The Realities of Archaeological Data from Small Projects

Over the weekend, I devoted some thought to a call for papers for a joint colloquium at next years Archaeological Institute of America/American Philological Association meeting. The colloquium is entitled: “Managing Archaeological Data in the Digital Age: Best Practices and Realities” and it sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology of Greece Interest Group and the Forum for Classics, Libraries, and Scholarly Communications. That’s a mouthful.

David Pettegrew and I were nudged to propose a paper that looks at some of the unique challenges facing small projects like our Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in Cyprus.  Our project was new in 2003, documented an archaeological assemblage that was largely independent of earlier work at the site or in the region, and lacked substantial institutional support for custom application development or cyber-infrastructure. In these areas, I suspect, that our project was similar to many smaller archaeological projects in the Mediterranean and my hope is that we should be able to generalize from our case study in three key areas.

First, whereas larger projects can create elaborate, bespoke applications and interfaces to collect and disseminate archaeological data, small projects tend to use more off-the-shelf components for data capture, organization, and analysis. As a result, there is the possibility that small project data get tied up more easily in proprietary software formats and require a greater degree of post-processing to produce archival collections. Small projects can often find themselves in situations where they have privileged immediate utility over  commitment to complex, platform agnostic best practices.

Second, large projects have led the way in creating highly-visible, longterm digital archives for their data. Small projects, in contrast, rarely have the resources to invest in longterm data storage and maintenance. Many small and mid-sized universities continue to lack the necessary in-house cyber-infrastructure and the number and diversity of potential external solutions – from both private foundation initiatives and major research centers and universities – present a bewildering array of options. The key concerns for our small project is ease in data transfer, long-term integrity of the archive, and accessibility. The archive has to be a place where other scholars know to seek out archaeological data from small projects as the future value of smaller datasets will often come from its availability for larger comparative or synthetic studies. The more other scholars place smaller project datasets in a broader context, the more significant that results of small-scale intensive fieldwork become. Where small projects should archive their data and how existing institutions can support these practices in ways to make small project data visible and useful remain open issues without simple answers.

Finally, over the past 20 years there are persistent conversations regarding the value of data standards in archaeology. The responses to these conversations are predictable. Some projects value the utility of their own data formats, terminologies, and ontologies arguing that all data serves best to contribute to existing archives and to enjoy compatibility with longstanding, often local, practices. Our small project, in contrast, tended to produce data that answered a particular, limited set of research questions and lacked any obvious and practical obligation to longstanding data conventions. As a result, we employed a vocabulary that was consistent with a larger project on the island – the Sydney Cyprus Survey Project and an established American excavation – Corinth Excavations. Our point is not to recommend that all projects conform to this particular standard, but rather to point out that our project conformed to these two standards in an effort to make our data more accessible for comparison and more immediately comprehensible to scholars not familiar with our particular procedures and methods.

The future will judge the value of the data produced by small project by its persistent utility.

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