Digital Archaeology

Any given artifact is simultaneously at the center of its own history, and representative of a much larger story, too.

Each day I post a new Online MCAT CARS Passage. This is for anyone who wants to practice for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section.

Every article is selected to meet the AAMC MCAT criteria for MCAT CARS.

Subscribe by email to receive a new free practice passage each morning.

June 7, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Archaeology, as a way of examining the material world, has always required a certain deftness in scale. You have to be able to zoom in very close—at the level of, say, a single dirt-encrusted button—then zoom out again to appreciate why that one ancient button is meaningful.

Any given artifact is simultaneously at the center of its own history, and representative of a much larger story, too.

“Chipped-stone hand axes made hundreds of thousands of years ago and porcelain teacups from the 18th century carry messages from their makers and users,” wrote the archaeologist and historian James Deetz in his book, In Small Things Forgotten. “It is the archaeologist’s task to decode those messages and apply them to our understanding of the human experience.”

Carrying out that task is now possible in ways that were, until very recently, barely imaginable. As the digital and physical worlds collide, archaeology is changing—not just in practice but in scale. A huge database of Biblical-era pottery, for example, means an archaeologist in Jordan can find a shard of pottery from the Iron Age and, in minutes, query how that one fragment of clay connects to every other excavation site in the Holy Land. The frameworks scholars now use to piece together the past are are increasingly built from billions upon billions of overlapping data points.

“I’ve lived through this data transition,” said Thomas Levy, an archaeologist and anthropology professor at the University of California, San Diego. “We still dig like our 19th-century predecessors—with trowels, rubber buckets, shovels, toothbrushes, and so on. But we used to be really encumbered by our ability to record data. We had to be more selective. Now, with these digital tools—with GPS, total stations, laser scanning, and structure from motion photography—we can elect an unlimited amount of data.”

Levy, who helped build the Pottery Informatics Query Database, says his excavations went “totally digital” around 1999. He’s been collecting massive data troves on digs ever since. He’s also experimenting with 3-D visualizations made from data collected at excavation sites—visualizations that can be projected onto physical spaces and might eventually be accessible via virtual reality headsets. The result: people can have the experience of walking through archaeologically significant sites without actually traveling to them. With enough data, people can even have the experience of walking through structures that no longer exist.

“Within the archaeological setting, the site—and the more control we have over space—the more meaningful our observations are.” Levy told me. In other words, the more precision with which researchers can describe an artifact’s physical place in the world, the more value historians can extract from that object and others related to it. Imagine, for instance, an ancient mining site from the time of King Solomon. Someone like Levy might excavate a five-meter-by-five-meter trench through a slag mound where an ancient smelting operation once took place. During that excavation, he and his colleagues would record the geospatial coordinates for every single find—every last ingot fragment, or copper axe, or furnace remnant.

“We’re collecting billions of those data points,” he told me. “And then we sort of mesh them all together and we have not only a 3-D model of the actual excavation from this Biblical period, but we also have a kind of digital data-scaffold in which to embed all the archaeological data points.”

Thanks to satellite data, those data points can now be embedded within a topography of the entire planet. For instance, Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist, analyzes satellite imagery of Earth, looking for telltale features that might signal a long-lost historical site. Here’s how Wired described her process:

When looking for new archaeological sites, Parcak orders satellite imagery for parcels of land ranging from 65×65 to 165×165 feet square. Then she applies filters to highlight different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum in each image. She’s looking for features that may hint at what’s buried underground. A hallmark clue is the condition of surface vegetation. An architectural structure buried underground can stunt the growth of the flora above it, creating a dead zone—invisible to the naked eye, but detectable in short wave infrared images—in the shape of the underlying infrastructure. In places like Egypt, where vegetation is scarce, satellite imagery can help Parcak distinguish between natural and man-made materials like the mud bricks many tombs are made of.
It’s mind-boggling to think of the amount of data now flowing into the annals of archaeology. But the same thing that makes all this data useful—the sheer volume of information—presents difficult new challenges. Archaeologists aren’t yet sure about the best way to preserve these datasets, and they don’t know how, and in what format, they should be shared across networks.

Lots of people are looking for answers. Levy and his colleagues at several California universities are building a network that contains information from tens of thousands of archaeological sites. And there are other resources, like the Mediterranean Archaeology Network, which contains a series of linked archaeological nodes—which in turn contain regional databases for researchers to query. But the more important question of how to be a steward for massive, scholarly datasets is part of a larger conversation among information scientists that could end up redefining the library as we know it.

