RECENT NEWS & UPDATES
This is my final post as a participant in the Institute for Digital Archaeology. This post serves three purposes. First, I announce a resource that I have created to enable digital data collection in archaeology. Second, I want to mention a few of my favorite aspects of the Institute. Finally, I just want to say a few thanks.
First, I announce a new resource for digital data collection in archaeology (see website ). While I initially planned to make something (I didn’t even really know what… an app?), instead I have cobbled together a couple of pre-built, “off-the-shelf” tools into a loose and compartmentalized system. And… because they are all well-supported open source tools they are also 100% free! On the website, I provide a justification for why I chose these tools, criteria for selection and descriptions of the tools. More importantly and even though all of these have low adoption thresholds (that was one of the criteria!), in order to support the testing, adoption and use of these tools in archaeology, I provide documentation on the ins and outs of using these tools. This means that you can be up and running in a matter of minutes (OK, maybe more depending upon download speeds…). In her final post Anne talks about toe-dipping and cannon-balling. My goal here was to suggest tools and provide assistance so that you either can dip your toes or jump right in; either way, I think you will see a big splash. I hope this helps. PLEASE LEAVE FEEDBACK. Please.
Second, I wanted to share two of my favorite aspects of the Institute. One, my colleagues. I have been honored to be part of such an open, collaborative and supportive cohort of insightful and dedicated scholars. I learned much simply from conversations over coffee at breakfast, Thai food at lunch and beers over dinner as I could hope to learn at any organized workshop or talk. Your struggles are as valuable to me as your final products. I want you all to know that I look forward to more conversations over beer, lunch (maybe Mexican this time?), and beer (did I write beer twice?). Two, time. I greatly appreciate the space that participating in this yearlong institution has given me. Without this institute, I think I would be still struggling away trying to put some sort of digital data collection system together in my “spare” time. No, it’s not done (is there such a thing), but the institute and the (dreaded) posts have kept me on track even though dead ends and unexpected turns.
Third, I want to thank the entire faculty. Of course, an especially large “THANK YOU” goes to Ethan and Lynne for putting the Institute together. I have learned so much from the rest of the faculty that I would like to thank them as well for their time and effort, both at the institute weeks at MSU as well as during the year in between. I understand the amorphous, complex, ugly (i.e. coding) world of digital archaeology much better than I ever thought I would. Thank you, Terry, Kathleen, Catherine, Brian, Shawn, Eric, Dan and Christine.
Lastly, a satisfied smile goes out to the NEH for supporting the Institute. Good decision! Amazing results! Just look.
This is my final post for the Institute. I take this opportunity to thank Ethan and Lynne for the chance to participate in the Institute. I am grateful to the faculty and participants for their ideas and support. Collectively, the Institute has been incredibly encouraging and I am thrilled to know experts to whom I can turn to as I further develop my public digital project.
Here I officially introduce MINA | Map Indian Archaeology. MINA is a Web-based platform of archaeological investigations in post-colonial India. It begins to address three key issues in the practice of archaeology:
1) the development of digital methods and practices;
2) the promotion of digital methods and practices through engagement with archaeologists already working in India, and between them and specialists in digital methods who are interested in Indian archaeology;
3) the creation of digital archaeological data that can be further processed, analyzed and interpreted by specialists
While MINA is primarily developed for scholarly research, its broader aims are to encourage both scholarly and public interest in Indian archaeology. To that end, MINA can be reached on a range of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and WordPress. For those interested in collaboration or in further developing MINA, all the code and data are available on Github.
Time to build MINA!
It’s been a little over a week now since the Institute ended. The second meeting was very different from the first because we were all working on our projects while we were in Michigan. We had informative lectures in the morning about a variety of topics then worked on our projects in the afternoon. It was really great to sit in a room full of people who were making things that didn’t previously exist. It was a week of intensely focused work and it was incredible! It was honestly an inspiration to work with such a positive, productive group. Although everyone worked on their own project it felt like we were working as a team. We helped each other out by listening and trouble-shooting together and we shared our experiences of successes and failures. The second meeting forged long-term friendships and partnerships that will continue even though the Institute is over. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone – I miss all my friends and the amazing team we formed.
