Middle East

Nimrud for Museums and Mobiles

“Just as this bug stinks, so may your breath stink before god, king and mankind!”
— one of the chilling curses invoked in the treaty between King Esarhaddon of Assyria and his vassals in 672 BC.

I’m curator of cuneiform collections in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. No two days are the same for me. One of the more predictable parts of my schedule is project work. Today I’ve been working on a collaborative project called Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, funded by the AHRC and directed by Eleanor Robson at the University of Cambridge.

The Nimrud project explores how scientific and historical knowledge is made from archaeological objects. We’re tracing the biographies of inscribed artefacts from their manufacture and use to their current locations in museum collections and their virtual representations on the web. As part of the project, we’re assembling online resources related to the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Kalhu/Calah), especially the finds from excavations by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq in 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ll also be hosting several related events throughout 2013.

Our resources are designed and licensed for re-use by museums in mobile gallery guides. The technical focus is on the development of Linked Data, to encourage meaningful connectivity between previously isolated resources, and to bridge the gap between the museum case and the online world.

Today I’ve been writing web pages about the “Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”. King Esarhaddon drew up a remarkable treaty to ensure that his chosen son would succeed him on the throne. His own experience showed that a smooth succession could not be taken for granted. My biography of this object will go live on the Nimrud website in August. In the meantime, you can read the text – and all the fun curses – on the SAA website (it’s no. 6).

BM 132548. The treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh.

The treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh, ruler of the city of Nashimarta. BM 132548. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

A Day on the Ground for an Aerial Archaeology Project

APAAMEHello from the Research Assistant for the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East. To save my time and yours, we just call it APAAME. We are perhaps best known for the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan Project which has conducted a season of aerial reconnaissance in Jordan from a helicopter every year since 1997. Day of Archaeology has not caught us in the air however, but in the office.

I am writing this from our new office in New Barnett House on Little Clarendon St in Oxford. We are in the process of moving our entire archive to Oxford University from the University of Western Australia. Our large map collection is in mail tubes, and our complete collection of Hunting Aerial Survey diapositives of Jordan from 1953 are in 7 boxes against the wall, but the slides and printed photographs are unpacked – we just haven’t got shelving for them yet!

Fortunately, the majority of our collection is already digitised, and that is what I will be working with for the most of today. Glamorous I know – but flying in a helicopter taking thousands of photographs of archaeological sites for a month a year, and delving through archives to investigate collections with aerial photographs of the Middle East, leaves quite a bit of follow up work.

I have not even finished my first cup of coffee for the day and already I am fighting with Flickr. We use Flickr to host are on-line photographic database (www.flickr.com/apaame/collections). Flickr was chosen because it is relatively cheap and extremely accessible medium to host our ever-increasing archive. We have recently decided to upload our images with their full geo-referencing information, and so I am going through the backlog of updating around 61,000 images on Flickr with their geo-tags. I have to batch edit these photographs in Flickr, which is fine except the interface Flickr uses doesn’t seem to cope with handling too many images at once. *sigh* I’ll just get myself a cup of tea … Meanwhile, in the background, I have Adobe Light room where we catalogue all of our images updating the metadata in Flickr.

Why am I geo-tagging our Flickr images? Traditionally, you would search for a location by place-name, but this is extremely difficult for the Middle East due to variations in place names and transliteration from Arabic to English, let alone to other languages such as French and German. (The Graeco-Roman city of Gerasa – for example, has appeared (so far) with 13 different spellings of its ancient and modern name in various languages). If you know where a place is located on a map however, you can simply go to the map interface (www.flickr.com/apaame/map) and zoom in on the area of interest, and you will see whether we have any geo-tagged photographs for that area and what site reference we are using. Alternatively, if you have found a site of particular interest on our archive but don’t know where it is, you can open the map interface and see its location on a map.

While I am working over in one corner of our office tackling the everyday issues of managing a digital archive, Professor David Kennedy is in the other using the archive as part of his ongoing research. The digitisation of our archive has opened up an increasing amount of time that can be dedicated to analysis and research, and has meant an increasing output of publications. Currently David is researching the Hinterland of Roman Philadelphia, which involves the search for historical photography, maps and early explorers accounts of a landscape that is now largely built over. He is putting the final touches to a lecture inspired by this ongoing research that will be delivered at the ARAM conference on ‘The Decapolis’ at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute on Monday: ‘Brünnow and von Domaszewski in the Jordanian Decapolis’. The research for this lecture involved time spent in Princeton earlier this year where the photographic archive of Brünnow and von Domaszewski is held.

Now that I seem to have Flickr happily batch organising my geo-tagged items to be accessible to anyone, I am doing a bit of research on Content Management Systems and digital archaeology projects. APAAME is looking to evolve the way in which we manage our content and related data, but exactly what system we implement for what purpose is currently under investigation. Everyone has their areas of expertise, and so we are contacting those that have computer database, data mining and CMS operating know-how that might have some good advice for us. I am also keeping an eye on our twitter feed, that is particularly active today with everyone’s #dayofarch posts, as well as updating our blog with info about our new publication.

