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Who Owns the Past? Evidence, Interpretation and the Use of Digital Archaeological Data

Jon Frey

While the move to digital collection and storage of archaeological evidence is generally seen as a positive development, the transformation of pre-digital records into an electronic format has raised a number of significant issues for many traditional projects. The question of open access is particularly problematic. In this presentation, I discuss three specific areas of concern that have been raised in conjunction with the development of the Archaeological Resource Cataloging System (ARCS), an open source digital asset management system for archaeological legacy data. First, there is the question of who should have access to the evidence generated at archaeological projects. Here, the sentiment that information about the past should be universally shared comes into conflict with the fear that the misuse of evidence may lead to widely circulated, yet erroneous conclusions. Second, providing open access to archaeological information raises important issues related to the cultural heritage of the nations and groups to whom the artifacts and monuments legally belong. In this case, the digital divide that often separates archaeologists from the regulatory bodies that oversee their work holds the potential to amplify debates over the use of cultural capital. Third, there is the question of how much effort should be directed toward standardizing archaeological evidence in order to support a “big data” approach to the study of the material past. Because older archaeological projects have often developed their own unique recording systems over the course of decades, there is little interest in expending limited resources on the adoption of uniform naming conventions. Yet without the use of common vocabularies, digital information remains no more “discoverable” than its analog counterpart. While there are no easy answers to these questions, I suggest that we may chart a way forward by addressing in a serious way one of the long-standing critiques of classical archaeology. For if we recognize that cataloging and classifying ancient objects is merely the first step in the far more difficult process of interpreting the past, we may find ourselves more willing to adopt the open research practices that are inevitably required to deal with the immense complexities of our evidence.

Session/Panel Title:

Globalizing the Field: Preserving and Creating Access to Archaeological Collections

Session/Paper Number

7.2

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