Some archaeologists live in fear that their excavations might be published by somebody else, should their colleagues come across their primary data. Most archaeologists, however, don’t even publish their own excavations. It is difficult to imagine why anybody, unwilling or incapable of publishing their own work, would publish a colleague’s excavation.
Other archaeologists live in fear of being caught making a mistake. Once a colleague told me that he did not want to share his primary data – even after the work was over – because there might be mistakes and he did not want his colleagues to find them. This attitude reflects an understanding of archaeology as a competitive discipline in which our colleagues are our adversaries. It is difficult to imagine what archaeologists can compete for. Certainly not for power, or money, or glory. Are we even ranked? But the point is that if we are competing it is impossible to build a community engaged in the pursuit of a better understanding of the past. Competition is the opposite of community.
Sharing primary data as we gather it allows us to get early peer reviews from our colleagues. If there are mistakes in our data or methodology, we can correct them early and thank our colleagues for their constructive input. Making mistakes is not a crime. I know of a reputed scholar, known for his especially harsh criticism of most of his colleagues, that once sent an article for peer review with two orthographic mistakes in the title alone.
Although an obnoxious critique of our work can be annoying, these situations are largely compensated by the constructive input of our colleagues. Moreover, being criticized is unavoidable. How many times have we heard people attacking ideas that they don’t understand, or commenting on colleagues’ work from hearsay, without having read it? Critiques are a part of any adult life. And idiotic critiques are harmless because archaeology is a small field and we all know everybody.
Sharing primary data is the basis for any serious discipline. Our results should be supported by data. And sharing partial results should be a generalized practice. All our works will need to be reanalyzed in a few years. Archaeology is an iterative discipline.
Social media is making archaeology public and helping archaeologists to share their discoveries and ideas to a wider than ever public. This trend is creating a public for archaeology that is already the best ally of the cultural heritage.
The social value of archaeology lies on its contribution to the public understanding of the world. As most kids around the world are in school today – something that never happened before – we expect to see, in a near future, the rise of diverse interpretations of archaeological data, and the development of more diverse narratives about our common past.
The internet has been an exceptional tool for the democratization of knowledge and it is great to see that as the older archaeologists retire, a new group of young archaeologists is emerging with a new paradigm, less secretive, less complicated, less competitive, and more engaged politically. Teams are becoming increasingly more diverse, and archaeology is moving away from the ivory tower paradigm – or dungeon, as a colleague of mine likes to say – and being replaced by a much more serious and creative multidisciplinary discipline that is both more intelligent, and much more fun. This is even true for the cultural resource management world. Organizations like the Maritime Archaeology Trust (UK) are working hard to share their discoveries online in ever more creative ways, and companies like ASI (Canada) are making all their reports available online.
At Texas A&M University we are celebrating this paradigm change and trying to put all our data online in creative and hopefully fun ways, with the skills and creativity of computer science and visualization students.
As we work on our shipbuilding databases it becomes increasing evident that we must standardize the description of wooden hull structures, in the same way biologists standardized the description of insects.
Many wooden remains of ancient ships are only partially published and some are not published at all. Some archaeologists are notoriously slow in publishing their results, others are implausibly secretive, and most don’t share their primary data. And this makes it very difficult to implement comparative studies.