Digging on the Web

On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy preparing to head off to the field (in sunny Tuscany (!!)), square away some data, and finish work on some tech consulting.  That last bit is a clue that I’m not really a “normal archaeologist”. Actually, I’ve never met an archaeologist that I’d consider normal –  which is what attracted me to this field in first place. But even among archaeologists, I’m something of an odd-ball.

I have a background in Near Eastern archaeology, and did my dissertation research looking at interactions between Egypt and the Levant (modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon) in the Early Bronze Age. But for various reasons, both personal and professional, I shifted gears toward the digital side of archaeology, co-founded a nonprofit with my wife (and boss!), and for the past 10 years, I’ve loved almost every minute of my work day. Except writing grant proposals (but there are some necessary evils in all work).

My research and professional interests focus on archaeological data, and much less on digging and field work for myself. This focus means I have a very different professional network, set of collaborators, and work life. Though I work closely with other archaeological professionals, I’m also heavily engaged with folks well outside the discipline, including Web and information scientists, digital librarians and archivists, technology companies, “digital humanists”, and researchers in scholarly communications.

I keep such odd company because I’m really interested in improving the way archaeologists communicate and share their research. Archaeology is intensely multidisciplinary and collaborative. It involves inputs from all sorts of different sciences, and many archaeologists work together in large teams. Sharing the results of all this research needs to reflect the collaborative nature of the field, and it needs to speak with people in other disciplines and walks of life. That’s why I’m so interested in making it archaeological data more open, easier to share, and easier to reuse.

My primary project is Open Context. It’s a system for publishing archaeological data, openly, on the Web, for all to browse and reuse. On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy indexing tens of thousands of detailed records of archaeological contexts, objects, bones, and other material from Kenan Tepe, a major excavation in Turkey led by Bradley Parker. This collection represents the monumental effort of almost 10 years of field work. You can browse around its photo archives and see many thousands of pictures, mainly of dirt. Though it is free to access and use, the data are priceless. Excavation is a destructive process, and the documentation describing such excavations will be the only record available to revisit and re-analyze excavation results. That’s why comprehensive publishing with platforms like Open Context, as well as archiving with digital repositories like tDAR, the ADS, or the CDL is so important.

As this blog post should make clear, I love working with the Web. And what I like most about it is that I work with a growing and vibrant community of like minded people who want to see more from archaeology than costly journal articles read by a narrow few. The developers of ARK, Portable Antiquities, all the collaborators of Pelagios, and the bottom-up group linking archaeological data, are all hugely talented and make my work life rewarding and fun. All this makes archaeology (for me) as much about community and the future as it is about the past.

clay cobras, demons, grant-writing in Wales

This is a wonderful way to procrastinate and avoid tackling the grant proposal that I should be doing. It is my least favourite task when it comes to archaeology. It should be fun. Somehow, it should be easier to convince people that exploring the little known world of demons in second-millennium BC Egypt is fascinating. And it is! We get to look at artefacts like inscribed hippopotamus tusks, figurines, coffins with both text and representations, and even furniture such as inscribed headrests and try to figure out what role they played in the lives of ordinary people. It’s part of a larger Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project. The goal of this one though is in part to create digital data resources for other scholars and eventually the public. Databases, statistical analyses, data visualization—all important parts!

But first, time to email the Beirut Museum and chase up information from other excavators so I can get all the info I need to complete my project on Late Bronze Age Clay Cobra Figurines of Ancient Egypt and the Levant. It’s a real problem sometimes, and there will be gaps simply because I cannot get the data. Oh well, I’ll have good info on at least 400 or so of the 650+ fragments that have been found. They too were used to keep away demons … Right, enough procrastination! No more posts until I have complete a task!