Archaeology initially evolved as a group of fairly autonomous regional traditions, mostly national, that study the evolution of regional traditions. The idea of big A archaeology, as opposed to “archaeologies of x”, is still not as well established as many of us like to assume. Many of us like the idea at an intellectual level, but the structure and functioning of the discipline are quite divorced from it.

Archaeologists are traditionally defined by the material they know. They are normally assigned to a region and time-period (a tradition), and they are its keeper. They personally identify with it, and they are categorized according to it by others. When a paper is submitted, an editor will send it out for review to at least one person who “knows the material” from that region and time period. The evaluation is based on the knower’s impression of the paper, and goes largely unquestioned. That evaluation will often carry the most weight in an editorial decision. When survey and excavation permit requests are received, they are evaluated in terms of whether the research team has the right individuals who know the material. When grant applications are reviewed, the group largely defers to the person around the table who is closest, however far that may be, to knowing the material that the project deals with. Academic hiring decisions are politically very different from this, but they are in many ways subsidiary to the outcomes of these previous processes. The people in the department who know the material the candidate is working on are no more likely to influence the decision than anyone else, but the candidate pool is restricted to those who were given grants, allowed to publish, and provided field work opportunities by those who know the material. Too often, archaeology falls into the sin of appeal to authority.

Knowing the material is one of those undefinable qualities. It is a fuzzy mix of “has done fieldwork in the area”, “has published about the area”, and “has a reputation in the area”. In many national archaeological traditions, “is from the area” is a significant criterion as well. The archaeological world is divided into geographical and chronological preserves, and there are informal (but also sometimes quite formal) non-aggression pacts between their keepers. The social contract in archaeology is that we will check with the acknowledged keeper of a preserve before saying something about their preserve, before bidding for a contract in it, and certainly before sending our students to work there. The pact extends not only to control of the work done in a preserve, but to the interpretation of its material. I am not likely to strongly question a colleague’s interpretation of the material in their preserve, and they are likely to return the favour. Significant debate tends to occurs at the inter-preserve level. Archaeological collections, for example, often compare material between various preserves in order to produce broader syntheses, but rarely address each preserve itself.

Traditionally, archaeologists professionally live and die by their reputation as keepers of the knowledge of the material of a particular place and time. It isn’t surprising then, that the road to an open science of archaeology is a slow and fitful one. Young archaeologists have, naturally, been pushing hard for the opening of databases and for the sharing of raw materials. Recognition by peers for mastery of these is coin of the realm. With some notable exceptions, their senior colleagues have been less eager to open up the vaults.

Whether they consciously realize it or not, the sharing of information is a threat to the prestige and even the livelihood of many established archaeologists, both academic and professional. Their status as keepers of the review process and holders of permits is devalued if the arcane knowledge on which it is founded is widely disseminated and easily available. The impressions on which the judgements of keepers depend are acquired over decades of digging, both literal and figurative. If the information that formed the impressions is suddenly democratized, what power will the clergy hold?

This explains in part the lack of enthusiasm in many places, not to say the reluctance, for the onlining of grey literature. Even where field reports are available, remarkably little use is made of them in academic archaeology. It also explains the puzzling lack of progress in building and making available the large computerized academic archaeological databases that have been promised since the 1970s.

The main obstacle in the development of an open archaeology is that junior archaeologists become senior at some point. Pushing for open data goes from being a necessity for young practitioners, to being less than a top priority for mid-career archaeologists, to being, for senior professionals and academics, a vaguely annoying proposition, best left for others to sort out. For generation after generation over the past 4 decades or more, calls for openness have been carried on by people at the same stage of career rather than by the same people (again, with notable exceptions).

Pushed to its extreme, the logic of this prestige economy of knowledge leads to long-term data protectionism.  There are those who defend this system. Some defend it out of fear, however unconscious and buried. Some are the enlightened despots, the ones who wield their considerable power responsibly, for the good of the discipline. But such enlightened despotism is not to be counted on, and a scholarly system should not be built on it. For that to change, the structure of the discipline, including its publishing and hiring practices must change. This data protectionist prestige economy costs us a great deal of scholarly vitality and innovation, and its only detectable (and highly questionable) benefit is the maintenance of an established power structure. The trade-off is not worth it, to say the least.

I have certainly been guilty of having pious intentions about data sharing, and then of not putting enough actual effort into it. I have prioritized many other things over it. Admittedly, my priorities have gotten me where I am. I am now in a place where I can possibly foster a small amount of change, and make it slightly more likely that others can succeed by prioritizing open practices in archaeology. I hope to start leading by example. Hold me to it.

11 thoughts on “The traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science

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