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! 

More Mobilizing the Past

With all the exciting new stuff happening at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I’ve let some updates on (slightly) older projects slide. So here’s a bit of an update.

Copies of Erin Walcek Averett, Derek B. Counts, and Jody Michael Gordon eds., Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: the potential of digital archaeology (2016), went out to reviewers this winter and the first reviews are coming in. Benjamin Ducke of the DAI in Berlin offered a largely positive review of the book for the German journal Archäologische Informationen here. He concludes by saying that while “Zu den inhaltlichen Mankos einiger Beiträge gehören der kaum hinterfragte Einsatz proprietärer Software und Serverdienste zur Datenprozessierung und -speicherung, welche einer Blackbox gleichkommen, sowie eine zu autodidaktische Herangehensweise bei der Suche nach technischen Lösungen,” Mobilizing the Past “repräsentiert den Stand des Wissens am Übergang zur Phase der vollständigen digitalen Dokumentation archäologischer Feldarbeit. Since this is what the authors really set out to do from the start, we’re pretty happy with that assessment.

The editors of Mobilizing the Past funded the conference and the book through a NEH grant, for which they have written a final report. Read alongside Ducke’s review, this report confirms the fundamentally practical motivations for the conference and accounts from the practical character of many of the papers. When I decided to publish this book, I regarded this as a good thing because it offered a state-of-the-field (Stand des Wissens) perspective which will give it longevity as both a historical document and a critical reflection on a moment of particularly creative and accelerated change in field practices.

Finally, the book has been downloaded over 1500 times and we’ve sold a steady number of volumes in paper as well. Interestingly, the numbers for this book are almost identical to The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016).

Download a copy of Mobilizing the Past here or buy it in paper here.

  

From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology

This week the Society of American Archaeology annual meeting takes place is Vancouver, B.C. Unfortunately, I won’t be attending, but I will be there in person as my colleagues Derek Counts and Erin Averett deliver a paper that looks at how digital archaeology and digital publishing will work together to reshape the future of the discipline and archaeological knowledge making.  

Check out our paper, below, and download some cool publications in digital archaeology from The Digital Press.

“From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology”

Session: Archaeological Epistemology in the Digital Age

Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), Derek B. Counts (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), William Caraher (University of North Dakota), and Jody Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology)

Introduction

Before we get started, I wanted to offer two prefatory remarks: First and foremost, on behalf of my co-authors, I want to thank Rebecca and Michael for the kind invitation to offer a paper in this session, which positions itself nicely as digital approaches to archaeology continue to transform the field. Secondly, I must apologize for our title and the published abstract… and especially to those who have attended our paper on the promise of what we proposed. Seven months ago, Derek, Bill, Jody and I were in the trenches, battling the nuances of digital archaeology on several fronts as we made the final push to complete our book, Mobilizing the Past (Averett et al. 2016), which appeared in October (and is still available free to download at TheDigitalPress.org!). At the time, we thought a paper for this session provided a wonderful opportunity to synthesize what we had learned – and to discuss the ins/outs of our publication process and how we harnessed the promise of “digital” and “open” to build our book.

Fast-forward seven months. The title makes less sense and already seems dated. Things are moving that fast. Mobilizing the Past captured a moment in the evolution of digital archaeology. And, while we recognize that archaeological projects have incorporated digital technologies unevenly —especially if you scan the landscape outside of the Mediterranean—most agree that the move to ‘born-digital’ is well underway. Still, archaeologists haven’t fully articulated the benefits and problems of replacing traditional methods of field recording with digital technologies. And, while our recent publication was a step in the right direction, it was more about tools and technology than it was about process and products.  So – the first part of our original title – “From Trench to Tablet” –  is no longer useful for two reasons:

  1. The ship has sort of sailed on paradigm-shifting conversations about iPads; folks are using mobile devices in the field to do archaeology; and
  2. Because it imposed a limit on the conversation by separating the process of field recording from interpretation and analysis.

