A new approach to digital heritage and archaeology
We’ve entered a golden age in which digital methods and computational approaches have opened exciting new avenues for research, management, documentation, preservation, access, and public engagement in archaeology and heritage. Infrastructure is cheaper and more accessible; software and services are easier to use and more useful; methods and models are more broadly shared and better understood.
Despite this, the use of digital approaches in archaeology and heritage have remained largely segregated into the realm of the methodological specialist. This is not terribly surprising. As with many specialized methods in archaeology and heritage, digital methods and computational approaches require training that is mostly outside of the traditional scope that students and many professionals receive. It’s also fair to say that many digital approaches (especially the ones that are a little more sophisticated) can seem completely unapproachable and foreign to those who don’t have any existing experience.
So, what do we do?
For the past 10 years or so, we’ve been trying to address this question at Michigan State University. Through a constellation of programs (both curriculum and extracurricular), initiatives, labs, and projects, we’ve sought ways to build capacity in students, scholars, and professionals who want to gain the necessary skill and experience to apply digital methods and computational approaches to their work. More importantly, however, this work has also sought to develop and nurture communities in which students and scholars are connected through a shared perspective on digital methods and thoughtful application of these methods. Chief among these initiatives has been the Cultural Heritage Informatics Graduate Fellowship Program, the Department of Anthropology Digital Heritage Fieldschool and the National Endowment for the Humanities funded Institute for Digital Archaeology Method & Practice. These have all been supported in one way or another by permanent labs or centers at Michigan State University including the Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research, the Digital Heritage Imaging & Innovation Lab, and MATRIX: The Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences.
It’s important to note that these programs really aren’t about building capacity around specific software, services, or solutions. Instead, they all place a high premium on the use of open source software and services, the production and consumption of open data (where appropriate), and the release of open source code and software.
So, what exactly have we learned through these constellation of programs and initiatives? Well, lots. We’ve learned that there is incredible value in building things – real things. All of the initiatives and projects have challenged the participants to envision, build, and launch projects that use real content and data, have specific outcomes, and address the needs of a real audience. The argument here is that learners acquire a far better understanding of tools, technologies, platforms, and systems through actual development. The added benefit is that participants also have the opportunity to make a tangible and potentially significant contribution to the heritage and archaeological community.
We’ve also learned that there is immeasurable value in learners gaining experience with digital tools by taking a decidedly experimental approach and reaching their hands into the innards and poking, prodding, and changing things to see what happens. This is particularly relevant when learners are working with existing code (as opposed to building something from scratch). Being able to change something small and run the code to see what happens, is a powerful way of figuring out how something works and how it can be modified.
Probably the most important things we’ve learned (and is now inextricably baked into just about everything we do here at Michigan State University relating to capacity building in digital heritage and archaeology), however, is that these kinds of efforts stand a far better chance of succeeding if they exist within a culture of generosity. This is not something that happens by chance. It is something that must be engineered, fed, and fostered. Ultimately, if there is one single, clear lesson to be learned from our work on digital heritage and archaeology at Michigan State University is the importance of an environment in which people are social, they teach each other, and are generous with their expertise, their experience, their code, their data, their tools, and their time.
You can access Ethan Watrall’s article free of charge for a limited time in the latest issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice.