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  • Reflections on a Road Less Traveled:Alt-Ac Archaeology
  • Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Eric C. Kansa

Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.

(Robert Frost, 1916)

In 2003, with Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology doctoral degrees recently in hand, we did something risky. We decided to step off the traditional academic career path and pave a new road. This approach, which has since become known as an “alt-ac” (alternative academic) career, is gaining many followers, particularly in the face of the increasing corporatization of the university, which has cast much doubt on the future of traditional academic careers.

Our story is not unusual. Everyone knows that it is very difficult to find a job in archaeology. It’s even harder to find two jobs in one place. However, we were at an age where we were willing to take some risks, and we had an idea. As recent graduate students, we had both collected original data from our own analyses and transcribed data from the published literature (Fig. 1). Rather than see this as a rite of passage that all graduate students should go through, why not make this kind of effort easier for others to build upon by using the Web to share data? As we discussed this, driving along California Interstate 580 one afternoon in the year 2000, The Alexandria Archive Institute (AAI)1 was born.

In the 15 years since then, the AAI and Open Context2 have emerged as leading players as twenty-first-century archaeological scholarship goes online. Open Context is an open-access data publishing platform for archaeology, which is now referenced by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for data management for archaeology and the digital humanities. Its approach of “data sharing as publishing” emphasizes collaboration with dedicated editorial and information specialists (us) to make data more intelligible and usable. Open Context publishes a wide variety of archaeological data, ranging from archaeological survey data to excavation documentation, artifact analyses, chemical analyses of artifacts, and detailed descriptions of bones and other biological remains found in archaeological contexts.

The range, scale, and diversity of these data require expertise in data modeling and a commitment to continual development and iterative problem solving. Open Context has undergone several upgrades, the most recent in spring of 2015, to keep pace with technology changes and to leverage best practices in data stewardship. With data preservation through the University of California (the California Digital Library), Open Context now publishes more than 1.2 million archaeological records from projects worldwide. This is on a scale comparable to that of a major museum (for instance, the online collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York makes some 407,000 records available). Open Context has made this remarkable achievement on a much more limited budget than the online collections of major museums. Grant funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the NEH, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, NSF, and others has gone a long way largely because of the AAI’s status as an independent non-profit organization with an overhead much, much lower than large research institutions. The AAI and Open Context have also benefited from the growth of the Web and the “ecosystem” of projects and individuals in similar roles—undertaking innovative work outside of traditional academic roles. At the same time, our vantage point outside of the tenure track offers us a different perspective on the Academy and its evolution. In this essay, we discuss our experience working for the past decade in the alt-ac world and highlight the need for these types of careers to enrich archaeological scholarship in the twenty-first century. [End Page 293]


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Fig 1.

Sarah Whitcher Kansa analyzing faunal remains at Etruscan-period Poggio Civitate (Murlo).

(Courtesy of G. Lauffenburger.)

The Rise of the Alt-Ac

Over the past 30 years, Internet technologies have transformed the way we communicate, both socially and professionally. While these technological transformations profoundly affect scholarship, they do so unevenly and in complex ways. To further complicate matters, while...

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