Managing Archaeological Data in the Digital Age

This week I’ve begun work on a paper that I’ll give with my colleagues David Pettegrew, R. Scott Moore, and Sam Fee at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Seattle in January. The paper is titled “Archaeological Data and Small Projects: A Case Study from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project on Cyprus” and it will be for a panel called Managing Archaeological Data in the Digital Age: Best Practices and Realities.

There are three main themes to this paper: first, small projects tend to use more off the shelf software for data collection and distribution; second, small projects have limited resources for high-visibility, longterm archiving of data; and finally, small projects feel more acutely the tension between creating datasets that best fit small scale and sometimes idiosyncratic goals and adopting data standards established by larger projects which often have more substantial resources. In general, these three themes seek to explore how projects with limited resources engage the standards, agendas, and conversations about data management that often originate in larger, better funded, and more established projects.

The goal of this paper is not to complain about the “plight” of small projects in a big project world. What I hope to do, rather, is to show how certain technical limitations shape the way in which small project think in archaeological way and produce archaeological knowledge. This is in keeping with recent scholarship that has considered the organization of a project as a key element in understanding the production of archaeological knowledge. The social organization of archaeological practice both provides a context for and is influenced by the technology available for a project. In other words, the tools at an archaeologist’s disposal and the way in which these tools are used both inform practice.

As an example of this, small projects tend to rely more heavily on off-the-shelf data recording tools – like Microsoft Access for creating databases and ESRI’s ArcGIS for managing spatial data. While this software is easy enough to manipulate in simple ways, it is more difficult to design a data recording in ways that allow multiple users to enter data simultaneously. The Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project recorded data in the field on paper forms and individuals then entered this data into our databases either one-at-a-time during the season or after the season had concluded. As a result, data entry became a bottleneck as it conformed to the limitations of our project’s technical knowledge and the software at our disposal.

So data recording begins in the field where each member of the team is responsible for some part of data collection – whether it is collecting and counting sherds in field survey or participating at the “trowel’s edge” in excavation. The trench supervisor or team leader takes the data produced by the field teams and their input to create an authoritative (at least by institutional dictum) account. This account then is keyed into a database and documented spatially in GIS. This last step is done at a significant remove from the field. The collective and collaborative act of generating archaeological field data becomes a more solitary act of converting this data into a form usable by existing technology. The more technically demanding the interface and the analytical tools available, the more attenuated the link between the experience of archaeological work in the field and the data it generates becomes. 

Projects with more robust technological and intellectual infrastructures have begun to experiment with ways to allow for greater integration between fieldwork and computer work. Using iPads in the field – as our small project experimented with this summer – offered ways to streamline the relationship between data collection in the field and the production of digital data.  Closing the gap between fieldwork and data production has any number of benefits for the kinds of archaeological knowledge produced, the most obvious benefit is to problematize the tendency for digital technologies to smooth field experiences to fit within limited ontologies of most off-the-shelf digital applications. It becomes harder to accommodate a digital interface or data structure which fails to capture an immediate archaeological reality in the field when holding a trowel, artifact, or observing a stratigraphic relationship.

This kind of immediacy, however, comes at a cost of scarce resources at the disposal of most small projects.  The tools at our disposal, in this example at least, dictate to some extent the kind of data and the types of archaeological knowledge that our project can produce. My paper will examine a number of these small project examples to problematize the relationship between archaeological tools, social organization, and knowledge.  

(For an earlier effort to explore these issues, check out this paper from 2010.)

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