Cyberinfrastructure is a digital research environment. Imagine the Matrix, only instead of fighting Smith you are completing a site report with an 11th century ceramics specialist in the United Kingdom and an epigrapher from an Australian Museum, while using primary data from a medieval cemetery in Poland. Cyberinfrastructure includes all of the platforms, standards, hard and soft technology, as well as the human resources that facilitate digital research. When thinking about these digital research environments there is a tendency to focus on the virtual tools and technologies which allow for sharing, using, preserving, and combining of data from disparate collections. However the human component is just as vital since the cyberinfrastructure requires both technical expertise to create these interoperable workspaces, but also content expertise about the materials and data that are being used.
Archaeologists greatly benefit from the construction of cyberinfrastructures. The nature of our work requires specialist knowledge, large quantities of data that is often in different formats, storage of this data, long term preservation, tools and technology for analysis of primary data, and dissemination of the interpretations and results. Given that our research can span continents and involve the expertise of scholars from around the world, having digital workspaces is a perfect solution. One of the major problems currently is the uneven use of archaeological collections online. There are certain osteological collections like those at the University of Bradford and Museum of London, which comprise the majority of bioarchaeological reports. By having more information online we can even out the use-load of collections. Further, by putting our information into online networks and sharing the data, broader syntheses and more informed theories can be created.
However, there are a number of challenges faced by archaeologists in the construction of a unified cyberinfrastructure. Archaeological data is unique in that it is extremely diverse, complex and its standards are usually custom made to fit the theory, region or time period. The diversity of data for a single site can include, but is not limited to, soil samples, stone tools, ceramics, human and faunal remains, paleobotanical remains, radiocarbon dates, dendrochonological dates, historical texts, epigraphy, and even interviews with extant populations. For each type of data, there are thousands of potential attributes and variables that need to be recorded. Single bones in the human body can dozens of measurements, as well as dozens of macroscopic and microscopic variables recorded.
To make this even more complex, the standards of recording these attributes of data vary from person to person based on experience, tradition or education of the persons involved. The guiding theories, regions, type of site and time periods also determine what evidence is pertinent and the variables that will be necessary. The standards for recording and types of data collected at an Iron Age bog burial site in Northern Scotland are vastly different from those at a predynastic domestic house site in Nubia. Data is structured in a way that makes sense for the specific needs of each dig.
The question then is how to bring together these disparate collections of data into a unified network that will make them usable, accessible and meaningful for a wider body of scholars? There are currently two dichotomous answers, though obviously we are not limited to these alone. The first is to create a unified system under which all collections and datasets will be placed into a centralized digital storage location. Materials will be standardized to fit the pre-existing schemes in order to link it to the other datasets. Examples like this include tDAR and ADS. The second is to create interoperable collections which are distributed among numerous storage sites. Each can have their own unique schemes and standards, as long as they are interoperable with the others. This allows for more customization, but requires a stronger system for linking the data. Examples like this include Open Context.
Regardless of how we ultimately decide to construct a cyberinfrastructure for archaeology, we first need to recognize the benefits. A cyberinfrastructure will allow for greater collaboration, greater reuse of primary data, increased scholarly communication, increased research efficiency, and preservation of materials. However, it will require an increased technical knowledge as well as a method for linking disparate sets of data. Luckily for us, technical education is increasingly available and the semantic web is currently a hot topic that made provide a possible solution.
CLIR Report 2011. Rome wasn’t digitized in a day. http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub150/pub150.pdf
Kintigh 2006. The Promise and Challenge of Archaeological Data Integration. American Antiquity 71(3) pp. 567-578