Will today’s graduate training in Historical Archaeology predict the future of digital research archives?

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.

The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (http://www.daacs.org/) provides standardized artifact, contextual, spatial, and image data from excavated sites of slavery throughout the early modern Atlantic World. Currently, DAACS is the largest archive, paper or digital, of standardized archaeological data related to slavery and slave societies. We have built it, with grant funds, generous data sharing, and intellectual input of more than 50 collaborating archaeologists and historians. For over ten years, these scholars and many others have contributed to DAACS’ overarching goal: to facilitate the comparative archaeological study of the spatial and temporal variation in slavery and the archaeological record by providing standardized archaeological data from multiple archaeological sites that were once homes to enslaved Africans.

DAACS strives to achieve this goal by giving researchers access to detailed standardized archaeological data in a format that allows the assemblages to be seamlessly compared quantitatively without any additional processing by the researcher.  We do so by physically reanalyzing the assemblages, and their associated contexts, to the same classification and measurement protocols that were established with the help of the DAACS Steering Committee in 2000. This is the critical aspect of the DAACS program—providing the standardized data that are essential to any comparative archaeological study.

DAACS data are stored in a massive relational Structured Query Language (SQL) database and are delivered over the internet via the DAACS website. The website debuted in 2004 with complete data sets from 15 domestic slave sites in Virginia. They were made available then, as they are today, through an easy-to-use, point-and-click query interface. By the end of 2012, DAACS will contain complete archaeological datasets, including data on over 2 million artifacts, from sixty sites of slavery in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Kitts.

During the past year, over 10,000 unique visitors have landed on the DAACS website. Many DAACS users go straight for the Archive’s meta-data: the section of the website that contains information on the DAACS data structures and authority terms, DAACS cataloging manuals and stylistic element guides, and research papers and posters.  Others spend time browsing and reading through the archaeological sites pages, the text-heavy portion of the DAACS website that provides extensive background data on each site, site chronologies, access to images and maps, and bibliographies. We consider these pages essential to anyone using the archaeological data accessible through the DAACS Query Module.

Visitors often move from the background pages to the DAACS Query Module, which provides access to standardized data on hundreds-of-thousands of artifacts and archaeological contexts. The query interface masks a complex set of queries to the relational database that contains the raw archaeological data from all sites in the Archive. Queried data are returned and made available to users through the web browser and through downloadable ASCII files that can easily be imported into the user’s favorite statistical package.

DAACS is explicitly and clearly designed for large-scale comparative archaeological research. The website features—the Query Module, Archaeological Sites Pages, and corresponding meta-data—are critical to meeting the goals of the project.

In the evolving ecology of accessible digital data, digital archives vary in the extent to which they are designed to facilitate comparative research versus the extent to which they facilitate and make possible the preservation of archaeological data. These elements of online archives and databases are not mutually exclusive; many research archives preserve data and preservation archives encourage research. Projects such as tDAR (The Digital Archaeological Record) and ADS (Archaeological Data Service) are essential to the preservation of born-digital data generated by individual researchers. These critical resources preserve and make searchable data from any type of archaeological project, regardless of region or time period. Data from projects range from digital reports and basic finds lists to full-blown archaeological databases. However, there are comparability problems, to the extent that the contributing researchers use different classification and measurement protocols.

To date, research archives have focused on specific regions and time periods in order to provide datasets that enable researchers to address synthetic research questions. Examples include the Chaco Research Archive, A Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture, and DAACS. These projects provide a venue in which protocols that work well in particular times and places encourage individual researchers to think seriously about how to ensure their data plays well with others’ data, making it easier to researchers to glimpse the fruits of comparative analysis that shared protocols make possible.

But each archive type requires specific tradeoffs. For research archives making comparative quantitative research easy requires standardization.  However, it is not clear how, over the long-term, the requisite standardization will emerge. Sites like DAACS may be one way forward. No matter where one sits on the continuum, a firm commitment to open and transparent data sharing underpins all digital archiving projects.

The demand for archives that specialize in digital data preservation and accessibility will continue to grow as individuals, museums, universities, and the government grapple with archiving and making the large quantities of archaeological data they curate accessible. The success and growth of research archives that generate detailed comparable digital data accessible for the explicit research purposes will depend on how we meet the analytical needs of inquisitive archaeological researchers.

Over the past six years, we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of graduate students who approach us with the desire to pursue data-driven comparative research.  Their questions and needs may be a bellwether for the development, use and longevity of research archives.

Our experience at DAACS is that undergraduate and graduate students are eager to engage in archaeological data analysis, both on the single site and comparative levels.  They come to DAACS asking questions that require serious archaeological data analysis however many are missing two critical skills: the ability to link arguments about what happened in the past to archaeological variation and the skills in data analysis that allow them to summarize patterns in the data that speak to the arguments.

