About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Archaeology: How the far past helps shape the near future

Archaeology is the study of the very old – the hidden, buried and forgotten. But in its strange cross between detective work and deduction, multi-disciplinary science and creative reconstruction, it’s a field that’s alive to innovation and very relevant to the future.

It gives us good insights into how to think in other fields – not being trapped in the perspectives of a single discipline. And it helps us to see the big patterns, the narrative arcs, so we can be more effective shapers of our present and our possibilities.

Living in this country means being surrounded by the old and the very old. My home is in Luton, a medium sized town that is both quite new and very old – with sites like Waulad’s Bank, a Neolithic henge, and Ravensburgh Castle, which is thought by some to have been the base for Cassivelaunus, the tribal leader defeated by Caesar.

In the centre is a church founded by King Athelstan, to commemorate victory over the Danes at a time when they weren’t associated with renewable energy and welfare..

As a child, I took part in digs of a Roman kiln, took holidays near Palaeolithic caves, and learned to take rather too much pleasure in crumbling old rocks.

Like so many others, I came to believe that a sense of past - of just how similar and just how different the experiences of past generations were - makes us more richly human

It can make us more sensitive to present vulnerabilities, if we see with our own eyes how ecological catastrophe undermined civilisations in Mesopotamia.

If we learn about the extraordinary diversity of Roman Britain – confirmed recently with the discovery of Chinese and African skeletons, or the kaleidoscope of religions that left their mark in temples and engravings - we are less likely to be trapped in the myth that we have a pure national identity and are better placed to understand just what mongrel humans we all are.

That past is often invisible to us. For many years I’ve been interested in new digital tools that can make it more present, using layers on Googlemaps to show the traces of past places, lives, and settlements. We’re not there yet, but it's easy to see how that could be achieved in the near future.

Innovation and archaeology

My job at Nesta is concerned with innovation – how to stimulate it, nurture it and make it useful. Archaeology has a surprisingly strong history of innovation, from aerial photography to infrared, carbon dating, to pioneering the reconstruction of lost languages; DNA to Isotope analysis to photogrammetry, satellite imaging to LIDAR, 3D modelling to dendrochronology, new hybrid sub-disciplines like archaeastronomy, archaeological geophysics, medicine, ecology, new methods like magnetometry that finds the residues of ferrous substances or fires in a landscape. There are also some fantastic recent examples of innovation like DigVentures, which combines crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to grow a very fresh model for archaeology, drawing on the best of the collaborative economy.

These are all symptoms of a field that is as restless as ancient deposits are not.

Of particular interest to me are the experiments that mobilise collective intelligence – engaging the public to generate data, to analyse satellite imagery and spot settlements or field patterns, like the Thames Discovery Programme with 500 volunteers monitoring the Thames shores and CITiZAN covering the whole of England, or for crowd-funding, or last year’s launch of GlobalXplorer.org from Sarah Parcak, recruiting volunteers to find new sites and watch out for looting.

That pace of innovation is unlikely to diminish, and we will see ever more use of artificial intelligence to spot patterns, since a basic principle of AI is that anything visual can, and should, be searchable and describable, whether a shard of pottery, an arrow head or an aerial picture of mounds.

My particular interest is with what I call 'Big Mind' – the next stage in the evolution of collective intelligence

This is a field that is emerging from the confluence of new uses of data, predictive algorithms and AI on the one hand, and new ways of harnessing human intelligence at large scale on the other.

In my book, I suggest some of elements of a working, systems-level intelligence, which I think we are on the brink of achieving in many fields including archaeology. It requires the systematic curation of what I call the functional elements of intelligence at scale:

  • Observation – the gathering of data of all kinds, such as mapping thousands of pieces of bone, pottery, or metal
  • Models – to make sense of population movements, language change, generating and testing hypotheses
  • Memory – not just the organisation of objects but also learning from how other civilisations remember, or leaving records of a dig in a form that later researchers can interrogate and use
  • Creativity – to find new lenses, new perspectives
  • Empathy – to think into the minds and lives of people who lived in the distant past
  • Judgement – to make sense of phenomena where the facts are also deficient
  • And wisdom not to become trapped in one way of seeing, or caught by your own hypotheses

The key point is that all of these are needed for thought at large scale; all need active care; some, at least, increasingly benefit from technologies; and as with the individual brain, it’s the linking up that makes them most valuable.

These capabilities are essential, but intelligence also depends on what I call learning loops. The first loop learning that uses new data to refine a current hypothesis – like Richard III’s bones; the second loop learning that generates new categories when they’re needed, like the mixing of Neanderthals and Sapiens; and third loop learning that generates new ways of thinking, new paradigms - as archaeogenetics has done.

Many institutions are quite good at the first, but most struggle with the other two. They also struggle with the task of bringing these all together into what I call 'Collective Intelligence Assemblies' that combine and connect them to help us understand and act. These don’t quite exist yet but the assembly of existing elements – from data to crowd sourcing – points to a near term future where much of our heritage could be organised in these more systematic ways, in living platforms that aggregate data, show how models and hypotheses are being tested, encourage experiment and competing judgements.

I want to turn to two questions that follow from this. One is how to lead and shape that direction of change, training new cadres who are at ease with both machine and human intelligence and their combination.

The second concerns the texture of our relationship to the distant past. I suggested earlier the value of the sense of the long view, the sense of a story of origins, evolution and possible futures. That matters more at a time when many minds are closing in; taking refuge in narrowness; clinging to singular national stories and editing out the complexities; or just getting trapped in an eternal now.

I’m interested in how we can create membranes through which we experience, see and feel our ancestors – not so as to be trapped in an excess of memory but in order to gain the humility of seeing ourselves as small parts of much larger wholes. That growing sense of an ‘us’ - which is the whole of humanity – is an ethical journey and also a cognitive one. It can be helped by the combination of material facts and radical imagination, but also by new devices, including VR and AR that help us to see the stars, seasons and fates in ways that are closer to the casual universes of our ancestors.

These may help us unravel mysteries. Like Göbekli Tepe, now recognised as the oldest settlement on the planet, even older than Catal Huyuk, which raises a host of questions about why, even before agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago, people put so much effort into moving 200 pillars each weighing up to 10 tons: was it a cathedral, a feasting place? We don’t know yet but need both evidence and imagination to find out.

That’s a good example of the pluralistic, multiple, hungry, hypothesis testing spirit of archaeology that’s also needed to make sense of many present issues – from stagnant growth to inequality – rather than seeking a single view as is still so often the norm for economists, sociologists or psychologists. And it's also an example of the long view that we need more than ever as horizons shrink in – whether in stock markets or politics or the daily life of social media.

All progress rests on a bigger sense of who we are and can be; a more expansive sense of here and now, of where we’ve come from and where we are going.

The above article is a summary of a speech given by Geoff Mulgan to the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists annual conference on 26 April, 2018

Hero image by Max Bender on Unsplash


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

View profile