So that is what APAAME were up to on this day, 26 July 2013.
If you would like to contact us or keep in touch– please feel free to use one of the following methods
Twitter: @APAAME
Blog: http://www.apaame.org
Flickr archive: www.flickr.com/apaame/collections

A Lego Colosseum and Other Stories

I am a Classical Archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, and work as the Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Nicholson Museum, Australia’s largest collection of Old World archaeological material.  So my ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ is spent like most others – trying to balance between museum education and archaeological research on the project I am working: excavations of a Hellenistic-Roman period theatre site in Paphos in Cyprus.


Databases and Materials

Back from library, 9 journals in hand. Spent far too much time trying to figure out how to link my Mac to the photocopier so that I can send scans from it back to myself. More and more I find that I do not like paper copies of articles. I much prefer digital versions that I can then edit using PDFExpert on my iPad. This allows me to export all my notes and highlights separately (with page numbers attached), and paste it them into Endnote.

More tedious emails to deal with, and must photocopy and submit those PhD forms!

Computers now all updated, so that this weekend and next week I can really get cracking finalising the data in my database. Then I can start playing with the numbers, looking for patterns and correlations. If I were better with spreadsheets, this would be more fun—as it stands I need to find someone who IS good at it to help. The goal is data-driven research, rather than strictly being hypothesis-driven. I don’t want to miss any possibly important patterns by focussing on pre-conceptions… more can be found on my usual blog ancientegyptiancobras.blogspot.co.uk/. The next few weeks will be really hectic—I have an apprentice to help map the findspots (there over 700 fragments to deal with) and input the data on the replicas we made.

grins, here is some artwork I made for a ‘research as art’ competition held here at Swansea University. It didn’t win, but I think it encapsulates what I am working on …

Demon Blasters and Fiery Goddesses: Ancient Egytian Clay Cobra figurines 

Demon Blasters and Fiery Goddesses: Ancient EgypPan Clay Cobra figurines

“Who am I? Broken now in pieces, a fragment of ancient Egyptian religion, ritual and magic.
Who shaped my serpent form from soft clay found at the banks of the Nile, so long ago? I was passed through and transformed by the element of fire…
I spit fire and flame, illuminating the darkness, a conflagration invoked against demons that trouble the night. Imbued with the power of the fiery goddess, the Egyptians worshipped me, in the Delta, across the Mediterranean Coast from Libya to Lebanon, they chose me to take on their travels. Today you wonder: Who made me? Who prayed to me? Whose fears did I soothe? How many demons did I destroy? How many lives did I touch? Who broke me? And why …”
These figurines provide clues to how the Ancient Egyptians coped with the vicissitudes of daily life, in many ways not so very different from ours.


Now, off to another university meeting—this one on e-learning.

Tells of space and time….

I’ve always always loved learning and reading about the ancient world. It seems to me to be full of unsolved mysteries and puzzles, tantalizing enigmas about who-done-what and what happened where. Definitely by the time I got to University, I knew I really wasn’t even interested in anything else other than the distant past. I am currently researching for my dissertation in MSc in Web Science at the University of Southampton, and I’m looking at how to represent ambiguities in the spatial and temporal elements of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.

red pen on line drawing of Code of Hammurabi (Old Babylonian)My path to this MSc has been long and winding. During my undergrad years at Birmingham University I focused on studying Mesopotamia and the cultures of the Early Bronze Age in the Near East. I learnt to read Sumerian cuneiform, as well as various dialects of Akkadian – I’d say that Sumerian and Old Babylonian remain my favourites, and in the course of my current research I’ve got the opportunity to again engage with these elements from my academic past.


Planning field work in Egypt

So-called "barrow" on Hampstad Heath
Boadicea’s Grave‘ on Hampstead Heath

The chapter writing  is coming along but after driving my desk for a few hours, I needed a break and went for a run. I often go up to Hampstead Heath, and even there archaeology is never far off. Somewhere on the Heath is a Saxon ditch and earth bank, which formed early ownership and administrative boundaries (since at least AD986), though as far as I am aware I’ve not come across it yet. And of course, there is the so-called ‘Boadicea’s Grave‘ which may be nothing more than a foundations of an old windmill or a folly (right).

My desk

My desk

So back here at my desk for more writing, I am excited to find an email regarding some paid field work in Egypt. I may have the opportunity to undertake reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) this Autumn at South Abydos in Upper Egypt. Prof. Joe Wegner (who taught me during my BA at the University of Pennylvania) has been directing excavations there for years and is keen to document the sealings from the Middle Kingdom town. The sealings are quite small, only a few centimeters across, and there are a lot of them, so this will be an ideal job for the RTI mini-dome (see Figure 5).

We’ll see what happens though. As many Egyptians continue to seek a better future and more economic equality, the current political situation in Egypt means that the cultural heritage sector is undergoing many changes. It’s an issue that weighs on my mind quite a bit as I job hunt and look for opportunites to collaborate. As an archaeologist I’ve developed various skills and experience relating to Egypt’s ancient past. Now the question for me is, how can I both obtain employment in my field, and do so in a way that supports a better Egyptian present?