A concrete example is one related to chronology. Chronological control is the critical first analytical step in doing any archaeological study, whether at a single site or comparative analysis – you do not want to mistake temporal change for synchronic variation. Yet we have discovered that graduate students who have completed their coursework in Historical Archaeology do not know how to get started. From framing an argument to executing data retrieval, discovering patterns in the results, and linking those patterns back to the original argument we have discovered that most historical archaeology students come to us seeking advice on where and how to begin working with their data and the data in DAACS. An informal survey suggests that one reason is that only a handful of graduate programs that provide advanced degrees with specializations in historical archaeology require students to take even a single course in statistical methods.

But it is clear that students (and our colleagues) want more resources for learning how to work with these data. We receive regular requests to provide training in statistical analysis and to teach the more arcane analytical methods that we occasionally use but which are necessary to fully engage with the quantity of fine-grained data available through DAACS.

As the promise of using online databases for research has become increasingly obvious over the past five years, the demand for data has risen. It is how we meet the demand not only for the data but also for the analytical skills to make sense of the data that will determine the trajectory of online databases in the next 5 to 10 years.

While I worry about the trajectory of archaeological training, I remain sanguine about the promise of research archives in large part because I am lucky enough to work with graduate and undergraduate students engaging with DAACS’s online database, students who work doggedly to learn methods they were never taught, and who have come to realize that the data in DAACS are so rich that the hard work it takes to learn analytical approaches to their data provides big payoffs and exciting answers to previously unanswerable questions.

School’s Out for Summer: Explore Arcadia Mill

 

Entrance to the boardwalk at Arcadia Mill (Courtesy of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site)

Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site in Milton, Florida provides a multi-disciplinary educational experience for people of all ages. Arcadia Mill represents the first and largest water-powered industrial complex in northwest Florida. Between 1828 and 1855, the industrial complex developed into a multi-faceted operation that included two water-powered sawmills, a railroad, bucket factory, shingle mill, textile mill, and an experimental silk cocoonery. In addition to the industrial facilities, Arcadia had an ethnically diverse community populated by enslaved African American laborers, Anglo American workers, and an elite Anglo American management class. In the late 1980s, local awareness and efforts made by the Santa Rosa Historical Society and the University of West Florida helped to save a portion of the Arcadia Mill site from residential development.

Today, Arcadia Mill functions as an archaeological site that is open to the public. Our facilities include an elevated boardwalk with interpretive signage, a newly renovated visitor’s center and museum, and an outdoor pavilion with working replicas. Arcadia hosts thousands of visitors annually including a large number of students on scheduled field trips. Our educational programming at Arcadia has made great strides over the last few years, but we are always looking for new ways to reach our younger audience.

During the summer months when field trips have tapered off, Arcadia hosts a portion of the University of West Florida archaeological field school. This gives our visitors a chance to see an active archaeological dig; however we are missing part of our audience and the opportunity to use the dig as an educational tool for school children. With a little brainstorming, we came up with the first of several steps to take in order to beat the summer time slump.

A year ago we launched a pilot summer camp, Explore Arcadia Mill, as a new way to provide educational programming when school is out of session. The weeklong camp features a multi-disciplinary approach that is designed for upcoming 4th through 6th graders. Campers learn about geography, history, archaeology, and historic preservation through lessons that feature hands-on educational crafts, group projects, and outdoor activities. Arcadia Mill is a case study for many of the lessons such as understanding the landscape, how to use historical documents, and how historic preservation has helped to save the site.

Learning about stratigraphy (Courtesy of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site)

The archaeology portion of the camp involves lessons and activities focused on principles and ethics. The campers learn about fundamental concepts such as the Law of Superposition and then test their knowledge on our stratigraphy canvas. We also teach them about the different tools that archaeologists use followed by a seek-and-find exercise using real photographs from our field school. Once we have completed the introduction to archaeology, the campers are taken to the field school excavations where they can visualize everything they’ve learned. The campers do not participate in the actual field work, but they observe and document the visit in their field books.

Campers visit the field school site to learn more about archaeological excavations (Courtesy of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site)

The campers really enjoy the archaeology lessons and activities in the classroom, but the crowning achievement is the ability to incorporate an active archaeological dig. Aside from being an excellent visual aid, the ability to visit the field school helps us to educate the campers on ethics, stewardship, and professionalism. At the end of the week the campers combine everything they’ve learned and create a primary document, but for fun sake it is really a scrapbook! The parents or guardians of each camper are invited to come view the scrapbooks and learn about what went on throughout the week. Therefore, the campers become the teachers and the camp directors stand by with pride.

With one successful camp season behind us and another just around the corner, the possibilities for activities and lessons have become endless. The camp was giant lesson for us as professionals since we quickly learned what worked and what didn’t work. It will get much easier with time, but now we are ready to implement additional programming. Where do we go from here? The camp was such a great experience that we are now looking at large scale or year round programming. The idea of an after school program came into question, but is that too much? There’s a fine line between educational programming and babysitting. It would be a large undertaking, but it could be very rewarding and worthwhile. Have you tried an after school program or a similar concept?