Digital Data and Data Literacy in Archaeology

I’ll admit that the last six months have not been the most balanced of my career. Between teaching, service, and research (the so-called trinity of academic life), I’ve been flat out (like a lizard resting) since the pandemic began. In some ways, this is good because I’ve been able to avoid the worst of pandemic related social consequences because I wouldn’t have had time to socialize anyway. In other ways, the conflation of work and home and the reintroduction of premodern regimens on top of post-industrialized expectations of productivity, as I’ve blogged about before, has created a perfect storm where work expands to fill every possible time of the day. (I have now taking to scheduling meeting during the time that I walk my dogs (they don’t mind) and I have a meeting today during the narrow window when I eat dinner between the “end of my work day” and my night class!)

Whinging about working loads aside, I do take time to read things here and there because I’m interested rather than because they’re burning a hole in my head. This week, I read Eric and Sarah Kansa’s “Digital Data and Data Literacy in Archaeology Now and in the New Decade,” in the latest issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice (https://doi.org/10.1017/aap.2020.55 or here). Since the article is short, you should just go and read it.

Rather than summarize the article, I just want to mention one point that the authors make. They point out that digital literacy is not about knowing how to use the latest hardware or software or even being a deft coder in Python, but a whole suite of practices, understandings, and perspectives. These extend from the kind of recording practices one makes at trench side to broad (often ethical) considerations regarding work flows, access to data, and data preservation. In other words, archaeologists should no longer see data literacy as the domain of digital or technical specialists (although to a certain extent this will be true as well), but must be woven into all aspects of archaeological practice.

This struck me as an unsurprising, but nevertheless rarely stated insight. It helped me think more broadly about some of my own projects. For example, recognizing that digital practices in archaeology extend from the field to final publication and through the range of workflows that define these processes creates new obligations for the discipline. Digital literacy may require us to understand better how archaeological knowledge goes from the field to an audience not only in terms of data management plans and dissemination strategies, but also in terms of publication practices, presentation, and access management. Publishing a traditional paper book might feel like a time-tested path of least resistance, but in a digitally mediated world it may not be the most ethical way to disseminate knowledge.

The expansive view of digital literacy recognized by Eric and Sarah Kansa in this article also requires us to really think had about the way in which digital workflows are transforming archaeological labor. To my mind this involves critical reflection on everything from crowd-sourced data analysis and collection to more mundane and common forms of digital labor. As the last twelve months of COVID-induced isolation has shown digital work in archaeology can be every bit as onerous and time consuming as conventional field work. We can readily agree that field work has particular ethical challenges ranging from basic safety to the unconventional professional setting in which archaeological occurs. Digital work, on the other hand, might seem to cleave closer to typical office or library work, but appearances might be a bit misleading. The anonymity of so much digital work makes it ripe for the kind of abuses that are already too common in archaeology where those who do so much of the labor remain invisible. At least a hand written notebook or context sheet preserves some of the stubborn humanity of the author whereas a hand-keyed databases often encourage a kind of uniformity that benefits analysis at the expense of individuality.  

In a world defined more and more by time constraints and a pace of life and work that feels like it is careening wildly out of control, a short article on data literacy offers a lovely opportunity to reflect on how digital practices in archaeology have both influenced our discipline and shaped our lives during a time of crisis. Check it out!

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