Field Recording is thus also no longer the focus per se of this paper, in part, because it may not be particularly useful to think of it as a discrete “stage” or “step” within the practice of archaeological knowledge making.

For the record, our title is now: Interpreting and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology. We think this title embraces more fully how digital practices in archaeology impact the entire process from interpretation to publication.

Mobilizing the Past: Goals and Moving Forward

To start, I want to return briefly to Mobilizing the Past. The book grew out of a rather selfish need: as the Athienou Archaeological Project decided to move to digital recording methods in 2011, we struggled with the logistics of incorporating new technologies and digital data into our legacy workflow. On a practical level, we understood that other projects were struggling with the same concerns, but there was a surprising lack of published discourse. Thus, the idea for an NEH-funded workshop and publication was born. Our initial goal was to convene a forum that might begin to establish best practices and protocols for mobile computing in digital archaeology with respect to technologies and approaches to both in-field recording and the dissemination of the results. We structured the workshop sessions around the development and use of software, tools, and systems, but also pedagogy, data curation, and critiques. It soon became clear that our original focus on the practical aspects of digital technologies could not be separated from larger theoretical questions concerning field methods and interpretation. Some of this is apparent in the volume, which while remaining biased toward practical perspectives on the turn toward the digital, often left as tacit issues relating to the interpretation and publication of this rapidly expanding and diversifying body of “born-digital” evidence.

This point was not lost on folks who have commented on the volume. For example, Morag Kersel, in her response paper in the volume, notes her “shock” at the lack of attention to publication in Mobilizing the Past, remarking on “the lack of engagement of what to do with the increasing amount of data produced as a result of these new technologies—most of the submissions stopped at the edge of the square or in the analysis stage of fieldwork; very few mentioned publication” (Kersel 2016: 486).  In a series of blog posts, Dimitri Nakassis criticized the contributions for focusing too heavily on accuracy and efficiency in collecting data at the expense of interpretation.[1]  Making his point provocatively, he notes that the word “data” appeared 1619 times, while variations on “interpret” appear only 164 times.

At the same time, most of our contributors recognized that the perceived division between data collection and analysis is more closely related to the physical organization of archaeological work on the ground than the intellectual organization of the task involved in structuring an archaeological project. This division between physical and intellectual work, while a persistent idea both in archaeology and the larger organization of labor and humanity, has more to do with the separation of the field from the lab or office than any intent to isolate collection from interpretation. Thus, the distinction identified by Nakassis is more illusory than real. Data collection is interpretation. If we’re serious about digital technologies being part of a dynamic ecosystem of practice, then interpretation, and by extension publication, is more than just the result of digital work, but an essential aspect of what we do in the field. 

This perceived dichotomy between data and interpretation, however, belies a general schizophrenia in critical approaches to digital archaeology: as some call for more introspection with respect to the integration of digital approaches in field archaeology, others push for more discussion of how digital technology at large is changing interpretation and publication. Most projects started ‘going digital’ in the last five years—that process is still young, and so is the data that those excavations have produced. Moreover, as Shawn Graham recently blogged: this first phase (and maybe no phase) of digital archaeology is not efficient. It’s experimental; it’s slow; it rarely goes “click, bing! result.”[2] It is difficult to avoid the feeling that chastising archaeology done digitally for not offering ‘more on interpretation and more on publication’ reflects a sense that digital archaeology is somehow ‘faster’ (which it is not) and that somehow it allows its researchers to get to answers and new interpretations more quickly (why would it?).

This view of digital practices that demands efficiency in many ways embraces the linearity of the assembly line that starts with the “lowly” technical and physical task of data recording in the field, progresses through collating and processing the data in the lab, and ends with the most respected phase of interpretation – the final publication. The result of archaeological fieldwork, in this process, is the definitive work: the book or the article. This result carries marks of authority from its form as a printed text through exaggerated expectations of persistence and the symbols of authority imparted by a largely commercialized publishing industry. In this system, the authority of the final publication overwrites interpretations at the trowel’s edge, the selection of technology, or even the iterative process of analysis.  To put it another way, our current model of knowledge production exchanges the authority of methodologically sophisticated, consistent, and rigorous fieldwork for the authority imparted by the publication process itself. Critiques that noted the absence of interpretation in Mobilizing the Past do so because data isn’t recognized as fundamentally interpretative in our current model of producing knowledge, not because interpretation was absent.

