digital archaeologist

Put down that trowel and pass me the mouse: on digital archaeology

Can you guess what it is yet?

There are at least 7 dead emperors, 3 dead kings, 2 dead queens, some dead generals, and one wonderdog following me on Twitter.

This is an occupational hazard, when you put ‘digital archaeologist’ on your business card. Any day of archaeology for me involves standing up at my standing desk, pounding the keyboard in frustration as something that should work, at least in theory, does not. But what on earth do I do? Here’s the quick version:

Archaeology generates incredible volumes of information. A lot of that information is in fact information about the information.  The description of the relationship between two contexts? The description of a subgroup of contexts? The spatial and chronological patterns? When the excavation is over, all we’ve got are our records. What I’m working on right now are ways of mining that data (and especially its metadata) for new insights. I’ve recently come back from the world digital humanities shindig, #DH2013 in Lincoln Nebraska. There was an entire session devoted to digital archaeology there; I presented a paper called ‘topic modeling space and time‘.

Topic modeling is a technique that uncovers patterns in unstructured text. It’s a kind of unsupervised clustering routine. Tell the computer, ‘go find me 15 topics in this data, and tell me the relative percentages of each topic in each context record’. This lets me see patterns in the ways the archaeologists themselves worked with the original data whilst excavating.

Very meta. I don’t do much field work any more; hard to do much Roman stuff when I’m here in the Ottawa Valley. But I think I’m finding ways of pulling out meaningful patterns from old excavation notes. You can see – and hear – for yourself where I’m going with all of this at the website for our session. One of the things that is coming out, though there is some disagreement amongst those with whom I’ve shared these thoughts, is the voice of the individual excavators again. The final monograph, the final site report, is always written in a kind of vanilla pablum-esque-ese (to coin a word) that glosses over all of the personalities and social factors that go into that great cauldron, the excavation project (especially the academic ones). I’d like to figure out ways of returning some of the subjective bits back into things.

That’s what this digital archaeologist has been working on, on this day of archaeology, when there was a down moment. Next week, I gear up for back-to-school in September. I’ve got two classes to write more-or-less from scratch. One, ‘Roman Archaeology for Historians’, will have a significant open access portion to it – feel free to drop in, or ping me for more details.

A Digital Archaeology Day

It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten my fingernails dirty, drank a cup of cold tea in a trench, or gotten lost trying to find some site that was last visited in the 1960s. Yep, not much call for a Romanist here in the Ottawa Valley. Fortunately what there is call for, is a ‘digital archaeologist’.

Learn more about Canada’s Greatest Culture* at Canadian Geographic!
*I’m biased, yes.

…and what is that, exactly?

Archaeologists have always been at the forefront in riding the latest technology in the pursuit of better understanding of the past. It’s not for nothing that you’re reading a post on a website called ‘Day of Archaeology’, rather than ‘Day of Sociology’ or ‘Day of Canadian History’. So what do I do? I’m not a GIS guy, or a database guy. I’m in the history department at Carleton as their ‘digital humanities’ guy, so I try to work through what new media imply for both the doing of history/archaeology and for our understanding of history/archaeology. I normally blog what I’m up to over at Electric Archaeology and I’d be pleased if you went over there and took a look. Topic Modeling, Agent Based Simulation, Game Based Learning, Augmented Reality, Crowdsourcing, Open Peer Review… all these things are in my baliwick.

Today, I’m lesson planning for the fall. My philosophy of teaching has always been to get students doing real work, in the sense that all assignments always contribute to the generation of knowledge. I try to find projects to which their formative and summative assessment exercises may contribute. I’m off in a few minutes to meet the University Archivist, to see if we can use my class (ca 200 students) to crowdsource online transcription and annotation of documents and photographs.

Then, I’m looking into buying an autonomous aerial drone for survey work and photography. I want to use the photographs to create 3d immersive worlds that other archaeologists or the public may then explore, for both outreach and research. Then, polishing up an agent-based simulation of Greek amphorae imitation practices.

But, given that it’ll be over 30 C today, I think I’ll just end up taking the kids to the river to play, and I’ll come back to my work in the cool of the evening. That’s one nice thing about being a digital archaeologist – I really can time-shift my hours. On the downside, no regular archaeologist I think has ever had months and months of their work destroyed in an instant, as I did earlier this year.

Above is yours truly talking about some augmented reality + museum cataloguing I did with my first year students this past spring.


Doing Archaeology, Digitally

This Day of Archaeology doesn’t see me out surveying or excavating, nor in a lab.  Instead, it finds me sitting at my desk at MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University in front of my Mac Book Pro, two large Apple Cinema Displays (powered by an old, yet remarkably reliable, Mac Pro), an iPad, an iPod, an Android handset (Droid X2 if you are interested), and a Galaxy Tab 10.1.  This (extremely technological) state of affairs results from the fact that its been a long time since I’ve actually stuck a trowel in the ground.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a great field archaeology pedegree.  I spent my elementary, highschool, and undergrad years (my father is an archaeologist as well) working on sites in the Northern Plains (mostly Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta – and a little bit in Montana and North Dakota).  As a graduate student, I worked in Indiana and Illinois.  My primary area of research as a graduate student (as well as my archaeological heart), however, rested in Egypt – Predynastic Egypt to be precise.  I worked several seasons with Fred Wendorf and the Combined Prehistoric Expedition at Nabta Playa.  The bulk of my work in Egypt, however, was at Hierakonpolis, where I excavated a variety of Predynastic household sites and did research into Predynastic household economy.

As a graduate student (and even as an undergrad, to be quite honest), I found myself increasingly interested in how information, computing, and communication technology could be applied to archaeology for teaching, research, outreach, and scholarly communication.  Fast forward several years and I find myself sitting at my desk at MATRIX in front of a dizzying array of devices.  My transformation from a “traditional” archaeologist (if you will – though, to be honest, is there really such thing as a “traditional” archaeologist) to a digital archaeologist is complete.