All this reflects a profound shift in how human knowledge will be contextualized, stored, and shared as reams of data continue to grow. Increasingly, people are looking for ways to classify and connect datasets. The Library of Congress, for example, is designing a new cataloguing system—for the first time in 40 years—optimized for the semantic web. Today, most of the world’s biggest libraries use an electronic filing system called MARC records, the standard that replaced physical card catalogues in the 1970s. The idea for the next generation of organizing library collections is to have a system that recognizes many more fields of metadata than ever before—and finds connections to other resources both within and outside of any individual institution.

So instead of just listing books and documents by “title,” “author,” “key words,” “genre,” and other basic fields, libraries are thinking about how to be far more descriptive about individual titles and far more comprehensive about how resources connect to one another. They’re also trying to figure out how to handle huge digital assets like datasets—everything from historic climate records to census data to satellite images to geospatial coordinates from archaeological excavations, and so on. I’ve interviewed several librarians who are seriously thinking about how to make this kind of information accessible to those who need it—these are people who are reshaping institutions like the Library of Congress, and Oxford, and Yale, and Harvard—and they all say that huge datasets will transform the fundamental functions libraries serve.

“A library is not a big box filled with books,” said Catherine Murray-Rust, the dean of libraries at Georgia Tech. “It is not just a study hall. Going back to the notion of a library from the past, it is really a space—and today a physical and virtual space—in which people can appreciate the scholarship of the past while they create the scholarship of the future.”

Georgia Tech is in the midst of a major renovation of its library system, an overhaul that will include removing many of the books from public spaces. (Print materials that are removed will still be retrievable upon request.) As the project has moved forward, Murray-Rust says the team working on the new library system has gotten “more radical in our thinking about what a library should be.”

“The huge issue now is data,” she said. “It’s probably more important than text. We have traditional reading rooms where there actually are a few books. Books are a tremendous visual cue to people about the seriousness of the space. We love the book, as technology, but we also know it is not the only—and in some fields not the best—vessel for content. This is particularly true with data: The book doesn’t work terribly well.”

Murray-Rust calls data “the new frontier” of human knowledge. She and others agree that data is changing entire industries and academic specialties so quickly that key information is bound to be lost before best practices are standardized. This is perhaps inevitable, but it represents more than just a missing piece of knowledge. People often talk about data points as if they’re conjured from thin air, somehow non-existent until they’re part of a larger set. And though it’s true that meaning arises from assembling great constellations of data, the data itself usually begins in the material world.

Among archaeologists, the datasets collected today—and the visualizations made from that data—may be all that exists after great structures have crumbled.

“Having Palmyra real is much more important than having 3-D models of it, obviously,” Levy told me, referring to the ancient city where several historic sites have been destroyed by ISIS in recent months. “But in a world where we have so much intentional destruction of cultural heritage, we’re in a position now to record it in ways that were impossible even a decade ago.”

Adapted from theatlantic.


Leave a comment below with what you understood to be the author’s main ideas. Ask about this daily passage in office hours/workshops for help.

Subscribe to my Daily CARS mailing list by entering your email.

The full list of daily articles is available here.

This was an article on Archaeology.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
Contact Information


  1. archaeology requires deftness, archaeology changing + technology increasing, volume of information challenging + causing changes


  2. Digital tools allow unlimited data + ppl to experience ancient archeology
    Volume of data increasing
    Huge data sets transforming libraries


  3. Archaelogy is changing = big picture of a whole society. 3-D sets of archaeology is leading to a spread of education for the future. Libraries are affected by this digital sets proving a more “radical” approach into education


  4. Technology has made arachaeology easier in terms of collecting and storing data and how data will inevitably become more important as the field of archaeology progresses.


  5. MI: Technology has advanced how archaeological studies are conducted contemporarily, but presents challenges due to the volume of data being collected.


  6. new tech = decode messages, virtual reality, discovering old sites and lots of data = reorganizing and changing library function might cost lost material


  7. This passage discusses the transformation of archeology fields in terms of technology and informatics.
    The increase in technology has allowed these professionals to conduct better research and recording of archeological sites, as well as helping communicate that information to others through 3D, virtual, and satellite methods.
    The passage continues to mention how this switch in technology is sweeping library catalogues as a new method to record and prganize book information.
    Ultimately, this new method is way to change the archeology field for the better.


