Is the WWW the solution?

Increasingly, opinion is converging on the World Wide Web as the 'place' where our data should be 'published' and 'archived'. The WWW is seen by many as a living medium as opposed to the static media of p-journals, p-monographs, and e-monographs published on CD or DVD. There is sense to this, of course. With sufficient commitment, web sites can be updated quickly and easily. Papers can be archived, much as on the model of the high-energy physics community. The costs of storage continue to decline rapidly, and there are even economically feasible models, as well as the hardware and software capable of so doing, for storing 'snapshots' of the entire WWW on a periodic basis (Kahle 1996). It seems reasonable, then, to look to the web as a potential 'place' for the archiving and storage of our primary data.

However, to make this potential a reality, it is going to take the weight of institutions and organisations to make it happen. Although each of us is responsible for our own data in that we must ensure that it is migrated successfully, at some point it must be passed on to others. In the past, that was the museum. Tomorrow, it will be some sort of digital archive that has a guarantee of longevity through governmental agency, scholarly society, or other entity. Digital archives must have a very real organisational imprimatur that guarantees continuity, for otherwise, if we lose our primary data, they are lost forever. Many groups have been quite concerned with these problems, and a few sources of useful information include Beagrie and Greenstein (1998), which contains a number of excellent case studies on how archiving institutions must develop effective IT strategies, Day (1997), which includes a comprehensive bibliography on the digital archiving, and Conservation OnLine (, an online catalogue of information for professionals in the digital archiving field that has much to offer anyone interested in the topic. MacLean and Davis (1998) also have an extensive section on digital document preservation in their volume.

What kinds of institution currently support digital archives? These range from international scientific organisations such as the International Council of Scientific Unions, which supports the World Data Centers, which is itself composed of national and academic bodies that now warehouse primarily geological, geophysical, and similar data, governmental agencies of all kinds at all levels, from the local to the global, professional societies, and avocational groups. Among the organisationally supported data archiving projects in archaeology are the National Archaeological Data Base (, which is supported by the National Park Service of the United States, the Archaeological Data Archive Project, supported by the Center for the Study of Architecture at Bryn Mawr University (; see also Eiteljorg 1997, and the Archaeology Data Service ( sponsored by a consortium of universities, museums, and government programs in the United Kingdom (Richards 1997). Although these organisations are a good start, it is clear that archaeology is far behind most disciplines in the way in which it has approached digital data archiving and dissemination.

Behind all of this, though, is a nagging question. Do we really want to save all of what the web offers, and if so, to what end? Granted, we must save our primary data, but what about the vast amounts of what I call digital ephemera - web sites, web rings, sets of links, personal impressions of archaeological sites, even projects with an obvious desire, like Hodder's and McDavid's, to be overtly reflexive and multivocal. This in no sense denigrates their accomplishments, but what I am asking is that we reflect upon what these projects are, what they mean for our field, and whether, and then, how, they should be preserved. Thinking these thoughts moves us into a very grey area of archaeology as we have known it into a much more fluid, more open, and in some ways more dangerous place in which, as many of the authors in this collection have noted, we are not the only people using, consuming, and debating our data. It is this area of so-called 'responsible archaeology' (Pyburn and Wilk 1995) and the way it interacts with the digital revolution, that I hope to discuss in a subsequent paper.


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Last updated: Thu Jul 15 1999