January 2011

Another country, same upheaval, same “opportunities” for looting of archaeological patrimony (sites, museums, storage facilities): after Iraq, now it’s Egypt’s turn. Hopefully, this will only be an unfortunate but short-lived episode. A specialized Facebook group has been started to attempt to gather news, Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum!, an upgrade from the Iraqcrisis mailing list approach—in 2003, Facebook wasn’t yet the mass phenomenon it is now. Also, an ad hoc website, Egyptological Looting Database 2011, has been thrown up to try to keep track of what (and to which extent) we know about looting in different regions of the country. Compared with The Iraq War & Archaeology, this site endeavors to be a bit more systematic. I applaud all initiatives. Again, my sincerest hope is that all this will prove to be “overkill” but history has taught us to be prepared for the worst.

The annual report of DDIG is due to the SAA on Friday, February 4th. They ask for a “report on interest group/representative activities” and “action items” to be included. The text below is merely a report, I am not presently planning to submit any action items. I’m glad to take comments on the DRAFT text below, and proposals for action items.

Use the comments field for this blog entry to communicate about this …



The Digital Data Interest Group (DDIG) had a productive year in 2010. The expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) creating digital data from archaeological practices appears to continue at a rate relatively equivalent or higher than that generally found within the social sciences. This year saw the publication of a number of items pertaining to digital data use in archaeology in SAA periodicals. The annual SAA meeting in Saint Louis contained a variety of symposia and general contributions specifically pertaining to the implications of ICTs and digital data in archaeological practice, including a DDIG-sponsored digital symposium. This report will address SAA activities related to DDIG, and then provide a general assessment of digital data developments in general with the potential to affect American archaeology as construed in the SAA mission statement.

SAA periodicals published several items this year directly addressing digital data practices. Three items were in the SAA Archaeological Record, “Transforming Archaeological Data into Knowledge” (McManamon and Kintigh 2010), “Fieldwork in the Age of Digital Reproduction: A Review of the Potentials and Limitations of Google Earth for Archaeologists” (Meyers 2010), and “Open Context in Context: Cyberinfrastructure and Distributed Approaches to Publish and Preserve Archaeological Data” (Kansa 2010). One article was published in American Antiquity, “Computational Modeling and Neolithic Socioecological Dynamics: A Case Study from Southwest Asia,” (Barton et al. 2010). A number of articles in both publications also indirectly included ICTs and digital data as part of their subject matter.

The 2010 SAA meeting in Saint Louis contained a large amount of activity related to ICT and digital data use. This included sessions on the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), digital curation, and digital publishing. The DDIG-sponsored digital symposium at the SAA, “Practical Methods of Data Production, Dissemination, and Preservation,” contained 13 individual presentations created by 27 contributors; the symposium highlighted results-driven applications of digital data management undertaken by DDIG members which could serve as examples of best practices in the field. Outside of specific symposia, at least 13 other presentations and posters appeared at the meeting with direct focus on ICT and digital data practices in their titles and abstracts. Although not part of the SAA, the

This past year saw the emergence of two important developments on the subject of digital data, with the potential for profound influence on archaeological practice: (1) The National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented a requirement for a data management plan to be included with all proposals beginning January 18, 2011; and (2) the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) called for commentary concerning how a new policy similar to that of the National Institute of Health (NIH) might be generally constructed for other agencies, creating a requirement for public access to data resultant from publicly-funded research.

The NSF requirement, now active, will have an immediate effect on archaeological practice in that all proposal writers now must make their data management plans explicit in less than two pages. This is a generally positive development. In order to help mitigate the most onerous step for proposal writers, the NSF has proactively suggested (but not required) that proposal writers avail themselves of the expertise of two non-profit, research organizations run by DDIG members, the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), and Open Context. However, in order to realize the best benefits of this new requirement and subsequently derived practices in other funding and regulatory agencies, the American archaeological community will need to engage in a substantive dialogue about data management standards, ethics of data sharing, and citation practices. This is not a call for prescribed, one-size-fits-all requirements, but for recognition of the fact that the ongoing development of open community standards takes explicit work in order to keep researchers from producing data management plans with low levels of interoperability.

