ISAW Hosts Conference on Digital Publication in Mediterranean Archaeology

By Patrick J. Burns

On October 20, 2017 the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, in partnership with the Archaeological Institute of America, hosted a one-day conference on the state of archaeological data publication called Digital Publication in Mediterranean Archaeology: Current Practice and Common Goals. The conference provided a forum for archaeologists, librarians, archivists, data experts, and academic publishers to discuss the state of digital publication in the discipline and to share ideas about common challenges and future directions. Over the course of day, several themes emerged and we will share a few of the key ones here. A summary of the program and speakers is provided at the end of this article.

The disciplinary context and inspiration for the conference was that “publication” is no longer a term reserved for “finished” works of synthetic scholarship or final reports and catalogs from excavations. Increasingly, archaeologists are envisioning publication in terms of modalities that allow for the easiest and quickest manipulation and reuse of archaeological data by the widest possible number of scholars. So, for instance, creating online databases or making data available as part of larger collaborative database project, as well as archiving and cataloging datasets for future researchers, are now considered acts of publication in their own right by a growing number of archaeologists. This understanding of publication is also exerting a growing influence on the way in which archaeologists collect and process the data from excavations. In other words, they are actively experimenting with and adopting new tools and protocols in anticipation of publication via databases and archived datasets, particularly as the tools and techniques for linking and manipulating data have become both more robust and widely adopted. The same process is also working to forge new relationships between archaeologists, librarians, and traditional publishers, as they explore ways to collaborate in the shared mission to support, preserve, and provide access to archaeological data and scholarship.

A second and related theme of the conference was the importance of 3D modeling, which has now become commonplace in archaeological fieldwork. Several of the participants discussed the role of hardware-based scanning and photogrammetry in both archaeological interpretation and in communication of results. It is likely that 3D models will play an increasing role in all aspects of archaeological practice, particularly as these models become able to represent aspects of material culture such as change over time. Moreover, much as we can now run powerful searches over digital corpora of ancient literary and documentary texts, many of which survive in fragments, several of the conference participants looked forward to when one might be able to run similarly powerful searches over corpora of material remains, facilitating larger metastudies of a variety of cultural objects, from sculpture to ceramics to coins. Realizing this vision requires not only an investment in technology and time to collect 3D data of excavated objects, but also continued experimentation in publishing, preserving, sharing, and cataloging 3D models.

A final theme was the institutional framework needed to support digital publication of Mediterranean archaeology. Although professional organizations and some academic departments have recently drafted guidelines on the evaluation of digital publication projects for tenure, many conference participants noted that it is still difficult to find qualified colleagues to for peer review. Indeed, as others have noted for the digital humanities in general, reviewing complex data projects is more suited to a team of reviewers, which is difficult to assemble, rather than a series of independent reviewers, as in the traditional model. That said, there is growing capacity to attribute and assess individual scholarly contributions to complex, collaborative projects, a 21st-century extension of the basic scholarly act of citation--a capacity that was on display at this conference. (It is worth noting in this context that ISAW drafted its own guidelines on the way in which published research was to be assessed in 2012, pointedly adopting a broad and inclusive understanding of publication.) Another important consideration under this general heading is the way in which institutions provision and support complex, collaborative data projects, which is to say that currently critical IT support is tied to the institution in a way that the archaeologists and scholars, particular junior ones, are not. There is, then, a growing mismatch between the basic modes of work and publication and the institutional provision of resources in academia.

The number of archaeological resources available online is growing rapidly and the field must meet the challenges entailed by this shift. Digital Publication in Mediterranean Archaeology showed both the innovative ways in which the archaeological community is responding to this shift, while also highlighting the structural issues that are impeding progress. The conference’s greatest successes were that it brought together a broad audience,  encouraged open conversation, and showcased the variety of work already being undertaken to move the discipline forward, work in which ISAW and its faculty and staff are deeply invested. The ISAW Library, Digital Programs, and faculty plan to organize more such public programming dedicated to topics in digital, computational, and data approaches and methods in ancient studies, as a complement to ISAW’s digital initiatives, which include participation in publication projects (such as the Pleiades Gazetteer of Ancient Places, ISAW Papers, and the book-length works published in partnership with the NYU Press) and in curricular offerings in digital methods, like our graduate seminar, “Introduction to Digital Humanities for the Ancient World,” which trains the next generation of ancient studies scholars to be forward-thinking in their approach to data collection, reporting, and preservation.

The October 20 Digital Publication in Mediterranean Archaeology presentations:

  • Erin Averett (Creighton, AIA), “Visualizing Votive Practice: The Athienou Archaeological Project’s Experiments with Digital 3D Publication”

  • Patrick J. Burns (ISAW Library), “Mapping Library Subject Headings with the HathiTrust Extracted Features Dataset”

  • Emily Cole (ISAW) and Bethany Simpson (UCLA), “Digitizing Digs: Combining 20th and 21st Century Excavation Archives from the Fayum, Egypt”

  • Tom Elliott (ISAW), “Credit and Blame in Digital Publication: Some Naive Questions and Opinionated Answers”

  • Sebastian Heath (ISAW), “Digital Publication as Context: An Archaeologist’s Perspective”

  • Theresa Huntsman (Harvard), “Lydian Legacies: Approaches to Digital Publication and Open Access for Sixty Years of Archaeological Data from Sardis”

  • Eric Kansa (Open Context, W-L), “Data Publishing: Editorial and Curation Needs in Archaeology”

  • Christopher Ratté (Michigan), “Archaeological Data Management and Digital Publication at the University of Michigan”