University Archaeological Education, CD-ROMs and Digital Media

By Perkins, Phil | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

University Archaeological Education, CD-ROMs and Digital Media


Perkins, Phil, Antiquity


I would like to start with the contentious assertion that there is very little special about CD-ROMs; they are little more than overgrown floppy disks with a long shelf-life, and uncertain sell-by date. A CD-ROM can contain about 650 Mb (Megabytes) of digital information, the equivalent of 450 high-density floppy disks. A CD-ROM is much more durable than a floppy disk, if kept away from small children and dogs, and is certainly more convenient to transport and handle than 450 floppy disks. A floppy disk will fade and its contents will become unreadable after about 4 or 5 years. A shiny CD-ROM on the other hand will last physically for at least 30 years, we are promised. Unfortunately the CD-ROM is already headed for the scrap heap of our technological past and is set to join the burins and scrapers. Yes, the Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) is coming our way. It can contain up to 17 Gb (Gigabytes) - that's 17 with nine zeros after it, the equivalent of 11,805 floppy disks full of data. Fifteen years ago, back in 1982, a 10-Mb hard disk was considered an expensive technological marvel with more than enough capacity (equivalent to 25 of the lower-capacity, 400-Kb floppy disks of the '80s). Nowadays, the CD-ROM, given away on the front of glossy magazines, and costing 60p to produce, contains 65 times that amount of information. My point is that I don't think we should become obsessed with the technology and the means of delivery of data on some kind of disk. What is far more important is what is actually on the disk - the message not the messenger.

What I would like to do is provide a brief, selective and unfortunately anglo-centric survey of what that message has been in universities and how it has changed along with its technological context over the years, Finally I would like to briefly review some of the current offerings and trends.

Outlines of a temporal and thematic trajectory

The first recorded occurrence of teaching archaeology with a computer which I have been able to locate took place in 1973 in the University of Paris I (Jaoul & Jouanet-Mennessier 1975), This course taught students data acquisition, recording techniques and the interrogation of an archaeological data-set from the department of Cher gathered from French sites and momuments registers and archaeological maps using a mainframe computer. The central importance of data acquisition and management to archaeology ensured that teaching data-base skills, usually using commercially available software with archaeological data-sets, became commonly the end of the 1980s (Perkins et al. 1992: 159) and the first dedicated textbook appeared in 1985 (Richards & Ryan 1985). The rise of quantitative studies from the mid 1960s onwards (e.g. Doran & Hodson 1966; Gardin 1967) contributed to the adoption of statistical argument in archaeological interpretation and led to the teaching of statistical techniques and the use of statistical software packages in some departments of archaeology. The first textbook appeared in 1975 (Doran & Hodson 1975) and the first textbook aimed at teaching archaeological statistics appeared five years later (Orton 1980). In the mid 1980s articles appeared with baleful titles such as 'Into the black art: achieving computer literacy in archaeology' (Richards 1985) or 'Bailing out the inexperienced computer user: some recurrent problems' (Callow 1985). Since then experience of and exposure to computers has grown within the archaeological community, and computer use from word-processing to statistics is becoming a common part of student experience.

A further area of early computer archaeology, simulation studies (Doran 1970), has also developed in a roundabout way into a theme in teaching archaeology. Simulated archaeological worlds can now be investigated by students: they can be simple such as Fugawiland (Price & Gebauer 1990), or complex such as SyGraf (Wheatley 1991) or Windig (a further development of SyGraf) which are derived from real-world archaeological sites like Danebury and include real data-sets for study and analysis.

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