July 6, 2015
Thanks to digitalization, open data, open source and citizen science can play a huge role in contemporary archaeology. But researchers should first of all answer the question: “what do we want from open?”. I am pleased to present the interview with Jeremy Huggett, and Davide Tanasi, the coordinating editors of “Challenging Digital Archaeology”, a Topical Issue for Open Archaelogy, an open access journal by De Gruyter Open.
Could you tell me a little bit about what digital techniques have already been used in archaeology and what is the possible future development in this field?
Jeremy Huggett: Digital archaeology has been around for 50 years now, although for much of that time it was more commonly known as archaeological computing. It started with the recognition of the value of computers for the statistical analysis of archaeological data, and after the desktop PC revolution, the usage of computers in archaeology expanded dramatically. The majority of archaeological research has since then been affected by computing to some extent.
At this moment, every archaeologist has to use digital techniques in research. All researchers use Office-style tools; most go beyond this, and for some, coding can be essential. Tools for geospatial mapping like GIS are especially popular in contemporary archaeology.
Are archaeology students, including graduate and undergraduate ones, trained in digital techniques?
JH: Well, in my department at the University of Glasgow we are trying to provide at least the basic training in computer usage in archaeology with a particular focus on GIS, but this is not a compulsory part of archaeological education. Coding skills can be helpful when doing research but frequently young researchers in our field have to learn them independently.
Davide Tanasi: In Italy, education in this area does not meet the needs. I graduated in both computer sciences and archaeology to gain all the skills necessary for my research work, even though it was really hard to do since I did not have a proper background in computer sciences. So I faced the shortcomings of our educational system myself.
The digital revolution made data sharing easier. What do data sharing practices look like in archaeology today, who shares what, and how often?
JH: Maybe it is a little bit naïve, but I believe that data sharing was always a part of the accepted code of conduct in archeology. It is common to make research data open to all scholars working in the field after they were described and analyzed by their creators. Of course now we have much greater technical possibilities to share this data, like on-line data repositories, and I think it will eventually become a standard to use them.
DT: I think that there is still too much secrecy in archaeology and, at least in Italy, it is very often hard to get hold of the data collected by other researchers. I think there is still huge work to be done in the popularization of open data in archeology.
JH: Here in the UK the Archaeology Data Service has developed over almost 20 years to become the key repository for archaeological digital data. It is not the only one – for instance, in Scotland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland manage an archaeological digital data archive for Scottish archaeology – but the ADS has considerable experience in both archiving the often complex archaeological datasets, and providing the search tools to locate items of interest, as well as making these data freely available to anyone to download.
When I was reading the chapter from the upcoming book, Open Source Archaeology, Ethics And Practice, written by Jeremy Huggett, I spotted the term “right of primacy”, which is not familiar to me. What is this, and what role does it play in archaeology?
JH: Right of primacy is the ethical right of a researcher to carry out primary investigation of his or her findings. Typically in archaeology this relates to an excavation, where the excavators – under ethical codes in various countries – have the right to carry out their own analysis and publication before making the data available to others. In the UK and Europe, this lasts for up to ten years, though elsewhere the timescale may not be specified. In the digital age, it could be seen as a relict, although it is still relevant even in relation to open data.
Who needs open data in archaeology?
JH: Definitely all of us. It is essential for researchers to be able to compare and verify their work alongside data collected by others, and it fosters the development of the whole discipline. I think that students may benefit the most from open data, since they have limited possibilities to generate their own.
What can we do thanks to open data?
JH: One challenge here is in actually identifying projects which are using open data – it’s perhaps a measure of the fact that we still are in the relatively early stages of making open data available online, and so there is a delay in seeing examples coming forward which we would not be able to do without open data being available. Certain types of data are perhaps easier to reuse than others – for instance, the ADS has been making available grey literature publications relating to the many thousands of generally small-scale excavations undertaken as part of the planning and development process in England. Without online access to these, any attempt at a synthesis would require numerous visits to museums and commercial units around the country. However, with these now available openly online in increasing numbers (currently over 30,000), it is possible to undertake a project such as a study of the rural settlement of Roman Britain, which provides the basis for a series of integrative overviews of Roman religion, economy and society across the period. On the other hand, there is less evidence of, for instance, the reuse of excavation datasets as yet, other than in teaching situations.
If an archaeologist wants to make his or her data open, what should he or she know?
JH: It is essential to describe the data in a proper way, so that it will be understandable to those who did not participate in its creation. Usually researchers are not aware of the problems that others will have in understanding their data out of the context in which it was generated until they themselves try to use the data created by other researchers. There is a need for more training in describing data for archaeologists.
