Tag Archives: archaeological methods

There is no magic bullet

The most recent issue of the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies has a great little cluster of three articles about digital approaches to the Mediterranean world that I read over the last couple of days with great interest. I was particularly interested in Elaine Sullivan’s advocacy for 4D GIS visualizations, which, she argues, “afford new potential for the examination of now-altered ancient landscapes from a human viewpoint, specifically for exploring aspects of experience that changed through time and space” (71).

I don’t know nearly enough about Egyptian archaeology to evaluate Sullivan’s paper as a contribution to that field; I’m more interested in her contention that certain technologies (specifically 4D GIS) are better positioned to contribute to (in her terms) humanistic and qualitative analyses of the ancient world than others (specifically traditional 2D GIS). Sullivan’s rhetoric is measured and her discussion is thoughtful. I do worry a little bit about the idea that certain technologies in and of themselves are good for one thing and not for another, at least as it is usually expressed, since it seems to me overly simplistic.

Let me explain. Sullivan begins her discussion with an exposition of the limitations of traditional, two-dimensional GIS. It’s a criticism that all archaeologists (I presume) know well, since it’s been out there since the late 1990s. As Sullivan explains,

With its powerful aggregation and layering tools, GIS offers numerous avenues to approach ancient landscapes quantitatively. However, the limitations of GIS systems have led to serious critiques that question its larger potential for archaeology. In the 1980s and 1990s, post-processual archaeologists rejected GIS as reductionist, positivistic, and lacking engagement with cultural and social factors. Landscape was theorized as more complex than an environmental stage onto which human actors were dropped – and the human-environmental relationship was redefined as dialectic. Archaeologists investigating how embodied humans would have experienced and interpreted specific cultural places still in many cases see GIS as antithetical to exploring this relationship, creating false objectivity in what were subjective spaces. Current theorists emphasize that landscape studies must include the ‘material, cognitive and symbolic’ aspects of this dialectic.

Indeed, traditional GIS lacks many features providing the type of contextual information vital to approaching humanistic research questions. The platform works primarily in a two-dimensional coordinate system, which lacks the qualitative aspects that reflect the inhabited human world. People do not engage with the world from an overhead, omniscient viewpoint, but from the perspective of a single viewer. Cartesian space does not replicate human sense of scale, physical relationships between people and things, or aspects of ‘local distinctiveness’ that create cultural meaning in specific places. Also, human movement through space and the changing perception of spaces through time cannot be duplicated in traditional GIS. As one leading scholar in the field succinctly stated: ‘GIS are currently ill-equipped to deal with space as it surrounds an individual.’

I’ve always found this criticism of GIS a little bit – okay, a lot – misplaced. Sure, GIS represents the world in particular ways that do not correspond to the ways that humans experience the world, but that’s hardly surprising. GIS doesn’t even represent the surface of the earth accurately, after all, since it’s constrained by the limitations of cartography. It’s essentially a mapping program (at least as it’s used by archaeologists), and I don’t think that anyone worries that maps are too positivistic; they’re ways of displaying simply a complex reality. Certainly there is a problem if one thinks that GIS represents reality unproblematically, but does any normal person actually think this? If we get a sense of false objectivity from GIS, it is because we are not doing enough thinking.

Moreover, if we’re going to wring our hands about GIS, then it seems to me that we need to wring our hands about everything else. We have to worry about maps of all kinds, representations of all kinds, rulers and compasses, survey tapes and GPS units. This criticism of GIS feels a little bit to me like the lack of recognition that there is a difference between a model of reality and reality.


Or, put more famously, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

So sure, it’s true that human beings do not live in a digital panopticon, but none of the tools at our disposal for the study of the ancient world really capture the lived lives of ancient people. Maybe 1% of all ancients could read and write but we don’t seem to be too concerned that our primary mode of communicating is the academic text.

I never really understood why GIS was the target of this post-processual assault (I say this as someone who uses GIS quite a bit and whose theoretical framework is essentially post-processual). The only thing that I can think of is that the problem is the faith that many practitioners have in their tools. If you think that there is a technological magic bullet, then any technology that falls short is a false idol that must be denounced.

That seems like exactly the wrong approach to me. This isn’t me picking on Sullivan; she’s really using this pre-existing critical discourse about traditional GIS to pivot towards her discussion of 4D GIS. But her treatment of 4D GIS is balanced; she doesn’t claim that it will solve all of our problems, merely that it is a useful tool. (I have more to say about that, but I think in another blog post).

Ultimately it’s our faith in various technologies that is at fault here more than anything else. We need to remember that no technology will (on its own) allow us to really understand the lived experiences of anyone. If we aren’t mindful of this fact, we’ll just end up jumping from bandwagon technology to bandwagon technology.


Kriging the artifact densities from the Western Argolid Regional Project.


