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Lisa Bright

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October 10, 2014

Osteology and Digital Data

October 10, 2014 | By | One Comment

There has been a lot of talk in recently about having a digital presence in anthropology. Some portions of the field have adapted to new technology more readily than others. Connecting with social media and blogging is great, but how do we move our data collection, storage, and sharing into the 21st century?

Sharing data is a touchy subject for many scholars. This information is precious, formed after many months (more likely years) of hard work, set backs, and endless hours. Making that data broadly accessible to the greater anthropological community can be a scary notion. In the short term, that information is needed for future publications, and is integral to the scholar as a brand for employment. But what happens to the data when you’re done with it? Unfortunately, most of the time it languishes in dissertation appendixes, remains trapped in grey literature, or sits unused in outmoded private database formats. A few people, such as Dr. Killgrove, have made skeletal databases publicly available, but instances like this are rare.

Osteoware Inventory Screen

Osteoware Inventory – source http://osteoware.si.edu/guide/inventory-module

A major challenge physical anthropology encounters is the usability of collected data, after humans remains and objects are repatriated. How do we ensure that the data is usable once the item is no longer physically available? Another issue facing that data is a lack of standardization in collection methodology. Although many people base their methodology and forms off of Buikstra & Ubelaker’s “Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains”, or utilize the Osteoware data entry system, the way that osteological data is documented is practice, is far from standardized.

The historic skeletal collection I plan to work with for my dissertation is scheduled to be cremated in 2024. One challenge I’m faced with is how do I create the most useful database possible? Not only for my own personal research, but to be used by students and scholars at the institution it is being temporarily curated, as well as after the remains are cremated. I will be starting the database with the data collected on-site, with the hopes that the contextual information from those forms will add to later scholarly research.

I’ve been advocating for open data, so I have to admit that while the remains are curated at the University, some of the data will have to remain private. The cemetery was excavated in a CRM context, which means that the remains, and data belong to the client, in this case a County. However, at some point the data should be made available for collaborative research.   How we get to the point of larger scale collaborative date sharing, is something that will take a lot more discussion.

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