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Project Publication on the Web — Addendum II
Digital Data in Archaeology
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Digital Data in Archaeology
Harrison Eiteljorg, II
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)
I am beginning here what I hope will be much more than a series of articles about the place of digital data-storage technologies in archaeology. My hope is for a discussion with many of your voices as well as my own. I am hoping that readers will wish to chime in and be heard about the general question of the place of digital data-storage technologies in archaeology. I start with my own view.
I want to begin by defining digital data-storage technologies, however idiosyncratically. I begin with a broad definition: I take digital data-storage technologies to be those computer-based technologies that are used to hold archaeological data of any kind so that the data may be stored for later retrieval. By that definition, digital technologies would include databases, spreadsheets (often as simple databases), GIS software, CAD software, digital imagery (standard images, video, or 3D images), audio systems, and relatively simple drawing software for less precise drawings than might be produced by GIS or CAD. The definition, for my purposes, includes only those technologies designed to gather and store data not those, such as email, web software, or even word processors that are used to help disseminate the data in discussion form.
I think it is safe to assert that the place of these technologies is at the core of the discipline in the future. That is, the information that we and our scholarly descendants use to make analyses and arguments about our common past will be drawn to a great extent from the data we have put into these digital forms and from data yet to be put into digital form. The databases, GIS data sets, CAD models, photographs, and so on will be our storehouse not only for the short term but indefinitely into the future. They will replace the books and journal articles that have served as our storehouse, not in the sense that those older resources will be done away with but in the sense that the digital media will take on the function that was formerly fulfilled by paper records and publications.
If that is correct, then scholars of the future may refer to the CAD model from my study of the older propylon in Athens rather than the book that displays only a limited number of the drawings generated from that model. Similarly, they will use the data tables created by scholars rather than text-based discussions of the data or published tables that show only part of the data.
Survey projects will have their GIS data sets; more art-historical projects may have numerous photos — and they will be in color. Many projects will present 3D versions of the artifacts found, and others may even preserve for us the discussions of the scholars involved in the project as they grappled with difficult issues.
In sum, it seems all but certain to me that all these data storage systems will will have created our collective data warehouse. The storage may be in university computing centers, in archival repositories, or in government repositories, but the data will be in digital form wherever they are. In other words, the place of digital technologies in the future of archaeology is, as I have already said, at the core.
This will be even more true as future scholars become more and more circumscribed as to where they may excavate. As our options are reduced in the future, more and more work will be done in the form of field surveys and re-excavating material currently stored in museum basements. Some of that material will have been published, making information about it available on paper. Much will never have been published, and much of the unpublished will have been studied only enough so that the objects may be found in the museums' catalogs. I believe that the scholars who study this material will inevitably put the information into databases. They will put the information into databases so that others may access that information and so that their own access may be easier, quicker, and more secure.
Thus, if we look fifty years down the road — which seems a short time for an archaeologist — I think we will see scholars working with digital data sets that have been constructed by our contemporaries or our followers. Those data sets will mostly be in database form, but there will also be GIS data sets (which, of course, include databases as one of their basic constituents), the occasional CAD model, and enormous numbers of photographs.
I will force myself to stop here. The object of this short article is not to go beyond this point but to ask for comments — agreement or disagreement. I have just said that I believe digital data will be at the very core of the discipline in the future. Do you agree? Many things are implied by this first question; so please let your voice be heard. I will return to this issue and use what has been said here as a starting point. So I very much need to know if my starting point does not seem accurate.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
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