About Mark Freeman

President of Stories Past, a interactive media company, and research assistant at the University of Tennessee

Primary Archaeology data for non-archaeologists?

This post is part of the May 2012 Technology Week, a quarterly topical discussion about technology and historical archaeology, presented by the SHA Technology Committee. This week’s topic examines the use and application of digital data in historical archaeology. Visit this link to view the other posts.

Is there value in exposing archaeological primary data to non-professional audiences? Can online archaeology databases serve broader goals? Can they both inform and serve as a tool for advocacy at time when the practice of archaeology is again being challenged in popular culture?

The National Park Services museum.nps.gov.

The National Park Service website, museum.nps.gov, is the online face of ICMS, the database tool that the Department of the Interior uses to manage its collections. In pre-launch testing the most common reaction was surprise that the parks actually had collections. Individual parks decide what to present on the website and it currently includes nearly 450,000 records, representing over four million objects, half of which are archaeological. Some information is removed before it reaches the web. Crucially for archaeology, this includes site name, site location, within-site provenience and UTM data; excluded to protect sites from the very real threat of looting, and at the request of Native American groups.

But stripping the artifacts of physical context before they reach the web is problematic at best for archaeology, so an attempt has been made to restore some contextual information. Collection highlights were developed to be used by the park staff to allow the grouping of objects, creating a virtual context that can represent a physical space – a site or an archaeological feature – or a thematic context, or a virtual exhibit. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site has created several highlights, including The Fort Vancouver Village. The highlight includes narrative text to explain the complex cultural landscape and is supported by 32 selected artifacts. Those artifacts are hyper-linked to the over two hundred thousand records which are part of Fort Vancouver’s online collection. I’d argue that even if most visitors never look at those records. they need to know that they are there. The National Park Service doesn’t just have great scenery, they have curated over forty million cataloged objects.

At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation along the Potomac River, The South Grove midden excavation uncovered more than 60,000 artifacts. These represent almost 400 ceramic and glass vessels, hundreds of pounds of brick, mortar, and plaster fragments from renovating buildings, buckles, buttons, tobacco pipes, and more than 30,000 animal bones. A new website (in progress at www.mountvernonmidden.com) focuses on 400 objects, but the full database is there (and available on the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery site) and items are presented in the context of the wider collection. Additionally, the website includes a timeline, a map of the site in relation to the broader plantation landscape, historical notes and related published papers, and a database of the Washington family Invoices and Orders – all part of the larger data set that comprises the project.

So site databases, like the truth, need to be out there. Showing artifacts to the public, without this data-rich environment, suggests that just a few objects have primacy, elevating the qualitative over the quantitative. And if archaeologists want support for the process of archaeology and for digital preservation, then showing the volume of data makes sense.

The problem of exposing the soft underbelly of archaeological data is that at least some members of the public might start to question what’s presented. Why is it so hard to compare one site with another? Why are different methodologies used at different sites? Why does every project record different information? Why does the terminology differ between sites? There is a slow move forward in addressing all these issues (Kansa et al. 2011), but if archaeologists want to hammer home the point that pot hunting and looting are bad, then they should be willing to present and rationalize the datasets that professional archaeologists creates.

I’m not suggesting that advocacy is the only reason to show data. As text books and other electronic publications slowly transition from electronic copies of physical books into fully interactive media, perhaps they’ll also start to include accessible databases, and not just as appendices. Database could support graphs and result sets, allowing data to be manipulated, examined and even challenged. Perhaps eventually these datasets could be more than just one-way presentations of data. On websites, by recording the questions asked of the data, by tracking the datasets produced, these databases might come to be a part of research as well as publication.

References Cited