September 2010

Chuck Jones draws attention to a story on the Apple website that explains how iPads are used for research at Pompeii. “Dr. Steven Ellis … credits the introduction of six iPad devices at Pompeii with helping his team solve one of the most difficult problems of archaeological fieldwork: how to efficiently and accurately record the complex information they encounter in the trenches.” I looked up the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia (PARP:PS) of the University of Cincinnati: “Through the full range of archaeological inquiry – archaeological excavations, structural and artefactual analyses, and geophysical surveys – we are revealing the dynamic structural and social history of an entire Pompeian neighborhood.” On the Apple site, points out that “[a]lthough portable computers offer a paperless solution, field archaeologists rarely use them in the trenches because their size, input limitations, battery life, and sensitivity to dirt and heat make them impractical in the harsh conditions of a dig.”

The idea of using iPad to collect the massive data the project would generate came from Ellis’s University of Cincinnati colleague John Wallrodt, an expert on digital databases for archaeological projects. Wallrodt had looked unsuccessfully into using various tablet devices for field research, but when iPad was introduced in January 2010, he knew at once that it was right for their project. Says Wallrodt, “Perfectly portable, with no moving parts, a Multi-Touch screen, and a battery that lasts the whole workday, iPad was practically custom built for our needs.” Adds Ellis: “It was the ability to enter so many disparate kinds of information, recording everything from architectural elements to fish scales and bones to the actual sequences of events. That my team could both type and draw on the screen, and also examine all previously entered data, made it an ideal single-device solution.”

Beyond the scope of his project, Ellis sees iPad as revolutionizing the 300-year-old discipline of archaeological fieldwork. “A generation ago computers made it possible for scholars to move away from just looking at pretty pictures on walls and work with massive amounts of information and data. It was a huge leap forward. Using iPad to conduct our excavations is the next one. And I’m really proud to be a part of it.”

I’ll be the first to admit that my archaeological field skills are not what they used to be. I recently realized that it’s been two decades since I’ve done any actual excavating… Shame on me, I know. So when I bumped into the Soil Analysis Support System for Archaeology (SASSA) website, I was intrigued. The project is an initiative of the University of Stirling and seems therefore to have been designed with UK soils in mind. However, a lot of it may very well be applicable to other regions too. There are two sections: the Knowledge Base and the Field Tool. The first “contains background tutorials, information about analytical techniques and geoarchaeological case studies.” The second “offers the option to produce a standard soil description or use the interpretation tool to answer pertinent questions about your soil sample.” Free and simple registration is required for the SASSA Field Tool. The latter’s Soil Description section offers a field recording tool that allows one to “produc[e] standardised soil descriptions that can be saved in PDF or RTF format and incorporated into your site report or archive. Soil descriptions are stored on a context basis, within a hierarchical system of sections and sites.” The geoarchaeological interpretation tool section is “designed to help archaeological users unfamiliar with the interpretation of soils and sediments. Using soil properties described in the field users can obtain guidance in answering the following common geoarchaeological queries.”

I’m pleased to announce that the National Science Foundation (NSF) archaeology program now links to Open Context (see example here). Open Context is an open-access data publication system, and I lead its development.  Obviously, a link from the NSF is a “big deal” to me, because it helps represent how data sharing is becoming a much more mainstream fact of life in the research world. After spending the better part of my post-PhD career on data sharing issues, I can’t describe how gratifying it is to witness this change.

Now for some context: Earlier this year, the NSF announced new data sharing requirements for grantees. Grant-seekers now need to supply data access and management plans in their proposals. This new requirement has the potential for improving transparency in research. Shared data also opens the door to new research programs that bring together results from multiple projects.

The downside is that grant seekers will now have additional work to create a data access and management plan. Many grant seekers will probably lack expertise and technical support in making data accessible. Thus, the new data access requirements will represent something of a burden, and many grant seekers may be confused about how to proceed.

