As a professional archaeologist, I spent a great deal of time downloading site data from an online GIS computer server which delivered information from the state site atlas database. This atlas contained site location and summary data for every site within Texas, and allowed users to save large amounts of time compiling background data for Section 106 Review. However, I had long hoped that these site databases could have another function, as archaeological research tools. My initial purpose for this project was therefore to gather background data on the nature of these databases, and ways to reconcile differences in record-keeping strategies between states in larger, regional-scale studies.
However, over the course of the semester, when I would have occasion to explain what I was doing to my classmates, I was generally met with blank stares and a slightly glassy-eyed look. I will therefore spend the first part of this essay discussing what exactly state site locations are and how and why they may be useful to academic archaeologists. Next, I will discuss the objectives of my fact-finding project, and the directions in archaeological research and archaeological data management suggested by my findings.
At the National Park Service’s last count, there were 941,019 sites recorded in state registers. As an average, that’s one site for every 4 square miles in the United States. Many of the sites recorded in these databases have long since been excavated and/or destroyed. The sheer volume of data within these databases represent a painstakingly detailed archaeological record of a large portion of North America. However, for various reasons, most of this data goes unused by researchers. The reasons for this lack of use may be grouped into three categories. The first category includes concerns about the accuracy of the data due to site conditions or excavation strategies. The second category concerns the format of the data itself, which is often held in hefty, repetitive, tedious, and hastily written volumes, sometimes in idiosyncratic and legalistic vocabulary. The third category concerns access to the data itself, which may be restricted to individuals on an approved list or meeting certain restrictions. This category also includes reasons that pertain to information management techniques which may facilitate archaeological research, or not. I have concentrated my work on the second two categories, working with the assumption that these reports, if managed appropriately, could be helpful to North American archaeologists trying to answer appropriate questions.
The management of archaeological cultural resources is carried out by federal requirement at the state level and enforced through a single office - typically the Office of the State Archaeologist - connected to the state government. This office reviews proposed ground-breaking activities on federal lands for their potential to impact archaeological site, and makes recommendations regarding field excavations. Projects under government jurisdiction being carried out in archaeologically sensitive areas generally require a field survey. This survey report is written up, delivered to the contracting body, and approved by the state office. If sites are found, a second set of field excavations, with a more extensive report of finding, is published. A third set of excavations and reporting may be carried out, or investigations may be deemed sufficient. In all, anywhere from 0 to 3 reports of varying amount of detail may be written on a single project. Once approved, the final report is printed (20 to 50 copies) and delivered the state office and the contracting body. The extra copies sit on a shelf in the state capitol. A few are distributed to employees, and some are sold at local archaeological conferences. For the most part, however, these reports are not distributed. Access to these reports requires appearing at the state office, typically making an appointment, and reading through or photocopying the relevant volumes on location. Some offices will make photocopies for you if you know what you want.
However, the other set of records that the state office is required to have is the State Site File. This file consists of site locational data that may be correlated with site data stored on standardized forms and in some cases a citation for the relevant report, which may or may not be still around. For years, the standard for these files was a master set of USGS 1:24,000 topographic maps marked with site locations and associated site numbers (a trinomial system indicating state, county, and the order in which the sites were recorded). This site number could then be correlated with the appropriate (paper) site form sitting in a filing cabinet, and often the reports were kept nearby, so that if it was still around, it could be located, with some digging. Again, access to these records typically require approval from the state office. Appointments a few weeks in advance may be required; photocopying may be available for a fee. These state site files are used by archaeologists compiling background reports for field investigations, and determining whether any previously recorded archaeological sites are located within the project area.
