The Origins

The «archaeological use of computers», as it was defined by George L. Cowgill in 1967 (Cowgill 1967), gained ground at the end of the 1950s, heralded by some isolated experiments in the use of machine-sorted punched cards. As a typical humanistic discipline, archaeology was shaken by the intervention of physical, mathematical and natural sciences, which soon after the Second World War were taking up an increasingly crucial role as research and knowledge tools.

Science and technology came to be embedded in archaeology, deeply renewing its methods of investigation and transforming its structure within a quantitative dynamic movement that affected many other fields of the Human and Social Sciences. During the 1960s, New Archaeology developed as a cultural movement: its promoters, and in particular Lewis R. Binford, claimed that computers, as in other exact sciences, should become an indispensable tool for the automatic processing of archaeological and anthropological data.

The analysis of archaeological artefacts, mainly those pertaining to Prehistory, envisaged the pioneering use of computers through the application of mathematical and statistical techniques. Methods were often borrowed from other research areas, such as natural sciences, geography and psychology, and then upgraded to respond to the specific needs of archaeology.

The relationship between the “two cultures” was complex and sometimes conflicting, as often happens when different approaches meet and collide to find common pathways. However, the experiment turned out to be successful and gave birth to unitary developments and innovative paths of scientific inquiry, in which information technology had a major impact on traditional research methodologies.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Jean-Claude Gardin could already write: «the connection between archaeology and computers is no longer a novelty» and archaeologists «must ... find the true nature of the revolution, if such it be, constituted by the computerization of archaeological techniques» (Gardin 1971). In his overview, Gardin was already able to subdivide the subject matter into a number of specific sectors: Statistical applications, Automatic classification, Seriation, Documentary application, Simulation and validation.

In the Protagonists section, biographies and bibliographies of individual scholars will provide an insight into the historical and cultural development of archaeological computing.