Slow archaeology & the prestige economy

This blog post is a response to two other blog posts. First, Andre Costopoulos wrote a post entitled “The traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science.” Here is his argument, broken down into outline:

  1. “Archaeologists are traditionally defined by the material they know.” That knowledge is often defined regionally and temporally, e.g. the Late Bronze Age Argolid. These specialists act as gatekeepers to research (permits and grants) and publications. The reputations of these specialists are very important to their professional success.
  2. “It isn’t surprising then, that the road to an open science of archaeology is a slow and fitful one.” This where I disagree with Costopoulos, so I’m going to quote him to make sure I represent his argument faithfully:

Young archaeologists have, naturally, been pushing hard for the opening of databases and for the sharing of raw materials. Recognition by peers for mastery of these is coin of the realm. With some notable exceptions, their senior colleagues have been less eager to open up the vaults.

Whether they consciously realize it or not, the sharing of information is a threat to the prestige and even the livelihood of many established archaeologists, both academic and professional. Their status as keepers of the review process and holders of permits is devalued if the arcane knowledge on which it is founded is widely disseminated and easily available. The impressions on which the judgements of keepers depend are acquired over decades of digging, both literal and figurative. If the information that formed the impressions is suddenly democratized, what power will the clergy hold?

The second blog post I’m responding to is Bill Caraher’s response to Costopoulos. Bill re-interprets Costopoulos’s piece as a critique of “slow archaeology”:

I’ve insisted that slow archaeology depends upon deep familiarity with a site and its material. This kind of knowledge resists the kind of neatly-organized and regimented transparency that is sometimes presented as open science (although, to be fair, open science types have recognized the value of slow data). If we argue that archaeological methods and practices (and the knowledge that it produces) is more similar to craft and communicated through personal networks, apprenticeships, and experience, then it would seem that it is resistant, to some extent, to open science.

My ideas aren’t fully-formed here, so I might be barking up the wrong tree, but I think something important is being elided. Costopoulos talks about data and information. Bill talks about knowledge. But what’s really at stake in specialists defending their turf isn’t data or knowledge (exactly), but rather skill. My friend Kim Shelton could make all of her pottery databases available to me but that wouldn’t make me a specialist in Mycenaean pottery. I wouldn’t know what she knows, I won’t have seen what she’s seen. If I used her databases to write an analytical article about Mycenaean pottery, I wouldn’t be welcomed into the warm embrace of Mycenaean ceramicists. I wouldn’t be one of them. I wouldn’t have their skill or their knowledge, just their data.

I don’t think that open data will really democratize the archaeological academy. To answer Costopoulos’ question, “If the information that formed the impressions is suddenly democratized, what power will the clergy hold?” The answer is: plenty.

I’d suggest that if we want to democratize archaeology, much more important are (1) access to actual archaeological materials (and not just their digital ghosts) and (2) more mentoring on the part of specialists. (1) is clearly a problem in many parts of the world, including the part that I work in (Greece); (2) I think is less of a problem. Most specialists are incredibly giving of their knowledge and willing to train the next generation.


8 thoughts on “Slow archaeology & the prestige economy

  1. nakassis Post author

    One additional comment: my wife points out that many young archaeologists don’t want to spend the time to really learn skills like ceramic analysis because of the lack of strong incentives. You might say that there’s a push to open up data but much less interest in learning the hard-core skills that move the discipline forward.

    1. Kim Shelton

      Yes, totally agree with Sarah, a sensible ceramics specialist after all. Even though I have tons of data open and available for study, I struggle to find young archaeologists who are interested in learning the intense skills necessary to effectively use and correctly interpret the material, especially in context.

  2. Wayne Lee

    Couldn’t agree more; this is why I, with great humor and vicious knife swinging, have been telling you (and Mike and Bill and others) that archaeology is not a science but an art. The skill to which you accurately refer is an art! It requires hands-on training to pass down and in very many ways remains subjective and interpretive. NOT empirical. 🙂

    1. J. Hruby

      It seems to me that archaeology incorporates elements of both science and art (one of my pet peeves is the fact that universities divide departments into humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – there are aspects of what we do in each). Learning many of the technical skills for doing archaeology is not radically different from learning the technical skills for doing forensic science (in many cases, they’re the same skills), or biology (ditto), or geology (ditto again). But there’s also a basic level on which the goal is the understanding of human cultures, which makes us social scientists.

  3. ewg118

    Point #3 in democratizing archaeology is access to the interpretations of data: journal articles, books, etc.

    I think there’s a point that’s being missed here. I certainly agree that a scholar releasing a database of research materials (let’s say, Kim Shelton’s Mycenaean pottery) doesn’t make other potential users of data experts in the analysis of material and interpretation of its context. But, in the hands of experts in other areas like economic or art history, new interpretations might be made in analyzing the material on a larger scale, especially if combined with open datasets of similar pottery from other areas of the Mediterranean or Near East. I think most archaeologists haven’t seen the big-picture implications for open data and open access publishing.

    1. nakassis Post author

      Sure. That wasn’t what Costopoulos was arguing, though, at least how I read him. Where I disagreed with Costopoulos was this: “Their status as keepers of the review process and holders of permits is devalued if the arcane knowledge on which it is founded is widely disseminated and easily available.” I just don’t agree. That’s not to say that widely disseminated data aren’t a useful thing; they are. But they’re not particularly useful in this respect. So saying that they’re useful in some other respect is true, I just don’t think it’s germane to this discussion. (Edited for clarity)

  4. Pingback: Who and what is open archaeological data for? – ArcheoThoughts

  5. Erin Walcek Averett

    I’m glad you wrote this response. There was something bothering me about Costopoulos’ reasoning and I think you hit the nail on the head by underscoring the differences between data/knowledge and skill. I would also disagree with the stereotypical view of senior archaeologists’ as knowledge hoarders – while this might have been true in the past, at least in my limited experience in my own little area, I have found the opposite to be true (that most are more than happy to help train the next generation of archaeologists by sharing their skills and knowledge). The bigger issue of gatekeeping I think is improving the means (i.e. funding) for a more diverse body of young scholars to have sustained access to materials abroad to gain necessary skills. I would also agree that there is a lack of incentivation to specialize – it is obviously necessary and vital to our field, but this is not aligned with the graduate programs, the job market and sometimes not even with the university promotion system. The issue of open data is different one, and still a goal, because ideally in the future that will allow for broader and more original synthesis.


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