Some states are still using this paper-copy system. With the application of geographic information systems to state site file systems, however, large time savings have been observed for professional archaeologists. These databases offer a map-based user interface that can be accessed either online or from an on-location computer. The researcher may zoom into his area of interest and use a query tool to identify sites that are of interest based on their location. A simple click or two can then bring up the site file, provided it has been digitized and loaded into the database. While these databases were designed primarily for cultural resource management professionals and so are geared largely toward their concerns, these databases may provide enough access to professional publications to encourage their use in academic research. However, if this is to become a reality, the databases may have to be readjusted in order to make large-scale data analysis available to users. The querying ability of these databases are limited. For example, differentiating between the spatial distribution of prehistoric archaeological sites and historic-age archaeological sites with these map-based user interfaces is nearly impossible. In addition, more detailed information on individual sites beyond the site form still requires a trip to the state office and tracking down obscure reports. A database linked to .pdfs of the appropriate literature for the site would be useful, but as yet none has been.
My project was aimed at evaluating the research potential of each state's site file. The questions I intended to ask included the following:
*How is site data collected?
*Who is in charge of collecting it?
*Who is allowed to access it?
*How can you access this data?
*Is there a GIS database of the state site file?
*What are the capabilities of this site file?
*How was this site file funded?
*What is the general level of accessibility and ease of use?
I attempted to answer these questions through information provided on state government and historic association websites. As a result, not all of this information is complete; several states I was forced to leave unassessed due to a paucity of online information. Some of the negative ratings that I have given certain states may be based on an unavailability of information regarding the site file rather than the information management techniques themselves. I hope to supplement this report with further information from interviews and correspondence; this report is intended as a preliminary summary of the current state of affairs. I recorded the answers to these questions on a spreadsheet, which I hope to make available in a more accessible format at some point. It may be accessed here. Given the answers to these questions, I assigned each state a rating based on accessibility and information management techniques.
States with an "A" rating had a reasonably up to date GIS database system which could be accessed online after access was granted, linked site file data within the database, and clearly outline site recording systems, management protocols, governing bodies, and procedures for acquiring access. States with a "B" rating have most of these characteristics but may be lacking in one or two areas. They may also be in the process of digitizing the state site file. States with a "C" rating typically had no GIS database but did have clear information regarding access to site files, recording procedures, and bibliographic information for official reports on archaeological investigation within the state. Those with a D rating either had little information on the state site file available online, an information management approach which was entirely dependent on paper, and/or records that were held at several locations rather than just one.In all, thirteen states were given an "A" rating. Eight states had a "B" rating, leaving 21 states with a B or higher rating. Twelve states received a "C" rating. Nine states received the lowest rating. No determination was made for eight states due to a lack of information.
Two consistencies stood out overall during the project. The first was that access to the state site file could be granted to the same group of people across the board; professional archaeologists who met the standards set forth by the Secretary of the Interior; individuals working for professional archaeologists who met these standards; archaeologists with accredited universities or graduate students working for such. For graduate students, a curriculum vita and a letter from your adviser is typically suggested. The second consistency is that a site form shows remarkable similarity across the board. These forms include information on location, ownership and environmental characteristics of the land; the condition of the site, the investigations carried out and the type of records created; and broad, general categorizations of cultural affiliation or time period. A distinction between prehistoric and historic-age sites is also typical.
Another consistency between state site records is the type of roadblocks state offices face when attempting to update or improve record management. The first is funding; the costs of digitizing site records, purchasing GIS software, and maintaining and updating the data are more than is typically feasible for preservation agencies. This funding may be obtained through other sources, such as state transportation department or utility companies which stand to gain from the savings updated systems offer. Each state must address the issue of funding in its own way; no federal source is currently earmarked for this type of project. Another roadblock is simply institutional inertia. The state site file databases are not currently perceived as tools for archaeological research, but for cultural resource management. The production and publication of professional literature is likewise seen as a legal requirement. Any further measures towards making the data within this literature useful on a more analytical level will be perceived as unnecessary and too costly to be feasible. Lastly, there is some concern that the more widespread availability of these state site file databases may compromise confidential site locations. States with widespread looting may emphasize these concerns more than others.