While acknowledging that this view of traditional publishing is a wee bit (!) polemical, we wonder if part of the current schizophrenia in the discussion of digital practices could be overcome by embracing a non-linear model of publishing that values reflexive approaches and interpretation that take place at every phase. This isn’t to throw the baby of high quality academic work out with bathwater of traditional publishing, but rather to suggest that critical attention to digital field practices needs to extend through the entire publishing process. The goal isn’t interpretation as an end (pace Nakassis), but ways to demonstrate the interpretive moves that take place throughout archaeological work. These perspectives, of course, aren’t new and are part-and-parcel of post-processual archaeology (see recently Berggren et al. 2015). For example, Morgan and Eve (2012) demonstrated how digital technology could mediate a decentered and participatory approach to fieldwork at the Prescot Street excavations in the UK. Caraher and Reinhard (2015) and Zubro (2006), using slightly different terms, argued that communities of practice extant across social and new media sites provide ways for archaeological information to disseminate to wide audiences with relatively little friction. These models of publishing can be both dynamic and fluid without the unnecessary stigma of being provisional (or relegated to “mere data collection”) if we de-emphasize the linear process of knowledge of production.

The technologies and conventions already exist for more dynamic publishing conventions that both embrace the core values of scholarly publishing and reflect the continuous nature of archaeological publication. Despite persistent anxiety, there are ways to preserve even academic standards such as peer review with platforms like Hypothes.is (https://hypothes.is/) and MIT’s PubPub (https://www.pubpub.org/)that allow for threaded conversations to develop texts in ways that go well beyond the limits of conventional paper publishing, and to allay concerns of persistence with the rapidly maturing infrastructure of the stable web with projects like the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/index.php). More importantly for archaeologists, however, is that there is a basic consensus for practices fundamental to a linked, open data infrastructure that many of the people on this panel understand. The approaches taken by Open Context (https://opencontext.org/), Perio.do (http://perio.do/), and Pleiades (https://pleiades.stoa.org/) provide foundational structures for de-centered, but consciously curated, strategies of publishing archaeological contexts and artifacts, periods, and places respectively. The decisions to embrace digital media both in new ways and within existing scholarly conventions is at least partly in the hands of the archaeological community. At some level, we set the standards for what constitutes legitimate disciplinary knowledge through our own practices of citation and participation.

There are, however, legitimate complications. For example, some countries remain hesitant to allow for digital publication of archaeological data, and it goes without saying that all forms of publication, but particularly those presented in a highly accessible way, must remain sensitive to the cultural interests of communities impacted by archaeological work. A less linear publication model will only exacerbate the overwhelming proliferation of scholarly outlets, publications, and resources (for a similar critique, see Witmore 2009 and Bevan 2015 on the “data deluge”). On a more subversive note: academic and professional institutions increasingly are beholden to the use of standardized metrics to assess research productivity and these tend to be calibrated to traditional publications; it is not unappealing to take approaches to knowledge production that intentionally break that system. But we must also recognize that such institutions tightly regulate tenure and promotion processes that might undervalue (or not acknowledge) forms of publication that do not adhere to the traditional modes. There are long-standing attitudes toward the book as a physical object that makes manifest in its form, a finite and apprehensible body of knowledge, and this stands in contrast to the seemingly limitless space of linked, digital knowledge on the internet.

