The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S4. digiTAG 2: Archaeological Storytelling and the ‘Digital Turn’

Session organizers:

James Taylor (University of York, and Sara Perry (University of York,

Session abstract:

In April of 2016 the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) teamed up with the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) conference to run a successful Digital TAG (digiTAG) session in Oslo, Norway. This session sought to question, challenge, appraise and reconceive the epistemological and research-oriented implications of the digital turn in archaeology, including its larger social, political and economic consequences.

That event, building on a long history of engagement with digital processes and digital media at both the TAG and CAA conferences, brought together 15 practitioners from around the world working in all domains of archaeology--from the lab to the field, from the museum to the classroom. Here they situated their (and others') use of digital technologies within wider theoretical contexts, and with critical self-awareness, thereby opening up a space for rigorous evaluations of impact and reflections on overall disciplinary change. digiTAG 2 now aims to build upon the success of the first digiTAG, extending critical conversation about the discipline's digital engagements at a finer-grained level in concert with a diverse audience of theoretical archaeologists.

However, digiTAG 2 seeks to narrow our discussion, in specific, on the concept of digital storytelling and the ramifications of the digital turn on larger interpretations of the past. Given the frequency and intensity with which digital media are now enrolled to structure, articulate, visualise and circulate information for the production of archaeological narratives, we invite participants to present papers that critically consider the impact of the digital turn upon archaeological interpretation and archaeology's many stories.

Whether you direct your digital engagements at professional, academic or non-specialist audiences - whether you deploy digital tools for data collection, data analysis, synthesis, and dissemination or beyond - we ask, how are your stories affected? Does the digital enable new and different narratives? Does it extend or narrow audience engagement? When does it harm or hinder, complicate or obfuscate? And when - and for whom - does it create richer, more meaningful storytelling about the past?

To explore these questions, we encourage both traditional conference papers, as well as more experimental forms of (analogue or digital) argumentation, narrativising and delivery of your talk. Ultimately, digiTAG 2 aims to delve into the critical implications of archaeologists' use of digital technologies on processes of knowledge creation.

Contributor Abstracts:

Generative junk mail: Geo-narrating Sir Charles Wheatstone

Cassie Newland (King’s College London)

Media archaeologies remind us that the properties of digital information generate new ways of exploring and imagining data. From the 'song' of a comet to the colour of the internet, the glorious blossoming of digital outputs inspires a re-evaluation of approaches to what might be called analogue archives. (Analogue in the sense that the materials embody continuously variable properties, such as size, shape, papers, inks, stains, marks, tears, etc.) How might these properties be sought, mined and made to tell stories? This paper seeks the generative data within Sir Charles Wheatstone's personal papers and re-imagines archaeological storytelling as a similarly generative experience.

“Once, or twice, upon a time”. Ripping Yarns from the tablet’s edge

Keith May (Historic England)

On re-examining the digiTAG2 call for papers, I realize that I could tell an innovative story about pretty much any of the bullet points listed. But we’ve been explicitly asked in the cfp to experiment, and that is a very tempting offer that is hard to refuse, although not necessarily an easy one to achieve. To begin, in Under Milk Wood Style, at the beginning, would usually be a good place to start but that could presuppose that our story is going to follow a strictly linear narrative route (Holtorf 2010, Pluciennik 1999) whereas I’m hoping to consider that some accounts of hi-story do tend to work better as circular tales, and regardless of the physicists’ insistence that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics defines a straight and unwavering flight of the ‘arrow of time’ (Cox, The Arrow of Time, BBC2).

But since the saga I wish to recount is one of Research, then it most likely makes sense to follow a pre-designed and well-trod trail. Our story therefore starts – be it a cycle or arrow - with existing archive documents; developing research questions and a research design to answer those questions; moving meticulously forwards to investigation; which will in turn provide the data for analysis and synthesis; then on to publication of results; wider dissemination of outcomes; while, throughout the whole saga, building the material for archive. The setting for the short event where this TAG paper will be presented, will be somewhere in the local of Southampton and, at the moment of writing this, at some time (unknown) in the future. 

