In a recent paper on the future of digital archaeology, Huggett, Reilly, and Lock, lament the “haphazard application adoption, fractures and silos” that characterize the field. They long for “a common strategic goal with regards to how we adopt technology and create, develop, manage and share our disciplinary knowledge, competencies, and capabilities in the age of the digital”.

Of course, Jeremy and I have had productive disagreements in the past, and this is another one. Haphazard, fractured, and siloed, are essential characteristics of an adaptive radiation, which is what the development of digital archaeology very much is, and should be. In the middle of all this incredibly productive effervescence, from agent-based simulation to VR, from pattern recognition to public GIS, the last thing we need is a strategic direction. We need more chaos, not less.

In research, we should never be concerned about too much diversity and too much innovation. Human cultural evolution, including the development of digital archaeology, is driven by diversity production mechanisms. Selection will operate on that diversity whether we want it to or not, regardless of how intellectually limited and short-sighted creatures we are. Let’s give selection as much cultural material to work on as we can. It is our only chance.

But Huggett et al are quite committed to a centrally planned digital archaeology. They acknowledge that the current “diversity of viewpoints and institutional norms” is “intellectually rich and stimulating”, but complain that it results in “little consensus on the boundaries of archaeology, how it is conducted, our competencies and, ultimately, how our knowledge is created, curated, and used”.

Good, I say. I hope I never find the boundaries of archaeology, and I hope we never agree on how “our” knowledge is created, curated, and used. Let’s just create, curate, and use, in the myriad ways that we can individually think of, some of which will turn out to be worth something, we hope.

Huggett et al’s solution to this vexing confusion is the appointing of “knowledge brokers” (by whom remains unstated) who can “determine what matters most…”, and “in conjunction with the community may also determine that some things are just noise and can be simply ignored”. I must say that from a cultural evolution perspective, this is as dystopian a vision of the future as I have seen. Throttling diversity production at its source does nothing to help selection do its job. Putting people in charge of deciding what is just noise has a poor historical record, to say the least.

Huggett et al are worried that without duly appointed knowledge authorities, “trust and confidence in our knowledge economy” will be “shaken”, and that it’s “elements” will “start to break down”. I hope we never live in a world in which trust in the knowledge economy is unshaken and its elements are fully constituted. To put in in terms of their figure 3, no Ministry of Digital Orthodoxy in archaeology, thank you very much. Of course, Huggett et al will think of me as belonging to their Commune of Digital Anarchism (naturally coloured in a particularly threatening shade of red on their graph), and I can certainly live with that. I simply call it scholarship.

Given the power dynamics of academia and society, these knowledge brokers would no doubt be drawn from what they call the region of the aforesaid Ministry, that of established and restricted knowledge practices, and would be proponents of what they call traditional and tethered digital technologies. After all, communes of anarchists who dabble in experimental and ubiquitous knowledge practices, and promote open and unfettered digital technologies also breed doubt, questioning, and might shake the public’s confidence in the knowledge establishment. On the other hand, there, and nowhere else, lies true innovation.

Anxiety and hierarchy in digital archaeology

Huggett, in particular, has describe an anxiety that grips digital archaeologists (Huggett 2012) about the way their contribution is perceived and valued by their colleagues. I have definitely seen this anxiety expressed in the literature, but I am lucky and privileged to have never experienced it. For me, the digital turn in archaeology has not been a source of anxiety, but a source of wonder.

Others may, at various times, have seen me as a “specialist” of archaeological simulation, or even a “technician”. I have never worried about this. I have focused on the research questions that intrigue me most, and I have found and marshaled the tools that allowed me to pursue answers to those questions. Far from being undertheorized, or being driven by application, I have always seen digital archaeology as fundamentally theoretical and driven by research questions.

I have never seen digital archaeology as subordinate to anything simply because it uses tools that are shamelessly borrowed from elsewhere. I don’t understand the concern for a hierarchy of disciplines at all. We have questions. To answer the questions, we have to solve problems. To solve the problems, we have to use tools. I really don’t care where the tools come from. I am, at an intellectual level, interested in the history of the tools, in their development, in the context that produced them, etc. But for the purposes of solving my research problems, I don’t care where they come from.

I don’t care whether someone calls me a digital archaeologist, a simulation technician, or a computational archaeologist (which is usually what I call myself). I care whether we all work together on answering some very interesting questions, developing, borrowing, stealing, adapting, repurposing, hacking, some really kick-ass tools.

In my experience, if you make a contribution to knowledge, whatever tools you may use, wherever they may come from, whatever people call you, or however they classify you, there is no cause for anxiety. In other words, start with the really interesting fundamental questions that keep you up at night, find whatever tools could potentially help you answer those questions, use those tools, find some answers, even if they move you a millimeter in the right direction, and disseminate your findings. No one will care that you are merely a digital archaeologist playing around with computers in a world of grown-up academics. They will care about your findings.

We must act

In conclusion, I can only reiterate my call (Costopoulos 2016) to build “a digital archaeology by doing archaeology digitally”, which Hugget et al kindly quote at the end of their paper. Forget the anxiety. Forget the status games. Forget the central planning. Do your work. Use the tools you need.

Disciplines are built not mainly through introspection, which Huggett et al call for, and not through outrospection (or action), which they also call for (although just a little bit of it), but mainly through retrospection. What contributions to knowledge have been made? What theoretical and methodological tools have been used to get there? Do some of us think that it is worth continuing in that direction? Do we finally realize that at least some of the time, some of us are a community of researchers who share at least some goals, assumptions and methods? If we do, then we are digital archaeology, however accidentally. Some day, through drift and the vagaries of our individual trajectories, we may not be. But that’s ok. We’ll have made some contributions to knowledge while we were.


