Pete Rauxloh: A Busy Day in Archaeological IT

05:40 Youngest child cannot sleep anymore too light, too hot, tells her father (who was asleep)

06:00-07:30 Start up children make breakfast, iron shirts, make breakfast, packed-lunches, and package them off to school.  Feed fish, rabbit, cat and washing machine in that order, make beds, shut windows lock back door pedal off to work

08:15 Arrive at work – strong westerly wind makes going tough – and so many of those Boris bikes to avoid!

08:30 – Check inbox and general helpdesk call queue down to 8, my queue – generally full of slower burn more tricky development tasks – sticks at a belligerent 12.

08:40 Tried to understand a change in Microsoft pricing structure for charities which would affect any new licence purchases we wished to make.

09:00 Passed on message to Rafel  – our engineer who works for the outsourced helpdesk team – from Jazz (my colleague in IT) that Jazz will be watching all 6’2″ of Maria Sharapova on court number 1 at Wimbledon today while we bake in the office.

Jazz’s day of archaeology

10:00 Finally nail the MS licensing issue.  We need to have more than 10% of our income from charitable donation to qualify for their special pricing, which while we don’t now we could do in a few years with the launch of the new MOLA charitable foundation about which I am very excited.  This could be a great resource and banner for so much of the community outreach, applied research, educational and capacity building ideas in UK and abroad which we need to get further into.

11.00 Short discussion re the new MOLA website.  We want to re-align our website to focus on the needs of our major clients so we can build revenue in this area and thereby have the financial momentum to keep the organisation healthy and to allow us to really get involved in those engaging, worthy and ultimately valuable activities such as research partnership project, volunteer inclusion programmes and community engagement, which are generally less lucrative. New website has to have a more user-friendly authoring interface and we need to understand our audience, their language how they’re likely to navigate our site. We then need to have that information architecture translated in to a web site design then get the thing built and tested. We have some short deadlines and I am suspicious of external consultants not being as frank as we need them to be about what we absolutely must do as opposed to what we could do. Am reminded of Paul Theroux who wrote in the Mosquito Coast about Amazonian Indians seeing a block of ice for the first time produced by a massive homemade fridge built by Harrison Ford, that ‘ any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’ and worry that some consultants assume that the same is true of arcane knowledge, and hope that punters will pay for their advice because they don’t understand it. We need to be on our guard for half-naked emperors, people!

11.15 More responses received on familiarity with Office 2010 poll, conducted by email; looks like 1 in 5 people have never used it.  One commented it was rubbish and should be thrown out, but I pointed out he’d said the same things when we migrated from a Unix Word editor to our first Word for Windows in 1995.

11:20 My turn to make Rafel tea, into which 7 spoonfuls of sugar are shovelled; reminded of Jazz’s idea to deduct costs from monthly helpdesk payment to cover this wanton consumption; we’ll call it  a saccharine levy

Talk about a sweet tooth

11:30 Start manipulating a surface model of the City of London and the home boroughs interpolated from about three thousand modern spot heights.  Aiming to use this as an upper surface then interpolate beneath it a surface representing the top of natural (aka the bottom of archaeology). This is interpolated from archaeological and geological borehole data and the thousands of deposit survival forms, which are filled out at the end of excavations, recording the height at which geological layers were encountered. First results encouraging, notwithstanding concerns over identification of truncation (which would show geological deposits as being un-naturally deep) and I have a satisfactory wedge of cheese, which very roughly represents the layer of archaeological deposits overlying the two hills of the City.  Enthused and with the idea of Eskimos cutting out ice blocks from the surface of a lake in my head, I experiment with extruding building footprints downwards to represent the pieces of cheese (or ice) which have gone,  due to cutting of basements.  Having pleaded for a sample city building height data from a friendly supplier,  am able to extrude a small area of the city upwards, and render things so you can see the bit above and the bit below ground.  It’s all pretty vague of course, but it may do as a proof of concept for EH and archaeological advisors to have them contemplate the benefit of a decent basement data collection project.  Fingers crossed.

Layer of archaeological deposits overlying the two hills of the City

13:30-14:00  Helped Rafel  bring 16 new PCs and monitors up from the goods yard. As if by magic  Jamie turns up with a pallet truck which saves us using our cake-trolley, and I drag the lot through the middle of the office. Am greeted like Vespasian in Triumph entering Rome; everyone always wants a new PC.  Piled them up on the desk and had our photograph taken – sent to Jazz on number 1 court to show him how we suffer while he is enjoying himself (Maria was winning).

Hail the conquering heroes!

An update from our correspondent in the field

14:15 – Laura says it is 32 degrees in the office – we mumble about the cost of fans and electricity used to push the hot air about our un-air conditioned “air conditioned” offices

14:25 I eat three digestive biscuits and remember I’ve had no lunch again – it’s the heat!

