Digital Data, Publishing, and 3D

On my flights to Denver to attend the ASOR meetings, I had a chance to read the latest special issue from the Journal of Field Archaeology titled “Web-based Infrastructure As a Collaborative Framework Across Archaeological Fieldwork, Lab work, and Analysis.” The articles represented a broad sampling of recent trends in digital practice in archaeology from the trowels edge to the final publication. Of particular note was Rachel Opitz’s “Publishing Archaeological Excavations at the Digital Turn” which described the complex thought processes involved in publishing A Mid-Republican House from Gabii, which may well represent a watershed moment in the publication of digital monographs in archaeology. Various other articles consider the role of international web-based archives or publications of data in managing heritage and disseminating information at a regional or global scale and recent work developing the latest generation of 3D imaging tools in archaeological practice. The editorial introduction pulls together these contributions and offers a lightly sketched “state of the field.”

There were four things that leapt out at me from this little collection:

1. Fragmentation. One of the most intriguing things about these articles is that they all generally acknowledge the fragmentation of data, and archaeological knowledge. In some cases these data are fragmented across tables which contain fields that describe archaeological objects or archaeologist’s encounters with them, in other cases data is affixed to digital objects like the triangles that constitute the facets of 3D polygons. The goals of this fragmentation varies in detail, but generally seeks to preserve specificity through granularity. The granular bits of data can be reassembled in various ways to either represent spatial relationships or to allow a reader or researcher to link two pieces of related information either within a dataset or across various datasets. In short, the process of fragmentation is an initial step in simulating the fluidity of information in our minds as we lean on our physical memories to ground our analytical and interpretative processes that draw upon a wide range of observations to draw conclusions and make observations. At the same time, the structures inherent in how the data is encoded offer ways to bring together various points into new combinations that may have not be readily apparent to any single member of the project, moment in time, or perspective.

2. Collaboration. The fragmentation of data is the first step to sharing data. As archaeological information is rendered in more granular ways, it becomes easier to move between users and projects. Part of this process typically involves standardizing complex data sets at the level of individual digital objects. While archaeology has always worked to standardize information through the advocacy of consistent methods to the construction of typologies, the use of standardizing tools (like GPS coordinates or Munsell books), and the ubiquitous rhetoric of best practices. Creating data sets that can be shared across projects, of course, has always been a goal of archaeology because dissemination of archaeological knowledge has always represented one of the key outcomes of archaeological work. Whether through standard practices associated with field reports or the conventions of the catalogue and the map, archaeology has always looked toward certain degrees of standardization to facilitate the communication of their results.  Linked open data standards and various other ways of standardizing data has pushed to the foreground the goals of producing data that can be reused at the same scale (and perhaps in similar ways) as less granular information presented in traditional publication. In other words, we’re talking citations. How do we ensure that data is presented in a way that encourages citation.   

3. International. This is rather mundane observation, but it has fascinated me a good bit: the increasingly international character of archaeological knowledge sharing. Historically, archaeology has had a national (if not nationalistic) cast to it. Even today, archaeological and heritage management is a matter defined by national, regional, or even local boundaries. On the one hand, then, archaeologists have a strong commitment to ideas of provenience, repatriation, and indigenous knowledge. On the other hand, digital practices are increasingly transnational in character as the movement of data, archaeological knowledge, and methods across national boundaries has become a standard practice in archaeological work. Facilitating the movement of information across boundaries, however, has become fraught with the continued power of national interests which is only heightened in the case of digital imaging, for example, which has the potential to produce in digital form artifacts that are as – or even more – real than the originals. The tension, then, between national and global cut through the use of digital tools, the ability to collaborate, the portability of fragments, and the opportunities to undermine both national borders and nationalism in archaeological work while still respecting provenience and local knowledge.

4. Publication. All this work on the digital realm has a direct impact on what we consider archaeological publication. 30 years ago, we might be satisfied if a project produced a preliminary report and a final report (preferably bound and covered in some drab color and published by a respected press). Today, publication is a continuous process that begins with data produced in the survey unit or the trench and continues through to various iterations of the final product. Linking this increasingly diverse and dense web of published results together has become the foundation for a wide range of innovative approaches to disseminating archaeological work. I was particularly interested in the approaches taken to move between highly granular data and more integrative forms of narrative that tend to resist the pressures of fragmentation. As Rachel Opitz pointed out in her useful contribution, it is easier to move from narrative to data than from data to particular points in the narrative. I think this distinction tells us something about how we think as archaeologists and should be useful reminder that fragmentation, collaboration, and globalization in archaeological remains incommensurate with certain traditional practices that remain very close to the core, modern, nature of the discipline.  

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