As far as my project goes, I’m continuing to work towards the launch. I hoped it would be ready to share at this point, but I’ve hit some snags. Although my project hasn’t launched, I’ve accomplished a lot since my last post. All my individual artifact photos are ready. While this might not sound like a big accomplishment, it took many hours of removing the background from photos, putting in a new black background and a digital scale, and making images that show both the front and back of the artifact. I think it’s about 45 photos. I also created half of the RTI videos. This involved recording my computer screen while I manipulated RTI software, annotating important features on the tools, and then editing the video. They’re each 30-40 seconds long and show closeups of cut marks and usewear under different lighting conditions. I started experimenting with Sketchfab and getting the 3D models ready to share. Sketchfab is an excellent platform and I’ve enjoyed learning how to use it. The text for the website is done. All I have left to prepare are a few group photos of artifacts, finish the RTI videos, and finish up the 3D content. At launch the virtual museum will feature socketed bone points, composite bone fishhooks, bone fish gorges, shark teeth tools, sawfish teeth tools, ceramics, wooden shafts from inside the socketed bone points, and a possible wooden pole.
I’m waiting to hear back about the status of my website proposal, but I’m hopeful the material will be up soon. After putting so much work into this, I’m very excited to share it with the world. I think the museum will be great for members of the public who are interested in archaeology or the past, for students conducting research online, and for other archaeologists working with bone tools. My primary goal was to create an educational narrative about the archaeological site and collections through an immersive digital environment. The content I’ve created will definitely achieve that goal. Once the website is up and running, I’ll begin the process of adding a second set of artifacts to the museum. Like the initial set of artifacts, this set will have high-quality photos, RTI videos, 3D content, and informative text. Although the Institute is coming to an end, I feel like my project is just about to take off.
Thank you to the staff and participants in the Institute. It has been a truly remarkable experience.
Welcome to Maya world, underwater archaeological research on ancient Maya wooden architecture preserved in a peat bog below the sea floor in a shallow, salt-water lagoon on the coast of Belize, Central America: http://underwatermaya.com. Join me in the discovery and mapping of the underwater wooden structures and the other salt water-logged wooden and pottery artifacts. To really experience the research, you can watch video clips of snorkeling archaeologists and see building construction wood and artifacts in 3D. Currently, the web site provides an overview of 10 years of underwater Maya research in Paynes Creek National Park, and features one of the underwater sites, Paynes Creek Salt Work 74. Have a look at the map and click on the link for an interactive GIS map showing the wooden posts that form the outlines of two wooden buildings and a line of palmetto palm posts. Wondering why the sites are underwater? My colleagues, students and I did sediment coring and analyses of the mangrove peat, as you can read about in the “blog” page. (Stay tuned for updates) Low-lying areas world-wide are subject to inundation by sea-level rise, so the Paynes Creek Salt Works—once on dry land but submerged by sea-level rise—provide a sobering reminder of the effects of global warming. Check out articles via the publications link on the bottom of the first page.
One of the faculty mentors at the MSU Digital Institute on Archaeology Method and Practice said that I had achieved my project goals of creating a web page with open source GIS, text and images, 3D scans allowing me to take control of the digital creation and communication of the Underwater Maya project. Yes, I achieved my basic goals, but the digital journey continues! I have so much to learn, but the Institute pushed me to learn some skills, knowledge, and confidence to continue to strike out on my own and work with my new digital community of Institute colleagues. I am incorporating new digital approaches in teaching and research with undergraduate and graduate students. My student DIVA Lab scientists are already digitally ahead of the curve with 3D scanning and 3D printing (see http://site74.underwatermaya.com/DIVA_Lab.html). See some students Maya research featured on the web site: http://site74.underwatermaya.com/blog.html.
Still, I wondered how I was going to put my data on a web site and have a “digital project” for the August 2016 Institute meeting at MSU. With much enthusiasm and advice at the 2015 summer Institute, I had purchased a web site name on a web-hosting service. I also uploaded WordPress, a commonly used program for web sites. With the approach of my 2016 summer field season and the angst that I had not made the leap to the Internet, I made some decisions: I started coding in html and CSS on Notepad++. Being able to run the code and see what the web site would look like was initially very satisfying. I did more reading, looking at designs of various web sites, U-Tube videos, and thinking and wondering. The stress of impending summer field research, forced me to make decisions and lists.
