e-Science records Roman finds


Issued by EPSRC on behalf of the UK e-Science Programme

Twenty first century e-Science met the ancient Roman world in a Hampshire field this summer. For the first time, archaeologists excavating at the Silchester Roman site used e-Science techniques to record their finds. The techniques will be demonstrated at the e-Science All Hands meeting in Nottingham on 20-22 September.

The archaeologists are participating in a project to build a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) that will enable geographically-dispersed researchers with an interest in the work to collaborate through on-line links. The project is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

Silchester is one of the most important Roman sites in Britain. The town layout remains just as it was when the Romans abandoned it in the fifth century AD because nobody has built on it since. The excavations are of wide interest to Romanists throughout the UK and beyond.

Traditionally, archaeologists dig at the site during eight weeks each summer and record their finds using paper and pencil. These records are digitised the following winter for entry into the York-based Integrated Archaeological Database (IADB), which is held on a server in Reading.

The Silchester VRE project has three main aims. The first is to streamline this data gathering process, so saving time spent later on digitising records. The second is to facilitate on-line collaboration between researchers allowing them to share data and expertise. The third is to make databases inter-operable so that data can be compared easily and new correlations and insights found. "The project is streamlining the flow of data from excavation right through to publication, which traditionally is a very long process," says Mike Rains, a member of the project team from the York Archaeological Trust.

This season, archaeologists tackled the first aim by abandoning their paper and pencils and taking up hand-held computers (PDAs) instead. Although the excavation is a mile from the village, an internet connection was established at the site with the cooperation of the nearest neighbour. Finds were recorded on the PDAs and entered directly into the IADB via the internet connection. The site supervisor had access to the results of previous excavations to put new finds into immediate context.

A series of de-briefing sessions will assess the lessons learned. As well as addressing issues with software or logistics (such as the extent to which the amount of post-excavation digitisation has been reduced), these will also address practical questions such as 'do the PDAs work in the rain?' 'can you see the screen in bright light?' and 'do the batteries last long enough?'. The plan is to incorporate the findings into a new production system for full use next year.

Meanwhile, work is beginning on the project's other two aims. Many archaeological specialists are self-employed and work from home, making unusual demands on collaboration software. "We're developing something that will work on a PC at home with a broadband connection," says Mr Rains.

Interoperable databases would make the task of finding other examples of a new find much easier. The plan is not only to enable searches for correlations across different databases, but also to record the findings of those searches. "When you search for a correlation, you'll be able to insert a link so that somebody else doesn't have to repeat the exercise in future. You'll also be able to automatically notify others who may be interested in what you've discovered," says Mr Rains.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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