I was staring at a blank screen when my colleague David came into my office. I semi-jokingly asked him for a blog topic.
“I have one for you,” he replied. “Content Archaeology. Discuss.” And with that he left my office.
People know that I trained as an archaeologist and did fieldwork in multiple locations. I still think of myself as a social scientist. This phrase resonates with me, and is a concept that I have discussed with others, more often under the rubric of “digital archaeology.” There is also the practice of using digital tools in archaeology, but that’s for another post.
In researching this, I did a bit of content archaeology myself. In the writing this morphed into a bit of a “Before You Were Born” post as well. This is a VERY truncated list of what one might consider digital archaeology.
- There was a very interesting article on digital archaeology in Wired in 1993. Yes, that’s really 1993.
- I read a very interesting article in the journal Social Semiotics by Gordon Fletcher and Anita Greenhill from 1996 entitled The Social Construction of Electronic Space that explicitly calls out digital archaeology as a methodology for research into virtual communities.
- There’s a UKOLN report titled Digital Archaeology: Rescuing Neglected and Damaged Data Resources by Seamus Ross and Ann Gow from 1999.
- I found a very illuminating paper from 2003 on what it took to reconstruct a set of UK education datasets known as The Schools Census.
- The digital archaeology story that is perhaps the most well-known to the public is the story from 2011 of the recovery of the Domesday Project, and its rebirth online.
- There is the Digital Archaeology project, aiming to recover disruptive moments in design and interactivity on the web. We interviewed Jim Boulton of Story Worldwide on The Signal in 2011.
- Mick Morrison at Flinders University posted an outline for a hands-on workshop on Digital Archaeology in 2011.
- Doug Reside of the New York Public Library wrote on Digital Archaeology: Recovering Your Digital History in 2012.
- I found a great 2013 case study from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in a blog post entitled Digital Archaeology — Uncovering a Website.
- In 2013 the New Museum launched a great experiment called XFR STN to help artists recover and migrate their digital art.
There is some holy grail content that the greater community would love to be found so digital archaeology and preservation actions could be taken, such as the full set of Apollo moon landing 11 tapes or the lost Dr. Who episodes.
How do you define “Content Archaeology” or Digital Archaeology”? What lost content would you like to see recovered?
Digital Archaeology is the practice of excavating and documenting digital media that has been overlooked, neglected or lost. Like all archeological projects it plugs gaps in the historical record. It’s also a lot of fun!
The recovery of defunct digital data and reconstruction into contextual documents and images is, to my mind, like the discovery and translation of ancient written languages like Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sumerian cuneiform, Minoan A and B, the Mayan written language, and the successful decipherment (if it ever happens) of the Phaistos Disk. These are all examples where dead languages (except the Phaistos script) have been recovered after long years of research.
Fortunately, bits and bytes are still the foundation of computer programming, and the emulation of dead computer programming is a lot easier than those of dead written human languages.
I am Archivist in a Science institution which started computerisation in about 1959. I have made the decision to keep all installation disks and manuals etc and have some of the hardware as well. The disks come in all sizes. It is interesting to see the evolution (for want of a better word) of software over the years. I have received mountains of floppys with data and reports from scientists, as well as installation disks and manuals fortunately. Interesting stuff. Never thought of it as archeology before, even though I have taken part in several excavations over the years.
I was actually cited in this article (Digital Archaeology-uncovering a website). I think for me, Digital Archeology is finding and making available information that has been lost, neglected or needed to be restored.
Besides finding old websites and things buried in server folders, I’ve found video files and exhibition related digital material in boxes laying around my office that I’ve made available. Like Tiena Jordan, I have kept a lot of old hardware, disks and manuals as well.
I’m curious as to where we draw the line at digital archaeology though. Does something need to be in digital form originally to be considered? Like if we digitize old archival films is that digital archaeology or is that something else?
I love this topic! It’s the closest thing I can get to being Indiana Jones without and Archaeology degree.