Some More Thoughts on Digital History

January 7, 2013 § 4 Comments

Our panel yesterday on Managing Archaeological Data in a Digital Age was really nice. There was an engaged audience and a diverse but cohesive group of papers. What more could you want for a panel on the final day of the conference?

I won’t bother to sum up the paper in part because they should be made available before too long on the Youtubes or similar. My paper is available here, but I tweaked in a bit so it’ll read differently from how it was delivered.

The panel and drinks afterward got me to think about how we organize our efforts in digital archaeology. It seems to me that our efforts are focusing more and more on four areas.

1. Digital Data Collection in the Field. This involves collecting digital data at the edge of the trench and involves applications, technologies, and methods designed to streamline the production of digital archaeological data in the field. This involves work using the iPad or other tablets, developing mobile applications, and efforts to deploy GIS, databases, and image catalogues in the field. Some of the most interesting and useful conversations at Paperless Archaeology revolve around these applications.

2. Analysis Tools. Once data comes in from the field, a growing tool kit of sophisticated digital tools have emerged to analyze and process this data. Relational databases and GIS are the best examples of this group of digital tools. There are also, however, a small, but influential new group of web-based tools designed to facilitate collaboration, transcription and translation of legacy data, and the organization of new data sets using tags and linked data. These new tools – often powered by robust and clear graphic interfaces – bridge the gap between the team work to produce archaeological information in the field and the sometimes solitary work of archaeological publication. By opening archaeological data to an easy to use, collaborative space, projects can bring more participants into the data analysis and interpretive process.

3. Digital Publication. Digital publishing is a major trend across all areas of academic production. Archaeological data, however, has only just begun to find scholarly outlets where robust, digital data sets can appear. Open Context is the obvious example of a venue that presents peer-reviewed digital data to the public. It seems likely that other venues will follow as the need to have a public, critical repository for digital data continues to attract attention. The ability to link to this data generally or even specific records makes this kind of digital space particularly valuable for projects who are looking to allow readers to drill down into their data from print or other online publications.

4. Digital Archives. Digital represent long term and sometimes “cold” storage for digital archaeological data. In many cases, projects cannot link to specific records in the data and the priority is long term archiving of the digital material rather than dissemination or, even, publication. The advantage of these services is that they often have funding and infrastructure models which look toward sustainability and ongoing curation to keep the data in accessible and archival standard formats.

The value of this four part division of digital archaeology work is not to propose a typology that pigeon-holes the flexible and innovative approaches to archaeological information that seem to be intrinsic in digital archaeology at present, but to suggest that these emerging patterns provide a way to understand the how archaeologists conceptualize their digital workflow. There is no doubt that the boundaries of various steps within a digital workflows will continue to be more fluid than more traditional archaeological work patterns (with, for example, a rather rigid division between field and lab), and I imagine that digital archaeologists will continue to chase the potential utopia of an smoothly integrated digital work. On the other hand, even digital practices involve a series of strategic compromises. It is not clear, for example, that an archival service like tDAR could provide as robust and sophisticated an interface for digital publication as Open Context, but these two services are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, a nice interface for, digitizing legacy data might not be suitable for collecting data in the field or suitable for digital publications or archiving.

As the field of digital archaeology continues to develop, I suspect that we will continue to see more easily defined projects that correspond to regularized and recognizable patterns in project’s digital workflow. Understanding how the innovation in Digital Archaeology patterns provides insights into how future tools will develop and archaeological practices restructures itself in the digital age.

§ 4 Responses to Some More Thoughts on Digital History

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