As I compose my final blog post and white paper, I decided to post this edited version of the presentation I gave on the first day of the 2016 institute on August 15, with heartfelt thanks for the support and mentorship received over the week.

My project stems from the genre of the catalogue raisonné, which is a collection of all of the images or objects in a group, annotated and described. For instance it might be all of Jackson Pollock’s known works, or each of Michelangelo’s marble sculptures. It’s typical in art history for a dissertation’s Appendix 1 to be a catalog of monuments or images, usually in a pdf. We don’t necessarily call it a data set, but there it is. Some scholars make a list, others a spreadsheet, some a real database. The “traditional” art historical mission of creating typologies—that is, classifying and labeling art into styles or movements using controlled vocabularies is actually reminiscent of the precise data collection and data-driven inquiry we see in archaeology and social science more broadly.

So this year’s project—the Digital Catalog of Cappadocian Ceiling Crosses—has been to take an appendix from my dissertation—all the known monuments in the region of Cappadocia, in Turkey, that were designed with monumental crosses on the ceilings—and channel the art historical tradition of classifying and identifying images into the digital archaeology practice of an interactive data set.

Updates: My digital project hinged on finishing my dissertation research. I did that. But you can’t conflate “research” or “information” with reusable data. After my defense, I had brief descriptions of about ninety monuments, only three of which were case studies with entire chapters written about them, and learned how to turn those bits of information into measurable data—using  controlled vocabularies where I could, but often having to turn frequent adjectives for cross images into a kind of project-specific controlled vocabulary. For instance, did you know that if there’s a circle or bolt at the center of a cross object, we call that a “boss”? And if there’s a handle at the bottom of a cross object, we call that a “tang.” Part of my task was to decide which attributes to measure, count, quantify.

Also, deciding what not to record as part of the data set became part of the project. I didn’t make notes comparing the monuments to each other. I didn’t go into scholarly debates about dates or iconography. I focused on form, not interpretation. In choosing how to document where each monument has been published, I used a very limited selection of well-known publications instead of providing a full bibliography for each monument. It was eye-opening to notice some concepts that seemed so important in dissertation chapter discussions that played out differently when looking at all ninety monuments.

Decisions made: What to do about images of the monuments? For ones I took myself, I’ll make a thumbnail available with the data set; for others, I will provide a citation of a published image. Decisions about sensitive location data were key: I finally decided to use the valley or town for each monument instead of precise location data for many of them, since some are unlocked or on private property. Much of my work was getting a grasp on best practice, and also taking notes for how to more efficiently collect data in the field and from printed sources as well. An important takeaway from the year is that I have clarified a workflow that I will use next time I go into the field.

The learning process extended beyond my data set, inviting me to not just dabble in digital archaeology as an outsider, but to become a digital archaeologist, to appreciate and take advantage of and produce data-driven research about cultural heritage monuments and objects, and to maneuver between disciplines and fields in humanities and social science.

A lot of this year’s progress consisted on re-learning or at the very least, re-imagining, my own subject areas:

  • Finding ways to link various kinds of work and move between disciplines to look at the broader picture of cultural heritage and material culture.
  • Looking at peer review and reproducibility especially as it relates to data sets about objects or monuments.
  • Looking at ways to visualize data.

This institute also gave a shot of adrenaline to my reflections on identity, jobs, digital archaeology, and pedagogy as I finished grad school. Part of what #MSUdai did was inspire me to accept a job right here in LEADR, so I’m its Assistant Director and based at MSU now, working with the departments of history and anthropology to help professors design assignments that incorporate inquiry into and through technology. The institute has been productive for channeling research methods and experiments into how we can better facilitate students in their research, on the job market, in their own classrooms. Beyond this week, we’re building networks of digital literacies and collaborative exchange.

In a nutshell, I’ve been compiling, curating, and cleaning a data set, which is—let’s be honest—alternately fascinating, boring, gloriously fun, and kind of awful. The project became a litmus test for my own strengths and weaknesses. This past year has been about data literacy—making a million micro-decisions and understanding the granularity involved in clarifying data categories. It has been a clash of messy data and perfectionist tendencies. I had to learn where the path of least resistance was useful and where to think through situations more carefully.

This data set ended up being more academic and less public-friendly than I had envisioned. So I’ll be using the support of a Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant I received from CUNY to find new audiences for these monuments, amping up my social media efforts to tweet photos and resources toward non-academic travelers or history buffs and taking better advantage of the Digital Archaeology Commons.

This institute week is, for me, about assessing data, peer review, and visualizations. I’ve got a data set. Now I need help reviewing and checking data. I need to get it submitted for peer review at Open Context. Then I need to get it ready for KORA so I can learn to use the Matrix Connect plug-in to visualize the data in WordPress. My final project will be the visualized data, and my next steps beyond the institute will be to implement a data collection workflow that streamlines the process for my future work that might be in Cappadocia, or in Black Sea region of Georgia, or Ethiopia, all places where the Byzantine ceiling decoration is noteworthy.

A.L. McMichael
Assistant Director, LEADR
Michigan State University