We’re becoming increasingly accustomed to talk of Big Data in archaeology and at the same time beginning to see the resurgence of Artificial Intelligence in the shape of machine learning. And we’ve spent the last 20 years or so assembling mountains of data in digital repositories which are becoming big data resources for mining in the pursuit of machine learning training data. At the same time we are increasingly aware of the restrictions that those same repositories impose upon us – the use of pre-cooked ‘what/where/when’ queries, the need to (re)structure data in order to integrate different data sources and suppliers, and their largely siloed nature which limits cross-repository connections, for example. More generally, we are accustomed to the need to organise our data in specific ways in order to fit the structures imposed by database management systems, or indeed, to fit our data into the structures predefined by archaeological recording systems, both of which shape subsequent analysis. But what if it doesn’t need to be this way?
To what extent does our use of digital devices to capture and process archaeological data affect our perceptions of what was there? Mark Altaweel (2018) has recently asked a similar question in relation to GPS technologies – how do these affect our understanding and experience of place? He suggests that they diminish our sense of place and experiences that we might otherwise have as we navigate according to their recommendations. Certainly, satnavs are notorious for taking our navigational cognitive load upon themselves and consequently leading drivers who are insufficiently aware of their surroundings into undesirable, even dangerous situations. We might think that the human cognitive load that is thereby freed up by such devices ought to be capable of being diverted into more useful, more extensive, areas – we literally have the space to think about bigger and deeper things as a consequence of their application. This kind of argument frequently arises in relation to the value of automation, for instance, and can be seen in the kinds of discussions surrounding the use of structure-from-motion photogrammetric recording on archaeological excavations, for example. But is this supposed release of cognitive space an unalloyed good? Or is this a case of the technologies distancing us from the physicality of the archaeological material and space in front of us?
Some time ago, David Berry introduced the term ‘infrasomatization’ (Berry 2016) which he defines as the production of constitutive infrastructures; specifically the way that digital algorithms are deployed and change existing infrastructures, and how they alter rationalities by introducing computational interdependencies and structural brittleness into our systems (Berry 2018). In the process, he has just coined another new term: the Datanthropocene, the data-intensive society. This is closely linked to ‘big data’ approaches, data-intensive science, and he suggests that it “creates new economic structures but also new social realities and data-intensive subjectivities and hence new problems for society to negotiate”.
Of course, debates continue about the Anthropocene, not least whether or not it can even be defined as a specific epoch – does it start with the atomic era, for instance, or maybe even with the introduction of agriculture, or is it primarily associated with human-created climate change, pollution and extinctions?
I’ve borrowed the idea of ‘deep-fried data’ from the title of a presentation by Maciej Cegłowski to the Collections as Data conference at the Library of Congress last month. As an archaeologist living and working in Scotland for 26 years, the idea of deep-fried data spoke to me, not least of course because of Scotland’s culinary reputation for deep-frying anything and everything. Deep-fried Mars bars, deep-fried Crème eggs, deep-fried butter balls in Irn Bru batter, deep-fried pizza, deep-fried steak pies, and so it goes on (see some more not entirely serious examples).
Hardened arteries aside, what does deep-fried data mean, and how is this relevant to the archaeological situation? In fact, you don’t have to look too hard to see that cooking is often used as a metaphor for our relationship with and use of data.
Preservation by record is very much in the news at the moment in relation to attempts by ISIS to destroy cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria in places like Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, and the present threat to Palmyra. In some instances, the archaeological response has entailed excavations, in others it has been to begin to use crowd-sourced imagery to digitally reconstruct the heritage that has already been destroyed, or to use satellite and aerial imagery to map unrecorded and endangered sites.
Emma Cunliffe, from the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, has suggested that “in some extreme, and particularly devastating, cases, the records may be the only thing left of a culture, in which case we owe it to them to preserve something, anything”. Hard to argue with that, and the article goes on to suggest that one approach to preservation of these sites is the use of archaeological technology to record monuments in high resolution in those areas which are still accessible (Foyle 2015).