The DHP has two concurrent goals:
- Facilitate the print and web publication of legacy excavation or heritage data;
- Provide students with career-relevant training tailored to their interests and aspirations.
Transforming primary field records into meaningful data for publication is arduous, and particularly challenging for legacy archives. Meanwhile, opportunities for local student field placements are few and the costs of overseas excavation prohibitive, leaving students struggling to attain critical experience and training for their professional careers. Pairing the digital curation of legacy archives with pedagogical training is a key opportunity to offer students equal access to skills-training vital to their career prospects.
For archaeologists, there is a growing need to digitise and effectively manage archives and legacy data. New technologies and high-speed internet allow almost boundless new audiences to engage with previous research. There’s also the fact that gaining new perspectives on previous data holds tremendous potential for new interpretations and research avenues. However, despite these advantages, funding for such endeavours remains scarce. For many institutions, particularly those with excavations that spanned decades, archival and research materials are accumulating at a rate that is extremely difficult to process. The manpower alone that is required to scan or accurately input data is a considerable block to mass digitisation for long term archaeological projects. In line with this, it is becoming increasing difficult to secure funding to publish any forms of data, let alone digitise and process or consider hiring a team to do so.
These problems lead to several other major issues and questions that are raised. How can a mass digitisation effort effectively process and publish legacy data transparently and with integrity to the original work and context? How can we ensure a safe data migration process? Better yet, how do we ensure digitisation methods are reliable and transparent to stakeholders and the public? And are digitisation programs effective methods for gaining recognition of legacy data and can this secure future funding?
Furthermore, today’s archaeology students face considerable challenges, particularly in a COVID-19 world. Practical skills and field experience are critical requirements to enter the workforce, yet it is increasingly difficult to find avenues to obtain such experience or develop relevant vocational skills. Field schools and international opportunities are expensive. Most overseas projects charge substantial fees for student placements on top of existing costs such as travel and accommodation. Meanwhile, both free volunteer field placements and undergraduate scholarships for fieldwork are rare in Australasia. Increasingly archaeology is regressing to a career that only the privileged can enjoy. We have very few local field schools within Australia, and limited avenues for internship placements in a lab or with an archaeological company.
These issues have been compounded by the onset of COVID-19 and the grounding of all international travel and in-person work.
Dr Kristen Mann and the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens knew these challenges intimately from first-hand experience and observation. We were in a position to do something to help, and so the Digital Horizon’s Project was born!
The Digital Horizons Project was founded in 2019 by the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens. We launched in early 2019 with a pilot program of twelve volunteers from the University of Sydney, initially trained on-site (by Mann) in archival scanning and excavation notebook and field photo data-entry. The project expanded rapidly from there, in large part thanks to the creation of the Volunteer Coordinator role, filled by Romanis.
By 2020 the pilot program had 22 students had proven ready for full launch. But then, apparent disaster struck! Yes indeed, we are talking about the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down most of the globe. Not only were our onsite volunteer services and tasks severely impacted, so were our immediate recruitment, training and communication plans.
Luckily, our database was online, and our volunteers had already digitised a substantial amount of archival records and data. We rapidly adapted to an entirely online and remote system, so our volunteers were able to continue their training and detailed work, and we could continue to expand and train students through periodic webinars run by our mentors.
Moving online proved a blessing in disguise: we could now offer placements to students from other universities. We were soon flooded with applications from students – both in Sydney and across Australia – keen to get practical experience in archaeological data, digital tools, and field records. We became a beacon in a Covid-19 world: an opportunity for students to continue to get field-relevant, practical experience despite local lockdowns and international travel bans. Accordingly, both our membership and role-flexibility grew exponentially.
We now offer online-only teams comprising roles designed for non-local or locked-down volunteers, alongside hybrid online/in person roles for when lockdowns ease.
Today, we have over 100 volunteers from archaeology, museums studies, and classics/ancient history departments at six universities. We have a dynamic and socialiable team, with high volunteer-retention rate, consistent positive feedback, and many DHP alumni now in permanent employment. We have nearly completed the digitisation and initial processing of all primary Zagora data (over 23,000 database records in less than two years), and are now moving on to the more advanced data processing and pre-publication preparation tasks. Our archival teams are keen to complete this work and move on to new legacy archives.
The program has been a resounding success! While the project's achievements partially reflect an existing gap in student training, the true benefits flow from the dedication and enthusiasm of our wonderful volunteers– both students and mentors.
The Digital Horizons Project prides itself on the high quality training that our staff and mentors offer our volunteers.
Our experts are all specialists in their field, and encompass AAIA staff, academics and field consultants, and senior volunteers who have progressed to team leaders thanks to their experience and skills.