Current Research & Practice in Digital Archaeology

July 18, 2013, 08:30 | Panel, CBA 143

Session Abstract

Archaeology has a long history of innovative work with information and computing technology. While there are a small number examples in the late 1950s, the most influential comes courtesy of James Deetz’s seminal work on Arikara ceramics. Carried out in the early 1960s, Deetz’s project used the IBM704 mainframe at the MIT Computation Laboratory to discover "stylistic coherence" on over two thousand rim sherds from central South Dakota Medicine Crow site. Deetz’s work was extremely important as it suggested that computers were excellent tools for statistical, typological, chronological, or stylistic analysis of large and complex sets of data (a hallmark of archaeology).

Since these early days, digital archaeology has remained intently focused on the analysis, interoperability, and preservation of digital data. By the mid-1980s, however, the personal computer had reached a point where they became effective tools for archaeological visualization and imagery. Desktop applications such as GIS, which allowed for the visualization, analysis, and modeling of socio-spatial data, and CAD, which facilitated the production of detailed and geometrically accurate archaeological maps at various scales without time-consuming redrafting, became central in the digital archaeological ecosystem.

In recent years, along with many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, archaeology is entering a new age in which information, computing, and communication technology is having transformative impact on all aspects of the field. The archaeological domains and activities in which digital approaches, methods, and technologies are relevant have grown well beyond the traditional trinity of data, GIS, and CAD. All aspects of research (including field and lab methods), teaching, outreach, publication, and scholarly communication are being impacted in new and unpredictable ways by “digital.” Quite frankly, gone are the days in which digital archaeological methods were siloed off from the main body of scholarly practice. In many ways, one might argue that we have entered an age in which all archaeology is digital archaeology and all archaeologists are digital archaeologists.

In is within this context that this session will highlight a series of innovative projects and practices that represent the forefront of work in digital archaeology. Special attention has been made to highlight projects which represent a variety of domains within digital archaeology including digital data, public engagement, data & topic modeling, crowdsourcing, linked-open data, and digital fieldwork records management. All papers in the session also speak to the changed and changing nature of scholarly and professional practice within archaeology, addressing new approaches to collaboration, community engagement, citizen scholarship, cyberinfrastructure, preservation & access, capacity building, and sharing. A second, but no less important, goal of this session is to challenge the rather curious separation that exists between digital archaeology and the digital humanities by clearly placing the two domains parallel to one another and recognizing the fact that they both have much to learn from one another. The ultimate goal in this regard is to foster and support fruitful discussions and collaboration between digital archaeologists and digital humanists.

Topic Modeling Time and Space: Archaeological Datasets as Discourses

Topic modeling is very popular at the moment in the digital humanities. A recent tutorial on getting started with this tool explains them as tools for extracting topics or injecting semantic meaning into vocabularies: "Topic models represent a family of computer programs that extract topics from texts. A topic to the computer is a list of words that occur in statistically meaningful ways. A text can be an email, a blog post, a book chapter, a journal article, a diary entry – that is, any kind of unstructured text" (Graham, Weingart, and Milligan 2012). In that tutorial, 'unstructured' means that there is no encoding in the text by which a computer can model any of its semantic meaning.

Archaeological datasets are rich, largely unstructured bodies of text. While there are examples of archaeological datasets that are coded with semantic meaning through xml and Text Encoding Initiative practices, many of these are done after the fact of excavation or collection. In the field, things can be rather different, and this material can be considered to be 'largely unstructured' despite the use of databases, controlled vocabulary, and other means to maintain standardized descriptions of what is excavated, collected, and analyzed. This is because of the human factor. Not all archaeologists are equally skilled. Not all data gets recorded according to the standards. Where some see few differences in a particular clay fabric type, others might see many, and vice versa. Archaeological custom might call a particular vessel type a ‘casserole’, thus suggesting a particular use, only because in the 19th century when that vessel type was first encountered it reminded the archaeologist of what was in his kitchen – there is no necessary correlation between what we as archaeologists call things and what those things were originally used for. Further, once data is recorded (and the site has been destroyed through the excavation process), we tend to analyze these materials in isolation. That is, we write our analyses based on all of the examples of a particular type, rather than considering the interrelationships amongst the data found in the same context or locus. David Mimno in 2009 turned the tools of data analysis on the databases of household materials recovered and recorded room by room at Pompeii. He considered each room as a 'document' and the artefacts therein as the 'tokens' or 'words' within that document, for the purposes of topic modeling. The resulting 'topics' of this analysis are what he calls 'vocabularies' of object types which when taken together can suggest the mixture of functions particular rooms may have had in Pompeii. He writes, 'the purpose of this tool is not to show that topic modeling is the best tool for archaeological investigation, but that it is an appropriate tool that can provide a complement to human analysis....mathematically concrete in its biases'. The ‘casseroles’ of Pompeii turn out to have nothing to do with food preparation, in Mimno’s analysis.

