Steps towards a participatory archaeological e-Science infrastructure at CAA-SE workshop

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Wed, 02/02/2011 - 21:04

CAA-SE (Swedish section of the international organisation Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, best known for its annual conferences) organised an interesting workshop on monday on the management of archaeological documentation. The workshop was kindly chaired by Daniel Löwenborg, a colleague from the department of archeology at Uppsala University and hosted by the National Historical Museum.


The discussion was a continuation of a lively debate in the CAA-SE Linkedin group and earlier in a seminar held in Uppsala and the inaugural seminar of the CAA-SE in Gothenburg last October. The focus of the discussion has been on the need to make Swedish archaeological data available for researchers and other stakeholders. At the same time the participating researchers have emphasised the need to provide a platform for archiving and (or) making available the legacy data and developing an infrastructure for on-going and future research. The practitioners have understandably focused on current  and future data. The problem is quite real, because at the moment the data is very difficult to obtain. Reports are archived according to archival legislation, but archiving does not mean that the data would be easily available. At the same time, the actual data including measurements, original data files and documents are on a grey area. Private archaeological actors have natural incentives to see them as their property, there are some tendencies of not publishing the data too openly and even if many archaeologists would be interested in making their data available, there is no existing infrastructure for doing so. it is, of course, possible to post the data on any web site, but that does not really solve the problem of finding and using the data.


Many of these issues were discussed in detail in an excellent master's thesis written by Elin Johansson and Jenny Svensson (Department of Cultural Sciences, Lund University)  "En utgrävning i den digitala myllan: En empirisk studie av hur uppdragsarkeologiska verksamheter i Skåne bevarar, arkiverar och tillgängliggör digital dokumentation". The thesis (unfortunately available only in Swedish), I had a privilege to supervise, sheds light on the multiplicity of problems that are very focal to the ongoing discussion.


The discussion on the eventual solution in the past workshops and in Linkedin have touched both centralised and decentralised approaches. Another possibility that has been discussed is a solution that is based on using a data broker at least until a more permanent solution has been developed. Ulf Bodin from the National Historical Museum has suggested a highly promising centrally coordinated decentralised solution based on linked data and the existing infrastructural basis of K-samsök and SOCH tools. Ulf describes his approach in his own blog post (unfortunately only in Swedish). Other posts about the workshop have been written at least by Magnus Reuterdahl and SAU.


The entire discussion has been extremely interesting and highlights the actuality of the same issues I discussed already in my doctoral thesis five years ago and that I have been working with in the Archaeological information work and Participatory archives and humanities e-Science infrastructures projects for the past two years with my Finnish colleagues. In this sense the Semantic Wiki based approach followed in the project that has been discussed  in some preliminary detail, for instance, in the article Steps towards a participatory digital library and data archive for archaeological information (fulltext) makes sense even outside the scope of the on-going project. Latest developments of the work will be discussed in a presentation at the forthcoming CAA conference in Beijing. The Semantic Wiki based approach, especially if seen somewhat less technical terms as an approach how to tackle with the simultaneous need of ambiguity and formality, and managing and fostering participation of all conceivable stakeholders, is promising. There are still many open questions. The biggest ones are undoubtedly the ones noone, even the stakeholders are unable to answer at the moment: what is "participation" and "use", who are the participants and users and where the openness is going to take us. It is easy to be enchanted by the rosy "let's make it available and something wonderful will happen" types of visions put forward by uncritical social media advocates who tend to be careful not to mention that in most cases nothing has happened. At the same time, it takes rather deep insights to understand why something might happen or not and what are the characteristics of a context that is likeliest to foster beneficial participation and initiative. Unfortunately, at the moment it seems like archaeology is not necessarily the best conceivable context. It can be, but not for free.


The major issue is that archaeological work is still very much configured around a very different type of idealised work flow than the current commercial and division of labour based model of data production especially in the context of rescue archaeology. The traditional ideal that an archaeologist excavates, analysed and publishes hisor her own data is very deeply rooted in the ways of working. At the same time the lack of infrastructure for working in a more collabprative manner  makes it difficult be more participative. Finally, the dialectical practical-scholarly nature of archaeological work complicates things even more by requiring an uneasy coexistence of practical, commercial and scholarly ambitions.