web services

Archaeological Geosemantics, the final chapter

Panoramic View of the Stonehenge Landscape from Fargo Plantation

Panoramic View of the Stonehenge Landscape from Fargo Plantation

GSTAR IV: Return of the GeoJSON

Following on from my Days of Archaeology in 2013, 2014 and 2015 (and for the last time), the bulk of my Day of Archaeology this year focussed on my doctoral research, writing up my thesis on Geosemantic Technologies for Archaeological Research (GSTAR). It’s been a busy three years but the project is nearing completion and will hopefully inform heritage management and research strategy over the coming years.

The aim of the project was to show how geosemantic technologies can be used to provide a framework for working with heritage data in a range of research contexts. To this end, I have built a demonstrator application which is based around a map (obvs!) for the Stonehenge landscape and which draws data from Historic Environment Records, museums and project archives, allowing users to ask questions across these diverse resources taking advantage of the semantic goodness of Linked Geospatial Data, thesauri and ontologies. Geosemantic ‘glue’ was used to integrate horizontally between resources (such as monuments and artefacts found within or nearby) and vertically (ie between excavation records and monument/event HER records and museum collection records).

The ontologies used were the CIDOC CRM, CRM-EH and GeoSPARQL which allow the concepts used by the various sources to be aligned whilst the terminology provided by the thesauri (published using SKOS) allow for the various terms used to document these concepts to be related. In other words, the semantic tools allow for the different sources to be made interoperable and queryable with the results displayed and interacted with on a map.

Moving forward, the approach taken and successfully demonstrated could be scaled up to act as the basis for the next generation of heritage information portals; think of the Heritage Gateway but with some additional bells and whistles:

  • the ability to undertake proper geospatial queries and analysis, even where there is no GIS data
  • spatial queries mediated using geospatial semantics, to get away from purely Cartesian views of space dependent on geometry and the problems that entails for historic information
  • complex querying across all of the participating providers, with differences in terminology ironed out

The demonstrator application is built using a range of standard web and geospatial technologies. Currently, the accessioning process for data is largely manual, built using the STELLAR Toolkit to process outputs from MODES and HBSMR, two major software packages used in museums and HERs respectively. A next step would be to automate this, which would be fairly straightforward from a technological if not a political perspective. If an automated pipeline could be implemented across all the HBSMR and MODES using institutions and organisations, this would cover an enormous amount of heritage information and, combined with a map based portal and live feeds to desktop GIS, would greatly improve the way in which we undertake all kinds of research activities, both in academic and commercial contexts.

Information from site archives was a little tricksier, as one might expect; such data does not typically get archived in a readily useable fashion unlike information found within the structured systems used for managing Historic Environment Record data or museums collections. However, with ongoing work relating to the digital capture and sharing of fieldwork information through OASIS, HERALD and the broader Heritage Information Access Strategy (HIAS), we are undoubtedly moving towards a time when this becomes not just possible but the norm. When this happens (and note I say when not if!), we can start to extend Linked Data principles more fully to our information resources, so monument records can be directly built up from linked fieldwork records, museum collection artefact records can be layered on top of linked excavation finds records and, on top of all this, our Research Agendas and Frameworks can be truly data driven, dynamic resources drawing directly on this web of Linked Data, informing and informed by ongoing research and our shared knowledge of the past, across all of our information resources.

The use of such geosemantic ‘glue’ allows for a much more intelligent approach to finding and working with geospatial information from heterogenous sources split across numerous providers. Take the following query for example:

Show me all the Bronze Age mounds where dolerite has been found during excavations and carved chalk balls were discovered nearby.

Using the HeritageData Periods thesaurus, it is possible to mediate different uses of language across sources to describe time-spans relating to the Bronze Age, using broader, narrower and/or related terms. We can use the FISH Event Types Thesaurus to find event records relating to interventions (including excavations) and draw on the project archives for these to check for finds of dolerite, potentially using geological ontologies such as GEON to mediate identifications of rock types. Using the FISH Object Types Thesaurus, it is possible to do the same for chalk balls or any other artefact type. Geospatial information may well not exist for these objects as recorded in museums collections, most likely not in the form of British National Grid coordinates at least, particularly where they were discovered in antiquity. But we do often have some basic spatial information such as an associated location (eg Stonehenge), parish (eg Amesbury) or named place (eg Stonehenge Road); in such cases we can use the Ordnance Survey Linked Data plus some of the spatial relationships defined by the Simple Features specification (used by the GeoSPARQL ontology) to perform a spatial query using these index terms via a bit of geosemantic magic. Moving forward, we can align our research questions with such resources and queries so, for example, if the dating of carved chalk balls (typically thought of as of Neolithic origin) were to change, we can use the same approach to identify contexts where such changes would have a knock on effect or where our broader understanding of deposits, sites and complexes may also need to be updated or where new research questions arise. So this may be the end of the GSTAR project, but it’s only just the beginning for the use of such approaches within the heritage sector.

