Creative Commons

Archaeology Hack-a-thon! The Heritage Jam, Cemeteries & Audioscapes

Still hungover from the team spirit of The Heritage Jam, an archaeology hack-a-thon, Stuart Eve and Colleen Morgan decided to blog in dialogue for the Day of Archaeology.

CM: I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the basic outlines of what a “Jam” should be in the tech/gaming world–everyone comes together to hack on a project together to see what kind of results you can get with very intense focus for a short amount of time–but how would that play out in the world of interpretation and heritage? I just knew that I was excited to finally have a chance to work on something with other visualizers, some of whom I’d known for years. We started out bright and early at 9:00, went through introductions, got an outline of a plan together, then went to York Cemetery to gather primary data.

After a lot of discussion (and an inadvertent stop in a retirement home for lunch), we went to work. Very quickly each of us were able to step into a niche that worked toward a final product. We elaborated on Shawn Graham and Stu Eve’s Historical Friction/Story Whisperer to create a cacophony in a cemetery–geolocated stories emanating from graves that would increase in intensity with the density of burials in different areas. The final product was a website, an app, an interactive map, a short video to show the concept in action and a well-written paradata document. It might have been overkill. Working with a whole team of creatives was an unbelievable rush. We were able to rely on each other for different pieces of work, as well as draw inspiration from the team. We ended up working for 12 hours!

Stu Eve and Kerri Hoffman

SE: The Jam for me was a refreshing example of ‘doing’. I had heard of ‘hack-a-thons’ or code sprints, where hackers get together and make an app in a day, so it was great to try something similar in archaeology. The real beauty of the day was that each one of our team had discrete skills, and each one of us brought those skills to bear to create something really rather cool. It was frantic, and at one point everyone was huddled around their various computers or drawing tablets working intensely for an hour almost without speaking – but somehow we were all working in concert. At the start of the final hour before submission, everyone started swearing and it looked like we would have nothing, but as is always the way when working with v. talented people when we all swapped our various files, videos and drawings it all fitted together perfectly! It helped that Shawn and I had previously worked on the Historical Friction project, as it meant we started the day with a solid idea to build upon – and could concentrate our efforts on developing the idea and finding out where our skillsets would be useful. The real question for me is where the collaborations and the prototype app goes from here. One of the main problems with hack-a-thons is that the prototype is built, but then all development stops. Hopefully we won’t let that happen with Voices Recognition.

CM:  As Stu says, while it was fantastic to get together and make something, it would be ideal to have funding to develop the ideas further. We are exploring options to that end. It would also be great to partner with an active project or institution who wants their data to be explored and visualized in new ways. I’d really like to make the other film/auditory walk, but who knows when I’ll have time? The Jam did reveal a lot about our individual processes and abilities. I was happy making the film, but when it came to audio editing, I found myself considerably behind the curve. To create the auditory layering, Alexis Pantos and I frantically searched YouTube for potential Creative Commons licensed sources of Northern/Yorkshire accents, male and female and of various ages. Then it came to layering the sound within the film and I absolutely knew there was probably a better way to do it in Final Cut Pro X, but I didn’t have time to learn! So I used the relative brute force of keyframes to try to manipulate the sound. I also appreciated the insights to the workflows of other project members. We would help each other out when we found ourselves at a loose end–Sam Kinchin-Smith would finish writing a narrative, grab another group member to do the voice acting/recording, give the file to me, I’d slam it in the video, get Kerrie Hoffman to geolocate the sound in the cemetery on her interactive map, then repeat!

Alexis Pantos and Sam Kinchin-Smith

SE: Where Colleen was learning new methods of hacking Final Cut Pro, I was busy wrestling with GIS and javascript – which is often what I do in my day job. The main problem that I had was a lack of data. The burial records were available, but all as PDFs scanned from paper documents and for only a small proportion of the cemetery. We briefly flirted with running them through an OCR program to wrangle them into something useful – but quickly moved on choosing instead to make a hypothetical (read faked-up) dataset to work with. This is one of the unfortunate sides of doing everything fast, is that you are creating an impression of what the final thing would look like – but the back-end data is not always there. However, in the end I spent quite a long time using GIS plugins to create random grave locations and adding fictional data to them. In retrospect, the OCR scanning might have been quicker and more useful in the long run!