14.30 15:15 Discuss with Sarah next week’s Geomatics seminar on one recent and one current mapping project.  These involved digitally stitching together scanned version of 16th and 18th century maps, georeferencing them, and the extracting a road and place network from them which were then given an identify by relating them spatially to an existing index which had been located on the individual scans. Phew, we wrote a blog about it too you can see it here

This picture is an example of how good a fit we were able to get between adjoining sheets of the 1746 Rocque map through cunning manipulation of the sheet scans to allow for the differential shrinkage and warping that map sheet experienced since they were made.

Fleet prison with a lovely horizontal seam going straight through it

And now… the seam is gone

The movie (linked below) shows a traverse of the street network of London c.1746 used during processing to check that the graph was truly connected, but it also has geo-social research applications interested in proximity, distribution and so forth.

Traverse of the street network of London c.1746

16:00 Fill out a change control form to inform IT and the outsourced helpdesk of a server re-boot I want to do tomorrow.  We have a problem with old GIS files that access data on an older server (which we want to decommission) hanging when that server is switched off, rather than failing gracefully by opening but without the unreachable layers. Purpose of shutdown is so I can log the TCP connections the old GIS file tries to make as it starts up.  This should help diagnose the problem.

16:15 Query Jamie on uncertainties regarding the modification wanted to the dendrochronological recording form on our central database. This one was around date ranges.  Do we need and if so which fields ought we to be using to record the date range of the tree? – i.e. acorn to death, the date range of the archaeological feature of which the timber is part, or the lifespan of the tree.  How to best record an estimate or actual lifespan if the entire record of rings is not present which it often isn’t.  Sometimes we can also identify timbers from the same tree (as possible amongst the massive Roman and Medieval oak waterfront  timbers recently excavated on a large site on the Thames foreshore), but how best to record? Appears to be a one to many situation but to avoid a horrible Cartesian product,  the likely SOP is that timbers from the same tree are mapped to that with the lowest context number; on the logic that the lowest one is more likely be the first discovered.

Timber structure on recent Thames foreshore site

16:45 Prepare screen shots for staff meeting, and recruit Steph and Nigel to enthuse about on-going vitality of our Facebook and Twitter streams. Much interest indicated following our discussion of the Shakespearian Curtain Theatre in Hackney. This was a major find and such a well-timed one. Named after the nearby Curtain Close, it was the main venue for Shakespeare’s plays between 1597 and 1599 until the Globe was completed in Southwark. Popular recent posts include other small wonders such as the discovery of a bricked-up collection of head-gear and other apparel during our work at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

Curtain Theatre foundations (those knobbly things which make up a yard area are Sheep knuckle bones)

17:00 We say good bye to an old colleague who is retiring after 30 years work with MOLA.  Andrew was an old mentor of mine when I first arrived as a green student, in the then Department of Urban Archaeology (DUA) 22 years ago. Having been used to excavations on the wide open spaces of Salisbury plain, I probably drove him mad with all my questions about how the DUA dig this complex urban stratigraphy, and how they understand what it is they have dug.  Getting my head around all the procedures that had been devised to allow accurate but also time-effective recording.  He was all over it and remained so.  A great archaeologist and friend, I will miss him.  Carol, our bubbly receptionist, does him proud with a wonderful homemade cake which she produces for all leavers – the woman is a diamond.

17:30  Intense discussion with training supplier on subject of Application Express, a data entry environment  for Oracle databases that’s totally web-based and would be a valuable tool in our tactic to move more data entry into the field to reduce double-handling of information. The big idea is to re-appraise the paper recording sheets used on site for various types of context (a valuable exercise on its own) and then from that look at what could be usefully recorded digitally.  Don’t want to record stuff digitally simply because we can, there has to be a purpose and a benefit.  That benefit should be in greater efficiency, but equally I want to ease some of the more mundane aspect of recording.  For example change a prompt requiring a discursive response, which analytically does not have great value, into a tick-box.  Want to do this as we need to get our archaeologists, especially the younger ones coming into the profession more engaged with the process of thinking what it all means.  We don’t want people just filling out checklists, we want them engaged, and enfranchised, and if we can give them more time to do that by streamlining the data collection then that will really help.

17:40-18.30  Have third and final cup of tea, update helpdesk call list with work done, restart the computer, turn off the screens and pedal for home.

One thought on “Pete Rauxloh: A Busy Day in Archaeological IT

  1. Paul says:

    Brilliant! I particularly love the Locating London’s Past project, a wonderful example of what can be done with some old maps, GIS and a bit of lateral thinking.

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