Despite these challenges, it is easy enough to understand how digital technologies can create wondrous new forms of digital publication. For example, several years ago, Derek Counts and I decided to incorporate 3D scanning into our study and recording of the limestone and terracotta sculptures from the site of Athienou-Malloura in Cyprus.  This new 3D documentation strategy invariably forced a new publication strategy. Most importantly, the broader arc of our research agenda—from data collection to dissemination—was conceived digitally. Recognition that each step in the process requires careful consideration of interpretive decisions with respect to tools, methods, and analysis, ultimately is yielding multilateral control of interpretations that we hope will transform the traditional catalogue. Our collaborator, Kevin Garstki, has just highlighted some of this, but also recently written about the importance of recognizing these interpretive, even editorial, stages in 3D scanning in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (Garstki 2016). Unlike a traditional printed catalogue, the digital catalogue will include dynamic 3D images with a variety of user-manipulated tools, but it will also harness the potential for multiple forms of complementary linked data not possible in print form from simple hyperlinks to GIS-generated provenience maps. The catalogue can be updated each season with links to new stratigraphic data or information related to new finds, associated artifacts, and existing comparanda. Sculptural fragments published previously can be reunited with newly-discovered joins. As objects are photographed, digitally modelled, formally described, and contextually analyzed, the more traditional interpretive facets of their existence can be integrated with digital dissemination. Narrative analyses can be easily updated and linked to new information and to the range of technical and grey literature, from excavation manuals to published records produced at trenchside, providing relational knowledge that supports various readings of the site, the objects, and archaeological work. In other words, such standard interpretive moves that locate an object within an archaeological context are thus disseminated in an innovative, organic, and open way.

The basic tools for this kind of approach already exist and models are appearing regularly that demonstrate how this or that element could work – from real time recording like Morgan and Eve describe at Prescot Street to artifactual records published by Open Context to the bewildering range of associated files types supported by online repositories like the Internet Archive and tDar (https://www.tdar.org/). On a very practical level, there is no need for us to imagine data collection as somehow un-interpretive and just a step toward publication. To the contrary, this type of publication embodies these fragments of archaeological knowledge as digital technologies provide a relational, linked, and largely open platform for a non-linear and transparent ecology of archaeological knowledge making.

When confronted by the potential and challenges of such boundless and infinitely-linked knowledge, it is helpful to return to the field and Mobilizing the Past. One of the major critiques of our book, which applies to many recent explorations of digital technologies and archaeological work, is that we continue to use the language of objective empiricism and industrial process to describe “data collection,” while at the same time acknowledging that we recognize the interpretive character of field work and the influence of digital technologies on the knowledge that we produce. Part of the reason for this perspective on fieldwork rests in the tradition of seeing archaeological knowledge production in a linear way with the final publication marking the culmination of an interpretive and analytical process. A more reflexive digital archaeology in the field, however, pushes us to think how publishing can capture these interpretive processes. Rather than seeing the interpretation at the trowel’s edge as a provisional stage in the way to a final analysis, we’re proposing a digital archaeology that explores non-linear publications to expose, to probe, and ultimately to destabilize the binaries that have come to dominate our field.

 

Works Cited

Averett, E. W., J. M. Gordon, and D. B. Counts (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016). https://thedigitalpress.org/mobilizing-the-past-for-a-digital-future/

Berggren, Å., Dell’Unto, N., Forte, M., Haddow, S., Hodder, I., Issavi, J., Lercari, N., Mazzucato, C., Mickel, A., Taylor, J. 2015. “Revisiting the Reflexive Archaeology at Çatalhöyük: Integrating Digital and 3D Technolgies at the Trowel’s Edge,” Antiquity 89: 433-448. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2014.43

Bevan, A. “The data deluge,” Antiquity 89 (2015), 1473-484. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2015.102

Caraher, W. and A. Reinhard, “From Books to Blogs: Blogging as Community, Practice, and Platform,” Internet Archaeology 39 (2015). http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue39/7/toc.html

Garstki, K. “Virtual Representation: the Production of 3D Digital Artifacts” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2016), DOI:10.1007/s10816-016-9285-z.

