by Bernard K. Means
Doug Rocks-Macqueen is hosting another blogging carnival and the topic this time is the Grand Challenges for Archaeology. I think one of the grand challenges for archaeology is maintaining relevance within the discipline and also relevance to people who form their opinions and understanding about archaeology from pseudo-legitimate sources. What do I mean by pseudo-legitimate sources? These are media such as the National Geographic and History channels that spew nonsense in the guise of legitimate science. Each time I teach Introduction to Archaeology, as I am doing this semester, I encounter students who form their knowledge and understanding of the past from these and other similar sources. Because these sources, especially National Geographic, have a veneer of respectability and authority, anything that is shown on these channels is assumed to have been vetted by authorities. It does not help matters when these channels present “equal time” for both “sides”–as real archaeological data may require a more nuanced explanation than “aliens did it.” Nothing I say above is new, and people like Ken Feder have been talking about this for years. Feder’s Fraud, Mysths, and Mysteries is a great book to provide to the non-archaeologist because it not only critically takes apart some of the more egregious claims of pseudo-archaeologists, it also provides the reader with tools to critically evaluate other claims.
So, what does any of this have to do with “open access?” Although the situation is slowly changing, many archaeologists publish in journals–myself included–that are locked behind a paywall. If you are not affiliated with a university, even the non-academic archaeologist who knows that a particular journal exists might not be able to access it. Membership in an archaeological society comes with access to their journal, but few individuals can afford to be members of all the archaeological organizations that publish research that might be of relevance. These journals might as well not exist for the general public.
Recently, I, along with several others, published a series of papers in Advances in Archaeological Practice, a journal of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). My paper was “Promoting a More Interactive Public Archaeology: Archaeological Visualization and Reflexivity through Virtual Artifact Curation.” Advances in Archaeological Practice 3(3):235-248. Ironically, this and the other papers on public archaeology topics, are limited right now only to SAA members who opted to select this journal with membership. SAA will soon make this journal available to all members, but, really, there should be some provision to make public archaeology articles publicly available. Although, to be fair, SAA does also publish the freely available The SAA Archaeological Record, which I like tremendously because the articles are more accessibly written, and I can recommend them to my students and the public in general.
Open access for archaeologists should not be limited to articles in journals or chapters in books, but to a broader range of archaeological data. This is one reason I turned to blogging–to have an avenue to share with tens of people the kind of work that I am doing, particularly in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. I, along with many others, have turned toward the recording of archaeological findings via virtual tools, and making this digital heritage more widely available. Recently, I began to place 3D artifact models created from 3D artifact scans onto a dedicated digital platform via Sketchfab. Sketchfab has partnered with many culture heritage institutions and like-minded individuals to make digital artifact and even site models readily available in a dynamic and interactive interface that is freely available on the web.
The 273 models available at http://sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab, as of this writing, can be viewed in a wide variety of digital platforms. My intent with placing digital models on this Sketchfab site was to take all the work that my Virginia Commonwealth University students and I have been doing over the last four years and make our digitally preserved objects more readily available. These could be tools used to help other archaeologists identify their findings, educators could create object-based history lessons around them, and people could truly co-create and design their own exhibits or find other ways of expressing their interest in the past. If the models are downloadable. Most of our partners in this digital cultural preservation effort have readily embraced this notion–anyone can download a 3D scan of their findings. Others are ready to share digital models that can be manipulated onscreen, but are reluctant as of this writing to allow anyone to have direct access to their digital objects. I am hopeful that these institutions and individuals will come around, as, for me, open access archaeology includes virtual access to real items that understandably must be protected from direct manipulation by general audiences.
If we do not embrace a more open archaeology in all its forms, we cede our authority as guides to the rich tapestry that is the past to “diggers” and “experts” on Ancient Aliens emboldened by a cynical or credulous media.