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Carlo Ginzburg, in describing the foundations of what he called the indexical paradigm of the humanities and social sciences, explained how prehistoric humans, hunters during the first half of the 20th century, were able to use their knowledge of the world’s history to create a new world. For millennia, prehistoric humans had accumulated “hunting knowledge” that allowed them to interpret footprints, smells, hair, and feather marks to reconstruct “the shapes and movements of unseen prey” (Ginzburg, 1980, p. 9). Currently, researchers in prehistoric archaeology are faced with an equally indexical challenge: to understand the ordinary activities of prehistoric humans, they have to patiently collect and compare heterogeneous signs, such as bone fragments (human and animal), lithic tools, stone fragments, or fossilised pollen, deposited and preserved at random by long geological processes. The absence of written evidence, and the heterogeneous, fragmentary, and fundamentally contingent nature of these materials, have thus constituted since the 19th century the fundamental epistemological framework of the archaeological sciences applied to prehistory, and of the technologies (notably visual) that endeavour to reconstruct the prehistoric past (Moser, 2001; 2012).
Could digital technologies overcome the silence of the materials of prehistoric archaeology? What if prehistorians could submit their hypotheses on the prehistoric world to computers capable not only of testing their validity, but also of representing them in three immersive dimensions, using a virtual reality headset…


This article focuses on interdisciplinary experiments conducted at the intersection of archaeological sciences and computer sciences, within the framework of a recently finalised research project. From a perspective combining the sociology of science and infrastructure studies, we seek to understand the modalities of hybridisation and confrontation between these two quite distinct epistemic traditions, and the way in which two technologies in particular are facilitating reasoning in prehistoric archaeology: artificial intelligence and virtual reality. We rely on the analysis of archival documents, filmed ethnographic observations, and semi-structured interviews to trace the history of the project and its successive reconfigurations. We thus analyse the conditions supporting the importation of computational devices into the archaeological sciences, showing that this involves a delicate adjustment of the distance between archaeologists and computers.

Baptiste Kotras
Pauline de Pechpeyrou
Bernard Quinio
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This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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