18 May 2017

Speed & prestige: the example of papyrology

I wanted to quickly throw in a quick thought on a recent series of blog posts, starting with one by Andre Costopoulos entitled “The traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science.” In it he points to the power of the fuzzy concept of "knowing the material" and the way this hinders the transformation of archaeology into an open science.

Bill Caragher reads the piece as "[a] critique of slow archaeology" in his response, returning to a theme Bill has thought and written and talked a fair amount about.

Finally Dimitri Nakassis directly addresses one of Costopoulos' points in "Slow archaeology & the prestige economy" as less of a critique of the main idea (as I read it anyway) than as an observation that the solution might not be the one he proposes:
But what’s really at stake in specialists defending their turf isn’t data or knowledge (exactly), but rather skill. My friend Kim Shelton could make all of her pottery databases available to me but that wouldn’t make me a specialist in Mycenaean pottery. I wouldn’t know what she knows, I won’t have seen what she’s seen. If I used her databases to write an analytical article about Mycenaean pottery, I wouldn’t be welcomed into the warm embrace of Mycenaean ceramicists. I wouldn’t be one of them. I wouldn’t have their skill or their knowledge, just their data.
I don’t think that open data will really democratize the archaeological academy. To answer Costopoulos’ question, “If the information that formed the impressions is suddenly democratized, what power will the clergy hold?” The answer is: plenty.
I'd suggest we actually have an existing example of open data and its effects on an archaeology-related field: papyrology. Papyrology was a fairly closed field as recently as the 1990s. As with archaeology, this was partly due to the difficulty in obtaining and then maintaining the materials for study. With the advent of cheap(-ish) digitization and the internet itself, papyrologists suddenly found that it was possible to share their materials in a way that, if it wasn't quite as good as actual autopsy, was pretty darn close, and would surely be closer and closer as time went by.

Not all papyrologists that I spoke with in those years were super-excited about this, as I remember (and I speak as an outsider, so I'll happily be corrected). In fact they were so slow about taking advantage of the internet that I wrote and maintained a "Papyrology Home Page." I can remember conversations in which the worry was explicitly stated that non-professionals might get a hold of images on-line and write and publish poor-quality articles. (I never quite understood how that was supposed to happen, since the other traditional area of gate-keeping—journals—certainly wasn't going out of the professionals' hands.)

Within a few years, whatever reluctance there had been was overcome and now papyrology stands as a nice example of a field with solid on-line scholarly aids and international collaboration between institutions and scholars. And to a large degree they share their "stuff," too, over at papyri.info.

What's been the impact on the field of papyrology? Again, as an outsider, I'd say that it has done pretty well. Certainly their version of an open-data approach doesn't seem to have doomed their "clergy" to a loss of prestige, nor—as Dimitri suggests—does the field seem to me to have become more democratized.

It might be worth considering in some more detail whether the experience of the papyrologists has something to offer us over here in archaeology. What do they and others think has happened since their embrace of an idea many feared?

(Thanks to Eric Poehler for his persistent tweeting that finally got my attention.)