Saturday, April 5, 2008

Archaeology as Ecology?

I was extremely flattered and amused last week to have stimulated a debate about ecology through my rather glib identification of some of the giants in our field of broader Mediterranean archaeology (Hodder, Davis, Joukowsky, Rose) as "grey panthers," who are confident enough of their positions to take the risk of sharing data.

I think that the distinguished colleagues who have recently identified themselves as "archaeological data critters" (Eric Kansa's great term) are downplaying their role in the food chain; Bill Caraher is more capibara (uber-rodent and one of my favorite animals) than squirrel, Eric Kansa is more an eagle than a bluebird, and Tom Elliott is more like the nicest kind of giant pan-galactic gorilla than cranky space monkey. As for me, Tom's reference to "the Watkinson Archaeological Cyberverse" momentarily transformed me into one of those tiny tree-frogs that temporarily conceal their true minuteness by puffing up.

Before I deflate and go back to my hole in the tree, however, I do want to make an additional comment about the idea of there being different kinds of "archaeological critters" and its relevance to larger debates about how to support emerging digital scholarship.

The use of a biological metaphor in discussions of how scholarship works is, of course, not new. The idea of an "ecology of scholarly communication" seems to be cropping up more and more in discussions of the respective roles of libraries, press, and IT departments in supporting the "information life-cycle" from production, through management and preservation, to dissemination. The nature of academia as an interdependent and complex system of groups with their own behavior patterns is often discussed in terms of either "species" or "tribes" (e.g., the bestselling book, Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Discipline).

Any of us involved in archaeology recognize that our discipline must be one of the most segmented fields of study out there. Look at conferences, for example. As the veteran of many conference displays in a past job at The David Brown Book Company, I know that hardly anybody who goes to the Society of American Archaeology (SAA) meetings attends the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) or the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA). Funding constraints mean that most scholars can only attend one big conference a year, and this economic "accident" perpetuates disciplinary divide. Even within an AIA meeting, a multitude of different worlds with their own logics can be observed. Individual conference identities are shaped by scholarly specialty, institutional affiliation, age cohort, qualitative or quantitative orientation etc., and groupings form and reform in a way that is probably better described in terms of theories of "ethnicity" than biology.

The recognition that, in academic terms, fields like archaeology consist of many sub-disciplines with their own logics and modes of presentation and discussion is very clear when working with authors. There are notable exceptions, but my experience in publishing classical archaeology, for example, is that epigraphers and amphora specialists tend to be extremely territorial; reviewers tend to be very opinionated and outspoken, citations seem to always be to a limited range of sources, data sharing seems unusual, and there is usually a long time-delay between discovery and publication.

In a commentary on the "archaeological critters" discussion, my friend and sadly-missed ex-colleague Chuck Jones (some kind of good bear, I think) asked the following question: "it occurs to me that some rather ambitious projects seeking to offer generalized platforms for the archiving and distribution of archaeological data have not yet come up in the conversations, and I wonder why not."

Understanding that there are multiple species, even in a small ecological zone like archaeology, is important for the designers and funders of the evolving cyberinfrastructure. The recognition that "archaeological informatics" is a specific field of information science is becoming more widespread. Archaeology is different from computer science, economics, medicine or physics in the way researchers use, produce, manage, and disseminate information. However, we all need to also recognize that is that the discipline is internally segmented to a degree that (a) any overly ambitious "global" repository- or digital toolkit-building exercise will only gain very limited acceptance, unless it tailors itself to support a range of different communities, and (b) perhaps the most logical level at which to sustain repositories and digital tools is at a "species" rather than "ecological zone" level, meaning that it is likely that each discipline will remain fairly wary of solutions created by "outsiders" (e.g., Americanist archaeologists in the Mediterranean).

Of course, the ecological metaphor loses its usefulness after a certain point. After all, in our quest for interoperability between digital repositories, is what we are really trying to do is to get different species to interbreed? (If so, no wonder it's so difficult!) And, anyway, what kind of sick, demented kind of research project is that? None of the pleasant and visionary archaeological informaticians I have met look like Dr. Moreau.


Paul Kekai Manansala said...

Nice article. Archaeology helps us 'recycle' knowledge from the past.

Charissa said...

This is great!