Technology in Archaeology and Publishing: What’s Time Got to Do with It Anyway?

It may seem strange to compare an industry so focused on predicting its own future with one that is dedicated to the past, and without a doubt it is strange, but the worlds of publishing and archaeology do have one important thing in common: they have both been greatly affected by advances in technology. What interests me most is not the creations and discoveries that have come from these advancements (which, don’t get me wrong, are fascinating in and of themselves as well), but the reactions people, involved both directly and indirectly, have had towards the output of these technological advancements. To push that one step further, I’m interested in the controversies that have or haven’t occurred: why do the technologies in one world invoke controversy while those in the other do not? In the publishing world, technologies such as e-readers (and the companies that come with them) have brought up concerns with those involved in publishing, mostly about what the future of the book will look like. On the complete other side of the scale is the field of archaeology, where new gadgets and methods are getting people excited for what they will be able to discover next. While some technologies invoke controversy and others do not, there can be no denying the affects they have been having on these two completely different worlds.

First, it is important to take a look at what some of these technologies are and what they are doing for archaeology and publishing.

In archaeology there have been so many things made possible from advances in technology that dates all the way back to the 1960s. While not everything began with archaeology in mind, technologies from a range of other industries have been introduced to the archaeologist to aide them in their discoveries of the past, such as the use of MRI machines to scan bodies for useful data without risking the loss of their intact preservation.

A major revolution in the discovery and survey of archaeological sites long thought to be lost is the use of satellite imagery. Archaeologists today can use satellite images to survey sites invisible to the naked eye. Even just by using Google Earth, sites have been discovered, and when archaeologists gain access to satellite images they can manipulate for their purposes (3D rendering of sites for example) there is no end to what they can make of what lies beneath the ground. One of the best consequences that has come from methods such as these is when using satellite imagery to view sites, archaeologists don’t need to go there themselves or dig up everything they find, which saves a lot of time, money, manpower, and most importantly allows the site to remain preserved for future research. The development and improvement of satellite imagery is just one of the many technological advances that have immensely improved archaeological methods. For a field aiming to better understand the human past, this has been nothing but great news.

The technologies of the publishing industry tell a slightly different story however.
I think it is safe to assume that the development of e-readers has been the defining technology for the publishing industry as of late. With it, e-readers bring to publishing a mixed sense of trepidation and excitement concerning the future of the book and those whose jobs revolve around the book, from writers to publishers to bookstores and their counterparts, all the way to consumers. E-readers allow books to be read digitally, which begs the question, will there still be a need, or even desire, for physical books in the future? There are those who say yes, e-books are better and those who say no (I personally would like to think that print books will never be completely erased from our lives and that it would be a very sad day indeed were that to happen). There have been vast improvements made to the technology behind e-readers, such as e-ink technology which, among other things, allows greater readability of e-readers, making reading on a screen practically no different from reading off of paper (discounting some of the arguments made by those not in favour of e-books).

When first introduced, there was a flare up in the publishing world that e-readers and e-books were going to change everything, and not everyone seemed excited about this change. Conflicts with Amazon continued the controversy over e-books. No doubt things have started calming down now but there is still a nagging concern surrounding the implications of e-books/e-readers and their evolving technology. I think the main concern revolves around the problem over pricing. Especially in their beginning, e-books were priced much lower than the average print book. Publishers were worried they wouldn’t be able to make a profit off of e-books. Cheap e-books could potentially cause problems for print books as well: why would someone buy the more expensive print book when they could buy a cheaper digital version? The value of the book has been put at risk. People would come to think of books as only being worth what the e-book cost, and would then start expecting print book costs to reflect that value. Publishers would not only be losing money off e-books, but potentially print books as well if they are unsuccessful at resolving the value issue that e-books have introduced. From this glance it would seem that, unlike archaeology, certain technological advances may be devastating to the publishing industry as it stands today.

Does this mean that publishing will cease to exist? This seems doubtful to me. No doubt it will change, but with time we may find that things will tend to balance each other out. How come then, do two industries advancing as much as they are with regards to technology react in such different ways? Should we be taking technology as a threat or should we look to it with excitement for the changes it will bring? The most important thing to note in regards to any technological controversy or lack thereof is that publishing and archaeology are not from the same worlds. When it comes down to it, publishing is a business that needs to make money. Archaeology simply does not work this way; it is not profit-centered, but knowledge-centered. This largely affects the way publishing and archaeology react to new technologies. I’ll touch more on this later, but it is important to keep it in mind when considering the diverse reactions of publishing and archaeology.

