This past week was the annual Paleopathology Association conference, which took place in Minneapolis, MN on April 12-13th. During the final session of talks, Charlotte Roberts, a paleopathology professor from Durham University (and one of my academic heroes), discussed the need for an international database for bioarchaeological collections.
Roberts reviewed 20 years of journal articles from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology and found that two thirds of the material used was taken from only four collections: York, Bradford, Birmingham and the Museum of London. While restudies are a good way to test methods, the materials have been so overused that they are becoming damaged and other collections are being overlooked. Roberts argues that we need to consider the implications of all these restudies. In order to create more representative and nuanced interpretations of the past it is important to study a wide range of collections. If our analyses are limited to four collections, we will be unable to understand the range of variation in the past.
The reason for the use of these four specific collections is their accessibility and availability. The problem is that our work becomes biased towards specific samples. There is also a cyclical effect in that those samples most published are the most likely candidates for future re-analysis. Some collections have become so damaged from reanalysis that they can no longer be used. By focusing on particular collections we are creating partial views of past demography and paleopathology. If we create online databases of all available skeletal collections we will be able to more accurately represent human health in the past by showing the range of variation.
The Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology stands as the exemplar of the digitizing skeleton collections. The database includes information on sex, age, height and pathological conditions. Photos of the pathological conditions are also available. All the information can be downloaded easily and is free to use. By putting the information online, the collection gets a high use but also preserves the material. While this database is impressive, Roberts does not believe that all collections need to do this.
The solution, Roberts argues, is to create a international database for bioarchaeological collections that are available for study. This does not need to consist of anything large or all encompassing, but rather just include information on the type of collection available, the location, and basic information that researchers would need in order to find the collection and determine whether it was appropriate for their study. The database would be freely accessible and would allow for students and researchers to find out where underused collections currently are instead of relying on the four main ones.
There are a number of challenges in trying to create a national database of bioarchaeological collections. First, there is concern from certain researchers about the misuse of their data and collections. The argument is that by opening up your data to others it opens up the researcher to critique. Data could potentially be interpreted in a way not fitting with the original research. However, by opening our data we are furthering the knowledge of the discipline and by allowing others to test data it allows for constructive critique and growth of the data.
Second, with the change in laws such as NAGPRA or reburial changes in the UK there is concern that making collections known could cause them to be reburied before they have been properly researched. Along these same lines is the idea that skeletal material may be too sensitive a subject matter for online, and by putting data on line it may be offensive to some individuals. However, by putting the data freely online we can better inform reburial debates and perhaps by showing the worth of research collections we can save collections from reburial.
Third, digitizing collections and the creation of databases can be expensive. While it is getting easier to find funding for projects that have just started such as those under National Science Foundation funding that require databases and digital preservation. By increasing the number of collections online and showing their value, funding will become more available for digitization.
We are in a new age of digital databases and open access. Bioarchaeology would benefit from the digitization of collections. With collections online we can spread the use load, fill the knowledge gaps by researching new populations, and better use the skeletal resources that we have.
Excellent points. One thing that also needs to happen is that we need to see more research made of existing digital collections.
We’ve got lots of richly documented bioarchaeology with photos, measurements, and rich description of trauma on Open Context. See:
The site is still being restored from a catastrophic hardware failure and it will be some days before we can reload all the data from offsite backups, but you should get a sense of what the collection has to offer.
I agree with your points about the sensitivities often associated with human remains. These are complex ethical issues, and I think different organizations and collections have to sort out the kinds of access policies and restrictions that work best for their stakeholders, depending on the nature of the collections.
With Open Context, we focus on material where “open” is arguably the most ethical stance, know that this is not universally true. If open is the way to go, we’d like to see much more attention on interoperability and data portability. We hope other collections expose their data in ways that play nicely with others like we’ve tried to do with Open Context. There won’t and shouldn’t be a sole source for these data, but we’ve got to make sure distributed publishing / curation efforts complement each other better, especially in cases where open data is the best ethical choice.
As you’ve stated many of these issues are critical to moving the discipline forward and are quite similar to those of other disciplines as well. The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR – http://www.tdar.org) is an existing archive of digital documents, data sets, images, and other file types used by the archaeological community. We are established to enable individual researchers and organizations to deposit their data, documents, etc so that these are accessible to a wide range of other users. We have been working with Zooarchaeologists and others to deal with these complex issues surrounding publication, privacy, security, and community in ways that would be adaptable to the needs of other communities, such as Bioarchaeology. Furthermore, we’ve been developing a set of tools on-top of the repository to promote further research.
Regardless, working with larger, existing organizations devoted to providing for access to digital data, such as Alexandria Archive or Digital Antiquity will help defer the costs of setting up and maintaining digital archives, which is complex and expensive work. Researchers and organizations interested in sharing their data, and in being able to have access to comparable data from other researchers should work with organizations that are already focused on this mission.