Will the story be a linear narrative or a cycle, or even an upwards spiral, of research? This paper will try to show why it might be both and how, ideally, it could benefit from ending up as a Ripping Yarn rather than a rather Greyish piece of Literature.


Cox, B “The Arrow of Time” - Wonders of the Universe - BBC Two

Holtorf, Cornelius (2010) Meta-stories of archaeology. World Archaeology 42(3):381-393.

Pluciennik, Mark (1999) Archaeological Narratives and Other Ways of Telling. Current Anthropology 40(5), 653-678.

Building Museum Narratives through Active Performance with Digital Replicas of Objects

Paola Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco (University of Cambridge)

Today we are used to “conceiving and presenting objects as always incomplete, even useless, without the (textual) provision of associated data and interpretations” (H. Dudley), and this underestimate the possibilities inherent in objects’ material, sensorially perceptible characteristics (i.e., affordances) for understanding the meaning and function of objects in the past. Following this argument, in this paper I attempt to show that virtual or real interactions with copies of original artefacts can augment museum experiences because 3D digital or printed replicas allow museum visitors to form an intimate relationship with museum objects, including objects they are not allowed to physically manipulate. This study builds on the results of recent surveys aimed at exploring how people perceive ancient artifacts presented through different media (visual examination of original objects, interaction with 3D digital replicas, tactile experience with 3D prints). The results of this research suggest that traditional museum practices, which see textual or similar provisions as necessary a priori for a valuable learning experience in a museum, can be modified, so that the physical experience with artefacts becomes intimate a priori. Further, virtual and/or tactile manipulation of artefacts’ replicas allows museum visitors to freely create their own narratives of the past. As a result, museum visitors become more intrigued with the stories of museum objects and more critically engaged with expert interpretations proposed a posteriori. I end this paper with offering ideas on alternative exhibition practices that integrate traditional museum settings and 3D replicas to increase museum experiences. 

Archaeological Storytelling with LEGO StoryStarter: Grand Designs in Ancient Greece

Matthew Fitzjohn and Peta Bulmer (University of Liverpool)

Grand designs in Ancient Greece is an AHRC funded collaborative research project, between The University of Liverpool and primary and secondary schools, to create innovative and engaging cross-curricular lessons about archaeology and Classical Greece. In contrast to traditional methods of academic research dissemination and methods of teaching, we have designed activities that encourage students to learn through digital storytelling, within a supportive structure, which is a powerful tool for improving literacy and nurturing their interest in both archaeology and the past.

This paper will explore how we are enabling children to harness the power of digital technology to write their own stories about the practice of archaeology and life in Ancient Greece. We are using LEGO StoryStarter, which is designed to develop skills in creative writing, reading, spoken language, art, and areas of ICT learning. Students learn through play about the practice of archaeology and Classical Greece by collaborating to create LEGO models of excavations and Greek daily life. We also provide problem scenarios, in which there is an issue, problem, challenge or opportunity, but which intentionally avoid defining a specific outcome. The aim is to promote discussion of the issues and for students to determine the course of the story arc and suggest possible resolutions to the story. The students use their Lego models to build scenes for a story about an excavation or life in Classical Greece, and LEGO StoryVisualizer is used to take photographs, visualise and write the stories, and communicate their work in digital storyboards.

Enriching The List

Martin Newman (Historic England)

In June 2016 Historic England Launched Enriching The List, a development of the National Heritage List for England (NHLE), to enable those using The List to add additional information about the list entries and photographs of them. This is proving to be a tremendous success both for crowdsourcing additional information and as an outreach and engagement tool enabling people to share their personal stories relating to the buildings and sites on The List. The NHLE contains almost 400,000 entries comprising Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Registered Parks and Gardens, Registered Battlefields and Protected Wrecks, so far with over 10,000 contributions published including 15,000 images As well as looking at the technology used to facilitate this sharing, this presentation will also include of some of the stories being shared showing how this is truly living up to the word ‘Enriching’ in the project title and delivering benefits in terms of outreach and engagement.

