Grand Challenges for Digital Archaeology

As part of the Blogging Archaeology Carnival run by Doug Rocks-Macqueen over at Doug’s Archaeology I’ve been invited to write a wee blog post addressing the theme of “Grand Challenges” for archaeology. As luck would have it I wrote a paper last year addressing the same topic in the context of challenging digital archaeology, so I thought that would be a sensible place to start…here’s one I made earlier!

Before we go any further it’s probably a good idea to have a bit of a think about the term “grand challenges” and exactly what it means for us archaeologists. My first introduction to the concept came from my old PhD supervisor Dr Jeremy Huggett (old as in I’ve now finished my PhD…not old as in old…err, sorry Jeremy ;)) who wrote the keynote piece for the journal issue which published my paper. The concept, he explains, has origins back in a session at the 2012 CAA UK conference in Southampton where the idea of grand challenges was proposed as a vehicle for identifying and pursing major advances within the field of digital archaeology. Further discussion ensued during a roundtable at the 2014 CAA in Paris which in turn spurred on multiple papers for the afore mentioned journal topic in Open Archaeology.

There are a number of motivations behind grand challenges for archaeology which Jeremy outlines in his paper. Firstly, that they seek to advance the subject itself, and second, that they are just that: a challenge. He advocates that above all they’re goals which are supposed to be difficult almost (almost…but not quite) to the point of being unattainable – for the plain and simple reason that this in itself encourages archaeologists to push boundaries, leave established comfort zones behind and explore what he terms ‘unchartered territories’. Grand challenges for archaeology, he explains, want to spark debate, develop new avenues of thinking and shift the paradigms of archaeological practice to revolutionary new heights.

Sounds rather exciting doesn’t it?

Motivational penguin - Imgur

Before we get too heavy or overwhelmed about all this here’s a motivational penguin – he has a lot of confidence in our ability to succeed, so don’t worry.

Jeremy’s paper goes on to acknowledge that archaeological computing itself has often been more of a follower than an innovator and I have to agree. Often archaeologists have been guilty of somewhat ‘fetishising’ new technologies and their application to our research. I’ve done it myself – when a new bit of software or technology comes out there’s always a giddying honeymoon period of being able to ‘play’ with some new tech. Don’t get me wrong, being able to explore new technologies for their potential application in my work is part of the reason I find such enjoyment in what I do, but issues occur when we let our enthusiasm for tech overwhelm our rational. What tends to happen all too often is that digital technologies will influence our data gathering and site management, but their application has little impact at any kind of higher analytical level which could significantly shape any evolution of wider theoretical debates (there’s a bunch of people who agree with me  – check out refs 10-13 in my paper). I think for this reason alone it’s important to begin any discussion by first identifying the common issues and tropes that result from the way we currently view ‘digital archaeology’ before we start giving ourselves grand challenges to accomplish.

As most of you will know already my particular research interests (and day to day work) concern the production of reconstruction imagery for heritage. I use a combination of digital data capture (laser survey, photogrammetry), 3D modelling, animation and visual effects so in that respect I suppose you can go ahead and consider me an archaeologist very much situated within a digital realm. Though I’d hasten to add that given my sentiments from the previous paragraph I’m always conscious not to let the tools alone define my work if I can help it. That said, working primarily in a digital medium does come with its own unique set of problematic assumptions. One of the most troublesome being that digital work is often perceived as being more scientific in nature next to the traditional ‘artist’s impression’ due to nothing more than the fact that these images are created using a computer. Let’s think about that for a moment: the key phrase to pick up on here is that they’re created using a computer, not created by a computer. Behind that computer is still a person – a person who comes complete with their own wonderfully unique-subjectively-humanly-flawed way of seeing, interpreting, analysing and communicating a representation of whatever evidence is available for a given site.

Now, my issue here is that this attitude towards digital reconstruction historically did two things. It led to a huge volume of tech-heavy papers from the late 90s onwards which focused on the production, analysis and dissemination of digital reconstructions which seem to forever repeat the same theoretical critiques and all share a common sentiment that subjectivity is the sworn enemy of the archaeologist. This in turn cultivated a series of deeply embedded expectations about what digital reconstruction or archaeological visualisation in general can and should do. The problem as I see it is that in advocating a subjectively-disconnected approach to the production and dissemination of these images the field as a whole shot itself right in the foot before we even had a chance to properly explore the potential of what Reilly famously termed a “virtual archaeology” (see refs 10 and 11 in the paper). We restricted ourselves too quickly and too defensively before we really understood what we were dealing with.

Naturally, it’s always easy to critique an existing state of play, but it is much harder to solidly define where the true potential of digital media lies within the practice of archaeological visualisation and how we might arrive there…have we have identified our first “grand challenge” worthy problem? I think so!

Identifying a grand challenge is one thing, suggesting a way to pursue it is something else entirely. I think we need to begin narrowing in on the problem by going back to basics, we need to establish some core fundamentals about the practice of digital or virtual archaeology which can in turn be used as a foundation to establish itself more solidly. In my paper I use three key words to characterise this new dialogue with digital archaeology:




I have long advocated that digital representations of the past have the potential to facilitate complex new modes of engagement and interpretation if the methodologies for their creation foreground the importance of process. This is because in archaeology visualisation can act as a catalyst to interpretation, facilitating a discourse between practitioner, site and archaeological record; initiating a process of thinking through doing. Rust (see ref 15) observes that artists often create in order to understand what they wanted to create and certainly, I have always found that the creation of imagery like sketching, digital 3D models and speculative renderings can act as a dynamic toolkit for archaeologists to think with if integrated into the working process itself. We shouldn’t underestimate the potential of art to present a tool which is good to think with, as opposed to just good to look at (see pages 121-2 of my paper and associated refs for a deeper discussion of art and phenomenology).