The MSU Digital Institute on Archaeology Method and Practice transformed the way I am able to do archaeology and I am grateful beyond words to Ethan Watrall and Lynn Goldstein for organizing and leading the Institute (http://digitalarchaeology.msu.edu/about/) , to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding their grant, to the Institute faculty mentors who shared their digital expertise and dove into the quagmire of our digital projects (see http://digitalarchaeology.msu.edu/faculty/), and to my fellow participants and colleagues in this ongoing digital adventure. Their projects are impressive and innovative, and yes, are forging new pathways in digital archaeology (see updates at http://digitalarchaeology.msu.edu/news/). For me, the digital door has opened and there is no turning back!
The Underwater Maya archaeological research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, Archaeological Institute of America, Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Inc., and Louisiana State University and accomplished with a team of current and former LSU students and faculty collaborators. Stay tuned for web updates!
Wrapping up the details for publication of my data in Open Context and pulling together the interpretive content to demonstrate the value of that data occupied most of my thoughts, if not most of my time, over the summer.
Negotiating with Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) administrators over the intellectual property licenses for the published data and images was not as straight forward as I expected. Providing open access to the data did not pose any problems; MNHS was already sharing collections metadata with the Digital Public Library of America under a CC0 license. The images did present a problem though because selling copies of collections images provides revenue to MNHS. I had to make a case that archaeology documentation photos constituted a separate class.. Eric Kansa provided a helpful explanation of the differences between Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike and Attribution Share-Alike, Non-commercial licenses for this case that ultimately won the day. I was able to secure a CC BY-SA license but it only applies to the Fort Snelling collections images.
I really enjoyed working with my partner Dr. Kathryn Hayes and her students over the last year. They created some wonderful resources for Fort Snelling research but an analysis of my sample data was not one of them. A number of factors conspired against us – the primary one being the publication process took longer than I planned. By the time the records were available, spring semester had ended. I tried to offset this problem by sending them a spreadsheet containing a version of the data before they were published but, because working with legacy data is time consuming, this was still not sufficient for their needs. In the end, the part of project designed to demonstrate the analytical value of the data was not possible. The good news is we are just getting started with our collaboration. Dr. Hayes made Fort Snelling her new research area. Over the next year I will have more (and better) data for her to work with, and we are both inspired by Barbara Voss’ “Curation as Research” approach to working with legacy collections.
I finally sat down to start building my proof-of-concept website in late June. When reviewing the Codecadamy tutorials I completed last summer, I quickly realized that I did not have enough time left to get up to speed on the skills I needed. I decided to call in the cavalry. A family member who is a programmer, Will Buck, helped me get my site up and running in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning – including the Open Context API I needed to display the artifacts! Before meeting with him, I used PowerPoint to create a storyboard to map out the content elements I wanted to include. The storyboard also served as a wireframe when we constructed the site.
I met regularly with education and interpretive staff at MNHS throughout the year to find out what they wanted. They asked for something that would work equally well on a desktop computer in a classroom and on a mobile device at the historic site. I used a Bootstrap Cascading Style Sheet template for the website to ensure that the display would look good in both environments. Because interpretive materials for MNHS programs have to be reviewed and sanctioned, I had to design my site for demonstration purposes only. I decided to use my GitHub account because anyone can look at it and fork the code but it is pretty obscure.
The web site we created starts with artifacts as a “hook” to draw visitors into a given topic. It takes advantage of resources MNHS already has but under utilizes, it gives a new context for existing online resources, and it takes advantages of public interest in archaeology. The role of music in the military turned out to be a rich avenue to explore through archaeology. The Short Barracks assemblage, which was my test case, had a fragment from a drum and some keys from an unidentified instrument. As I learned more about different types of music and its functions in the 19th Century US military, I realized I had to find an expert who could identify the kind of instrument the keys came from. An interpreter put me in touch with an historical wind instrument specialist who pinned the possibilities down to a couple of band instruments. This meant I had artifacts representing two different kinds of music in my sample data set. Fort Snelling already had a community built around a volunteer fife and drum corps, so I knew there was an interest in this topic. My website works as both an onsite and offsite visitor tool. Users can listen to military music, examine artifacts and excavation photographs, and explore relevant historic documents.
Thanks to the help I got from many quarters over the year, I was able to bring a completed website to the final week of the Institute: “Explore Fort Snelling Artifacts,” https://hoffmannbh.github.io.
