Archaeological tower blocks…? Computational and Theoretical ghettos

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A bit of a rant at the way in which archaeological theory and archaeological computing were becoming disjointed. …

A bit of a rant at the way in which archaeological theory and archaeological computing were becoming disjointed.

Still current today unfortunately...

More in: Education , Technology
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  • Introduction My name is Paul Cripps and I am currently a postgraduate research student at the University of Southampton. This paper is based on recent experiences at a number of conferences and informal discussions with colleagues and aims to provoke discussion on some key issues. As such, some of the views proposed may be a little provocative and I ask you to take these in the spirit of their intent, that is not to be overtly critical, but simply to encourage some discussion. The title, Archaeological Tower-blocks, came out of some conversations held (in a bar) at one such recent conference, and hopefully the inference will become clear during the course of this presentation.
  • I would like to start with the current position of archaeological computing within the broader discipline of archaeology. It is now possible to say that the use of archaeological computing is the norm rather than the exception. Bullet 1 Database management systems are used routinely in the commercial and public sectors with introductory courses in databases being offered as part of research skills courses for undergraduates. Increasingly, Microsoft Access is being used as the platform of choice, with many Project Designs including the catch-all phrase ‘data will be supplied in an Access database.’ Dedicated archaeological systems developers at some of the major commercial units are developing complex systems integrating DBMS into the archaeological workflow, with the result that duplication of data and effort is reduced. At the other end of the spectrum, individual specialists use a variety of desktop DBMS such as Filemaker, Access or MySQL to manage their data. Bullet 2 Similarly, GIS and GIS-enabled CAD systems are becoming widely used to collate the various spatial datasets generated by a typical archaeological project and produce working and publication quality maps and plans. Analytical approaches such as viewshed analysis are increasingly being used as part of site management plans, planning schemes and other forms of archaeological publication. The availability of the latest powerful desktop GIS packages to academic establishments and charities through the Chest agreement has meant far more archaeologists have access to GIS applications while the rise in popularity of web-based GIS such as Multimap means more archaeologists have at least a basic familiarity with a GIS GUI without necessarily having had formal training. Bullet 3 The proliferation of good quality, inexpensive digital cameras and scanners has resulted in widespread use of digital images throughout the archaeological process. Easy-to-use graphics software has resulted in complex image processing becoming more widely available; often a complex series of adjustments can be performed at the click of a mouse. Bullet 4 The word processor is an essential piece of software, with almost all archaeological publication involving a one of a number of word processors, Microsoft Word being a common example. Most archaeologists today do not have access to a typist, indeed the days of the professional typist are all but gone, and instead produce their own word-processed text. Bullet 5 Websites are now an accepted part of the discipline of archaeology, performing a number of roles from public access, to statutory delivery of data, dissemination of research results or other publications and as online meeting places where discussions can take place independent of the physical locations of those involved. The web has become such a dominant force, that many software applications include a save to web option whereby information can rapidly be exported to web-optimised formats. This is reflected in archaeological projects where a website component of some description has become almost standard. Bullet 6 The continued development of archaeological computing is facilitated by means of specialist conferences such as CAA and VAST. These conferences have very active communities which support them and most of the amazing new approaches to archaeological computing in recent years have been presented in such fora. These include radical approaches to the structuring and interpretation of archaeological data, object-oriented GIS, automated capture of 3D data from video of sites to give but a few examples.
  • Bullet 1 But here is where the problem becomes apparent. The use of the latest technologies requires increasingly specialist approaches as new technologies are increasingly complex, building on older technologies. A good example of this is the dynamic web, where technologies such as ColdFusion, CSS, various flavours of asp including .net VB or C# and VBscript, JSP and PHP incorporate aspects of graphical web design, database technologies, scripting and networking protocols. Bullet 2 Due to this complexity, the levels of prerequisite knowledge are high, requiring considerable investment in training and often requiring the involvement of dedicated computer scientists or IT gurus where the level of complexity is too high for mere mortals to cope with. At this level, an appreciation of underlying computer science principles and core concepts is appreciated as it allows knowledge to be acquired independent of specific software applications which can then be applied in a variety of contexts. Bullet 3 What were formerly specialist applications have now become very much the domain of the non-specialist. At this level, training is generally aimed at teaching the use of a particular piece of software, perhaps with some basic underlying theory, but not always. If you want to produce websites, use the export to HTML function of Word. If you want to build a database, the Wizards in Access will do it for you. GIS no longer requires an in depth knowledge of Unix and Shell scripts, simply where the appropriate button on a toolbar is. While this increase in the skill level of discipline can be seen to be a good thing, it glosses over the fact there is a strong theoretical basis to computer-based techniques, it is not simply about practical application.
