digital archaeology

Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery

Colleen Betti, DAACS Archaeological Analyst and Graduate Student, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, catalogs buttons and marbles from Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage. Photograph by Elizabeth Bollwerk

Colleen Betti, DAACS Archaeological Analyst and Graduate Student, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, catalogs buttons and marbles from Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage. Photograph by Elizabeth Bollwerk

Today we are surrounded by bags of 19th-century marbles, buttons, beads, ceramics and pieces of iron and copper alloy hardware. Our job is to catalog and analyze each one of these artifacts, which were excavated from domestic sites of slavery—the houses and surrounding yards where enslaved people lived and worked—at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. This is a typical day for us in the office, although we aren’t always surrounded by such amazing material culture. We work at the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). Our database and website, www.daacs.org serve archaeological data from over 80 sites of slavery in the southeastern United States and Caribbean free of charge to researchers and the public. Founded in 2000, and funded by the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, DAACS is based in the Archaeology Department at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The daacs.org homepage

The daacs.org homepage

Why do we do this?

Although it’s fun to study artifacts all day, we do have a larger purpose for our work. DAACS facilitates the comparative archaeological study of regional variation in slavery by providing researchers with standardized data from archaeological sites that were once homes to enslaved Africans and African Americans. A critical goal of our work is making data from archaeological excavations (those conducted in the 1970s all the way up through today) accessible and usable for archaeologists, historians, educators, and the public. Although excavation is essential to archaeological research, thousands of collections sit in museums and archaeological repositories that have not been cataloged or analyzed but have the potential to greatly inform our understanding of the past. By making data that has been cataloged using the same protocols from a variety of archaeological sites available via our website, DAACS is helping scholars advance our historical understanding of early-modern slave societies, by encouraging data sharing and comparative analysis across archaeological sites and geographic regions.

How do we do this?

Our staff consists of our Director, three full-time archaeological analysts and one or two part-time analysts. Although we are small staff, we get a lot done! On any given day we alternate between analyzing excavation information from field records, cataloging artifacts, answering material culture questions from colleagues, digital data management, and analysis for our own research projects.

There are four different ways that archaeological data gets into DAACS:

  1. Archaeological collections come to us at Monticello and we catalog them on-site in the DAACS Lab.
  2. We travel to the collections and field sites (so far we have cataloged collections in Barbados, Dominica, Jamaica, Nevis, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina).

    Leslie Cooper, DAACS Senior Archaeological Analyst, catalogs coarse earthenware ceramics from Seville Plantation, a large 18th-century sugar estate, at the Jamaica National Heritage Trust in Kingston, Jamaica. Photograph by Jillian Galle.

    Leslie Cooper, DAACS Senior Archaeological Analyst, catalogs coarse earthenware ceramics from Seville Plantation, a large 18th-century sugar estate, at the Jamaica National Heritage Trust in Kingston, Jamaica. Photograph by Jillian Galle.

  3. We conduct our own field work projects on Jamaica and Nevis through the DAACS Caribbean Initiative and enter the data into the DAACS database. All information from these sites are launched on daacs.org within a year of excavation. Learn more about our work in Jamaica and Nevis through DAACS and the International Slavery Museum.

    DAACS staff and students from the University of West Indies, Mona excavated shovel-test-pits at the Papine Slave Village. A massive masonry aqueduct that drove the estate’s sugar mill stands behind the excavators. Photograph by Jerry Rabinowitz.

    DAACS staff and students from the University of West Indies, Mona excavated shovel-test-pits at the Papine Slave Village. A massive masonry aqueduct that drove the estate’s sugar mill stands behind the excavators. Photograph by Jerry Rabinowitz.

  4. Finally, our colleagues who are trained in DAACS protocols and database entry can directly enter their data into DAACS via our web application, daacsrc.org.

Over the last five months we have analyzed material culture from Stratford Hall’s West Yard in Virginia, the Morne Patate Estate, an 18th c. sugar plantation in Dominica, and slave dwellings associated with The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee.

The data is entered using our standardized set of protocols into a PostgreSQL database thorough a web application built in Ruby-on-Rails software (www.daacsrc.org).   In addition to analyzing artifacts, and the archaeological contexts from which they came, DAACS staff digitize site maps, photograph artifacts, digitize existing slides of fieldwork, produce Harris matrices, and develop detailed site chronologies and discursive background content for each site. All of this content accompanies the artifact data when an archaeological site is launched on the DAACS website.

