Thinking in bits; archaeological theory and computing, past, present and future


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The core text of the paper given at TAG 2008 held at the University of Southampton. Of course, it does not include any adlibs.

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Thinking in bits; archaeological theory and computing, past, present and future

  1. 1. TAG 2008, University of Southampton Thinking in bits; archaeological theory and computing, past, present and future As the session proposes, recent developments in computing technologies have had a significant impact on archaeology. We, as archaeologists, use computers for a multitude of tasks in our daily work and for many of us, they are far more than simply a glorified typewriter. Computers have become central to most processes we undertake, from recording information in databases to publishing reports as electronic documents or interactive online maps. Web Services provide seamless access to diverse datasets through internet portals and mapping and GIS is no longer the preserve of the few but tool of the masses, used throughout the sector in one form or another. Yet in many cases, the process of adopting technologies has been problematic. In the field of GIS in particular, whilst the creation of maps and the potential for integrating sources of data have been all but universally accepted, diverse forms of analysis have often been criticised: Whilst it is explicitly accepted that any kind of GIS-based analysis is effectively a controlled model of a scenario, charges of reductionism and prioritising one particular model of space have been levelled. Similarly, the use of three-dimensional visualisations and reconstructions has had a mixed response and provoked lively discussion amongst those specialising in this area. The production and consumption of images is a topic on which much has been written and debates still continue as to how this can and should be undertaken with respect to the three- dimensional. The proliferation of database technologies has possibly been one of the most beneficial yet most problematic at the same time. Whilst the benefits have been considerable, with initiatives such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme only possible as a result of database technologies, the overall impact has been hampered not by any philosophical argument against, but by a lack of critical engagement with. Whilst database management systems provide mechanisms for maintaining the integrity of data, if the data structure is poor or if the mechanisms are not deployed appropriately, no amount of automation and assistance can prevent disaster. Groundbreaking information systems have emerged in some cases such as the recording and analysis system deployed at Heathrow Terminal 5. Such systems are starting to provide both the data management and analysis tools required for the archaeologist in the twenty-first century. They provide the ability to record, classify, interpret and above all enrich the archaeological record. Whilst not perfect, the latest generation of these systems promise to do much for the way we as archaeologists do archaeology, giving us truly digital thinking spaces, perhaps even change what is archaeology itself. Looking forward, it is not far till we see digital systems truly allied to our working practices and conceptual processes, informed by and informing archaeological discourses not through traditional publications years after an event but with all the immediacy of a twenty-four hour news channel; blogs, micro-blogs, all enriched with photos and video and open for comment. And all part of the most successful computing development in the history of computing, a global network of computers, people and resources. Yes, the internet. The increasingly ubiquitous nature of the internet also pervades archaeological discourse. Blogs and podcasts provide almost live coverage of excavations whilst social networking provides a platform for discussion and debate. And it is through 1 of 3
  2. 2. TAG 2008, University of Southampton these channels that we hear about the latest new gadgets and applications which allow us to do even more online. Access to Historic Environment Records and national archives held at the National Monuments Record is provided through the Heritage Gateway, providing a means of searching across multiple HERs simultaneously through a single online portal. Google Earth has given everyone access to high quality satellite imagery whilst the search engines themselves now provide access into various sources of high quality information such as libraries and museums. A massive step forward has been the advent of what is commonly referred to as web mapping. This basically involves a group of technologies layered on top of existing internet technologies and which allow a user to experience GIS in their web browser, with data being provided from decentralised servers across the world. All the major internet corporations have a platform offering services based on this technology and by using this range of data, we as archaeologists have access to resources formerly either inaccessible or access only to the few. Now, we can all see high resolution aerial views of our sites courtesy of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Furthermore, we can do this using inexpensive consumer grade electronics purchased from any high street retailer; increasingly, this is possible on a mobile telephone. Not only this, but we can use location based services on such devices to provide information from remote sources based on our current location. This immediacy certainly changes the way one goes about undertaking research as we can now take our own and our national archives with us. And this is just where we are now. In the next few years we will start to see increasingly useful tools