Thinking digital archaeology

This post is prompted by a recent (and freely available) article in the Journal of Field Archaeology, “Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice” by Chris Roosevelt, Peter Cobb, Emanual Moss. Brandon Olson, and Sinan Ünlüsoy. Let me begin by saying that the article is really great. What the project is doing is innovative, cutting-edge, and thoughtful. But like Bill Caraher, I worry about some of the implications of the article, a couple of issues that caused me to frown and think.

Data and interpretation

The authors of the article make the important point that archaeological data are produced by decisions (and interpretations) made by archaeologists in the field, such that full digital documentation is not of the pristine archaeological record but rather of the excavators’ interactions with that record. Yet this point, once made, is not repeated, and the authors focus on improvements to accuracy and efficiency — for good reason, and persuasively so. Accuracy and efficiency are excellent goals, but once achieved, so what?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And in archaeology, what we want (I think, but I’m pretty jetlagged right now) are better understandings of the ancient world. And it seems to me that the authors haven’t made a particularly cogent argument connecting their methods and this ultimate goal. To be fair to them, this is not the main point of their article, but they do address the issue. First, we are told,

…we are, in effect, increasing efficiency and thereby providing greater opportunity for in-the-field reflection about depositional and post-depositional processes and the human behavioral and natural conditions that drive them.

Second, we are told that

Data sharing allows for the sort of broadbrush,inter-site comparisons that can increase understanding of some of the greatest concerns of humanity more so than can single datasets: climate change, social inequality, and urbanism, for example. If archaeologists argue that their work provides such public benefits, they must be willing to provide full access to their complete and original data as well as to their analytical results (Gestrich 2011). A significant goal for archaeology, then, is the free and open accessibility of such datasets. The most efficient way to reach this goal is to generate publishable or near-publishable quality data at the time and place of collection, so that additional data preparation—sure to slow publication—becomes unnecessary.

So, more efficiency is good because it means more time to think, and more (digital, standardized) data are good because they promote most efficiently large-scale comparison and querying. With regard to the first claim, when has increased efficiency in data collection ever yielded more time for contemplation? In my experience, it tends to produce the opposite: a stronger push to collect more. That’s been my experience working on my own digitization project, at any rate: I interact with the digitization and data capture, counting on the fact that the data I produce will bail me out down the line when I need to get to analysis. I’m somewhat less skeptical of the second claim, but it relies on the promise of future gains of comparison between field projects that, even if they use the same systems, are fundamentally dissimilar in all other kinds of ways. After all, as the authors point out in the first page of the article, digitization doesn’t actually record some archaeological truth, but rather the archaeological process of discovery. So publishing raw data, while laudable, doesn’t help us to understand urbanism (say) without an intimate knowledge of the archaeological processes that produced those data.

In sum, then, I suggest that while gains in efficiency and accuracy are great, it remains to be demonstrated that they get us something important. For instance, the authors present us with the example of a granary and their documentation of their excavation of it. It is impressive. But does it help us interpret the granary any better? It hasn’t seemed to thus far.

Skilling and deskilling

Another objection (or potential objection) that the authors confront is de-skilling:

others might fret that such developments are potentially ‘‘de-skilling’’ (W. R. Caraher, personal communication 2014), or at least that they diminish the reflexive value of mechanical or analog archaeological methods. On the contrary, we argue that skills are not lost, but only shifted from analog to digital.

Part of the problem here is that deskilling has a more specific meaning than loss of (some) skills. As Wikipedia, the font of all truth, helpfully informs us,

Deskilling is the process by which skilled labor within an industry or economy is eliminated by the introduction of technologies operated by semiskilled or unskilled workers. This results in cost savings due to lower investment in human capital, and reduces barriers to entry, weakening the bargaining power of the human capital.

It seems to me that this meaning of deskilling is what is at stake, and the argument therefore misunderstands the perceived objection. And this brings us back to my core concern about archaeological interpretation. Does this shift away from analog to digital skills help us as archaeologists to understand the ancient past? A deskilling argument would suggest that in this shift, we lose quality and skill in favor of efficiency. Think, for instance, of handmade goods made by craftsmen (e.g., a fine wooden rocking chair handmade by Ron Swanson) as compared to their modern counterparts made by unskilled and cheap factory workers.

Maybe? Probably? Probably maybe? I’m not sure. I do know that I’d prefer a rocking chair handmade by a craftsman than an efficiently-made, super-standardized rocking chair made in a factory. And I’d prefer a site excavated expertly and documented with paper notebooks than a site excavated reasonably well but with full digital documentation.

I suppose one could argue that this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t digitize, because we can still innovate and improve. I agree. Yet it seems to me that what archaeological projects really need is lots of expertise at the edge of discovery. The Kaymakçı Archaeological Project (KAP), on which the authors work, clearly has that. But that expertise, in my view, will be much more decisive in their analytical success than their digital methods. And if this is true (or even partly true), then much more decisive for the field than the development of new digital methods will be the training of good archaeologists.