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Digital Archaeology: Technology in the Trenches

Digital Archaeology: Technology in the Trenches

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Published by billcaraher
A short discussion of technology and archaeology.
A short discussion of technology and archaeology.

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Published by: billcaraher on Feb 23, 2010
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Elwyn B. Robinson LectureDigital Archaeology: Technology in the Trenches William CaraherFebruary 24, 2010Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota Grand Forks, NDMy paper today will explore the intersection of digital technologies,Mediterranean archaeology, and transdisciplinary, synergistic research. This work has grown from my thinking about the newly created Working Group inDigital and New Media and some recent opportunities to talk about the role of agency and technology in the field of archaeology. When people think of digital technology, I am pretty sure that Mediterranean Archaeology is not the first field to come to mind. In fact, I’d be hard pressed toidentify any fields more steeped in traditional approaches than Mediterranean,or as we used to call it, Classical Archaeology, Ancient History, or ClassicalPhilology. While these fields did have digital pathbreakers, for example DavidPackard’s efforts with the Packard Humanities Institute and his famous Ibycuscomputer, the field never developed a reputation for embracing the cutting edgeof technology.
The same may be said for History (where I make my disciplinary home here on campus) which despite the important work of groups like theCenter for History and New Media at George Mason University, still featuresindividuals sufficiently skeptical of technology to publicly declare themselvesLuddites – and to understand the radical implication of Ned Ludd for academicmodes of productions (think of that next time the email server is down!).
Allthis is to say, that when I refer to trenches in my talk title, I am not just playing on archaeologists’ predilection for spending time in holes, but the rudimentary state of digital awareness in our field.
  While Mediterranean archaeologists and historians have traditionally lackedtechnological savvy, the study of the ancient Mediterranean has a soundfoundation in the area of synergistic research and teaching. Its inclusion in thefield of Classics or Classical Studies places archaeology among the disciplines of Classical philology, history, anthropology, art history, literary criticism, and thehistory of religions – as well as numerous subfields each with their owndisciplinary practices like epigraphy, numismatics, silography, and the study of ceramics. The location of Mediterranean Archaeology within this transdisciplary space has produced a field perhaps more comfortable than most in disregarding disciplinary boundaries.
 Its from this background that I’d like to argue today that technology holds outthe prospect of disrupting disciplinary boundaries in a far more profound way than traditional trans or interdisciplinary work has before. The intersection of digital technologies and archaeological (and historical) practices, in fact,“threatens” – and it is clear that some people will see this as a threat – to
destabilize the longstanding professional and disciplinary core of these fields of study.
Technology offers the ability to transform the networks through which we create archaeological knowledge and in the process to create a dynamic andhybrid field that may resemble more a space of engagement than a discipline – atleast as discipline are conceptualized within the academy today. To use the wordsof our administrators here, I imagine such spaces of engagement as particularly susceptible to synergistic (or is it synergistical?) relationships that willtransform the social organization in the humanities, create a more inclusivemodel of academic life, and provide perspectives on intellectual problems thatmore accurately reflect present realities. To demonstrate my point, I will presenttwo case studies that reveal my theoretical position on both the discipline of archaeology and the role of technology. In doing so, I will outline some practicalimplication of digital technology in the field of Mediterranean archaeology as itstares into its digital future.
Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a body of archaeological data generated from a field project conducted between 1979 and 1982 in theimmediate hinterland of the ancient city (and now modern village) of Thisvi, inBoeotia. A team from Ohio State University under the direction of my graduateadviser Timothy Gregory collected the data from the field using the technique of intensive pedestrian survey. Today the material is under study in collaboration with a larger project directed by Archie Dunn of the University of Birmingham inthe UK.
The goal of this project is to re-write the post-Classical period at the siteof Thisvi by integrating our intensive pedestrian survey data into more recent work done in surrounding regions and in the modern village of Thisvi.
Toaccomplish this, Archie invited Tim Gregory and me to re-discover and re-analyze the data collected some 30 years ago. The first step in this process wasto produce a digital data set from the “analog” records preserved in the project’s various field notebooks. Since its initial recording 30 years ago, the data had been effectively lost both from academic scrutiny and from recent developments both in the region and in discipline. This was in large part because it did not existin an easily portable or accessible format and consequently remained thepossession of the original project director.This process of digitizing this data revealed a good bit about the nature of archaeological data, the practice of digitizing, and the networks in whicharchaeological data of all kinds exist.
(And here you might hear some echoes of recent work in Actor-Network analysis in archaeology and the study of materialculture more broadly.
) As with most intensive survey projects, the Ohio Boeotia Expedition recordedThisvi data with any eye toward quantitative analysis. The 1970s saw Mediterranean archaeology embrace the principles of New Archaeology with itsemphasis on, among other things, statistical models and analyses. So the data  was recorded from the field with an eye toward quantitative goals. At the same
time, the project began before computer technology had come to exert the strong influenced on data collection that we see today. Consequently, while there wasproper quantitative data collected – for example artifact densities from the field –much of the finds data – that is the description of the artifacts recovered from thefield – was not normalized for analysis. The ceramicists assigned identicalexamples of the same type of archaeological material different names,descriptions, and even slightly different chronologies. This was not based on anarchaeological reality, but on the vagaries of data capture – in other words: how the ceramicist wrote down the entry in the notebook. So, the first step in re-analyzing these tiny fragments of archaeological interpretation was to normalizeit in order to make these bit of information susceptible to integration over thecourse of larger scale analysis.The idiosyncratic nature of the archaeological knowledge recorded in the fieldand its preservation in a paper notebook revealed the tenuous place of theoriginal “analog” data in our knowledge universe. The only place where 3 fieldseasons of data collection existed was in paper notebooks stored at a secureexcavation house in Greece. They were only as secure as the excavation houseand access to this data (provided one knew how to find it) had to be arrangedthrough the excavation director personally. The process of keying this data intoa database and normalizing it made it not only more susceptible to analysis by means of a computer database, but also make it somewhat less perishable in thatany responsible computer user backs up their hard drive regularly. As I worked away on these bits of archaeological knowledge, it became clear thatmy work normalizing the data was more than just a response to the changing methods of computers analyses but also a response to the changing technology surrounding the curation of archaeological knowledge. So, by entering the data, Iproduced a small number of digital copies. These copies, however, were stillneither particularly discoverable nor stable. As we all have experienced, data formats change quickly and isolated datasets will almost certainly fall obsoletethrough neglect. This is especially true if they remain the possession of theindividual archaeologist and depend upon that individual’s data curationpractices. Many scholars now suggest that the next step in responsible curationof data involves releasing encoded bits of archaeological knowledge into the wildsof the internet.
 In fact, it may be that this step in the curation process is the most important. Onthe most basic level, both server architecture and the structure of the internetensures that data is backed up typically on multiple servers in multiple places.Once data made accessible on the web, it becomes possible for other people togain access to this data and, if the data is present in a sufficiently accessible way,to preserve another copy. Finally, the more public data is, the more likely it is to becomes embedded in the scholarly discourse. Simply put: visible data canreceive multiple human made links and, this is alone is more likely to attract theattention of an automated archiving site like the Internet Archive, if more formalarchiving arrangements are not made.
Moreover, the more central the data 

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