I added more robust code to the API function while working with Eric Kansa and Sarah Rowe during the week in East Lansing. Eric also found a conversion function for an odd standard used by the University of Minnesota students when they digitized and geo-referenced excavation maps from the fort. I was able to add latitude and longitude points to my published data set once the original points were converted. I also realized I had the opportunity to ask for help with transcription of the original paper catalogs describing the Fort Snelling collections. I had already calculated that, at the rate we were going, the transcription would not be finished in the next year. Daniel Pett took a set of catalog scans and created a project in MicroPasts to help us complete this work.
Going forward, I am working toward publishing the entire Fort Snelling restoration research excavations data set. I have also started the process of talking with web content creators at MNHS to discuss how my project fits with institutional goals and initiatives. I plan to give at least one talk about my project in the next month to any interested staff. I will use my proof-of-concept site to cultivate advocates who understand the value of incorporating archaeological materials into an interpretive narrative. Because MNHS is looking to revise and expand its current interpretation of Fort Snelling, this is a great time to work with content development staff to ensure they are aware of the ways archaeological evidence can enrich those stories, even if they do not chose to use my project in its current form.
I passionately believe that the value of archaeology collections and research data lies in their use. Digital access enhances opportunities to make collections useful and I have tried to make sure I know about and use the best tools and practices to serve that end. It isn’t easy though. In larger museums, collections management and public interpretation don’t usually fall within the purview of the same department, let alone the same person. I jumped at the chance to participate in the Institute because I wanted to expand my knowledge and skills in both of these areas. I did learn to use some new tools – GitHub and Open Refine will help me do my job better and I couldn’t be more pleased to have contributed to the web of linked open data. More importantly however, I learned how to ask for assistance from a variety of sources. Working on a project for the Institute gave me an excuse to call upon, not only my mentors, but other helpful and generous people as well.
Wading into the gritty details of any project teaches you how to solve problems you don’t think about in the planning stages. In my case, intellectual property negotiations played a bigger role than I expected and I largely failed at fostering any kind of research. Every Institute participant who faced down a challenge modeled tactics and solutions for everyone else – and we got to see a lot of them. I feel more confident about taking on anything digital now that I know more about the ups downs of every project. Best of all, I have a great network of colleagues to call upon for support and who I hope will call upon me.
I am experiencing a bit of a philosophical conundrum. How can something end, when it feels like it is just the beginning? In my case, I started, then I stopped, then I started again. And now it’s over, but I am going. The conundrum deepens, as I have a launchless launch. Yet I have a thing—a project—and completed elements of that project. Oddly enough, the project and the elements are exactly what I dreamed of. In fact, they reach well beyond what I had imagined. For the time being, however, the thing (that does exist!) has to remain invisible (in that it is not yet ready for public consumption). It is a lesson in delayed gratification for me, for my research partners, and for the potential audiences of the project.
The MSU DAI plan was excellent, but even the best laid plans cannot keep some, like me, on track. My first (alpha) post outlined my goal to create:
• A digital repository of archaeological and historical data suited to Tribal Historic Preservation Office management needs (using KORA)
• A phone app that would allow users to learn and experience Cherokee heritage through geographic “hot spots” (using mbira)
• mbira would also provide the web interface for a desktop version of the Cherokee landscape
I started the intervening year with every intention of meeting deadlines, but the best intentions can go awry. My success was in proselytizing about the Institute to whoever would listen, whenever, and referring different researchers to DAI faculty when it seemed like a good connection. It became even clearer as the year progressed how important landscape repatriation was to many Native American/First Nation communities. A quick perusal of the talks given for the Radcliffe Institute-Harvard Native American Program conference “Native Peoples/Native Politics” shows how consistently vital the land is as a point of origin for Native communities. Land is the site and embodiment of generations of legal travesties, memory, beauty in enduring practice, poetic semantic positioning, and brutal struggle. The enthusiasm of indigenous community members for digital enlivening of the native landscape through something as simple yet powerful as a phone app is an exciting possibility.
My greatest failure was in regular work and communication. The discussion boards, mentorship affiliations, and consistent communication from DAI faculty were all reasonable ways to keep projects going. Looking back, I wonder where the year went! No matter my personal or other professional demands, I should not have let them derail consistent, steady efforts. So, I have some regrets, as I realize that in upcoming work I will be implementing many tools, methods, and environments presented in training sessions and deployed impressively by the other DAI fellows in their projects. It would have been much easier to get my sea legs during the institute than after.