Kersel, M. “Response: Living a Semi-Digital Kinda Life,” in E. W. Averett, et al. (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016), 475-92. https://digitalpressatund.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/5_1_kersel.pdf

Morgan, C. and S. Eve, “DIY and digital archaeology: what are you doing to participate?” World Archaeology 44 (2012), 521-37. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2012.741810

Zubrow, E. B. “Digital Archaeology: The Historical Context” in T. Evans and P. Daly (eds.), Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. Routledge. (London, 2006), 10-31.

Witmore, C. 2009. “Prolegomena to Open Pasts: On Archaeological Memory Practices,” Archaeologies 5 (2009), 511–545. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225833647_Prolegomena_to_Open_Pasts_On_Archaeological_Memory_Practices 

Updates from The Digital Press: Digital Infrastructure

One of the biggest challenges for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is developing (or more properly discovering) the digital infrastructure necessary to support robust and persistent digital context to complement the traditional books. As long as books are just volumes distributed via Amazon in paper or made available as PDFs, a relatively simple system works. 

The challenges get bigger when it comes to coordinating media that exists as both a book – either in paper or in some simple digital form. As a mid-sized institutions going through some pretty significant budget cuts, we don’t have the resources to support an in-house repository (yet!), as a result, I need to use services and resources already available on the open web. Sorting this all out will be particularly significant in the next few weeks as two nearly completed projects require supplemental material. 

My instinct is to use the Internet Archive to support my relatively modest needs. For example, I am almost ready to announce that I will be publishing Corinth Excavations’ Archaeological Manual. This will be the first major, published excavation manual from a project in the Mediterranean published in the last 40 years (probably since the last edition of Dever and Lance’s A Manual of Field Excavation in the early 1980s). The book will include a digital supplement which includes the forms the the Archaeological Manual recommends using in the field. These will be reproduced in the slim book (around 170 pages), but at a size appropriate for the rather narrow (8.5 x 5.5) volume. In the supplemental material, we will make them available at full size to download. Since the entire volume will be CC 4.0-By, the plan is to put the supplemental material up in the Internet Archive for download with the idea that the Internet Archive can produce a persistent URL. But I obviously want to make sure that this will all work how I think it will work so when I include the link in the paper and digital volume, it will work for years to come.

Oh, and I started working on the cover. Corinth is a pretty conservative place and the Archaeological Manual is a pretty technical, specialist book, so I wanted to convey something of the conservative, technical nature of the work. I really like Gil Sans for the title, and think that anything bolder would look overwhelming. I used Times New Roman for the author’s names. There are a lot of authors on this manual so that was tricky.

CEM Cover 01

A similar issue faces my work with Micah Bloom’s Codex project. The book (about books… check out the link) also includes a video. The original plan was to archive the video in our newly minted institutional repository, but my instinct is that we won’t have this up and running by the time that the book needs to be produced in early May. So, like the supplemental material for the Corinth Archaeological Manual, I need a place to post the video that will provide a persistent link so that we can embed connect the book and the video. I’m hoping the Internet Archive can provide this.

With the SAAs beginning this week, I decided to create a little landing page for folks who are checking out The Digital Press for the first time. Just for fun, I’m embedding live views of the books from the Internet Archive. It’s not an ideal layout, but fun and dynamic way to show off The Digital Press’s archaeology catalogue. Here’s a preview

 

Finally, yesterday I mentioned that my graduate historiography class is working on a project relating to the humanities, history, and the UND budget crisis. Just for fun, I designed a book cover or a poster for the project. If figure it might help promote their work when we release it for local and then public comment. 

It’s nothing that’ll win a design award, but I like it: 

DefendingHistoryCover 01

As you can probably guess, this post is partly a cry for help, but also a little update on recent projects. If you can help, please do! If you’re curious about getting an advanced copy of forthcoming publications, do drop me a line! If you just want to insult my design skills, do that as well!

Three Thing Thursday: Cities of Salt, Digital Practice, and Borders

Maybe I’ll make a habit of this over the next few months. Or maybe not. (I’m tempted to be one of those bloggers who releases shorter posts throughout the day. In fact, I’m tempted enough to write those posts, but not as tempted to push them out over the course of the day.)

