After Virtual Archaeology: Rethinking Archaeological Approaches to the Adoption of Digital Technology

Gareth Beale, Paul Reilly

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In the 1980s archaeologists embraced the rapidly expanding field of computer modelling and visualisation as a vehicle for data exploration. Against this backdrop 'virtual archaeology' was conceived. The term was originally intended to describe a multidimensional approach to the modelling of the (im)material structures and processes of field archaeology. It described how technology could be harnessed in order to achieve new ways of documenting, interpreting and annotating primary archaeological discoveries and processes. Despite their initial promise, these digital technologies failed to have the impact upon archaeological fieldwork that might have been expected. Even with the prevalence of digital devices on all archaeological excavations, the documentation, interpretation and subsequent narration of archaeological processes have retained their analogue character. While the archaeological record is now primarily digital, its sections, plans, drawings and photographs are facsimiles of the analogue technologies that preceded them. This retention of analogue conventions is increasingly out of step with the general prevalence and diversity of digital technologies as mediators of professional and private life. It is also challenged by 21st-century advances towards technologies that allow for complex engagements with and representations of physical matter and facilitate the interplay between digital and material worlds.

This article argues that emerging forms of archaeological practice including gaming, mixed reality, computational photography and additive manufacturing, reveal digital archaeology to be a creative process, blending computational thinking, technological opportunities and established disciplinary traditions. We go on to suggest that digital archaeology, conceived as a form of practice rather than as a toolset, represents a locus for theory generation and critical thinking. Failure to recognise the skills and ideas that have emerged in response to digital technologies has led to an under-appreciation of the contribution that digital forms of practice have made to our understanding of archaeological practice and knowledge creation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternet Archaeology
Issue number44
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2017

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