But, here’s the beauty of the Institute: we are all now, and can bring in others into, to a large, vibrant, supportive community. Perhaps the clearest message of all of the DAI training is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Most anything we can dream of is out there, or at least parts of it, and others will help in different ways and to different degrees to put it together, as that help makes it possible for others make living the thing, the activity, the experience that they dream of. The sharing of methods, ideas, and tools shatters any possibility of knowledge being a zero sum game.
During the Institute’s week of meetings of the second year (August 2016), I rode the rollercoaster of imagining perfectly logical but rarely realized ways of presenting and experiencing archaeological data, working with Shawn Graham especially on fiddling with ways to make it come together, and alternate waves of joy, satisfaction, and heartbreak in learning how to use new programs and platforms (Meshlab, SketchUp, and Sketchfab).
Although the 3D model of the archaeological site of the Cherokee Mother Town of Cowee knitted together imagery from Ground Penetrating Radar, magnetometry, and resistivity surveys with high quality photogrammetry of the topography, the final product can stand some considerable improvement. But, the model is a thing (with all of its Latourian implications), doable, revisable, shareable.
My work with KORA ended up being focused on building projects, areas, locations, and explorations within mbira. Right now, the supported file types are images, with plans for other kinds of file types and the ability link online data. The advantage, however, is that archaeology is an immanently graphic way of understanding the world, so maps, images of artifacts, and depictions of work in progress are all part of the Digital Cherokee Landscape project. The only snag that I encountered with mbira was that I learned that Cherokee syllabary can break programs that are not UTF-8 compliant. That problem, however, was fixed midway through the Institute week to the syllabary’s benefit. The narrative that accompanies each image brings within easy reach information that is typically buried within site reports, as pdfs, or are scattered among numerous digital repositories of federal, state, and private institutions. The project as a whole demystifies archaeology by showing the methods, their results, and how we interpret them. Altogether, the project endeavors to unveil the Cherokee landscape that is obscured or minimized today.
In the future, my hope is that First Landscapes will grow with the participation of other Native communities. The flexibility of mbira allows for these experiences to be built to share what these communities want, in their way. The current view of First Landscapes (firstlandscapes.matrix.msu.edu) says, appropriately enough, “hello world.” This may be the final (omega) blog post, but truly marks the beginning. To paraphrase the first line of the Polyglot Psalter (1516:1), in our own times by the wonderful enterprise of the Michigan State University Digital Archaeological Institute faculty and fellows and the generous funding of the National Endowment of the Humanities, another world has been added to the digital humanities community.
My project, Virtual Valdivia, is an online repository of ceramics pertaining to the Valdivia culture (ca. 4400-1450 BC) of coastal Ecuador. The project developed as outgrowth of my dissertation research, which examined variation in ceramic assemblages at multiple Valdivia sites. This inter-site comparison was the first of its kind undertaken for this period. Generally, analyses are limited to single sites, and contained within the pages of site reports or theses. This limits researchers’ ability to make robust conclusions about social processes in the past. While I published my database and ceramic images in my dissertation (which is available online as a free download), I did not ultimately feel that this was a sufficient expression of my goals of data-sharing and data-accessibility. The Virtual Valdivia project was conceived as a way of making my data (and hopefully the data of others in the future), as widely accessible as possible.
There are two tangible outcomes of my participation in the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method & Practice: First, an open-access database of Valdivia ceramics, hosted on Open Context (https://opencontext.org/projects/d3bed915-947d-4c1a-8c9a-b7723f03d21a); Secondly, a website that serves as an interface for archaeologists and others to access the database (http://sarahmrowe.github.io/Virtual_Valdivia/), hosted on GitHub.
The Virtual Valdivia database on Open Context includes 403 records, ceramic rim sherds from my dissertation excavations at the site of Buen Suceso. Each record has information on 29 variables, which are described in detail within the data set (a 26-page PDF of this documentation is included on the Virtual Valdivia website). Ultimately, all information currently in Open Context in English will also be available in Spanish.
The website consists of parallel page construction in both English and Spanish. From the home page, visitors can navigate to an “About” page that explains the rationale and background of the project, as well as some general information about the Valdivia culture and its general social developments through time. This page also links to a brief bibliography of relevant sources, to provide the interested visitor with further reading. From the “Data” page, the visitor can navigate to the database on Open Context, download a .csv file of the data, or use customized search fields to browse different portions of the collection. Results are returned right within the webpage, and individual records are linked to the Open Context database. I am inordinately happy about this search page, and hope users find it useful.