Integrating Narratives: Creating Stories of Archaeology in a Local Language

Tomomi Fushiya (Leiden University, Netherlands)

Despite the importance of drawings and images, particularly because of increasing digital applications, archaeology is still a discipline that is heavily dependent on writing, from recording, interpreting to presenting knowledge. The discipline is shaped by consciousness of writing. This can be a challenge when community engagement in archaeology is sought in a community of which the primary language is an oral-based language and writing is available only in their secondary language. Use of digital audio allows us to create and narrate archaeological knowledge in such languages. Further, it may present potential ways to bridge archaeological and community interests.

Local communities in the vicinity of the Amara West archaeological site in northern Sudan are populated largely by the Nubians. Their language, Nubian, once had a writing system but that is not practically used among the speakers today. The language is regarded as the core of the Nubian heritage among the communities, embodied in songs, poems and names of places, objects and practices that are manifestations of their heritage. The Nubian communities also consider the archaeological sites as a part of Nubian heritage. At the same time, however, the sites carry a sense of alienation, as they become a separated space, for the presence of international archaeologists.

In an effort to share results of the archaeological research at Amara West, a Nubian podcast was created in collaboration with local people. This brought not only a unique opportunity to present archaeology for the communities, but also illuminates a potential way to integrate local and archaeological narratives.

The Playful Past: Storytelling Through Videogame Design and Development

Tara Copplestone (University of York and Aarhus University, Denmark) 

The media forms that we use in archaeological knowledge creation and visualisation have an impact on how narrative is structured and thus on how storytelling can unfold. The videogame medium draws upon analogue elements of ludus as well as digitally specific structures to offer a number of novel affordances for creating and telling stories about the past. Drawing on ideas of agency, co-creation, emergence and systems this paper will critically probe how the creative practice of designing and developing videogames offers interesting storytelling opportunities and it will be argued that thinking, creating and playing through these novel structures allows for interesting, reflexive thought that can be beneficial as a form of knowledge creation and communication. This paper will demonstrate and discuss syncretic, emergent and parallel narratives through three games created as part of my PhD research. The paper will be experimental in form – flipping backwards and forwards between the games themselves and the code which underpins them – through taking this approach it aims to demonstrate, and immerse, the audience into how these narratives are constructed and made as well as how they are played. Through taking this approach the value for both players and creators will be shown.

Goodnight Sweetheart: Digital Data Funerals

Audrey Samson (University of the West of England)

This contribution explores how erasure could be used as a mode of inquiry to examine the relationship between memory and network materiality through a series of workshops. The following describes the investigation of the relationship to digital death and deletion through two workshops that took place in London in the spring of 2015: Posthumans n Postburials: Digital Data Funeral Design , at the London College of Communication (LCC), and Goodnight Sweetheart , at the Victoria Albert Museum. The goal of these workshops was to test how erasure as a method of inquiry could creatively fuel the digital data funeral design process, and to get further insight into how people feel about deletion with respect to digital death.

In taking up Heidegger’s challenge to use art to reflect on technology's enframing , in this case, how network materiality enframe's memory, the research described is a set of experiments to that effect (1977). The research the workshops are based upon, which fall under the umbrella project , could be said to both delete and leave a trace of the erasure, like a text marked by sous rature , an attempt to articulate the absence of a presence (Derrida, 1997: xvii). investigates different modes of symbolic rituals of erasure, called digital data funerals. This artistic strategy serves to further emphasise problematic digital archiving practices such as surveillance, and proposes the importance of mourning (that is both remembering and forgetting) of our distributed and disembodied digital memories. This contribution addresses the gap in technological development, governmental and corporate privacy policy, and socialised mourning related to network materiality. The artistic practice described will examine how materiality and perception might be related in the specific case of digital data and its afterlife. Ultimately, it investigates how memory and technical objects are both entangled in the context of networked data archiving, and the potential of erasure as a method of inquiry towards this exploration of this theme. It begs the question: “What would you erase forever, if you could?”


Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Of Grammatology . Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Heidegger, M. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology . New York & London: Garland Publishing, INC.