That’s why it is useful for the NSF to link to specific systems and services. Along with Open Context, the NSF also links to Digital Antiquity’s tDAR system (Kudos to Digital Antiquity!). Open Context offers researchers guidance on how prepare datasets for presentation and how to budget for data dissemination and archiving (with the California Digital Library). Open Context also points to the “Good Practice” guides prepared by the Archaeology Data Service (and being revised with Digital Antiquity). Researchers can incorporate all of this information into their grant applications.

While the NSF did (informally) evaluate these systems for their technical merits, as you can see on the NSF pages, these links are not endorsements. Researchers can and should explore different options that best meet their needs. Nevertheless, these links do give grant-seekers some valuable information and services that can help meet the new data sharing requirements.

I came across a post in the Through the Kaleidoscope blog that got me thinking. “Crowd science – where masses of people participate in data collection for science projects – is growing … Astronomy is the area in which crowd science has been most frequently used, which makes sense given the field’s massive scale and large datasets. One example is the ten-year old SETI@home project …” I must admit here that I’ve been participating in the latter project since May 1999—which puts me in the 89th percentile of all 1.1 million SETI enthusiasts  :-)  I run the project using UC Berkeley’s BOINC, a commonly-used, multiplatform open-source program for volunteer computing and grid computing. BOINC facilitates running several projects at the same time according to selected settings. For instance, I’m also active in other projects: Einstein@home, MilkyWay@home (astronomy), (climatology), Rosetta@home, (medical research), SZTAKI Desktop Grid (math), Quake Catcher Network (seismology). At one time, I also participated in non-BOINC projects but that was too cumbersome. The BOINC projects have attracted a lot of creative programmers so that there are for example at least seven websites where you can easily access your statistics both by project as well as combined. Each project awards credits for work done, allowing cross-project comparison and combination of your “scores.” It all serves to involve the participants, make them feel invested. There is even a way to have important milestones in you efforts posted on your FaceBook account, e.g., on September 3, I passed the 6,000 credit milestone for

So what could we do with this crowd-sourced/distributed-computing approach in archaeology? After all, just like astronomy and medical research, we too have a lot of goodwill from the general public directed at us. There has to be a way to channel some of this. Surely, we can find some huge data sets that need processing and whose results can be appealing to a general audience? In the above blog post, another angle is also discussed, e.g., Galaxy Zoo, a project in which people help classify galaxies from Hubble Telescope images, a task that is hard to computerize. Some museums are letting the public tag artifacts online, a way to enhance the often-brief information available in the database (see the Steve Project). This is still primarily for art though, not archaeological artifacts. We all know that our budgets won’t increase in the near future, on the contrary. Let’s get creative!

Crime is up along the Dead Sea? Nope, a son of a University of Chicago Judaic Studies professor (Norman Golb) used dubious and possibly illegal means to advance his father’s theories about the Qumran/Dead Sea scrolls. He launched a smear campaign against his father’s academic “enemies” by impersonating them and using so-called “sock puppets” to poison the debate online. “The attorney, Raphael Golb, went on trial Tuesday on criminal charges of online impersonation and harassment for the sheer sake of coloring opinion. The case is a rarity: While impersonation claims have generated civil lawsuits, prosecutions are few unless phony identities are used to steal money, experts say.” Don’t let it be said we academics aren’t passionate about our work  ;-) Golb Jr.’s line of defense now seems to be that NYU’s Lawrence Schiffman, who took him to court, is a plagiarist of his father and therefore deserved to be “cyber-bullied.” Odd how Schiffman can both be an opponent and a plagiarist of the same colleague…? Golb Jr. also uses the freedom of speech and parody arguments…

Jim Davila (St Andrews University, Scotland) of the PaleoJudaica blog provides excellent coverage of the whole tawdry affair. You can start at his latest post and work your way back if you’re interested. A few snippets:

But new court documents point to evidence suggesting that Norman Golb, his wife, Ruth, and their other son, Joel, were aware of the alias-based campaign and may have assisted in carrying it out. (PaleoJudaica)

