And so begins our Motion in Place Platform project, an AHRC DEDEFI grant that CeRch has with colleagues in Sussex and Bedford. The idea is to assess how performance documentation technologies can be used to capture and describe the archaeological research process. The aim is to reconsider and reconceptualize how archaeology is done, and to look at different approaches to the 3D reconstruction and understanding of heritage sites. Thanks to the kind permission of Professor Michael Fulford at the University of Reading, we are able to use the marvellous Silchester Roman Town excavation in Hampshire as a test bed. Silchester is a wonderful panorama of Iron Age and Imperial Roman occupation, leading to complete abandonment and thus fantastic preservation of the stratigraphies – but a big and complicated dig, which poses some daunting challenges for our project.
Last week, Matt Earley and Alex Chasmar from Animazoo were on site testing the kit for complete unknowns, like can ultrasonic motion trackers actually work out doors, near a big and noisy generator? The answer is yes, fortunately, they can (if it didn’t we would have had a problem). The tests went extremely well, the only possible variable being if we get a strong wind (likely, in such an exposed spot).
Last week I was in Athens organized by the DARIAH project entitled ‘Scholarly activity and information process’
This was principally about understanding the processes of research that an e-infrastructure – whatever that might be – underpins and supports. Numerous perspectives emerged on how such a process might be conceptualized; but I think what emerged as the common theme was definition, and how we define the things we are talking about. For example, a starting point for much of the workshop was John Unsworth’s conception of the ‘scholarly primitive’; building blocks of research which, in a 2000 paper, he defined as ‘Discovering, Annotating, Comparing, Referring, Sampling, Illustrating and Representing‘. Seamus Ross’s critique of this however conceived of these more as processes; whereas a primitive should be seen as something which engages more fundamentally with generating knowledge from ‘primary data’ (itself a thing which used to have a widely accepted definition but, I would suggest, is much harder to pin down in the digital age). One example he gave was ‘question forming’ – which, of course, is not a primitive aspect of research that is confined to the digital milieu. Simon Mahony from UCL developed this idea with a perspective on the titles of projects his students come up with – which rarely include an actual question, which defines how the work they will do will bring new perspectives.
For me, it was interesting that this question of ‘what is the building block of [digital] humanities research’ reflects so closely the discussion in the last year or so on e-science fundamentals. Both areas – digital humanities and e-science – I think, share a implicit desire to show that they are fully professionalized academic disciplines, which I have no problem with (despite my own suspicion that academic disciplines are themselves basically nineteenth century concoctions to make Oxbridge colleges look tidier). But the problem is always one of language and description. This also applies to research methods, as well as object of research. César González-Pérez’s very interesting presentation on methods, for example, introduced the idea of the ‘method fragment’, a particular way of approaching or manipulating information, which can be defined consistently, and linked to others in a non-linear way to describe an overarching workflow. (The non-linear bit is, I think, crucial). This agrees well with the position set out in a forthcoming paper in the proceedings of AHM2009 by myself, Sheila Anderson and Tobias Blanke, which utilizes Short and McCarty’s famous ‘Methodological Commons’ for the digital humanities. However, again we come back to the problem of definition and language. It is convenient and logical for us, as developers and providers of a research e-infrastructure, to conceive of the research process in such a way, but we also have to remember that an historian about to embark on a research project does not go to their bookshelf, take down the Big Bumper Book of History Research Methods, select one, and stick to it for two years. Even if such a book existed, and if it were fully comprehensive, footnoted, agreed by the history research community (the economic history community? Or political history? Or social history? Since when have academics every agreed about such things anyway?), they would select, choose, modify, ignore, change, make it up as they go along… and if an e-infrastructure gets in the way of that, it is doomed. I was also glad to have the opportunity to get off my chest a problem I have with the word ‘tool’ to describe a software application, interface etc… a hammer is not likely to give me ideas and thoughts on better and better ways to knock in nails. However, a piece of research software might – if it is any good – give me pause to think about how I approach data, and to think computationally about the knowledge I could generate by analyzing it. As Alexandra Bounia made brilliantly clear in her presentation – which invited us to think what research we would do if we were putting together a museum exhibition, and how we would do it and why – we are talking here about a whole lot more than acquiring, storing and distributing data. An obvious point maybe, but one that is too important not to be made explicitly in such discussions.
