Data and Material Culture

Data and Material Culture: Finds and Specimens as “Raw Archival Data”

Mirjam Brusius

Things—for example specimens, artifacts, trophies, instruments, commodities, religious or literary texts—all travel. They do so by transferring ideas and facts, physically and epistemically. This paper stressed the importance of material culture in data production and the transformation of knowledge. Focusing on nineteenth-century excavations of ancient Near Eastern archeological sites by European (primarily German and British) scholars, this paper investigated the status of archeological objects as "raw archival data" at the critical point between their excavation and their incorporation in museum collections. The knowledge that was derived from these "data" was the result of a complex selection and transformation process, in which people (for example, scholars at a museum) attached often multiple meanings to their objects of study. This paper paid attention to the time and space when the objects seemed to have "no status" and their meaning was still dynamic and negotiable. The paper asked the following questions: What is the connection between data and the physical objects they represent? Can an object be both a carrier of data and data itself? What assumptions and practices are required to transform a physical object into a datum? Do objects become "better" data once they arrive at a final destination where they become objects of study? And finally, what role do epistemic practices, such as the application of visual media in the field and in the museum, play in turning "raw data" into data of another order?