The Cost of Digital Archaeological Data

For the last ten years or so, I’ve had an installation of Omeka running on a University of North Dakota server. Because of budget cuts and administrative changes, they will begin charging us for our server space and service on a monthly basis. Since this is not a very stable environment for archiving or publishing data (and better suited for people whose data has a specific use life), I will have to migrate my data elsewhere. This isn’t a huge crisis (it’s just a mini-crisis), because most of what I have on this server is interesting, but not super useful for anyone other than myself and my colleagues.

There is one exception, and that is the 650 images associated with the abandoned settlement of Lakka Skoutara. David Pettegrew and I documented this site with photography for over a decade and these photographs provide a remarkable visual record of archaeological formation processes and the processes associated with abandonment in the rural Greek landscape. Check them out here.

It goes without saying that we wanted to have these in a more permanent archive with stable identifiers and substantial metadata so that they can be cited by scholars (including us in a forthcoming article). We requested a quote from a well-regarded digital archive for our photos and data. The standard rate was $5 per file so to archive these images it would cost about $3200 which is a bit more than I had budgets, but in a fundamental sense, not unreasonable. The collection of photographs is relatively small because, in part, many of the original photographs were taken with slide film. The developing cost of slides alone discouraged us from collecting “too many” photographs from the field.

In the Bakken, for example, where we have only used digital data collection (photo, video, audio recordings), and collected close to 10,000 files. Assuming there are no economies of scale, this would cost $50,000 to archive. This is approximately twice the cost of field work. My friend Dimitri Nakassis’s project offers another example of how digital data has expanded. He is doing RTI imaging of around 1000 Linear B tablets. Each RTI image is composed of approximately 50 photos. To archive this at the rates quoted to me about would cost over a quarter of a million dollars. While Dimitri’s project is a large, multi-year undertaking, it probably still had a total budget of little more than $50,000. In other words, archiving his photographs could run to over 5 times the cost of fieldwork. A large field project with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars could easily produce an assemblage of files that could cost into the millions to archive. 

Update: Dimitri noted on Twitter that so far his RTI project has produced 311, 302 files which at $5 per file would cost a not-insignificant $1,556,510 to archive or approximately 30 times the cost of the producing the images.

Thinking about these numbers got me thinking a bit more about how digital tools in archaeology will shape the discipline. While archiving archaeological data – even in analogue forms – has always been a requirement for any archaeological project, not to mention the need to store and preserve finds and sites. But these expenses are often distributed through an existing system that ranges from institutional archives at universities to archaeological storerooms and museums frequently funded by host countries. In other words, traditional practice in archaeological work (as well as other research) provides established infrastructure within which projects can work in economically efficient ways.

Digital tools and digital data, however, still require a massive investment (and with the precarious situation of university research funding and major grant projects from the NEH) and some of that investment will devolve on projects, and the numbers that I’ve just recently encountered suggest that the investment on the part of projects will likely be considerable! 

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