  • Bullet 1 This last point is reflected in the way in which non-archaeological computing conferences such as TAG have become less involved with archaeological computing. Sessions at tartan TAG in Glasgow before Christmas which involved computer-based techniques attracted those who could be refererred to as the ‘usual suspects’ ie those who are already heavily involved with archaeological computing. Attendance at such sessions was limited to say the least giving the impression that the ‘theorists’ present did not want to engage with such session topics, leaving them to those people who do crazy things with computers. Bullet 2 It is almost as if the rise in general skill level has given the broader archaeological community enough knowledge to use archaeological computing techniques but at the same time has left the impression that these are purely practical techniques, ignoring any theoretical basis. Interpolating data or undertaking visibility analysis using GIS is seen as simply a matter of pressing the right button; building a website simply a matter of exporting some information at intervals during a project or bolting on a virtual forum for online discussion, regardless of the complex issues associated with each of these . Bullet 3 Taking the example of databases again, stating that data will be supplied in the form of an Access database, one my particular pet-hates, is seen as a sufficient statement of intent as Access is simply being viewed as an application which uses a particular file format which can be used to store data rather than as a full-blown DBMS. What about Codd’s relational theory of data? While it is probably over the top to expect all archaeologists to fully understand relational data models and fourth-normal form in the same way as would not be expected that all archaeologists have a detailed understanding of Romano-British pottery sequences, a basic appreciation of redundancy, atomicity and referential integrity is essential in order to build a relational database that is actually fit for purpose. Bullet 4 One thing that I have found interesting is the number of people creating databases with minimal formal training ie how to use the Access Wizards. This is resulting in a plethora of databases which all have their own unique structures, do not necessarily comply with any database design principles and may not even refer to published references such as the CIDOC Core Data Standard, MIDAS, FISH or use resources such as the Royal Commissions’ Thesaurus of Monument Types. While the larger units and some public sector bodies can afford to employ archaeological computing specialists, it is increasingly the case that the archaeologist with the most interest in computers, even if this is only playing on MUDs at the weekend, is being given the responsibility of designing and implementing recording systems for sites. In such cases, many advantages of using a DBMS are often lost due to incomplete knowledge on the part of the archaeologist.
  • Bullet 1 The key point here then is that those involved with archaeological computing are not simply button monkeys, learning which buttons to press in which order; there is a significant amount of background theory which allows us to make informed decisions about what we do. This theoretical basis is increasingly overlooked. Providing more archaeologists to tools without an appropriate level of training in the concepts behind such tools is giving the impression that archaeological computing is simply a matter of pressing the right buttons. To give a few examples: Bullet 2 There is more to building a website than simply sticking a bunch of HTML pages and some images online. There are issues such as appearance, readability and ease of navigation to deal with. Non-linear modes of navigation allow a web-developer to provide multiple paths through a website, allowing people to interact with it in different ways according to their own interests or desires. How this interaction occurs can provide valuable information about the actual rather than the intended audience and can be used to further improve the visitor experience. A recent development is the idea that semantic approaches to the web can be used to facilitate finding information and related information, making use of ontologies to provide a conceptual framework which can be machine processed, again enhancing the experience of the site user as access to information is no longer dependent on the particular terminology used by a particular web-developer. Dynamic technologies making use of XML-based data structures such as RDF and RSS allow for the integration of diverse dynamic news streams or automated metadata harvesting, reducing the need for constant site maintenance, while technologies such as Coldfusion and PHP allow for dynamic integration of information held in DBMS. The use of any of these technologies is dependent on an understanding of the theory involved. Bullet 3 Approaches to image processing and three-dimensional reconstruction are similarly theory laden. The construction and manipulation of 2d images or 3d reconstructions is highly subjective and successful uses of such techniques make use of theories regarding the archaeology being presented as well as the mode of presentation. The idea that everything that we do is subjective and how this relates to the concept of an objective record is one that has been well discussed by archaeological theorists and archaeological computing specialists alike. Bullet 4 As I have already discussed, there is a considerable corpus of theory behind databases. There is an additional corpus of spatial theory behind GIS. One of my favourite quotes on this matter is ‘GIS is a state of mind’ which implies it is not the software which is important, rather the spatial information and a thorough understanding of it and principles relating to it. While it is possible to produce a line representing the edge of a viewshed, is this a plausible, real-world situation? While it is possible to interpolate data between surveyed points, how much are the surfaces produced a product of the algorithm chosen rather than representative of a real-world phenomenon? Knowing where the ‘calculate viewshed’ or ‘interpolate surface’ buttons are does not provide the means to interpret the results of the analysis.