To date, this is the only example of topic modeling applied to archaeological data. As such, it is novel in the digital humanities for applying the tools of data mining not to texts, but to things. In this paper, I explore the use of topic models on another rich archaeological dataset, the Portable Antiquities Scheme database in the UK. The Portable Antiquities Scheme is a project "to encourage the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales". To date, there are over half a million unique records in the Scheme's database. I use topic modeling of this database to tease out archaeological patterns -the discourses of topic modeling, to use Ted Underwood's phrasing - over both time and space. In order to visualize these discourses, I map them both in geographic and relational space, using the network analysis program Gephi. The constellation of ideas (the resultant ‘topics’) that make up the various discourses in the data can be represented as nodes while the strengths of the associations suggested by the topic model can be represented as edges. This two-mode graph (words and ‘topics’ or ‘discourses’) can be queried for deeper structure. I look at the modularity of this graph to determine ‘communities’ of ideas or discourses. I then lay this network against real geographic space by time-slice to understand changes over time and space in the Portable Antiquities Scheme data. I agree with Mimno's suggestion that this is an appropriate tool for the digital archaeologist, but try to understand the limitations, caveats, and lessons for digital humanities more generally, from this application.

The Archaeological Resource Cataloging System (ARCS): An Open-Source Solution to Digitizing an Archaeological Archive

Over the past few decades, archaeologists have begun to realize the benefits of providing archival records in digital form. Whether information is collected electronically or digitized from pre-existing materials, digital archaeological data should be readily accessible from anywhere in the world. These developments have increased the productivity of scholars who no longer need to visit the actual archive and eased the strain on those projects that must accommodate visiting researchers in addition to their normal daily operations. On the other hand, the creation of digital archives has drastically impacted the ways in which we interact with documents and artifacts that form the basis of archaeological research. Financially constrained projects have lagged behind their better-funded peers in the process of digitization and dissemination of electronic records. As a result, instead of providing greater access to a wider range of archaeological data, the process of archival digitization runs the risk of further privileging the evidence of those surveys and excavations with greater financial resources. In addition, many of the existing digital archaeological archives concentrate upon artifacts to the point that the archaeologist’s field journal, arguably the most important evidence in establishing context, is rarely presented in its original form. Even where diverse forms of information are provided, a digital archive often encourages the study of objects and documents in isolation from one another and without the benefit of the institutional memory that often aids in their interpretation. While a traditional archive allows an individual to conduct their research through physical interaction with a number of different archival materials at once, often in the presence of those who discovered and prepared them, many digital archives simply rely on keyword searches to generate lists of electronic records that to the untrained eye appear to be of equal value as forms of evidence.

In this paper, we present the Archaeological Resource Cataloging System (ARCS), an open-source digital asset management application created for the Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia in order to address these issues. Developed at Michigan State University through an NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grant, ARCS utilizes a web-based interface that allows authorized users to upload and “tag” digital resources consistently according to generally accepted metadata standards that can be further refined to reflect any project’s unique terminology. These resources can then be searched, sorted into collections and connected to one another through the creation of virtual links without affecting the integrity of the original data. In this way the essential interrelatedness of the various forms of archaeological data is preserved in a flexible electronic format. In order to foster a better sense of community among researchers, each resource is also provided with a discussion tool that allows users to ask questions or identify mistakes, thereby making use of others’ knowledge and experience to cultivate the development of the dataset. In addition, because ARCS depends on the collective effort of a community of users, the system generates a permanent record of all additions and modifications of resources so that errors can be easily corrected and dependable users more clearly identified.

