Fragmentation and Publication in Digital Archaeology

This weekend, I spent some quality time with Isto Huvila’s book, Archaeology and Archaeological Information in the Digital Society (2018), some of Costis Dallas (and colleagues) work on digital infrastructure and practice in archaeology, and the recent Journal of Field Archaeology supplement. I’m working on my paper, “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology” for the IEMA conference at the University of Buffalo next month.

Last week, I wrote an introductory section the foregrounded the concept of workflow in digital publishing and archaeology. It suggests that there is a growing fluidity in how digital data of all kinds move through our academic ecosystem. As such, barriers between one stage of the process of knowledge making and the next have eroded. 

This creates a tension that I’m particularly interested in exploring. On the one hand, the creation of fragmented data facilitates the movement of information between individuals, teams, and projects. It also reflects the specialized nature of archaeological knowledge making with area specialists producing discrete data sets. Digital technology increasingly produces and mediates the relationship between these data sets. The work of the authors who I read this weekend emphasizes the social and technological infrastructure for production and curation of digitally mediated archaeological knowledge. They recognized that digital tools and practice interact to produce new forms of knowledge. 

Efforts to understand the interaction of tools and practices – the digital habitus of archaeological work – involves a range of auto-ethnographic reflections and observations sometimes framed as methodological interventions, sometimes framed as reflexive practice and something simply description of procedure, as well as a small, but growing body of systematic ethnographic studies of behavior conducted by Huvila’s team in Sweden, the Sarah and Eric Kansa (and team), and Costis Dallas in various contexts (as well as the work by Matt Edgeworth on the ethnography of archaeological practice). My approach will be more auto-ethnographic (at best) or reflexive and instead of looking at the trowel’s edge, as I have elsewhere, look toward the publishing as a key node in the production of archaeological knowledge. 

As I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, workflows look to erode obstacles to their path. The entire conceptual framework of logistics involves removing obstacles to movement and the distributed production of value. Efforts to promote this in an archaeological context involves standardization, for example, that ensures that archaeological tools and data can relate to each other in consistent and predictable ways. These standardization practices also promote a kind of modularity of archaeological knowledge that supports reuse of various ways and ensures. In the best scenarios, that self-contained pieces of archaeological information complete with contextualizing metadata move freely between devices, individuals, and locations via the web (or whatever other digital protocols are appropriate).

As the Kansas’ have worked to demonstrate, the reuse of archaeological data between projects, is, at present, less of a technological barrier than a social and professional one. Grants, professional organizations, and institutions have only recent come to regard the work to archive, much less publish, archaeological data as a key responsibility in the discipline. The growing insistence on archaeological data plans for major grants and the recognition of digital work and publications by professional organizations demonstrates that a shift is taking place, but it’s difficult to anticipate the rate at which these top down protocols will shape practice in the field.

Complementing these top down policies are more organic changes that both attempt to leverage the flow of archaeological knowledge as well as to offer critiques of the barriers that remain in the seamless movement of information archaeological logistics. To use one particular case study, there’s been some interesting recent work concerning the dissemination of 3D models and data from broadly archaeological contexts.  Recent work, for example, on the publication of 3D scans of fossils has shown that the willingness to make this data publicly available remains relatively rare with two-thirds of articles that relied upon 3D scans not making the data available for various reasons with mostly involve the desire to use this proprietary research for future work or the lack of requirements to share. In contrast, the ethical concerns shape the willingness of bioarchaeologists to share the scanned remains of humans as a recent special issue of Archaeologies has brought to the fore. The concerns surrounding the 3D printing of a scale replica of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra revolved around the context of its display, the accuracy of the scale model, and the motives for the presentation. Practical concerns likewise exist for the publication of 3D data and images with projects like relatively recent digital monograph on Gabii demonstrating both the potential and challenges associated with sustainable, dynamic, and expansive data rich publications.

The publishing of archaeological information, whether it’s 3D data or more dynamic and immersive digital environments, reflects a more expansive realization that publishing information, analysis, and interpretation are explicit parts of an archaeological workflow that continues beyond any notion of “final publication.”  To my mind, over time, this will transform the relationship between the disciplinary work often associated with field work, interpretation, and writing and the notion of publishing, which is often presented as the culmination of archaeological work rather than as a part of a longer process of engagement with a fluid archaeological workflow. 

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