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Why Open Access is important

July 9, 2006

[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.

  1. July 10, 2006 2:54 pm

    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 ( and from the What’s New in Abzu blog (


    -Chuck Jones-

  2. July 10, 2006 3:21 pm

    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. July 11, 2006 5:56 am

    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. July 11, 2006 5:57 am

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

  5. July 20, 2006 4:44 am

    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 permalink
    July 29, 2006 2:09 am

    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?

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