  • At the same time as the broader archaeological discipline is engaging with archaeological computing for the reasons outlined, although often without recourse to underlying theoretical standpoints, the involvement of dedicated computer scientists in the discipline is introducing novel approaches to archaeological information using cutting edge technologies. Unfortunately, these too may not have any real basis in archaeological theory or indeed any other theory other than pure computer science. Such technologies can be described as shiny, with people being attracted to them in a similar way to magpies. New, shiny technologies are being applied for technologies sake rather than the traditional approach common throughout the history of archaeology whereby we ‘borrow’ new technologies and learn about their theoretical basis in order to apply them to distinct archaeological situations. Examples of this would include those already mentioned such as databases and GIS, 3D reconstruction and web-development but also survey techniques, geochemistry and geophysics, to name but a few. Bullet 1 The relationship between computing theory and archaeological or social theory is therefore becoming disjointed. Cutting edge computing applications may well be laden with computing theory, but there needs to be a broader theoretical basis when such applications are deployed in the archaeological or more broader cultural heritage domain. Bullet 2 Furthermore, unlike in situations designed to demonstrate the technology, real-world applications must have some kind of relationship to archaeological discourse in its broadest sense. We, as archaeologists, are not concerned with proving the effectiveness of new computer based technologies per se, rather we are interested in archaeology or archaeological applications of these new technologies. While the cultural heritage domain provides a test-bed with enormous public appeal for those developing new technologies, this is not a reason for the involvement of those working in cultural heritage, unless some kind of benefit in demonstrable. It may be that a distributed chain of websites can increase visitor numbers, but this may not necessarily be desirable or practical. Online forums can facilitate discussion and further archaeological discourse, but not if there are only five members, all of whom are colleagues who regularly discuss things anyway. Novel ways of interacting with museum objects or information booth interfaces may enhance visitor experience, but only if they can be made affordable given that many museums do not have a budget and rely on donations and volunteers. These could be seen as nice ideas in the world of computer science, the link to their practical application and any broader theoretical base being less clear. This desire for shiny things which can be seen to have real relation to archaeologcial discourse also allows those working in archaeology but not directly with archaeological computing to, often quite rightly, point out that these are shiny things for shiny things sake, with the corollary (with which I would strongly disagree) that archaeological computing is about shiny things, hence archaeological computing lacks a theoretical base. Bullet 3 That is not to say that applications cannot be cutting edge and have a high degree of underlying archaeological theory. This involves close collaboration between the specialists involved. An example would be the advanced animation techniques used in the film ‘Master & Commander’ in which the use of archaeologically informed rigging structures enabled a better visual product to be created, as the rigging behaved in a more plausible way. Another diverse example would be the inception and evolution of the CIDOC CRM whereby the latest IS developments relating to object-oriented ontologies have been used applied to cultural heritage documentation by a team coming from a variety of backgrounds, including dedicated computer scientists, archaeologists, museum staff and other scientists.
