Friday, 10 April 2015

Past and future and the archaeological present

At last night's London Chapter OAS talk the speaker (John Dunlop, MA student, University of Western Ontario) spoke on his research investigating pre-contact sites using the geophysical technology of magnetometer survey. The exciting thing about geophys techniques, to me, is that they allow us to effectively survey the areas immediately surrounding sites for outlying structures and features. This can provide a much more detailed picture of the site landscape, particularly as sites are typically identified through the presence of surface or topsoil artifact concentrations that may not be directly related to sub-surface cultural features. An interesting corollary of this ability to peer under the plough-zone is the ability to record and preserve sites without excavating them, a seemingly perfect scenario given the mission statement of archaeology: 'to preserve the past for the future'.
This brings me to consider digital technologies and futurism in archaeology. Populated by individuals obsessed with the past, archaeology is increasingly a field obsessed with the future. Digital technologies are largely presented as means of better preserving and storing data, or collecting data in ever more futuristic ways to glean ever newer insights. In such an environment it is easy to get carried away by the possibilities of technological approaches and it is fascinating to speculate toward the role of technology in shaping the way we think. In a previous post (Feb. 19) I argued for the possibility, in light of advances in remote sensing, to not physically open a tomb. By the same token, we need to seriously scrutinize reasons for not excavating sites in the name of futurist ideas.
While the preservation of cultural heritage for the future must remain the central tenet of archaeology, the discipline's most important role is to contribute to, and shape, conversations happening at a given moment. Because archaeology, like everything else, only really exists in the present.

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