For those interested in reading about specific project components, as well as my challenges along the way, I encourage you to browse through my previous blog posts.
While this post serves as my official project launch, I was just so excited with my project progress that I couldn’t help but announce the project before I left the Institute. That announcement has been shared more than ninety times on Facebook and garnered thousands of views. Google Analytics records nineteen unique sessions in the first week after the project launch. While it is unclear what this means in terms of actual engagement with the data, I view this as a very promising sign of interest in the database and desire for such open and accessible work.
The Virtual Valdivia data set, hosted on Open Context, still requires some additional work, mostly in the area of translation. Spanish labels will be matched to English labels, and variable descriptions in Spanish will be included as well. Some additional work is necessary to finalize the variable descriptions, including the addition of figures. The database will undergo peer-review once these tasks have been completed.
In the long-term, I am actively working to include other scholars in the Virtual Valdivia database. Including their data in an open and accessible format is essential for reducing the siloed nature of grey literature (site reports, theses, etc.) and building more robust interpretations of past life. The database will continue to focus on Valdivia ceramics, but future developments may include other material types in this database.
With the culmination of our year of digital archaeology, what have I ended up with? To recap my original goals:
- digital reconstruction of Natchez
- interactive console
I have ended with two out of four of my goals. Most of my time throughout this year was spent with the digital reconstruction; if I had to provide any advice, it would be to focus in on a small area! While there are things that are useful about having such a large area reconstructed, it has certainly taxed the resources of the computers I have been using and it has made small edits turn into laborious time sinks. With that said, the fact that I did choose to do a larger area, even if it was naive, has meant that I can provide a larger view of colonial Natchez.
Broutin Flyover from ArchDigger on Vimeo.
Along with this flythrough, I wrote a voiceover that I was able to record over the video, providing some historical background to the recreation. I also managed to get a website off the ground (rebuildingnatchez.matrix.msu.edu); because I am primarily seeking to provide limited information related to Natchez I was able to work with a WordPress platform. I still have some content to add to my website, specifically putting together infographics relating to the maps used in my recreation and exploding the choices that went into making French colonial architecture. I will also be adding tabs that provide Additional Information and Places to Visit, with the idea that the people who are interested in my flythough may want to learn more about the history and archaeology of the Mississippi/Louisiana area.
What were my failures? I don’t have an interactive console and I don’t have a choose-your-own-adventure. While most of us in the Institute had our moments where we realized we bit off more than we could chew and needed to retool, I still feel these failures somewhat acutely. I think it is because I still believe that they were worthy and creative ideas. Showing my flythrough to people in Natchez during the tricentennial celebrations and seeing their reactions did make me feel better about deciding to stick (for now) to the flythrough. That aspect of my project, on its own, does have the ability to draw people in to this history. I am also not entirely giving up these goals. With the help of a friend, I am still going to work on a first-person implementation of my landscape that can be shared via WebGL on my website. For that, I’ll continue to work on a splashscreen and interactive popups that provide information about the different areas of Natchez. I also am not giving up on the choose-your-own-adventure. I think Twine is still the best option for this and I plan to continue working within that medium to create an informative “game” that helps people to understand how we create reconstructions with the limited information we have available.
So what are my takeaways from this past year? I have certainly come away from this project, and the projects of everyone else involved, with an even greater sense of the possibilities that digital approaches can offer. I have also been reminded that we are our own worst critics – I think this is especially true when it comes to reconstruction. When you are a party of one (or a few), it’s something of a pipedream to attempt to create or release something that is “perfect.” And other people aren’t nearly as worried about so-called imperfections. Instead, I feel strongly that there is as much (if not more) value in being open with our projects in progress, as that allows for the most important part – getting the information out there. I hope to take these lessons forward with me as I finish my dissertation and start my own career – one digital step at a time.
Lastly, I can’t thank everyone involved with the Institute on Digital Archaeology Methods and Practice enough. Everyone involved – faculty and workshop participants – gave so freely of their time and knowledge that it made this a unique experience for me. I’ve come away from all of this with so much more than I started, and it’s certainly an experience I wont forget.
