The Oman Archive: eyes forward, a look in the rearview mirror
For a country of people noted for their unhurried grace, the Sultanate of Oman is changing at a head-spinning rate. The Oman Archive (OA) was originally conceived of as a digital attempt to archive Oman’s archaeological heritage in and around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bat. The OA had several functions:
- To integrate and curate archaeological data related to the region;
- To provide access to original data for international researchers and collaborators interested in understanding Bat’s prehistory and history;
- To serve as a repository for all reports, publications, and media related to the archaeological heritage of the Bat area;
- To facilitate the documentation of changes to the archaeological record;
- To provide specialists’ assessments for national government ministry decision-making about land use and development in the Bat area.
Put simply, I am a collaborative anthropological archaeologist interested in pursuing an extensive career in the Sultanate of Oman, and saw this Fellowship as an opportunity to use the human resources of MATRIX (particularly Ethan Watrall and Catherine Foley) and KORA to learn about digital repositories as a resource for cultural heritage management and archaeological research. Even better, I could apply it immediately to my most immediate project: my dissertation research.
In order to understand the social function of monuments in third millennium BC Oman, I surveyed 100 square km of the Bat area along the Wadi al-Hijr, documenting 1500 archaeological features (mostly monumental tombs) and collecting and creating huge amounts of data. Since so much of my “paperwork” was born digital; since my collaborators are spread across six continents; and since my academic affiliations are physically located thousands of miles outside of Oman, a digital repository is a crucial development for researchers in the area.
At the same time, since my first trip to Oman in 2007 I have continually been struck by the extraordinary rate of change the people of Oman are experiencing. Because whatever I document in the field is, by its very nature, ephemeral I wanted my research to be more than simply a record of “what once was”, particularly with the growing fear that it would become a record of “what was no more”. This second goal – the application of archaeological knowledge to modern development and cultural heritage projects – is ongoing and potentially unending. I built into the repository structure an “event”-based recording system, which allows for endless updates as decisions and observations relating to specific archaeological materials are made. This part of the repository is untested, but my return to Oman in December 2012 will give me an opportunity to test some of its strengths and limits.
I will be revisiting several archaeological features that are distinctly non-monumental: for example, features and sites where stone tool-making occurred, or that are related to water storage. This will provide me with the opportunity to (1) see how well the repository structure integrates data about different parts of the archaeological record, as well as (2) attempt to “layer” observations of the same archaeological material over time.
The Oman Archive is in its beginnings, but then so is archaeology and cultural heritage management in Oman (for some of my previous posts on this subject, visit here and here). This upcoming year promises to test the OA in other ways:
- The inclusion of past researchers’ data into the archive, especially data on archaeological material that has already been excavated – e.g., excavation documents from the 1970s and 1980s, related museum collections;
- Drawing on research and media in the OA for use in posters, pamphlets, sign-boards, and public archaeology celebrations in response to the 2013 25th anniversary of Bat’s inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List;
- Coordination with an international team of conservators on the restoration and development of one of the iconic monuments of Oman: Kasr al-Rojoom at Bat.
This project has been a source of frustration and exhilaration. Learning the languages of digital scholarship, programming, and library science in order to investigate and structure my own digital repository has been a rewarding up-hill struggle. It has also made me aware of the multitude of ongoing digital archaeology projects, some of which have provided warnings and directives, and some of which have provided altogether new ways of thinking about the future of my research and of the data’s applicability. Working this past year with other archaeologists interested in digital archaeology, and other scholars interested in digital research, has been an added bonus. KORA is in the process of becoming more researcher-friendly, and I look forward to seeing how this digital repository platform can help me to store, use, and think about my data in new ways.