Home > Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, The New Media > Thoughts on Open Context, Omeka and the Digital Revolution in Archaeological Publishing

Thoughts on Open Context, Omeka and the Digital Revolution in Archaeological Publishing

Over the last few days I’ve been exploring the capabilities of Open Context, an open access platform for publishing archaeological data online.  The goal of a platform like Open Context is to enable archaeological projects to publish their data online, using their own data structures, in an environment accessible to other scholars and even subject to a kind of peer review process.  The platform is not limited to simple or highly structured (i.e. tabular) data, but can also accommodate textual data from, say, a field note book and images, drawing, and maps.  So, for example, you can display the data from a particular trench and it will automatically draw up the data from all the stratigraphic units (lots, baskets, whatever) in the trench with the trench notebook, the finds, and any features in the trench or the lot. You could also begin with a particular find and search out all the archaeological contexts from a site or evaluate how frequently a particular class of object appears with a particular type of feature.  The data is queried through Open Context’s “faceted” search capability that will not only allow scholars to search any single set of data online, but also to search multiple data sets online — even if these data sets have significantly different structures.  While I won’t pretend to understand the technical details behind this (it seems to involve something called ArcheoML or Archaeological Markup Language and other things like PHP and RDF which seem very complex), the goal appears to be to allow users through the process of tagging to create data sets that, in effect, mediate between different data organized and articulated in different structures, and to make these tools available and visible to other scholars who might be seeking to do the same thing.  This kind of functionality will make the process of comparing date from different archaeological projects — a task familiar to any archaeologist and central to archaeological research — even more transparent.  Their relatively recent article in Society for Historical Archaeology’s Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology online journal provides a great introduction to this project.  The potential for scholarly publications to link directly to locations in Open Context data sets offers the prospect for unparalleled transparency in archaeological research.

Open Context and other similar platforms (the American School of Classical Studies is seemingly working to develop its own platform to accommodate and integrate the data from the Athenian Agora and the Corinth Excavations) find complements in systems like Omeka, the soon to be released online publishing platform developed by the Center of History and the New Media at George Mason University and the Minnesota Historical Society.  While seemingly not as powerful as Open Context with its ability to integrate complex data sets, Omeka is designed to allow projects to put together in an efficient way online exhibits of images, documents, and other media. 

At PKAP we’ve talked a good bit about making our data available online and considered what tools a scholar would need to make sense of our data sets.  Generally, we have gravitated toward relatively simple (and admittedly low tech) solutions like saving our survey data down to a series of ASCII Comma Separated Value text tables (including descriptive concordances for the codes we’ve employed to standardize our data).  These tables could be read by almost any database or even spreadsheet applications.  This would allow the dissemination of our archaeological “raw” data, but would not easily accommodate various other media like images or narrative sources.  Perhaps a platform like Open Context integrated with an online museum software like Omeka will eventually produce the kind of online data integration and management that would allow us to make our data accessible to a wide range of end-users. 

The only slight Luddite twinge that I feel when I read about all these amazing applications being developed (and this is clearly the historian in me speaking) is a slight nostalgia for the rhetorical grace of “early” archaeological publications.  Scholars like Carl Blegen (and for my period and material Demetrios Pallas), who lacked all these sophisticated data management tools, nevertheless created elaborate and descriptive pictures in words of the context for their sites, the composition and location of deposits, and the relationships between features.  Their skill at description and argument (along with other scholars of his generation) created a genre of archaeological description that for all its weaknesses in technical precision and analytical consistency nevertheless possessed an aesthetic lacking in even the most sophisticated computer applications with their elegant and elaborate data structures (“code is poetry” aside).  The most fluidly structured archaeological research environments only ever approach the flexibility of language even as they seek to integrate and allow for the ambiguity of narrative. 

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