Archaeology and an Interdisciplinary Digital Age

By Maria E. Raviele
Evaluation Officer, IMLS

I recently attended the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Austin and primarily attended symposia related to digital content and methods, public archaeology, and education and outreach. Since joining IMLS I have been mentally noting places where these topics intersect. The symposia I attended and colleagues I talked with highlighted a greater intersection of archaeology with museums and libraries beyond the obvious connection that artifacts from archaeological excavations end up in museums and repositories.

Archaeology is a destructive science. The process of excavation destroys the archaeological record, and by necessity archaeologists must be precise in recording information. This means note taking, field forms of various types, photographs, and mapping. Archaeologists use databases to track items in the field and in the laboratory, and to record artifact attributes. These databases must be created and updated to ensure artifacts are placed in the correct context. Without context, an artifact offers little information of its own. Before archaeologists even reach the field, they draw on the work of others, and they know future archaeologists will rely on their documentation. In other words archaeologists must be archivists (broadly defined) if they hope to contribute to collections and have their work used by other researchers.

 

An author mapping an excavation level during fieldwork in 2007,

The author mapping an excavation level during fieldwork in 2007

 

Digital methods, including linked data, are increasingly common across the humanities and social sciences. Archaeology is no exception to this trend (c.f. ADS, DINAA, and Open Context), and in many ways archaeologists have been at the forefront of incorporating digital methods and tools into their work. (For those interested in this history, Digital Archaeology is a place to start, while Archaeology 2.0 is demonstrative of recent issues.) The overlap of fields relying on tools such as 3D scanning and printing, geospatial web mapping and timeline programs, online digital data, libraries, and repositories, and the suite of tools used in the digital humanities is expanding. Additionally, the move toward open access and online publishing, as well as related concerns about digital and analog content preservation, indicates archaeology is at a point where relying on the expertise of those already doing it, e.g., librarians and archivists, seems essential.

The issues faced by people working with digital content, tools, and methods are similar regardless of discipline. Concerns around access (public versus specialized), interoperability, proprietary software versus open source, and sustainability are addressed by many fields, but librarians and archivists should be considered the go-to experts. The recent IMLSFocus meeting on a National Digital Platform touched on some of these issues and highlighted the necessity for a conversation not only within disciplines, but across disciplines as well.

Archaeology is a great example of an interdisciplinary field, drawing on geology, geography, ecology, economics, environmental science, physics, chemistry, and more. Changes taking place in archaeology serve to illustrate the importance of leveraging digital tools to benefit scholars and practitioners alike. While conversations across disciplines are happening among individual scholars, it may be time for broader cross-disciplinary discussions on common issues.

This entry was posted in 21st Century Skills, Collections Care/Preservation, Learning Tools and Interactives (Information/Media literacy), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Bookmark the permalink.

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