Interested in learning more? Stop by our site at daacs.org and take a look around. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter (@DAACSORG).

Sustaining the practice of archaeology in Ontario, Canada

This is our 3rd year participating in Day of Archaeology, and we are excited, once again, to be joining our colleagues in this virtual space to share with you some of the diverse experiences archaeologists have over the course of a regular day.

This year, we want to focus on the sorts of technology we have available here at Sustainable Archaeology: Western University. Most of the equipment in our new facility is for non-destructive image capture and analysis: 3D scanners, 3D printer, digital x-ray, microCT scanner, etc. We are fortunate, as archaeologists, to have a single location with dedicated access to equipment such as this! On any given day, several pieces of equipment will be in use by different researchers. Today, a couple of a staff members – Hillary and Heather – have been working on chipping away the outer “envelope” of a 3D printed cuneiform tablet to reveal the inner tablet for the first time in over 4,000 years! But to explain how we got to this point, let’s start from the beginning.

Cuneiiform tablet_small

Sustainable Archaeology was built adjacent to the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario, Canada. The Museum houses a variety of collections, predominantly from Ontario but there are some international antiquities that were acquired by the mid-20th century curator of the Museum, including a small collection of cuneiform tablets. One of those tablets was suspected to be an Old Babylonian “envelope” tablet – a cuneiform tablet nested inside of a cuneiform tablet. But how to tell without breaking the tablet open? Sustainable Archaeology had a solution – we scanned the tablet in the microCT scanner. Sure enough, there was evidence that another tablet was enfolded within the outer layer of clay – and it appeared to have cuneiform writing on it as well!

cuneiform envelope 009_mCT

With microCT imaging software, VG Studio, Hillary painstakingly ‘excavated’, or peeled-off, the outer layer of clay. This was a tricky process, because CT images differentiate material based on the density of voxels in a 3D dimensional space – metal, for instance, is much more dense and thus appears much ‘whiter’ than wood. But the clay ‘envelope’ was the same density as the enclosed clay tablet – so selecting which voxels to digitally peel-away from the region of interest was a labour intensive process. Hillary was able to do this because there was a slight void between the clay surfaces. This lead us to an idea – if we 3D printed the tablet, would the void still be intact? In which case, wouldn’t we be able to break the outer tablet off of the inner tablet?

So for our second experiment, we did just that. We digitally cut the cuneiform tablet in half, so we could see the inside structure(s), and we we printed off that cuneiform half on the 3D printer. Sure enough, the void was there – but it was very thin. In order to create more void space – an area that would be filled with printer powder but no binder would be laid down – we scaled up the size of the tablet to double its original size. Then we printed it off and got to work chipping off the external ‘envelope’ – to reveal a clear, sharp cuneiform surface on the embedded tablet. Success!

tablet_excavating

tablet_excavated

 

We are constantly envisioning ways that the equipment we have here at SA can complement one another. Colin is next door in the Collaboration Room with the Virtual Reality equipment. He is working on an application that allows us to digitally pick up, move, throw and stack digital assets that we’ve scanned on our 3D scanners (such as pots!) within a virtual reality space. This way, as you are immersed within a virtual reconstruction of a Lawson site longhouse, such as that created by Western PhD candidate Michael Carter, while wearing a set of 3D goggles such as Oculus Rift of HTC Vive, you will also be able to digitally engage with objects within that virtual space.

For more information on what we do at Sustainable Archaeology, check out our website at www.sustainablearchaeology.org. You can also follow us on Instagram @sustarchaeology or Twitter @SustArchaeology.

A day saving the temples of Nepal with Digital Archaeology

 

Kathesimbhu

Kathesimbhu Stupa in Kathmandu in 3D

After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal hundreds of Nepalese temples were either destroyed or damaged. These temples ranged from ancient Newari pagoda buildings to Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. Perhaps more terrifying than the damage the earthquake caused was the news that no one had made accurate documentation on the vast majority of these buildings.

The Digital Archaeology Foundation was set up post-earthquake as the first to digitally render Nepal’s remaining cultural heritage in high resolution 3D. It was and still is a race against time in a country where everything is postponed until tomorrow.

Vatalasa Temple Before

Vatalasa Temple Before

Nepal is a landlocked country that suffers from poverty, vast electricity blackouts, terrible infrastructure and immense corruption. Not the best of situations when it comes to preserving cultural heritage.