Perhaps most importantly, because it is an open-source application that relies on multiple users to develop and manage the digital assets of an excavation or survey, ARCS offers an affordable option for archaeological projects that lack a dedicated digital archivist or IT specialist. Digital data can be added as it is made available and, once uploaded, new resources can be linked to body of evidence that continues to grow in size and detail. In the end, ARCS not only retains the many benefits of more traditional research involving physical documents at an actual archive but in many ways also speeds and simplifies the process of archaeological investigation.

“All of Us Would Walk Together": Digital Cultural Heritage and the African American Past at Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland

In October 2012, Historic St. Mary's City (HSMC) launched a digital exhibit and social media campaign focused on the 19th-century component of their museum. HSMC, an archaeology and living history museum, has traditionally focused its 17th-century component, which was Maryland's first capital city. The digital exhibit, however, allowed the museum to begin interpreting additional centuries without disrupting the 17th-century landscape. Additionally, the digital exhibit, HSMC is able to develop an approach that focuses on public communication and engagement, allows for transparent research methods and interpretations, and provides flexibility when integrating the content into future programming and on-site exhibit. Through a combined approach of a content based digital exhibit, research blog, and social media, the digital exhibit, called "All of Us Would Walk Together", provides an example of digital archaeology that incorporates contemporary concepts of public archaeology through digital exhibitions and research methods. This paper will discuss how this has been put into action.

During the past few decades, community engagement has become a critical component of African American archaeology. Starting with the public excavations at the African American Burial Ground project in New York City, researchers have begun to incorporate local communities and descendants in the development and implementation of research projects and museum exhibits. Establishing a transparent, reciprocal, and pragmatic back-and-forth has become a valued and integral part of the research process for many archaeologists. Online tools have also been used as a means for public engagement, in particular at the Levi Jordan Plantation and Rosewood. More recently, archaeologists have adopted social media as a means for engaging communities and stakeholders, such as at the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program, Florida Public Archaeology Network, and at Mt. Vernon. Although each approach has highlighted different topics and methods for engagement, each has found the use of the web and digital social media to be a beneficial means of engaging the public.

At HSMC, the interpretation of the 19th century had not been the primary focus of the museum. This was particularly evident when the structures relating to the 19th century, including a manor home, its outbuildings, and a former duplex slave and tenant quarter, were physically moved to a different location in 1992 due to its conflict with the 17th-century interpretation. While the buildings continued to be used as a bed and breakfast, they were not used as an interpretive component of the museum, causing memory of the 19th century to be lost to the public. Recently, this story has begun to resurface, due to a number of factors at the museum. Included was the reacquisition of the manor home and outbuildings from the owners of the bed and breakfast, and funding opportunities to interpret the duplex quarter through a digital exhibit and a physical exhibit. In addition to interpreting the site, the goal of the exhibits was also to build a relationship with the African American community and to reinstate the 19th-century story into the public consciousness.

The digital exhibit consists of two components: a traditional exhibit space and social media. The exhibit space presents a number of webpages devoted to the interpretation of the historical and archaeological data that has already been analyzed. These pages trace the transition from slavery to freedom for the African Americans who lived on the site, and uses historical and archaeological evidence to develop the narrative. Interspersed are links to blog posts that discuss how the evidence was gathered or used by researchers to draw the conclusions. Additionally, each exhibit page has a comment field, where the public can ask questions, offer their own interpretation, or provide additional commentary. This allows for two-way communication between the public and researchers, while also allowing the public to engage in the interpretive efforts. Lastly, these pages will be linked to the physical exhibit through the use of QR codes or augmented reality to provide more flexibility to the interpretive efforts at the site of the duplex. In doing so, the exhibit becomes flexible, transparent, and engaged physical space, fitting within the parameters of an engaged cultural heritage project.

