Data, Interpretation, Publishing

I’ve been chewing on a blog post for a few days now and it just so happens that it coincides with the third installment of Dimitri Nakassis’s Archaeological Futures series over at his blog “Aegean Prehistory.” One of his more compelling points (and one that he has made several times in his blog) is that there persists a rhetorical divide between data collection and interpretation. Data collection continues to attract a particular kind of attention that generally focuses on issues of accuracy, efficiency, and productivity. In many ways, it represents a meaningful fork from a larger discussion of methodology prompted in large part by the emergence of New Archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s. The concern is that this emphasis on data collection as digital practice fragments how we talk about archaeological knowledge production and separates collecting datas in the field from analyzing them. If you’ve read my blog and some of my recent publications, you know my critical of this: slow archaeology.    

It is probably valuable to stress that this division between data collection and interpretation is artificial and represents a divide in how we talk about archaeological practice and not archaeological practice in the field. The most eloquent advocates for sophisticated, more accurate, and more efficient data collection methods are generally fine field archaeologists who continuously draw on embodied knowledge, best practices, and their own data to make decisions on the fly at trench side or during survey. 

The problem, then, becomes an issue of presentation. The generic divide between archaeological methods as an area of study and the analysis and interpretation of archaeological data has fostered what appears to be a divergent interests in the field. In practice, these interests deeply intertwined, of course, but on paper (so to speak!) they are not.

Last week, I excitedly touted the release of a digital version of our bookPyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town. It’s free. Download it today

The chief asset of the digital version (aside from it being free and digital) is that a reader can “drill down” into the archaeological data upon which our arguments are based. This data was published by Open Context on their platform and was open and free. Earlier this week, Sarah Bond, introduced the Gabii projects remarkable 3D publication to a wide audience. University of Michigan’s press published the 3D book, which retails for $150, but the data on which the book is based is available for free. In other words, publishing practice has largely followed the scholarly conversation that separated data collection (and data itself) from analysis. The analysis in these cases, will run you about $150 for Gabii, and before we released our book for free, $75. To be clear, my point here isn’t to disparage either of these efforts or Open Context or Michigan. The material reality of archaeological publishing is such that the tools, skills, and infrastructure used to publish data remains distinct from those required to publish a traditional book. As a result, these two aspect of publishing have remained separate. While one could argue that archaeological publications long separated “data” which tended to appear in the form of catalogues as either separate volumes or in separate sections, digital publishing practices have seemingly expanded that divide. 

I’ve just started working on a pilot project to publish a 3D dataset that would require – in its current formulation – at least three and perhaps four different platforms ranging from a archaeological data publishing platform (like Open Context) to platforms best suited to publish 3D data, a portable digital version of the data and analysis that does not require a internet connection, and, perhaps, a paper version that – like we did with Mobilizing the Past – that offers a way for a read more at ease with conventional paper publications to access the digital elements of the project. To my way of thinking, this distributed form of publishing provides someone interested in this project with multiple avenues to access the data and the analysis and interpretation.

At the same time (and as some of my collaborators in this project have pointed out), this distributed model of publishing exacerbates the distinction between various forms of archaeological knowledge. The traditional codex (and page) represents the most familiar way to present linear arguments that move systematically from point to point to build their case. Data, however, is never as neat and linear as an argument, but the further it stands apart from the argument (whether through format, platform, or media) the less reciprocal or “entangled” the relationship between data and argument will appear. 

So as I look toward the future of archaeology, I’m simultaneously excited about the impact of technology on how archaeology is practiced and published and completely humbled by my inability to think about how an entangled discipline that preserves both the linearity of archaeological arguments and the non-linearity of archaeological practice would appear. 

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