February 2009

The International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ), a 500+ member organization, has shared a copy of a letter that they sent to the administrators of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania regarding the planned dissolution of the Museum’s Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA). The decision to close this major scientific laboratory and lay off 18 researchers, was motivated primarily by financial reasons, and has received strong criticism from parts of the research community about the apparent abruptness of the decision [see the dedicated blog for a history of articles and statements]. So far I haven’t found any public statements from the Penn Museum to justify this action, and when I do, I’ll link to those.

In sending this letter, ICAZ joins the outpouring of support for MASCA shown by colleagues worldwide [for example, see the online petition/open letter, which has over 3600 signatures as of today]. The web has played an important role in this issue by allowing for members of global organizations like ICAZ to quickly communicate and take collective action, as well as providing transparency to the issue of academic funding choices. [Please note: While I think the way the researcher community is using the web as a communication tool in this dispute is interesting, as a signatory on this letter, my opinion here isn't neutral.]

I have copied the body of the letter and the names of those who signed it on behalf of ICAZ. Note the diversity of countries and continents represented by this organization’s governing members, demonstrating a truly global show of support.

The International Council for Archaeozoology learned with much concern of the University Museum’s proposal to close down MASCA (the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology), by May 2009, thus eliminating the posts of three archaeological scientists, Drs. Patrick McGovern, Naomi Miller, and Kathleen Ryan. As a world-wide organization, it is our responsibility to summarise the views of all 31 members of our International Committee.

Losing MASCA would create a sad precedent weakening the University of Pennsylvania’s excellent reputation within the archaeological and paleobiological community as well as the entire field of interdisciplinary archaeological research. For example, DNA studies combined with more traditional morphological analyses have revolutionized our understanding of the origins of domesticated animals. Remote sensing allows the exploration of sites without extensive excavations. Organic residues have revealed the beginnings of winemaking and dairying. The research carried out by Drs. Ryan, Miller, and McGovern is very much at the cutting edge of these multidisciplinary endeavours.

As an international organization – also represented in many developing countries – we are especially concerned about the future of research by Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a leader in the study of pastoralism and dairying in East Africa. She has collaborated with her African colleagues, including Karega-Munene, and she has received a multi-year NSF grant to support her research.

However, while in principle voicing our opposition to your proposal we understand that financial reality exerts mounting pressure on organizations such as the University of Pennsylvania, a private institution dependent on income from endowments, charitable donations, tuition and overheads charged to granting agencies. We are well aware that these sources have all been affected by the current economic downturn.

We are, of course, unaware of the details that have led to the unfortunate proposal to eliminate MASCA. We would, however, like to note the following based on the considerable international experience of the ICAZ membership as a whole:

  • Archaeological science cannot be 100% self-funding. While grants may pay some salaries and expenses, there is also a need for continuing institutional support of personnel, equipment and collections management. This is especially the case in a museum setting, because research does not generate income directly and has to compete with the institution’s marketable public activities.

  • Financially, the elimination of a program that looks expendable may seem to make more sense than small cuts that weaken multiple programs. However, basic research needs continuity. Once disrupted, the loss is generally irrecoverable.

  • As members of ICAZ, we are naturally most concerned about the impact of this decision on Archaeozoology (Zooarchaeology). However, MASCA also represents the intellectual goals of the University as a whole. US universities, as well as the National Science Foundation, stress the importance of research that incorporates different disciplines and approaches to material phenomena, thereby creating scholarly ties across a campus as well as among researchers from different parts of the world. These values are cherished well beyond the borders of the US, and ICAZ wholeheartedly stands for them as well.

For these reasons we urge you to reconsider the drastic step of eliminating MASCA entirely, and encourage you to retain core members who can provide a continuing presence of this important research while still helping to meet the economic goals that led to the decision in the first place.

We appreciate the challenge that a reassessment of your proposal may pose. We still hope, however, that a more academically viable solution can be found, representing a compromise between short-term needs and the long-term scholarly interests of the University of Pennsylvania, interests which are identical to those of the academic community internationally, because interdisciplinary archaeological science, including archaeozoology, represents the future of archaeology as the window on most of our past.

Sincerely yours,

ICAZ Executive Committee Members:

László Bartosiewicz, President [Hungary]

Pam Crabtree, Treasurer [USA]

Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales [Mexico]

Heather Lapham [USA]

Richard H Meadow [USA]

Arturo Morales-Muniz [Spain]

Luís Alberto Borrero, Vice-President [Argentina]

Umberto Albarella, Secretary [UK]

Sebastian Payne [UK]

Elizabeth J. Reitz [USA]

Jean-Denis Vigne [France]

Sarah Whitcher Kansa [USA]

ICAZ International Committee Members:

Atholl J. Anderson [Australia]

Guy Bar-Oz [Israel]

Zbigniew Bochenski [Poland]

Simon Davis [Portugal]

Keith Dobney [UK]

Jon Driver [Canada]

James Enloe [USA]

Donald K. Grayson [USA]

Ana Fabiola Guzman [Mexico]

Hitomi Hongo [Japan]

Roel Lauwerier [The Netherlands]

Christine Lefèvre [France]

Terry O’Connor [UK]

Ina Plug [South Africa]

Wietske Prummel [The Netherlands]

Richard Redding [USA]

Jörg Schibler [Switzerland]

Wim Van Neer [Belgium]

Jing Yuan [China]

Melinda A. Zeder [USA]

Dear DDIG Members

I’m preparing a draft report to the SAA Board about developments related to DDIG (the Digital Data Interest Group). If there is anything missing, needs clarification, or is wrong, please let me know. Below is a draft report.


Like Tom Eliot and Sean Gilles, I am a big fan of Atom feeds for digital humanities applications in general, and archaeological data sharing in particular. They pioneered the applicaiton of Atom in their work with the Pleiades Project. The archaeological data sharing project Open Context is now making everything available in Atom (with GeoRSS for mapping), including summary overviews of data, filtered by user preferences (I’m calling this a “facets feed”). This new functionality is being tested at this site, and is described in more detail here.

However, it seems that all of a sudden Atom syndication has exploded (pardon the poor taste of the pun!) on the scene in an unexpected quarter. It seems like the Obama administration is requiring Atom syndication of information relating to how the economic stimulus money will be spent.

It seems that Atom is being used as a key technology for fiscal transparency. The Office of Management and Budget has specified some key requirements for how Atom will be used. The guidelines are very interesting, because they require sharing structured data relating to stimulus spending. This means that the data shared through these feeds will be easy to aggregate, crunch, analyze and visualize.

This requirement makes transparency much more meaningful than publication of simple Web pages (with no machine-readable data) or worse, PDF files. The great thing about this is that it is not rocket science! Some very simple and straightforward uses of existing technologies, used in the right way, can be extremely powerful. The economic stimulus may turn out to be one of the key catalysts in making the goals of the whole Open Data movement a reality.