Archaeology 2.0: Open Context Means Deeper Connections to Broader Audiences

First off, I want to thank Jeff for inviting me to share a guest post on this blog. Although I appreciate the medium, I find that between parenthood, endless grant writing and reviewing, and working on Open Context, I’ve got less time than I’d like for blogging.

By background, I’m an archaeologist with a PhD awarded back in 2001. Since then, I’ve been increasingly interested in digital media and in trying to make archaeological research more transparent and open for wider participation. That’s what we’re trying to do with Open Context.


Kansa TeaserWhy Make Archaeology Open?
Archaeology largely financed, either directly (through grants) or indirectly (through historical preservation laws) by the public. Opening up data to wider sharing is a way for the public to see more benefit purchased by their tax dollars.

The benefits to the public are mainly indirect.  I doubt most people, except for the uber-archaeological-nerds out there,  are interested in raw counts of potsherds found in some remote ancient village in Jordan. Instead, the public benefits from greater openness because openness makes research more efficient, with less duplication of effort, and with greater scientific rigor. Making underlying data can open for inspection and reuse enables other researchers to “audit” claims about the past, or reuse old data to make new interpretations. Data sharing makes archaeology a discipline more worthy of trust and better able to address key issues about human history and our relationship to the natural world.


Most researchers would agree that there should be more openness and better stewardship of data. However, time and budgets are tight. Slogging through and cleaning up a messy database is not very fun. Preparing data for sharing is not something that will win you tenure (if you’re an academic archaeologist), or something that will win you the next contract (if you are a commercial archaeologist). The realities of professional life create a lot of inertia that keeps data stuck on the hard-drives of individual researchers, one crash away from irrevocable loss(!). That’s tragic, since archaeology uses inherently destructive methods (excavation). So loss of archaeological data represents a permanent loss of our shared history.

Money is also tight for this kind of work. Archaeological databases are often big, and complicated. It take time and often a lot of information technology expertise to make these suitable for public sharing. While open standards and open source applications now make this much easier and cheaper, it still takes some expensive programming effort to make something work well on the Web.

Working with Open Context

Open Context is very much oriented toward archaeological geeks. We’ve spent most of our time and effort making sure that the data can efficiently flow out of Open Context. The main reason for this emphasis is that we’re sure other people can do more interesting things with our data than we can!

For instance, we work hard at managing archaeological data, but we know we’re not great at presenting this information to the public. That requires other kinds of expertise that we just don’t have. But, by making our data fully available with all sorts of APIs and Web-services and by removing copyright restrictions, we open doors for all sorts of reuse. This enables experts at public presentation to easily repackage and reuse our content in ways that can make better sense to the public. For instance, along with other data formats, Open Context also renders its content in KML, the standard used by Google Earth:

Open Context data in Google Earth, showing animal bones from archaeological sites in the Near East


The public can also get into the act. Using our data is free and requires no special permissions. It does take a little bit (not a lot!) of programming knowledge to make good use of Open Context data. We’re really interested in getting mash-up developers to use our data in creative ways.  Open Context data can be mapped and combined with data from other fantastic open collections such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme,, or even Flickr. You can even use our data in innovative games or mobile applications. All it takes is a little bit of Web-programming skills and a lot of imagination, and anyone can visualize and explore real research data.

If you want a much longer, and more academic discussion of these issues, please see this book that I helped edit: Archaeology 2.0   The book is free and open access, reflecting a growing movement to use technology to make scholarship and learning more open and accessible to everyone.


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