The use of social media, through a blog, Twitter, and Facebook, adds extra depth to these efforts. The blog provides the most flexibility and transparency by allowing the exhibit space to be amended, added to, or modified in a transparent way. This provides a great deal of flexibility to the site that only a digital exhibit can provide. For example, if the research results in a major change to the exhibit, a blog post can be written to discuss the change and why it happened. In the exhibit, a link to this post can be added to demonstrate that the research process is a fluid, ongoing process. The blog and Twitter are also used to highlight research at comparable sites or examining comparable themes. This ties the archaeological work conducted at this site to larger themes in the discipline, and begins to build relationships with other institutions, while providing additional resources and access to new scholarship to the public. The blog and Twitter are both instrumental in the preservation and exhibit building process, as they make it more transparent: the public can watch and participate in the decisions about what will be included in the exhibit, in addition to understanding what types of constraints are placed on the construction of an exhibit. Twitter also allows lab and fieldwork to be shared in realtime with the public. Lastly, Twitter provides access to a larger, global network, particularly an African American network, a demographic that uses Twitter more than others. Facebook, on the other hand, is being used to connect with HSMC's current online fans through its official Facebook account.

The project itself has a high set of goals, and is approaching it with a multifaceted approach. While the digital component is a crucial step, it is only part of a larger program of public engagement. For example, HSMC has been actively soliciting feedback from local community members and seeking to engage them through the formation of an advisory board. This reiterates an important tenant of engaging in digital public archaeology: that one cannot rely solely on one approach. Nonetheless, the use of the digital space does provide us with additional exhibit and interpretive space, and gives us a great deal of flexibility when dealing with the public, research, and presentation. Most importantly, the use of the digital arena allows this all to be transparent, reciprocal, and dynamic.

An Introduction to the Practices and Initial Findings of the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA)

The Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA) is a project to create interoperability models for archaeological site databases in the eastern United States, funded by the National Science Foundation (#1216810 & #1217240). The core research team consists of researchers from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Tennessee, the Alexandria Archive Institute, and the Anthropology and Informatics programs at Indiana University. Open Context (http://opencontext.org) will be used as the primary platform for data dissemination for this project. Our aims are to work with the databases held by State Historic Preservation offices and allied federal and tribal agencies in Eastern North America, with the goal of linking data across state lines for research and management purposes. Redacted of sensitive items, such as site location, data linkages will promote extension and reuse by government personnel in state and federal agencies, and domestic and international researchers. The project will mint stable Web-URIs for each site record, and in doing so, we will help lay the foundations for future Linked Open Data applications in North American archaeology, architectural history, and historical studies.

This project repurposes government curated datasets to support innovative humanistic and social science research. Governmental archaeological site files in North America are important loci for documentary information on known archaeological sites. Their most basic function is to contain data about site types and information quality pursuant to heritage preservation legislation at the federal level, but potentially state and local levels as well. However, as a matter of practice these files, often as relational databases, contain many other data fields that describe important archaeological findings, and other data that serve environmental and bureaucratic functions for management and protection of heritage resources. The ways in which data about archaeological sites are recorded and communicated have an important origin in theoretical models about past behavior, and also have important implications on the professional comprehension of the data at large and the use of the data to rank planning and preservation priorities.

Efforts to collect and compile archaeological data have a long history, and information about archaeological sites and collections is maintained by every state and territory. Only rarely, however, have these data been compiled and examined at large geographic scales, especially those crosscutting state lines, and never to the extent and for the research and management purposes proposed in this project. Data from some 15 to 20 states (>half a million sites) east of the Mississippi will be integrated with a common ontology, based on existing standards, and adapted in collaboration with researchers and government personnel in state and federal agencies. The ontology will classify site files according to cultural affiliation and chronology as well as agency assessments of historical significance.

Linkage of site file and other datasets will facilitate studies of past human adaptation spanning large areas, and lead to greater collaboration between archaeologists and scientists in other disciplines. As examples, the linkage of archaeological data at broad new scales will permit, for the first time, the exploration of exciting new research topics, such as how the human populations in North America responded to climate change, population growth, and/or anthropogenic environmental issues over the past 13,000 years.

The availability of output online in the form of maps and data tables (at significantly reduced spatial resolution, to protect sensitive locations) will enhance public awareness, education, and appreciation for scientific research in general and archaeology in particular. The demonstration that primary archaeological data can be integrated and used to address fundamental questions at such scales will stimulate similar efforts worldwide. Finally, by creating translating routines rather than dictating procedures, this project will foster archaeological cooperation through cyberinfrastructure with a high ratio of benefits to costs.