This defense is rather insulting to conscientious bloggers and commenters, and I doubt that there were “legions” of other sock-puppeteers debating with the author of these posts and e-mails, but it’s true that sock puppetry is sometimes used on the Internet. But the issue is surely not the sock puppetry per se, which is pathetic but I can’t see anything illegal about it. Rather it is, first, the impersonation of Professor Schiffman and, second, the defamation associated with the impersonation. (PaleoJudaica)

This is an odd situation, where the son denies the impersonations and the father defends the son for doing them. But this could be the result of media garbling or misunderstanding and I wouldn’t make too much of it. (PaleoJudaica)

“But there is something called the curse of the Dead Sea Scrolls because it would happen quite often that people just go overboard regarding the scrolls.” Over the decades, some scroll scholars have become alcoholics, gone from sound research to fringe theories and suffered other crisis, Prof. Schiffman said. (PaleoJudaica)

Robert Cargill (UCLA) has actually made an extensive study of Golb Jr. a.k.a Charles Gadda’s cyber-mayhem.

There’s some thoughtful criticism and discussion about Chogha Mish in Open Context over at Secondary Refuse. I tried to post a comment directly to that blog, but blogger kept giving me an error, so I’m posting here. At least it’s nice to know other systems also have bug issues!

I very much agree with Secondary Refuse’s point about the difficulties associated with data sharing. Data sharing is a complex and theoretically challenging undertaking. However, the problem of mis-use and misintepretation is not something unique to datasets. Journal papers can and are misused both my novices and by even by domain specialists who fail to give a paper a careful read. Despite these problems and potential for misuse, we still publish papers because the benefits outweigh these risks. Similarly, I think we should still publish researcher datasets, because such data can improve the transparency and analytic rigor of analysis.

One of the points of posting the Chogha Mish data was that it helped illustrate some useful points about how to go about data sharing in a better way. If you see the ICAZ Poster associated with the project, there are many recommendations regarding the need to contextualize data (including editorial oversight of data publication). Ideally, data publication should accompany print/narrative publication, since the two forms of communication can enhance each other. Most of the data in Open Context comes from projects with active publication efforts, and as these publications become available, Open Context and the publications will link back and forth.

Regarding why we published these data, the point is to make these available, free-of-charge, and free of copyright barriers for anyone to reuse. These can be used in a class to teach analytic methods (one can ask a class to interpret the kill-off patterns, or ask them to critique the data and probe its ambiguities and limits). It can be used with other datasets for some larger research project involving a regional synthesis. The “About Section” of Open Context explains more.

Last, Secondary Refuse found an interface flaw I had missed. We had a bug where downloadable tables associated with projects weren’t showing up. The bug is fixed and when you look at the Chogha Mish Overview, you’ll find a link to a table you download and use in Excel or similar applications.

Kudos to Secondary Refuse’s author! Feedback like this is really important for us to learn how to improve Open Context. So this is much appreciated!!

We are proud to announce the arrival of a new, exciting project in the Open Context database, co-authored by Levent Atici (University of Nevada Las Vegas), Justin S.E. Lev-Tov (Statistical Research, Inc.) and our own Sarah Whitcher Kansa.

Chogha Mish Fauna

This project uses the publicly available dataset of over 30,000 animal bone specimens from excavations at Chogha Mish, Iran during the 1960s and 1970s.The specimens were identified by Jane Wheeler Pires-Ferreira in the 1960s and though she never analyzed the data or produced a report, her identifications were saved and later transferred to punch cards and then to Excel. This ‘orphan’ dataset was made available on the web in 2008 by Abbas Alizadeh (University of Chicago) at the time of his publication of Chogha Mish, Volume II.