  8. MIP:
    1. Archaeology digitalization using database and network. Database for excavation and build spatial (learn more+travel).
    2. Data storage is an issue.
    3. database transformed library


  9. MI: The current practice of collecting large amount of data on a topic is significantly influencing the ways in which we store and recall this data for future usage (e.g archeology, library sciences).


  10. author explains how archaeology is advancing b/c of tech. advance. however, data preservation is most important issue to be addressed.


  11. Archaeology is modernizing with the advent of databases and information that is much more accessible today than in the past. However, new challenges have arrived and we must be smart about how the data is distributed. Libraries are places that will likely change the most from the information influx.


  12. Technology, specifically the advancement of data and databases, is revolutionalizing the science of archaelogy and the way information is processed and stored to shape our future societies


  13. The article extolled the benefits of storing immense amounts of data in vivid detail and in a binary form easily accessible by many at a time. The author talks about the ways it benefits the field of archeology and the new problems faced in correctly harnessing it. From the archaeologist, to the student, the consumer, the land surveyor….it impacts everyone.


  14. Theme: Author is amazed by the sheer volume of data that we have accumulated in recent years due to the advent of the digital age. Archaeology is provided as an example to illustrate this idea. We need to come out with better approaches to store and curate data (challenge) now that we have the means to generate so much data. We also need to do so soon lest we start lose precious data, especially when sources of such data are no longer physically present in our world (cental).

    Digital age has facilitated the understanding of our past by helping us decipher meanings (connecting the dots) through the massive data collected.
    Testable: archaeologists decode messages and apply them to our understanding and in the same way, digital prowess has allowed us to “piece together the past …built upon billions upon billions of overlapping data points” which would probably take humans forever to figure it out (analogy)

    Testable: digital prowess has helped us to piece together and interpret data; allowed us to record more data (used to be really encumbered by our ability to record data…had to be more selective…can elect an unlimited amount of data), SD-visualizations of excavated sites can be projected onto physical spaces allowed people to experience these archaeological sites through VR headsets (bring the mountain to Mohammed and akin to time-travel (analogy); collecting more data makes their work more meaningful and precise (digital scaffold to embed all the archaeological data points)

    Satellite topography allows us to identify long-lost historical sites via heat mapping.
    Testable: architectural structure buried underground stunts growth of vegetation so dead zone signifies underlying infrastructure; differentiate man-made and natural structures (algorithm)

    Archaeologists not sure how to preserve data (what format to use and share with people). The way we store and curate data may likely redefine the library. We will need to figure out how to organize data (how to be far more descriptive… resources connect to one another….make this kind of information accessible) and transfer them from institution to institution.

    With the collision of the physical and digital world, we are converting physical space/ entities into digital information archives (archaeological sites and traditional libraries and their physical books; association) we are probably redefining the library (more radical in our thinking about what a library should be….we love the book….not the only….vessel for content)

    Data is the new wave of knowledge that we have to find ways to seize and exploit it (data is changing …so quickly…bound to be lost before best practices are standardized). Information in the digital age can be kept for posterity (datasets collected today…may be all that exists after the great structures have crumbled….so much intentional destruction of cultural heritage.. in a position to record it)

    Tone: Amazed, impressed by our ability to record so much data and even make sense of it. Hopeful in the sense that our concept of what a library is maybe redefined as we learn to manage data more effectively in this digital age and how our history will not be lost even with ongoing internal destruction of cultural heritage (destroyed by ISIS in recent months). Sense of urgency to take advantage of the waves of information that lay before us.


  15. Data is new vessel for human intelligence. For archaeology, technology allows the creation of an international archive to connect findings all over the world, meaning a need has risen to figure out how it, like other subjects, should be organized and made available.


  16. (first 8 paragraphs) MIP: arch. has changed in scale b/c of tech.; tone = neutral


  17. Archeology = changing b/c of digital technologies. Data = important.


  18. MIP: Archeology data scale recording has changed due to the field of the digital world; this has led to technological advances in the field


  19. MP: There is a movement to have records in databases/online because it is useful in looking at stuff from the past and comparing


  20. MIP: Digital arch is good for the field. Preseriving the data is hard. Big data sets are needed for arch


Leave a Reply