"I've always wanted to meet an archaeologist"

When people ask what I do, and I reply “I’m an archaeologist”, the reaction is generally one of surprise and interest, and occasionally one of disbelief. I’m not wearing a hat. There are no boulders chasing after me. And I don’t have leather patches on my jacket. OK, so I’ve got long hair, but we’ll ignore that for now (trust me, there are a lot of stereotypical remarks about an archaeologist’s appearance).

At last year’s Mac Expo in London, I was wearing a name badge which contained the name of my employers (hint: it contains the word “Archaeology”), giving the game away about what I do for a living.

A man came up to me whilst I was browsing a stand, and he asked if he could shake my hand. In apprehensive disbelief, I shook his hand. I think my reaction was simple: “Err, of course. Why?”, whilst looking rather puzzled. He replied that he’s watched archaeology on TV and read books about it for years, and always wanted to meet a real archaeologist. We chatted for a bit, and he was doubly amazed that I was an archaeologist who specialised in compter applications. The concept that archaeologists gathered an awful lot of data just hadn’t occurred, and that we might need computers to quantify, query and interpret, and disseminate that information.

Archaeology is pointless if we don’t publish what we find.

I encountered a lot of people at the Expo who asked me about my profession, and all of them were amazed that archaeology uses a lot of modern technology to help us in just about every stage of our work. The same reactions were found at the PodcastconUK conference in September 2005.

A recent discussion with friends about the awareness of technology use in archaeology reminded me of my meetings at Mac Expo and PodcastconUK, so I thought I’d list some of the things we do in the world of archaeological computing. These are basic introductions, a paragraph or two long, as each topic could be a book in its own right.

Before I start, it has nothing to do with digging up old computers (please!). Although occasionally we do have to resurrect legacy systems when mysterious piles of Amstrad 3″ discs appear full of data from the ’80s…

Some of these will seem obvious, others less so:


Most excavations now use a database to catalogue information about the site. From finds, survey coordinates, context information, to photograph numbers, this type of data often finds itself into a database. This is normally a Microsoft Access database that is sometimes synchronised with MS SQL Server.

Some archaeology units in the UK are centralising their databases to allow for more powerful cross-site queries.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
GIS have been used in archaeology since the 1970s. Digital maps are very important as they allow us to display and query our data spatially, that is, on a map. From simple distribution plans to detailed cost-path analysis (would ancient people have travelled from A to D via B or C?) factored with environmental data.

We can overlay modern and historical maps to help us understand development and change, and the results of archaeological surveys, allowing us to peel back the layers of time. We can even put that data onto Google Earth!


This catch-all term for websites, video, audio and interactive elements is my specialism. Telling the world about archaeology is vitally important, as disseminating knowledge is why archaeology exists. Why dig something up (objects and other features), destroy its context, if nobody else can learn from it?

I currently use traditional HTML websites of mainly static information, along with blogs, podcasts, streaming video and audio, as well as Flash-based “click and drag” games for children. You can see some of my further interests in the rest of this blog.

Social networking tools are, in my opinion, vital for archaeologists (collaboration, sharing, publishing). More on that in future posts.

Systems Development

Contrary to popular belief, some of us archaeologists are programmers too. From basic batch files in C, to fully developed applications for surveying or even site management, we’re programmers too (well, a few of us).

Some archaeology units have their own systems developers (Wessex Archaeology have two), and Oxford ArchDigital is an archaeology unit dedicated to it.


We use some pretty advanced gadgets to help us get better accuracy when we survey our sites. RTK GPS, 3D laser scanning (example from Stonehenge), and the usual total stations. AutoCAD is generally used to bring together different parts of a survey, which can then be incorporated into a GIS.

3D Visualisation

Turning thick reports or vague ideas into a visual 3D world is becoming a more popular tool within archaeology itself. From the realm of academia (where it’s been experimented with since the 1970s) to mainstream TV archaeology, like the web, it’s a maturing technology that is getting cheaper for archaeologists to use (in terms of software cost and staff time).

We can create compelling images of the past, but at the same time, we have to remind ourselves that this is a dangerous tool as well. Some of the images that we’re making now, like those in film, are very believable, and it’s easy to believe them as an empirical truth. That’s how the past was when it reality, it’s just one interpretation of many, and could be entirely wrong…

That aside, render farms of multiple computers daisy-chained together for crunching 3D frames are used by archaeologists lucky enough to have them. And making a detailed image or animation makes you really focus on your sources. Many a theory has gone out the window once an image to test it has been created.

It’s a very exciting part of archaeology to work within, as it really is a blend between computers and the past.


Archaeologists, in general, like to do everything themselves. It’s something of a tradition. I’m as guilty (and proud) of that as the next person. You’ll see what we do is diverse, and often very untraditional uses of technology to achieve our aims.

Each year the Computer Applications in Archaeology (CAA) conference is held somewhere in the world, with many countries having their own regional chapters. Here in the UK, CAAUK 2006 is being held at Southampton University (who also teach an MSc degree in archaeological computing).

If you’ve got any questions or comments – please do leave them below. If you’re interested in heritage-related computing, I might be able to point you in the right direction.

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2 Responses to "I've always wanted to meet an archaeologist"

  1. David J. Knight 14 March, 2006 at 4:10 pm #

    Yes, it is interesting the various stereotypes about archaeologists. Back in 1982 I certainly had my own idea of what an archaeologist looked like, usually muddy, sun-scorched and knowledgable. Ah, the days before hi-visual clothing, hard-hats and protective footwear! In those days it was shaved head, shorts and very worn Brogues!
    It’s completely understandable and good that we all have hi-vi and hard-hats and steel-toed boots now, but I’m convinced that the general public is even less aware of our presence now. In any city you walk by a building site and it takes some awareness to recognize that those people in hard-hats over there are actually dealing with archaeology while those other people over there are actually pouring concrete. I wonder if this development in what we wear has increased our status among city councils but lowered it in the eyes of the general public?

  2. teflonjedi 16 May, 2006 at 3:15 am #

    That’s better than the reaction I get, sometimes, when I’m introduced as a physicist…sigh…