The following is an excerpt from the Spring 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine.
By Alexandra Witze
COVER IMAGE: Archaeologists with Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc. collect data from a Paleo-Indian site in Cave Valley, Nevada | Credit: Daron Duke
Michael “Sonny” Trimble has seen many things in his nearly thirty-two-year career as an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including leading the forensic investigation of several mass graves in Iraq. He faced Saddam Hussein in court and detailed the scientific findings that helped convict Hussein of crimes against humanity.
When Trimble worked in Iraq he was protected by American soldiers. When some of those soldiers’ returned home, their tours of duty over, they contacted Trimble in hopes that he would return the favor by helping them find employment. Though Trimble wanted to help, there wasn’t much that he could do.
A researcher observes a burial in a rock shelter in Montana. The researcher was involved in an archaeological project associated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and this picture, which was taken years ago, was digitally preserved as part of the Veterans Curation Program. | Credit: National Anthropology Archives, NMNH
Members of a research team enter information from their excavation into a project database. The data are published with Open Context, where they are associated with data from previous years and linked to related content on the Web. | Credit: Open Context/Sarah Kansa
But then a thought occurred to him. The Army Corps of Engineers’ is the custodian of vast archaeological collections that, according to him, are second only to the Smithsonian’s. The collections represent the tremendous amount of archaeological work that was conducted as the Corps built dams and developed other major projects. So Trimble initiated the Veterans Curation Program to train veterans to help catalogue the Corps’ collections. In laboratories around the country, veterans now photograph, scan, and publicly archive information about everything from a prehistoric quartz quarry in Georgia to a rockshelter in Indiana. The data ends up in a digital repository hosted at Arizona State University in Tempe, known as the Digital Archaeological Record, or tDAR. Sensitive information, such as the specific location of certain sites, is withheld—but the veterans upload everything else to the public site. “That’s the platform where everybody can get to this stuff no matter what their interest is,” said Trimble, who retired in December. “It democratizes it.”
Nonetheless, most archaeologists aren’t curating their digital data at public repositories like tDAR. Keith Kintigh, an archaeologist at Arizona State University and a founder of tDAR, stressed that proper curation is more important than ever because now much of this information is, so to speak, “born digital” and exists in no other form. Without it, future generations of scientists won’t be able to reanalyze and synthesize the information and make fresh discoveries of their own. “It’s a tragedy