The Monumental Archive Project launched officially last week as the culmination of the Digital Archaeology Institute at Michigan State University. One year ago, almost to the day, I penned the first MAP blog (and in fact, one of my first blogs ever). One Heritage Jam entry, one hackathon, and many a blog later, I have coded, hacked, failed, succeeded, tweeted, and cobbled together a number of digital things. In many ways, it has been so full of endings, beginnings and progressing on so many levels that I hardly know where to start when I am asked to summarise the year. From finishing my PhD to starting three new academic jobs (most recently at the University of Victoria, BC), the experiences of hacking, failing, succeeding and cobbling of the digital world seem to have leached into all part of my life.
One way or another, the Monumental Archive Project came together. Initially proposed as an approach to the long-standing problem of inaccessible, uncoordinated and non-standardised recording of cemetery data, and the increasingly ‘at-risk’ status of many historic cemeteries, MAP was developed to act as an open access platform for researching the dead, their monuments, and the churchyards/cemeteries associated with them.
Although original plans had included formal archiving of the data for long-term sustainability and preservation, institutional shifts (#AcademicNomad) made acquiring funding for this project problematic and therefore limited the project to open source and free applications. The redesigned project is nonetheless a testament to what can be built quickly and without any money – which in and of itself feels like success. Built using Github’s free hosting options, alongside Bootstrap templates, Mapbox interactive maps, and a WordPress-based blog, the website came together as a user-friendly, adaptable and scaleable point through which data can be accessed.
The launch of MAP was done with a pilot project of more than 2000 monuments, from more than 20 locations in Barbados, which had been collected during the course of my PhD project. This felt particularly relevant as my fieldwork regularly demonstrated the international audience for these records, as I bumped into individuals from the US, French Guiana, the UK, and other corners of the world looking for the monuments of their ancestors. Social media (follow us on Twitter!) and the blog have also been utilised to spread the word to diverse audiences, and will continue to be developed in coming months.
Although initial goals were scaled back to what was achievable this year, unfortunately relinquishing goals of formal digital archiving, in future it is hoped that current funding applications will result in the ability to grow a more sustainable version of this project. Digital archiving alongside opportunities for external contributions to the data set will help to contribute to goals to encourage open access data, collaboration, and comparative research.
In reviewing the other ‘launch’ blog posts by fellow DAI attendees, and reflecting on the past year, there is a strong sense of beginnings. These capstone projects are in many ways baby steps en route to bigger visions (many of which we naively thought we could achieve this past year). Many of us also have spinoff projects, upcoming conference presentations and publications, new ideas, and even new courses on digital archaeology. The impact of the Digital Archaeology Institute will emerge over the years, and hopefully MAP will likewise have a long-term role in inspiring and stimulating new digital approaches to cemetery studies.
Acknowledgements: A special thank you to the organisers of the Digital Archaeology Institute at Michigan State University and all of the mentors who offered endless support and guidance, both regarding MAP but also extending to include academic mentorship more generally, for which I can only express my deepest gratitude!
Having had the privilege to work with a remarkable group of collegial and creative people through the Digital Archaeology Institute (DAI), I’ve observed a continuum of styles that I’ve come to think as “cannon ballers” and “toe dippers.” Cannon ballers fearlessly plunge themselves into the digital deep end, reveling in the splash and fun of messing about. Toe dippers approach digital waters cautiously, wading in, reaching waist level only after prolonged acclimation. I am definitely a toe-dipper in the rising tide of digital methods, and in this last DAI post I reflect on some lessons learned and “had I knowns.” After a short recap of “Banda thru Time” project aims, I look back on the downside of some toe-dipping decisions so that others might avoid the eddies that compromised our project progress along the way.
Project Background: The seed that became the “Banda thru Time” project was sown during a 2011 visit to the Banda area where we’ve long worked to engage local communities through our research. During that visit we launched a series of informational posters summarizing what we’ve learned through historical and archaeological investigations of how local people navigated global entanglements over the last 1000 years. In developing the posters I sought permission from University of Washington art historian Dr. Rene Bravmann who had worked in the area in the late 1960s to include images from his archive. This included one of a Banda paramount chief who had reigned from 1936 until his death in 1977. The 2011 Banda Cultural Centre event was well-attended by community members who were particularly interested in the poster’s historic images. I took note of young people using their phones to take pictures of these and of their expressed interest in having these materials available “on line.” This prompted a commitment to developing digital Banda heritage resources that could be accessed by community through an electronic repository.
Project Activities & Focus: Our DAI project was envisioned as a means to begin digitally repatriating heritage resources to audiences in Ghana and to introduce both local and nonlocal audiences to the area’s rich history. I was aided in this project by a University of Victoria internal SSHRC grant that supported travel to consult with colleagues who had previously worked in the Banda area and to fund a graduate student assistant (GA), Veronique Plante, who collaborated in developing “Banda thru Time” resources.
