Critical Reflections on Digital Public Archaeology


UC Berkeley Anthro 136e Summer 2011 course at the Presidio de San Francisco National Park

Discussions among the students of UC Berkeley Anthro 136e Summer 2011 course at El Presidio de San Francisco National Park about the uses of digital technology in Archaeology – ©2011 Center for Digital Archaeology, Berkeley CA. Creative Commons (NOTE: This lead image was not included with the original article).

Bonacchi01   Moshenska01

By Chiara Bonacchi and Gabriel Moshenska


Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Bonacchi, C and Moshenska, G. 2015 Critical Reflections on Digital Public Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 40.


This article presents critiques and analyses of recent work in digital public archaeology (DPA) in the United Kingdom. It first locates different strands of DPA within the wider field of public archaeology, and begins to map out the diverse forms, aims and sources of DPA. Next it critically examines the models of ‘communication’ that are present in DPA, suggesting that greater attention should be paid to audiences in particular, and monitoring and evaluation in general. Finally the article considers the democratising effects of digital media on archaeological knowledge economies, highlighting some current and potential future areas of interest.

Where does digital public archaeology sit within the field of public archaeology more generally?

Our aim in this brief comment paper is to examine some trends and developments in digital public archaeology (DPA) in the UK in the context of emerging and established ideas around the uses, potential and limitations of digital media. This article is intended as a critique, and we reserve the right to raise more questions than we answer. The first question we want to consider is deceptively straightforward: Where does digital public archaeology sit within the field of public archaeology more generally?

To begin to answer this question we need to examine the many and very disparate meanings of the phrase ‘public archaeology’ across academic, amateur and professional archaeology; between different national scholarly traditions, but with particular emphasis on the UK; across both scholarship and practice; and between authoritarian, libertarian, democratic, socialist, communitarian and other political contexts.

Figure 1 represents a preliminary effort by Moshenska (2014) to chart the distinct strands within public archaeology. By focusing on different aspects of this growing field we can discuss how specific initiatives in DPA relate to it.


Figure 1: Some common types of public archaeology (taken from

Type 1: Archaeologists working with the public is the most common form of ‘top-down’ community archaeology. Such projects are often funded by external bodies and usually delivered by a team of archaeologists based in museums, private companies, or universities. The primary source of funding for work of this kind in the UK is the Heritage Lottery Fund, whose changing priorities with regard to the creation and use of digital resources has had a significant and largely positive impact on the shape of DPA (Bewley and Maeer 2014).

A good example of a project of this kind is the Thames Discovery Programme, a long-term community initiative working with volunteers to record, monitor and study archaeological heritage along the foreshore of the River Thames (Cohen et al. 2012). From the outset the project used a range of media including blogs, a regularly updated website, and assorted social media platforms for photo and video sharing. One of the aims of the programme was the formation of independent local groups that would continue their work beyond the lifetime of the funded project, in part through the use of digital media such as the training materials, and the ‘Riverpedia’ hosted on a dedicated website (Cohen 2013).

In briefly considering Type 2: Archaeology by the public in terms of DPA, we are interested not only in the adoption of digital resources by grassroots community archaeology and heritage groups, but also the ways in which they have been leveraged by dispersed, virtual, or non-location-specific grassroots communities. One good example of this is the long-term and extensive use of web fora by the metal-detecting community, most notably the huge and very active UK Detector Net Forum (Redmayne and Woodward 2013). Another interesting case is the Megalithic Portal discussed later.

Type 5: Open archaeology focuses on the practice of making the various layers of information, tools and processes of archaeological research visible and accessible to the public, and this is one area where digital technologies have a great deal to offer. Webcams have been joining or taking the place of viewing platforms on excavations since the mid-1990s, and have a particular value for urban excavations with substantial public interest but limited public access (Boast and Biehl 2011).

One of the most forward-looking models of DPA in a developer-funded project was the Prescot Street dig carried out by LP Archaeology, who have consistently developed archaeological digital technologies. The excavation took place in London in 2008 and the project website provided videos, constantly updated photo streams, and online access to the excavated materials through LP’s Archaeological Recording Kit or ARK, which was designed for the purpose of collecting and disseminating excavation data (Hunt et al. 2008; Morgan and Eve 2012). In addition, LP Archaeology developed a range of interpretative materials for teaching and learning, all available from the website (Richardson 2008). This project probably remains the most successful application of DPA in a commercial context.

