måndag 12 maj 2014

Archiving archaeology: Preliminary observations from a stakeholder study

The question of archiving, preserving and providing access to the outcomes of archaeological investigations has received more and more interest during the past decade. Considerable investments have been made in creating technologies, infrastructures and standards for digitalisation, preservation and dissemination of archaeological heritage. In contrast to the technical and infrastructural work, there is very little in-depth empirical research on the consequences, opportunities and implications of digitalisation to archaeological work, the emergence of archaeological knowledge and how it is used by diverse stakeholder groups of archaeological archives.

To gather empirical evidence, I conducted a study of the Swedish stakeholders of archaeological archiving has been conducted under the auspices of the ARKDIS project. A preliminary analysis of the interview records (N=16) of professionals working with archaeological archiving show that there are multiple technical, legislative, conceptual and structural problems that complicate the building, management and use of archaeological archives. The interviewees were chosen on the basis of a combination of selective sampling and snowballing (letting informants to indicate new possible informants).

Perhaps the most pressing problem discussed by all interviewees was the complexity of how  archaeological archiving is organised in Sweden. Archaeological heritage management and fieldwork involves a large number of actors and especially when it come to the management of digital information and primary research data, the responsibilities between different actors including the National Heritage Board, county administrative boards, archaeology contractors and the national and regional museums are not clearly defined. In practice, many actors keep large archives of data and documents and are waiting for someone to tell them what to do with them. A simpler process with clearer responsibilities would undoubtedly make a significant contribution to improving the general situation.

The complexity of the process has another consequence. At the moment, many actors are forced to work in relative silos. It is difficult to know what other stakeholders are doing with the produced documentation and what would be their actual information needs. From this perspective, it would be important to take carefully into account the needs of contractors, different types of researchers, research data curators, regional and national heritage administrators, archivists, finds managers and other stakeholders in the society when revising and developing the archiving and information process in Swedish archaeology. It seems that a shared and more tangible idea of the products and outcomes of archaeological operations and information  together with a clearer idea of customerships (i.e. who needs the information we are producing and how we can provide more meaningful information for other stakeholders) and supply-chain management (the process of producing, managing and using archaeological information in the society) could form a basis for a more robust and meaningful information production, management and archiving process.

In developing this understanding, it seems also relevant to put a special emphasis on how the different institutions and actors are working in practice with the production and management of archaeological information. A certain abstract consensus of the importance of documenting and preserving archaeological information and its significance aspects was shared by all informants, but when the discussion shifted to the everyday practicalities of working with archiving archaeology, the abstract consensus tended to turn to a broad range of not always entirely compatible practices. A finds administrator put specific emphasis on the management of finds, contractor to the practicalities of field work and an archivists on the details of the administrative process in ways that do not necessarily end up in a consistent corpus of records.

These highly preliminary first observations of the interview data will be complemented in the near future and reported in formal and more detailed publications in the near future. Slides and an abstract of a presentation held at the CAA 2014 conference can be found on the web.