Vancouver SAA 2017 Recap

As a matter of routine, I usually post my conference papers here. I feel strongly about working in public (even if the work is imperfect). But this year’s Society for American Archaeology conference was a bit different for me. I was privileged to be an invited panelist at two fora. Until this conference, I had no idea how much I would love the forum set-up. The conversations were lively and helpful. The speakers in the fora I presented in and attended were so engaging and the conversations were genuine and challenging.

a gorgeous view of the mountains and the Bay in Vancouver

Following are my rough answers to the questions posed by forum organizers. This is limited to my own voice; these were all conversations (and very important ones) in person. Most of these answers are what I thought I’d say before I got there, edited to what I remember saying in the moment. What you see here is a combination of my preparation of the forum, fleshed out based on the conversations we had in the room. It is pretty much only my perspective, though, so, it’s not perfect. I’ve also added session tweets here. Hopefully the two together will paint a reasonably effective picture of the wonderful conversations we had. I was thrilled to be invited to serve on both of these panels.

Metadata and Digital Management in Archaeology Today

Moderator: Paulina Przystupa

C. L. Kieffer
Nancy Hoffman
Francis McManamon
Kelsey Noack Myers
Melissa Cerda
Robert Heckman
Jolene Smith
Eric Kansa

1) What are metadata and digital records management? Why do they matter?

I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on definitions of metadata (and other folks covered it well). For me, the focus is really parsing what we’re talking about. The purposes and uses for “data” are different. Images, synthesized records, descriptive datasets, geospatial information, remote sensing, 3D, and other specialized analysis datasets each have different descriptive metadata needs. I also really want to keep preservation in the discussion and not forget about administrative and preservation metadata. If you’re hoping to safely store data for any amount of time, these concepts are important.

2) What are some of the current issues in metadata and digital records management in archaeology that you see in general but also that you deal with on a daily basis?

In archaeology I’d say training as well as appropriately defining scope and scale. How do we get compliance-driven archaeology to think long term? (also goes for physical curation- often under resourced by field archaeologists). I’ve also noticed a cyclical trend– every few years there will be a push for radical standardization of archaeological data. Wheels spin. In my opinion, this is the wrong goal to strive for. We can allow for diversity in methodology, terminology by creating linked schema.

3) How often do you work with archaeologists from other sectors (federal/state/CRM etc) and how do metadata and DRM factor into those interactions? Do these interactions influence your metadata and/or DRM choices?

Most of my work is with CRM-generated archaeology data, but I have a ton of legacy records to address. Every different kind of project has different metadata needs and they should all be able to be cross-referenced.

4) Is there an interest from your institution (federal/state/tribal etc) to make digital records and metadata public or available? If so, how (tables, scanned paperwork PDFS etc) ? If not, why?

Yes. It’s complicated, though. There’s major inertia to get records digitized because it makes our work so much easier and more effective. But there’s also a tension around defining the scope of the systems we create. Are we an institutional repository with very specific purposes (facilitate mostly Section 106 and environmental review)? Or, are we a true statewide access repository for archaeological data?

5) What can field and academic archaeologists collecting data do to prepare for issues of DRM and metadata?

Education is a critical need. Since a lot of these data issues aren’t apparent to the creator of the data, it takes specific effort and intention to do it right. I think we (as professionals who do know a thing or two about information management) have an obligation to teach about metadata, reproducibility, and digital preservation. Many of these concepts simply aren’t even on the radars of field archaeologists.

6) Do you feel that there is anything in archaeology holding us back from dealing with these issues?

It usually comes back to money. It’s unfortunately all too easy to neglect to invest labor and money into long-term outcomes (physical curation, data management, great reporting).

7) Who do you feel is responsible for starting and maintaining metadata and DRM discussions in archaeology? When and how should these discussions start?

Policy is huge. We need to formalize requirements for good, stable data. But we also need to shift the culture so that these concepts become part of general archaeological ethics.

8) Are there any good guidelines or resources that you can recommend to archaeologists interested in DRM and attaching metadata?

Look to digital archivists and librarians! These folks are already professionals and have been working with many of these tough issues for a long time.

NDSA Levels of Preservation

Library of Congress Digital Preservation Metadata Standards

This t-shirt

Above links are mostly geared toward digital preservation. Also check out Open Context, PeriodO, Pleiades Project, and more.

9) What are some attainable next steps in metadata and DRM that you hope to see in the near future?

For me, what’s become clear is the need to focus on getting datasets up on the web in open formats. That’s the first step and it’s a big one. I’ve been quite hung up on other steps beyond that in the past, but really it’s about getting started.

Do Data Stop at the 49th Parallel?: The State of Archaeological Databases Digital Methodologies, Heritage Management, and Research Collaboration through Canada and the United States

ABSTRACT: Archaeological entities and actors (e.g. heritage offices, laboratories and curation facilities, research groups, and individuals) in Canada and the United States are embracing a wide diversity of digital data management, curation, publication, and security strategies. The resulting mosaic of archaeological information, involving hundreds of different regimes of data structures, software implementations, and management strategies, covers approximately 10 percent of the planet’s inhabited land mass (not counting Antarctica) and at least the last 14,000 years of the human experience, and imposes areal boundaries (both intra- and international) that would not be recognized as salient by most past peoples. How can we envision the larger potential for these data sets to be used by archaeologists, other research sciences, and other humanities disciplines? What impediments exist to information reuse (social, legal, ethical, informatics, etc.)? What are existing best practices in the collection, management, and reuse of digital data that may be learned from in different contexts?