The project helps achieve broader archaeological concerns regarding professional data management training, research ethics and outreach education. It will foster novel networking and data integration among multiple partners, as well as research and educational activities across multiple disciplines and geopolitical boundaries. Publicly accessible data products, at coarse scales to preserve site location security, will also be available for download and reuse as shapefiles, CSV data tables, and RDF and N3 triples for other Web and desktop applications, including desktop GIS investigation. The project will provide specific instructions for the open source GIS applications QGIS gvSIG, and uDIG, and the widely used proprietary application ArcGIS, in order to foster education in geographic information science within archaeology and related disciplines. The project will fund graduate and undergraduate students, and will assist their training in critical information management skills for the 21st century. The project addresses head-on a major challenge facing research communities worldwide: how to link disconnected and incompatible data systems in such a way that the combined data are useful for important scientific research.

The integration of site file data at continental scales in a new and unique informational infrastructure will allow, for the first time, the exploration of the North American archaeological record across multiple temporal periods and geographic regions. The geographic scale and extent of data integration proposed is currently unprecedented in American archaeology yet, we believe we have demonstrated that it is readily achievable. With proper attention these data have the potential for continued growth as developed by the professional archaeological community, and as the resulting datasets become more inclusive they may transform the practice of our profession.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme: a new(ish) model for recording public discovery

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was inaugurated in 1997, following the revision of the ancient law of Treasure Trove and the subsequent implementation of the Treasure Act in 1996. This project has been through several funding phases all using public money and encourages the voluntary recording of archaeological objects discovered by members of the public in England and Wales (Scotland is subject to different legislation) and items that meet the stipulations of the Treasure Act.

One of the key pillars of the PAS has been its digital presence, which has now been online in some form for over 13 years and this paper will discuss the impact that the digital arm of the project has had on a national and international audience. The PAS has been hailed by many as a model of public archaeological engagement and decried by others for allowing the mining of the archaeological record for personal gain; however this paper will show some of the PAS’ many successes. For example the PAS has had contributions from over 20,000 individuals worldwide, a new facility has been created for contributors to record their own discoveries through taxonomy driven interfaces and over 350 projects utilise these data for informing their research - for example Oxford University’s EngLaID project. The project has also absorbed and enhanced internationally renowned resources such as Oxford University’s Celtic Coin Index and Cardiff University’s Iron Age and Roman coins of Wales database to provide the largest national, single search node for the study of Roman and Celtic coinage.

The project website records a huge array of metadata about objects, that we often have but one chance to record; images, textual description, measurements, spatial data and user generated comments and audit logs. Over 820,000 objects have been recorded on the PAS database and these are made available for all to view, comment and reuse within their own research or their own websites under a Creative Commons ‘by attribution share-alike’ licence. This liberal approach to licensing content has not been seen widely in the UK and European archaeological sector and the launch of the PAS’ Staffordshire Hoard microsite in September 2009 showed how well received this approach would be. Over 250,000 unique visitors in one day used the innovative microsite to learn more about the amazing Anglo-Saxon hoard and many more viewed the images that had been disseminated via Flickr. The PAS has also utilised and archived social media platforms with varying degrees of success and is a major case study within Lorna Richardson’s forthcoming PhD and complements that of its host organisation (the British Museum.)

This paper will show how the PAS website impacts on the public with specific reference to stories of international interest – such as the Staffordshire Hoard, the Frome hoard of 52,503 Roman coins, the Crosby Garrett helmet and the Staffordshire Moorlands Patera. It will also discuss how these successes have been reached on a minimal digital budget (less than £5000 per annum) via the use of open source technology and through the buy in of its audience. The website has been internationally recognised, winning the prestigious Museums and the Web ‘Best of Web’ award for ‘research or online collection’ (recent winners include the V&A and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The author will demonstrate how a variety of digital techniques that have been employed to complement and enhance data collected via our network of archaeologists, volunteers and citizen scientists; for example geo enrichment through the use of Yahoo!, Geonames, Pleiades and Google Maps, text extraction through OpenCalais and Autonomy, the implementation of a Solr based faceted multi-core search engine and also how a wide variety of application programming interfaces (api) have been employed throughout the site. It will also show how the author has been influenced by ground breaking projects such as Open Context, Pleiades and Pelagios and a variety of Museum sector projects.