The site of Chogha Mish spans the time period from Archaic through Elamite periods, with also later Achaemenid occupation.  These phases subdived further into several subphases, and some of those chronological divisions are also represented in this dataset. Thus the timespan present begins at the mid-seventh millennium and continues into the third millennium B.C.E. In terms of cultural development in the region, these periods are key, spanning the later Neolithc (after the period of caprid and cattle domestication, but possibly during the eras in which pigs and horses were domesticated) through the development of truly settled life, cities, supra-regional trade and even the early empires or state societies of Mesopotamia and Iran. Therefore potential questions of relevance to address with this data collection are as follows:

  1. The extent to which domesticated animals were utilized, and how/whether this changed over time
  2. The development of centralized places
  3. Increasing economic specialization
  4. General changes in subsistence economy
  5. The development of social complexity/stratification.

Publication of this dataset accompanied a study of data-sharing needs in zooarchaeology. Preliminary results of this study were presented as a poster titled: “Other People’s Data: Blind Analysis and Report Writing as a Demonstration of the Imperative of Data Publication”. The poster was presented at the 11th ICAZ International Conference of ICAZ (International Council for Archaeozoology), in Paris (August 2010), in Session 2-4, “Archaeozoology in a Digital World : New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration”. The poster presented at this conference accompanies this project.


While dabbling in digital music software and technologies, I came across this interesting set of posts in The Halls of Valhalla blog. It turns out that the author, an audio software engineer, was originally trained as an archaeologist… “The study of ancient acoustics, or archaeoacoustics, covers a variety of sonic phenomena of the prehistoric world, from research into early musical instruments such as bone flutes and percussion instruments, to the possibility of whether grooves in pottery could have recorded sounds from thousands of years ago. … Iegor Reznikoff has studied the location of Paleolithic art in European caves, and has found a strong correlation between the presence of art or distinctive markings in a given location, and the quality of the resonance in those locations.”

At the major temple complex (900-600 BC) of the Peruvian archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar, John Rick (Stanford University) has “put forth a provocative theory: that the structures at Chavín were used in rituals where the dominant ‘priests’ (or whatever class was in power) relied on sensory manipulation, in combination with hallucinogenic drugs, to reinforce the perception that they had supernatural authority. … The stone passages known as galleries have very unique sonic characteristics, where sounds are difficult to localize. Within these galleries, Rick recently excavated a number of decorated trumpets, carved from the Strombus conch:”

Strombus conch trumpets, Chavín de Huántar, Peru

“The ritual would have begun, most likely, by ingesting a hallucinogenic powder or a liquid extracted from the San Pedro cactus. As the Chavín subjects walked through the dark, cramped halls, the sound of Strombus trumpets echoed around them from some unseen source. Water roared through canals beneath their feet (or, strangely, overhead), producing a heavy percussion amplified by the drugs. Mirrors placed in ventilation ducts to reflect the sun poured brilliant shafts of light into the subterranean hallways, only to be ‘turned off,’ thrusting the occupant into blackness as dark as obsidian. By the time the subjects emerged from the chambers, staggering and stunned, their perspective had been altered forever. The unmistakable impression: somebody powerful was in charge.”

So where does this all link up with the digital world? Well, Stanford U’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics performed research at the archaeological site. They developed specialized equipment such as a “Configurable Microphone Array with Acoustically Transparent Omnidirectional Elements”:

“The reverb time increases as a function of the number of turns between the source and the receiver, with sources several gallery turns away from the receiver having a longer perceived reverb time. The reverberation in the Chavín galleries is characterized by dense and energetic early reflections, and low inter-aural cross-correlation. All 3 of the galleries have a quick onset, where the reverberation reaches Gaussian statistics within 20 milliseconds of the initial impulse. The quick build to Gaussian (i.e. random) statistics, and the low amount of cross-correlation between the left and right ears, is responsible for the strange sonic characteristics of the galleries, where it is difficult to localize where a signal is coming from in the absence of a direct signal.” You can read more about their findings at the Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics Project website. Finally, here’s a nice example of how the conch trumpets mentioned sound inside one of the galleries at the site:

Tito la Rosa performing in Chavin de Huantar, Peru 2008. from otoplasma on Vimeo.