Moderator: Joshua Wells

Participants: David Anderson
Brandi Bethke
Terence Clark
Carley Crann
John Doershuk
Neal Ferris
Erick Robinson
Jolene Smith
Gary Warrick

  1. What are the most important elements of archaeological data that are currently, or should be, instantiated in databases? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these? General to specific
  2. What are the purposes of the archaeological databases with which you work? How do you or others enact or promote novel uses of those data?
  3. How do areas/agencies in your purview deal with data updates (amendment, replacement, mixtures, no updates, etc.)?
  4. How do stakeholders and/or descendant communities interact with available databases, what could be improved?
  5. What are strengths to be modeled, and weaknesses to be remedied, in data captured by private sector actors in the heritage management and archaeological/environmental compliance sectors? a. Same as above but in government agencies b. Same as above but in university research laboratories
  6. Adding specificity to #5, above: What are existing best practices in the a. collection of data and/or management of data b. reuse of digital data that may be learned from these or other contexts?
  7. What are extant examples of professional groups promoting large-scale and international data collaboration? How can we further promote such behaviors?
  8. How can we envision the larger potential for archaeological data to be used by a. other archaeologists b. other research sciences c. and other humanities disciplines
  9. What impediments exist to information reuse a. social, legal b. professional (e.g. hoarding for personal advancement or office development) c. ethical d. informatics, etc. (e.g. lack of infrastructure or training)
  10. What would be an ideal, nested set of database priorities from the local to the national? A wish list of information? A dream scenario of linkages?
  11. What data recording or maintenance strategies could be discontinued? Is there such a thing as too much of a (software) legacy?

my notes:

I’m not providing my specific survey answers here because this really was a conversation. As I started typing answers out, the value of the forum started to feel watered down with just my specific perspective.

Josh Wells selected an interesting group balanced between public sector, s private sector, and academic subject matter experts in the US and Canada. We talked a lot about the advantages as well as the serious concerns about open archaeological data. The group assembled showed the promise of what we could do if we continue to focus on linkable, interoperable data in the future.

I was thrilled that the conversation came back to ethics, power structures, and colonial systems over and over again.

Lightning Rounds! Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice (#msudai) Project Updates

It was so nice to get together with most Institute participants and here 5 minute reports from everyone. Even though we had an 8am Sunday session, the Institute energy was back in the room. Some of us made additional progress since August, all of us used our skills, and Ethan’s maniacal plan to create “evangelists or vectors” to spread approaches and and an ethos of openness has truly succeeded.

Notable sessions and topics

Climate Change

I attended several papers in multiple sessions about climate change and responses to sea level rise. The need for mechanisms for citizen science came up again and again, using SCAPE in Scotland as a model. I was struck by the vastness of the problem and the sheer number of resources at risk. An effect I hadn’t really thought about much until this conference is the physical (in-situ) preservation impact of rapidly changing environmental conditions, especially on organic materials. Plenary forum

The plenary forum was also about climate change, and the primacy of the subject throughout the conference was very encouraging (you know, in a completely depressing kind of way). But the most important and laudable step to me was the territorial acknowledgement by President Diane Gifford-Gonzalez.

SAA acknowledgement of First Nations and indigenous territory

Other stuff

I saw a few compelling and important papers in the Indigenous Archaeologies session and others focusing on decolonization, and I also went to pretty much anything with “digital” or “data” in the title (surprise, surprise). Of particular note was the forum, “Beyond Data Management: A Conversation about ‘Digital Data Realities’” moderated by Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Eric Kansa, and the symposium “The Future of ‘Big Data’ in Archaeology,” chaired by Erick Robinson, Robert L. Kelly, and Nicholas Naudinot.

Another major highlight was Ben Marwick and Matt Harris’ R workshop. I’ve been working with loads of data for a long time and have really wanted to learn R since Matt’s brief R Studio introduction at the 2016 Orlando SAAs. Matt and Ben did a fantastic job getting us through the tough part of the learning curve to get data into the application and start running analysis. I fought with my Linux machine for a good deal of the program (Sorry, guys! I’m forever the outlier.), but got caught up by the end and it was so worth it. I’m chomping at the bit do really dig in to R with Virginia data. There were many stickers and t-shrts. And you bet your socks I’m going to earn them.

Fresh on the heels of SAA I also attended the George Wright Society conference in Norfolk, VA, where I was privileged to be on a panel about archaeological data and site sensitivity. I talked about balancing openness with necessary protections and the ensuing discussion between myself, federal employees, and academics (hello, DINAA!) was very productive and rewarding.


I’m still basking in the afterglow of all this. I wrote a lot above about the practical things I learned and shared, but that’s really only a small part of it. The interpersonal connections were just as valuable, if not more so. The level of collegial generosity was just, ugh. I’m out of adjectives. This feels rare and special. I’ve formed bonds in a community of brilliant people that is so ready to lift others up. I’m unbelievably proud to be a small part of it. If you read this and you wonder if I’m talking about you, I’m totally taking about you. Thank you, truly.

comments powered by Disqus