Archaeological Synthesis, Data Sharing, and Digital Curation – Concepts Important to the Future of Our Profession

03/05/2019 1:16 PM | Duane Peter

As noted in the ACRA February Monthly Member Update (MMU), the ACRA Board approved the white paper, Digital Data Curation and Access:  Why You and Your Organization Should be Involved (Peter et al. 2019). The ACRA 2018 conference session and board meeting indicated that the subject of data sharing and synthesis efforts was received with a degree of skepticism on the part of some CRM professionals.  There was obvious concern regarding the logistics of data sharing and synthesis studies.  Nevertheless, the ACRA board realized that increased communication between our industry and the academy is essential for the future of our profession and our ability to address the grand questions (Kintigh et al. 2014).  The detailed logistics of achieving data sharing and digital curation for the advancement of archaeological synthesis remain to be determined. 

The concepts of archaeological synthesis, data sharing, and digital curation are not new to our profession, but if we are to address the grand questions as Kintigh et al. (2014) and Altschul et al. (2018) advocate, we must rethink our research strategies and how data access affects the process.  As Altschul et al. (2018) note, archaeologists must do more than analyze and interpret data on a project-by-project basis.  Synthesis of large databases must be accomplished and transformed into scientific knowledge of value to society.  The need to address the pressing social issues of today requires an interdisciplinary approach using the domains of anthropology and other social and natural sciences.  As Altschul et al. (2018) note, past interdisciplinary efforts have been costly, multi-year efforts in which the team had to find, transform, and analyze large complex data sets on its own.  The Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis (CfAS) was created to provide institutionalized support for collaborative synthesis research. 

CfAS is using a model for collaborative research that was previously designed by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.  Under this model 8-12 people from multiple disciplines are funded for a two-to-three-year period to address complex problems. This team meets 3-4 times during that period.  Some personnel within the CRM industry question how this model is feasible when they are expected to be billable throughout most of the year.  I would note that  most researchers within the CRM industry spend hundreds of hours each year conducting research that is outside the expectations of the average single project. This effort is usually incorporated into subsequent projects, but the level of effort is far beyond the normal hours of the work year. Our industry has been proactive in recent years by incorporating synthesis studies as an integral part of mitigation studies; nevertheless, we likely need to rethink the temporal and spatial scale of our synthesis efforts and include other relevant disciplines. 

Of course, large synthesis studies need access to multiple data sets from multiple regions and the academy obviously wants access to the voluminous data sets collected by the CRM industry. To ease the level of effort, CfAS is promoting the curation of digital data in a responsible digital data repository, specifically, tDAR.  The curation of both current and legacy data is encouraged. This need has raised a variety of concerns within the CRM industry.  One reaction is:  “Why can’t they go to the State Historic Preservation Office files or the state archives like we do?” Unfortunately, such an approach is not cost-effective for either the academy or our industry when a large portion of the nation does not maintain digital access to site forms, reports, or primary data sets.  Our industry, the academy, and our clients would benefit from multiple databases from multiple regions, and multiple time periods being curated in one location. 

The import of legacy data into tDAR definitely presents challenges for the CRM industry.  First, the industry does not own the data.  Clients and agencies would need to approve such curation. Secondly, personnel time and money are needed to gather legacy data, and finally, legacy data may be in an outdated medium.  Admittedly, much of the data currently held by tDAR is legacy data; however, that is largely due to a very few enlightened agency individuals who have been willing to fund the collection of legacy data.

Another issue is the emotional and psychological baggage of the divide that existed between the academy and our industry for a number of years. CRM industry personnel were frequently viewed as second-class citizens within the profession and not capable of the same level of research practiced by the academy. Unfortunately, remnants of this divide remain; consequently, some CRM researchers are reluctant to share and are wary that their contributions would not be acknowledged.  I believe that increased communication between the academy and our industry can overcome these fears. 

I firmly believe that our industry has come of age; however, we need to be aware of the challenges before us.  Our clients want more for less and we must demonstrate our relevance to society if our industry is to survive.  Therefore, we need to discard any historic baggage and collaborate with the academy to provide synthesis studies that demonstrate the relevance of our profession.  Having digital data from thousands of projects in one or a few institutions that will provide access for the future will provide the following efficiencies:

v Reduction of time and travel in conducting background research,

v Better knowledge of previously collected data will reduce the collection of redundant data,

v Reduction of some of the need for costly mitigation; and

v Enhanced understanding of the social and environmental dynamics that have contributed to the present human condition.


The achievement of such efficiencies and the use of those data in ways that the public sees as benefits will satisfy the goals envisioned by the creators of the NHPA, ARPA, and associated regulations.  Our industry could develop its own competitive structure for synthesis studies, but I feel that such an approach would be counterproductive; let’s invest in a strategy that benefits the entire profession.

If you have a different perspective or support archaeological synthesis, data sharing, and digital curation, please use ACRASphere to share your ideas. 


References Cited

Altschul, Jeffrey H., Keith W. Kintigh, Terry H. Klein, William H. Doelle, Kelley A. Hays-Gilpin, Sarah A. Herr, Timothy A. Kohler, Barbara J. Mills, Lindsay M. Montgomery, Margaret C. Nelson, Scott G. Ortman, John N. Parker, Matthew A. Peeples, and Jeremy A. Sabloff

2018     Fostering Collaborative Synthetic Research in Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Practice 6(1): 19-29.  DOI:10.1017/aap.2017.31

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D.G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder

2014     Grand Challenges for Archaeology.  American Antiquity 79(1): 5-24

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