Methods, Questions, and Digital Archaeology

Amidst the beginning of the semester din, I did capture enough time to settled in and read a new book: E. Kansa, S. Witcher Kansa, and Ethan Watrall eds., Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration. (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology (UCLA) 2011).  The book is a product of a session at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in 2008 and is the first volume in the new Cotsen Digital Archaeology Series. It is published with a Creative Common BY-SA license (By Attribution, Share Alike).  The volume is available for free here.

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This book may well become a landmark volume in the history of archaeology and the bundle of technologies that we associated with Web 2.0.  The volume spans a range of topics from core infrastructure, to technical and theoretical concerns, collaborative research environments, and realistic perspectives on sustainability.  Each of the topics considers the significance of Web 2.0 technologies in advancing the way in which archaeologists organize, produce, and share data on the web.  The credentials of the participants in this volume speak for themselves and their body of technical work is cutting edge.  More than taking a leap into the future, the book captures a precise moment in the history of the discipline’s long-term engagement with technology.

The greatest strength of this book is that it is steeped in the practical realities of archaeological data sharing.  For the contributors, data sharing is not merely the exchange of raw data (databases, spreadsheets, GIS and CAD arrays, or whatever), but the full range of conversations that Web 2.0 (variously defined) technologies has made possible. User-generated archaeological information has changed the way that archaeologists conduct research.

At the same time, the contributors to this volume remained profoundly realistic. No one imagined a situation where all data is stored in some great archive but rather in a distributed way across numerous different archives on the web.  The different organization of data, the limited ability to centralize resources, and the institutional structure of the discipline present significant obstacles to any single method imagined to accommodate the mass of pre-existing and born-digital archaeological data.  In the place of the fantasy of a single repository, comes more sophisticated ways to syndicate, integrate, and query (and search) for archaeological data across the web like those provided by the Alexandria Archive’s Open Context and Michigan State’s iAKS.

The web has radically changed concepts of visibility, collaboration, and scholarly performance so it is now possible to consider projects like the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology to be equal (if not superior) to traditional print publications. Blog, social media, and other collaborative spaces have become important avenues for certain types of archaeological conversations. (It was flattering to see my blog mentioned in Sarah Witcher Kansa’s and Francie Deblauwe’s article on middle space in scholarly communication in zooarchaeology (it would have been even cooler had they spelled my name right!)).

While much of the book went over well-trod ground among those who follow trends in the digital humanities, the scope, accessibility, and intensely reasonable perspectives offered by the authors made the book particularly compelling. There was little in the way of naive sensationalism or even the utopian tech-evangelism that is sometimes found in these kinds of volumes. The limits of funding, issues of sustainability, and the need to protect certain kinds of sensitive data appear as serious considerations without simple answers. While this is a reality among scholars discussing digital archaeology and history, it rarely seems to be so fully articulated and recognized in the texts that these scholars produce imagining the digital futures of our disciplines.

The greatest limitation of this text comes not from the technological side, but rather from the intellectual or academic side.  An issue that I have raised on my blog before stems from reflecting on the interpretative agendas advanced by many Mediterranean archaeologists.  While the idea exists that it could be possible to collect data from numerous projects, across a vast area, and crunch it into a broad reaching, novel synthetic perspective, I think that it remains an open question whether there is a substantial scholarly interest in this kind of research. Vast, quantitative studies of even single regions – from single data sets – remain relatively rare in our field. And, there are significant questions whether the quality of data produced even in the most carefully monitored projects reach a sufficient standard to allow for complex generalizations across regions.

Moreover, more qualitative analysis – which does not rely necessarily upon the raw data of excavation or survey, but on published objects – is becoming better served by the greater accessibility and visibility of standard print publications via various journal databases and projects like Google books.  (And it is worth noting that standard issues like naming of various vessel types, places, or even contexts (across multiple languages) are not any more easily resolved in databases than in more traditional publications).

In my world, most academic archaeologists design their field research to collect data that answers a particular question. Their research question, then, absorbs their energy, structures their data, and shapes their interpretative and publication strategies. In fact, the absence of useful data is often the reality that prompts fieldwork. At the same time, the inadequacy of other projects’ data is the conceit that makes one’s own data stand apart. This is not to say that comparative analysis does not occur between projects or that we don’t search for comparative “type-fossils”, but rather that this work tends never to be a major research priority. In fact, in Mediterranean archaeology tends to approach comparative analysis from the attitude that “our data” is unique and meaningful in and of itself, and other data “merely” provides it with context. (I do understand that this is not the same process for professional archaeologists or CRM types. There is obvious and tremendous value to the various digital projects described in the volume that sought to open up the vast body of “grey literature” to a wider professional audience.)

The issues facing large scale data distribution schemes isn’t, then, a technological one, but rather a more profoundly methodological one. Archaeologists simply are not asking the kinds of questions (yet) that queries across vast swaths of intensively produced data would support. So, the lack of support for the massive data repositories, comes as much from the intellectual limitations of our discipline as from institutional, professional, or technological concerns.

This being said, I do recognize that changes in technology does shift the conceptual footing of the discipline, but the nature of archaeology as a craft (as opposed to a more rigorously standardized science or profession) remains a major limitation to how scholars think about data.

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