  • The idea of towerblocks then refers to the way in which the various communities are becoming isolated from each other and how communities can quickly become ghettos. Bullet 1 The forums in which we participate are increasingly specialised. I imagine most of us here today are archaeological computing specialists or at least have an interest in computation. Equally, at TAG, the vast majority of people did not engage with archaeological computing sessions, even though the content was theoretical rather than technical, given the audience. An eminent prehistorian was seen to practically run away from one such session. And where are the lecturers from Southampton who have heavy involvement with conferences such as TAG but don’t attend a computational conference, even when on their doorstep. Bullet 2 That is not to say there isn’t overlap between these fora, simply that discussions may happen in isolation. An example would be disussions at TAG regarding the use of structured recording as opposed to writing everything on the back of a fag packet, an approach apparently still in favour with some. Structured recording of archaeological information is not only vital, it is recognised at international level as being a priority. An entire day at TAG was devoted to a theoretical approach to this issue while at the same time, one renowned archaeological theorist was proposing how structured recording is fundamentally flawed, even making a joke about metadata, while not actually engaging with those actually working on such issues. Bullet 3 So, how can we get the archaeological, theoretical, practical and technological re-integrated? Is this even possible? The nature of archaeological computing as described earlier, with both increased access to formerly specialist applications and increased involvement of non-archaeologists results in a situation whereby perceptions of archaeological computing are polarised into the mundane and the shiny, both of which arguably offer little of interest to the broader archaeological community. Conclusion To conclude then, there is a real need for engagement between the various archaeological communities which exist to make the most of the diverse range of skills available, appreciating the need for specialism without building barriers between specialist communities. There has been a proliferation of online virtual communities but these have generally not provided integration, rather reinforced existing boundaries. The creation of an online forum in and of itself is not enough to guarantee engagement with the intended audiences and many such fora have proved short lived due to lack of engagement. As such, this is not a problem that can simply be solved by the application of more technology; it is a deeper problem relating to the wider perception of archaeological computing not helped by what I have described as ‘shiny’ applications, where it is the technological which takes precedence over the archaeological. While we currently have active communities and increased levels of funding, particularly from Europe, within archaeological computing, there is the risk of ghettoisation as the various communities within the broader discipline no longer interact, and our communities eventually become slums, each one made less habitable by insularity. This can be seen as akin to what happened in the 1950’s and 60’s when modernist architecture was seen as shiny, technology taking precedence over the social, and vibrant communities moved into the new tower-blocks, only to lose their vibrancy and coherence as the supporting infrastructure was not conducive to interaction and the very nature of community. Let’s not allow our archaeological communities befall a similar fate.

Transcript

  • 1. Archaeological tower blocks…? Computational and Theoretical ghettos Paul Cripps, Postgraduate research student, University of Southampton CAA UK, Southampton, January 20th 2005
  • 2. Archaeological computing today
    • DBMS used on many projects
    • GIS used on increasing number of projects
    • Digital images and image processing techniques common
    • Word-processors ubiquitous
    • Rare to see a Project Design with no mention of a website!
    • Specialist conferences such as CAA and VAST provide fora for discussing new ideas
  • 3. Archaeological computing today
    • New technologies require increasingly specialist approaches…
    • …often involving dedicated computer scientists
    • At the same time, formerly specialist applications available to all e.g. database development, GIS, static web-design using html
  • 4. Archaeology; the bigger picture
    • Conferences such as TAG all but withdrawn from anything related to computers
    • Computing often seen as purely practical with no theoretical basis
    • Can be seen to be associated with rise in accessibility to software applications e.g. MS Access
    • The idea that learning the Access Wizards is all you need to be a database administrator…
  • 5. Button monkeys…?
    • Archaeological computing has a significant theoretical basis
    • e.g. web-design including dynamic approaches and the semantic web
    • e.g. computer graphics and 3D reconstruction
    • e.g. (spatial) databases
  • 6. Shiny things…
    • Not all archaeological computing applications have any basis in theory…
    • …or even relate to the real-world!
    • Possible to be innovative and cutting edge and have some grounding…?
  • 7. Towerblocks…?
    • Fora becoming increasingly specialised and disjointed
    • Theorists can benefit from archaeological computing e.g. structured recording methods
    • Reintegration…?
  • 8.