Why Open Access is important

[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

While wait­ing for the pho­to­copier on Wednesday I picked up Garrett Fagan’s art­icle on pseudoar­chae­ology in Archaeology Magazine from a couple of years back. I’ve read with interest Cornelius Holtorf’s paper on Alternative Archaeologies (free ver­sion is alas off­line, but you can read dis­cus­sion about the paper at Graham Hancock’s site) and Katherine Reese’s book chapter from the per­spect­ive of a former believer. There’s a range of views, but one factor I think they’d all agree on is that there is a need to make inform­a­tion avail­able. Reese’s own response was to set up the In the Hall of Ma’at web­site, which Archaeology repor­ted.

I think the Bosnian Pyramid saga is an excel­lent example of what hap­pens when inform­a­tion isn’t access­ible. Here’s a quote from Osmanagic.

The civil­iz­a­tions did not migrate from Middle and West Europe, but from here toward them.

He is right.

On pyr­am­ids, ali­ens and whether experts he named com­ing to his site had been sent by Zahi Hawass or even been to Bosnia, he’s wrong, but the claim that places like Bosnia are hugely import­ant to European pre­his­tory is abso­lutely right. This is why many archae­olo­gists are hor­ri­fied that he’s dig­ging the site and the way he’s doing it. The idea that south-eastern Europe was the cul­tural and tech­no­lo­gical engine of Europe really isn’t dis­puted. It’s writ­ten in the land­scape at places like Karanovo below.

Tell at Karanovo. Photo by kind per­mis­sion of Raluca.

Above is a man-made hill cre­ated by thou­sands of years of occu­pa­tion. The bot­tom layer is the Stone Age. This was a place where people were farm­ing thou­sands of years before the idea caught on in places like the British Isles. The layer above is labelled Chalkolithikum, which isn’t the Bronze Age — It’s the Copper Age.

The Copper Age isn’t that well-known, mainly because a lot of places didn’t have one. It was a period before alloy­ing was dis­covered and people could have been work­ing nat­ive cop­per to begine with rather than smelt­ing. Once Bronze was dis­covered it sup­planted cop­per but for a while — for the tech­no­lo­gical pion­eers of Europe — a cop­per knife was the cut­ting edge of technology.

Later on it’s other places that shine. In the Aegean the Bronze Age cul­tures of Crete and Greece take off. From the east, per­haps the Ukraine, come a whole load of new ideas like horse rid­ing. But for a long, long while it was the south­east of Europe and the Balkans which were the centres of innovation.

The prob­lem, and it’s a big one, is access­ing that information.

The photo above is Karanovo, Bulgaria, which is quite a way from Bosnia. There are closer sites, Lepinski Vir, Serbia, which has some pho­tos on Flickr, and Starcevo, Serbia which is a major site. But look­ing for inform­a­tion on the major sites of the region, the best I could find is this page on Vinca, also in Serbia on the Danube. I used the Karanovo photo by Raluca, who also has pho­tos of other neo­lithic sites from south­east Europe on his Flickr account, partly because it was an excel­lent photo, but also because of the sheer lack of mater­ial about south­east­ern sites online.

It’s a shame. Archaeologists have got to grips with books recently. There have been some first rate access­ible and afford­able books by archae­olo­gists recently. After the Ice by Steve Mithen is the most obvi­ously use­ful book for the Bosnian claims but there’s also The Molecule Hunt by Martin Jones or Genes, Peoples and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Unfortunately they haven’t really got to grips with the web yet. In terms of eas­ily access­ible inform­a­tion, the Balkans are sorely lacking.

Archaeological mater­ial is hid­den behind sub­scrip­tions. In my case my paper on Delphi will cost you £15, or over twice the cost of the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I don’t want to put you off, it’s amaz­ing, but twice as good as Shakespeare? I did think the idea of archae­olo­gists being exclu­sion­ary was para­noia, but if you look at the sheer cost of recently pub­lished mater­ial, then unin­ten­tion­ally or not the costs are a very effect­ive bar­rier to learn­ing. What you’re left with is a bunch of experts who are ask­ing people to exam­ine the evid­ence, use a crit­ical mind and if you want to exam­ine them be pre­pared to pay sac­ri­fice a major bod­ily organ to a shady trans­plant sur­geon to pay for the privilege.

From the inside it’s laugh­able to think that archae­ology is about money or power, but if people will pub­lish their work in books like this (£230 is about $430, but you can save $100 order­ing from Amazon US), then it’s clear that someone is mak­ing money.

Osmanagic is able to make his claims because the inform­a­tion archae­olo­gists have about the region is so dif­fi­cult to find. He can make claims about oppos­i­tion being jeal­ous due to money because if any­one did, for instance care to check what I said about Karanovo, they could pay hun­dreds of pounds / dol­lars / euros to find out, or else live near a stag­ger­ingly effi­cient lib­rary. For all that can be said about Osmanagic, aca­dem­ics are the people who have cre­ated the con­di­tions in which he can flour­ish. The events in Bosnia should cause some people to reflect on how this came to be, but whether or not it will is another matter.

In light of all that it’s great news that the EAA journal is encour­aging review­ers to self-publish their reviews to the web after a one-year embargo. There’s also the American Journal of Archaeology avail­able online. As for my work, you can read an over­view (in English, Greek, Hungarian and Italian) or else read a series of posts on it.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

6 Responses

  1. Chuck Jones says:

    You may find mater­ial indexed in Abzu [all of it open access] to be use­ful. among the things I have cata­logued in the last few days are pub­lic­a­tion in Archaeoastronomy and Ancient Science from the American Philosophicalsociety.

    You can ger RSS feds from Abzu (http://​www​.etana​.org/​a​bzu) and from the What’s New in Abzu blog (http://​www​.bloglines​.com/​b​l​o​g​/​A​b​z​u​New).


    –Chuck Jones–

  2. Alun says:

    Thanks hugely for point­ing that out. I hadn’t real­ised how long it had been since I last vis­ited ABZU, but it must have been years. I feel a bit fool­ish for miss­ing out on it for so long. I thought it indexed just Mesopotamian mater­ial, but the links to things like Dawkins’s report on the temple of Artemis Orthia are hugely use­ful to Greek his­tor­i­ans too.

  3. Eric Kansa says:

    We’re very much in agree­ment about Open Access. It is an import­ant strategy not only to make things easier for the researcher com­munity, but also make our research more rel­ev­ant and val­ued by the public.

    Members of the SAA Digital Data Interest Group are very inter­ested in access issues. Please visit the blog:

  4. Eric Kansa says:

    Oops sleep depriva­tion get­ting to me… That blog’s at:


  5. CFeagans says:

    Don’t miss the Oriental Institute’s Electronic Resources.

    Their online pub­lic­a­tions include Demotic and Hittite lan­guage resources and they have online museums, photo archives, etc. They also link to Abzu.

    One of my favor­ite, recent book pur­chases is Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500. It was inex­pens­ive and very detailed. I wish I could find books on Egyptology, Aegean arche­ology, or Mesoamerican archae­ology that rise to this level of detail for the price.

  6. Helena Constantine says:

    Just out of curi­os­ity about the Delphi Paper–

    I won’t be able to look at it until I get back to school this fall, but look­ing at the abstract, I can’t help but won­der if there is any tex­tual evid­ence that sup­ports your line of argument?