I think one of the key parts of the project was to make sure that any of the stories we created for the people buried were based on real data, and Sam did a great job on mining the online census records and literally digging up the facts and figures of the handful of people we had time to research. In the real version this would all have been done programmatically via fancy linked data algorithms (as there are literally thousands of burials) – but Sam’s creative writing background and also the skills of the voice actors really brought it to life.

One other part of the day that really struck me, is that in the ’empty’ areas of the cemetery (those with no headstones) there are actually hundreds of burials. mostly of people who could not afford a grave marker. I wanted our app to highlight this by playing the thousands of voices of those buried in the empty quarters. So you only become aware of the volume of burials by the volume of the voices that are talking when you walk through them. However, we had no idea what these stories would be, what would their voices say? During the discussion afterwards, one of the participants said that by overlapping the voices of the burials we wouldn’t be able to hear the individual stories of the people in the mass burials, but would be privileging the stories of the those buried individually in the mausoleums as there wouldn’t be so many other voices trying to tell their story. Anthony Masington then pointed out that the people who had paid to be buried in an individual mausoleum had already privileged themselves, at first visually by setting their grave apart from the others, and now aurally by enabling their story to be heard in relative silence. It seems we didn’t just make a cool app, we actually created a new way of experiencing and exploring the cemetery and it made me think about it in a different way. Not bad for a day’s hacking! Thanks to the Heritage Jam for a fun and productive day!

Antiquities, databases and an atypical day at the British Museum

The Moorlands Staffordshire Trulla

The Moorlands pan, one of my favourite objects

For the last eight years, I have worked at the British Museum, following a couple of years working for a German Investment Bank in the City of London. I’m responsible for the management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme‘s IT infrastructure and I provide advice to the British Museum on ICT issues when needed. The world of IT, is entirely self taught knowledge for me; at university I studied archaeology at undergraduate and post graduate levels, with a specific interest in maritime archaeology. It has been a sharp learning curve, and one that I think will always be challenging and disrupted by new technology. Of course, I’m open to offers to get back below the seas and excavate underwater again!

The department that I work for, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (and Treasure) is a DCMS funded project that records objects that have been found within the boundaries of England and Wales by members of the public. They voluntarily bring these objects forward to one of our 60 members of staff, who then record them on our database. You could say that this is at heart, public archaeology in action. This database now provides the basis for a massive amount of research within the university environment and it is very gratifying to see what people do with the database that I built. For example, the map below (produced in ArcView – I use QGIS at home) shows where coins of different periods are found by our contributors. Of course, I have to be very careful who has access to the full spatial co-ordinates, academics have to apply for access and I use some maths to obfuscate points on a map.

A plot of all coins recorded on the Scheme's database

A plot of all coins recorded on the Scheme's database

I’ve also been heavily involved with the #dayofarch project alongside friends and colleagues (we’re calling ourselves”Digital Archaeologists” ). The team working on this project were Matt Law and Lorna Richardson who came up with the plan, Tom Goskar, Jess Ogden, Stu Eve and Andy Dufton). I provided the project with server space, Google analytics, installation of the software and configuration of the software with Tom Goskar. The project has been amazing to work on, and we’ll hopefully be writing this up and getting a chapter on it into Lorna’s PhD.