However, I get the feeling that there remains a strong resistance within the field to engage with creative practice for fear of being deemed overly-subjective and un-scientific. But I don’t think that dehumanizing our representations of the past is a productive solution. Rather than being avoided as the researcher’s unquantifiable enemy, I would argue that subjectivity in visual work and field methods should be engaged with head-on as a core dimension of our interpretive process and representation. Archaeological visualisation is the process of picturing the past in the present which combines both scientific data and artfully crafted storytelling. At its core it is an activity which relies on a personal engagement between practitioner, practice and the archaeological record. When it comes down to interpretation there are strong parallels to the processes of artistic practice in that mistakes and messiness are crucial to understanding and generating new knowledge (see ref 45). It is precisely this intimate relationship between practitioner and visual process that makes space for meaningful engagement with the site or subject and develops visual interpretation in a way which captures the imagination of audiences (something that’s an equally loaded sentiment, but will have to wait for another blog post as it’s a can of worms too large to deal with in an already long post!).

A significant body of work has been done by the likes of the folks behind the London Charter which itself advocates the documentation of paradata which charts the interpretive decision-making process behind the generation of 3D reconstructive models and other such imagery for archaeology. It was a crucial step for the field because above all it put process first and encouraged practitioners to become reflexive about their work. However, in reality these frameworks aim to bring quantification to a creative process by masking subjectivity which serves to generalise, objectify and distance, shying away from the creative qualities and potential these types of expressive visuals offer to archaeology. In archaeology at present there are no methodologies for the creation of visualisation work which actively encourage and embrace the creative process. And I think that’s a big problem.

A possible solution? If interpretive visualisation can’t be quantified in a traditional sense we need to begin to take greater responsibility for the images we produce by establishing a deeper reflexive understanding of our process. Although reflexivity and documentation are a fundamentally important part of visual research, many of the processes within visualisation practice are fleeting, ephemeral, and as such, impossible to articulate and document. So perhaps rather than simply prescribing repeatable methods and processes to be documented and stored our field must also learn to afford more intellectual weight to practitioner skill and competency. In order to assure this competency I believe we need to invest more time in establishing visual literacy amongst ourselves and the wider academic community.

Visual literacy needs to go further than simply being skilled in the use of the latest equipment and software. It relies on a deeper engagement with the nuances of interpretation, storytelling and display. At present in archaeology both practitioners and audiences produce and consume visualisation within problematic boundaries of expectation, technology and perception (for another comedic read I touch upon this elsewhere). Consequently, these boundaries result in tensions developing between areas of archaeological practice. For example, the perception of digital visualisation and survey as scientific and quantifiable has resulted in its practice being placed within a restrictive construct which views any integration with subjective media or methodologies in a negative light. Similarly, expectations placed upon techniques of reconstruction and visualisation in the academic and public eye has caused an inflexible and problematic attitude towards the consumption of these images. Despite the consistent use of phrases such as ‘the artist’s impression’ and insistent captions declaring that these images only depict ‘what the site might have looked like in the past’, audiences continue to make assumptions about the authority of an image based on media and context. In order to remedy the situation interpretive visual material must be presented to audiences in a way which reflects the broader processes of archaeological interpretation.

As archaeologists we cannot simply just state that an image is a speculative interpretation, I believe that we must also begin to produce work which demonstrates to an audience why this is the case.


Tessa and my giant right hand getting down to some reflexive interrogation of the Dun Knock hill fort plan drawings on site back in the summer as the interpretation was evolving on site.

Well on that bombshell I think I’d better wrap up this post before it gets any longer! Reflecting back on what I’ve written today I think my own personal grand challenge lies in trying to incorporate the sentiments I’ve expressed here in my day to day work. I’ve very directly addressed these issues before through my PhD film, and continue to explore them through other research-led projects like Noltland and the SERF Hillforts work I’m currently involved in with Dr Tessa Poller (we’re working away on some material as I type and will be blogging and sharing new stuff soon I hope!). But in all honesty the reality of the matter is that when I’m working on straight-up commercial commission work, with a client breathing down my neck for delivery dates and dealing with the logistics of setting up new tech on display screens, or the ins and outs of hosting material online, it’s hard to think with a reflexive research head on, analysing every creative choice and thinking of the bigger picture. But I do try!

Maybe that’s the essence of a grand challenge. The field of digital archaeology isn’t going to change in the wake of one big sweeping wave of new theory and method, it’s going to change by you and me chipping away slowly at the issues. We need to allow ourselves time to be reflexive in our work and time to discuss our process with our colleagues and our audiences, anyone who’ll listen really. So challenge the techniques, make mistakes and push the boundaries of expectation. Most importantly, don’t always go where it is deemed safe to go.

Profound eh? 😉






One comment

  1. […] Alison W: ‘Often archaeologists have been guilty of somewhat ‘fetishising’ new technologies and their application to our research. I’ve done it myself – when a new bit of software or technology comes out there’s always a giddying honeymoon period of being able to ‘play’ with some new tech. Don’t get me wrong, being able to explore new technologies for their potential application in my work is part of the reason I find such enjoyment in what I do, but issues occur when we let our enthusiasm for tech overwhelm our rational.’ […]

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