Digital Archaeology Symposium at SAB XIX – Part I

Last year I hosted a symposium on Digital Archaeology with Astolfo Araújo at SAB XIX, the biennial conference of the Brazilian Archaeology Society. The symposium was titled iPads na Trincheira: Arqueologia Digital no Brasil – Onde Estamos? and included more than eleven papers on agent based modelling, data management, digital public archaeology, and 3D imaging.

As this was the first symposium in Brazil dedicated to digital archaeology I decided to kick-off with an introduction for those unfamiliar to the area. Below is a synthesis of the talk, along with slides I presented. I’ve also added some videos and imagery for the benefit of this blog.

The symposium was an important milestone for the network of researchers working with digital archaeology, as a step towards the inception of a regular series of events, and most significantly, the creation of a forum to represent Brazil in digital archaeology.

iPads na Trincheira: Arqueologia Digital no Brasil – Onde Estamos? Opening Thoughts

The earliest computing devices are archaeological artefacts themselves. We have evidence for analogue computing devices such as the abacus from thousands of years ago. An advanced example is the Antikythera Mechanism, an astronomical calendar which dates from the second century BC, recovered from a shipwreck in Greece in 1902.

However, real breakthroughs in computing have occurred over the past 80 years, commencing in the early twentieth century with the creation of electrified digital computers such as the Z3, the Colossus and the ENIAC. In the 1950s and 1960s mainframe computers were huge and limited to academic departments and government ventures such as NASA.

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Importantly, women were early pioneers in the application of these machines, but videos of the time, emphasize the man in the frame, with women cast manly as button pressers and administrators, an issue which has been highlighted in recent films such as Hidden Figures.

Developments in technology and network infrastructure were already present in the form of projects such as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) in the 1960s, which laid the foundation for the internet. The world was revolutionised in the 1970s, when, in 1971 a Californian company won a contract to create a pocket calculator chip. Instead of hardcoding the device they created a programmable chip. That company’s name was Intel. At the same time, companies such as Apple were devoting themselves to developing the first “personal” computing devices.

The convergence of all of these initiatives formed the basis of our digital society, which has grown exponentially with the development of the World Wide Web from 1991 with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN and the development of personal mobile computing devices such as smartphones.

In archaeology, Jim Deetz was one of the first to apply computation to analyse archaeological materials in 1959 with the help of a programme he wrote to perform stylistic analyses of Arikara ceramic fragments (see Watrall 2017). During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of computer-based tools and models were created for archaeological use, storing datasets, and creating Geographical Information Systems (GIS). In 1973, the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology group (CAA) held its first meeting in Birmingham, which was organized by Susan Lafing.

Several concepts began to develop in the area of archaeology, including Virtual Archaeology, first proposed by Reilly in 1990, which sought to explore “how new digital tools could shape and enable new methodological ideas and interpretations.”, Reilly also presented now famous graphical models of archaeological stratigraphy creating using software.

“Early work using the term virtual archaeology often dealt with 3D applications, computer graphics, hypertext, and databases just made available at the time, and what they represented offered a new horizon of possibility.”

Another important contextual development took place during 2008 at the ICT in Heritage conference in Greece, where Mauricio Forte presented the concept of Cyber-archaeology to address the discussion of the feedback or interaction of multiple users in virtual environments.

Today the concept of digital archaeology is more comprehensive. The simplest definition of digital is data recorded in ones and zeroes: the digital is inherently about data. From this perspective, the field could be perceived as both technological and quantitative. But digital is more than that, it is cultural, it is a creation of different realities that we transformed into virtual, and experience and interpret in different ways, it underpins human existence in a highly public, interactive and engaging way. Reducing the size and cost of computers, switching to personal devices, and increasing the ability to capture, transform, store, and share our data in greater numbers and complexity has supported the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Digital technology has permeated our lives, has influenced culture, and culture has influenced digital technology. Digital archaeology is therefore inherently public and involves the application of technologies to create, share and store digital archaeological information and media including imaging, augmented and virtual reality, games, 3D printing, crowdsourcing, data analysis, algorithms, among others.