Many thanks again to everyone who has helped, contributed and otherwise supported this research project along the way, particularly:

  • Doug Tudhope, Alex Lohfink, Mark Ware & Ceri Binding (University of South Wales)
  • Chris Brayne (Wessex Archaeology)
  • David Dawson (Wiltshire Museum)
  • Adrian Green (Salisbury Museum)
  • Keith May (Historic England)
  • Melanie PomeroyKellinger (Wiltshire Council)

Archaeology on the web

My name is Tom Goskar, and I am Wessex Archaeology‘s web manager. I am also one one of the team behind the Day of Archaeology, an international online event which has taken months in the planning.

Like the rest of the Day of Archaeology team, my day has been an incredibly busy one. Essentially it began in earnest yesterday evening (if that’s not cheating) putting the final touches to the DoA website, through to seeing the first post from the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy go online.

After some sleep, I have been helping to keep the website well-oiled and ticking along. I have been doing this whilst publishing and planning web content for Wessex Archeology, who have helped to support the Day of Archaeology by providing some of my time during the day to help run it. Today, I have published some updates about a large excavation that is happening in the heart of Dorchester, the Roman town of Durnovaria. I’ve also been following back people who have recently started following Wessex on Twitter, planning some future web content for an industrial site that we are working on in the north of England, and looking at ideas for publishing some of our content as e-books (in EPUB format) and how we might fit that into our existing design workflows. There are some promising tools out there, and it’s exciting to think of the possibilities of publishing content that will look good on devices from smartphones to Kindles, iPads, etc. Especially when you have a back-catalogue of titles which are now out of print. We could give some publications a new lease of life. Specialist books which when printed are only ever available to a small number of people could have global distribution and benefit many more. Keep your eyes on the Wessex Archaeology website, there’s lots of exciting things planned for the future.

Today I have also just finished an article for a forthcoming publication based upon a talk I gave earlier this year as part the Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology (CASPAR) “Archaeologists & the Digital: Towards Strategies of Engagement” workshop in May 2011 at UCL in London. My paper is called Wessex Archaeology and the Web, a simple title, but one that explores how the organisation’s website has grown from a small nine page brochure-style website in 2001 to the  socially connected 4000+ page site that it is today. Major archaeological discoveries, such as the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen amongst others were catalysts to expand and change the way we published information online. We’ve been earlier adopters of many “Web 2.0” (despite my hating that term) technologies and web services, as well as starting the first archaeology podcast, Archaeocast. Many other heritage organisations have looked to us for trying things out first, so we have been in the spotlight on many occasions. It’s been some journey since I relaunched the website in May 2002, and it still feels like this is just the beginning.

My philosophy has always been that archaeology is all about people; as archaeologists we have a duty to make our work available to as many people as possible, otherwise there is little point in what we do. We run the risk of becoming irrelevant to society if we do not broaden access to the information that we uncover. The web is instrumental to helping us to help people learn about their pasts, and the Day of Archaeology is a fantastic way of showing the sheer diversity of work that goes on inside archaeology, and how exciting and relevant it all is.

It has been wonderful to, throughout the day, read many of the posts as they have been published. It makes me excited to see so much happening in the world (literally – see the map of posts!) of archaeology, and that so many people have been passionate enough about their subject to tell the world about it through the Day of Archaeology website. I do hope that it inspires more archaeologists to shout about their work (we’re often quite shy) and see the benefits of the web, and that it inspires readers of this site to follow up the projects that they see here. Maybe some will be moved to take up archaeology in some way, maybe as a volunteer, joining a local dig, or even thinking about archaeology as a profession.

So, a big thank you to all who have contributed an entry to the Day of Archaeology so far, and to fellow organisers Lorna, Matt, Dan, Jess, Stu, and Andy. And thank you, dear reader, for supporting us by visiting and reading all about a day in the life of what is now 422 archaeologists.

It’s been a fun journey, and fingers crossed, there will be a Day of Archaeology 2012!