Society for American Archaeology Symposium 2013

This symposium was held in conjunction with the 78th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology on Thursday 4 April 2013 at the Hawaii Convention Center, Honolulu, HI.

Symposium Abstract

Towards A Data Standard for Paleoanthropology

Denné Reed, Department of Anthropology, Univesity of texas at Austin
Shannon McPherron, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Data standards provide the framework by which independent archaeology projects can share and exchange information reliably. Developing widely accepted data standards for archaeology is challenging because currently there is no established process or organization vested with the authority to establish standards. Starting with the short-term goal of bring together human origins databases in east Africa, the long-term goal of this project is to seed the process of developing a broad-based standard for paleolithic archaeology. Contributions to this symposium will fit with one or more of the three main themes 1) existing ontologies and data schemas, 2) the standards creation process, 3) integration with standards in allied fields such as biology and geology. This is an electronic symposium where the contributions are published online one month prior to the symposium and will provide the background for discussions during the meeting. The discussions will aim to 1) identify the most useful ontology for representing paleolithic archaeology data sets, 2) develop a list of terms to be used in the data standard (a data lexicon) and 3) outline a process for drafting, reviewing and ratifying a standard within the research community.

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Presentation Abstracts

PaleoCore: A data integration initiative for prehistory

Denné Reed, University of Texas at Austin

This paper outlines the goals, conceptual structure, and technological framework of the PaleoCore project. PaleoCore seeks to develop a data standard for prehistory that will facilitate the exchange of primary occurrence data across prehistory research projects. Any standard, to be successful, must have support and input from the broad community of prehistory researchers and this is PaleoCore's first priority. Following the adoption of a standard, the PaleoCore initiative further aims to develop software tools that facilitate geospatial data collection and data management consistent with the standard. Finally, PaleoCore will promote the development of a federated network of prehistory geodatabases that researchers, students and the public can access through the web. This distributed network of data providers is modeled on the system developed by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) for biodiversity research. The synthesis and integration of primary data from multiple sources will open new avenues of big-picture integrative analyses of events in human prehistory and evolution.

Back to the Future: William Henry Holmes and the MSA in the Horn of Africa

John Kappelman, University of Texas at Austin 
Marvin Kay, University of Arkansas
Lawrence Todd, University of Texas at Austin
Abraham Thompson, Colorado State University

William Henry Holmes’ publications from the 1890s are the first clear expositions of a production chain approach to stone tool technology. His insights are as useful today as they were then and have justifiably been credited as providing a foundation for the analytical procedures now employed globally. In advocating for their application to the MSA in the Horn of Africa, we examine a linear model of MSA stone tool production and use at sites located along the upper reaches of the Blue Nile River tributaries on the lowland slope of Ethiopia’s northwestern plateau. Controlled excavations and surveys at Shinfa River localities reveal that MSA humans exploited raw materials from both river gravel bars and upland basalt flows. Flakes, points, and prismatic blades were produced by Levallois core reduction, while the recycling of extractive tools resulted in mostly maintenance items such as wedges. Coupling an understanding of this production sequence with microscopic use-wear analyses provides new information about how MSA lithic collections can be systematically classified and evaluated.

Negotiating trade-offs in establishing standards for data resolution and inter-site comparability: Insights from two projects in eastern Africa

Elisabeth Hildebrand, Stony Brook University
Steven Brandt, University of Florida

Anthropological synthesis entails comparing data across geographic/temporal spans. Archaeological data from different sites are often not comparable due to disparate goals, intellectual traditions, qualitative/quantitative methods and logistical constraints. Differing data sources and degrees of temporal/spatial resolution impede application of uniform data standards across time periods and fieldwork stages. The evolution of two projects in eastern Africa clarifies these challenges and offers potential solutions. At Mochena Borago Rockshelter, SW Ethiopia, state-of-the-art excavation/documentation methods employed since 2006 have yielded the region’s first chronometrically secure Late Pleistocene (>50-38ka) technological sequence. In NW Kenya west of Lake Turkana, initial surveys in 2008 were followed by test excavations in 2009, revealing megalithic sites associated with early herding ~4ka. Full-scale excavations in 2012 demonstrated inter-site differences. Each field season witnessed progressive improvements in spatial/temporal resolution as logistics also improved. Adopting internal data standards has proved challenging for both projects: specialists with different geographical/theoretical backgrounds and analytical objectives hold diverse opinions about trade-offs between spatial resolution vs. excavation speed and other issues that require compromises. Both teams struggle to compare new data to those from prior projects in the region. These internal tensions/resolutions exemplify larger dilemmas in the creation of data standards for the discipline.