Vatalasa Temple after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Vatalasa Temple after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Our team is experienced in dealing with these issues though. Some of these things may seem minor or irrelevant. But they are crippling when it comes to digital preservation. Try uploading a 500mb 3D render of small shrine over a 500kb internet connect which will only be active for 4 hours before a powercut kills it.

The majority of Nepal’s cultural heritage is located in the Kathmandu Valley. This is where the Malla kings had a rivalry to create the most beautiful of buildings to out do each other. There are other buildings located around Nepal which are lesser known. And these equally make our priority list.

Though on a map it may seem a site is only 100km away, but in Nepal this might mean a 12 hour journey. Roads are frequently washed away in landslides, damaged or simply clogged with traffic. One of our successful methods in dealing with far off locations is to incorporate them into David’s Nepal Guidebook research. If David is going to a distant location he’ll double up his workload to both do his own travel guide research and to capture the main temples in a location for the Foundation.

Siddhi Laxmi Temple in Bhaktapur

As part of our daily work we’ve added sub projects like captureing and rendering this temple (Siddhi Laxmi Temple in Bhaktapur) which is due for complete demolition this year due to damage in the 2015 earthquake – by digitally preserving it we will be able to monitor and compare the rebuilt temple to the original which is vital in Nepal due to funding issues, fragmented restoration work and a lack of documentation

Physical field research on a location is vital in Nepal as many buildings are within close proximity of newer buildings. They are also part of a living heritage and are used on a daily basis by local people for prayers, blessings and rituals. Simply showing up is not enough!

Weather too plays a part in the himalayan nation which has five seasons two of which are dominated by tourists coming into the very sites people are both trying to pray in and we are trying to document and preserve. The comes the monsoon season with torrential downpours and a winter season of cold and polluted skies.

We generally spend a day at location depending on the amount of data we need to acquire. In the past year we’ve been working on a Phase process. Phase One is where we try to capture and preserve as many buildings as we can. Hundreds of aftershocks have rattled Nepal over the past year. Collecting as much data as possible became an urgent priority.

Changu Narayan Temple is one of Nepal's most important temples

Changu Narayan Temple is one of Nepal’s most important temples

Phase Two involved secondary more in depth scans which include going under temple arches and inside the shrines. Some have already been complete when the opportunity arose. The rest will be done during our second phase.

Data captures and a journey home means we rarely get to process the imagery on the same day. Depending on work schedules, electricity and internet connectivity it can take up to two weeks to process a three-storey temple in Nepal. This does not include preserving the data. We backup all our data collection remotely on several different servers across the globe. Nepal simply does not have the infrastructure to securely store its own data.

Field visits to ascertain the damage and how to go about digitally preserving a temple

Field visits to ascertain the damage and how to go about digitally preserving a temple

Our own Digital Archive of Nepal is the ultimate goal in displaying our preservation work. In 2016 we feel that the vast majority of our work will need to be done off site and out of country. In the latter part of 2015 we ceased in country process of all but a few temples to accelerate phase one. This was an overwhelming success.

We’ve battled in recruiting volunteers who are willing to do more than just add “digital archaeologist” to their resumes, use a 3D camera, or learn what software to use and the techniques involved. Today we’ve streamlined our team of volunteers to those that can dedicate themselves to actually accomplishing a specific task.

We don't just focus on Kathmandu based temples we've covered the length and breath of Nepal to capture as many as we can

We don’t just focus on Kathmandu based temples we’ve covered the length and breath of Nepal to capture as many as we can

Perhaps our most successful accomplishment is not what we preserve but in being the first to do it. Since we began our work it’s open up the minds of others in similar fields who disregarded digital archaeology. Moreover it’s highlighted the problems of archaeology in Nepal which remains incredibly closed off and hierarchical.

Our daily work in Nepal means relatively unknown and undocumented temple like this Balkumari temple are digitally preserved forever

Our daily work in Nepal means relatively unknown and undocumented temple like this Balkumari temple are digitally preserved forever

Our day to day work is both the accomplishment of not only digitally preserving a monument or artifact but also opening Nepal’s doors and minds within to the importance of cultural preservation and archaeology but also digital preservation.

