BMCR 2023.09.45

Critical archaeology in the digital age: proceedings of the 12th IEMA Visiting Scholar’s Conference

, Critical archaeology in the digital age: proceedings of the 12th IEMA Visiting Scholar's Conference. Cotsen digital archaeology. Los Angeles: UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2022. Pp. xiv, 210. ISBN 9781950446308.

Open Access

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Full disclosure: as one might expect in a field as closely knit as digital archaeology, I have had varying levels of contact and collaboration with several of the authors of chapters in this volume, particularly Jeremy Huggett, who was the external reader of my PhD thesis, and William Caraher, with whom I have co-edited a volume, co-authored articles, and excavated. 


We are all digital archaeologists—regardless of the media in which we work—and have been for at least 50 years. The literature reflects this. More uncommon, however, are formal, reflexive publications on digital archaeological practice. Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age (2022) is the published outcome of the 12th Annual IEMA Visiting Scholar Conference hosted by the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University at Buffalo in April 2019. Organized by Kevin Garstki, the conference assembled many of the brightest minds and clearest voices in digital archaeology largely from the Global West to present their research and lived experiences, and to discuss Grand Challenges facing digital archaeology. This book is not merely a volume of conference proceedings. It is a call to action.

Garstki opens the volume with his introduction, “Challenges of a Critical Archaeology in the Modern World,” challenges that include data creation, data archiving and sharing, data analysis, publishing, communication, and public engagement (2–4), all of which are crucial to the modern discipline. Each of the 13 chapters demonstrates clearly how contemporary archaeologists working on antiquity constantly query their own work as well as legacy frameworks to determine how and why we apply the digital tools we use, and to critique the context in which they are deployed. “This book,” Garstki writes, “acts as a call, and a demonstration how, to apply this intentionality and consideration to the ways in which we work, produce, and engage with digital things, as well as how we structure the professional institutions in which we are situated” (1).

Three parts comprise the volume. “Impactful Technologies” contains five case studies that examine the authors’ uses of digital technologies in pursuit of collecting and communicating archaeological data. “Rethinking Data” presents four views on data’s ethical use, reuse, sharing, and accessibility. “The Past of Digital Futures” rounds out the discussion with four chapters on present and future issues surrounding digital archaeology and how these impact publication, data preservation, and global sustainability. The book’s organization goes from the practical to the theoretical, yet the theory is always grounded in rigorous practice and real-world data. Care, caution, and humility infuse each chapter with a muted optimism and the shared belief that the discipline of archaeology can continue to improve so long as its practitioners are willing to course-correct based on their communication with each other, with the descendant communities who contribute to and benefit from the work, and the interrogations of emerging digital tools and methods.

Each case study featured in Part 1 narrates a different aspect of engagement with the archaeological record. Do 3D and printed replicas of artifacts communicate authenticity to museum visitors, and how important is the ability to interact physically with these objects (di Franco)? How might evidence-based digital 3D reconstructions change our understanding of archaeological problems such as the rostra in the Roman Forum (Frischer and Massey)? What are the outcomes realized from teaching members of a Peruvian community how (and why) to conduct their own archaeological investigations, digital and otherwise, of the surrounding landscape (Bria and Vasquez)? How can archaeologists negotiate their fieldwork and publications while operating within a bureaucracy vying to control the cultural heritage narrative (Willett, Carleton, Torun, Vandam, Poblome)? Lastly, what does the digital lifecycle of an excavation look like, and how can we reanimate old datasets to answer new questions? Each of the authors provides detailed, human answers to these questions. Although framed as digital archaeology, one easily sees the human stories and networks driving the use of digital tools and deriving benefits, joy, and frustration from them. The bulk of the 70+ color images appear in Part 1 and offer both context and detail to each case study.

Taken together, the chapters in Part 2 revolve around mindful data practices and current issues in data collection and dissemination. William Caraher’s notion of “slow archaeology”—that is to say, a care-full archaeology—is echoed in Jeremy Huggett’s contribution on what he calls “slow data” and later revises to “data mindfulness” (106). Huggett makes the case that data are scalable depending on their context, and that “increasing the amount (or size) of data does not necessarily increase the information that may be derived from it” (101). LiDAR makes its first appearance in Chapter 7 (Štular), which unpacks the challenges surrounding how to share and preserve drone-recorded data over time and through various formats, ultimately advocating the use of ARIADNE as an open-source service for visual media, which would then be integrated with an open source publishing platform (e.g., Open Journal Systems) (119). Procedural 3D modeling follows (Optiz, Richard-Rissetto, Dalziel, Dussault, Tunink). The authors define the practice as “the rapid prototyping of multi-component three-dimensional (3D) models from a set of rules” (123). This differs from LiDAR data capture in that the archaeologist can iteratively remix graphical ideas using simple geometric shapes to arrive at a set of plausible answers to spatial questions while emphasizing the collaborative nature of such queries, which generates paradata essential to reflexive discourse on infrastructure and its community of practice. Eric Kansa concludes Part 2 with a deep dive into lessons learned during his stewardship of Open Context, an open-data publishing service for archaeology. He focuses on the crucial question of what to do with archaeological information and how to handle it ethically and responsibly. Kansa highlights the pitfalls of our dependencies on commercial infrastructures, sensing the political economy of information infrastructure, the importance of data and infrastructure literacy, and recognizing the labor of those people who are responsible for data and infrastructure upkeep.

