Untangling and extending the discursive relations mediated by archaeological data through grounded research

Zachary Batist, University of Toronto

Keywords: archaeological data; information infrastructures; data sharing; data integration

Archaeological research projects involve close collaboration between researchers who increasingly implement a wide array of physical and conceptual tools derived from multiple disciplinary backgrounds to collect, manage and make use of data with the goal of constructing meaningful and evidence-based knowledge about the past. It is a process through which various kinds of activities are undertaken in tandem, and through which objects of interest are continuously re-interpreted and re-presented in different yet complementary ways. The multitude of approaches contributed towards archaeological projects are mediated by common data streams, which usually take the form of relational databases or unified archives of recorded observations, that relate varied and situated experiences to produce internally consistent accounts of a project’s findings.

As the records made about objects of interest, which are inscribed upon some digital or non-digital medium, and which can be consulted, accessed or used as stand-ins for the objects that they have been constructed to represent, archaeological data serves as a mechanism of disciplinary communication and collaboration, as a medium that is produced through and necessitates mutual experience, interest and understanding in order to work effectively (cf. Fleck 2012 [1935]; Fotiadis 1992; Gardin 1989). And as is the case with many archaeological tools and practices, the idiosyncratic goals, practical constraints and logistical concerns faced by each project involves the establishment of unique or localized variations, suited for the situation at hand.

This has implications concerning the ability to relate or integrate different datasets that derive from alternate streams of information flow. For instance, practitioners of computational methods, especially those who conduct integrative analysis with data derived from multiple sources, may have a different understanding of what data signifies and of its overall value, which relate to how they plan to adopt the data for their own uses (Faniel et al. 2013, 2018). To gain insight regarding the validity and trustworthiness of data according to their own expectations, these analysts tend to communicate or collaborate directly with the data’s producers. In other words, being aware of the discursive aspects of a project, or being an active participant and holding such taken-for-granted knowledge, has a considerable impact on how one comes to understand the data’s values and make use of it effectively.

In order to deal with the series of challenges pertaining to the organization, sharing and reuse of archaeological data, which are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘curation crisis’ or ‘data deluge’, the discursive aspects of archaeological data need to be taken more seriously, and in effect, our conception of what it means to curate data needs to be extended to include the processes pertaining to data’s initial construction and maintenance. However, accounting for the facts that mistakes happen, that people reinterpret finds that have already been examined, and that informal or undocumented references are often made to unpublished work, would complicate the often promoted benefits of the prevalent data publishing model, namely that it supports the validation of data and that data is maintained persistently to ensure its authenticity, as considered from a digital curation and preservation standpoint (Voss 2012; Wylie 2017). My broader aim is therefore to orient data management away from the maintenance of publication pipelines and towards the development of communicative infrastructures that facilitate collaborative exchange.

I draw from existing discursive relations that archaeologists already engage in as they integrate data in close collaboration. How might the structures, processes and practices that give shape to rich and heterogeneous datasets, and that facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration within projects to address communal goals, be naturally extended to make data meaningful beyond a project’s original scope? Being able to identify what makes individual datasets unique according to various vectors of comparison, how local experiences draw from or contribute to broader discursive mindsets, and the different ways in which meanings are negotiated — which may vary according to different purposes, constraints and stakeholder interests — will aid in the development of systems that foster meaningful communication among collaborating researchers, who seek to integrate their respective findings.

To untangle these relations, I have documented how archaeological activities operate in relation to the information systems that are implemented at an archaeological project in southern Europe over the past three years. Recorded observations of archaeological practices capture what participants actually do, as opposed to what they think or say they do, and help to relate enacted activities to broader workflows. Episodic and retrospective interviews are also used to gain insight regarding practitioners’ perspectives regarding the work that is being done in the moment, and to help determine their views on relatively unobservable aspects of archaeological research, respectively. Additionally, information objects like forms, photographs, labels and reports are examined to understand how they encapsulate and communicate meanings among users and over time. All of this contributes towards a large and integrated dataset that is then qualitatively analyzed in order to highlight the cognitive and communicative processes involved in the construction and curation of archaeological data. This entails coding segments of video, audio and text using language that serves to bridge the gap between the archaeological practices observed and the theoretical frameworks applied to explore them as epistemic activities and interfaces. A series of ‘episodes’ will be presented that trace how archaeological data is constructed and rendered across settings, among stakeholders, and through the use of various information objects.

This longitudinal case study documents the drawn-out and improvised relations that develop within a dynamic information landscape throughout the course of a project. By examining the particularities of what archaeologists actually do, and the ways in which they relate to things through series of coordinated social and technological mechanisms, it is possible to understand how discursive knowledge is established or becomes adopted throughout the network of involved participants. The broader implications of this work, including potential practical solutions that may be developed to facilitate collaborative data sharing based on these findings, will also be discussed.


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