Anyway, here are three unrelated things that are flitting through my addled mind.

1. Abdelrahmen Munif’s Cities of Salt should be required reading in North Dakota. The novel describes the disruptions experienced in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with the discovery of oil. It begins in a verdant oasis which is destroyed and, then, moves on to a dreary coastal town where the American company houses Arab workers, many displaced from their previous homes in the oasis, in a series of man camps. The first camps were tents set up along the beach in neat lines and after they worked to construct an American-style town to accommodate the American workers, they were moved to a series of barracks where the lead used in the tin roofs dripped down on them during the day as it melted in the sun. Both the American-style town and the various camps for the Arab workers were set apart from each other and their surrounding by barbed wire and access control points. Munif set these in contrast to the oasis, which despite being a physically distinct environment from the surrounding desert, nonetheless saw the constant flow of caravans and other movement that emphasized its integration with the rest of the world.

While I haven’t finished the book, Munif provides a dynamic and deeply social portrayal on the way that extractive industries can disrupt the interplay between society and the environment. (For more on this, see my Tuesday post.)

2. The Character of Digital Practice. I spent a little time yesterday afternoon and last night fiddling with a paper that some colleagues and I will give at next week’s Society of American Archaeology annual meeting. One of the things that my co-authors, Derek Counts and Erin Averett, have really prompted me to think about some of the binaries that shape how we think and talk about archaeological work. For example, the distinction between data collection and analysis, between data and interpretation, between being in the field and being in the lab or in the office, between doing and thinking. These binaries both reflect long-standing philosophical divisions between, say, mind and body, here and there, and describing and interpreting, but they also represent differences in experience between being hot and dirty and tired in the field and being clean and rest and cool in one’s office or coordinating team leaders and trench supervisors on the ground and running statistical analysis on a dataset.

It is easy enough to characterize these binaries as false and unhelpful. For example, we understand that certain assumption, expectations, and structures of digital data collection directly shape the kind of archaeological interpretations and knowledge that we make. At the same time, these divisions are real and they do shape our approach to the tools – digital or otherwise. For me, negotiating this tension seems to be very close to the heart of how we understand digital practices in field archaeology. While I am always quick to lump all aspects of archaeology together as “interpretation and knowledge making,” I think that this kind of lumping might be reaching the end of its usefulness in the case of understanding digital practices in the field. Digital technologies do present ways to break through certain binaries, of course, but they also exist in a particular place and moment of archaeological practices.

3. Borders. Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak about his work, including his 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizers. As a Vietnamese-American writer he talked a good bit about how various borders – physical, literary, and economic – served to define the limits of how a minority author could express himself or herself. He talked about how he worked to defy literary expectations and instead of writing, what he called “little brown realism,” he sought to write in a more self-consciously literary style. It was a novel written by a minority and the son of refugees that wasn’t a minority novel. 

He likewise discusses the roles of borders in defining groups and impeding movement while acknowledging that his family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam was made possible by Cold War politics and the favorable optics of the United States accepting refugees from a communist country. He also recognized that this kind of permeability of borders with information, culture, animals, tacos (yum!), and capital crossing from one country to the next. This permeability of borders, for Nguyen, held forth the future of the world where borders don’t exist. At worst, humans would flow like capital and best like culture.

 

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. 

Announcing the Digital Edition of Pyla-Koutsopetria 1: A Free Download

Over the past three years, I’ve been working with the good folks at the American Schools of Oriental Research (especially on the Committee on Publications) and Sarah and Eric Kansa at Open Context to produce a linked, digital version of our 2014 book in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series, Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town that I edited with my friends David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. 

Here’s a link to download the book. All you have to do is to become a friend of ASOR which free. Do it! 

