Home > The New Media > Archaeology and QR Codes

Archaeology and QR Codes

My wife recently attended a conference on marketing and higher education hosted in part by Google. There as a low buzz about QR codes at the conference. For those who don’t know, QR codes are funny-looking, square bar codes, and QR stands for “quick read”. They are designed to be read by little applications on a mobile phone that use the phone’s camera like a bar code reader.  QR codes are most frequently used to display a URL (a web address), but they can contain a number, a v-card, or even instruction to send a tweet to a twitter account.  Over the past year, QR codes have moved into mainstream marketing, appeared in popular culture (e.g. a Kyle Minogue video!), and have even attracted the interest of academics.

I’ve been thinking about QR codes for six months now. Yesterday, I had a great chat yesterday with a colleague from our Working Group in Digital and New Media, and we began bandying about ways to use QR codes on campus to install art, historical information, subversive (in a polite North Dakota way) messages, and challenges to the barrier between the internet and real space on campus.


After the conversation, I struggled a bit to understand what made using QR codes unique or interesting.  On the one hand, I understood that they are a gimmick and fad, but that didn’t bother me.  I like gimmicks and fads. (After all, I love the interwebs!). Finally, after I mulled over this discussion ever more, I realized that I like QR codes because they are archaeological.  Here’s how I am thinking about them:

1. They are mysterious and demand action.  Like an archaeological artifact (imagine a sherd of pottery), QR codes beg to be understood or contextualized.  They demand action on the part of the viewer or, at least, the viewer who recognizes a QR code as something to be deciphered.  Just as an archaeologist is almost compelled to figure out the context for an artifact (and anyone who has ever walked across an archaeological site or any complex landscape with an archaeologist knows how powerful disciplinary training can be!), people “in the know” feel compelled to scan and understand a QR code.  In fact, if you don’t read the code, the QR code is meaningless.

2. Codes are objects. The form of a QR code communicates meaning. Like most archaeological objects, a QR code does not communicate in an explicitly textual way (except in the sense that all objects can be read as types of texts).  Within the discourse of archaeology and, presumably, QR code-ology, the form of the object prompts the action required to understand it. Archaeologists are obsessed with the materiality of objects – shape, texture, size, weight –  and recognize that to produce meaning, it is necessary to compare one object to another to create a context for archaeological material and, ultimately, to create meaning. QR codes have the same material character. Codes are things which must be understood in a non-textual way and placed within a particular context to produce meaning.  Only people familiar with the code and who recognize the action required will understand the message.


3. The are mobile.  Like many artifacts in an archaeological context, a QR code is mobile meaning that there is tension between its present physical context and its the meaning embedded (by the code’s creator) in its form.  In archaeology we like to think about formation processes; these are the processes that led to an object being discovered by an archaeologist in a particular place or condition.  Formation processes recognize our environment as constantly changing and almost infinitely mutable. A QR code printed on a sheet of paper, or a sticker, or t-shirt can travel from one place to the next while still retaining a formal link to another context.  Even if a QR code is designed for a particular place and time, because they are material and mobile, they will travel and endure.

4. Codes provide a link between the real and the virtual.  As a historian I spend much of my time in a “virtual” environment girded about by the rules of my discipline and embedded deep within my imagination. The past is something that obeys particular rules and, in a particular sense, does not exist except within my imagination.  At the same time, as an archaeologist, I am constantly challenged to recognize the past as real by the physical nature of archaeological artifacts.  QR Codes can bridge this same gap between the virtual world of the internet and the physical world of the code itself.  The real world context of the code creates a physical point of departure into the virtual world of the internet.  In short, the code locates the internet in physical space.

QR codes are easy to generate through any number of sites on the internet. (Here’s a basic list.)  And most mobile phones have QR code reader applications available for them.  Phones with better browsers, of course, provide access to far more robust content.

Categories: The New Media
  1. November 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Hi Bill,
    They are quite cool, aren’t they? They are like a portal point between worlds – your point 4. They could link between material culture and the virtual reality created by archaeologists and historians as they ‘create’ the past…
    I’m introducing them to my digital history students in the next few weeks… a few years ago, I tried imagining how I might use them in teaching practice; so an opportunity to put into practice!

  2. November 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    What ever happened to Sema codes? It seems there’s been a battle between Sema and QR codes over the past couple of years, much like in the old days of Betacord vs VHS.
    Many companies were using Sema codes a few years ago and it seems they were going to be huge. Then along came QR codes and as they gained in popularity Sema codes seem to have fallen by the wayside.
    Are Sema codes the betacord of our day?

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