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Beyond Stone & Bone

Is Google Making Archaeologists Smarter?
by Heather Pringle
February 27, 2009

715px-arabic_machine_manuscript_-_anonym_-_ms__or__fol__3306_nLast summer, author Nicholas Carr wrote a provocative article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  Carr, a former English lit major turned cyber critic, wondered whether our addiction to the Internet was beginning to sap our ability to concentrate for long periods of time.  So accustomed have most of us become to skimming for information on the Net, he suggested, that we are no longer able to muster the attention needed to absorb a lengthy magazine article,  much less War and Peace.  Carr worried that the Web was actually beginning to rewire our brains, and not for the better.

I personally don’t buy Carr’s ideas.  As a journalist, I often spend long hours daily online, but I’m still perfectly capable of immersing myself in a 50-page scientific article or a 500-page novel, and I know I’m not alone.  I think, if anything, Carr has gotten things backwards. The Net is an astonishing boon to humanity, gathering up and concentrating information and ideas that were once scattered so broadly around the world that hardly anyone could profit from them.  Moreover, I strongly suspect that one reason it appeals to us so powerfully is that our brains are already wired perfectly to use it.

There is little doubt, moreover, that one of the Internet’s masterpieces—Google Earth—is helping scientists in general, and archaeologists in particular, to answer crucial questions about the ancient past. One wonderful example of this new cyber partnership is The Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land, a work-in-progress which I recently discovered thanks to a tip from Derry Nairn at History Today. 

If you haven’t seen this cool website, I’d strongly suggest that you take a peak.  A team of some 30 leading archaeologists and historians are currently combining their data on the Holy Land’s ancient sites with Google Earth maps and a powerful Geographical Information System.  The result, they explain, will be an online atlas that will analyze and present “new archaeological data for each key period of culture change in the Holy Land, from the Lower Paleolithic over 2 million years ago to the early 20th century when the region came under British control.”

The current site is just a rough, working prototype of the finished atlas.  But already, you get a sense of just how powerful this tool will be.  Click on the “Empires” section, for example, and you have at your fingertips a series of cool maps ranging from the Old Babylonian Empire to The Ottoman Empire, all based on current archaeological data.  It’s just the tip of the iceberg, however.  In years to come, the team will gather and analyze data from many thousands of sites in the Holy Land, creating an evolving Atlas that will shed new light on key moments of human history—from the origins of modern humans and the origins of agriculture to the Urban Revolution.   

Until recently, all this information would have been scattered far and wide, much of it in small, regional journal articles and in “grey literature,” the unpublished reports gathering dust in corporate, government and university offices.  Thanks to the Internet,  it’s being drawn together into one powerful, continuously updated source that archaeologists around the world can access anytime they choose.   

All I can say is, stay tuned.    


Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

9 comments for "Is Google Making Archaeologists Smarter?"

  • Reply posted by Daniel Molitor (February 27, 2009, 7:41 am):

    I agree wholeheartedly. “Dumb” people will use Google as a crutch – an easy way to avoid doing their own homework, mine the internet for opinions that reinforce their own, or just waste time.
    But others will use it as the amazing tool it can be, a powerful way to BEGIN one’s investigations into practically any subject or area of interest.
    By the way, I would like to add wikimapia to the list of sites archaeological enthusiasts (maybe not professionals…!) should check out. Zoom in on Egypt, Greece, or any number of archaeology-rich sites and you will find copious annotations and links to websites with more information. Of course, as with anywhere on the innertoob, you’ll also find a lot of junk — pyramidiots are especially keen on annotating the Giza plateau monuments — but the ability to virtually roam these places and get a bird’s eye view of them is truly wondrous.


  • Reply posted by toni (February 27, 2009, 5:04 pm):

    No one can deny the benefits of the net and the wealth of information it shares, but I have to agree with Carr on some level. Only in the past 4-5 years have I started using the internet with much frequency. I shunned the internet and the absorbsion of time it consumes, but when I started college, I needed to be online often.
    It’s funny that you penned this topic because I’ve been recently trying to figure out what was wrong with my mind! I’ve always been very studious and encountered no problem sitting for hours and reading or studying any and everything. Lately my concentration is low and I find myself struggling to read more than 4 or 5 pages of a book(good, non-fiction books) without wanting to put it down. I even find myself thinking –okay–so when do we(me) get to the point/plot of what’s being read? I find myself wanting the information NOW(!) and losing interest if I haven’t come to a conclusion. I’ve never dealt with this type of academic slump before.
    I am definitely weening my internet time because I’d rather be reading a hardcover anyway! At least, I used too.


  • Reply posted by Dan Hilborn (March 2, 2009, 10:57 am):

    Fascinating topic, and an excellent link.
    You can find more the “web versus books” idea at the Columbia Journalism Review –

    Information is only as reliable as its source.
    And that’s why I’m reading Beyond Stone and Bone 😉


  • Reply posted by Arkeoloji (March 3, 2009, 2:13 am):

    Yes we should use technology too. Especially internet and computer technology. 😉


  • Reply posted by Daniel Molitor (March 3, 2009, 7:28 am):

    @ Dan Hilborn:

    That was a fascinating article you linked to. Unfortunately it was much too long to actually read. Can you provide a wiki summary? 😛

    BTW, as a writer who has contributed to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series of books, I do take one exception with the interviewee’s opinions on the “crap” in bookstores! Of course, this would be ameliorated if he plugged one of my novels.


  • Reply posted by CharlyBr (March 4, 2009, 6:55 am):

    We should see technology as a benefit not as something frightening!


  • Reply posted by Brian Smith (March 5, 2009, 12:05 pm):

    I certainly do not subscribe to Mr Carr’s assumptions. While one CAN skim for information, or only read the Cliff Notes, the availability to go as short or long is the key.
    Previously unrecognizable ‘connections’ can bring together many seemingly unrelated disciplines.
    I also find myself searching for many hours on the Internet, which would be virtually impossible if confined to a specific library location.
    Perhaps it is more a issue with a lack of literary work that is worth spending hours to absorb….


  • Reply posted by Heather (March 5, 2009, 9:23 pm):


    There I disagree. I’m a huge fan of many novelists writing today, from Alan Furst to Steven Pressfield. I think the literary world is still alive and thriving.


  • Reply posted by livius (March 12, 2009, 12:09 pm):

    Thank you kindly for the link to the DAAHL site. I envision spending many an hour of focused concentration perusing its maps.

    I wonder if Mr. Carr has considered the immense educational value of a flattened knowledge hierarchy. Until recently, amateurs and aficionados without access to scholarly journals and extensive academic libraries have had to struggle to follow a train of inquiry.

    Now if I want to browse Life magazine’s picture archive, say, I can just click over to Google’s magnificent collection of high resolution photographs from the 1860’s to today, many of which were never published so are not even available to the few people with access to a complete paper archive of the magazine.

    Then there’s the Google Earth Rome layer, sheerest bliss for the grownup who spent hours of her childhood with her nose buried in her parents’ collection of before-and-after picture books.

    The internet has let fall the portcullis of information. We barbarians storming the castle may have a less cultivated approach or shorter attention spans than its previous inhabitants, but we’re in now and we ain’t leaving.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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