Costopoulos A 2016. Digital archaeology is here (and has been for a while), Frontiers in Digital Humanities 3.4

Huggett J, R Reilly, G Lock 2018. Whither digital archaeological knowledge? The challenge of unstable futures, Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology

Huggett J 2012. What lies beneath: lifting the lid on archaeological computing. In: Chrysanthi, A, Murrieta Flores, P and Papadopoulos, C (eds.), Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process, 204–214. Oxford: Archaeopress.  

6 thoughts on “Reaction to Huggett et al 2018: The haphazard, fractured, siloed adoption and application of digital tools in archaeology is exactly what we need

  1. I find this view very appealing: “Let’s give selection as much cultural material to work on as we can”. Especially as it shows the practical application of concept that is very much at the core of how archaeology explains, distinct from Huggett et al.’s scenario-planning method, which could be interpreted as lack of confidence in archaeology’s own capacity to offer any tools or concepts of use for understanding contemporary technological and cultural change.

    I do like their call for ‘ a consensus model of what archaeology does as a whole’, and ‘ exposing assets and resources’, ‘harvesting best in class’, etc. But I think simplest way to accomplish much of that is not through more of this kind of anxiety-discourse, introspection, or imagining of alternative worlds.

    It is for common-or-garden archaeologists (like you and me) to pressure the gatekeepers (journals, funders) to require data, code & workflow to be openly available on trustworthy repositories as a condition of publication. That will speed up experimentation among the chaos of methods, help to expose the best-in-class methods to thorough scrutiny and enable efficient, wide adoption, and minimize wasteful wheel-reinventing as other researchers struggle to implement an great new approach using the three lines of text that describe it in a journal article.

    Some of the scholars cited in the Huggett et al. paper reflect on how the use of computers in archaeology has failed to result in new ways of doing archaeology. A key reason why is obvious to me: many of these same scholars, whose own work is deeply influential and highly novel, have not shared a single line of their code with the archaeological community. How can they expect the work of others to be transformed when they provide no means to efficiently facilitate this transformation? It’s like giving out cans of food without a can opener, then complaining that no-one is eating and wondering why.

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  2. Interesting, though I’m not surprised to here you continuing to champion the evolutionary importance of variation. I seem to recall that being a favoured motif in the past…

    Huggett came and gave a talk a few months ago at Cambridge, that was all about how archaeologists don’t use digital repositories, or at least don’t do so in a quantifiable way. It highlighted the disconnect between the sort of open-access results we promise in data availability statements and the actual impact open data make in archaeology (in distinct contrast, in my mind, to something like the naledi project in paleoanthropology). Food for thought.

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    1. Yes, that is a vital observation about the gap between our disciplinary ideals (such as they are encoded in ambitious data availability statements in grant applications and statements like the SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics), and actual disciplinary practice (contact the author for data, they may or may not respond).

      The technology is already here to close this gap (with data repositories, etc.), and is often free and easy to use. And yet the gap persists. So we might ask who is benefiting from the ongoing existence of this gap? It’s the high-status participants in the prestige economy of archaeology, who use data access as a currency, as Andre compellingly argued here:

      What we do about this when we are not in a position to directly influence these high-status participants (or worse, they ignore us and deny us a voice)? The good news is that we do have a few levers that we can control. For example, in peer review of manuscripts we can demand that data be available as a condition of publication. The editors may ignore us, but they will sense a shift in norms, and that is valuable. We can give a critical assessment of data availability statements when reviewing grants, and ask if the applicant if really likely to follow through on their promises. We can point out in conversation about missed opportunities where a study could have been more convincing or more impactful if data were available.

      These kinds of actions will be a collective nudge to the high-status participants that the norms are changing. And if we can keep at it long enough, the opening of data like this may contribute to the dismantling of the prestige economy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Ben,

        Those are good points. I do, however, think there are generational differences in attitudes towards open access data. The ‘old guard’ that you reference is definitely a problem, in archaeology and related fields such as paleoanthropology.However, I get a real sense that norms are shifting. Within the last five years (at least), the kinds of funding available for PhD research in archaeology (I’m thinking particularly of the NSF DDIG) has mandated that grantees provide data availability plans, and recipients of such funding are required to explicitly address this in their annual and final reports. I noticed recently that the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology has a similar query that pops up as part of the manuscript submission process – they ask how the data referenced in the paper will be made open access, and if it is not being made open access, why not. For my scholarly cohort, funding bodies and journals are moving towards open access data becoming the rule, rather than simply an option.

        My current major issue with these kinds of data is that they still requires a vast amount of cleaning and reorganizing for use in larger scale analyses. My experience with this has mainly been with my isotopic work in Late Prehistoric Europe. Most people publish their data, but it often occurs in article tables, rather than as Excel or CSV files that are easy to manipulate, often mandating manual entry of individual rows, which is a real pain. At the regional level, I think archaeologists interested in isotopes are responding to this by building regional databases, but as you’ve pointed out, this requires a doubling of disciplinary effort – copying, compiling, and modifying data that someone else has already spent a significant amount of time publishing.

        I suppose the upshot of this is that developing standards for particular types of open data is a strategy that I think would be valuable for the discipline as a whole, and might lead more of us to treat open data as an actual resource, rather than an onerous requirement.

        Liked by 3 people

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