ASU center ensures access to archaeological data that otherwise may be lost
Preserving archaeological information, facilitating access to a wide range of digital documents and data, and enhancing archaeological research are vital services that Arizona State University’s Center for Digital Antiquity provides for researchers, students and the public.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a grant of $1.2 million beginning in March 2012 that will support the center’s operations and development. The grant enables the center to greatly expand the content of its digital repository, to enlarge the community of users and to continue development and enhancement of software to improve the repository user’s experience.
The Center for Digital Antiquity develops, maintains and oversees the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), the country’s largest digital repository of world-wide archaeological data and information. The Center was established in 2009 with support from an earlier grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Technology has changed the way that people create and store information – moving from books and paper to digital files stored on tape, floppy disks, CD-ROMs and other media. A problem associated with this shift is that digital files are far more susceptible to loss due to degradation of storage media, software obsolescence and inadequate documentation.
When this happens with archaeological data, it is especially tragic. It entails a loss of irreplaceable information about our national and global heritage and represents a waste of time, effort and public money that has been expended to collect, analyze and report the data.
“In laboratory-based science, experiments can be repeated; however, you can’t dig a site twice,” said Keith Kintigh, ASU professor and sustainability scientist, who was the principal investigator for the first Mellon grant and is a co-principal investigator on the new grant. “The archaeological record provides our only access to most of human history. For example, human societies both contribute to and respond to gradual environmental change. Archaeological evidence allows us to better understand the conditions under which societies are resilient to long-term change, and the configurations that lead to collapse.”
Francis P. McManamon, Center for Digital Antiquity executive director and principal investigator for the new Mellon grant, notes that “approximately 40,000 archaeological investigations take place every year in the United States, yet only a handful thoroughly publish their findings and the supporting data in traditional, general distribution books. Most projects do produce limited distribution paper reports that end up in just a few of the thousands of state and federal agency offices and university libraries.” Compounding this problem, there is no reliable way to discover the existence of reports relevant to a particular research topic and the reports are frequently difficult to use and expensive to obtain.
The situation with the supporting data is far worse. Even in the unusual case that the supporting data (notes, drawings, photos etc.) exists in a public repository, they are even harder to find and are rarely adequately documented or maintained. Adam Brin, Center for Digital Antiquity director of technology and a co-principal investigator on the new grant, adds: “we want to make sure that these unpublished reports and the almost-never published supporting data and analyses are easily discoverable and widely accessible now and in 100 years. We have designed and built tDAR to ensure this.”
tDAR has been in full operation for about a year and is growing rapidly with thousands of documents, data sets and images, including 3-D scans of artifacts.
“By providing Web-based discovery and access of reports, images and well-documented data sets, tDAR enables archaeological syntheses that could never have been done before. tDAR’s cutting-edge data integration tools allow researchers to analyze data across projects that span large areas and long time intervals yielding new knowledge about the past,” Kintigh said.
Organizations that currently use tDAR as a digital repository include the Phoenix Area office of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service, the Mimbres Foundation and the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization.
“We have archaeological information from across the United States, from the Arctic to the Southwest, and from the West coast to New England. Documents, data sets and images from places like Cape Cod, coastal Georgia, the California desert, the Great Lakes region and New York City, as well as from right here in Phoenix and Tucson, can be found in tDAR,” McManamon said.
“We believe that digital copies of reports, along with the photographs, data sets and the other digital data from each project should be deposited in a trusted digital repository, such as tDAR, as part of every project’s normal workflow. This will ensure that these digital records are preserved and can be easily discovered, accessed and used by current and future scholars,” he added.
The repository is ideal for public agencies, research organizations and individual scholars who want to preserve and protect their archaeological research project records, while making them readily available for use in research, leading to new discoveries and better understanding of the past. Agencies and scholars also will find tDAR an effective and efficient means of providing appropriate access to their research results to the general public.
“We now have in tDAR the archaeological reports from many large projects that were completed decades ago,” McManamon said. “For example, the repository includes a large number of reports and detailed records from archaeological investigations in the Phoenix area that were completed in advance of the construction of the Papago Freeway, the Hohokam Expressway and the Central Arizona Project.”
Securing a grant to ensure the future of The Center for Digital Antiquity represents an important professional milestone for McManamon, who spent 32 years at the National Park Service where he served as chief archeologist and recognized the need for an archaeological information repository like tDAR.
“We have a terrific tool,” he said. “The repository has been a crucial need for many years. We are very grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its essential and steady support that is advancing scholarship and preserving irreplaceable records of human history. We’re committed to rapidly expanding our collection of information and to building tDAR’s user community while ensuring long-term digital access to the archaeological record.”
The Center is associated with ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Global Institute of Sustainability, and the University Libraries.