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IOSA.it | Open Archaeology

IOSA promotes and discovers the use of open source software and open stardards in archaeological research. IOSA also supports the dissemination and use of open archaeological data, following the Open Knowledge Definition.

You can find a list of our current projects, and see if there is something useful, or to which you can contribute.

The IOSA project is part of an unformal network of people who promote open archaeology in the world. Users are encouraged to join the international mailing list and give their contribution to the on-going discussion.

L'Archeologia va in Open Source

Today an article that I wrote was published on Nòva24, a weekly supplement to “Il Sole 24 ore”, a major Italian newspaper. You can read it online at ilsole24ore.com. Despite its title, the article deals with the challenges that society is posing to the cultural heritage sector, and why technology matters to the debate. I advocate an approach made of openness towards the public as a means to give value to archaeology. This is obviously the approach of the IOSA project, that has now entered its seventh year and encompasses a wide range of topics, from free software to open formats and standards for digital storage, and open data. Thanks to Raimondo Iemma who kindly asked me to write this article.

Archaeology as text and archaeology as image

Last April I started to collect some sketch notes about archaeology as text. It’s not about reading archaeological remains as a text to be read (this could be considered quite a standardized post-processual approach) but rather about how we gain new archaeological knowledge. I quickly came to affirm that:

§ A large part of archaeological knowledge is transmitted by means of text, including books, journals, excavation reports and diaries, database alphanumeric records, and other.

So, rather than being a primary source (speaking in terms of historical archaeology), archaeology itself becomes a secondary source, that needs to be managed and approached from another point of view. Reading long descriptions of soil layers on top of collapsed walls is not the same as digging the same for yourself. Going through massive tables of quantified data about archaeological pottery is another thing than working for months on a ceramic assemblage to produce those tables. One might argue that for experienced archaeologists there is no difference between the two, as they know exactly what the author of a certain text wants to tell ‒ I accept the fact that textual communication is taking place without any errors in such cases, but I question the identity between written archaeology and material archaeology. Rather than falling back into the 12th century and the the problem of universals, I’m interested in a reflexive approach to the creation of archaeological knowledge.

Text dominates the transmission of archaeological knowledge (and sometimes I’ve heard words of blame towards glossy books with lots of images and little text providing a structured discourse). Especially in the sub-domain of excavation reports, there is a distinct, formalized ‒ artificial we might say ‒ language, that is targeted to bureaucracy rather than to conveying meaning. I like to read those reports and I think they are the main source for what I know about Late Antique Italy, for example. I’m always surprised at their diversity, and still I can find striking similarities among most of them, first and foremost in how the description of excavated contexts and features is kept logically and physically separated from the presentation of finds (like ceramics and coins).

It wasn’t always like this. According to Gavin Lucas, there has been a clear change in how archaeological publications (particularly excavation reports) mix text and images. There’s a quote attributed to Augustus Pitt Rivers that captures the distance:

Don’t illustrate your descriptions. Describe your illustrations.

(G. Lucas, Critical Approaches to Fieldwork, p. 211)

In my research group at the University of Siena, we have been using a like-minded approach for two years now, and we use semi-aerial photographs of our excavation areas as drawing boards for taking notes and sketching interpretive plans of building rooms. We call them “annotated maps” in a consciously critical view of how GIS is currently used for on-site archaeological data recording, and try to find a mix of text, objective representation of materialities and (multiple) interpretations. It’s not always perfect, and there are some things that can go wrong.

This debate also involves how archaeological photography is used. As with any (disruptive) technology, my view is that it’s far from being an objective recording technique, unless we deliberately adopt very detailed instructions on how to take photographs: this is more or less what has happened with images of trenches and contexts. Personally, I can’t see any advantage in applying such mechanical procedures, apart from a reassuring homogenization. It’s not by chance that both text and images have undergone the same process of formalization. The prevalence of text above images is likely explained by its abstract nature, when compared to the (apparent) fidelity of photography to the materiality of archaeology.

