05 August 2009

Publish or Perish?

The TAY Project is a private NGO based in Istanbul. They document looting, record threatened sites, and have started an inventory of archaeological sites in Turkey. They also have a site looting hotline, where you can report ongoing illegal excavations.

I'm struck by their latest project, called 'Publish or Perish':
Today, if there is no scientific need or a rescue purpose, the general attitude is leaning towards not to excavate. And, if there is a real need for an excavation, that ‘need’ and purpose has to be definitely included in the ‘final report’. We also have to remember that, first of all and before the ‘report’, there must be a “final” for the archaeological excavation, which is very rare in our country.

At that point, our discussion at TAY turned to “final reports” and we wondered how many archaeological excavations we had in Turkey and how many of them had their “final reports”. This was not a very easy question to answer. Apart from “final reports”, there was not an archaeological excavations list for Turkey.

So, at first hand, we began preparing that list, which took unnecessarily long time. Main reason for this delay also proved our main idea; there was not many ‘final reports’.
The list that follows is pretty depressing: by TAY's reckoning, barely 10% of sites in Turkey have final reports, and many projects keep digging every year and only publish a paper here and there.

This is not to say that _nothing_ has been published from these sites, which makes the list a little bit unfair. For example, the Summers' team at Kerkenes Dağ publishes quite a lot: annual excavation reports, popular bulletins, and papers yearly in Anatolia Antiqua or Anatolian Archaeology. The same can be said of Gates and Redford's work at Kinet Höyük/Issos (also see here). But it's true that neither has a book that can serve as a reference work for the site, as far as I can tell. Which means that if you want to know something about the excavations, you have to work your way through a lot of diverse material to get an overview of what's going on.

And many sites, of course, have no publications whatever.

Way back in '89, Chris Tilley famously observed that 'digging is a pathology of archaeology': a disease. His point was to say that excavation is not the point of archaeology, but a distraction from the real work of interpreting past human experience. Excavation gives the archaeologist an ego boost and makes us feel like we're 'adventuring' or 'having an authentic experience'. But for sites it's an illness: excavation destroys deposits and exposes materials, like ancient walls, that may require long-term conservation.

Given that, I like TAY's attempts to 'name and shame' and create peer pressure to publish data. Because, really, if you're not publishing data, why are you digging? You should be ashamed of yourself. (Actually, you should stop digging first, then feel ashamed.)

However, I wonder if it isn't time to jettison the notion that 'final publication' has to be in book form. There's no reason excavation records can't be presented to the public as a website, wiki, or other form of online database. (Especially given the state of the publishing industry, where high costs and low print runs ensure that most publications exist only in the most specialized university libraries.) One problem with even the best-kept archaeological data is that it is usually treated as the private property of one particular professor, and not made accessible to the publics for whose benefit archaeology claims to work. In an age where everything is going open-source, archaeological information should follow suit.

Anyone know examples of best practices for online final publications?


  1. I also find it frustrating that as technology is better and better integrated on the information-gathering end of archaeology, so that grad students like Adela are able to equip their survey teams with PDAs, there's such resistance to using available technologies to disseminate information. I'd bet one of the reasons is that it doesn't fit easily in the traditional academic cursus honorum. Everyone knows that a book from CUP is a Good Thing for a young scholar, but putting your data online might not be an equivalent feather in your tenure file. This doesn't explain why other archaeological professionals aren't digitizing everything from top plans to final reports!

    Effectively, nearly every publication of primary data in archaeology is already the product of multiple authors, even where we maintain the pretence that it's the work of the senior member of the research team (usually He or She Who Brings the Funding). In a model for online publication, multiply-authored papers (a la Nature) could be linked to trench supervisors' notes, photographers' images, artists' figures, specialists' reports, and the directors' argumentative synthesis.

    There's no excuse for not publishing--but I am concerned that if we stop doing fieldwork, we might return to many Mediterranean countries in fifty years to find the archaeological record effectively dug up, paved, built over. Maybe it's time to re-orient our research strategy towards rescue excavations, as a non-random sampling strategy for sites within regions of interest, and lend a hand to the often overworked employees of national archaeological agencies where help is needed, rather than colonizing "our" site and letting the rest go to hell.

  2. As usual, you are the voice of reason when I come up with something crazy, like stopping digging :)

    I agree that reorienting academic research to support needed rescue excavations (and do them well!) would be a beautiful, beautiful thing.

    Here at Sagalassos, they are developing a beautiful XML/ArchaeoML database that integrates every kind of archaeological data. It's cool, I think I will post about it soon!