Digital Classicist 2010 summer seminar programme
Institute of Classical Studies
Meetings are on Fridays at 16:30 in room STB9 (Stewart House) Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Seminars will be followed by refreshments
Jun 4 Leif Isaksen (Southampton) Reading Between the Lines: unearthing structure in Ptolemy’s Geography
Jun 11 Hafed Walda (King’s College London)_ and Charles Lequesne
(RPS Group) Towards a National Inventory for Libyan Archaeology
Jun 18 Timothy Hill (King’s College London) After Prosopography? Data modelling, models of history, and new directions for
a scholarly genre.
Jun 25 Matteo Romanello (King’s College London) Towards a
Tool for the Automatic Extraction of Canonical References
Jul 2 Mona Hess (University College London) 3D Colour Imaging
For Cultural Heritage Artefacts
Jul 16 Annemarie La Pensée (National Conservation Centre) and
Françoise Rutland (World Museum Liverpool) Non-contact 3D laser scanning as a tool to aid identification and interpretation of archaeological artefacts: the case of a Middle Bronze Age Hittite Dice
Jul 23 Mike Priddy (King’s College London) On-demand Virtual
Research Environments: a case study from the Humanities
Jul 30 Monica Berti (Torino) and Marco Büchler (Leipzig)
Fragmentary Texts and Digital Collections of Fragmentary Authors
Aug 6 Kathryn Piquette (University College London) Material
Mediates Meaning: Exploring the artefactuality of writing utilising qualitative data analysis software
Aug 13 Linda Spinazzè (Venice)_ Musisque Deoque. Developing new
features: manuscripts tracing on the net
The workshop bought out many fascinating aspects of Libyan archaeology. As well as contributions from Libyan colleagues, presenters including Paul Bennett, Will Wootton from KCL, and Chris Blandford, who is preparing a World Heritage Management Plan for Cyrene. Also from KCL, Charlotte Roueche and Hafed Walda launched the Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania and Inscriptions of Roman Cyrenaica websites. These a digital repositories of the corpora of inscriptions, gathered in Libya the 1950s by Joyce Reynolds, with the inscriptions marked up in EpiDoc XML What is most significant about these is that by using EpiDoc and describing the information within them using this standard, they provide the core for future work that others can build on in the digital sphere. It strikes me – a notion only reinforced by conversations with others here, including Charlotte, Hafed and Will – that the majority of the challenges will be non-technical. In the humanities we see publication as the final, finished thing (a view constantly reinforced by those in charge of pay, promotion and tenure), yet one of the most interesting aspects of the kind of work we do lies somewhere in between doing interpretive research and publishing it. How do we represent the interpretive process in the publication, while preserving its integrity and authority? This question is absolutely fundamental if we to get meaningful knowledge by applying computational approaches in the humanities. And it seems rather beautifully ironic that it should arise so prominently and urgently in the field of epigraphy – inscriptions would seem to be the ultimate ‘final publication’, but hey are not: walking round Leptis and Sabratha for the first time bought home the re-use and re-contextialization that an inscription can undergo before it comes to our attention, but before it was ‘published’ – it can be altered, erased, the block it is inscribed on used for something else entirely and so on. And the use of EpiDoc shows that we can continue building knowledge about them and their associations long after they have been deciphered, translated and pinpointed on the map.
This week has seen some extraordinary events here in Tripoli, at the centre of which are three extraordinary people: Ken Oliver, Jeanne Hugo and Liz Barnett. In the last few years, these three have come to possess artefacts from Libya’s Roman past of great historical value. The appropriate time having arrived, all three have taken the decision – some would say it is a momentous one – to return these objects to their original location in Libya. Various news media have picked up on this including the BBC, and no doubt others have followed suit. Some years of negotiation and logistical planning have led up to this week’s handover of the artefacts to the Libyan authorities in Tripoli, supported by numerous people and organizations both in the UK and in Libya. The handover itself was marked last week by a ceremony in the Museum of Libya presided over by Mr. Saleh A. Abdalah, the Chairman of the Department of Antiquities. This was followed by an exhibition of the artefacts in the Museum’s soaring atrium, and a day-long archaeological workshop to which I and others from KCL contributed.
