Monday, March 31, 2008

Drilling Down (and Up)

Charles Watkinson doesn't blog often, but when he does, he blogs well. His latest post is entitled The "drill down" dilemma. Why can't we link archaeological publication to the underlying data? It's worth reading the whole thing and I have to say that I largely agree with his summary of the current state of affairs. But I do have some reactions that I'll put into words...

First, a little full disclosure: I've known Charles for a long time; he's a good guy and a friend so that this should be seen as a respectful exchange within a longer conversation.

Charles notes that it is difficult to move from works of archaeological synthesis to the original data. I won't paraphrase more than that since you can and should read the original for yourself.

The first explanation/reason he offers for an inability to drill-down is that "Nobody wants to share their data." Taken as a stand-alone statement, this may under-represent the extent to which sharing is already taking place. I'll name names.
  • Martha Joukowsky, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Brown University and former President of Archaeological Institute of America shares data from her excavation at Petra. A large dataset is available on the OpenContext website.
  • Jack Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and current Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, shares data from the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project. See under "Project Databases" in the Table of Contents. I work on this project and as I've noted we are beginning to make the data available under a Creative Commons license. See the website for the other project directors and participants who are likewise sharing.
  • I also share my work with Billur Tekkök, Associate Professor at Başkent University, on pottery at Troy. By implication then, Brian Rose, James B. Pritchard Professor of Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and current President of the Archaeological Institute of America, shares since we confirmed with him that it was OK to distribute our work under a Creative Commons license.
  • Ian Hodder, Dunlevie Family Professor of Anthropology at Stanford, also shares. The entire Çatalhöyük website is published under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non-Commercial - Share Alike license. That's about as generous as you can be.
I'm going to look at the Çatalhöyük website more closely but I do just want to say that I'm dropping names and being explicit about fancy titles to suggest that you can't get much more senior than the Drs. Davis, Hodder, Joukowsky and Rose. If they're sharing, at some point people will have to ask themselves, "why aren't I?"

Because it shares so much, the Çatalhöyük site allows drill-down. Here's an example. I. Hodder and C. Cessford. 2004. Daily Practice and Social Memory at Çatalhöyük American Antiquity 69.1: 17-40 explores "the social processes involved in the formation of large agglomerated villages in the Neolithic of the Near East and Anatolia, with particular reference to Çatalhöyük in central Turkey." (p. 1). Among other information, work in Buildings 1 and 5 of the North Area is presented with a focus on evidence for variable activities within the distinctly marked spaces in each house (p. 24-21) and also on the presence of individuals buried under house 1 who would have been alive when the earlier and underlying house 5 was in use (fig. 10).

Within the text, analysis of the elemental composition of the floors in Building 5 showed the NW platform to have been distinctive, "probably as the result of both the reuse of different floor materials in the construction of different areas, and as a result of differential use of different parts of the floor." (p. 27-28 and fig. 9). The earlier fig. 3 indicates that this platform lies in front of Feature 230, a north-south running wall. That feature number, usefully published in this interpretive article, is key to drilling down.

The project's website links to the Çatalhöyük Image Database hosted at Stanford. Here we can search for images of Feature 230. For example:


Humans make good scales and it's nice to see just how cramped the NW platform of Building 5, running from the upside down 4 to the wall, would have been. Seeing these images makes the following passage of high-level synthesis more believable:
Taking the past and present excavations together, there is evidence to suggest that as a child grew up in a house at Çatalhöyük, it would have learned that different types of people were buried beneath certain platforms, that different plasters were used for different platforms, and that refuse was swept up more carefully from some areas... Social rules would have been learned through daily practice involving the movements of the body in the house. This is one way in which each indvidual would have learned and incorporated social rules. (p. 30)
To be sure, the drill-down wasn't effortless; I had to put quite some time into figuring out the image database. The "Aha!" moment came when I noticed the link between it and the numbers used in the article. But the idea is there. Sharing data improves ones ability to test and appreciate hypotheses presented in secondary literature.

Now, I'm pretty sure that Charles would not find what I've said objectionable. I just don't want to let anybody off the hook by not stressing that archaeologists are already sharing, that those doing it are senior, and that there is a technological and legal infrastructure that makes links from interpretive work to source data possible.

Charles also writes of drilling "sideways and upwards". Just for fun, I'll take the concept of drilling "up" to mean moving from data to interpretation. I mean by this doing the opposite of what I did at Çatalhöyük: you're on the website, you see a reference to Feature 230 and you want to find where it's been discussed. As we move forward to the world that Charles envisions, it may be that the tendency of academic journals to use services such as JSTOR and Atypon will impede the ability of scholars to drill-up. Certainly, anyone not associated with a subscribing library would not be able to access American Antiquity. It also seems that the commercial imperatives of JSTOR and Atypon, as well as of their contributing journals, are interfering with any moves to make article text available in useful formats, i.e. not as unduly encumbered PDFs or poorly structured texts. One hopes that this will change. Drilling in all directions will be increasingly important for future academic efforts.

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