Digitizing the History of Archaeology: Ethical responsibilities
Recently I have had the opportunity to scan over 1000 slides of excavations that occurred along the southern coast of Peru throughout the 90’s and early 00’s. While the task itself was mundane and took many more hours than I was expecting, the images that I discovered through this digitization process were absolutely breathtaking. I was witnessing the slow evolution of one of South America’s oldest archaeological sites in terms of excavation and landscape modification. Not every slide itself is valuable but together every slide represents a small portion of a story that was largely only known to the excavators until now. This slide scanning process made me think of the history of archaeology and how the later generations of archaeologists have an ethical responsibility to digitize the old records so they are more freely available. This includes old site forms, journal entries from the PI or the excavators, any pictures of the excavations or tools, and any other documents that could be useful for future archaeologists. Digitizing these documents can also be used as outreach for the public in which archaeologists of the past had worked. This can help to further include communities in the process of archaeological investigation and possibly garner interest from outside the field.
With the discipline becoming more mature and getting older by the year, the history of archaeology is becoming much deeper and is starting to reach a point where some of that history can be lost if it is not moved into a new format. It is no surprise that as technology advances thing become obsolete and eventually become nontransferable onto the newer formats. I fear that if we do not start digitizing old archaeological records soon, we will not be able to transfer them onto a format that is widely and equally available to everyone. Digital records are much easier to gain access to than physical paper copies for obvious reasons but the overall control of information is vastly different between the two mediums. If information is purely stored in a physical format, the paper copies can be easily forgotten through purposeful or unintentional endeavors where as digital information can be sought out on the internet and stumbled upon. My point here is that it is our ethical responsibility as archaeologists to make what we do as widely available as possible to the public and future archaeologists. It is also our responsibility to maintain our own history otherwise we may lose precious information in the miasma of archaeological research. The large and publicly known sites may persist in public and written memory but the supporting sites that build and perpetuate theory have the potential to be lost unless we make a concerted effort to conserve all archaeological data.