My dissertation aims to uncover an understudied area of Classical archaeology—the role natural features had in dictating the placement of religious structures in ancient Greece. Drawing on a variety of resources—archaeological gazetteers, excavation volumes, and ancient sources—I am locating all known places of cultic significance (between 2800 BCE and 146 BCE) in the Argolid and Messenia, and photographing and video recording their approaches and views from a number of perspective points. Using measurements like viewshed, mobility, and topographic prominence, I am creating a series of methodologies to analyze the position of each structure-type on the landscape. All of these data will be input onto an online user interface. Here, the user can make queries and discover trends: “Show all temples located above 500 meters,” “How many altars were located on level versus elevated land?” or “Show all tholoi with a north-facing entrance.”
With these data, and future data collection in the remaining regions of Greece, I hope to determine whether or not cultic structures were in fact situated with particular topographic characteristics in mind. And, with a macro-level focus on time, space, and place-type, I hope to better understand which types of structures, if at any, were influenced by collective (cultural) memory.
The methods I am using to address these questions are by no means innovative. Many academic disciplines use GIS to discover spatial and visual properties of past and present landscapes. Despite its popularity, related publications are, by and large, vague. Often times, applied parameters and custom scripts are not fully described. I myself have spent countless hours rebuilding published methodologies from the ground up, lacking many details that would have sped up the process. The situation is, unfortunately, unavoidable. I need to replicate a methodology with my own data before I can gauge utility, time constraints, and required adjustments.
I have used GIS in academic and professional roles for over ten years, and am still baffled at the lack of transparency in these publications. What is the utility of creating an effective workflow if one does not publicize the steps necessary for its replication? Thankfully, I have had some useful encounters. Two separate publications described very promising custom scripts; upon request, both authors sent me the files, and permission to use them in my dissertation. Unfortunately, their generosity has been outweighed by a long list of denials and unanswered emails. We already know why this is happening. One of the touchstone goals of academia—to advance collective understanding—has become overshadowed by the limited number of open faculty positions and the constant pressure of tenure.
Is your lack of transparency in fact hindering future discoveries?
Some academic journals, too, can be blamed, however unaware they might be. Speaking to my own discipline, the length and number of appendices are often limited by the publisher. Repositories for downloadable materials are rarely provided. This being said, there are simple and cost-effective resources available to circumvent these limitations. Repositories like GitHub come to mind—custom scripts can be uploaded, described, and archived for free. WordPress, or even a personal Academia.edu page, could be easily manipulated into a personal repository for written tutorials.
Resources like these are useful addenda to the traditional book, dissertation, or journal article. Publish the results first, certainly. Stake a claim on your work. But after that, consider the effects of your data and methodological presentation. Is your lack of transparency in fact hindering future discoveries? Inspired, in a sense, by those scholars who never emailed me back, I have decided to hold myself accountable—I will place equal emphasis on my methods as my results, and will make them available for others to use.
Initially, I created detailed workflows of how I collected, managed, and analyzed my data simply for my own reference. I quickly realized, however, that these were living documents, filled with useful tips on troubleshooting Microsoft Access, specific ArcMap errors, and explanations of why I had decided to categorize sites in a particular way. The documents themselves were data, essentially, and could be useful to a future scholar who wanted to replicate, for example, how I measured topographic prominence. I have thus decided to include written tutorials in my dissertation annotations, which will describe all applied methods for collection, management, and analysis. Each will be thoroughly annotated, citing any publication from which I derived a particular step, and recounting tips, tricks, or encountered exceptions.
The aforementioned user interface will act as an online hub for my project. Because I am dealing with specific locations of archaeological material, the website will be password protected and require an application for access. My data will be stored here, for users to view; data can also be queried based on recorded attributes, to explore trends. Once I have published the results of my dissertation, users will also be able to download my documentation.
While I was able to design a functioning database in Access on my own, I have had to seek help from Boston University’s Hariri Institute for Computing to transition to an online interface. They are building code to transfer my Access-based data into an online environment, and are also creating custom tools for collection and analysis. The intellectual and financial support of these computer scientists is invaluable, particularly because of their refreshing perspectives regarding open access. When I initially told them I wanted to make all of the interface and tool codes open access, they were enthusiastically supportive. Methodological transparency is, apparently, far more common in the computer sciences.
Indebted to the work by landscape archaeologists working in other regions—prehistoric Britain and the Maya, for example—I would like to ensure that my own research is fully documented. Employing my own open-access policy means these likeminded scholars could easily apply my analyses to their own data, refine them, and publish their own version. The generous grants I have received to offset costs of fieldwork, equipment, and computational development with therefore be positively affecting their work, and not just my own.
Our choices are affected by our experiences. A more experienced scholar might read this post and recall moments in their academic career that have discouraged them against transparency and open access. To those who are willing and able to explore the possibilities of digital open access, however, I implore you to gauge what changes you can make, however small, to your workflow. Reflect on the daily setbacks you encounter, and decide how they could be avoided. Imagine the advancements which would occur if those barriers did not exist—in your colleagues’ pursuits, and your own. The obstacles I have recounted here, I believe, are avoidable; I intend to inspire a change, however small, with my own dissertation.