Teaching digital archaeology: notes from a first-timer

As a PhD student, I’ve been picking up teaching opportunities wherever they present themselves. Guest lecturing spots, teaching assistantships, short courses for continuing education, volunteer training, buyout lecturing: you name it, I’ve taught it. This has meant teaching a lot of different things: method and theory, New Zealand prehistory, environmental archaeology, hominin evolution, and more. But being a teaching opportunist, I don’t normally get much choice in the topic. So I was pretty excited when my Head of Department approached me to ask if I would like to develop a new special topic undergraduate course for this year.

After a limited deliberation period, I settled on a course titled “Archaeology and Heritage in the Information Age”. The focus was to be on how digital technology and big data are transforming how we learn about the past; how we talk about, represent, and preserve the past in the information age; and how our increasingly digital lives are leaving an increasingly digital record. The course also included a lab component, where students tried out network analysis in R, 3D model editing, using Minecraft to look at historical authenticity and processes in gameplay, and more.

Students built networks from Twitter data using the #CAAOslo tag

Students built networks from Twitter data using the #CAAOslo tag

I had incorporated digital elements into my teaching before, and I’d taught classes on discrete digital methods like GIS and agent-based modeling. But as a survey course, this required consideration of a wider range of methods, not to mention the theoretical implications and themes. It turned out I would need to do a lot of legwork to develop labs and lectures. Luckily, I was not alone. There was a range of resources out there from practitioners and educators, offering inspiration, advice, data sources, and in some cases step-by-step instruction, such as Micropasts, Open Context, Electric Archaeology, and Archaeological Networks. On top of this, I was able to get a few really great and knowledgeable folks to talk to my class on topics such as 3D modeling and video games in heritage. The notion that digital heritage and digital archaeology are communities of practice was not lost on this course’s instructor or it’s students.

The course covered a range of topics, but a few cross-cutting themes emerged. One theme we kept coming back to was a tension between using digital representations as authentic reconstructions versus using them to explore possibilities. One of the goals of preserving heritage is to maintain fidelity to avoid loss of context. But sometimes, our representations are most powerful when they can be revealing about how different kinds of events or decisions may have influenced the trajectory of historical processes. We looked at examples like the Portus project and Çatalhöyük for examples of how this has been done, and how it is changing.

We also talked about the goals of digital archaeology as a science as well as one of the humanities, and it became apparent quickly that this was not such a neat divide. Different methods and approaches could be easily adapted to explanatory or critical roles: a network graph might as well be used to communicate an idea as a VR application might be used to quantify visual attention. It became clear that while computers and digital media might expand the range of phenomena we might be able to explain scientifically, they don’t by themselves make us more scientific, and this is not always the point.

Finally, we spent a good while talking about the distinction between “virtual” and “real” behaviour and digital/material residues. If you post a digital photograph of your cat on social media that attracts attention, is that behaviour real or virtual? If you talk to someone about it on the bus, does it become real? If someone paints a giant mural of your Grumpy Cat on a watertower overlooking the city of Auckland, what percentage of that behaviour is real and what part is virtual? I found myself wondering as I was using a digital image of a real painting of a digital image of a real cat: could this vacillation between real and virtual be potentially infinitely recursive? It seemed that the more of our time we spend engaged in ‘virtual’ behavior, it becomes less so from the perspective of generating an archaeological record.

A certain beloved cat painted on a water tower in Three Kings, Auckland, New Zealand (Photo: Auckland Central Leader)

The course just wrapped up; final projects have been submitted, marks are in. Having the opportunity to get students thinking about digital archaeology, to see them figuring out how to make digital data work in different ways, was incredibly rewarding. I can’t wait to teach this course again.

One thought on “Teaching digital archaeology: notes from a first-timer

  1. Matt Thomas says:

    Interesting ideas Ben, I’ve been engaging with digital arch at a purely practical level thus far; will be good to chew some of these around.

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