Archaeology produces a wide variety of data that are documented at different scales and in diverse formats. The data collected during excavation ranges from written descriptions in notebooks to 3D models of trenches to counts of lithic and ceramic types. Subsequent analyses range from thousands of detailed observations on faunal remains, microscopic plant remains, stable isotope analysis, soil analysis, etc. All of this documentation is collected by different people following their own (often bespoke) recording systems.
Given this diversity, there is no single approach to data modeling that is going to apply to all areas of archaeology and to all projects. However, there are some overarching considerations that can be applied to most areas of archaeology, from field excavation to various areas of archaeological science.
As an example, consider a miniature ceramic butter churn found at the Chalcolithic site of Shiqmim, Israel (1993 Area D, Locus 4081; an example of such a churn is shown above). The churn was filled with 4,692 tiny beads (painstakingly counted in the field by our very own Eric Kansa!) of malachite, copper, carnelian and shell (Burton et al. 2018). This complex “find” would ideally see description by several different specialists in the field—a pottery analyst and a bead specialist, at a minimum. Additional chemical analyses could be carried out on the various bead types, as well as on the exterior paint, the interior residue, and the ceramic composition of the churn itself. How does one keep track of the churn and its thousands of contents, their relationships, and all the subsequent analyses taking place perhaps decades later?
1. This collection of diverse materials is related through its archaeological context, so it’s important that the context be preserved in any subsequent analyses. This includes a written description, drawings, images, related objects, and explanations of excavation methods.
2. It is important to document the life history of the object as it passes from one researcher to the next. This analytical context includes information about the people and activities involved in the object’s study. What did they do? Where is their analysis? Where did they leave the object?
3. What links #1 and #2 is the use of unique identifiers for the object and all its related contents. Unique identifiers (like a social security number, some URLs, a Twitter handle, a car license number) ensure that the life history of the object is clearly tracked and all subsequent work on a specific specimen is associated with that specimen, not confused with others that might be very similar. The churn in the example and every single one of the 4,692 beads should have unique identifiers!
These three things mean expanding our documentation during excavation, subsequent analyses, and dissemination. Doing this requires that we be much more careful and intentional with our documentation. It requires that we treat our data with as much care as we treat our peer reviewed publications. But the outcome is worth the effort—addressing these three things impacts reusers’ perception of the quality of the data documenting this object and increases their trust in its reuse. This means the data have a better chance of surviving (and thriving!) through continual future reuse.
Building on point #3 above, identifiers can seem boring and meaninglessly bureaucratic. But they matter! For anyone to understand the network of associations between the churn, beads, datasets, and publications, we need to put lots of care into the identifiers that name and link all of these parts together. Good use of identifiers goes a long way toward documenting and communicating context. And context, after all, is a key concern in archaeology!
In a future post, we’ll explore identifiers in more depth, but for now, check out a recent open access paper that talks about how Open Context has joined a collaboration to maintain the integrity of identifiers assigned to physical samples used across the sciences!
Margie M. Burton, Patrick S. Quinn, Anthony Tamberino & Thomas E. Levy (2018) Ceramic composition at Chalcolithic Shiqmim, northern Negev desert, Israel: investigating technology and provenance using thin section petrography, instrumental geochemistry and calcareous nannofossils, Levant, 50:2, 237-257, https://doi.org/10.1080/00758914.2019.1625656
Neil Davies, John Deck, Eric C Kansa, Sarah Whitcher Kansa, John Kunze, Christopher Meyer, Thomas Orrell, Sarah Ramdeen, Rebecca Snyder, Dave Vieglais, Ramona L Walls, Kerstin Lehnert (2021) Internet of Samples (iSamples): Toward an interdisciplinary cyberinfrastructure for material samples, GigaScience, Volume 10, Issue 5, May 2021, giab028, https://doi.org/10.1093/gigascience/giab028