A common fear is the problem of the misuse of open data in archaeology, especially in making geospatial data open. For example, data about site locations might be used to raid sites. In the UK, the view has been taken that making the data available is more important than the small risk of damage to sites, but this may not be true elsewhere.
What are the difficulties in the re-use of open data in archaeology?
JH: Data are never raw. Data are selected and collected as part of a research project or programme of site management, and designed to answer questions that were asked in that context, so will be affected by the assumptions made by the circumstances under which they were collected. It is extremely important to think about this before using the data in our research project, otherwise we risk using data inappropriately.
Can you imagine that one day thanks to digital techniques the general public will start to participate in archaeological research and in academic discussions in your field?
JH: It is already happening. Citizen science is already a growing aspect of archaeology here in the UK. For example, the MicroPasts project has a number of applications which benefit from public contributions ranging from photo-masking and the creation of pot profiles in order to create 3D models of artefacts, tagging objects with linked open data, and the transcription of museum catalogue cards. In another example, a collection of digitized aerial photographs from 1919-1953 from across Britain have benefited from crowdsourcing to annotate and identify places, buildings and other features visible in the photographs and over 300,000 contributions have been made to date.
Is open access to academic literature popular in your field?
JH: In the UK we are experiencing a strong shift toward an open access policy in recent years, so publishing works in open access is becoming more common, encouraged by the major funding councils making open access a requirement of funding. There are several open access serials devoted to archaeology and university researchers are generally provided with access to institutional funding to cover article processing charges. This is more problematic for researchers not within universities, however, who have to find other means of covering the APCs, although this can be costed into grants etc. Open monographs remain a problem, however. We do not as yet have any national policy towards open access monographs, and books are important in archaeology.
DT: Italy is still lacking the funds for open access. There are not as many open access journals here, and more importantly researchers have problems with APC funding. I think that Italy should construct some kind of open access policy and secure some funds for publishing in this model.
What are the most urgent goals to be achieved in archaeology, in terms of open data, open source and open access?
JH: In my view, we need to be clearer about what we actually want from open. There’s no doubt that open data, open source, and open access are important, and increasingly so, but while the value and benefits of open access is relatively straightforward to appreciate, open data and open source come with their own issues and challenges. We know we want them, but what we’ll do with them isn’t entirely resolved, to my mind. Open source, is valuable in terms of validating routines, sharing procedures etc., and most if not all of us use open software in one shape or form, but how many archaeologists are able to actually disentangle the underlying code in order to understand how a methodology has been implemented, for instance? Open data is equally valuable, if not more so, but we have to recognize that these datasets are theory-laden, purpose-laden, and process-laden, and much of this remains largely hidden to the end-user. The metadata we use to describe these data focus on high level characteristics of the datasets, but the workload involved in ensuring datasets are fully documented through the provision of provenance metadata (or paradata) in order to enable appropriate reuse is a considerable challenge. ‘Open’ is taken, and largely accepted, to be a good, but we need clearer demonstrations of its value in order to support its future adoption and development.
Could you tell me few words about “Challenging Digital Archaeology” – a topical issue for Open Archaelogy, that you co-edit? Are problems discussed in our interview covered there? What are most important topics of these issue?
JH: The topical issue arose from a sense of dissatisfaction with the state of digital archaeology – that, though it permeates everything archaeologists do, it was difficult to point to something that was truly revolutionary, or which had impact beyond the immediate subject area. Grand challenges are an approach adopted in many other disciplines to develop and drive forward ambitious research programs, and one of the key objectives of the topical issue was to encourage people to identify the areas where these future challenges might lie. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there’s a good deal of interest in matters relating to computer graphics and modeling, but there is also considerable interest in how we can best build on the online tools and resources available to us, ranging through social media to extracting information from texts, as well as more philosophical challenges relating to how we approach digital archaeology itself.
One of the things the process of co-editing the ‘Challenging Digital Archaeology’ issue did highlight was that there are different kinds of ‘open’ and not everything that is open access is equally open. Specifically, the Open Archaeology use of CC BY-NC-ND license doesn’t permit commercial use or remixing or building upon the work, and several potential reviewers criticized this limitation. If nothing else, it demonstrates that ‘open’ is not straightforward and there are many different perspectives!
Thank you very much!
Image: Select images from the Digital Dwelling fieldwork. From top left: kite photography at Skara Brae (photo by Kieran Baxter) and within the wider landscape at the Ring of Brodgar, recording paradata in the field (photos by Aaron Watson) and relating the relevant literature to features within the site (photo by Kieran Baxter). All licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND. Source: Watterson, Alice. “Beyond Digital Dwelling: Re-thinking Interpretive Visualisation in Archaeology.” Open Archaeology 1.1 (2015).