Eventually, all archaeology could be digital. In this light, one questions whether we should continue to discuss digital archaeology as opposed to simply discussing archaeology. In my opinion, it still makes sense because digital technology is likely to continue to disrupt and influence our society, and as researchers we need a way to describe and evaluate the approaches and methods which are developed digitally.

Furthermore, as Beale and Reilly (2017) pointed out computer applications have not yet radically changed how we conduct day-to-day archaeological practice. Thus, we must continue to assess emerging technologies and capabilities to understand how they may generate a transformation in archaeological practice:

Among the most recognised emerging technologies which have the potential to impact the field of archaeology are (modified from Beale and Reilly 2017):

  • Computer Vision: Facilitated by the ubiquity of digital cameras and software processing, it is likely that the DIY revolution in 3D data creation will continue with technologies such as image-based modelling and combinations of other methods, making it easy to create and share 2D data and 3D models
  • Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality: Archaeologists have a wide range of options for creating immersive and interactive experiences
  • Big Data (including linked and open data): There is a tremendous potential in the work in progress to map archaeological ontologies and provide data management standards to allow open data – which means that we could potentially integrate larger archaeological data sets for more appropriate meta-analyses
  • AI/ML: With these datasets, there are many other applications with AI, machine learning, and deep neural networks with a great potential for archaeology
  • Open Access: the open access movement is intrinsically linked to digital technologies: opening the information and promoting sharing is the essence of the principles of the web, for example this movement has the power to further democratize knowledge and research
  • Additive Manufacturing: popularized by the efforts of 3D printing. In archaeology, it presents the potential of “aligning the physical and virtual worlds” and enabling the physical realization of 3D data for example, human artefacts or human remains
  • Crowdsourcing and Public Archaeology: The web is vital to the greater and better involvement of audiences in archaeological projects. Successful examples include the Must Farm site in the UK, which has regularly made the news with content from its excavations effectively communicated on multiple social networks

Other important areas of development include the Internet of Things; and archaeological developments as “eTrowels”: electronic trowels that detect and record the sound and texture of excavation surfaces as well as games, robotics, automation and the Blockchain.

There is no doubt that we are moving towards a future where digital technology permeates everything, with the promise of unlimited potential. Yet, this also poses risks when it comes to issues regarding security, privacy and ethics, often highlighted in series such as Black Mirror.

To address these issues, I believe we must adopt approaches such as that proposed by Bill Caraher’s “Slow Archaeology,” which requires a critical appreciation of the accelerated pace that digital tools have brought about increasingly industrialised practices in archaeology. We also need to carefully consider ethical issues regarding data sharing as well as practical issues of long-term storage, management, and data accessibility.

Furthermore, we must consider how best to establish digital understanding and capabilities via our undergraduate courses. This requires the development and implementation of approaches which go beyond simplistic guides to how technologies work or which software to use. We must be reflexive, inclusive and consider the implications of inequalities, affordability remembering that the best devices, training and resources are concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of academic centres, often in the world’s most developed countries. Solving the problem of more democratised access to technologies and education for those without the same resources as in South America is a challenge.

Ultimately, students must be enabled to not only think with digital tools, but to innovate and disrupt existing traditional methods and hegemonies, whilst maintaining ethical integrity and consideration.

Originally presented as Ulguim, P. F. 2017. Introduction. Simpósio Temático: iPads na Trincheira: Arqueologia Digital no Brasil – Onde Estamos? XIX Congresso Sociedade de Arqueologia Brasileira. 10 – 15 September 2017. Teresina, Brazil. Teresina, 2017.


Beale, G. and Reilly, P. 2017. Digital Practice as Meaning Making in Archaeology. Internet Archaeology 44.

Forte, M. 2008. Cyber-archaeology: an eco-approach to the virtual reconstruction of the past. In: Proceedings of International Symposium on Information and Communication Technologies in Cultural Heritage, Ioannina, Greece, pp. 91-106.

Reilly, P. 1991. Towards a Virtual Archaeology. In: Rahtz, S. and K. Lockyear (eds.), CAA90. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology 1990.

Watrall, E. 2017. Archaeology, the Digital Humanities, and the ‘Big Tent’. In: Debates in the Digital Humanities. [Accessed 11 May 2018]

Header Image: Site Documentation with Tablets by Jason Quinlan Under Licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0