Standardisation, documentation and evolution of digital archaeological practices

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Wed, 06/16/2021 - 12:45

The CAA 2021 roundtable session S04 on "Archaeological practices and knowledge work in the digital environment" featured an impressive lineup of panelists with lightning talks. The session was organised by Costis Dallas (University of Toronto), Suzie Thomas (University of Helsinki and University of Antwerp), Eleftheria Paliou (University of Cologne), Rimvydas Laužikas (Vilnius University) and Isto Huvila (Uppsala University), and sponsored by the recently closed COST Action ARKWORK and CAASIG ARKWORK, both focussing on research on archaeological practices and knowledge work in the digital environment.

Even if – or because – the lineup of panelists was very broad and covered a range of perspectives relevant to the topic of the roundtable, it was possible to identify certain themes that cut across several presentations. Both panelists and the public referred a lot to standardisation as a key enabler and hindrance of the change and emergence of new archaeological practices. Their importance for interoperability and possibility to aggregate data across individual projects and sites was acknowledged. At the same time, it is apparent that standards  restrict practices and have an influence on the available information. As Jeremy Huggett from the audience reminded, it is worth consider especially what post hoc standardisation i.e. normalisation of legacy data in heritage standards does for the data. Sometimes, instead of standardising data, it might be more feasible and useful to standardise or preferably, describe good practices.

Education was another point discussed by several panelists. Nimet Pınar Ozguner Gulhan expressed concerns of the digital literacy and computer skills of archaeology students much similarly to how Åsa Larsson and colleagues underlined the necessity and difficulty to learn practices and especially re-learn how to do archaeological work and documentation differently using new methods. The earlier experience of a professional archaeologist and a newcomer alike -- whether it has to do how to practice archaeology or familiarity and infamiliarity with certain technologies -- plays a significant role of what needs to be learned and relearned, and how difficult it eventually turns out to be. As Larsson et al. note, little knowledge can be dangerous and digital practice should not be analogous to analogue or non-digital practice.

Technologies and their impact on archaeological practices was a third theme that could be found in several presentations. Gattiglia discussed post-phenomenology as an approach to understand the role of AI in archaeology -- and demonstrated how it can help to think about archaeology and technologies in a broader sense. Similarly to how Gattiglia underlined the agency of technologies, Yashaswini Jayadevaiah provided an illustrative example of how technologies developed for other purposes can have unwanted agencies and hinder archaeological work. In this context, a better understanding and systematic evaluation and review of technologies including software, as described by Homburg et al., is important in the future. Apart from the lack of skills, knowledge, literacy and access to technologies, Rimvydas Laužikas emphasised that also regulatory frameworks impose hinders to what extent technologies become a part of the standard repertoire of archaeological instruments and to what extent the work is forced to follow an earlier standard practice. Advanced technologies does not, however, necessarily imply the goodness of archaeological work and especially the usefulness of the generated data. As L. Meghan Dennis remarked, a meticulous description of data collection and rich communication of how the work was conducted using low-level tech can lead to highly useful data. In this respect her work on data stories can provide a way to provide a more comprehensive understanding of data and its underpinnings, much similarly what Keith May was suggesting to be done in parallel by focussing on necessary data that is fit for its purpose, standardisation of key documentation (what also van Leusen and colleagues were suggesting) and adequate planning and documentation of data and data-related procedures.

A full list of talks and panelists is below:

  • Keith May, Historic England: “Tales From Two River Banks? Is there an increasing digital divide between Development Funded archaeological practice and Research Funded archaeological practice?”
  • Nimet Pınar Ozguner Gulhan, Gaziantep University: “Undergraduate Education Towards Digital Archaeological Practice”
  • Gabriele Gattiglia, University of Pisa: “Critical Digital Archaeology. A postphenomenological approach to AI applications in Archaeology.”
  • Åsa Larsson, Swedish National Heritage Board; Daniel Löwenborg, Uppsala University; Maria Jonsson & Marcus Smith, Swedish National Heritage Board; Gísli Pálsson, Uppsala University: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: Analogue practices with digital tools.“
  • Martijn van Leusen, University of Groningen; Tymon de Haas, Leiden University; Niels Wouda, University of Groningen “Three Approaches to the Sharing and Re-use of Survey Data”
  • Yashaswini Jayadevaiah & Koumudi Patil, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IITK): “Technologies and archaeological site inscription (knowledge claim) mutation”
  • Rimvydas Laužikas, Vilnius University: “Digital archaeology and regulatory failure: the description of the problem”
  • L. Meghan Dennis, The Alexandria Archive/Open Context: “Creating a Digital Data Story, Proof-of-Concept and Early Lessons”
  • Timo Homburg, University of Applied Sciences Mainz; Anne Klammt, German Center for Art History (Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte Paris); Hubert Mara, University of Applied Sciences Mainz; Clemens Schmid, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Sophie Schmidt, Free University Berlin; Florian Thiery, RGZM; Martina Trognitz, Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage, ÖAW Wien: “How to review research software in archaeology?”