The OSTP call for comments closed on January 21, 2010. The last update on the subject was March 8, 2010, which indicated that input was still being reviewed. Five PDF files are available on the OSTP website , with the contents of emails and other materials sent in response to their call. Comments from the archaeological community included a generally supportive letter co-authored by DDIG member Francis P. McManamon, executive director of tDAR, which also recognized the need for some measure of disciplinary cohesion around to derive benefits from such openness. Similar statements were made by many commenters representing a wide swath of the sciences and humanities. This OSTP initiative also will raise significant questions about what constitutes proper citation, and other recognition of contributions made by previous researchers, in professional reports of new findings involving curated public data.

The expansion of professional outreach and communication on digital data issues remains a top priority in DDIG. Such expansion is devoted to development of greater awareness within the SAA community of the ways in which ICT use and resultant digital data both structure work while simultaneously creating new affordances. The ability to capitalize on these new affordances is increasingly dependent upon the development of recognized data standards and (note: not necessarily mandated) collaborative networks of users (researchers, managers, educators, etc.). The position of tDAR and Open Context as institutional points of reference will be exceedingly valuable in the near- and medium-term. However, without the appearance of a more engaged community of archaeological data practitioners in the medium- to long-term, the expansion of broad efforts like those at the NSF and OSTP may not be highly beneficial. Similarly, in order to ensure that the population of archaeological practitioners remains prepared to create and maintain interoperable data sets and standards it is time for disciplinary conversation and concerted action on what constitutes appropriate technical training at various levels of educational development.


Joshua J. Wells, Ph.D, R.P.A.
Convener, Digital Data Interest Group of the Society for American Archaeology
Assistant Professor of Social Informatics
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
& Department of Informatics
Indiana University South Bend

References Cited

Barton, C. Michael, Isaac Ullah, and Helena Mitasova
2010 Computational Modeling and Neolithic Socioecological Dynamics: A Case Study from Southwest Asia. American Antiquity 75(2):364-386

Kansa, Eric C.
2010 Open Context in Context: Cyberinfrastructure and Distributed Approaches to Publish and Preserve Archaeological Data. The SAA Archaeological Record 10(5):12–16.

McManamon, Francis P., and Keith W. Kintigh
2010 Digital Antiquity: Transforming Archaeological Data into Knowledge. The SAA Archaeological Record 10(2):37–40.

Meyers, Adrian
2010 Fieldwork in the Age of Digital Reproduction: A Review of the Potentials and Limitations of Google Earth for Archaeologists. The SAA Archaeological Record 10(4):7–11.

A new archaeological blog, “Paperless Archaeology” has some interesting discussion about the new NSF Data Management Requirements.  The NSF requirements go into effect on January 18, 2011. Both Open Context and tDAR are listed as potential services related to this requirement (please note, the NSF notes but does not endorse these services).

Looking through their FAQ page on Data Management and Sharing it looks like there is quite a bit of room for project specific plans. Such terms as ‘reasonable procedures’ and ‘reasonable length of time’ are left to be decided by “the community of interest through the process of peer review and program management.”
The Data Management Plan is meant to address more than just observational data. It is meant to cover samples, and physical objects. And the data doesn’t have to be digital. You can record your entire project on paper and simply plan to make that paper available for scholarly review later on. But most archaeological projects that I know use a combination of paper and electronic, often of duplicate data. And if you have two sets of data, one analog and one digital, that doubles the complexity (and cost) of archiving  your information when the project is done.


These are good points. I heard similar issues raised at at a workshop on publishing archaeological data on the Web that I organized with Sarah Kansa (collaborator + spouse, :) ). Lots of people talked about their distrust of digital only recording methods, especially in remote locations and sometimes hostile (to electronics) environments. Some liked the reliability and permanence of paper (so long as the paper records are stored properly). At the same time, people lamented the labor investment and duplication of effort required in maintaining both paper and digital records, though not many people at this particular work shop tried digital only recording.


My work with Open Context is very much focused on the digital side of the equation, and this post rightly points out that there’s much more complexity to archaeological data management. What’s nice about the “Paperless Archaeology” blog is that it gets into the nitty-gritty of digital work-flows. Sharing experiences in how to securely and efficiently go about the business of archaeological field documentation can help others make informed choices about documentation strategies. And since I haven’t updated the blog-roll in a awhile, I thought I add this blog to the list.