From dirt to pixels

I’m a commercial archaeologist, but as chance would have it I booked the 29th of July off work to spend some time with friends in Bath. It seems fitting then that for this Day of Archaeology post that I discuss not just my professional life but also how archaeology has bled into other parts of my life – I’m never off duty!

I spent most of last week completing a report for some evaluation trenches which were undertaken (in accordance with a planning condition) as phase one works to assess the archaeological potential of a site. In the office and far from the scorching sun, I used Adobe Photoshop to digitise trench plans and section drawings. What had been originally been carved out by mechanical excavator and trowel, then represented as pencil marks, was then rendered into pixels.

Editing a digital trench plan on Adobe Photoshop

As a 21st century archaeologist, I’m continually involved in creating digital records pertaining to archaeological investigations, whether this be in the form of digital photographs, standardised word processed documents or indeed digital technical drawings. All of these combined represent the digital footprint of archaeological works. Just as a trench clearly has a definite, tangible existence at the time its being cut, its subsequent recording through digital means entails that it also exists in a kind of parallel, digital reality.

Even when I leave work, I’m still thinking in archaeological terms. I’ve recently started to play Life is Strange, an episodic adventure game which involves a teenage girl who can rewind time (as an archaeologist I really envy this superpower!). I’ve also started to keep a games journal. Just as dirt became pixels in the process of recording and digitising trenches, conversely pixels became marks on a page through my games journaling which allows me to reflect on immaterial culture.



A sneak peak at my games journal!

The setting in the screenshot below is a junk yard that the protagonist visits with her friend. So often video game environments fail to convey a sense of dirt and decay but in this case you can almost smell the rust and mildew. It would even be possible to analyse the stratigraphical deposition of the detritus.


American Rust junk yard in Life is Strange Episode 2: Out of Time

In contemporary archaeological practise, the analogue and the digital are inextricably intertwined. It’s no surprise that archaeogaming (the study of archaeology in and of video games) seems to be gaining more attention recently. As archaeologists, we are creators of both material and immaterial culture; both paper and digital context sheets, for example, are artefacts in their own right. The digital sprawl of an excavation entails that it needs to be managed long after the last trench has been backfilled.

With archaeological sites leading a digital afterlife, it appears that the commercial archaeologist could benefit from putting down their trowel, picking up a joystick and playing with the idea of studying immaterial culture. I know I have.