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.

Maryland Archaeology and the Certified Archeological Technician Program

CAT Instrument Survey Workshop at Bee Tree Preserve in northern Baltimore County (photo courtesy of author via http://marylandarchaeology.org)

Citizen-scientists didn’t just dominate Maryland archaeology until the 1960s…they were Maryland archaeology. But, as in all areas of scientific endeavor, they were marginalized by a growing body of professional, university trained scientists. The Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM) reversed this trend in 2001 with the creation of the Certified Archeological Technician (CAT) program, offering individuals the opportunity to obtain recognition for formal and extended training in the goals and techniques of archeology without having to participate in an academic degree program. Now in its eleventh year, the program honors its thirteenth and fourteenth graduates: Valerie Hall and David Frederick.

ASM took several years to develop and implement the program, drawing inspiration from several programs around the USA, notably those of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Principal challenges that confronted the organizational committee came largely from the professional community which was very skeptical about the value and wisdom of certifying individuals who did not come through conventional university programs and that insisted on a more thorough academic grounding (largely through a lengthy reading list of regional and national classic studies) than seemed consistent with the objective of the program. Some of those fears were allayed by including representatives on the CAT committee from the Maryland Historical Trust - the state’s principal historic preservation agency and institutional seat of the state historic preservation office – and from the statewide professional organization, the Council for Maryland Archeology. These representatives participate in all discussions regarding program modification and in the “defense” of each candidate for certification.

Most members of the organizational committee brought to the table preconceptions of the purpose of the program. Agency archaeologists saw the CAT program as a training ground for prospective volunteers. Other participants thought that successful candidates might use their credentials to take jobs away from those in the private sector who completed more conventional training programs. The more skeptical professional members feared that CAT awardees would use their certification as legitimization for unscientific collecting, misrepresenting themselves to gain access to sites on private and public properties for personal gain. In the end, the committee established the current purpose of the program: to meet the needs of ASM members seeking formal archaeological training, without assuming personal motivations, and a signed ethics statement providing sufficient insurance against misrepresentation. Since Annetta Schott became the first candidate to complete the program (2003), none of these fears have been realized, and the CAT program has become non-controversial and institutionalized.

The key to the success of the CAT program and the concept that has allayed most fears lies within the program name. The ‘T’ stands for technician; not scientist. Here we modify the citizen-scientist concept in recognition that archaeology differs from most fields of scholarly endeavor in that destruction of physical evidence often is unavoidable, a circumstance not generally encountered in cataloging stars, conducting bird counts, or observing whale behavior. Candidates and graduates work under the direction of professional archaeologists engaged in the ethical study of archaeological resources, helping CAT candidates and graduates recognize the difference between ethical and unethical work.

Each candidate (aged 16 or older) applies to the program, paying a nominal one-time fee ($50) and agreeing to abide by the statement of ethics. Candidates pick or are assigned a mentor who: answers procedural questions; identifies field, laboratory, and archival research opportunities; recommends readings and provides copies of difficult to acquire publications; and serves in all other ways one might expect of a mentor. Candidates complete a course of directed reading; document in a journal as well as on a series of forms the required hours in different aspects of fieldwork (mapping, survey, excavation) and laboratory work; prepare forms for registering newly discovered sites; and participate in a series of required and optional workshops offered by professional archaeologists, including: archaeological law and ethics, overviews of state archaeology; historic and aboriginal ceramics; lithic analysis, etc. ASM’s annual field session in archaeology, conducted over eleven days each spring in partnership with the Maryland Historical Trust since 1974, provides opportunities for candidates to fulfill many requirements, but other state, county, and foundation programs, as well as some opportunities offered by the private sector, are integral to the program.

The CAT program appears to be an unqualified success, both in terms of meeting the specific personal goals of individual participants and in providing programs for ASM members who are not candidates. Presentation of awards to the two latest graduates at ASM’s annual spring symposium - which focuses this year on the archaeology of war and community conflict – publicly recognizes their achievements and inspires others to join and complete the program (current enrolment is 48 in an organization of just over 300). Producing one to two graduates each year, the CAT committee is considering other program developments, including a “Kitten” program for adolescents, an advanced level for CAT graduates, and prospective roles in future programs for graduates, most of whom remain active in ASM. The committee also has begun to work more closely with comparable programs in the neighboring states of Delaware and Virginia and encourages candidates to participate in legitimate archaeological projects outside of the state. I would like to see graduates directing field and laboratory projects under nominal professional direction, work proceeding without constant supervision. Would we realize the worst fears of the program’s early opponents? Or would we greatly expand the capacity of the professional community to explore the past? A worthwhile experiment?