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Collaboration aims to preserve, provide access to archaeological data

Screen shot of the Digital Archaeological Record Website
July 31, 2013

Among the key challenges faced by archaeologists are preserving the data generated by their research and providing other scholars with access to it.

A recent collaboration between the Center for Digital Antiquity at Arizona State University and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) aims to provide a solution to both issues.

At the heart of the collaboration is the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), a widely accessible and growing repository for archaeological reports, data sets, images and other materials in digital formats.

Developed and maintained by Digital Antiquity, tDAR is earning a reputation as the premier online archive for archaeological information. Last fall, the American Anthropological Association officially endorsed its use. Now, the SAA is encouraging its student members and other archaeologists, as well as organizations, that undertake or sponsor archaeological investigations to use it to curate their digital materials.

To encourage good digital curation by young professionals, Digital Antiquity will provide SAA student members with no-cost uploads of three files per year, not in excess of 30 megabytes, for the next four years; that's a $150 value per year.

Digital Antiquity executive director Francis McManamon says that SAA student members are already taking advantage of their coupons.

He is excited by the potential of the formal agreement with the prestigious group.

The SAA boasts upwards of 7,000 members and is devoted to promoting, understanding and protecting the archaeological heritage and resources of the Americas.

All of its members are current or potential partners with Digital Antiquity, which is administratively part of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It is housed in Hayden Library on the ASU Tempe campus.

McManamon says that the range of archaeologists using and accessing tDAR is broad, from late-career academics working to upload the data associated with some of their largest and longest-lasting projects, to graduate students writing tDAR into their data management plans for dissertation or thesis work.

Agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Air Force are tapping tDAR as not only a long-term preservation and access repository, but also as a management tool for organizing, sharing and disseminating information related to archaeological projects within their purview.

“For archaeological data from the U.S. and most international contexts, there is no viable alternative to tDAR as a disciplinary digital repository,” McManamon explains.

He points out that the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York is a similar entity, but handles only data from the United Kingdom or that which has been created by British researchers. ADS and tDAR have a close working relationship and have partnered on several projects, including the preparation and recent publication of a guide to digital curation, "Caring for Digital Data in Archaeology: A Guide to Good Practice."

The two organizations also have an extensive set of web pages with additional general and technical information describing various means of ensuring accessibility and preservation of different kinds of archaeological digital files and digital formats.

tDAR’s composition continues to grow as archaeological collections are born or move into the digital age via its portal.

Current holdings include the recovery of imperiled data from years of archaeological investigation of Pueblo Grande, one of the Americas’ most important archaeological sites; the Kennewick Man reports and related documents archive; and the materials from the Dolores Archaeological Program, a massive investigation in the Four Corners area that continues to serve as a source of new research related to social upheaval and environmental change a millennium ago.

Cultural resource management firms are forming partnerships with tDAR to use it as the preservation repository for archaeological data produced during field projects.

“CRM firms, public agencies, trade publishers and individual archaeologists are electing the tDAR option because it is more efficient to archive their work in tDAR for easy management and preservation than to build their own internal structures that replicate its features and require additional expert staff to maintain it,” says McManamon.

Also, talks are underway with several statewide agencies and museums regarding how tDAR can serve as the ‘digital annex’ for their physical collections and paper archives.

McManamon sees digital curation as not only the way of the future, but a powerful tool for deciphering humanity’s history. He adds, “Making digital data about archaeological resources and derived from archaeological investigations, research and resources accessible is crucial for improving understanding of past human adaptations and important developments and events.”