Some public archaeology projects cut across several of the categories proposed in Figure 1. DigVentures, for example, a social enterprise in the UK, bridges community archaeology, cultural resource management, research-driven archaeology and heritage consultancy (DigVentures 2015). As well as Type 1 and Type 5, this includes Type 4: Archaeological education and Type 6: Popular archaeology. DigVentures employs a variety of digital media to promote itself, to fundraise, and to communicate with its supporters and with the wider world. DigVentures employs a Kickstarter-type model with a sliding scale of participation ‘rewards’ for sponsorship. In doing so, this model blurs the lines between old-fashioned patronage of excavations, modern crowd-funding, and the longstanding field-school pay-to-dig model (Bagwell et al. 2015; Bonacchi et al. 2015). The DigVentures website is markedly more appealing than many archaeological websites, with their blog resembling an archaeological Buzzfeed with topical click-bait articles rather than the more traditional dig blog.

The most significant innovation from DigVentures and LP Archaeology is the Digital Dig Team, a web-based content and community management system for excavations that uses WordPress software and builds on LP Archaeology’s ARK discussed above (Wilkins and Westcott Wilkins 2014). We are particularly interested in the ideas embodied in Digital Dig Team of making more immediate connections between excavation data and public archaeology, and the implications this has for openness and collaborative creation.

To wrap up part one, where does DPA sit within the wider context of archaeology in the UK? In our view some museums, a few commercial archaeology units and social enterprises do different aspects of DPA well, creating innovative and often long-lasting resources and projects with strong popular interest. While there are plenty of good ideas around DPA in current academic research in the UK, generally there seems to be surprisingly little innovation in practice — although that’s definitely starting to change.

How could digital public archaeologists think about communication?

New digital media, broadly defined as enabling forms of communications that are digital, interactive, hypertextual, networked, simulated, ubiquitous and de-located (see also Bonacchi 2012), have reshaped our everyday lives and the ways we interact with cultural content and institutions. Although we suggest there is a growing understanding and adoption of these media in the archaeological sector, it seems that some archaeologists have started to dedicate attention to digital engagement without considering what it means to communicate in the first place, whether online or offline, in digital or analogue form.

In the DPA literature it is not uncommon to find words like dissemination, engagement, participation and meaning-making used interchangeably or with little thought given to their deep and distinct theoretical and practical underpinnings. Here, it is worth briefly examining two distinct views of communication that have been codified in relation to mass communication (Steinberg 2007, 39–40), and whose applicability is still being variously reviewed in digitally connected contexts (e.g. Jensen and Neuman 2013).

The first is the media- or technology-centred view, which arose in North America immediately after the Second World War (McQuail 2005, 62–3; Oosthuizen 1995, 3–5; Steinberg 2007, 39). This approach developed from the assumption that communication works towards integration, continuity and the ordering of society. This view embraced a mathematical-engineering approach borrowed from information studies, mainly concerned with accurate and efficient communication as the result of technically well-operating channels, and exemplified in the writings of Lasswell (1948), and Shannon and Weaver (1949). Building on their work, the dominant paradigm began to take shape around the idea of the transmission of messages, of senders and receivers encoding and decoding such messages, and of media effects manifesting themselves in similar ways — regardless of the characteristics of the people involved in the communication process (Fiske 2002, 30–1). It is worryingly easy to find evidence of this kind of supposedly straightforward and more or less blind ‘transmission’ or ‘dissemination’ of archaeological messages within DPA.

An alternative paradigm originated from a critique of this earlier dominant one, and is grounded in the work of the Frankfurt School, although it was only clearly outlined from the 1960s and 70s onwards (McQuail 2005, 65–6). This view does not share the notion of fixed meanings embedded in media content. On the contrary, it conceives of meanings as constructed within the contexts of communication and varying according to the profile of the participants: their motivations, attitudes, prior knowledge, existing skills and socio-demographic characteristics.

Whether one chooses to embrace a media- or, alternatively, a meaning-centred view of communication has considerable influence on the kinds of engagement that can result. What we have seen to date in DPA is too much of the former, with limited attention to audiences and little or no interest in monitoring and evaluation, and not enough of the latter with clear objectives and assessment of the results achieved.

How have digital media affected patterns of production and consumption of archaeological knowledge, and what (if anything) has been lost in the rush to innovate?

