Archaeology and global information systems

In this paper I wish to reinforce the view that there is a potential in the use of the Internet by archaeology for an important change in the organisation and institutionalisation of archaeological knowledge. As many have argued, this change involves a shift from hierarchy to networks and flows.

The rise of archaeology as a science in the 19th century is intimately linked to the forging of the nation state. It is associated with the growth of national museums and state archaeological services. Scientific archaeology played a part in the spread of empire and in the colonisation of other peoples. Its social context in developed countries was the middle classes. Scientific archaeological knowledge was controlled and administered by the academy (the academic institutions that dominate the scientific disciplines). Those outside the academy and outside the better educated classes had to be informed about the archaeological past. Archaeology was part of the paternalistic civilising process. The structure of archaeological knowledge was hierarchical. The academy was set up against alternative and fringe voices.

To an extent, there is nothing radically new in the digital flows of information which characterise the Internet. From hardbacks to paperbacks, from stenography to photocopies, from radio to TV, the ability to reach an ever wider public has increased. But yet there is a difference in degree with the Internet; enough to engender radical changes; enough to provide a potential threat to the hierarchical structures of knowledge within archaeology. The speed, range and low cost of the Internet create new possibilities for dissemination and participation in knowledge construction and acquisition. It becomes less easy to control knowledge in the academy. Certainly, on-line journals can be peer reviewed, and passwords can be used to limit access. But it becomes much more possible for special interest groups, however small, to construct their own visions and Web sites, and to promote their own particular perspectives.

The democratisation and decentring of knowledge which appear to occur within this process are countered by the exclusion of many people in many parts of the world. In many countries, especially in Africa, there is little possibility of access to the Internet. Even in developed countries, there are those who, for various reasons, are not or are less connected. It can well be argued that the diffusion of the use of global information systems is far from global, and that the global pattern of usage simply replicates existing structures of domination. The less-developed and less-resourced become less-networked and so are yet further subordinated.

While the unequal access to and infrastructure of the Internet is certain to reproduce existing global inequalities, it is also the case that the logic of the technologies themselves reaches out to include all possible consumers. In doing so, all consumers become dependent on centrally produced systems, and so once again existing structures of power are reproduced. In my view there is ample evidence that, despite these drawbacks, the use of global information systems does lead to increased participation from a wider variety of diverse interest groups. The centralised systems are so constructed that they overflow with diversity and alternative perspectives. Small marginal groups are able to use the Internet to create identities and to make their voices heard. Certainly there is a need to be sensitive to those groups which do not have access to the Internet. As I will show in an example below, alternative methods of communication are needed for the less-networked, and it is necessary to work against the homogenising and centralising tendencies. Yet it remains possible to use the logic of the Internet to create a greater degree of participation.

In my view the potential for participation is such that it does become possible to talk of the erosion of hierarchical systems of archaeological knowledge and the emergence of a different model based on networks and flows. I have made this case elsewhere (Hodder 1999), and wish to provide here a brief example from the experience of placing data from the current Çatalhöyük archaeological project directly onto the Web.


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Last updated: Mon March 8 1999