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Alternative archaeology and American Antiquity

I don't, admittedly, always read the reviews section of the SAA's flagship journal, American Antiquity. I am, however, quite glad that I did last month (or, more accurately, this month, since I didn't open the July issue until just a few days ago). That is because the current reviews section is devoted entirely to reviews of "alternative archaeology" titles, in a special reviews section, titled "Talking to the Guy on the Airplane." These are worth a read for a few reasons. First, many of them are quite funny, especially if you find "alternative archaeology" entertaining anyway, as I do. Second, many of the reviews make important points about why it is that people are much more interested in alternative archaeology than they are in actual archaeology (for lack of a better word). Stephen Lekson's review, in particular, has some good points about why "all archaeologists not named Brian Fagan" tend to be much less successful than alternative archaeologists at writing for a popular audience. Third, for archaeologists, who often tend to ignore this sort of thing, it's an interesting overview of what's actually out there in terms of alternative archaeology. For example, William Conner's Iron Age America gets a review. I occasionally see him posting to the ARCH-METALS mailing list, and have often wondered what he was all about. Well, now I don't have to wonder anymore!

I do find one thing very strange, though. One of the stated purposes of this special reviews section was to provide laypeople with an overview of what archaeologists actually think of various alternative archaeologies and why we reject those ideas. To quote, "Accordingly, the main intent of these reviews is to offer the silent and curious majority that is interested in these works a professional perspective on them" (Holly 2015: 616). This is, I think, a good goal, especially because, as Holly implies, most of the people who consume alternative archaeology are probably not "true believers." I'd argue, however, that the best way to engage this audience is not to bury these reviews in a closed-access PDF labeled only "Reviews" that only SAA members can download. This seems to me to miss the point. I should note that Holly has uploaded his introductory piece to his page, but maybe if the goal was to reach a wide audience of non-archaeologists, it would have made more sense to make the entire thing open-access to begin with? Or to make all of them open-access at all? Or to advertise this at all? To be fair, this is not the first time the SAA has done a less-than-stellar job of disseminating information to all of the people who might be interested in it. Still, it'd be nice if they did this time!

EDIT: In the course of my Googling on this topic, I've discovered that Jennifer Raff already wrote a better post on this a month ago. She's asked people to pester the SAA about making all of these reviews open-access, but this doesn't seem to have had much success yet, unfortunately.

Works Cited

Holly, Donald H., Jr. 2015. Talking to the Guy on the Airplane. American Antiquity 80(3):615-617.

Sharing data on the web

As I was doing some reading for a project I'm working on, I happened to come across a decade-and-a-half old Antiquity review of a few survey volumes, mostly dealing with the Mediterranean world (Alcock and Cherry 1996). One of the last points Alcock and Cherry tackle is the dissemination of data – specifically, rather large sets of artifact data – from surveys. A lot of ELRAP team members have recently been involved in discussions of how to do just that, and it's instructive to look back and see what's changed in the past 15 years. They present these options: publish the artifact data as a separate hardcover volume; include the artifact data with the survey volume on microfiche (I'm so glad this never really caught on); publish the artifact data in a separate, but inexpensive, paperback volume; publish the data on a CD-ROM included with the survey volume; or publish the data on the web (Alcock and Cherry 1996:211).Again, it's worth keeping in mind that this review is rather old. Perhaps my perspective is skewed by my age of scarcely more than a quarter of a century and, worse, my academic focus in the first half of the second millennium AD (practically yesterday by archaeological standards), but I think it's important to consider just how long ago this really was in terms of technology. This Wikipedia illustration demonstrates what I'm getting at rather nicely. At the time the review was written, web browsers had only been available to the public for five years, and it had only been three years since the release of a web browser anyone actually used (I'm thinking of Mosaic). Internet Explorer was less than a year old. Surely, in the fifteen years since, web publication has become the obvious choice, even if it wasn't then.Yet, this isn't really the case. To single out one example, only three years ago the Wadi Faynan Landscape Survey publication was released, which included a CD-ROM with supplementary data (Barker et al. 2007). I'm not saying this approach is necessarily bad (though one might object to their decision to include the site gazetteer as a 530 MB PDF), but it still seems strange that web publishing isn't the obvious choice for this sort of data. I can understand the appeal of media – like CD-ROM or, heaven forbid, microfiche – that are directly associated with the survey publication, and I appreciate when artifact data are made available in any form, but I still think web publishing is preferable, not least because it opens up our results to people who are neither associated with large institutional libraries nor able to justify the cost of a large survey volume or subscriptions to all the journals in which preliminary reports may have appeared.  (Of course, that's another argument in favor of so-called "Green Open Access", or self-archiving and sharing of publications in non-open journals and books.  ELRAP actually does a fairly good job of this; you can download many, though not all, of the recent publications from our lab here.)Alcock and Cherry (1996) mention the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project as an example of a project that was already moving in this direction in 1996. It's still, despite a few flaws, a good example of what data sharing on the web should look like.  In part, though, this may be because there don't seem to be that many other examples, or at least examples that I'm aware of, of other projects that share this much data online.  ELRAP is, of course, just as guilty of this as any other project, although we're at least currently discussing ways to make our data available to others.  Still, it's a bit more complicated than just saying, "OK, I agree to share.  Put it all up on the web."  I can understand why there would be projects whose members just don't want to deal with it.  All things considered, I wonder how close we are to this type of data sharing becoming the norm.  It's only been 15 years. . .

1996     Alcock, Susan, and John CherrySurvey at any price? Antiquity 70(267):207-211.
2007     Barker, Graeme, David Gilberston, and David MattinglyArchaeology and Desertification: The Wadi Faynan Landscape Survey, Southern Jordan. Oxford: Oxbow.