Industrial Memory and Memorialisation through Digitisation

Caradoc Peters (University of Plymouth, Truro College) and Adam Spring (Duke University)

This paper explores the tension between two sorts of memory. On the one hand, there are vivid, immediate emotions evoked by states of nostalgia and nightmare, and on the other hand, there is the more long-term atmosphere evoked by a sense of place and identity. The latter atmosphere is in part achieved through memorialisation. Presenting narratives of the industrial landscape to the public through digital means necessarily involves an engagement with these tensions.

Three theoretical approaches are brought to bear on the problem: cultural presence mediated through industrial remains; the Infrastructure of Things and industrial trajectography. 

Social and cultural aspects are essential to a more immediate and emotional response to industrial archaeology. Objects and structures in social interactions help create atmosphere and sense of place. The Infrastructure of Things takes Bruno Latour’s idea of the Parliament of Things (already applied to digital worlds as the Internet of Things) to understand the interaction of human and non-human actors in industrial landscapes. Striking examples of the anthropomorphising of the industrial infrastructure and its incorporation into human social networks illuminate this potential. Finally, Virilio’s idea of trajectography is a useful way of understanding how these relations between humans and the industrial infrastructure are experienced and organised.

Parallels between industrial archaeology and its digital representations naturally emerge in these three approaches. These parallels are therefore to be navigated cautiously in presenting narratives of this recent period of archaeology. Industrial archaeology has a potential immediacy that is highly seductive.

Ghosts in the Machines, Spirits in the Material World: An Archaeological Mystery

Jeremy Huggett (University of Glasgow)

A dialogue about the digital technologies which intervene in the creation of archaeological knowledge has tended to be limited by the way archaeologists are already embedded within that technological environment. At the same time, it is argued that we need to be knowledgeable participants in order to consider and influence the effects of these technologies. This paper seeks to escape from this paradox through the use of narrative as an investigative tool for present-day digital practice rather than for telling stories about the past. As an experiment, a narrative will be developed as a vehicle for highlighting a largely hidden aspect of our use of digital tools in archaeology, and for thinking about how day-to-day archaeological method and practice is affected by the tools we use. It will introduce a short story about a regular archaeologist, their experiences with digital tools used during the course of their work, and the mystical encounters which result.

Digital Escapism. How are objects become deprived of matter

Monika Stobiecka (University of Warsaw, Poland)

Due to technological progress in data collecting and its representation, in recent decades we observe an expansive movement related to registering and documenting heritage. It provokes discussions about the nature of collected archaeological data. Digitalization offers various possibilities for transforming archaeological information. Many new digital technologies and archeometry create powerful opportunities to reconstruct and represent material, "living” artifacts.

In my paper, I would like to consider a problem of representation of archaeological data and artifacts in museums. There is a growing tendency to create exhibitions without any material, authentic artifacts. Museums in Europe use various strategies to attract visitors and they often tempt the crowds with new technologies, i.e. digital reconstructions, augmented reality, simulations, visualizations and holograms. Many museums do not exhibit artifacts and present only the traces of data and the traces of objects (while artifacts may simply rest in a museum’s storage).

In the context of these changes, I would like to reflect on the following questions: why is archaeology gradually resigning from the authentic matter? Are we experiencing a kind of “digital escapism” dictated by ludic preferences? Are specialized researches become impossible to exhibit? Does digital data become the goal of archaeologists meeting expectations of the audience?

In my presentation I will try to answer these questions by analyzing different fully or partially digital exhibitions and archaeological approaches to data collected with help of the most modern technologies as represented in the Museum of Underground Market Square in Cracow. What is proposed in the museum is the full experience of the past. The visitor may feel „immersed” in the past with help of a variety of digital exhibits, but what is dangerous in the reconstructed past is the place of artifact — marginal and forgotten. 

Show, don’t tell: Using digital techniques to visually record and present sites as a means to tackle complexity.

