I think most archaeologists would agree that time gives us perspective. Each day of the intense week in August 2015 of training during the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice at Michigan State University was not just eye-opening, it was deeply revelatory. Topics as seemingly mundane as “digital publishing”—which sounds like a how-to manual for properly formatting and uploading papers—in fact called into question the nature of the academy today and our goals as academics. Just what are we doing, and why? The how-to portions of the workshop were equally astounding, introducing us to a new world of open source data and tools that make the archaeological world and possibilities for understanding it so much grander than before. Given the overwhelming opportunities for better understanding and sharing knowledge, it is daunting to decide on the exactly what to do and smartest way to do it. But reaching for something doable does not mean sacrificing what seemed a dream.
Although I am the person participating in the MSU Digital Archaeology workshop, my efforts are co-planned and co-authored with the staff of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Since 2008, we have implemented The Historic Cherokee Landscapes Project, which investigates Cherokee community resilience and reformation during the 16th through 18th century. This was a period of volatile change in the U.S. Southeast due to warfare, disease, and involvement in global economic networks associated with European colonization. While colonial expansion was profoundly, violently transformative, it also embarked within a much longer Native American political, social, and economic history. Our goals are to understand the nature of these changes through excellent research and then restore this muted or silenced past to the public.Historical evidence shows that Cherokees played critical political and economic roles during the upheaval of 1540-1730, while archaeological evidence is abundant and provides evidence of what tends to be left out of written accounts: the tenor of daily life. Colonial strategies not only tried to contain Native Americans through forced resettlement, but also unsee their very presence by treating land as wilderness, uninhabited, or widowed. This “empty” land was in fact where Native Americans lived, harvested food, and performed other acts of daily life.
Archaeological and archival work is just one step in recovering this past; equally important is organizing and integrating information about regional ecology, town plans, architecture, and activities in different places in a thoughtful and workable manner. The KORA digital repository and publishing platform offers a double solution: secure and customized warehousing of all kinds of data, as well as flexibility to make appropriate portions of that data available to researchers and the general public. The hope is that the kind of work we already do—download photographs, reports, and spreadsheets, etc.—will have a home that gives it a coherence that multiple data “silos” (files stored on a hard drive) do not. A well-conceived and implemented digital repository can be an archive in the best sense (secure, durable, adaptable, and responsive) and not in the worst (the digital equivalent to a dusty box of file folders that may or may not be labeled correctly on the outside). That is a dream worth making real.
But for our goals, a digital repository is not enough. Our challenge is to recover traces of past generations and better recognize the enduring testimony of people who left an indelible record of themselves, their connections to each other, and their role in pivotal historical events whose legacy persists today. This means that to recognize the power of the past in the present requires sharing knowledge. And there’s the real challenge—what is the most relevant way to share knowledge with the people you most want to reach? Russ Townsend, EBCI Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, observed that what is comfortable and familiar to a large proportion of the Cherokee public is a mobile phone application. Most people have cell phones, are used to downloading apps, and make use of their phones as much or more often than computers on a daily basis. What a fantastic dream to have an app that would share with you Cherokee Town names and archaeological and historical discoveries as you took care of shopping, taking the kids to basketball practice, or filling the car with gas. People would see georeferenced “hot spots” in and around Cherokee in a new way by discovering its past.
Many exciting and informative digital resources about Cherokee history are available on the web, such as the Cherokee Nation online history, teaching resources from the UNC School of Education, and even Mount Vernon’s website. An impressive digital resource is Wild South’s interactive map of Cherokee trails and the history and geography of the Cherokee people of Western North Carolina, done by Lamar Marshall with the support of a grant from Google Earth. Accessing these resources is best done with a computer, however. A mobile app would provide a dynamic complement to these other learning opportunities.
Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming.