Computing for Archaeologists – Eiteljorg

      Eiteljorg’s chapter, Computing for Archaeologists, provides readers with an outline of the history of digital computing and its uses in archaeology and an overview of the tools which archaeologists use to digitize and analyze their materials.  He also indicates what the job of the archaeologist is, and then explains how digital computing allows archaeologists to succeed at this job.  Finally, Eiteljorg addresses the limitations and downfalls of humanities computing in archaeology.  This chapter gives readers a realistic look at the state of digital computing within the archaeology discipline.

Eiteljorg’s primary focus in this chapter lies in the job of the archaeologist and the evolution in digital computing which has taken place since the induction of computers into the scholarly realm in the 1950′s until now which has revolutionized the way archaeologists do their job.  And what is that job, you ask? While there are the obvious components of what an archaeologist does – finding material remains and unearthing them so they may be analyzed and interpreted – Eiteljorg argues that the biggest responsibility of archaeologists is record-keeping (20).  Record-keeping for archaeologists occurs in two forms; they must keep records of both the artifact and of its context within the discipline (Eiteljorg 21). With the increasing use of computers from the ’50′s on, archaeologists discovered that they could utilize database software to record findings and process statistics.  As computers evolved to be more accessible, flexible, efficient, and store more materials, so did the records of archaeologists (Eiteljorg 21-22).

If you take a moment peek under the surface of archaeological record-keeping, you will find many of Unsworth’s scholarly primitives at work.  The first is discovery.  Before record-keeping can occur, archaeologists must actually physically discover the artifact.  After the artifact has been unearthed, archaeologists continue the action of discovery by figuring out its archaeological context.  What is important about it? What does this artifact in this place mean for such and such civilization? These are the types of questions which archaeologists could follow to make new discoveries in their field.  Record-keeping also encourages comparison.  By compiling records into a widely-accessible database, scholars suddenly are able to compare the artifacts and discoveries of different archaeologists working on projects around the world, and to possibly compare findings with their own, as well.  A third primitive which is present with record-keeping is sampling.  By being able to search a particular tag within a database of records, archaeologists are able to sample artifacts and intellectual findings by categories which pertain to their interests.  In short, record-keeping through digital computing by archaeologists is ripe with the scholarly primitives which Unsworth highlights (Unsworth 1).

So Eiteljorg emphasizes that computers and their digital programs are used by archaeologists as a tool for record-keeping.  When assessing which of Svensson’s five modes would relate most accurately to digital computing for archaeologists, then, the obvious answer is the mode of tool.  Archaeologists do not seem to use technology as the object of study itself or as a lab where technology is used to explore as they do to utilize it as an efficient tool for keeping information (Svensson 21).  Eiteljorg highlights some of the most commonly used tools among archaeologists.  These include databases, in which archaeologists’ original interest  ”stemmed from hope that data storehouses could be used retrieve and analyze information from related excavations, thus permitting broader syntheses” (Eiteljorg 22). Other tools include GIS (Geographic Information System), which is used for graphical mapping, and CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) software, which can be used for record-keeping drawings or reconstruction of archaeological dig sites.  While most archaeologists use CAD for record-keeping, using it for reconstruction could fall under Svensson’s mode of lab, as they are using technology as a mode of exploration (Svensson 32).  Eiteljorg also briefly cites commercial software, Internet communication, coloration of photos, and 3-D modeling of artifacts as other useful tools for archaeologists (23-25).

According to Eiteljorg, the ability to manage more data more efficiently is the most important benefit computers have brought to the discipline of archaeology (25).  Despite the incredible gains in data-keeping which technology has enabled, however, it still has its downfalls and limitations.  One issue with the increasing use of technology by archaeologists is that it can potentially remove them from actual contact with artifacts.  This puts them at risk at losing familiarity with the objects.  Use of digital computing is also limited within the discipline to the scholars’ knowledge and skills with computers and an absence of formal training with the field of archaeology.  Eiteljorg adds that it is still not a universally-held responsibility among archaeologists to effectively keep records and electronic publication has still not reached the level of validity and permanence as paper-based records (28).  While this statement seems like a discrepancy from his chapter-long claim that record-keeping is the number one responsibility among archaeologists, perhaps a lack of a universal standard is the issue among these archaeologists.  Whatever the cause, Eiteljorg concludes that the transformation from print recording to digital recording is still a work in progress within archaeology (28).

Works Cited

Eiteljorg, Harrison II. “Computing for Archaeologists.” A Companion to Digital Humanities. Ed. Susan     Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 20-30. Print.

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4:1 (2010): 1-42. Online.

Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: What Methods do Humanities Researchers Have in Common, and How Might Our Tools Reflect This?” King’s College. London, England. 13 May 2000.  Symposium.

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