An Introduction to Open Archaeology

An Introduction to Open Archaeology

Figure 1: The Campus Archaeology Program’s virtual exhibit of MSU History An example of how archaeologists can share material culture with a broad public.

For this week’s blog post I wanted to give an introduction to open archaeology as it ties to public outreach and collaboration here at MSU with other organizations. Open archaeology is defined as archaeology focused on “promoting open redistribution and access to the data, processes and syntheses generated within the archaeological domain” (Beck and Neylon 2012). Basically, this philosophy of archaeology seeks to share its methods, data, and conclusions with those outside of academia or with academics who cannot or do not subscribe to major, for-profit journals. Most, if not all, of the organizations dedicated to promoting open archaeology have a formalized web presence, typically a website, an online journal, or database. There are multiple motivations for engaging with this type of public archaeology and, in this blog, I present some of these motivations behind and a few examples of open archaeology.

Figure 2: A diagram showing different options of control in Creative Commons copyrights

Before I do this however, I want to introduce something called “Creative Commons”. Creative Commons is the legal backbone of most open scholarship and open sharing initiatives. They provide free, highly adaptable copyright licenses for individuals and organizations dedicated to sharing their work openly. This is important because all organizations wish to protect what they create, especially if it’s going to be shared with a wide audience through the internet. A brief exploration of their site shows the diverse options available for content creators and distributors to dictate how their data can be used. This adaptability means that some open works are more or less “free” than others, which allows researchers an important level of control over their work. This is particularly important in archaeology, as most investigators are working with someone’s else’s heritage and cultural artifacts.

The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery is an organization whose idea of open archaeology is focused on increasing collaboration between researchers. Their goal is to “help scholars from different disciplines use archaeological evidence to advance our historical understanding of the slave-based society that evolved in the Atlantic World during the colonial and ante-bellum periods” (About DAACS). The organization focuses on connecting researchers, making their work available to all academics interested in the study of Atlantic slavery, and developing ways for researchers to make their data comparable. To this end DAACS has developed detailed cataloging manuals and provides trainings and educational events for those who intend to add their own data or use the data available. While this site is not necessarily designed for the general public, the data is open to all through their searchable database. Through their unified cataloguing protocols and the database, which allows any and all of the affiliated sites to be searched, researchers can perform qualitative analysis on artifacts from all over the Atlantic world. The benefit of this for researchers is the development of more nuanced and contextual hypotheses, which should develop better understandings of the past.

Another example of open archaeology is MSU Associate Professor Dr. Stacey Camp’s Kooskia Internment Camp Archaeological Project and its associated Internment Archaeology website. The goal of the website is public engagement with the history and material culture of World War II internment and incarceration facilities in Idaho and beyond (Idaho County Free Press). The website is designed to allow easy access to the artifacts, with photographs and descriptions, from the Kooskia Internment Camp, publications, and outreach events. Like DAACS, Internment Archaeology has a searchable database, but it is set up somewhat differently, with an emphasis on accessibility and education. I asked Dr. Camp to elaborate on how she sees the website being used and her goals for its future use. She writes:

With the help of generous funding from the Idaho Humanities Council via the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was able to build an online database of artifacts recovered from Idaho’s Kooskia Internment Camp, which incarcerated approximately 160 men from May 1943 to May 1945. The majority of these men were of Japanese heritage. My goal in establishing this website is twofold. First, I developed it so that we could share the work we were conducting on WWII incarceration with fellow archaeologists and associated stakeholder and descendant communities. Second, I developed it to encourage other archaeologists working on sites associated with WWII incarceration to adopt the same controlled vocabularies and standardized artifact cataloging typologies so that archaeologists can compare and contrast the experiences of people incarcerated. I utilized cataloging methodologies (also known as “SHARD”) promoted by the Society for Historical Archaeology and developed by Sonoma State University. Standardized cataloging will allow us to understand how different types of prisoners (Japanese Americans, Japanese American non-citizens, Italians, and Germans) were treated while incarcerated during World War II. It’s my hope that we can expand this database with funding to include other sites of WWII incarceration.