One possibility for the polar reactions towards the technological advances archaeology and publishing are seeing today is the concept of time. I mentioned above that some of the technologies in frequent use today for archaeology have been around since the 1960s, or even earlier in some cases. Satellite imagery comes from the concept of aerial photography. Starting back in the 1850s onwards, photographs were taken from above using hot air balloons and even kites. After the 1940s, aerial photography became a more popular method of survey for archaeologists, and they have been using it ever since in one form or another. The technology has evolved – images have gotten clearer, you can focus on one thing in particular, such as land disturbances – but the basic concept has remained the same. Aerial, or satellite, imagery is used for finding and/or surveying sites.
This is an example of a technological advance that has been in use for a long time. It has had plenty of time to evolve, grow better, and become fine-tuned. Because it has been in use in archaeology for such a long time, it has become a widely accepted approach. The technology and concept behind e-readers are much fresher to publishing. The controversy that has surrounded them could be because those feeling wary haven’t had enough time to adapt to the idea of publishing moving towards the digital like those in archaeology have. It could also be that the evolution of the e-reader has occurred rather quickly in relatively few years; aerial imagery took much longer to evolve into what it is today. The popularity wave of e-readers/e-books happened fast and almost all at once; it was a lot to be toppled over with in such a short amount of time. Publishers were not given a lot of time to adjust, and this could be a reason for the uncertainty. They weren’t ready for it to take off because they didn’t expect it to.

Even if it is the case that archaeology has had the time to adjust that publishing has not, why wasn’t there any initial scare when new technologies were introduced way back when like there was in publishing? I would argue for the replacement issue being the main cause behind publishers’ paranoia. E-reader technology has the potential to completely take over print books. E-books and print books are the same thing; it is their form which differs. Some will prefer one while some will prefer the other (and then there will always be the inbetweeners). The main concern of publishers when e-books started taking off was that those who prefer e-books would eventually outnumber those who prefer print books. This is a problem because of the pricing issue I touched on above. Even when publishers are successful in raising the price of e-books, they find it doesn’t help them as people are less likely to buy them. The price conundrum continues to this day.

While it doesn’t seem to be the case lately, as e-books sales have actually started to level off and decline even, the potential is there for e-books to take over print books because they are the same thing. The difference in archaeology is that technologies often combine with the old ways of doing things to improve methods rather than replace each other completely. A new method of dating an artifact may come about, but this only helps to come up with a more definite date for artifacts when combined with other absolute dating methods, such as the case with radiocarbon dating and tree-ring dating being used together to calibrate dates. The methods can’t replace one another because each has valuable information to give in regards to dating. E-books and print books are usually more or less giving the same information; it is preference which depicts what is used, not science. The emotional aspects of publishing are a far cry from the science that drives archaeology.

As I mentioned above, the most important difference between archaeology and publishing, and so for the technologies introduced to them, is that one is a field of study while the other is an industry centered on profit. Creativity may be what drives publishing, but being able to profit off of that creativity is what keeps publishing alive. This is not the case in archaeology; it is not trying to make a profit off of what it discovers (at least it shouldn’t be). Nobody’s livelihood is going to be destroyed by the onset of a new technology because archaeology is not an industry of selling the way publishing is. If e-books ever do take over print books completely (and the price conundrum has not been resolved), publishers may be at risk of going out of business, which would indeed change the publishing world as we know it today. Archaeologists aren’t as tied down to technologies as publishers are; a technological advancement, such as additional absolute dating methods, can only be of use to them, benefitting archaeology as a whole.

Both archaeology and publishing are defined by, even controlled by, advances made in the technologies used in them. While they are on equal terms of the extent they have been affected, the reactions to those effects have been what set these worlds apart. The technologies of publishing may in practice be no more devastating than those of archaeology, but while archaeologists have seen only benefits from new technologies, the publishing industry saw the technology getting away from them and this brought mixed feelings. Publishing comes with a price, and so any technology introduced in this area puts that price at risk. The initial reactions to e-readers and e-books showed this, and the pricing issue is still being sorted out to this day. Already though we are seeing that, just as in archaeology, timing is the key. Archaeology had years worth of time to adjust to their technologies, and even publishing has begun to balance itself out in time.