Archaeogaming and Ethics in Destiny

I spent this year’s Day of Archaeology laid up in bed, not because of any injury received in the field, but because I managed (somehow) to tear a leg muscle in my sleep. I mention this to highlight a contrast. A year ago, had I received this injury, an injury that has put me on pain meds, made me unable to drive, and left me temporarily with a cane, I would have also ended up having to go on unemployment. You can’t walk in the woods on opiates, you can’t drive a car when you can’t feel your foot, and carrying a cane while handling a compass, clipboard and survey paperwork is near impossible. In most areas of archaeology, CRM included, if you receive a debilitating injury, you can’t work.

Thankfully, this year, my research is digital and theoretical, which means that apart from being a little loopy, I was actually able to keep working through the last few days of pain and bedrest. I propped my leg up on a pillow, popped my meds, arranged everything I needed within arm’s reach, and did some archaeogaming.

My current project, while preparing for a PhD to start at the University of York in January, is looking at how the Cryptarch, or Crypto-archaeologist, functions within the universe of Bungie’s 2014 console game, Destiny. This case study will eventually be a chapter in my dissertation, which is focused on representations of archaeology, archaeologists and antiquities trafficking in videogames.

The original Cryptarch, who collects items provided by player characters, identifies them for money, and resells the objects.

The original Cryptarch, who collects items provided by player characters, identifies them for money, and resells the objects.

Within Destiny, the Cryptarch is a non-player character presented as an accredited and official expert on antiquities. He (as of the last expansion there are now two examples of this characterization, but both are male) is tied into the game’s monetary and item progression system, one of its core mechanics. The Cryptarch’s role is to buy and resell artifacts that lack provenance. It is functionally impossible to progress in the game without taking part in this system, which forces interaction with the Cryptarch to accrue funds and items necessary for progressively leveling play.

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The new, second Cryptarch, who performs the same function as the original, but in a more problematic context of being located on a culturally “other” world.

In addition to presenting an unavoidable mechanic that emphasizes unethical behaviors, Destiny puts the player in the position of behaving unethically themselves, functioning as a looter of antiquities, collecting items from buried contexts and the dead to bring them back to the Cryptarch, who provides valuations and the previously mentioned merchant service

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The glowing green ball is an “engram”, an item of unknown type that is identified by the Cryptarch. Engrams vary in rarity and value.

But why should we care? Why do this research at all? Why not just let a videogame be a videogame?

Within its first week of sale, Bungie, and its distributor, Activision-Blizzard, sold more than $500 million worth of copies. Internal numbers, published by the companies, indicate that over 13 million people have played Destiny since launch. That’s a lot of interaction with a system that misrepresents the role of archaeologists, misinforms on the rights of individuals to own objects of cultural patrimony, and encourages participation in illicit and illegal trafficking of artifacts. As archaeologists and heritage management professionals, that should concern us.

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A recently released armor item, showing a clear Egyptian aesthetic. This item was obtained via an engram identification by the Cryptarch.

I don’t yet have the answer to how to fix this problem. I don’t know what resources we have, as a discipline, that can compete with the amount of money within the game industry. I’m not even entirely sure it’s a fight that we can win, which is disheartening. I will, however, be spending the next three years trying to figure out why this is the depiction of our field that predominates in interactive media, what it says about the perceptions of our work, and what influence it’s having on unethical behaviors involving artifacts in the “real” world.

Hopefully I won’t have to do it on a bum leg.

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My avatar, who isn’t currently suffering my same mobility issues.


Computer (arm)chair archaeology

Would you be surprised to learn there are archaeologists who don’t step foot in the field to do their work? *raises hand* I’m one of those archaeologists. Modern technology has added a positive side to what it means to be an armchair archaeologist and I, for one, am thankful.

While my fellow grad students are packing up their trowels, screens and Total Stations, I’m double-checking my Internet connection, booting up Hootsuite and checking my “public archaeology” Google Alert. You see, nearly all of my archaeological work and research is based in the Web. Instead of working in the field and making my own archaeological discoveries, I want to communicate the amazing work other archaeologists do to non-archaeologists.

I will admit, I get jealous of my friends who do amazing things like spend their summers working with Alaska Natives to record sites impacted by climate change. However, I rest easy at night knowing that when they return, I can help folks effectively share with the world the neato frito stuff they’ve done.

