Introduction to Computational Archaeology

Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of the physical remains. Computational archaeology – Is computer-based analytical or investigative (enquiring intensely into) methods for the study of long-term human behaviour and behavioural evolution. Analytical means the use of detailed examination of the constitution or structure of that which is being studied. The term ‘computational’ is usually reserved for (mathematical) methods that could not rationally be performed without the aid of a computer. Computational archaeology is also known as archaeological informatics or AI science.

For example computational archaeology may include the use of ‘global positioning by satellite’ (GPS) system. GPS is the term given to a constellation of American satellites in orbit around the earth. Archaeologists can use them to locate almost anything accurately via the satellites and a network of trigonometry points, which are scattered all over the country. However, they are owned maintained and run by a corporation in its own right, and the exact coordinate information must be bought from them. A GPS consists of a base station, which consists of a radio and an antenna. A second radio and a moveable piece of equipment called a ‘rover’ are used to do the measuring.

There must be a minimum of four satellites turned on which detect where you are, as not all may be in view at the same time, you can ask the computers ‘almanac’ when enough satellites will be within view in the relevant area. Occasionally trees or buildings may block the signal. After successful set up the next step is to use the second radio to visit two or three trigonometry points, the points are shown as points on a map purchased from the company providing the ‘service’ at each of the points the radio is set to receive a signal from all the satellites within range. Not all the points may be accessible by road and may even be several miles apart. Nevertheless, the results are returned to within a couple of millimetres accuracy. The computer then processes the information and sets up the site grid, inputting the rest of the information allows the GPS to establish the points cocordinates, show its position on a map and lay out a grid.

Some forms of statistical and mathematical modelling, and the computer simulation of human behaviour and behavioural evolution that uses software tools such as Swarm or Repast would also be impossible to calculate without computational aid. With the aid of computers calculations, faces can be re-built from a skulls image, to almost an exact replica of that person, a person who may have lived hundreds if not thousands of years previously. Movements can be replicated on computers from a small scale such as how one human being can move, to vast geographical mobility of societies.

Geographical information systems (GIS) such as the ones previously mentioned are so computationally complex, in that they are exceedingly difficult if not impossible to use without the processing capability of a computer. Research on data and methods for archaeological approach to information processing produces quantitative methods and computer software specifically geared towards archaeological problem solving and understanding. The application of a variety of complex software to study or solve archaeological problems, such as human perception and movement within built environments using software such as ‘University College London’s Space Syntax program’, also falls under the term computational archaeology.

In the future archaeologists will only be able to benefit from quantitative methods and computer technology if they are aware of the pitfalls in the archaeological data and research process. AI science (archaeological informatics) is a discipline that attempts to reveal, quantitatively represent and investigate properties and patterns of archaeological information. It includes many of the methods and theories developed in quantitative archaeology since the 1960s. AI science is capable of a formal comprehension of the discipline’s research objects, and can create links between archaeology and other disciplines, both in methods and software technology.

Computers provide a quantitative approach to archaeological information management methods in research, by providing the tools, algebra, statistics and computer algorithms, to process information too voluminous or complex for usual methods of conclusion. They are also used in the quantitative sciences such as geophysics, and GPS system mentioned above. The computational methods used by archaeologists were not originally or deliberately developed for archaeology studies. Computer software has been adopted and adapted by archaeologists for their specific needs. Computational archaeology is here to stay, I have only briefly scraped the surface to the limitless world of computer graphics imaging (CGI), programmes in artificial intelligence and a variety of other forms of analysis dependent on computer software, which does not include the routine use of software such as databases, spreadsheets, presentations or graphical planning, as these are standard.