10 Things We Learnt From Digital Pasts 2015


From Oculus Rift to 3D printing, from generation ‘Z’ to Minecraft for history, the RCAHMW’s ‘Digital Pasts’ Conference is fast becoming the go-to destination for anyone pushing the digital envelope in archaeology – the SXSW for heritage innovation (South by South Wales, perhaps?).

Now in its seventh year, this year’s event was hosted in the awe-inspiring Guildhall, Swansea, and DV were invited down to deliver a keynote lecture (more on that here). Ducking in and out of conference sessions, it was almost impossible to take everything in on our two-day trip to sunny Swansea – but that didn’t stop us trying. Here are 10 things we’ll be thinking about until… well, Digital Past 2016!

1. Start with Why

Unlike mountaineering, scaling-up digital innovation in the heritage sector has to begin with a more compelling reason than ‘because it’s there.’ Both Kate Clarke’s opening address (Cadw) and Nick Poole’s keynote (The Collections Trust) described how dialing it back to ‘why’ should always be our first step. Only by understanding our values – where exactly we want to go – can we fully appreciate how these new technologies will get us there (and what ‘there’ might actually look like!).

2. Oculus Rift makes people go weak at the knees

Us included. ‘Nuff Said.

3. The ‘Digital Divide’ can be overstated

Not a day goes by without some graduate student or other chiming into a digital heritage twitter stream with a well-aimed reminder that not everyone can afford a smartphone. #Checkyourprivilege may play well with re-tweets from the choir, but here in Wales digital inclusion is being seen as a challenge rather than a settled score. Rather than reinforcing our privilege, Minister Ken Skates described how digital heritage is tied to a wider agenda of skills acquisition and training. Improving digital literacy is about better access to jobs, better access to lower-priced goods and better access to public services. And here’s the clincher: acquiring these skills through heritage-based initiatives may well be the ‘Trojan Horse’ that gets people there.

4. Digital Imaging continues to explode as a recording methodology (especially in Scotland!)

With superb presentations on Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), Gigapixel photography and some truly jaw-dropping quadcopter footage (for Digital Terrain Modelling), it’s woefully clear that permatrace’s days are numbered. Cara Jones (Accord) and Tom Dawson (Scape – Wemyss Caves) knocked it out of the park again, showing how this relatively cheap technology can be picked up by community groups and used with ease.

5. 3D Printing is ‘just another way of distributing information’

No exhibitors’ stand was complete without at least one 3D printer, beavering away merrily in bland white or garish yellow. Nikolaos Maniatis (Museofabber) put this all into context by describing our archives as repositories of information rather than stores of things. By changing our focus on to bits rather than atoms, 3D printing becomes another tool in our collection – a borderless method of distributing archaeological information, opening new opportunities for education, engagement and dissemination.

6. No one knows what comes after ‘Generation Z’

Literally. Is it back to ‘A’ again? A1 perhaps? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Slightly better understood is the always–on digitally connected environment that these second generation digital natives (born in the 2000’s) inhabit. The cultural traits that will come to define this generation have yet to fully emerge, however, for a sneaky peek at the future you could do a lot worse than check out…

7. Minecraft

If there’s a quiet revolution taking place in heritage interpretation, it’s taking place here. Consider the differences between a typical trip to a National Trust property (a view, a brew and a loo) and the type of experiences Adam Clarke has been designing for young people as part of the Tate Worlds exhibition. Minecraft’s multiplayer environment enables young users to create and explore, to learn through play by choosing their own adventure. A low-res taste of things to come…?

8. The edges around on-and-offline continue to blur

From augmented reality apps (such as ‘A Gift for Athena’) to embedding historical stories in physical places to be activated by mobile phones (or experiments with iBeacons) the online and offline world continue to inter-bleed in playful and unexpected ways. We’re yet to see a Zombie Run for archaeology, but it’s surely in the post…

9. Digital projects run out of money

Sustainability continues to be a problem for a sector largely dependent on the HLF. Of course, tangible digital assets are designed to be ‘usable’ for several years after projects close, but what happens to the communities formed around these initiatives when the money to pay the staff finally runs out? Crowdfunding anyone…

10. The elephant in the room goes by the name of… ‘Bit Rot’

Natasa Milic-Frayling, from Microsoft Research, Cambridge, worried us all senseless by reminding us that although digital was great for engagement, it also happened to be the most ephemeral of media, and a ticking time-bomb for archives. This all comes down to the idea of ‘bit rot’ – the process by which the mechanisms for accessing a digital files are lost, rending that file useless junk.

For more on Digital Pasts, check out the DV Keynote on The Future of Archaeology in the Digital and Collaborative Economy

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Brendon Wilkins

Written by Brendon Wilkins

Co-founder and Projects Director at DigVentures, Brendon heads up our field and post-ex team. Aside from field archaeology, his specialisms are cheese, tea and writing animatedly about himself in the third person.

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