A day in my life as an archaeologist includes a variety of projects and tasks. In between looking at hilarious Buzzfeed listsicles I read up on useful ways we can use social media to communicate with people. I also try to share interesting archaeological news on the Archaeology Roadshow Facebook page or help manage the Society for American Archaeology’s Public Archaeology Interest Group Facebook group.

I also spend a lot of time looking at archaeology websites and trying to systematically study and evaluate them. My goal is to develop a manageable way archaeologists can assess their own websites to make sure they the best they can be. With how easy it is for anyone to make a website or a social media account it is critical to learn how to use those tools well. That’s what I want to help with. *fist pump*

My work may not seem as exciting as those fighting off insects in South America or folks who make an intense backcountry hike to reach their sites. But hey, I may get carpal tunnel!

If you want to learn more about public archaeology, follow the #pubarch hashtag on Twitter. There are also public archaeology groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. I’d also love to talk with you about public archaeology, digital archaeology, communication strategy, and hilarious gifs – let’s chat on Twitter!

Something old and something new: CAD migration and archive accessioning at ADS

ADSeasy-250x250As a reasonably new face at the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) I am still getting to grips with the somewhat baffling world of digital archiving and preservation! If someone had asked me this time last year when I was graduating what I saw myself doing in one year’s time, I would probably not have said doing a mass CAD file migration… But being a Digital Archivist for the ADS has so far been a fabulous experience.

Today I am working on two tasks, archiving collections coming through ADS-easy (for more information about ADS-easy see Ray Moore’s post from the Day of Archaeology in 2014 ), and continuing the ADS’ preservation work by migrating our historic CAD files.

It has been just over a year since the first ADS-easy archive was released, and a lot has happened in a year! For those who have not heard about ADS-easy, it is a system that allows users to electronically submit archaeological archives, along with metadata (information describing the files). It has significantly altered the workflow of digital archivists at the ADS as data from ADS-easy does not require manual inputting of metadata. Since last July we have worked on 71 archives, ranging from image collections, to excavation reports, to geophysical data. We have had 6636 unique visitors to the website and have an average of 250 unique visitors per month. Most of those are from the UK but visitors come from all over the world, including the US, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. On average 8 archives are submitted each month and the number has been gradually rising.

ADS-Easy

Screenshot from The Grand Western Canal archive, submitted through ADS-easy (dx.doi.org/10.5284/1031512)

My role within ADS-easy is to take the data we receive, accession it into our collections management system, convert the files into suitable preservation and dissemination formats- and document all of these processes!  Finally, I create an interface so that people can see the files on the ADS website. Today I am working on an image collection from a building recording of farm buildings in Lanchester, County Durham, and a data archive from an excavation in Crowle, Worcestershire. The data that comes in from ADS-easy is varied and often comes from small scale projects that would not otherwise be shared with the public. That is what makes the job both interesting and somewhat rewarding.

That has taken me up to lunch time, this afternoon I am carrying on with the long-running task of migrating all of our historic CAD files. Data that is archived at the ADS is continually ‘preserved’ over time to ensure that it is always readable and useable, and does not become obsolete. We are in the process of migrating our CAD files from earlier versions to the more recent 2010/2011 version. This has so far involved manually going through each collection containing CAD drawings and checking each file, converting them to the 2010 version, and then moving the previous versions to a migration folder. Another part of this process is creating a PDF file of each drawing to make them accessible to people who don’t own CAD software. All of this then needs to be documented in our collections management system so that the rest of the digital archivists know what I have done to the files, and where to find them if anything goes wrong!  After this the interfaces need updating to include the new PDF files.

CAD_example

Example of one of the many CAD plans the ADS holds. From Elizabeth House (dx.doi.org/10.5284/1008432)

CAD migration may seem quite a repetitive task, but it has allowed me to look back at some of the earliest ADS collections, such as the excavations at Eynsham Abbey in the late 80s/ early 90s, and the survey and excavation at the Iron Age emporium of Vetren . This process of migration is a very important part of what the ADS does; active management of our data means that it should (in theory!) always be accessible to the public in the most useful file formats and have longevity.

Better get back to it, those remaining 1000(ish) CAD files won’t migrate themselves!

Adventures in Digital Archaeology & Open Access Antiquarianism

Ashley M. Richter in front of one of the UCSD Calit2 visualization walls and my layered realities conceptual graphic for digital archaeological technology development and use.

Ashley M. Richter in front of one of the UCSD Calit2 visualization walls and my layered realities conceptual graphic for digital archaeological technology development and use.