My day is pretty varied and is either filled with writing funding bids, writing papers (CASPAR workshop papers on Archaeology on TV and Museums and Twitter at the moment), refactoring or writing new code, creating maps in various GIS packages, manipulating images (by script and hand), meetings with academics, TV people or colleagues. It is extremely different to my previous job, and it is probably why I’ve stuck with the role for such a long period. The database that I run, has been written from scratch and I’m currently transferring all my code to GitHub so that others can make use of my work. All the software that I either use or build has to be open-source. I have a very small budget for my IT work – £4000 per annum; is this the smallest budget for a National IT programme ever? I use products from Vanilla for our staff forum, from WordPress for our blogs and various framework packages like Zend Framework for our main website and database. As such, I spent only £48 on the site’s rebuild, the rest goes on server hosting and backup! At the moment, I am also working on a variety of funding proposals, a couple of JISC bids and I’m also looking for funding for the Video-Conferencing workshop that Elizabeth Warry refers to in her post. This is based around the discovery of the Frome hoard and forms the basis for her Masters’ dissertation that I’m supervising with Tim Schadla-Hall. Other people working on this include the British Museum’s education team and members of the Treasure Team. I’m also on various academic advisory boards, an honorary lecturer at UCL (currently helping to supervise Lorna Richardson’s PhD) and a Trustee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a scholarly society based in Marylebone that has a wonderful collection of artefacts, maps and photos, and I’m currently involved in helping with a research bid for high resolution imagery of fragile documents which involves a wide array of partners.

Ian Richardson hold a double eagle

Ian Richardson hold a double eagle

Currently we have records for over 720,000 objects which have been contributed by over 19,000 people in a 14 year time span. We get around 60,000 visitors per month to our site and around 3-10,000 objects recorded; the time of year has a great effect on this – harvest and seasons especially impact. The site was awarded ‘Best of the Web’ as a research tool or online collection at this year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia. Something I’m extremely proud of for all our staff and contributors.  All of these records are released under a Creative Commons NC-BY-SA licence and we’ve had considerable success with a variety of digital projects. High profile finds that come up generate a huge amount of interest, and I’ve been trying to get suitable images for the Wikipedia community. We’re finding our relationship with them very beneficial and we now have lots of images in the Wikicommons.

With my wife, Katharine Kelland, I built the Staffordshire Hoard’s first website in 12 hours, and this was viewed by 1/4 million people in one day when we launched. I now use this model as a way for publicising other significant archaeological discoveries. I’m very lucky to work in the British Museum, I never thought I’d end up working there and you never tire of walking through the main gates and up the stairs to the Great Court. In the last few years I’ve been privileged to have seen amazing discoveries close up – the Hackney hoard, the Moorlands patera, the Staffordshire Hoard, the Frome Hoard, the Wheathampstead hoard, and the list goes on. I’ve even got to dress up as a gladiator and parade around the Great Court. Where else could you do this?

Gaming in Archaeology

Today for me is probably not what you would call a typical archaeologist’s day; although it has become quite typical for me. I’m the head video game designer on the project Red Land Black Land. The game we are designing is a modification of Sid Meier’s Civilization V and is going to serve as an educational game about the development of Ancient Egypt. The game has an archaeological spin to it, in that we are modifying the advisors to be archaeologists instead of economists, diplomats or scientists.

Today I’m primarily working on the development of dialogue and content to the game. Instead of making witty remarks and pithy banter, the characters will have historically and archaeologically accurate facts to teach the players. Every word that comes from the advisors is based on archaeological, historical, or textual evidence. The work itself is actual quite similar to trying to prepare to do any fieldwork or analysis of Ancient Egypt, except instead of applying this knowledge to create questions for fieldwork I am developing questions that players can explore in the game.

Archaeology has had a bumpy relationship with video games. Characters like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft play on stereotypes that we as archaeologists have worked so hard to dispel. Through mainstream video games, the archaeologist is akin to an imperial looter, stealing from ‘primitive’ cultures and disregarding any from of academic or scientific process. Its not like Dr. Jones took the time to take careful notes on the provenience of the golden idol before having to make a mad dash out of the tomb. By creating accessible and most importantly fun video games that accurately represent archaeology and the process of interpreting the past we can help to create a better public understanding of what we do.

But the digital archaeologist/video game designer is only a third of who I am. For my mortuary archaeology, check out my site Bones Don’t Lie, and for public archaeology check out MSU Campus Archaeology

 

[Image from Flikr user Marta Manso and used under Creative Commons License]