Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory

A Day at The Center for Digital Antiquity

Our offices at The Center for Digital Antiquity (DA) are located on the fourth floor of Hayden Library, on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.  The library is being renovated and this morning we were evacuated from our offices during the third fire alarm (drill?) of the week!   While we waited outside—enjoying rare Arizona cloud cover –I thought about what I’d write about today.  My job is totally different than the dirt archaeology I was trained in or the academic anthropology track I envisioned myself on when I started out as an undergraduate about 15 years ago, but I love it! I’ve decided to describe a bit about what we do in our small office generally, and then highlight a few of the specific activities we participated in today.

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The Center for Digital Antiquity is responsible for maintaining and improving the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), an online repository for digital archaeological information.  We specialize in providing long-term access to and the preservation of irreplaceable archaeological files.  tDAR accepts a wide range or archaeological information—field notes, reports, manuscripts, photographs, sketches, drawings, 3D scans, databases, charts, tables, and more—from around the world.  We keep them safe, associated with rich and archaeologically specific metadata to ensure that they can be discovered, and, as needed, migrate the files to new formats so that they will be usable today and long into the future.  Our mission is to ensure that the information collected as part of archaeological research, impossible to replicate and often generated at great cost (financial, as well as the literal blood, sweat, and tears of field archaeologists!) is available for researchers of today and the future.


Zen and the Art of Curation


Greetings from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign! Recently, I have been spending my days in the lab helping to update and transcribe site inventories into a digital database.  The excavations that produced these artifacts were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the only inventories that exist are on hard copy.  Additionally, some of the artifacts are still in their original paper collection bags.  I am currently relabeling and rebagging artifacts, mostly lithics, and entering catalogue and provenience information into a digital database.  (Provenience refers to the exact location on the site at which the artifact was found; as opposed to the “Antiques Roadshow” term provenance, which refers to the entire history of the object from its discovery to the present).  It is important to curate these items using materials and technology that will help to preserve both the artifacts and their associated provenience information.


While this task might not entail bullwhip-cracking excitement and Spielberg-worthy finds, I think it is every bit as valuable as the discovery of a new site, the excavation of a unique artifact, or the ground-breaking research taking place daily.  This is due in part to my recent completion of a Master’s thesis in which I analyzed artifacts from the Chesapeake Bay region, despite living about 800 miles away in the Midwest.  I was able to conduct a majority of my research and some data collection using the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture database (, created by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and other Chesapeake archaeologists and collaborators.  This information was available to me thanks to the careful curation and meticulous inventorying of thousands of artifacts by Tidewater archaeologists in Maryland and Virginia.


As I work on curating the artifacts and information from excavations conducted years ago in Illinois, my recent research experience is always in the back of my mind.  I hope that our careful curation of the artifacts from decades-old excavations will assist researchers investigating these sites to more easily access this information.  The field of archaeology continues to advance both technologically and theoretically, and it is important to preserve artifacts and information as completely as possible to assist future researchers in the reinvestigation and reanalysis of previously-excavated sites.  Who knows what exciting reinterpretations might someday be based on these nondescript bags of broken rocks?

These chert samples were collected from a site investigated in the 1960s and 1970s.