It’s funny how quickly time passes while studying time.

Two years ago, this weekend was spent with a laser scanner at the beach.

I’d finagled a mini-grant from the National Science Foundation for a project I like to call Sandcastles for Science, but whose full un-pronouncable name identified it as a project to test out laser scanning capabilities for handling the imaging resolutions of stratigraphic sediment on archaeological sites (see– even that was a mouthful).

As a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, the beach was the nearest easy access place to play in the dirt and provided a perfect venue to open up the experiment to local kids and un-suspecting beach-goers who accidentally volunteered themselves for mini-science bootcamp. Willing audiences who would build me data castles, while my research assistant and I exposed them to archaeology, beach physics, the history of castles, laser scanning, sea-shell collecting, and all the other educational topics we could cram into our construction schpeals and posterboards. I like archaeological education outreach, so sue me. It gets written into almost every one of my projects somehow.

Sandcastles for Science was ultimately prep-work for a two month field season in Jordan, laser scanning sites in Faynan (and yes, even scanning Petra for one glorious day), as well as for a lovely bit of software development on visualizing temporal sequences in point clouds with one of my fabulous computer science colleagues.

The Leica Scanstation looming over its sandcastle victim at the beach.

The Leica Scanstation looming over its sandcastle victim at the beach.

Last year, this weekend was spent in a frenzy of data digging and labwork

My team needed to pull together presentations for Italian officials to approve the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology’s upcoming field season at Palazzo Vecchio and the Baptistery of St. John in Florence, and a bevy of lovely sites in southern Italy with a team from the University of Calabria.

So it was a weekend slogging through back-data of point clouds from the Hall of the 500 in Palazzo Vecchio, emphasizing the layered multi-spectral imaging into the model, and how it definitely showed the cracks conservators needed to track to create preservation solutions, and how it maybe had a hidden Da Vinci lurking behind one of its walls. It was a weekend of lists for the upcoming season, of site logistics, and Italian language lessons (team lessons with an instructor +  DuoLingo = a surprising amount of success once we hit Italy for the two month madcap field season that was my fall of 2013).

And if you’d like to check out more pics and details of my wonderful and ridiculous work for a once-promising academic something, scope out my scrapbook blog Adventures in Digital Archaeology.

The CISA3 diagnostics team at Palazzo Vecchio after successful conservation imaging.

The CISA3 diagnostics team at Palazzo Vecchio after successful conservation imaging.

The Faro Focus and I about to image the exterior of the Baptistery. Note that I literally only seem capable of this one jaunty pose with a laser scanner. I desperately need to start doing something different in field propaganda photos.

The Faro Focus and I about to image the exterior of the Baptistery. Note that I literally only seem capable of this one jaunty pose with a laser scanner. I desperately need to start doing something different in field propaganda photos.

But this year, this year was spent online- in a flurry of creative archaeological energy

This summer, I find myself graduated and out on my own, free to pursue my own projects, safely away from the boundary lines of academia and the rather unhealthy environment I had found myself in for a big chunk of this year.

Pulling ourselves back together, my favorite research colleague Vid and I cooked up a delightful dish that brings together all the digital archaeology flavors we’d been prepping before, but as part of a much grander and more colorful feast.

And so this weekend was spent running down the final lists of photographs, video media, and writing that needed to coalesce together into the FIRST archaeological technology driven Kickstarter.

Mushing together the laser scanning, point clouds, 3D models, and 3D printing,our project, Open Access Antiquarianism, proposes the construction of art exhibit built from re-purposed cultural heritage data using the digital visualization pipelines my colleague and I have been building to handle archaeological data.

A blend of 3D printed archaeological artifacts, furniture upholstered in fabric printed with archaeological LiDAR (literal armchair archaeology), interactive point cloud visualizations and other such extravagant re-workings of scientific data from open archives, the Cabinet of Curiosities Open Access Antiquarianism proposes offers an excellent opportunity to continue streamlining the point cloud and 3D modelling methodologies we’d been playing with for so long, while reaching a much much larger audience.

Because the larger global community needs to be engaged in the increasingly complicated discussions regarding ethical implementations of digitization and open access of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The public (and archaeologists themselves) need to understand the desperate desperate need for interdisciplinary and collaborative work and move away from the academic politics and needless power-plays that constantly bog such wonderful creative enterprises down. Archaeologists need to work more closely with technologists and engineers to develop useful and adaptable systems that preserve the past for the future (and often simultaneously end up building the surveying systems needed for the space-age future we all envision).

