Thursday, July 07, 2016

On curating the past

THE ASOR BLOG: The Present and Future of Curating the Past (Andrew Creekmore).
Such are the problems of archaeology everywhere in the world. Modern archaeology is so fine-grained that the quantities of materials collected are seemingly endless. In addition to pottery, stone, and bone, we collect soil samples for chemical, micro and macro botanical analysis, soil blocks for microstratigraphic analysis, clay samples for sourcing studies, and micro-sieved debris from earthen floors. These materials pile up quickly and storage becomes a problem. In the US this “curation crisis” led many agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, to encourage or require that survey projects under their jurisdiction eschew collection or only collect diagnostic artifacts, like painted sherds. In addition, excavation permits in much of the US require projects, before fieldwork, to designate a permanent storage location and to budget for these costs up front.

Curation policies and our propensity to collect more and more data with new analytical techniques put a damper on excavation fever. I expect every archaeologist has some guilt over a project that is not fully published, or at least concern about not fully documented materials in substandard storage. And just what does it mean to be “fully published”? What is the minimum standard for analysis and publication? Do we publish artifacts and plans from the best contexts but put the ephemera of notes and records online?

The adage “you break it, you bought it” feels especially apropos when 100,000+ potsherds are on the line. Are there solutions to the curation crisis that allow us to keep moving forward with fieldwork to study new problems but also acknowledge the elephant-shaped pile of samples in our room? Here are some approaches that are gaining traction ...
The ASOR Blog requires free registration to access the full text of its posts.

Archaeologists are the victims of their own success: as technologies improve, it becomes possible — and therefore obligatory — to analyze excavated materials in greater and greater detail. The good news is that our knowledge of past material culture is becoming more detailed and fine grained. The bad news is that more and more excavated material needs to be kept and stored somewhere.

The solution is hinted at in the section the last approach covered in the essay. Briefly, it is technology. At a point in the not too distant future, probably in decades, it will be possible to scan a site to a very fine-grained standard using non-invasive technologies, then to "excavate" it on a molecular level using non-destructive nanotechnological tools. The amount of information to be harvested will dwarf anything that current excavation technologies can recover, and the only storage concerns will be the electronic data and the rare artifact that is important enough (or under environmental threat enough) to bring to the surface.

Some readers are thinking that this is just science fiction, and for now it is. But not so long ago desktop computers and the internet were just science fiction. The path leading to what I have just described is right there in classical physics, as Richard Feynman recognized already nearly half a century ago. Getting there is a matter of engineering. It's still quite a distance away, but we get a little closer every year. (Some relevant PaleoJudaica posts from the past year or so are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And, as usual, follow those links for more.)

And if we move to quantum physics, there are even weirder phenomena that may lead someday to scarcely imaginable technologies for exploring the past. So far these are entirely speculative, but who knows what the future could bring? In this old post I alluded to one such possibility. The link is dead, but it led to the science fiction story "Traces" by Stephen Baxter in his short story collection with the same title. And his novel The Light of Other Days, co-authored with the late Aurthur C. Clarke, explores another possibility. I commend both to you if you like such things.