A comparison of ontologies and data schemas in paleolithic archaeology

W. Andrew Barr, University of Texas at Austin
Tomislav Urban, University of Texas at Austin
Denné Reed, University of Texas at Austin

Data standards provide a framework for data sharing and can comprise logical ontologies and data schemas. Ontologies provide the logical framework that describes the (often hierarchical) relationships between entities and classes of things, while data schemas provide stable lexicons for referring to those entities along with information about the format in which the information is stored. In this paper we present a comparison of the ontologies and data schema used by a range of archaeological research projects in order to identify the most common ontological relationships and the most useful and prevalent terms used in data schemas. This survey provides the starting point for creating a root set of terms and relationships suitable for a data standard in paleolithic archaeology.

Developing Data Standards for Sharing Data Among Scholars Studying the Paleolithic

Kieth Kintigh, Arizona State University
Francis P. McManamon, Arizona State University

Collaborative and coordinated studies on any topic require a level of cooperation and collegiality in the use of terms and procedures for sharing data and information. The need for a set of common terms and procedures for Paleolithic studies will enable researchers to develop and undertake comparative analysis much more easily. Such studies have the potential for improving research results, making them more widely applicable and transforming contributions of these results to understanding human diversity and history. The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) is an international repository for archaeological data. The repository software allows for flexible description of metadata related to documents, images, and data sets in the archive. Registered users can from collaborative groups that can establish their unique methods of using tDAR to share drafts of documents or data and research results. For data sets there is an “ontology tool,” which is useful for “translating” terms used by different researchers to enable more collaborative investigations.

Technical considerations of metadata standards for digital spatial archaeological data

Erich C. Fisher, Arizona State University
Curtis W. Marean, Arizona State University

Spatial data are fundamental to modern archaeological methodology. The diversity of data collectors, proprietary file types, and processing techniques, however, creates unique challenges for standardizing how these data are collected, stored, disseminated, and, most importantly, described. Describing data is so critical because no data can be used confidently by other researchers unless there is clear and systematic metadata. Here, we will review several common spatial data types (GPS, RADAR, and total station) and the processing techniques common to each data type. We will then make recommendations on implementing metadata standards and how these data are described in online data repositories and in publication.

Coding the Palaeolithic of East Africa: Problems, Possibilities and Procedures

Alison S. Brooks, George Washington University/ Smithsonian Institution
Christian A. Tryon, New York University/Smithsonian Institution

Since 2002, the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program has developed a database of sites and finds relevant to human evolution from a range of published localities, searchable by location, by time range and by data category: Archaeology, Hominins, Fauna, Chronology, Environment and [Depositional] Context. Archaeological data involving artifacts are most problematic, due largely to a lack of standardization, both in the archaeologists’ categories and in the shaping, reshaping and/or use of artifacts by their ancient makers. Archaeological taxonomies are developed not to reflect underlying biological or geological processes, but to answer questions about past behavior. These taxonomies may variously reflect past cognitive and technological abilities, intentions, raw materials, use history, cultural practices and other factors.. To improve the utility of this or other databases we suggest a three-stage process: 1.) collecting data on what questions the archaeological community is asking about past behavior in E Africa and what categories of material culture appear to be most useful, most discussed , most agreed on and/or most problematic, 2.) refining a set of questions and a set of relevant categories that appear to be the most useful and commonly held 3.) attempting to apply these categories to the coding of published sites.

Developing a Standardized Methodology for Paleolithic Excavation and Analysis

Harold L. Dibble, University of Pennsylvania
Shannon P. McPherron , Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Over the course of excavating a number of Paleolithic sites during the past 25 years, the authors have developed several protocols for data retrieval designed to document an excavation, to help the excavation proceed quickly and efficiently, and to produce data suitable for immediate analysis. Here we present some of these protocols and discuss how they result in high level of data standards which, in turn, allows for strict comparisons and integration of data from all of our sites. The lack of such standards in other excavations, however, severely limits the extent to which data from other sites and studies can be incorporated into meaningful, quantitative analyses. While there is a clear need for more complete publication accompanied by adequate metadata, an important part of the solution is to develop software tools that enforce particular standards while simultaneously facilitating archaeological research.

Metabases and priority

Henry Gilbert, California State University, East Bay

Many have envisioned global paleoanthropology meta(data)bases, but, while technically feasible, there are logistical, institutional, social, and other hurdles to combining and serving data from several source institutions. At the forefront is priority. Non-traditional disseminations of information haven’t thus far been afforded high status by review committees, diminishing individual incentive. Additionally, institutions are hesitant to invest time in extra-institutional initiatives with ambiguous returns. In spite of these difficulties, databases now constitute valid publication media, and many multi-institution metabases exist. Some of the lessons learned from these efforts are applicable across disciplines. One such effort, the FOROST metabase (, searches specimens in worldwide forensic osteology collections. Photos, descriptions, diagnoses and life records are the intellectual property of the owning institution. When FOROST-derived material is published, owning institutions, projects, and individuals need to retain priority for the information and images provided. Neither FOROST nor any similar metabase can be cited as prescribed for databases in the MLA and APA guides: At very least, the specimen repository and metabase are essential bibliographic information. Understanding priority and citation has been crucial in the development of FOROST, and this presentation will elaborate how what we have learned can be applied to the development of prehistory metabases.