These questions arise out of an interest in the potential for new and emerging digital technologies to democratise the archaeological process through public-professional collaboration, placing not only the data but also the means of creating the data in the hands of anybody who is motivated enough to get involved. We argue that it is important to proceed with caution, noting that transformations in the communication landscape do not tend to consist of the simple, progressive substitution of ‘older’ media forms, content and audiences with entirely new ones. Rather, media can be seen as organisms that interact with one another and the environment, in a dynamic system (Naughton 2006, 43; see also Bonacchi 2012). Anything introduced into this ecosystem has an impact on all media-organisms and how they relate to each other, so that wipe-out scenarios occur only rarely.

On this basis it is important to recognise who participates in DPA in the UK, to be very careful in how we regard digital novelties, and to be aware of the continuing relevance and appeal of many so-called ‘older’ and non-digital forms of communication, in order to achieve a more inclusive public archaeology. We need a realistic and possibly dispiriting view of the actual levels of interest or demand for collaborative research undertakings, as well as an appreciation that the majority of people using digital resources to explore archaeology may be happy to remain less ‘hands-on’ consumers. Research in public archaeology, museum studies and digital humanities has consistently shown that there is still a tendency on the part of organisations to use social media as broadcasting channels, rather than platforms for exchange and discussion (e.g. Richardson 2014). On the other side, however, there remains an expectation from many archaeological enthusiasts that they will be guided by cultural institutions when engaging with their collections, information and activities (see for example Cameron 2007 with respect to museum engagement more generally). The participative potential of social media rarely if ever overcomes this popular desire for structured forms of engagement. Similarly, television remains the most popular (and distinctively unidirectional) way of accessing archaeological information for a diverse UK audience (Bonacchi 2014). One possible contributing factor to this trend is that, even in the increasingly digital UK, there remains a divide at the level of access to broadband, digital skills and literacy, with many still marginalised. The lack of socio-economic diversity within most aspects of archaeology can make these gaps harder to see.

Are patterns of knowledge production changing? Probably the most interesting exercises in democratic DPA can be seen in crowdsourcing projects such as the Megalithic Portal, a remarkably useable and longstanding online database. The value of the Megalithic Portal as a resource is a monument to carefully managed collaborative work over more than a decade, run by and for enthusiasts (Richardson 2014).

A possible perspective on the growing field of crowdsourcing in UK archaeology is comparing it to the on-going decline of traditional local archaeological societies (Manley 1999), often bastions of retired, white, middle-class amateur archaeologists (see Thomas 2010 for a report on demographics within community archaeology groups). It is worth considering whether online volunteering groups with active discussion forums can increasingly fulfil the same intellectual and social needs as local societies have until now. Here again we can look forward to examining the longer-term legacies of, for example, the Thames Discovery Programme, the MicroPasts project and some of DigVentures‘ initiatives, to see whether digital engagement can create new, enduring and interconnected communities. Generally we believe that online groupings will tend to remain more fluid, but by no means less valuable.

Conclusion: Ignorance is no Longer an Option

We finish with an observation about the importance of regarding evaluation as an intrinsic component of DPA, rather than either forgetting about it entirely or leaving it to the very end because of lack of time, resources or, as happens sometimes, the knowledge and skills needed to undertake it.

New digital media are opening up further opportunities to assess the effectiveness of archaeological communications in relation to the stated aims and objectives of specific projects. The move from a unidirectional Web 1.0 to a more dramatically interactive Web 2.0 and 3.0 has led to the generation of a data deluge. Aside from its impressive if not daunting quantity, these data are characterised by velocity and variety, a fine-grained and relational nature and flexibility. When we use web platforms for public archaeology, we also collect information that can be extraordinarily useful in reviewing our work. Informed by relevant theory and mixed with small data methods offline, this data deluge may help us understand where we stand and how we can improve DPA.

Digital practices are still finding their place within UK public archaeology, and there is an immediate need for more research focusing on monitoring and understanding impacts and sustainability, as well as more general critiques and reflections (e.g. Henson 2013; Walker 2014). At the same time, there are innovative projects taking place, some of them generating resources that are likely to be of wider and longer-term value. Most archaeology, like most traditional theatre, operates with an imaginary ‘fourth wall’ separating the performers from the audience. The most exciting thing about DPA is the extent to which it enables or might come to enable the breaking down of that fourth wall.


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