Unearthing the data

UND’s Digital Press bolsters role as a leading Open Access publisher with new release on break-neck technological advances in archaeology

Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology

Cover art for Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, the new release from UND’s Digital Press. Courtesy of William Caraher.

Picks, shovels, sifters, brushes — and laptop computers, drones and more.

It’s a revolution in the world of archaeology and also in academic publishing. Both are highlighted with the latest publication from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

The volume, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, was published as part of the celebration of Open Access Week. The Digital Press at UND is the region’s leading Open Access publisher.

William Caraher, associate professor of history and graduate program director, served as publisher, with Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), Jody Michael Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology) and Derek Counts (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) as editors.

Discussions about digital archaeology in Mobilizing the Past go well beyond specific technologies, Caraher notes. It is a topic, though, in which he is well versed.  In 2015, The Digital Press published Visions of Substance: 3D imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology, edited by Caraher and UND alumnus Brandon Olson. Caraher and other scientists have conducted extensive studies at the Pyla Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP) on Cyprus.

Transformative technology

Mobilizing the Past brings together 17 papers by some of the discipline’s most creative thinkers as they survey how technology is bringing rapid and dramatic changes to archaeological field practice.

“They’ve transformed what it means ‘to do’ archaeology,” Caraher said. “A volume of this kind was exciting to me as a publisher because it’s clear that we’re just at the beginning of this period of change.”

William Caraher

UND Associate Professor of History William Caraher (center in photo) was a founding member of UND’s Working Group on Digital and New Media, which had as one of its outgrowths the creation of UND’s Digital Press. Courtesy of William Caraher.

The technologies that have become available are transformative because they are not only powerful but also affordable. Tablet computers, for example, are durable enough to largely replace paper notebooks in the field and also allow on-the-spot analysis of excavations. Drones can be used to create high-resolution topographic maps and site plans.

“The challenge facing archaeologists,” Caraher observed, “is how to integrate these tools into our discipline in a thoughtful and critical way. Despite claims that every new device is ‘magical’ or ‘revolutionary,’ most meaningful change in any discipline happens in the critical engagement with new tools and technology. In other words, it’s never as simple as adding new technology.

“There’s a balance between improvements in efficiency and the hands-on practices that traditionally defined archaeological work,” he explained. “Archaeologists learn about the past not by just looking at data, but also by experiencing the site and the artifact in a tactile, haptic way.”

Caraher noted that Mobilizing the Past has already seen 1,200 downloads. And this demonstrates the impact sought with the creation of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Mark Kennedy, who assumed duties as UND’s president this summer, has called for the University to be at the forefront of the “digitization wave.” Well before his arrival, several UND scholars were considering the possibilities.

In 2011, Caraher was a founding member of UND’s Working Group on Digital and New Media. The group brought together faculty and students across numerous disciplines to explore how technology and collaboration could generate new opportunities for teaching, research, creative activity and publication.

One outgrowth was the creation of The Digital Press, a re-imagining of the “traditional university press” with the goal of publishing books in both paper and digital formats. Digital versions would be available for free, and traditional book lovers could acquire physical copies through outlets such as Amazon and bookstores.

Jody Michael Gordon, Erin Walcek Averett, Derek Counts

The panel image shows the three co-editors of the newest release from UND’s Digital Press, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology. They are, from left to right, Jody Michael Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology), Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University)and Derek Counts (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). The publisher is UND’s William Caraher.

World of praise

Caraher was the editor for The Digital Press’ first publication, Punk Archaeology, an “irreverent and relevant” collection of essays inspired, in part, by observations of parallel processes in the creation of rock music and archaeological field expeditions.

Along with former UND faculty member Kyle Conway (now at the University of Ottawa), Caraher edited The Digital Press’ The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies. The book was published in the spring of 2016 and recorded 500 digital downloads in its first month. It gained national and even international attention for its exploration of the challenges faced by western North Dakota communities when oil production surged.

The year before, The Digital Press published a translation of Karl Jacob Skarstein’s The War With the Sioux: Norwegians Against Indians 1862-1863. The Norwegian-language manuscript featured immigrants, American soldiers and Lakota and Dakota Indians recounting their struggles to preserve their different ways of life. It was translated by UND Associate Professor of Norwegian Melissa Gjellstad and UND alumna Danielle Mead Skjelver.

The Digital Press has generated praise and attention within the academic world for both its output and its mission.

“A commitment to Open Educational Resources goes beyond finding good open access materials to use in our research and teaching, and requires us to give back to the open access ecosystem,” said Caraher. “The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota reflects UND’s commitment to enriching both our students and classrooms as well as the wider open access community.”