The paper will also touch on the recent steps towards providing the PAS data through linked data (for example the release of over 50,000 annotations for Pelagios), towards integrating linked data into the site (for example dbpedia enriched resources) and the CIDOC-CRM mapping process. It will also discuss 3D , computed tomography and PTM/RTI imaging projects conducted by Brighton and Southampton universities that have used PAS sourced objects and hoards of coins to provide research material. If time allows, the paper will also demonstrate the success achieved through the use of Flickr as a disseminator for a wide variety of archaeological images; how the author has leveraged news sources such as the Guardian and UK parliamentary records for background debate on the portable antiquities debate (ethical and fiscal) and how it has impacted on the public psyche within the UK and further afield.

msu.seum: A Location Based Mobile Application for Exploring the Cultural Heritage and Archaeology of Michigan State University

The spaces we inhabit and interact with on a daily basis are made up of layers of cultural activity that are, quite literally, built up over time. While museum exhibits, historical and archaeological narratives, and public archaeology programs can communicate this cultural heritage, they do not generally allow for rich, place-based, and individually driven exploration by the public. In addition, museum exhibits rarely explore the binary nature of material culture and the preserved record of human activity: the presented information about material culture and the process by which scholarly research has reached those conclusions. In short, the scholarly narrative of material culture, cultural heritage, and archaeology is often hidden from public consumption.

In recent years, mobile devices as well as the development and maturation of augmented reality (broadly construed) have offered both platforms and models for mobile cultural heritage applications to address the former issue. Mobile applications such as The Museum of London’s Streetmuseum Londinium, Florida Public Archaeology Network’s Destination: Civil War, and the forthcoming CHESS Acropolis Museum mobile application facilitate public interaction with cultural heritage and archaeology in a place-based context. However, the latter issue, the scholarly narrative of the process by which cultural heritage and archaeological information was uncovered and information was generated, is often left unaddressed and unexplored in mobile cultural heritage applications.

It is within this context that this paper will introduce and explore msu.seum. Developed during the 2011 Michigan State University Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool directed by Ethan Watrall in collaboration with the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program and Campus Archaeology Fieldschool, msu.seum is a mobile application that allows users to interact with the rich cultural archaeological heritage of the historic Michigan State University campus, and explore the processes by which the Campus Archaeology Program helped reveal it. Building on the idea of “campus as museum,” msu.seum connects cultural heritage directly to place, highlighting both what is known about the MSU Campus and the scholarly narrative of the associated archaeological and historical research. msu.seum functions less like a “check-in” app and more like a rich, exploration-based museum tour guide that exposes the cultural heritage and archaeology of Michigan State University to staff, faculty, students, alumni, and the general public.

Currently available for iOS, msu.seum’s content is organized into a series of thematic “exhibits” that reflect the development of Michigan State University: Beginnings: 1855-1870, Foundation: 1870-1900, Expansion: 1900-1925, and Legacy: 1925-1955. A fifth exhibit, Discovery: Archaeology, explores more recent research and excavations carried out by the MSU Campus Archaeology Program. The idea behind this exhibit-based model is that the user’s experience mirrors the physical layout of a museum. Instead of being contained within a physical structure, however, exhibits are distributed around the MSU campus. Each exhibit contains a collection of locations that users are free to visit and experience at their leisure (either within the context of a visit to the Michigan State University campus or during their regular, daily campus activities)

Each exhibit location contains information and rich media (video, audio, and imagery) about that location and well as the narrative about the work (excavation, survey, etc) carried out at the location by the MSU Campus Archaeology Program.

The paper will explore the features of the application itself, as well as the process by which it was designed. Special attention will be paid to discussing the unique and highly collaborative environment in which msu.seum was developed.

Beyond its value as a tool to allow the public to interact with and explore the cultural heritage and archaeology of the Michigan State University (and the associated scholarly narrative as to how that knowledge was developed), we feel very strongly that msu.seum can act not only as a model for the design and development of other mobile and place-based campus cultural heritage applications, but for mobile and place-based cultural heritage applications in general.