To date, more than 800 color slides and over 60 black-and-white negatives focused on “people and places” have been scanned as high-resolution TIFF files. We’ve also collated a series of documents and other heritage resources with the aim of making these available in digital formats through a web-accessible repository. In June 2016 I visited Banda where I consulted with Omanhene Nana Kwadwo Tsito and members of his traditional council, Queen Mother (Ohemaa) Lelɛɛ Akosua Kepefu and her elders, alongside other community leaders, regarding the focus and content of the repository and web portal. Building on those conversations, we’ve developed three pilot digital entities: a Banda Thru Time web page (bandathrutime.com) that introduces the area to broader audiences and describes some of what we’ve learned through historical and archaeological investigations of the region’s dynamic history; an affiliated Banda Thru Time Digital Heritage Resources web page (bandathrutime.matrix.msu.edu) through which digital objects housed in the KORA repository can be accessed; and a KORA repository of digital objects (images, documents, posters) and associated metadata that can be called up through the digital heritage resources web page.
What this toe-dipper has learned:
—Project management. People will tell you to have a plan and a well-conceived work flow. They’re not “whistling dixie.” Have a plan and a work flow and periodically review it. Had we had a more specific and detailed project management plan, particularly with regard to work flow, we would have saved countless hours devoted to regrouping after having gone too far down a particular task stream before discovering an issue or problem. A couple of examples illustrate the point. First, we should have incorporated more timely quality control/review into all of our processes. In the case of scanning, it didn’t become clear until well on in the scanning process that a considerable number of our slides and negatives had been scanned in reverse, requiring that scanned photos be individually flipped before they could be used. So too would we have benefitted from researching more thoroughly some of our decisions regarding which digital tools to use. I didn’t take full enough advantage of all the helpful advice and tips that can be accessed through simple web searches; had I done so, we might have made some better choices along the way.
—Adopt an iterative approach as you build your digital project so that you can make alternative choices if needed and take advantage of choices made to limit repetitive tasks. As an example, engage in play before you commit to a template in order to discover its benefits and limitations. Figure out your layout parameters, play with them and take advantage of cloning options so that you are not faced with laborious page editing to bring consistency to your layout.
—“Fast and easy” is a strategy that may save time in the short run but may compromise longer-term goals. In good toe-dipping fashion, I opted for the ‘easy’ route of building a web page hosted on my university’s online academic community domain using Divi Theme for WordPress. Divi is described as an easy to use “advanced page builder” that lets you build “dynamic pages without learning code” (http://athemes.com/reviews/divi-theme-review/). True enough, but the “had I known” moment came when I realized how the theme limited our ability to include creative use of then/now image stories using a tool like Juxtapose (https://juxtapose.knightlab.com/) which we couldn’t get to work with Divi. So too did I experience the template’s limitations when I tried to export my content into a new theme, learning first-hand what blogger Chris Lema writes about in his Divi review (http://chrislema.com/divi-theme-forever/). All that ease of use results from copious and idiosyncratic shortcode that can only be removed through laborious editing. Over the course of our recent DAI gathering, I came to wish that I’d had the courage to “cannonball” by opting to fork a GitHub web template which would have had a steeper learning curve but offered greater long-term flexibility.
—Seek advice early and often. Digital librarians are your friends. IT people may seem like your enemies but they are founts of information and can be allies and sources of ‘work arounds’ when you discover the limitations of your particular institution’s hosting and platform policies. Reward them with thanks and maybe even a gift of your homemade jam.
Cannon ballers need no exhortations. But a word of encouragement to fellow toe-dippers: come on in. Though bracing, digital waters hold considerable promise to refresh your approach, push you to share your insights in new ways and to new ends, and indeed to generate fresh insights along the way. Enjoy learning from our DAI struggles, false starts, and successes, and then go on to learn and share from some of your own.
Alongside thanks to the NEH-funded DAI and its faculty, to Banda community members and leaders, and to fellow DAI participants, I thank you for following our journey, and now I hope you’ll take some time to explore our newly “launched” (if still in development!) web site (bandathrutime.com) and repository portal (bandathrutime.matrix.msu.edu) and to revisit them periodically as we continue to grow Ghana’s digital heritage resources.