And the public needs to be aware of the wealth of data that is available to them in the increasingly larger and more wonderful online archives of museums and government institutions all over the world. The past has the potential to become increasingly and excitingly ubiquitous and something that plays a much stronger role in one’s everyday conception of time and space. It’s getting all wibbly wobbly timey wimey and the doctors of archaeology ought to be actively on the hunt for more and more Companions. Studying the past is no longer something that need be done by experts alone. In fact, we are drowning under such an avalanche of data, that it is imperative that more crowd-sourced archaeological ventures be launched to bear the brunt of analyzing everything that is already stacked up in the university basements of the world, let alone the incoming finds. Archaeologists can stay experts, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to talk to the public and engage them more actively in what we’re up to. Enthusiasm should count more than correct use of erudite jargon. Even to those hipster archaeologists out there.

In some small artistic way, the Open Access Antiquarianism project would like to address all of these things, while expanding the research and technological collaborative possibilities to continue refining the much needed digital pipeline that takes things from the field through processing, archiving, studying, and out to engagement.

My collaborative and interdisciplinary digital archaeology and outreach isn’t the traditional archaeology. But its my archaeology. And more than that, its an archaeological practice of hope. Hope that archaeology will fully embrace the increasingly digitized and interdisciplinary future. Hope that archaeology will not fall prey to over-specialization and tenure. Hope that archaeologists will continue to try to document and in some small way understand the past, so that we can help make vital statistically based decisions for the future. Archaeology has such potential to aid technology development and global ecological policy, if only us archaeologists would reach out and grasp it instead of assuming it will fall into our laps.

If you’re intrigued/dismayed/excited/furious/amused or any one of the wonderful and ridiculous emotions human beings are capable of, please check out Open Access Antiquarianism on kickstarter and on Facebook.  We’d love your support, and if you love our concepts about tech development, archaeology, and art as a research and outreach driver, perhaps your collaboration as well. Get in touch!

To the erudite young men and women a-sitting on a-tell: may your trowels be ever muddy and your point clouds free of shadows.

Acres and acres of happy wishes to all the archaeologists of the world,

Ashley M. Richter

One of the Open Access Antiquarianism Medaillions we've designed as part of the Kickstarter reward campaign.

One of the Open Access Antiquarianism Medaillions we’ve designed as part of the Kickstarter reward campaign.


Digital Magic for Magical Texts

It has been a grey damp day here in London. Glad to be tucked in working from home with the cat on my lap and a fresh pot of the black stuff.  I have been beavering away on a pile of image data for Magica Levantina, a University of Cologne project on magical texts from the ancient Near East.  Although I am a Research Associate at the Cologne Center for eHumanities, I have spent a good portion of my time working in museum collections far beyond Cologne, including the Princeton, Philadelphia, Paris, Naples, and soon (all being well) Jerusalem. But for now I have been working at the British Museum, which happily is not far from home and is giving me a bit of a break from the travel.

Gypsum tablet

Part of a gypsum tablet with a magical Greek inscription from Amathus, Cyprus (1891,0418.50 + 59,  © Trustees of the British Museum).

This week I have been conducting Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on inscribed tablets fragments in the Department of Greece and Rome. The tablet fragments are made of selenite (gypsum), and were found at  the site of Amathus and date to between 100 CE-300 CE.

The almost complete tablet above bears a curse written in alphabetic Greek. However, the technique used to make the inscription, combined with its small size and the translucence of the material, make it very challenging to read or discern other potentially significant physical features.

RTI specular enhancement detail of Greek inscribed selenite tablet from Amathus, Cyprus. (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Detail from the upper left of the above, visualised using the RTI specular enhancement mode  (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

BM staff very kindly took the tablet off display* yesterday so I could image it using RTI. The  detail to the right does not really do justice to the results I processed today since it is not possible in this context to have the relighting and other functionality of the RTIViewer. Nevertheless, the text is now vastly more readable.

Thanks to the magic of modern tablets, this ancient one, or at least its visual surrogate, is currently making its way through the ether to my colleagues in Cologne.

* The tablet was put promptly back on display today I am told (Room G72/2), so do pop down to the British Museum and take a closer look.