While the site promotes engagement with other scholars doing research on World War II archaeology and the archaeology of Japanese Diaspora in the Americas, its main focus at the moment is engagement with the broader public. The desire to develop standardized cataloguing methods for site comparison is a desire that Internment Archaeology and DACCS share.

Blogs, posts on Twitter and Instagram, and public archaeology days are some of the clearest ways archaeologists speak with non-archaeologists and disperse information. At MSU, we have the Campus Archaeology Program and a dedicated website and blog that conveys our findings, current projects, and the way archaeologists think and work with others. In addition to this CAP has Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts. We use each one of these platforms to connect with our audience in different ways because each has its own strengths and weaknesses. However, by engaging with multiple platforms we at CAP believe we can fulfill our mission of educating and distributing information to our partners and the public. There are many other blogs run by archaeologists as well as some amazing twitter feeds, like the one run by Boston City Archaeologist, Joe Bagley. By engaging with new technologies, as CAP did in the early days of twitter, archaeologists can become more effective public representatives of the stories and pasts they are exploring.

Figure 3: The ways in which digital heritage and public engagement interact to further public understandings of archaeology.

As we have seen from the examples above, digital access to archaeological resources and publications is the main force behind open archaeology.

At MSU MATRIX and The Digital Archaeology Commons are dedicated to working with museums, scholars, and other heritage / educational organizations to provide digital access to their collections. One of their goals is to develop software, tools, and digital experiences “that engage researchers, students, and the public in questions about the past and our shared culture” (Matrix MSU). Associability and access are key goals of open archaeology, because not everyone can make it to a museum or to see a particular exhibit in person, but digital projects can reach far beyond the local area to those who cannot or do not wish to engage with a visually static display. With the internet as a platform, organizations big and small can reach diverse audiences in many ways, but the web is a crowded place where it is easy to get drowned out. MATRIX teaches the skills and innovations needed to rise above the noise and clutter to research the intended audience.

The last resource I will discuss in this blog are places that publish or allow access to academic publications at no cost to the consumer. The first is Zenodo, an online repository for academic research of all kinds. For-profit journals and websites either close-off publicly funded research from anyone not affiliate with large, well-funded universities or aggregate and sell user data. Zenodo does neither of these and allows open access to all of the work published in the repository, making it free for scholars and the public alike. In addition to open article repositories, some open journals are publishing academic articles: Open Archaeology, and the Journal of Open Archaeology Data are two of these. As the names imply, these journals are solely for archaeological publications, and are completely free and easily accessible through their website. While academic articles may not be the most exciting aspect of digital heritage and open archaeology, it is hugely beneficial for everyone when peer-reviewed research can reach the widest possible audience.

All of these resources are open and support the distribution of free and accessible archaeological scholarship. However, each is designed with their own conceptions of what “free” and “accessible” mean. These decisions impact the features and online presence of the organization because they are speaking to different conceptions of the public. None of these conceptions is qualitatively better than the other, but successful implantation of the organizational or researcher’s goals depends on the methods and design matching the intended audience. Currently scholarship sits at a crossroads between ever increasing fees and profits for publishers, who make money controlling and distributing publicly funded research and increasing pressure and desire to make their work “open”. The future of open research is exciting and relies on both researchers and the public to be aware of the options available to them and the resources in place to make open scholarship successful scholarship. 

  • Beck, A. and C. Neylon
    2012     A vision for Open Archaeology. World Archaeology 44(4): 479-497.
  • 2017     Kooskia WWII internment camp history available on new online database. In Idaho County Free Press. Grangeville, ID.
  • Creativecommons
    2019 Share your work – Creative Commons. @creativecommons
  • 2019 DAACS | Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery.
  • 2019 Home | Matrix Site.

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