University of Southampton OCS (beta), CAA 2012

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Using technology to explore issues of communication and disruption in archaeological fieldwork
Tom Frankland

Last modified: 2011-12-20


Archaeological fieldwork is currently supported by a diverse range of technological tools and devices. This paper outlines some of the author’s latest research which explores how novel portable technologies might be introduced into a fieldwork environment to support archaeologists’ existing research practices. Over the past ten years, the majority of technologies that have been experimented with or introduced into an archaeological fieldwork setting have supported either data acquisition or data management. Given that archaeological research is a destructive process, and therefore the primary research material cannot be re-examined, this is considered unsurprising. However, novel technologies have the potential to improve the way in which archaeological research in fieldwork environments is conducted in new and unforeseen ways, and therefore the paper outlines an approach to exploring these novel technologies by focusing on two alternative themes; how technologies can support communication and how they can disrupt social hierarchies.

Communication is vital in an archaeological fieldwork setting as it plays a central role in archaeological interpretation. Formal conversation, informal discussion at the tea break or in the pub and idle chat with the archaeologist digging alongside you all help shape the interpretation of the evidence. Technologies introduced to support the acquisition or management of archaeological data may help archaeologists to do their job more efficiently, but they may also reduce the need for archaeologists to converse with one another rather than promoting discussion.

Archaeological fieldwork teams are also often structured in a very hierarchical manner, forming a social divide between the archaeologists who produce the data through excavation and those who interpret it. Archaeologists with roles primarily associated with excavating often feel disillusioned, perceiving their work as little more than unskilled manual labour. It is therefore hoped that technologically intervening at an archaeological excavation may have a twofold effect. One is to expose the existing social hierarchy and therefore direct the archaeologists’ attention towards it, which may have an impact on communication and behaviour. This is the concept Garfinkel refers to as a ‘breaching experiment’. The other desired effect of a technological intervention is to empower archaeologists lower down the hierarchy and to explore the possibility of supporting them in making their own, egalitarian interpretations of the archaeological evidence.

The paper describes the findings of several ethnographic field studies, conducted by the author using methodologies from HCI and CSCW, which explored the use of technology and how communication occurred across a site. Informal interviews and observations made in the field also highlighted how the social hierarchies were perceived by the archaeologists. A variety of sites have been studied, differing in both their dependence upon technology and hierarchical structure.

The paper also outlines the results of a low-tech intervention that was recently conducted at an archaeological field-school for students. Conducted as an ‘augmented reality breaching experiment’, it explored how discussion might be encouraged among archaeologists and suggests several implications for the design of technologies which will explore these themes further.


archaeology; communication; ethnography; fieldwork; HCI; hierarchies