What’s Media Archaeology?

‘We’ll all be happy then’, image from a 1911 edition of Life Magazine. Image shows an elderly man surround by all kinds of tech allowing him to view a live performance and check on his son’s life. YouTube and Facebook, predicted in 1911.

Delving into the world of video making requires a new wave of reading and learning. Since the things I’m working on are based around archaeology, and the use of media within archaeology, it’s only natural I drift towards the emerging field of Media Archaeology.



“Good lord, you’ll just add the word archaeology to anything, won’t you?”


Look, if archaeology is the study of humanity, and human history via material, ie human-made objects, then anything altered by human hands is archaeology. Fight me…

To be honest, though, what does that really mean? Is my cough drop wrapper archaeology? Is the thumb-drive I found in the parking lot archaeology? What about my cat’s litter? What about the digital picture on my cloud, the song file I’m zoning out too, the game I’m playing on my computer, or even this very blog post?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is, what’s the overall value of what I’m going to learn from those objects? How are they going to further my understanding of the overall human story?

Well, those answers really depend on what questions I’m asking at the time. Do I want to know more about the domestic impact of cats in human households? How has their role in the household changed over time from living vermin suppressers to valued pets and emotional support animals? How does the quality and/or the makeup of domestic cat litter reflect the cat’s role in a household?



“Ok? But what does that have to do with non-tangible objects? Data isn’t an artifact, you can’t hold it, touch it, or see it without a computer or the like.”


Data and media are created. It’s wrought by human hands, or by the machines said hands have created. There’s value in studying that data, it changes, and I don’t just mean changing from one file format to another. Data and data storage is part of the new history of human interaction with our world. We can’t ignore it, and to say that data isn’t an artifact is to ignore an entire chunk of human culture.

So, how do we study media as archaeology?

It’s a whole conversation. Preserving and storing media and data for archaeology runs into the same issues as preserving actual physical objects. Where do we keep it? How much space is it going to take, how much will it cost, how do we access it, keep it safe, share it? I suppose the one good thing is that the Internet currently seems infinite. Safe? No, but once something is out there, it’s almost impossible to erase it. Finding it again might be tricky, but that’s just virtual digging right?

Fortunately, what I’m after isn’t so buried in decades (yes only decades) of digital layers. What I want is media dealing with pseudoarchaeology. Videos, books, magazines. Here the internet is a boon. YouTube, file-sharing and PDF’s allow for access to things that haven’t seen air time since the ’70s.

But what do I do with these artifacts? Is it enough to simply watch and take notes? should I save a preserve them? Create a library that others can access? Do I simply link the resources and let others figure out how to find these? I haven’t decided on this yet, but it’s part of the issues of the field. Things to think about.



“But WHAT exactly is Media Archaeology?”



It’s a hodgepodge right now. In his book What is Media Archaeology, Jussi Parikka compares Media Archaeology to the Steampunk subculture. This is because, like all archaeology before it, Media Archaeology borrows and learns from a wide variety of other fields, synthesizing them together to study media.

But overall, the goal of Media Archaeology is to look at the various types of media and learn about the human story from our interactions with these various sources. My own focus is looking at how pseudoarchaeology has used these various forms of media over the years to educate and inform its adherents. Hopefully, I can learn from these and adapt educational archaeology to counter the messages of these sources.

Image showing a connection between Easter Island and Stonehenge. (pro-tip, there isn’t one). Image via Imager.

It’s not easy to counter bad information once it’s out there. Still, I feel like things can be learned from the tactics of the fringe and the success it’s had at spreading its message. Learning how people interact with the information the Fringe puts out there, how it replicates itself, and how it spreads can help Arcaheolgosits reach out better to the public and educate people on the reality of archaeology and human history.

This is important, and with the popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens, and the disinformation rampant in society today, it’s vital that we, as archaeologists learn to adapt and utilize media to our advantage. Or as Jeb Card has warned in his book Spooky Archaeology, we are doomed to become irrelevant.

Follow Sara on Instagram and Twitter. She also hosts the Archaeological Fantasies Podcast and maintains the blog of the same name.


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