How digital analysis tools can change the scope of modern archaeology

Figure 2: Confiscated toy cars at Border Patrol in Arizona, photo by Tom Keifer 2016

Figure 1: Confiscated wallets at Border Patrol in Arizona, photo by Tom Keifer 2013

Digital records have become more thorough and mainstream. Algorithms know more about human activity than anything else. This combined with the fact that technology and media are so accessible to the public creates what could be seen as a new kind of archeological site: the online version. Mr. Keifer, a janitor who worked in the Customs and Border Protection Agency in Arizona, documented confiscated items from migrants to categorize and photograph them. His process of documenting artifacts considered prized possessions by the people who carried them and putting it online through a digital medium like photography got so popular that it got a feature in the New York Times. This is key to understanding how the digitization of archeology could grow into an effective way to analyze human patterns and behavior in the past and present.

All the criticism surrounding social media platforms for their use of algorithms and data usage makes it easy to discredit how these tools can aid scientific discoveries. Additionally, these algorithms prove how important user interaction is. Science has evolved through technology and in how it appeals to the now well informed public. This data from social media platforms allows the observation of human social activity, specifically revolving around topics like archeological sites, monuments, timelines, communities, and other discourses in individual and collective experience. (Richardson, L.-J, 2019) It lets people like Mr. Keifer find people who share either a collective connection to what this series depicts or who feel an individual desire to learn more; especially with a platform like the New York Times whose influence spans worldwide. 

Another aspect of media archaeology itself that is used to examine human behavior is composition and the creation of narration. When putting together a piece of art, an article, or a piece of code, the person behind it has a very intentional vision. “those working in commercial areas of digital media, such as computer games, construct systems that operationalize ideas of narrative structure, character behavior, linguistic interaction, and so on.” (Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka 2011,320) There is an “underlying logic” to each of these intentional programs. In the photographs by Mr. Keifer, the visual aesthetic choices he made when putting these artifacts together renews their usage when they belonged to the original owners, and draws in an audience to unknowingly examine and analyze a digital archeological site. The photograph with the wallets (Figure 1) is methodical and organized. The wallets are similar in color scheme which is reflected in the background chosen. They form a grid; showing they are similar enough to be grouped together, but different enough to stand out as their own artifact. A wallet conveys organization and style which comes through in the image itself. The same process can be applied to Figure 2 where colorful toy cars, which evoke innocence and childhood, are placed not in a grid but in a play formation as if a child had just left them there. Although media archeology covers pre-digital media as well, the present day digital systems really allow archeologists to analyze multiple variables at once. The massive amount of thought that goes into the creation of what we could now consider artifacts allows the archeologists to have access to the artifact itself and the information surrounding the potential thought process behind its creation; especially in the digital form.


Richardson, Lorna-Jane. 2019. “Using Social Media as a Source for Understanding Public Perceptions of Archaeology: Research Challenges and Methodological Pitfalls.” Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology 2(1), 151–162.

Huhtamo, Erkki, Jussi Parikka. 2011.Media archaeology : approaches, applications, and implications.Berkeley and Los Angeles, California:University of California Press.


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