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Dr Bruce Routledge
University of Liverpool
International Fellowship

Reusing and rethinking archaeological data

“Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing.”

– Archaeology W.H. Auden 

Collecting artefact data in Dhiban, Jordan

Archaeologists face at least two problems when it comes to data. On the one hand, our data are famously fragmentary, ambiguous and scarce. On the other hand, we tend to view archaeological data as a non-renewable resource that must be conserved; a unique record of fellow human beings that is destroyed in the process of its collection (“excavation = destruction”, we like to say). As a result, archaeologists regularly collect data that they themselves will never use, and use data they did not collect. Sometimes these data are detailed and robust, sometimes they are rather poor; perhaps a century old and collected by methods and for purposes that were long ago abandoned. For archaeologists ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ when it comes to data.

So how do archaeologists stabilise these data and make them mobile so as to move between very different research contexts, questions and programmes? Thanks to a Leverhulme International Academic Fellowship I will address these issues in conjunction with the philosopher Professor Alison Wylie of the University of British Columbia. Our project Reusing and rethinking archaeological data will examine: 1) shared data collection, description and re-inscription practices in archaeology that facilitate data mobility; 2) practices that transform data for the purposes of reuse (e.g. data ‘cleaning’; standardisation of ontologies, creation of meta-data), paying particular attention to the tension between ‘big data’ and the context dependence of data; and 3) the processes by which new data sources are identified and incorporated into archaeological research. We are especially interested in the barriers and pathways that make the incorporation of some new forms of data seamless (e.g. analog to digital illustration) when the incorporation of other new forms of data is contested and complex (e.g. indigenous knowledge). Beyond archaeology, we hope that this project will contribute to current debates over how to engage with the uncertainty and reliability of data that circulates in public discourse.

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