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Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology

Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology

Edited by E.W. Averett, J.M. Gordon, and D.B. Counts. Pp. 556. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, N.D. 2016. $20. ISBN 978-0692790137 (paper; e-book).

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This book opens by noting that “(un)fortunately, this volume is not a ‘how-to’ manual” (vii). I side with the “fortunately” part of the mixed sentiment expressed, as “how-to” manuals quickly become outdated, and, in avoiding focusing on the nitty-gritty of the how, the editors and authors of this volume have produced a useful discussion of the broader context in which digital archaeology is making a significant impact. The volume engages directly with the well-rehearsed criticism that “the use of digital tools to produce ‘wow factor’ or ‘tech-savvy’ academic products (e.g., 3D-printed artifacts or the construction of virtual environments) might seem impressive to institutional funders, but their use may not actually succeed in answering pressing archaeological questions” (15). The critical aims for the practitioners of digital archaeology gathered here are to use digital technologies to fundamentally change how we produce knowledge in archaeology, answer previously unanswerable questions, and demonstrate that it is precisely the introduction of digital methods that made these achievements possible. These are no mean feats, as noted by the editors in the introductory chapter, where they observe that “the use of innovative digital techniques can sometimes overstate the explanatory power of digital data. Digital systems tend to thrive at the intersection of new techniques and traditional practices and epistemologies. As a result, it is often difficult to establish whether novel methods of collecting data, improving organization, curation, and publication have actually changed the fundamental character of archaeological knowledge production” (8). The authors responded to this challenge, first through discussion at the two-day conference “Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, Wentworth Institute of Technology” (Boston, Mass. 2015), of which this book is the outcome, and further in their written contributions, attempting to put a finger on what exactly has changed as a consequence of our increasingly digital archaeological lives.

The papers in the first three sections discuss projects that have been making fundamental changes in their core practices and the outcomes of these efforts. Contributions are broadly grouped into sections discussing paperless recording of descriptive data and interpretations on tablet computers within excavations (pt. 1), image-based generation of three-dimensional models from the ground and from aerial and aquatic platforms (pt. 2), and the process of developing information management systems that are meant to be generalizable for multiple projects (pt. 3). These constitute three key areas of archaeological practice where digital technologies are having significant yet indeterminate impact. The changes brought on by digital recording have, as the authors argue, altered how we describe and document archaeological remains in writing, photography, and drawing, and how we organize and manipulate the myriad bits of information needed for synthesis and interpretation. Further, the ways we explain what we are doing and why we are doing it are different when digital tools are involved.

The papers discuss at length specific challenges and benefits encountered when designing and using digital systems and tools. The collection of lessons learned is, in itself, useful. An important practical challenge highlighted across the contributions is in human-computer interaction, in the sense that we are now limited not by technology itself but by our ability to work with it. Niggles inevitably arise around the design of interfaces for data entry and for drawing and annotating plans, the design of systems for searching and organizing data, and the design of tools to work with two-dimensional and three-dimensional spatial data. In each case, the challenge was how to best use the digital technology, how to adapt it to our established practices, and how to adapt our established practices to the new tools. While many of the papers raise cautionary flags, I feel justified in summarizing the sentiment presented about going digital as follows: there are problems, and there is a learning curve, but while we must remain aware of the downsides, overall it’s better than not going digital. At the 2015 conference the question was posed, “Do you know any projects that tried to go digital and then decided it wasn’t worth it and went back to paper recording?” The response was that, while counterexamples exist, the overwhelming trend is that projects that go digital stay digital—a point emphatically made by this volume.

While this volume comes down in favor of the broad incorporation of digital technologies into archaeological field practice, the implications of the adoption of digital practices remain the subject of concern. How do these changes affect our engagement with local communities (Sayre, 183–200)? Is the “digital turn” making us less observant and thoughtful because technology naturally slants our priorities toward speed and efficiency (Caraher, 421–42)? Are we now prioritizing recording over discovery and manufacturing more data over creating the space for better insights (Ellis, 51–76, esp. 67)?

The final sections of the volume (pts. 4, 5) address these misgivings, providing critical reflections on the sometimes unintended broader consequences of digital life in archaeology, as well as reviewing and drawing together the preceding contributions.

These reflective essays by Caraher, Kansa, Kersel, and Rabinowitz provide intersecting and overlapping narratives of a shared experience. Reading the comments of people who are actively engaged in the process of coevolving with new technologies on the implications of that process brings to mind Gutenberg’s comments on the importance of the printing press: “It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams. . . . Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men” (quoted in S. Montgomery, The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science, 2nd ed. [Chicago 2017] 228). In short, the press is good, even very good; it will spread new knowledge and improve the world. As an early adopter and promoter of the printed word, Gutenberg was confident the new technology would fundamentally change things, but I doubt he could have provided many specifics on how the organization of knowledge and the scientific and humanistic discourses would be influenced by the sheer increase in reading and writing promoted by the printing press. Like Gutenberg, the community that brought out Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future at present may lack the distanced perspective necessary to be specific about all the impacts of the use of these new tools, but in this volume they present a compelling collective sense that something big is afoot.

Rachel Opitz
Department of Archaeology
University of Glasgow

Book Review of Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, edited by E.W. Averett, J.M. Gordon, and D.B. Counts

Reviewed by Rachel Opitz

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Opitz

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