Anthropology Cyber-Archaeology
Maurizio Forte, Nevio Danelon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0207


Cyber-archaeology is a branch of archaeological research concerned with the digital simulation of the past. In this context the past is seen as generated by the interaction of multiple scenarios and simulations and by the creation of different digital embodiments. The term also recalls the ecological cybernetics approach, based on the informative modeling of organism-environment relationships. In fact, cyber-archaeology aims to investigate the past through interactions with multimodal simulation models of archaeological data sets in different areas of knowledge (domains). The cognitive-interpretive process is accomplished through an interaction feedback loop in a virtual reality environment, following a nonlinear cognitive path. This process allows for the formation and validation of scientific theories about archaeological contexts and material cultures. Cyber-archaeology assumes that the past cannot be reconstructed but rather simulated. Whereas virtual archaeology is mainly visual, static, and graphically oriented to photorealism, which conveys a peremptory idea of predefined knowledge, cyber-archaeology is not necessarily visual, but rather interactive, dynamically complex, and autopoietic. It focuses on the potentiality and virtuality of the interpretation, as opposed to the actuality of the physical world. It is more appropriate to think in terms of a potential past, a co-evolving subject in the human evolution generated by cyber-interactions between worlds. In the cyber-archaeological perspective, the focus is the simulation, which is the enactive-dynamic behavior of the virtual actor and the digital ecosystem. As a consequence of this, the workflow able to move and migrate data from the fieldwork to a simulation environment can generate different affordances and cybernetic models, each of which can create feedback, which serves as a new map-code for the interpretation. The increasing use of 3D digital technologies in archaeology, in fact, is identifiable in new digital workflows and real time simulations of archaeological data sets. This digital migration of data and models in such diverse domains creates unexpected results and more advanced knowledge. The study of the code is essential for re-analyzing the interpretation process in the light of a cybernetic perspective: the feedback created by different interactors operating in the same environment/ecosystem generates further feedback and not predetermined interconnections.

General Overviews

The term cyber-archaeology transitioned into archaeology as a discipline in the late 2000s. It was first applied to anthropology and communication studies in 1997, where it was used to explain the relationship between computer-mediated communications and online behavior as cultural artifacts; see Jones and Levy 2018; Lake 2014; Jones 1997; Escobar, et al. 1994. Cyber-archaeology was recontextualized when its meaning was expanded to include cybernetics after a workshop at a Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) meeting at Stanford University in 2009. Cyber-archaeology in its earlier form was used in a broader context than the definition that came later, as it was common for the prefix cyber- to be used interchangeably with the term digital in the late 1990s. The TAG workshop was aimed at analyzing the epistemology of cyber-archaeology in relation with the research topics of the conference. The outcomes from this workshop were preceded by the volume Forte and Siliotti 1997, and elaborated upon in Forte 2009. The event was mainly focused on collaborative virtual environments, virtual models, and simulation studies. Finally, the academic definition was validated by a scientific monograph, Forte 2010.

  • Escobar, A., D. Hess, I. Licha, W. Sibley, M. Strathern, and J. Sutz. 1994. Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the anthropology of cyberculture [and comments and reply]. Current Anthropology 35.3: 211–231.

    DOI: 10.1086/204266

    This paper presents an overview of the types of anthropological analyses that are being conducted in the area of new technologies, and suggests additional steps for the articulation of an anthropology of cyberculture.

  • Forte, M. 2009. Participatory research in cyber-archaeology. In CAA 2009: Making history interactive: Computer applications and quantitative methods in archaeology; Proceedings of the 37th Annual Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology Conference, Williamsburg, Virginia, March 22–26 2009. Edited by Bernard Frischer, Jane Webb Crawford, and David Koller, 76–85. Oxford: Archaeopress.

    Short overview of collaborative and participatory methodologies in cyber-archaeology.

  • Forte, M., ed. 2010. Cyber-archaeology. BAR International Series 2177. Oxford: Archaeopress.

    First groundbreaking monograph on cyber-archaeology, with a collection of critical contributions on theory, methods, applications, and case studies.

  • Forte, M., and A. Siliotti, eds. 1997. Virtual archaeology: Great discoveries brought to life through virtual reality. London: Thames and Hudson.

    First and pioneering monograph on virtual archaeology and computer graphic representation of the past. The book introduced and popularized the term virtual archaeology for the first time.

  • Jones, Q. 1997. Virtual-communities, virtual settlements, and cyber-archaeology: A theoretical outline. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3.3.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.1997.tb00075.x

    This paper confronts the question of how to provide explanations about the relationship between technology and online behavior that go beyond the specifics of current responses to new communication technologies.

  • Jones, I. W. N., and T. E. Levy. 2018. Cyber-archaeology and grand narratives: Where do we currently stand? In Cyber-archaeology and grand narratives. One World Archaeology. Edited by T. E. Levy and I. W. N. Jones. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    This introductory chapter focuses on how cyber-archaeology can contribute to the development of archaeological theory by generating “grand narratives” of human history.

  • Lake, M. 2014. Trends in archaeological simulation. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 21.2: 258–287.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10816-013-9188-1

    This paper epitomizes the history of archaeological computer simulation, starting with early 1970s simulation models, and focusing on those developed over the past twenty to twenty-five years.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.