Katie Campbell (University of Oxford)

Building on a paper from the first digiTAG, this presentation aims to critically evaluate the use of digital visualisation techniques to broach the often complex political and communication issues at internationally-recognised archaeological sites. Broadening the discussion as to how this approach might impact the site’s narratives, it focusses on the somewhat extreme case of Merv in Turkmenistan to demonstrate how a digital recording and presentation strategy influences work within a professionally diverse, international team, while negotiating practical and political challenges. 

In 2015, the monumental, mudbrick-built Great Kyz Kala at Merv was archaeologically investigated to inform a conservation, heritage and tourism management strategy, a task which built on a decades of research at the site. This presentation describes the situation at Merv, and reasons for selecting a heavily photogrammetric recording strategy for this latest investigation. Feedback collected from specialists working at this and other similar sites was then combined with wider critical thinking on the subject to create digital visualisations to aid various work tasks and decision making at the site. 

Through critically considered, practical application of digital technology, this paper follows the creation of a digital site narrative from data collection to interpretation, while presenting evaluative observations from a range of stakeholders and ultimately aims to draws conclusions on the impact of this digital account of the monument.

Drawing out the data: information graphics and the analysis of multivalent data

Megan von Ackermann (University of York)

This paper discusses how the use of information graphics may help navigate the tasks of understanding, analysing, and interpreting large amounts of complex, interrelated data through the creation of visual narratives. 

Early medieval locks and keys are socially charged objects with the ability to create and change identities and perceptions of objects, spaces, and people. In order to understand the implications of their appearance in mortuary constructions, and through that some of the social, economic, and cultural conditions that were the context for those constructions, it is necessary to produce as complete a picture as possible of the objects and their setting. However the number of characteristics produced makes conventional correspondence analysis through cross tabs unfeasible. Traditionally the solution has been to reduce the number of characteristics either through a deliberate narrowing of focus or by grouping characteristics according to a set of logically derived criteria. Unfortunately, because these groupings reflect the concerns and questions of the researcher it is possible that the results will be incomplete or biased. Further, the grouping approach tends to reinforce large statistical patterns while those that are potentially still important but appear less strongly may be ignored.

With the understanding that objects both create and are created by narratives, this paper presents an alternative approach that uses emergent information graphic methods to discover possible conceptual clusters that reflect those narratives, and then goes on to discuss the importance of graphic-based approaches in the effective presentation of these narratives to a wider audience.

Something Old… Something New

Helen Marton (Falmouth University)

“If we accept that mind and matter achieve co-dependency through the medium of bodily action, then it follows that ideas and attitudes, rather than occupying a separate domain from the material, actually find themselves inscribed “in” the object.”

Archaeology maps cultural attitudes towards protection, consumption, reproduction and systems of belief, often examined primarily through crafted objects. I endeavor to commute between past and present and from one culture to another, creating new narratives through craft practice. The human condition hasn’t changed all that much, in stark contrast to our comprehension of the world which has expanded exponentially, and yet our drives and needs remain the same as do our most basic preoccupations, hopes and fears. I explore the presupposition that in the process of making and in the use of material we truly encounter, relate and communicate a degree of shared experience and understanding.

My current creative practice reinterprets archaeological material through digital and traditional craft practices; I explore how this hybridized approach offers a potentially new lens through which to view the past. I produce playful, resonant works using a variety of appropriate materials. They frequently allude to function, borrowing and abstracting meaning and significance from both domestic and ritual objects in order to create contemporary indicators, highlighting shared domestic activities, connecting past and present.

My interdisciplinary practice based PhD explores the communication of archaeology: Reinterpreting finds from a specific site at Tremough in Cornwall.

Stonehenge and other stories

Paul Backhouse (Historic England)

The illustrator has arguably had a subservient role to text in archaeology, often seen as too interpretative and loosely based on fact. Yet between the text and the illustration lies the story of the past, in this increasingly digitally visually driven world there is a greater place for visual story telling. 

Is choosing an audience really that important? Or is it the impact? 

This presentation will explore the work of a number of artists and projects that have through their input increased the impact of the results of archaeological and heritage work through their visual narratives.

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