yorston et al. 1990).

To be fair, in a pre-digital age synthesis was about as much as could reasonably be expected. At best the destiny of the remainder of the archaeological record, the archive, was reburial within a regional or national repository. Although available for inspection, its very form, bulky and intractable, ensured that little was rarely disseminated as such. Retrospectively, it now seems clear that whilst earlier initiatives were successful within their own terms, they have probably taken us as far as we are able to go along this publication path.

The first real challenge of the digital age has actually been to balance this trend towards synthesis. Instead, we are now seeing an irreversible move towards making archaeological data accessible digitally. In contrast to archaeological practice over the last two decades, there has been a shift toward the dissemination of archaeological information rather than publication – certainly in the form presented above. This is seen most clearly in the development of existing national and local archives to embrace digital formats and the emergence of new archive services, most notably the Archaeological Data Service, dedicated to the dissemination, storage and long-term maintenance of archaeological information. One may also highlight the establishment of hybrid library services as another important step in the progress towards the co-ordination of digital data provision in the widest sense. The move towards the digital dissemination of archaeological data on an equal footing with publication and synthesis is both irrevocable and fundamental.

As important as the establishment of formal data archives is the creation of more-or-less transient data sources by a wide variety of archaeological and other organisations either as publicly available sources or through secure Intranets. At the upper end of these sources are highly organised data hubs such as ARGE or ARCHAEONET which allow relatively easy movement through the maze of data on the Web. Below these we have seen the proliferation of Web sites linked to archaeological departments, units, societies or established by interested individuals. The value and potential sophistication of these lower-level sources should not be underestimated. Aside from the provision of data, these sources also allow access to limited circulation reports, many of which were previously not readily available. However, free from the limitations of traditional publication formats, these sites can now also be repositories of significant publications which can utilise the new technologies as well as acting as providers of a range of educational resources (Gaffney and Stancic 1997; see also and VISTA).

Currently many of these digital sources are relatively simple affairs. Most essentially represent a direct translation of a paper document into HTML, ACROBAT or some other digital format. Whilst useful in their own right, ultimately more important is the increasing ease with which relatively small sites may use a wide variety of accessible dynamic Web technologies – from applets to active server pages – to manipulate complex data sources directly and present these results globally. This may well be one of the most revolutionary aspects of recent IT development and the full impact of such trends has certainly not been felt yet.


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Last updated: Tue March 9 1999