including for the contemporary archaeologist. And of course, the majority of these will be online such as semantically aware search engines and more powerful yet useable mapping tools. Increasing use of formalised ontologies promise to integrate diverse digital resources and clarify what it is that is actually being recorded. Again, this process of adopting and creating such data models is not straightforward and requires considerable input. That nature of ontologies, in the computer science sense, is descriptive but using formal modes of description. Some see this, as with any formal data structures, as inhibitive and restrictive, preferring instead to rely on free-text and narrative but this is to miss the point: Narrative and rich description are part of the scenario but not the whole by any means. Classification is central to archaeological work and it is important to know how classifications were made, by whom using which schema and which pieces of evidence. By embedding such information within our computer based ontological frameworks, we can do far more, asking more reaching questions based on data rather than conjecture. Theory therefore becomes central to the archaeological process, exposed and explicit, rather than being divorced from it; something that we all do as we do archaeology rather than something distinct and special, the preserve of theoreticians. That is not to say that any of this is, has been or will be easy. The construction of formal ontologies and the information systems to work with them will involve considerable participation from use all. Even the simplest of conceptual objects used on a daily basis within archaeology can prove hard to explicitly define. Take the notion of context, the indivisible recording unit we all use as the basis for our records. Context represents space, the extent of an archaeological deposit; it is a spatial object having an extent in space and having spatial relationships with other contexts. It is also material, the material comprising the deposit, having physical properties such as colour and texture. It can also be other types of object including a biological object in the case of skeletons. It is this multiple classification of context within formal ontologies that allows it to function as we expect but also this is something that, unless made explicit, makes it harder to process in a structured, even automated fashion. 2 of 3
  3. 3. TAG 2008, University of Southampton It may be that some of what has been discussed may take longer to come to fruition than suggested here, particularly as the heritage sector does not have unlimited funds for such progressive moves. A major step forward is the presence of sessions pertaining to this here at TAG. It is vital that the broadest possible congregation of archaeologists are involved in discussions which have the potential to impact on archaeology in such dramatic fashion: It is no longer the case that the computational and technological are the preserve of conferences such as CAA, Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. To develop robust ontologies, in the computer science rather than philosophical sense, requires the knowledge of domain experts ie archaeologists. At the same time, this formalisation exposes any inconsistencies in our practice and thus should be the focus of rigorous discussion and debate in order to qualify our ontologies, in the philosophical sense. Whilst it is true that fewer people are studying archaeological computing at university, there are many reasons for this, one of which being the accessibility of computing in the modern world. The Facebook generation expects to be able to access information at the click of a mouse, publish their results online, plot places on an interactive map, all without writing a line of code. This democratisation of technology is of course both beneficial and problematic but it is certainly setting the agenda. With advances such as cloud computing on the horizon and approaching rapidly, there is still a need for heritage computing specialists to forge these technologies into things the broader discipline can use, requiring more specialised IT skills of the level that GIS was at ten to twenty years ago, ie a specialist application requiring cutting edge knowledge. So archaeological computing is becoming mainstream within archaeology: Technologies and data available to all and used by many with archaeological computing specialists still playing a vital role as conduits for information from the wider world of computing; the technologies now employed being simply more powerful and complex. The impact on theoretical discourse however remains largely hidden, for now. But it is there, sometimes. Wikis have been used to collaborate on site interpretation, exposing the trail of inference and argument. On site, digital recording systems have given the power of interpretation back to the archaeologist, with layers of information enriching spatial objects, born digital, which progress on through subsequent phases of assessment and analysis. The development of formal ontologies is helping to clarify the process of archaeological recording. By supporting our social practices and interactions as well as our recording processes, theory and practice can be integrated. Whilst all this technology may or may not have necessarily impacted on particular archaeological theories, it has undeniably impacted on the way in which we now come to formulate our theories, from the ways in which we record and gather information in the first place, through how we work with information to how we share, disseminate and seek approval for our theories amongst our peers. In the future this can only increase and as such, sessions such as this which aim to bring together formerly disparate camps are important. Through collaborative thinking in bits, we really can make it happen. 3 of 3