Gathering and following traces: towards a methodology of data reading

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Fri, 06/17/2022 - 10:32

Presentation at International Conference on Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) 2022 - "Inside Information" session 
S22: Traces of digital archaeological practises, Oxford, UK organised together with Jessica Kaiser, Lisa Börjesson and Olle Sköld.


How to facilitate data reuse is a long-standing topic of research in archeology. Data reuse offers many advantages (e.g., increasing the efficiency of the research process; facilitating knowledge exchanges; generating new findings) but is also associated with a range of obstacles that have to be circumvented before data reuse can become part of the fabric of archaeological research praxis and infrastructural support to a greater extent than it presently is. One of the major obstacles is the many difficulties involved in understanding how the data-to-be-reused has come into being. Recent work indicates that information that might support data reuse is present in the form of ‘traces’ found in research documentation and archaeological literature (e.g., Authors et al. forthcoming). These traces provide information about the research processes underpinning the creation of the data that can be crucial in evaluating if, and if so how, data can be re-used for a particular purpose. Previous research also shows that the purposeful use of trace information in a data-reuse scenario requires – just like the generation of original data – a meticulous approach and particular efforts and skills (Kansa and Kansa 2021). Here there exists a research gap: archaeology lacks a cohesive data reuse methodology to apply in research and use for educational purposes.

Main argument
The aim of this paper is to address the research gap outlined above by proposing a methodological framework for reading traces in archaeological data reuse. The methodology draws on the state-of-the-art on the necessary steps in data reuse processes (e.g., social trace data discussed by Morgan and Wright 2018) and is empirically informed by the authors’ previous research on archaeological trace data (e.g., Authors et al. forthcoming), including specifically work on the paradata categories of knowledge-organisation paradata and knowledge-making paradata.

The creation of a methodological framework for reading archaeological trace data would serve two main purposes. Firstly, it would reflectively systematise insights into and experiences from working with archaeological trace data as they have emerged in the literature and in the authors’ own work into an operationalizable methodological outline that facilitates the use of traces as ingredients in new archaeological knowledge and knowledge on archaeological practices. Secondly and from an educational viewpoint, a better and more systematic understanding of what the traces of digital archaeological practices in descriptive and analytical accounts look like and how they can be used has direct implications to informing future documentation practices and data-sharing infrastructure developments.

Applications or implications
The methodological framework for reading archaeological trace data presented in this paper is provisional and a work in progress, but is all the while possible to apply when identifying and documenting traces of digital archaeological practices in scholarly and professional settings. The paper’s core outcome is a trace data typology consisting of trace data type descriptions and associated methodological reflections and recommendations.

Beyond ‘practical’ applications, the framework also directs attention towards how documentation ideals pertaining to trace data can and should be codified in archaeology, e.g., how information about data creation serves specific purposes and connects to different modes and resources of description. In this light the methodological framework for reading archaeological trace data also becomes a communicative device telling of appropriate ways of doing, and so offers an opening to discuss which ways of documenting and reading data traces that should be canonised and taught to students, researchers, and data management professionals. In closing, this paper reflects on data traces – what they represent; what can be known on the basis of them – and methodologies – what types and what understandings of methodologies would be most suitable in the context of archaeological trace data – from an epistemological viewpoint as a way to inform what the next step in the present line of inquiry.

Authors et al. forthcoming. “Re-Purposing Excavation Database Content as Paradata - An Explorative Analysis of Paradata Identification Challenges and Opportunities”. KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies.

Kansa, Eric, and Sarah Whitcher Kansa. 2021. “Digital Data and Data Literacy in Archaeology Now and in the New Decade”. Advances in Archaeological Practice 9, no. 1: 81–85.

Morgan, Colleen and Holly Wright (2018). "Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording". Journal of Field Archaeology 43, no. 2: 136–151.