The world is becoming increasingly digitised, and the information one has easy access to is often rather overwhelming. In particular, the accumulative nature of the archaeological practice has resulted in huge quantities of data being produced. But how to prevent these from becoming dust-collectors on a shelf? Perhaps it is time to step back and start thinking about how to effectively manage and preserve this data for future generations of scholars.
Research data as fundamental currency
Recently, the Gortyn Project, led by Prof Joanita Vroom in collaboration with Prof Enrico Zanini of the University of Siena, made use of the available Research Data Management training provided by the Faculty of Archaeology. The Data Management workshop given to the Gortyn Project focused on particularities of the project’s dataset – digitising and archiving, but also introduced the team to new skillsets and the importance of proper data management.
‘The research data is the fundamental currency in the academia of ‘today and tomorrow’, and for this reason, it needs to be taken care of properly in all phases of the research,’ explains Katarina Mokranova, the data management student assistant who gave the workshop. ‘I cannot stress enough how amazing the future research can become if scholars with their many wonderful ideas gain access to the archaeological datasets at will.’
Importance of data management for all
The research data lifecycle does not end with interpretation, but data has to be archived, managed and structured to assure the re-usability of the dataset in the future. The Gortyn Project tackles exactly this by carrying out analysis and producing (digital) documentation of datasets simultaneously with the site of Gortyn being excavated by the University of Siena.
Adhering to proper data management is especially crucial when – as is the case of Gortyn Project where Leiden University and the University of Siena collaborate – two parties work. The student interns for the Gortyn Project were showed how to approach such intra-team cooperation and interoperability, and the more senior members of the team also found useful ‘tips-and-tricks’ for their research. Proper training is, after all, what ensures data integrity and security.
The Gortyn Project student intern Robbert van der Winkel considered the Data Management Workshop as: ‘quite a useful preparation for both academic research and any type of group project. To be able to file your data in such a way that it is comprehensible and interoperable seems like a necessary skill in many lines of work. Especially when data volumes start to increase.’
The easy practice that saves time and protects data
The correct data management practices make research effective and ultimately save the precious time of researchers and assure long-term data integrity. During the workshop given to the Gortyn Project, students were introduced to the ‘know-how’ of managing and structuring data that will facilitate smoother and quicker research, such as a good file structure, file version management and file-naming conventions. The endgame of archaeological research, that is inherently cooperative, is after all to help make datasets understandable to all. During the workshop, students were trained in structuring datasets and creating archaeological metadata – the mysterious term that makes the future reuse of data possible by making the data interoperable. The Data Management Training given to the Gortyn Project, and available upon request to all projects within faculty, presented a way of creating metadata in a form of codebooks, ‘readme’ text files and so on.
Upon the completion of the workshop, another Gortyn Project student internee, Jackie Dubbeldam, shared her views on archaeological practice: ‘What is archaeology without data? We produce vast amounts of it and, as also explained in the workshop, its management is a big deal. The excavation can only happen once, the data is destroyed afterwards. The collection and safekeeping of this data are essential. I think it’s something most of us don’t consider, but if the context is lost, making any assumptions afterwards about the site becomes problematic as well.’
Excavation is data collection; Post-excavation is data protection
Prof Vroom has been engaging with data management practices and digital archiving for a long time. A lot of her research, as well as her DANS-funded project ‘Byzantine and Ottoman Data Atlas’ is available in open access; and the dataset of the Gortyn Project will head the same way. It is this enthusiasm for making her data findable, reusable, accessible and interoperable that will ensure that the data generated by the Gortyn Project, and following the ‘Open Access’ ideals, are going to be useful in the decades to come.
Perhaps the biggest fear about the ‘Open Access’ idea is that people will use the digital research data as they wish without acknowledging the researchers that put their ‘blood, sweat and tears’ into compiling it. But quite to the contrary, the data managements stands strongly on the topic of data reuse, through legal licencing, in which the original owners of the data are cited and referred to when data is used; similar to how it happens with open access articles, which prevents plagiarism and theft of ideas. And it is the digital preservation of research data that eventually protects it from disappearing into the scholarly abyss.