This is the first of two posts dealing with archaeology, text and media. The next post will appear next week and is entitled “Archaeology beyond text and media”

Publishing digital collections. An experiment with “Ancient Marbles”

Everyone is taking thousands of digital photographs each year. For an archaeologist, it’s common practice to collect pictures of museum artifacts, archaeological sites and landscapes.

I want to push the concept of “digital collection” going beyond the traditional habit of creating a database. Federico Marri and I have started to build something about Ancient marbles, that is all semi-precious building and decorative stones that were used in the Greek and Roman Classical antiquity and afterwards.

Greenstone from Thessaly

We are building what? Something. Let me me explain in more detail.

For example, take the Ancient Marbles Wiki (hosted at Wikia).

Archaeological geophysics with free open source software - tpq

As many readers will know, since 2008 we’ve been working to enable archaeologists and their colleagues with a chance to do professional surveying on free operating systems. What sounded like a silly idea is now reality in the Total Open Station project.

Total stations do a nice job, but that’s you do something more when you’re interested in what’s beneath the soil rather than on top of it. Enter geophysics, with another load of costly hardware tools that are locked in proprietary combinations of software and drivers.

In case you’re using GNU/Linux or another free operating system, you might find quite difficult to interact with your geophysical device, without any dedicated software. As you might expect, you’re not the first to encounter this problem (you’re never going to be the first) and someone else already started working on a solution.

Tractatus Post Quem (tpq) by John Donovan is a

collection of tools useful to the archaeological geophysicist and surveyor, focussing on the conversion of data from proprietary formats, georeferencing them, and tagging with metadata.

In/Visible Towns - Archaeology and Cultural Heritage in Urban Areas


A bit later than I should, here’s the call for participation for the 15th Vienna Conference about Cultural Heritage and New Technologies. IOSA went in 2006 and then 2008, it is always a very pleasant conference. Unfortunately we won’t be able to go this year.

Urban Archaeology is a relatively new sub-discipline within the archaeological sciences. Why has it been such a late developer? How do its scientific results amplify and influence our knowledge and thinking on the development of our towns and cities? How has the discipline developed in the last decades and what reasons were there for coining the specific term “Urban Archaeology”? How exactly do we define it? Is it archaeology of or archaeology in towns?

A look at pollen data in the Old World

Since the 19th century, the study of archaeobotanical remains has been very important for combining “strict” archaeological knowledge with environmental data. Pollen data enable assessing the introduction of certain domesticated species of plants, or the presence of other species that grow typically where humans dwell. Not all pollen data come from archaeological fieldwork, but the relationship among the two sets is strong enough to take an interested look at pollen data worldwide, their availability and most importantly their openness, for which we follow the Open Knowledge Definition.

The starting point for finding pollen data is the NOAA website.

The Global Pollen Database hosted by the NOAA is a good starting point, but apparently its coverage is quite limited outside the US.

THATCamp London 2010

King's College London

Very interesting unconference:

Have you a cool new way to give Humanities researchers access to digital resources? Here is a chance to show the Digital Humanities community what you can do.

There will be a Developer’s Challenge as a part of the DH2010/THATCamp London this year. It will be an opportunity for you, as a developer of software in the Digital Humanities, to show off your ideas for new ways that digital humanities data can be exploited. The focus will be on a prototype application that breaks down barriers between humanities scholars and digital materials in new ways.

We are encouraging a few Humanities data providers to provide materials that you can exploit. A list of available datasets will be made available on the THATCamp London website in early June. Information on how to access the datasets will eventually be made available on this page also.

The winners will receive a piece of hardware that we think you might like. Also, of course, you will receive the glory of recognition from others in the Digital Humanities. The winning team and software will also be announced within the broader JISC developer community.

How you can take part in the Challenge
You will need to register as a participant for the Developer Challenge. Please email and to register your intention to participate in the Challenge; if you are not already registered on the THATCamp London site, please also include a brief biography, and a description of the area you would like to work on.

I just wonder: do they know that we archaeologists are much more likely to be around digging during summer ? I will, for example.

Apart from that, I do appreciate a lot the focus on data. It's no coincidence that the King's Centre for Computing in Humanities has been producing two of the very few datasets about antiquity that are available under an open license.

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