Archaeology and the Big Tent of the Digital Humanities

 >  > Ethan Watrall: “Archaeology and the Big Tent of the Digital Humanities”
Ethan Watrall

Ethan Watrall

Anthropology; MATRIX; Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative
MITH Conference Room
Thursday, October 4, 2012
12:30 pm

Recently, there has been much discussion about “the big tent” as a metaphor to define and delineate the boundaries of the Digital Humanities. This metaphor has invariably led to debate as to who is in this “tent,” and who is not – essentially, who is a member of the digital humanities community (or who is a digital humanist), and who is not.

Curiously, archaeology (especially anthropological archaeology) is largely absent from this discussion. Archeologists rarely publish in the same places as digital humanists. For the most part, archaeologists do not seek funding from the same agencies (and programs) that digital humanists commonly turn to. It is also rare to see archaeologists at digital humanities conferences (or unconferences). In fact, many in the archaeological community aren’t even aware that the digital humanities exist. To extend the metaphor, they are so far from the tent, they can’t even see it.

This state of affairs is puzzling. Archaeology clearly articulates nicely with many of the fields that identify as being part of DH. Archaeologists have also long been invested in a wide variety of innovative digital technologies and practices. Ultimately, this odd separation represents an enormous missed opportunity, as the communities clearly have a great deal to offer one another.

It’s within this context that this talk will explore the reasons for this separation. More importantly, however, it will propose some key points of commonality between the digital humanities and archaeology in an attempt to suggest pathways to fruitful engagement, interaction, and collaboration.

Ethan Watrall is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Associate Director of Matrix: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters & Social Sciences Online ( at Michigan State University. In addition, Ethan is Director of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative ( and the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool at Michigan State University ( Ethan’s interests fall in the domain of cultural heritage informatics and digital archaeology, with particular focus on serious games & meaningful play, mobile & geospatial (mostly within the context of public outreach and engagement), and linked open archaeological data. Ethan is PI of the NEH funded “Red Land/Black Land: Teaching Ancient Egyptian History Through Game-Based Learning” project.  Ethan is editor of Play the Past (, a collaborative authored, scholarly blog dedicated to exploring the intersection between games and cultural heritage.  In addition, Ethan is co-editor of Archaeology 2.0: New Tools for Communication and Collaboration, an open access volume published by the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press ( In addition to his scholarly work, Ethan has written trade books on web and interactive design, including Head First Web Design published by O’Reilly.

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