A Digital Day of Archaeology

Wooston Castle Local Relief Model draped over a 3D Digital Terrain Model, all based on LiDAR data and available on Sketchfab

Wooston Castle Local Relief Model draped over a 3D Digital Terrain Model, all based on LiDAR data and available on Sketchfab

As is usual for me, my day comprises working on digital heritage projects, as in my previous Days of Archaeology (2011a, 2011b, 2012, 2013 and 2014). So no archaeological features were harmed in the making of this post!

Although on one current project, my GSTAR doctoral research, I am indeed working with archaeological excavation data from the archives of Wessex Archaeology combined with museums collections data from Wiltshire Museum and also heritage inventory data from the Wiltshire Historic Environment Record. This project is nearing completion (thesis due for submission April-ish next year!) and having already shown that geospatial information can be published and used in Semantic Web / Linked Data contexts through the integration of ontologies, I’m currently building demonstrators to show how data can then be used to undertake archaeological research through framing fairly complex archaeological research questions as spatial queries asked across the range of resources I’ve included.

Today however, I’m working mainly on Archaeogeomancy commercial projects as I do one day a week. And thanks to the wonders of digital technologies, I’m working out of Bristol for a change; my first Day of Archaeology away from Salisbury. It’s been a busy week this week, clocking up quite a few miles, as Monday and Tuesday were spent at the Pelagios Linked Pasts event held at Kings College London where a diverse group from across the world spent a very productive couple of days talking about Linked Data with particular emphasis on people, places, space and time.

This morning’s tasks focussed on an automation project involving planning applications. I’m building a system which consumes planning data collated by Glenigan, classifies it according to type of project (as defined by the client) and then pushes out regional and property specific maps and summaries on a weekly/monthly basis for a list of properties which may be affected by these planning applications. This allows specialists in each region to assess each planning application and make recommendations regarding any responses needed. So whilst not the shiniest and most academically interesting of projects, it is the kind of GIS based systems development and automation that can really make a difference by freeing up staff time from the mundane production of such maps and reports.

This afternoon’s tasks will focus on another system I’m developing, this time to assist with the analysis and interpretation of LiDAR data. I’m building a toolkit which incorporates a select range of visualisation techniques requested by the client including Local Relief Maps, Principal Components Analysis and the usual hillshades, slope, etc. The toolkit is to be deployed to users who are not necessarily experts in the analysis and interpretation of LiDAR data or GIS so needs to be simple to use with many variables preset and also needs to be integrated within their corporate GIS solution rather than be a standalone application. The first batch of tools mentioned above are all complete and working nicely; this afternoon’s mission is to wrap up the Openness and Sky View Factor visualisations.

Indeed, it’s been great working with LiDAR data again lately. When thinking of a suitable image for this year’s Day of Archaeology post, the one shown above immediately leapt to mind. It shows a screenshot of the output of the Local Relief Model (LRM) tool I built draped over the Digital Terrain Model (DTM) for a rather lovely hillfort as viewed on Sketchfab. I mention this because disseminating informative views of LiDAR data has long been problematic, but platforms such as Sketchfab allow us to composite 3D and 2D products and then share them in an interactive way with anyone who has a web browser and an internet connection without the need for any specialist software at all. Nice.

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.