From 6-8 June, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a scholarly symposium at UCLA in sunny Southern California: the UCLA/Getty Storage Symposium. Preservation and Access to Archaeological Materials. I live blogged it on the IW&A Blog. Of course, the papers were very specialized and/or technical, and normally only interesting for archaeologists and conservators. However, one issue that reoccurred several times was how to deal with copyright inside a very specialized, niche academic discipline.

Archaeologists, so peculiar

Archaeologist are typically spread out over all kinds of departments at different universities and institutions: history, classics, anthropology, area studies, art history, geology, metallurgy, etc. They often are looked upon as curiosa by their more “mainstream” departmental colleagues. All this makes the way they publish and how it contributes to their career especially critical. The silver standard for their career is the peer-reviewed article, the gold one being the monograph, i.e., a book on a specific topic put out by an academic press. These are the stepping stones for advancement, heck, even for getting a professional career going in the first place. Some symposium speakers reiterated their support for web-based publications. The advantages are well known: faster publication time, ability to include tons of photos in color, accessibility creating higher use, reduction in cost, etc. But the fact remains that when a young professor is trying to get tenure, a peer-reviewed paper output still is what matters. The web is still seen by many in the “old guard” as a hobby, not serious scholarship. The paradigm is slowly changing though. Several scholarly online-only, open access publications now exist: see my article Archaeologists Coming Out of the Cold.

Online encyclopedia of ancient Egypt

At the symposium, the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egytology (UEE) was introduced. It is meant to replace and improve upon the old bulwark of traditional paper publishing: the Lexikon der Ägyptologie (7 tomes, 1975-1992). There will be free public access to core UEE materials and functionality, and an “enhanced” access to members who support the UEE financially. This is how some of the qualms of potential contributors are being addressed:

• The articles will be peer reviewed, making use of the University of California’s eScholarship repository features, which enables an automated double blind review process;

The entry Ma‘at

• It is a multinational endeavor: the editors represent Belgium, the UK and the US, while the editorial committee adds representatives from Egypt, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland;

• It has the stamp of approval of Zahi Hawass, the highly influential Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt who is on the advisory committee – yes, the guy with the fedora;

• The International Association of Egyptologists has endorsed it;

• Funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities and affiliation with the California Digital Library will ensure stability and longevity;

• Last but not least: author’s rights for individual articles will remain with the author for probably 5 years, a reasonable length of time within which an expedition or archaeologist ought to be able to publish the excavation data in a more formal way.

Recurring theme

However, John Lynch was only one of several speakers who touched on issues of copyright, open access and the like. Digital registration of excavation finds, as well as increasing digitization of existing archaeological collections of all stripe, are unstoppable developments. Everyone realizes this. The big impediments are: 1) money; 2) time/(wo)manpower; 3) software/IT expertise. Fortunately, funding organizations are focusing more and more on digitization and online sharing projects, e.g., the proposed National Endowment for the Humanities (the U.S behemoth of archaeological funding) new budget before the US Congress now. Time and (wo)manpower remain a tougher problem: no matter how you approach it, digitization is time consuming and requires skilled or at least trained people. In the field, while excavating, it might take a little extra time to register information digitally but it surely saves time later when researching, analyzing and synthesising the typical avalanche of primary data. As many of the speakers illustrated though, there still is a tendency for each archaeological/conservation project to design from scratch a database system attuned to (perceived) specific research needs (e.g., Huffman of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory – Study Center for East Crete). The Getty’s Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) system for cataloging using standardized terms and definitions was set up to address the problem of a lack of shared, standardized terminology. The Getty also developed the CDWA Lite (Categories for the Description of Works of Art) system which allows a minimal cataloging routine, usable for any kind of institution, bowing in a way to the realities of the real word. Their Open Archives Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) is an excellent protocol to embed the catalogue data and provides the common language for accessing museum and library collections as well as individual objects over the web.

Asserting cultural copyright

Each excavation jurisdiction may also have its own rules about who is allowed to publish in which way and in which publications. For instance, in South America and the Middle East, foreign archaeologists are often not allowed to work without a local co-director who then also has preference as far as publishing is concerned, e.g. a specific type of report has to be published first of all in an archaeological service series or periodical, in the local language, a reasonable requirement that however sometimes involves friction and delays. One could say that a source country asserts its “cultural copyright” this way. Due to local sensitivities, the Tarapacá Valley Project for one is the only foreign-participation project in Chile. In Syria, projects may be required to store all excavated materials on site for a period of time. As far as making materials available online, Kenneth Hama (Getty Trust) pointed out that things are moving fast: if you’re not available on the web somehow, you risk becoming irrelevant or at least miss out on exposure, recognition for your institution or project. Aaron Burke (UCLA) introduced the concept of expectation inflation.

All in all, this well-organized symposium reflected on many aspects of problems that archaeologists and conservationists share with anyone involved with cultural heritage.

* Reposted from, originally published July 7, 2008