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Archaeology and the Information Age: A Global Perspective.

This book results from the Information Technology sessions of the Second World Archaeological Congress, held in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in September 1990. Its publication some 18 months after the conference represents a significant achievement, although most of the papers had already been pre-circulated in three volumes before the congress. From these the editors then selected those papers to appear in this volume. Small wonder, therefore, that it represents a rather mixed bag of conference papers, over which the editors have struggled to impose some degree of order. In fact there are four books here rather than one: the papers are organized according to four themes: national strategies, visualization, analysis and communication.

The first section, on national strategies, falls short of reaching a global perspective, although Reilly & Rahtz's introduction provides an excellent overview of the use of information technology throughout the world, and papers on the current state of progress of adoption of computers in southern and eastern Africa, Poland, Hungary, the former USSR and Japan redress the traditional North American and north-western European bias of other publications. Availability of equipment is a key issue in many countries. The picture from eastern Europe is of only a few old-fashioned computers available in archaeology. According to Trifonov and Dolukhanov, Information Technology in the Soviet Union was regarded as a passive facilitating medium rather than as a potentially active and modifying tool. Electronic means of data access may now help to overcome the publication bottleneck and allow Russian archaeology to break out of its isolation from the west. These papers are valuable as discussions of current practice, although one hopes that they will rapidly become of historical interest only.

The global perspective of the second section, on visualization, is even more elusive. All the contributors are from the United Kingdom and most of the applications described require expensive equipment which is currently only readily available in the West. Nevertheless, this is surely only a short-term state of affairs; until relatively recently such equipment was restricted to IBM research laboratories. These papers provide valuable glimpses of the possible; they also actually succeed is explaining some of the methods involved. Jason Wood & Jill Chapman provide a clear exposition of solid and surface modelling with good examples of real applications in heritage presentation. Paul Reilly's own contribution gives an historical overview of solid modelling in archaeology which will remain an authoritative reference for years to come. Fletcher & Spicer demonstrate how surface modelling and image processing can successfully be used to generate new information about a site, in this case a Bronze Age ring cairn in Derbyshire. Their paper will also become a valuable student reference. Section 3, entitled 'Analysis', is a less happy grouping. It comprises a mixed bunch of papers, including expert systems, simulations and some good old-fashioned multivariate statistics. The uninitiated are unlikely to find much clarification here; those seeking a guide to artificial intelligence in archaeology will find little mention of genetic algorithms, neural networks and similar approaches which are now seen to hold more potential than traditional rule-based systems. One paper, by Costis Dallas, stands out as a major contribution to the classification debate. Dallas questions the suitability of the traditional data matrix to the representation of variability in Classical Attic grave stelai, and suggests that relational graphs are more appropriate to defining the grammar which underlies these depictions. His paper is a powerful combination of structuralist theory and formal logic programming which has applications beyond the classification of figurative art. Finally, Section 4, under the heading of communication, looks at aspects of education and publication, including excavation simulation, interactive video and an electronic excavation report. These papers should be compulsory reading for those responsible for archaeological publication. The decline of the linear text, and the increased availability of graphical images, will each have major implications for the future dissemination of archaeological knowledge. The paper on Tibetan Thangka painting is of particular interest as it demonstrates how modern technology may interact with a traditional art form and influence its future development.

However, Archaeology and the information age claims to be more than just a collection of essays illustrating the latest computer applications. It is particularly welcome that, as one would expect from the One World Archaeology series, the social and political context of computer usage is here made explicit. In his foreword, Peter Ucko argues that this book will shock as well as clarify. The spread of new technology is likely to be accompanied by major social upheaval. Computers have the potential to make knowledge about the past more accessible, but they could result in greater control by the few. On the one hand, uncontrolled dissemination of data may threaten scholarship; on the other, information technology may make the traditional book outmoded, allowing individual readers to select the information relevant to them. These are significant claims; how far are the contributors agreed on this perspective? Some, unfortunately, appear to be unaware of the implications of their work, but a sufficient number address these problems to make this a worthwhile read. What becomes clear from reading Archaeology and the information age is that in the short term at least, changes in the dissemination of knowledge brought about by new technology may actually serve to exclude those groups for whom the technology was supposed to help bring about greater democratization of knowledge. In the longer term, however, one hopes that CD-ROM, networking and other innovations will actually open up access to data, techniques and interpretations. It is up to practitioners to ensure that technology is not used to perpetuate one politically correct interpretation of the past and that all are allowed access to the means of production of interpretations.

JULIAN RICHARDS Department of Archaeology, University of York
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Author:Richards, Julian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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