Open Context

Making the most of archaeological data

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Open Context is an open access, peer-reviewed data publishing service. Pictured is Open Context’s map view, showing data publications from Near Eastern projects. Credit: Open Context.

Archaeology generates a tremendous diversity and quantity of digital data. Archaeologists document excavations, surveys and finds with spreadsheets, databases, digital photographs, 3D models, digital maps and data generated from specialized instruments. While modern research methods require computerized data management, digital data are very vulnerable to loss if not shared and properly archived by expert digital librarians.

Unfortunately, the growing scale of data creation strains archaeology’s publication channels. Books and journals, up to now the key avenue for communication and professional recognition, are ill-suited to cope with the new demands of digital archaeology. At the same time, the scientific community increasingly expects access to data. Access to data can promote greater transparency and new research opportunities, enabling scholars to both check interpretations against evidence and reuse each other’s data to explore new questions with new perspectives.1

Indeed, in 2010, the National Science Foundation began requiring a “data management plan” of all archaeology grant proposals. In 2011, the National Endowment for the Humanities followed suit with a data management plan requirement for their digital humanities program. In 2013, the White House issued a mandate requiring federally-funded research (for projects with over $100 million in R&D expenditures) to result in open access publications and data. These new requirements began a domino effect among funders, with many private foundations now adopting data management and open access requirements of grantees.

As data dissemination becomes an expected outcome of scholarship, researchers need supporting services to adequately describe and document, preserve, disseminate and understand and reuse digital data. In addition, many questions remain about the ins and outs of actually doing data sharing. How will the White House mandate and requirements by granting foundations be funded? How do communities unfamiliar with open access and data sharing develop ways to meet these new requirements? How do they evaluate the quality and significance of shared primary data?

The Alexandria Archive Institute (AAI), a non-profit organization founded by archaeologists in 2002, is one of a growing number of entities working with scholars to navigate this new terrain. From a theoretical standpoint, the AAI’s work has involved exploring the promises and challenges of open access for archaeology. From a more practical standpoint, the AAI has developed Open Context (, an open access, peer-reviewed data publishing service. In this blog post, we describe a few of the key ways that Open Context deals with the new and quickly shifting terrain of data sharing in archaeology.

Technology is changing the way we study and preserve texts and artifacts. Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study: Digital Humanities and the Ancient World for more articles on this emerging field.


Open Context’s homepage, showing the global distribution of its data publications. Credit: Open Context.

The simplest description of Open Context is that it is a data sharing venue. But merely putting a data set on the Web and calling that “data sharing” is insufficient to meet the needs of most researchers. Data must have adequate documentation and consistency to be widely usable. Open Context takes a “data sharing as publishing” approach, which helps address the technological, ethical, professional and intellectual concerns surrounding archaeological data.2

Open Context currently publishes over one million digital resources, ranging from archaeological survey data to excavation documentation, artifact analyses, chemical analyses of artifacts and descriptions of bones and other biological remains found in archaeological contexts. All data carry Creative Commons licenses providing explicit legal permissions for duplication and reuse. Open Context uses a formalized editorial process to publish high quality, peer-reviewed datasets that have citation information, library identifiers and long-term archiving through the California Digital Library (CDL), a unit that runs many of the University of California’s leading scholarly communications and data preservation efforts. In hosting dynamically accessible datasets, highly integrated with rich media, Open Context tries to make data easier to navigate and understand. Open Context’s data publications often have the same visual richness as museum websites, helping to make data publication a more “value-added” process than digital archiving alone.

Subjecting datasets to editorial processes and peer review helps promote professionalism in data dissemination. This professionalism signals quality, the assurance of which plays a key role in data reuse.3 Another aspect of data professionalism is interoperability. Interoperability describes the capacity of an information system to efficiently exchange data with other information systems. Many, many different individuals and organizations create and manage archaeological data. Data must be able to flow across institutional boundaries in order to be synthesized and understood as a whole. The research community therefore needs to consider the broader information ecosystem that extends beyond institutional and disciplinary boundaries, and encompasses multiple information systems.

In this vein, Open Context’s goal is not to be a centralized “one repository to rule them all” system. Rather, interoperability measures ensure collaboration with a wealth of data and talent invested by institutions participating in data sharing worldwide. The Web is growing exponentially, with an ever-increasing number of interconnections that facilitate knowledge creation and collaborations. Open Context’s technology strategies encourage participation in a vast, distributed archaeology information ecosystem, open to new perspectives and new approaches to sharing and using data.

Because its developers began their archaeological careers in the Near East, Open Context since its incipience has had a relatively large number of data sets from the Old World. Most can be explored through the Open Context interface.

In a manner similar to conventional journals, researchers can submit data for review and publication with Open Context. Projects pay a one-time data publishing and archiving fee (see online Estimator). The data-publishing process takes from a few days to several weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the project. The end result is a data publication with (1) the elements that the archaeologist needs (for professional purposes, recognition, etc.); (2) the trappings of a print publication that others find familiar and are capable of reviewing and (3) well-documented data that can be linked to other data across the Web and, thereby, enhance scholarship through participation in the vast and growing ecosystem of digital archaeology.

Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory recently released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.



1 E.C. Kansa and S.W. Kansa, “Toward a Do-It-Yourself Cyberinfrastructure: Open Data, Incentives, and Reducing Costs and Complexities of Data Sharing,” in E.C. Kansa, S.W. Kansa and E. Watrall, eds., Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2011), pp. 57–91.

2 E.C. Kansa and S.W. Kansa, “We All Know That a 14 Is a Sheep: Data Publication and Professionalism in Archaeological Communication,” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 1.1 (2013), pp. 88–97; E.C. Kansa, S.W. Kansa and B. Arbuckle, “Publishing and Pushing: Mixing Models for Communicating Research Data in Archaeology,” International Journal of Digital Curation 9.1 (2014), pp. 57–70.

3 L. Atici, S.W. Kansa, J. Lev-Tov and E. Kansa, “Other People’s Data: A Demonstration of the Imperative of Publishing Primary Data,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20.4 (2012), pp. 663–81; Kansa, Kansa and Arbuckle, “Publishing and Pushing.”

Sarah-Eric-KansaSarah Whitcher Kansa and Eric Kansa are cofounders of the Alexandria Archive Institute, a nonprofit organization working to enhance scholarship through the open web. Since 2006, they have developed Open Context, an open access data publishing venue referenced by NSF and NEH for data management in archaeology. They are vocal advocates for open access and data sharing, publishing and speaking regularly on these topics. Sarah conducts zooarchaeological research in the Near East and east Mediterranean and is active in the International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ), for which she was elected Vice-President in 2014. Eric researches information organization, archaeological data management and scholarly communications. In 2013, the White House recognized him as a “Champion of Change” for his efforts in promoting data sharing in the humanities and social sciences.

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  • Anthony says

    This is a facinating primer on something I had wondered about for some time. Thank you for this article and the work required.

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