Once I had finished my initial fact-finding, I considered what improvements would be needed before these databases would be usable to academic researchers. First, more widespread coverage of GIS-based database systems would be required. By my estimate site location data has been digitized for less than half of the states in the US. With the speed with which information appears to be accumulating on the internet and in digital systems, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the second half is completed. However, judicious application of federal funding would speed this process somewhat. However, as time goes by the software available to conversion and database management improves and becomes cheaper. Delaying digitization by several more years may present significant gains, both in cost savings and in the quality of the final project. States that were the first to install GIS systems may be at a disadvantage in the long run, as they will be stuck for many years with systems that appear dated and unwieldy.
Records of excavations and other field investigations will also need to be digitized and linked to the appropriate state site files. Tagged .pdfs, while costly to produce from printed paper, are simple to create from word-processing programs. This file format allows for easy searching, which could simplify using the large volumes to find specific pieces of information. Some offices are currently accepting reports in both hard copy and .pdf format; the creation of tagged .pdf at the time of publication may come to be an accepted standard for professional literature.
Lastly, these site databases should be created with the knowledge that the archaeological landscape does not end, as the state's responsibilities do, at the state border. Country-wide or regional-scale databases would be a better reflection of the archaeological data as well as easier for researchers to use.
To conclude, I will be discussing two good examples of attempts to improve existing state site files, as well as two attempts to consolidate state site data in order to create larger analytical unit.The first is the ongoing attempt at the Maryland Historical Trust not only to digitize existing site files into an online GIS database, but also to create written summaries of the appropriate site reports, which can then be linked to the state site files within the database. These summaries will include significantly more detailed and extensive information on the site and will be presented in a consistent, readable, and easily accessible format. The downside of this approach is mostly the time and effort it takes to create summaries for every site in the entire state; the program has been running for some time, and slightly less than half the state has been finished.
The second good example is the GIS system in South Carolina, ArchSite. The site database is a collaborative effort between the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. The database was designed by ESRI software engineers, and is both easy to use and highly detailed. An extensive ontology and online site registration program allows for the easy creation of highly standardized site records which may then be queried in a variety of different ways. The database allows allows for the uploading of associated files, such as images or written documents.
The only attempt at compiling state site records on a national scale was organized by the National Park Service. Site counts for individual counties were compiled by each state and provided to the Service. However, no specific locational information was compiled. As a result, the data is on an extremely broad scale and is therefore of limited analytical value. In addition, site counts were provided to the Park Service as a courtesy. Not all states complied, and in subsequent years, participation in updates fell off. The NADB project site can be found here. A map of site density across the US, compiled with the data provided through this effort, is below.
Another attempt at a larger-scale approach to a site database is the Intermountain Antiquities Computer System (IMACS) . IMACS is a standardized system used in Utah, as well as parts of Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and in one state park in California. While the system could conceivably be used in all parts of the states, however, in Nevada, Wyoming, and California, sites not under Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, or National Forest management are recorded in separate systems.
In all, there is clear direction towards making data collected by cultural resource management professionals usable to academic researchers. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done, much of it related to information management techniques and the implementation of appropriate software. The process will be time consuming and costly. However, it is also important for the cultural resource management community to have a commitment making their data relevant to researchers, usable in later research, and accessible to the archaeological community at large. While excavation and publication may have been an acceptable model for archaeological investigations in the past, the availability of more effective procedures and data management have widened the responsibilities of the individual researcher in terms of reporting his or her data. If professional reports aren’t contributing to the discipline, can they really be considered part of archaeology? Making data available should be an ethical requirement for all archaeologists, and intrinsic in the requirements of the office of state archaeologists.
The State Archaeological Site File Survey is a work in progress. The information I have collected may be accessed in a spreadsheet form here . I hope to be able to present this data in a format that is easier to read at a later date. I also will be continuing to add information about accessing state site files and data management of these site files over time. Corrections, suggestions, or updates should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The PowerPoint presentation for this project may be accessed here.