The artefacts include the ‘Belgammel Ram’, which was returned by Ken. It is a bronze alloy battering ram from the prow of an ancient warship, found on the seabed near the mouth of the Wadi Belgammel (‘River of Lice’) in the 1960s. The ram is a magnificent, beautiful piece of metalwork engineering: one can readily see how it must have captured the imagination when it was discovered. Extensive scientific analysis was carried out on it in the UK prior to its return to Tripoli, and the ceremony included the presentation of reports on this work to Mr. Abdalah by Paul Bennett of the Society for Libyan Studies.
The other artefacts, mainly domestic objects, are being returned by Liz and Jeanne, whose family have owned them since the 1950s when their father was a headmaster at a British army base in Libya. They include an assemblage of coins, mainly from the Christian period, but with at least five Islamic examples, some fragments of Roman glass including a blown flask with a separately attached neck and handle, terracotta figurines including two wrestlers, a gaming counter, miscellaneous beads, several small oil lamps, a larger lamp in the shape of a follower of Bacchus, and several chunks of floor plaster with mosaics attached. All of these will now go the the museum at Leptis Magna, the site from whence they originally came.
The Museum of Tripoli itself is well worth a visit – we had a chance for a good look round in the hours before the ceremony – housed in a palatial building of the early twentieth century. It comprises two floors beneath three great polychrome domes, blue and white glass on the inside, blinding gold on the outside. Outside on the street, posters proclaimed the return of the artefacts. The collection is a varied cross-section of Libyan society and history, starting logically enough with a prehistoric room, proceeding chronologically across two floors to rooms devoted to contemporary Libya, and also to its future. Whole rooms on the ground floor given to Leptis Magna and Sabratha, with statuary the main focus. Interesting to be reminded of the contrast between the solid soldier forms, and the more feminine draped figures… the old Mars and Venus thing, I guess. Much use is made of The Digital in this museum. Interactive 3D displays, some of them based on projecting lasers into vapour, monophonic chambers where you can stand under a sort of plastic umbrella and be the sole audience of a commentary (in Arabic) of the display in front of you, and a CAVE-live room with a floor on to which is projected an image of water, which moves as you walk across it. Very nice.
The ceremony with which the artefacts were received this week, and the many conversations we have had about them, has given us a chance to reflect on the whole vexed issue of the return of cultural and archaeological objects to their ‘source countries’. Outside Libya, objects are detached from their human and cultural contexts. There must be many people out there – Libyans and non-Libyans – who have come to own such artefacts over the years. Hopefully this week’s events will raise wider awareness that there is both a practical model and a powerful intellectual argument for their return to Libya, and their public display there.
Have just been to the British Library’s exhibition Magnificent maps: power, propaganda and art. This fantastic, beautifully curated, must-see exhibition traces the history of the map as an object of the projection of (mainly colonial) power. This can be either direct and intimidating – Besson’s 1709 “‘L’Etat du Duc de Savoy de ca et de la des Monts, for example, is a blunt statement of the consequences for the Duke of Savoy should he continue to resist French power in the region. But other details hint at how maps can reflect tensions in the thinking of the times. Fra Mauro’s 1448 Mappa Mundi is noteworthy because, having carefully surveyed all available knowledge on the subject, Fra Mauro concluded that, on balance, the Garden of Eden could not be cartographically represented as a place on Earth, so he detached it and placed it separately in the bottom right hand corner. One wonders if a taxonomy of such challenges to conventional thinking in cartography over the ages could be developed. Fascinating too are the more human stories — one can surely see the verdant plans of seventeenth century landowner’s domains as talking points over the fireplace to impress visiting neighbouring lords of the manor. The Sheldon tapestry map of Oxfordshire is a particularly good example. One can tell, from the way that all possible topnyms have been included, at the expense of all else that this is basically a visual inventory of possessions. It brought to mind, tangentially at least, the way that multinational corporations flex their muscles by listing/flaunting all the places they do business.
Splashed out on the excellent exhibition guide in the BL bookshop, but resisted the temptation to buy a £3700 atlas.