Scott Moore and I worked to insert hundreds of links throughout the book to our data which we published on Open Context at about the same time as the book appeared. These links are permanent, persistent, and unique which is super cool. This allows a reader to “drill down” into our data. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll expand some of the main points here This is good for our data and for our readers for a few reasons:

1. Every Sherd. Ok, well, not technically EVERY sherd, since we did group identical artifacts together into batches. But since the batch is the smallest level of archaeological analysis for our project, a reader can look at exactly those sherds that led to to make a particular argument. Here is a sample of the batch table, and here’s a link to a Roman period kitchen ware rim.

2. Every Unit. Our batches coincide with units which is the smallest spatial division of our survey area. Over the last couple of years Open Context has become much slicker in dealing with spaces in a survey project. So it’s now possible to attach particular batches of artifacts to particular spaces or to query particular places for the artifacts present there. Here’s Unit 39, and here’s Batch 29 (a Late Roman 1 Amphora handle).

3. Every Type. We organized our artifacts using the Chronotype system which provides a local typology for each artifact recovered during the survey. This typology can be extraordinarily broad (for example, a Medium Coarse Ware, Ancient History which is a sherd datable only to the historical period (i.e. 700 BC – Today) with a medium coarse fabric)  or rather more narrow (like a Late Roman 1 type amphora). These can then be viewed across the units in the survey area.

This kind of linked archaeological publication, however, is just the start. There are a few things that a future model for this kind of publication could do.

1. Links from Data to the Book. At present, it is easy and useful to drill down from the rather traditional archaeological monograph into the data. It is not possible, right now, to drill up (?) from the data to our arguments. 

2. Beyond the Book. There are also precious few opportunities (yet!) to go from our work and Chronotype typologies into other bodies of published data. One low hanging fruit would be the Levantine Ceramics Project data which could be linked to our PKAP finds data to expand both datasets. As we look ahead to publishing data from the excavation at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla, we hope to be able to link to both our survey and excavation datasets in a born digital publication.

3. Better Digital Circulation. Right now, this is a trial balloon designed to show what is possible leveraging existing platforms and a little DIY elbow-grease (like, inserting a bajillion links!). In the future, we need to look toward a better way to circulate the digital manuscript and to ensure it’s stability and persistence. Obviously, the friction of having to add your email and join a list is not terribly great, but it remains a barrier to access. More significantly, ASOR’s Archaeological Report Series does not have a standard way to distribute digital content and to make it discoverable on the web, and this makes sense, since this is a proof-of-concept type project, but in the future, we hope for a more robust method to make digital publications available from ASOR with as low a barrier to entry as possible!

Anyway, these are all exciting prospects for digitally publishing of archaeological data and reckon that this is a great way to celebrate “Love Your Data Week 2017

ARS 21  PKAP Linked SM Page 003

Altas.ti and the North Dakota Man Camp Project

For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.

The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.

Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!) 

This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:

Document1

The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.

The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.

Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation. 

So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom. 

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little Hypothes.is comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Survey Methods and Efficiency

I was pretty excited to read S.T. Stewart, P.M.N. Hitchings, P. Bikoulis and E.B. Banning, “Novel survey methods shed light on prehistoric exploration in Cyprus,” in Antiquity 91 (2017) over lunch yesterday. First off, it had the words method, survey, and Cyprus in its title, which always hit me in the “feels.” Secondly, it deals with survey efficiency across complex landscapes on the island, and this reflects a challenge that we’ve faced on the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) over the past three field seasons.

Like any good article, it sent me through an emotional rollercoaster. 

Phase 1!

At first blush, I was horrified at the prospects of using predictive modeling to exclude certain units within a survey zone from intensive pedestrian survey in the name of efficiency. This felt like exactly the kind of technology-driven Taylorism that my recent scholarship has railed against. A slow archaeology embraces the kind of contingency, chance, and randomness that defies (at best) and taunts (at worst) efforts at efficiency. At its most absurd, this is discovering the most significant and time-consuming finds on the final scheduled day of field work.

