If you grew up in the 1980s, there’s a good chance you once wanted to become an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. After all, it’s hard to compete with a job that includes uncovering ancient civilizations, risking life and limb to secure irreplaceable artifacts and casually shooting swordsmen in cold blood. But in between avoiding blow-darts, alligators and swinging blades, Indy was plain old Dr. Jones, diligently putting in the hours of research and study that gave him the expertise necessary for his successful fieldwork.
As any qualified archaeologist will tell you, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about everything. Let’s start with the wrong way: An “amateur satellite archaeologist” named Angela Micol hit the news (well, FOX News) this week after announcing the discovery of a previously undocumented pyramid complex. The announcement caused a particularly nerdy corner of the blogosphere to go wild with speculation, until someone thought to ask the experts.
I like big buttes and I cannot lie
It turns out that Micol (who has no training in Egyptology or geology) is what Egyptologists refer to as a “pyramidiot,” who had in fact discovered a commonly occurring sand formation known as a butte. Though her intentions were good, all Micol’s time and effort spent combing through Google Maps was useless without expert guidance. Plus, as Dr. Jones himself would tell you, nothing can replace fieldwork.
That’s where the right way to do amateur archaeology comes in. DigVentures is an ingeniously designed, self-sufficient crowdsourced archaeology research team that’s just successfully completed its first large scale dig.
The project, organized by archaeologists Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Brendon Wilkins, Raksha Dave, and dog Fergus Westcott Wilkins (who is also on Twitter), is an elegant fusion of expert knowledge, crowdfunding and crowdsourced labor. The archaeologists plan the dig and work out how much money and labor they’ll need to get it done. Then, once the plan is in place, finance is secured through crowdfunding. Those who donate can also volunteer to take part in the dig and get their chance to uncover the Ark of the Covenant (or at the very least a crystal skull).
DigVentures’ first project, Flag Fen Lives, raised £25,000 to excavate a Bronze Age settlement. Thanks to the volunteers, the archaeologists were able to do lots of expert things like “palaeoenvironmental sampling” and “establishing a coherent deposit model” (which I assume is a technical term for “discover Temple of Doom”), while the amateurs were able to do something genuinely helpful, instead of getting over-excited at Google Maps anomalies.
Volunteers weren’t stuck doing dull, thankless tasks either: the dig included a “Field School” where the professionals gave classes and offered career guidance to younger enthusiasts. In fact, the Flag Fen dig was such a success that the organizers have already confirmed another project for next year, although they haven’t yet announced whether they will be competing against Nazis or psychotic death-cultists.
DigVentures’ combination of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding raises interesting possibilities: by recruiting their laboring crowd from their funding crowd it’s possible to benefit from a motivated, dedicated workforce which literally has something invested in the project. It will be interesting to see if researchers in other fields can use this model. To those from NASA reading, why not let the crowd plug your funding gap and let us experience what it’s really like in space?