Part 3 considers the question of the afterlife of archaeological data. William Caraher, publisher of the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, describes his experiences at a university press that produces Open Access ebooks and their commercial printed counterparts while constantly playing with workflow and what an archaeological publication could look like. Archaeology is not a two-dimensional science and never has convincingly and completely communicated its output on the printed page alone. Archaeological publication continues to remain largely a mystery operating withing a “black box” (156), and its published monographs are still considered by some to be the endpoint of knowledge-gathering as opposed to being a snapshot in time and the starting point for emerging discussion. Caraher offers nuanced commentary on the future of the archaeological monograph. Another dumping ground for archaeological data is the archive, and Adam Rabinowitz explores what that might look like to the 22nd-century archaeologist. His major question ought to haunt all of us in 2023: how do we plan to make our data accessible over the next 100–150 years, especially when the majority of archaeological data are digitally created and stored often in proprietary formats on proprietary platforms? Using well-established repositories is one route, but there are limits. Rabinowitz follows with another harrowing question: what should be preserved, and why? This includes not only the primary data, but the paradata and ephemera as well: notebooks, letters, and . . . email. He concludes by stating, “if we approach our selection of correspondence and other contextual materials with a judicious balance between openness, significance, and respect for privacy and the preferences of stakeholders, it is more likely that the future incarnations of these archives will be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine” (178–179). What would the archaeologists in the early 1900s make of how we access and use their research today?

The brace of final chapters addresses two aspects of recycling: one of data, and the other of actual digital hardware and materials. Ruth Tringham details the many afterlives of any archaeological project, many of which begin as “paperfull” prior to becoming “paperless,” with an eye towards discoverability and accessibility. These stages often include the printed monograph, which has later become digital and enriched with hypertext, and enriched further still through other digital media. Tringham’s case studies of her own Opovo and BACH Projects illustrate her desire to push the boundaries of what a well-rounded, interactive, interlinked digital publication might be, and later how to deal with the fallout from planned obsolescence (we are living in the Obsolocene after all). Tringham concludes: “The afterlives of a born-digital or digital legacy project are not the ultimate publication medium of an archaeological project. Other narratives can be produced by me or other authors . . . as long as the database is intact, discoverable, meaningful, accessible, and usable” (198). This recognition that archaeological publication is a living, multi-dimensional document should guide the thinking on the future of publishing within the discipline.

Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age concludes with a warning by Lorna-Jane Richardson, although she also provides some hope. While other authors in this volume argue successfully for care in considering how and why to engage with the data side of the equation. Richardson digs straight to the bedrock, reminding us of the mechanisms (and often exploited human labor) underpinning our digitally mediated work. Pulling no punches, Richardson delivers on her early promise of exploring “the material culture of digital data and hardware, and the hidden, horrific environmental and human costs involved in the production of digital devices and equipment” (202). The focus here is not on the creation of a new kind of archaeological material and practice (e-waste as dark heritage), but rather on the necessity for cultural heritage professionals to pay attention to the effects of the creation and use of digital tools and platforms, which includes (among other things) shocking data connecting casual email usage and serious carbon emissions. Richardson includes sections on climate heritage, the carbon costs of digital technologies, hardware as an ethical issue, e-waste and recycling, and mitigating digital heritage. She recognizes archaeology as a system that is part of a larger network and encourages us to think globally and act locally where the acts of recycling and materials reclamation are ones of environmental activism. “This is not an argument for neo-Luddism, but we can no longer prioritize technological innovation over the future sustainability of life on this planet” (208).

The result of these 13 chapters and Introduction is one of balance and cohesion, fairly addressing the state of (digital) archaeology in the late 2010s while providing some essential guidance towards an archaeology of improvement. My only quibble with this book lies not with the content, but rather in its digital presentation. The printed volume boasts a clean design featuring an easy-to-read two-column format. My review copy, however, was a fixed-layout PDF, one of the standard ebook editions, the other being Amazon Kindle. While I applaud the press for making the PDF available as Open Access, I found the book frustrating to read on my laptop. I would urge the press to add another digital edition, which would allow for free-flowing text that would match the width of a reader’s screen/system.


Authors and Titles

Kevin Garstki, Introduction: Challenges of a Critical Archaeology in the Modern World

Part I: Impactful Technologies

  1. Paola Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco, The Ontology of 3D and Printed Replicas of Artifacts Inside Museums: Authenticity, Play, and the Sense of Touch
  2. Bernard Frischer and David Massey, 3D Urban Models as Tools for Research and Discovery: Two Case Studies of the Rostra in the Roman Forum Utilizing Rome Reborn
  3. Rebecca E. Bria and Erick Casanova Vasquez, Digital Archaeology and Storytelling as a Toolkit for Community-Engaged Archaeology
  4. Patrick T. Willett, W. Christopher Carleton, Ebru Torun, Ralf Vandam, and Jeroen Poblome, Modeling Archaeological Potentials in Southwest Anatolia: A Tool for Planning Sustainable Futures at Ancient Sagalassos
  5. Laura K. Harrison, Closing the Loop on the Digital Data Lifecycle: Reviving a Salvage Archaeology Datase

Part II: Rethinking Data

  1. Jeremy Huggett, Is Less More? Slow Data and Datafication in Archaeology
  2. Benjamin Štular, Scientific Dissemination of Archaeological Interpretation of Airborne LiDAR-derived Data
  3. Rachel Optiz, Heather Richards-Rissetto, Karin Dalziel, Jessica Dussault, and Greg Tunink, Exploring 3D Data Reuse and Repurposing through Procedural Modeling
  4. Eric C. Kansa, On Infrastructure, Accountability, and Governance in Digital Archaeology

Part III: The Past of Digital Futures

  1. William Caraher, Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics
  2. Adam Rabinowitz, (Re)imagining the Archaeological Archive or the Twenty-second Century
  3. Ruth Tringham, On the Digital and Analog Afterlives of Archaeological Projects
  4. Lorna-Jane Richardson, The Dark Side of Digital Heritage: Ethics and Sustainability in Digital Practice