Over the past four days, I was fotunate to be a part of the Linked Ancient World Data Institute (#LAWDI). The purpose was to discuss, share and explore linked data and open access as applied to Ancient World and Classical material. The attendees selected included a range of faculty and students from around the world, a variety of disciplines, and varying levels of technical skill. Linked data is an approach to the design of data that can be easily connected to other digital resources. Open access is the practice of providing data, journals or other resources freely online. Combined, the goal is to create and publish data that is accessible to all and interoperable with other resources. Specifically, this institute aimed at applying these concepts to the Ancient World. One example that demostrates these principles is Pleiades which links ancient places to other resources about those locations, finds open access photos of the site, and connects with other related locations. For more on Linked Data and LAWDI, see this overview post from last year’s institute.
As a mortuary archaeologist studying the Anglo-Saxon period, much of my time during this institute was spent discovering ways that my data from 4th to 7th century cemeteries fits with the classical world, and how my data could link to them. First, the concepts of linked data and open access can be applied to any type of data. Creating data that is shareable, works with many types of analytical tools, and is explicit about what the data is, who created it, and where it came from. Second, the Anglo-Saxon period is as much defined by what is Germanic (Angle, Saxon, Jute, etc) as it is defined by what is not Roman. In fact, many of the cemeteries are placed around Roman sites, burials may have Roman artifacts with them, and the individuals may themselves be related to the Roman through blood or marriage. Finally, archaeological sites were created by living people who worked, lived and died in a connected and active world. We need to find ways to connect our sites to the broader world if we want to understand them.
A major challenge in this quest to linked open data is thatfew bioarchaeological collections and mortuary site datasets are shared and available in a digital format that can be easily downloaded and linked to. In a study by Robert and Mays (2010), they found that of the over 250 articles written on bioarchaeology in Britain from the top four journals, 79% of them were based on collections from only 5 locations. While this uneven use of skeletal collections can be attributed to a number of reasons, the one that they highlight is the availability and knowledge of collections. They argue that the UK needs a national database for skeletal remains to be listed in order for research to be spread more evenly across the samples. Without the data freely available, we are creating a major sampling bias towards the available sites and limiting our interpretations.
I do want to highlight a few sites for sharing information on mortuary sites and human remains openly and in a format that can be easily downloaded for use. The first is Open Context, which reviews, edits, and publishes archaeological data and archives. This means that others can easily find, use and add their own bioarchaeological resources to the database. It is also peer-reviewed, which increases the reliability of the resources found there. An example is a skull found in Turkey from the Domuztepe excavations. You can see where it came from, who discovered it, what it consists of, age, sex, trauma, pathology, photos, and even the archaeological context. This is a great resource for exploring other excavations and could even be used for your own analysis. It has complete information about the excavations, and will even link you to other resources online that may be related. It is a phenomenal example of linked open data.
Another great site, and one I used for my own Masters research is the Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology. All mortuary sites they have excavated are included in their database. You can search each site to get an overview of the excavation and collection, learn more about the individuals found, see photos of pathology, and download the demographic tables. The downside to this site is that it isn’t easy to find the archaeological and contextual data since it is part of a different department and only includes a brief summary of the site. The bioarchaeology data is open, but sadly the archaeology data is not, and the links between resources are only within the Museum’s work.
If it is grave goods you are interested in, the Portable Antiquites Scheme allows you to look at the artifacts that are similar to those found with human remains (see this search of Early Medieval Grave Goods). This is very useful for looking up artifacts in order to see images of what they look like and understand their broader context and use. The site does a great job of linking to external resources for more information, shows exact find location, and has amazing details about each piece. It will also give you any information about the associated graves or where to find the information.
Finally, there is the Archaeology Data Services which publishes data, research, resources and journal article related to British Archaeology. While it doesn’t always have completely open information, you can get full access to data and maps for some mortuary sites. You can also access some journal articles and field reports. For a good example see this page on the excavations and report on a Roman Cemetery from London.
As archaeologists, we not only want to aid in interpretation of the past, we should also be aiming to share our data so that others can build upon it. The data itself is just as important as the interpretations we draw from it. One of the things I try to highlight in the blog is the primary data is important. Most of the posts break down the journal articles highlighting their data, and then looking at the interpretation the archaeologists make from it. I do hope that as open access become more common, we will see increased availability of bioarchaeology data freely online. It would be fantastic if one day we could freely access and connect to all mortuary data. Think of the things that we could learn if we had full access to all the data that has been created!
Roberts, C., & Mays, S. (2011). Study and restudy of curated skeletal collections in bioarchaeology: A perspective on the UK and the implications for future curation of human remains International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 21 (5), 626-630 DOI: 10.1002/oa.1175