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Katy Meyers


January 28, 2011

Open Access Archaeology: Two Different Approaches

January 28, 2011 | By | 4 Comments

Archaeological site information is a precious commodity; once material is fully excavated it is the only knowledge we have of the site. After spending, years (or even decades) excavating a site the information can become packed away in a few notebooks or boxes, lost in the realm of gray material, and not uncovered until needed by another regional specialist or graduate student. Some information becomes a heavily guarded secret to prevent loss of material, either due to looting of the site or forced return due to NAGPRA. A third option now exists: make the information visible on the internet. This is the option that I am advocating for: open access archaeology.

One of the problems for archaeologists is that what we do, the process by which we build hypotheses, create inferences, and the methods for analyzing the materials we use are not understood by the general public. The media has portrayed archaeologists as anything from the fedora wearing treasure hunter/adventure seeker to sexy bombshells in oversized oxford shirts who inevitably release unspeakable horrors in the process of their excavation. What I hear from most undergraduate students is the most disheartening: “you dig up dinosaurs?”. Although archaeological books are readily available, often the information is not in a format conducive to general public consumption. Public lectures- while a benefit to many that should be actively continued and increased- are not widely attended and are less likely to reach the broader audience. So how do we go about teaching archaeology to the average person? How can we effectively teach about the process of the excavation, the importance of theory and method, the way in which general historical trends are interpreted from specific artifacts?

We need to open our field notebooks and laptops, and make it accessible online.

There are a number of examples of this occurring, however I will discuss two famous sites in particular that have recently opened their archaeological doors: Chaco Canyon and Chichen Itza.

Screenshot from Chaco Archive Database Query

The Chaco Archives serves as the repository for all archaeological information from the site as collected from 100 years of study. Chaco Canyon has been an archaeological enigma due to its immense size and sudden abandonment. The site is found in New Mexico, and dates to 850 to 1250 CE. Through the website, users can query the database in order to see all of the raw data from the excavation including artifacts, features, sites, locations, the original descriptions and the individuals involved. All of the data is linked together, so that when looking at a single unit in a household, one can readily see all artifacts, features, and images for that area. The website also includes an interactive map giving information on each of the households within the canyon, history of their excavation, as well as individual maps of each and links to their artifacts. Some ‘treasures’ of the site include scans of the original field notes taken by pepper in the early 20th century. There is also a focus on heritage and preservation of the site, seen in the documentation of what is currently being done to protect it from human and environmental interference. The only thing absent from this site is a forum for open dialogue. Being that this is such a highly debated site, the addition of a discussion area would be extremely beneficial, however- this website is a near perfect model of open access archaeology.

Image showing the process by which photograph becomes CGI Image

The Maya Skies Archive is the online archive and discussion website for Chichen Itza. The site itself is a Mayan city, dating from 600 to 1000 CE, and found on the Yucatan Penninsula of Mexico. The website is primarily designed to discuss the digital heritage project of creating a computer generated model of the site. The goal is to spark discussion and pool information on the architecture and astronomical alignments of the various buildings. Most of the buildings and larger artifacts have been digitized and are included in the map. They include the raw data of the artifacts as seen on the real site, as well as some of their current interpretations of reconstructions. There are a number of reasons for doing this, as noted in their various videos, is reconstruction of disturbed artifacts, and preservation of the materials. One of the most profitably portions of this site is the ability to manipulate the images to create constructions of interpretations of what it looked like during its peak or other stages of habitation. Users are able to change the construction, coloring, and alignment of the site in order to fit their own interpretation. According to Cain (2010), the hope is to use what archaeological data we have along with this CGI program in order to create the most accurate reconstruction. What we don’t see at this point, and what could be important is access to the field notes of the current archaeologists on the project. This site, while not as open with the raw data as Chaco, is an important model in that it relies on debate, discussion, and active participation in the visual data.

The benefits of these types of sites is not limited to the public. As a current graduate student, I used the Chaco Canyon Archives in order to complete a paper on gender ideology at that site. My primary dataset came directly from the website, as well as a large portion of my supporting evidence and references. In addition to the benefit that information is more widely available for study, it also means an increase in interpretation. It has long been acknowledged that there is no single perfect theory or method (Hegmon 2003). By making data, method and current explanations open access, we are opening data to interpretation through a wide range of perspectives that will aid in furthering our understanding and creating more nuanced interpretations (McGuire 2008:50). Especially in sites that are highly debated like Chaco Canyon, a multitude of viewpoints is extremely beneficial. We have a responsibility as anthropologists to make our data available to scholarly and public communities, preserve it in a format accessible to future scholars, and do so in a way that faithfully represents the real nature of our data. By opening our databases to the online community, we can achieve the goals of our discipline, and open the past to discussion, debate and dialogue. It is through this pathway that we can further the discipline.

Works Cited

Cain, K. 2010 Maya Skies Archaeology Case Studies Video. Electronic Document. Maya Skies Project., accessed 1/27/2010

Chaco Research Archive 2010 Chaco Research Archive Website. Electronic Document. accessed 1/27/2010

Hegmon, Michelle 2003 Setting Theoretical Egos Aside: Issues and Theory in North American Archaeology. American Antiquity 68(2):213-244.

Maya Skies Research Project 2010 Maya Skies Research Project. Electronic Document., accessed 1/27/2010

McGuire, R. H. 2008 Archaeology as political action. University of California Press, CA.


  1. Great post! I agree, open access is absolutely the way to go for completed research. For those who are interested, some historical archaeology databases include the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), housed at Monticello: and the Chesapeake Archaeology Database:

    Also, the Digital Archaeological Record is a database being produced by the non-profit Digital Archaeology, is currently being built, and is focused on everything you just wrote about here!

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