some considerations

Vittorio Fronza
Wed Jul 19 23:53:48 CEST 2006

Dear all,
I know it's time of vacations (or excavations for a lucky bunch of
us...) and many of you will not read this post very soon, while others
will not read it because it's simply too long. But i just started
writing the paper for the Grosseto workshop and, to begin with it, i
read again the whole discussion on OS/FS, open formats and contents,
data structure, data jealousy vs. data availability, standards,
methodology, archaeology and IT, the future and bla bla bla (in
italian, as most of you know, it would be called "pippone", just like
the one i probably will give you now).
Most of you know that i perfectly support the greatest part of the
main points that have been raised in this mailing list and during the
discussion in Grosseto; in fact, i agree so much that i didn't even
feel like having to write anything more about it to the list. In these
last years i have personally tried to put many of these key concept
into practice, especially regarding data sharing and data structuring:
some of you know that's a quite wearing job (for what it matters, i
can confirm that Roberto Bagnara had the right impression in Vienna
about "lots of valuable data" being "in the wrong hands" as well as on
the "we used a GIS!" kind of presentations).

There are only two considerations which i found right away a bit
short-sighted. But no one replied to them (does the "silence-assent"
rule work in this case?) and i soon forgot about it; except that
reading it over now just amplified that first feeling, and so i
decided to take up for my first absence.
I'm talking about the "bureaucratic approach" described by Stefano in
one of his posts, strictly tied in my opinion to the need of
"confidence in the results of archaeological knowledge" and
"objective, efficient data capturing, error control and robust
post-excavation analysis" forwarded by Roberto Bagnara and Benjamin
Ducke. Even though some of the stuff they write in these specific
passages makes sense, in general i'm not convinced about the
underlying message.
I think that one of our goals should be to encourage any kind of
technological application, including the more plain and limited ones
(as long as they are formally correct). This is especially true if we
consider two facts:
- most archaeologists do not use any digital tool at all; or, and
that's even worse, in many cases they use some software without any
awareness of its most basic principles, often causing bad data
structuring ending up in incorrect data readings (i have seen several
of such cases, especially with databases);
- GIS and databases, as they are, suffice with their most basic
functionalities (basic means that they are widely comprehensible and
applicable) almost all requirements of a correct and, in comparison
with the actual situation, advanced archaeological data treatment. The
"collect and store" straight forward approach might not be enough for
US, but it isn't all that bad for most archaeologists, especially if
it allows them also to easily retrieve, merge and present very large
amount of data to be INTERPRETED.
So I come to interpretation, in both of its archaeological meanings:
the lower level (we do interpretation on site and in the laboratories
when we create our records) and the higher level (we do interpretation
when we "read" our records in order to improve knowledge), both of
which have been cited in the previous posts. What an engineer (and
some scientists...) obtains with measures, an archaeologist obtains
with interpretation, usually implementing a cognitive process highly
based on personal intuition within an empirical approach. This is true
at both the levels mentioned above. If we think that it is a totally
wrong and kind of old-fashioned approach, then we also have to say
that most of the acquired archaeological knowledge is affected by an
organic defect and should therefore be cancelled (even though, due to
chance which can well be foreseen by statistical inference, some of it
could also be luckily true...). But that's not exactly what i think,
don't know about you. I don't believe, for example, that building the
archaeological record can be compared to the result of a scientific
experiment, where the observation of a fact/evidence/system brings to
real measures (obviously undergoing errors, without counting
interference, etc.). We can use the most precise measuring tools, say
a laserscanner for excavated contexts; but it's still the
archaeologist who decides where a layer ends and where another one
starts or, in doubtful cases, which finds belong to which
stratigraphical unit, or the sampling strategy in a landscape survey,
the extension of a concentration of finds and so on.
Nevertheless, such cases clearly do not delegitimate any particular
interests in quantitative or computational archaeology; on the
opposite, these become crucial for a very significant methodological
improvement in two different ways: for us, since it's the best way we
have found to produce historical knowledge; for the community as a
whole, since we all highly agree on the fact that archaeology without
digital tools is a castrated archaeology. Besides that, I do believe
that some archaeologists take the impossibility of gaining real
objectiveness as a (more or less conscious or unconscious) excuse to
prove their ideas by seeing, recording and understanding evidences the
way they would like them to be; we all know how the quality standards
imposed by digital recording tools can avoid most of these
May be, a comparison with the formula 1 world can help me explaining
better my very plain point of view about the impact of our studies on
a methodological level. In fact, we are in some ways a bit like the
pilots and engineers of the car races, with the difference that
formula 1 is slightly more attractive for sponsors... and, moreover,
it isn't really about getting somewhere but just about going faster
and winning the race, while our efforts often produce critical
knowledge besides the methodological advancement. Just like them, we
spend a lot of effort in developing very pushed new technologies and
methodologies applied to archaeological research which, in due times
