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Preserving Digital Archaeological Data

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This is a guest post by Leigh Anne Ellison, Sales and Marketing Coordinator, The Center for Digital Antiquity.

I am excited for the opportunity to contribute a guest post here at The Signal. I work with The Center for Digital Antiquity, a collaborative non-profit organization devoted to enhancing preservation of and access to irreplaceable archaeological records and data. Let me introduce some of the unique challenges we face as a repository of digital archaeological records.

Geophysical Survey 8, by Wessex Archeology, on Flickr
Geophysical Survey 8, by Wessex Archeology, on Flickr

Archaeology is the study of past human life and culture using material remains. For archaeologists, keeping a comprehensive record of our work is imperative (despite what you might have inferred from watching Indiana Jones movies!). We take excruciatingly detailed notes, shoot numerous photographs, draw maps, and generate tables, charts and complex databases. We do this because many of our primary field methods are destructive and cannot be replicated by future researchers—once a site has been excavated, its research potential is essentially “used up”.

Less destructive field methods, such as archaeological survey and mapping are costly and would be complicated to repeat—and that’s assuming the archaeological resources they located were even still there (encroaching development and erosion over time are just a few processes that diminish the visible archaeological record). As a result, archaeologists are trained to be excellent record keepers.

Unfortunately, we have been less successful as excellent stewards of the data we generate.

Prior to the 1990s, most archaeological records were created on paper, copies of which may be well circulated—in the case of certain popular academic journals or influential manuscripts—but more often exist in one or only a few locations. Generally these publications include only a subset of the data collected—the rest of it often resides among the personal files of the original researcher or land manager responsible for the research.

Our more recent “born digital” data are often no better off. Rather than systematically archiving computerized information so that it can remain accessible and useable, individual archaeologists, museums, offices responsible for maintaining site inventory systems and other repositories typically treat the media on which the data are recorded as artifacts – storing them in various ways which do not make the data easily accessible or ensure their long term preservation.

Paper records are not easily searchable. Furthermore there is a real danger that data recorded only in a few paper copies can be lost too easily. Digital data stored by individuals may become obsolete and suffer the same risk of loss as paper copies if not backed up. Because our data cannot replicated, a critical challenge that the discipline of archaeology has at present is how to ensure that existing data from studies of humans and human cultures, both contemporary culture and those of past times, can be made accessible and used for education and research. Another part of this challenge is ensuring that this information can be preserved in a way that guarantees its availability for use by future generations as well. Our digital repository, the Digital Archaeological Record, exists to meet this challenge.

Geophysical Survey - St Abbs Head, by Wessex Archeology, on Flickr
Geophysical Survey – St Abbs Head, by Wessex Archeology, on Flickr

We have set up tDAR so that it is easy for professional and academic archaeologists and land managers to place data and documents into it. Using tDAR for research is easy. Individuals seeking archaeological information can search the contents of the archive electronically and locate data, documents, images and other sources of information and find what they need for their investigations.

tDAR also has some computing tools within it so that users can compare and integrate the contents of data sets to conduct new research and create new interpretations and knowledge. We believe that easy access to archaeological data will allow researchers to focus more of their energy on analyzing and interpreting data rather than locating it—an effort we hope will lead to more productive and synthetic scholarship.

Our organization is devoted to ensuring that the information in tDAR is well cared for. We check the electronic files regularly and systematically to ensure that they have not deteriorated or become corrupted. We maintain extra copies of the database at different locations to ensure it is secure and can be replaced in the event of a catastrophic loss of one copy.

We have plans and procedures to ensure that over time, the electronic files in tDAR are transformed and will be readable and useable by new versions of computer software. We’ve worked with organizations and individuals whose data were stored in obsolete formats. It is really rewarding to know that these resources—the cultural history they represent and the time, effort, and money that went into collecting them—have been restored and are now accessible to all registered tDAR users.

The Center for Digital Antiquity is a new kind of organization devoted to the care and use of digital archaeological information. Our digital repository, tDAR, is a new kind of archive for archaeological information. Our goals are to ensure the easy and wide accessibility of archaeological information and its long-term availability for future uses. As such, we are part of a larger effort by other disciplines and professions—biology, ecology, law, medicine, etc.—to preserve the results of past efforts and make them available for use by others now and in the future.

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