The authors describe how they excluded units from survey because more recent geomorphological processes would obscure or destroy the late Pleistocene and early Holocene landscapes that would contain artifacts from the earliest periods of occupation on the island. In practice, survey archaeologists know that nothing is ever that simple. Modern, mechanized activity in the landscape is capable of removing meters of sediment to expose earlier paleosols, reworking the water flow across the landscape to erode through more recent deposits and revealing scarps and sites long buried, and even moving soils from elsewhere are depositing them and their accompanying artifacts in unexpected places. While all these contingencies require critical consideration when used to construct settlement patterns across the landscape, they can also provide unexpected windows into the past. 

Finally, intensive survey is about more than just looking for artifacts. By ignoring units that are unlikely to produce artifacts, they deprive themselves the opportunity to engage the landscape in a wholistic way. While it is fair enough observation that contemporary landscapes are different from earlier landforms, engaging the landscape compels the survey archaeology to recognize the diachronicity of all survey assemblages. An exposed late Pleistocene horizon is no less a component of the modern landscape than the earliest levels of the so-called Anthropocene.

In short, the urge to efficiency in their survey methods felt like a lost opportunity (at best) that risked insulating the archaeologist from the full context of even the earliest artifacts within a dynamic modern space. This modern space is where we as archaeologists encounter the landscape and produce our understanding the fine strands that connect our world to the ancient.

Phase 2!!

Then, I took a deep breath. What Stewart and her colleagues proposed is actually pretty cool. They created two models. One was a general model of landscapes in the Tremithos River Valley and the other was a more specific model based on their daily work in the field. This latter model was particularly interesting because it was iterative. Each day this specific model was updated with data from the field revealing the potential and power of a sophisticated GIS and data-management system.

More than that, my colleagues and I have argued in print that intensity matters in producing analytically meaningful survey assemblages. A system that takes into consideration data collected on the fly and allows the archaeologists to know where added intensity is likely to produce the most meaningful results – and if this system bore fruit – is exactly the kind of targeted and variable intensification that my colleagues and I have recommended in survey practice. So whatever efficiency is gained by using models, for me the gain is really in intensification. 

Phase 3!!!

Finally, sometime about 4:30 pm yesterday while I was on the second mile of my run, I realized that Stewart and her colleagues were probably not wrong in their approach. Having spent the last three seasons trudging through cobble-strewn fields along the banks of the Inachos river and finding nearly nothing (and learning as we went that some of these units did not preserve much of the ancient surface), I am acutely aware of the needs to treat the landscape with systematic efficiency. From sampling and collection strategies to field tactics, intensive pedestrian archaeology is inseparable from modern, industrial practices that extended from auto manufacturing the organization of universities. If industrial production can be designed around predictive models and machines that learn, then intensive survey will invariably absorb these same impulses and trend toward increased efficiency in the kind of archaeological knowledge that it produces. In fact, check out the first 100 or so pages of Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town (2014); we lay out explicitly how our sampling strategies balanced intensification and efficiency. 

In a very practical sense, much of our conversation over the past three on WARP is how to approach our landscape efficiently. We had the luxury of increasing the number of field teams every year and retaining our amazing group of team leader who develop more efficient field practices each season. As a result, we surveyed larger and larger amounts of territory each day and each week. This allowed us take risks and survey areas where we though it unlikely that we’d find significant artifacts scatters. This included steep, densely-vegetated, hill slopes as well as the valley bottom near the river where erosion and sedimentation conspired to obscure ancient surfaces.

Knowing what we know now about the geomorphology of the Inachos valley and the artifactual landscape (that is in hindsight), we probably would have deployed our survey teams differently. At the same time, walking the valley bottoms did prompt us to think more carefully about both modern land use and fragmentation as well as routes both along and across the Inachos river. These were important considerations as our survey was diachronic and all parts of the landscape could contribute to our larger arguments.

By the time, I was done processing this short article, I had come full circle. It’s a fine article and characteristic of the discourse in intensive pedestrian survey and reflective of both practical challenges and opportunities facing field work in the digital age.