and ways, might have a serious feedback on all investigations in our
field. But "normal" people want to drive reasonably powerful and
definitely reliable cars which are simply seen as useful things to get
them from one place to another. They don't care about having ferraris
and mclarens, since it would take them much to much effort to learn
how to build and drive them. Archaeologists do exactly the same with
digital applications. All they want to have are efficient tools to
help them in building their records and gaining historical knowledge
putting into practice an established but ever improving methodology;
that makes perfectly sense and I don't think they can be criticised
for it.
That's why talking about "paleogis "with a sort of unjustified
self-conceit just widens the distance between our little
techno-village and the archaeological community as a whole, giving us
less chances to influence somehow positively a wider and more
important part of our discipline. May be we should just sometimes try
to follow several more or less specialistic directions from the very
inside of the archaeological community. With or without us, the use of
computers in archaeology is inevitably destined to become a general
methodological orientation. I think it should be considered as a
critical mission of ours trying to address it on a correct path,
encouraging a bottom-up process involving the highest possible number
of researchers.
The point raised by Carlo Citter at the discussion of grosseto was a
terribly real one when he asked us first how much time and money it
would take him to train people and secondly how much more time and
money it would take these people to produce records that "speak" in
historical terms. Just think at how much know-how each one of us has,
and how much it took to reach this point. Probably many of us started
when they were kids. We cannot pretend that all researchers get to
this point as if being touched by a magic wand; so all we have to do
is ask ourselves if we want to keep on nurturing our small (and not
even golden...) realm or if we want to go out and explore the much
bigger archaeological world (obviously coming always back to enhance
our particular aspects).
I perfectly know that technology analphabets are "out of the race";
it's almost 15 years that i hear someone telling it every now and
then. But the question is another: do we want to personally (or as a
restricted group of initiates) win the race forgetting about all of
them or do we want historical knowledge to grow and become more
reliable and truthful?
In conclusion, with a little provocation, i see an identity problem
with at least three possible outcomes, all of which are perfectly
legitimate under a scientific and academic point of view, but surely
strategically different:
- either we keep on feeling like some new messiah of objective
knowledge in archaeology (you all know that many others have tried in
the past.. so it wouldn't even be anything new, at least substantially
if not formally), dreaming of a numerical model explaining the past
and disregarding all the subjective "rubbish" knowledge that has been
produced until now; we obviously would have to accept the risk (at
least i do consider it so) of turning into technicians of data
recording and analysis, with the results of our efforts being
interpreted by others;
- or, we can become computer scientists enthusiastically using lots of
self-gratifying abbreviations (most of which will be probably be
treated as technological wrecks of the past in a few years time) and
treating archaeology as our favourite case-study; but if so i'd rather
be a more traditional computer guy, earning more money than now and
avoiding the risk of being considered as a second-comer by both
archaeologists and computer scientists...;
- or, much better in my opinion, we try to be archaeologists with a
specific methodological interest (in numbers, digital applications or
whatever else) and keep on experimenting all kind of new technologies,
theories, models coming from the "exact sciences" treating them as
(purely methodological) TOOLS and always striving to adapt them to
real archaeological problems and questions (which i hope we all still
have); at the same time, if one of these applications promises to be
useful on a wider scale, we could try to find a way to vehiculate it
to the largest possible part of the scientific community without
thinking that they are a bunch of troglodytes just because they use
only 5% of a GIS or a database's functionalities (while we surely do
not contribute to an even much smaller percentage in the whole
production of historical knowledge).
The ways of adapting technological and scientific means to
archaeological research is a multithreaded and serious enough matter
(most of the questions raised in this list happily address it), which
i think would be worth a still more thorough discussion, especially on
the basis of significant examples in quantity and quality within a
wider methodological framework; but that's another question... Just
think at what an incredible opportunity the OS/FS approach could be in
such a perspective, especially for what Benjamin calls the "scientific
arguments" in his excellent list of reasons for using open source
software. But again it is curious how at the discussion in grosseto
the need of a new season of in-depth general methodological discussion
was mostly felt by the few "traditional" archaeologists that were
there (Citter, Baldassarri, Lebole); and don't tell me that we all
give it for granted since i rarely heard anyone of us (not only in
Grosseto or on this list) addressing these kind of problems: we are
usually much better in talking about rdmbs, sql, xml, ajax, php,
xhtml, oodb, gnu, w3c, os/fs, ...
The fact is that all these digital tools have to remain means, while i
much to often see them become ends.

I apologize if this post ended up being much longer than what i
expected, but it grew while writing; i guess that, as it is, it
already contains most of the key ideas of the introduction to my
paper. Let me know what you guys think about it.
Vittorio Fronza

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