Works Cited
Alter, Alexandra. “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead.” Media. The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

Angier, Michael. “Top Ten Reasons Why eBooks are Better Than Printed Books.” SuccessNet, n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

Auletta, Ken. “Publish or Perish.” Annals of Communications. The New Yorker, 26 April. 2010. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

“A Brief History of Aerial Photography.” Aviation and Aerial Photography. Northstar Imaging, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Chivers, Brian. “Modern Revolutions in Archaeology.” Great Discoveries in Archaeology. N.p., 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

“The Evolution of the e-Readers.” Musing about Books-on-Demand. UdiBoD, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Ferro, Shaunacy. “5 Reasons Physical Books Might Be Better Than E-Books.” Mental_floss, 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

Gessen, Keith. “The War of the Words.” VF News. Vanity Fair, Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

“Ink Technology – Electrophoretic Ink, explained.” E Ink. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

Johnston, Grahame. “How Aerial Photography Helps In Archaeology.” Archaeology Expert. Archaeology Expert, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Petronzio, Matt. “The New Golden Age of Archaeology Is Right Now.” World. Mashable Spotlight, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

“Radiocarbon Tree-Ring Calibration.” Radiocarbon Dating. Beta Analytic, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Shaffi, Sarah. “New Amazon Contracts See Drop in E-book Sales.” The Bookseller. The Bookseller, 4 Sept. 2015. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.


  1. Okay, overall I like this. Kudos to comparing to an industry that I certainly didn’t expect would correlate. The strongest part of your argument lies in this point: that technologies will help further knowledge in archaeology, so they are valued; however, in publishing, they offer more of an experience, and are a preference, so they don’t necessarily offer a furthering of knowledge (as the same knowledge can be delivered in both print and digital). I find this to be a solid claim, and like how you took the time to explain the history of aerial photography, gradually shifting to satellite imagery. As someone who doesn’t know archaeology very well, I was able to follow and understand your explanations of that industry. As a comparison, I would have liked a run-down of ebook/ereader implementation, just so your reader can really get a sense (as opposed to a more general one) of how publishing’s technological advancement was much quicker than that of archaeology’s.

    You also claim that digital publishing, and lower prices of ebooks, would devalue print books, thus having an overall effect on the market. This is a strong claim that I don’t dispute; on the ground, I see this happening all the time (thanks, Amazon). I find myself questioning, though, that publishers didn’t expect ebooks to take off. In 1999 at the first ebook conference, Dick Brass from Microsoft predicted that by 2018, 90% of all books sold would be ebooks (true, Microsoft is no publisher, but at a conference like that I’m sure publishers were listening). Perhaps they were more resistant than ignorant? I think you should consider that perhaps publishers didn’t know the best way to commiserate the technology into their current business models, and weren’t thinking progressively in terms of implementation; therefore, instead of improving upon a technology (as satellites improved on photography), ebooks were released only as a different mode of reading as opposed to an actual upgrade from a book.

    Again, I think your core argument is strong, and that archaeology seems to have adapted technology much more effectively than the publishing industry; in turn, it has been met with more positivity than the introduction of digital books. I would take this further and acknowledge any trepidation brought on by advancements in archaeological technology. Addressing the flipside would make your argument appear stronger, as you then escape the risk of making generalities (i.e. I got the sense that every archaeologist enjoys new technology, and this may not necessarily be true).

    Finally, these are just a few points that I think merit a bit more thought, as they’re quite intriguing. You touched on how satellite imagery was born out of aerial photography, which used to be taken from hot air balloons, for example. Later in the essay, you discussed publishers perhaps going out of business due to technological advancements in the industry. I think it is worth considering: what about those people that took pictures out of hot air balloons? Did they go out of business, or did they adopt their business model to suit the new technologies available? Just something to think about, as I’m not quite sure of the answer to that myself. And you are right to say that archaeology is not centred on selling something; however, the industries making the technologies for the archeological field are focused on selling their product, or at the very least promoting its use. Will this fit into your argument at all? I realize that’s broadening the scope a bit, but it may be something you want to touch on in regards to sales and archaeology, as opposed to stating that there is no concern for profit in regards to this technology.

    In other words, your core argument is strong and your comparisons are good, although at times you slip into generalities that could be strengthened by expansion; and it would be useful to consider some of the points mentioned above, in order to address all spectrums of the discussion, and to strengthen your central ideas by juxtaposing them against other possibilities.

    • A great review of the piece, one that touches on many of the strengths and weaknesses of the essay. You offer examples of each your critiques, and even suggestions for how to expand the essay further. Well done.

  2. This essay took a new angle to the comparison, and chose to do it with a very different industry. This made the essay inherently interesting to read. Using the attitudes angle was clever, although I did feel that, ultimately, was not sufficiently or adequately explored. You provide a lot (too many) examples of technologies in archaeology, but do not really talk about the attitudes towards those technologies or provide any evidence that those technologies have just been widely accepted. On the other end, you only focus on one technology in publishing (ebooks). The focus, after, on ebook pricing is not quite analogous, as I point out in the comments.

    Overall, this left the essay feeling like it was lacking a bit of focus an structure to really make this interesting topic stand out.

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