iPads break digital ground in Pompeii archaeological research

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Welcome to Voices of the Past–the show that helps you discover and advocate for cultural heritage. I’m Jeff Guin. I want to start this show by reminding you that you can connect with the Voices of the Past community at our Cultural Heritage Outreach Strategies group on Linkedin. It’s a place to share the challenges of communicating cultural heritage and perhaps find a few solutions as well. You can get there directly by visiting VoicesofthePast.org/linkedin. #00:01:01.9#

Pompeii: It’s the world’s most recognizable archaeological site. But did you know it was also the place where the iPad was first used as a field documentation tool? Archaeologists working at Pompeii have been pretty progressive in communicating their finds through new media as well. Working in this milieu of old and new is Dr. Steven Ellis. He directs the Pompeii archaeological research project at Porta Stabia. In this interview, he’ll talk about the iPad project, including what it was like to be featured in an Apple ad campaign. Additionally, he’ll explore other emerging technologies being used at the site and tell us the story about why he chose archaeology as a profession. Here’s that interview… #00:01:44.0#

Guin: Tell me how you first became involved in the work at Pompeii and what your role there is currently? #00:01:49.7#

Ellis: I first got involved as an undergraduate student in the 1990s. I went on to do my Ph.D. at the site. I took an interest in retailing and looking at the shape of the city and its retail environment. More recently I have been working as director of the Pompeii archaeological research project at Porta Stabia based at the University of Cincinnati. #00:02:30.5#

Guin: You’re leading a team in one of the most recognizable archaeological sites in the world. How do you manage to stay focused on the resources while in the public eye? #00:02:42.8#

Ellis: There are about 10,000 people who can pass through our site each day. Fortunately for us, we’re in a little lost neighborhood of the city, which is roped off. There is a lot of media attention as well. We have a responsibility to make sure that people beyond the academic community know what we’re doing. We have a great team who all help with the outreach. #00:03:38.3#

Guin: One of the ways your team is connecting with the public and archaeology professions is through blogging. Tell me how that got started and who is doing the blogging there? #00:03:53.9#

Ellis: That got started through John Wollrodt at the University of Cincinnati. He is the brains behind the digital side of the project. The blog he set up is called “Paperless Archaeology.” It talks about the next directions in how we do archaeology. #00:04:42.5#

Guin: You use a lot of other digital means to communicate. Where can folks go online to learn about your project? #00:04:48.8#

Ellis: Connect directly through the website for the project. We have links from there to our blog and publications.We have a Facebook page. #00:05:43.1#

Guin: Your team received a lot of publicity for its use of iPads in the field when iPads were still new. How did that come about and what it was like to be the subject of an Apple ad campaign? #00:05:53.1#

Ellis: It’s been an incredible ride. We decided a year prior to all this that we would try to become a paperless project. At first we tried the smaller iPods. They were great for somethings, but weren’t physically big enough for field documentation tasks like drawing. When the iPad came out, we knew it would be our way forward. We initially thought we would just approach this as a trial run. So took about a half dozen into the field to see how it would work.We were stunned with how successful it was. They came out in April and we were in the field in June, so we didn’t have a lot of time to convert our project data and our mindset toward the way we collected that data. #00:07:31.9#

Steve Jobs and the marketing team at Apple found out about our use of the iPads, so we had conversations with them about the technology and future directions. They sent out a team that spent quite a while documenting what we were doing. It brought quite a bit of attention to our project. #00:08:32.3#

Guin: The technology was still new then. How did you adapt the iPad to your documentation systems? #00:08:45.0#

The smartest thing we did was to use off-the-shelf products. We’d never have had the time to develop custom applications.What we were finding was that all the applications we needed something tweaked, we’d go to the developer and mention that we think it was a useful feature, and next thing you know, it’s in the software.To see that happen so quickly was great. #00:10:23.0#

Guin: Did you have to change your process, based on the tools? #00:10:24.2#

Ellis It improved it in everyday. It took us a while to see that.Our team has had a lifetime of using paper and pencil. Our databases were mush more dynamic process. It was incredibly faster, cleaner, neater and more robust. #00:12:56.9#

Guin: Can you think of another instance in which a technology has been adapted this way for an archaeological application? #00:13:02.0#

Ellis: Not since the advent of the home computer in the mid-1980s have we seen something that has been developed for a consumer market to be used so effectively in archaeological research. The home computer revolutionized archaeology and our ability to look at lots of data and crunch numbers in ways we were never able to do before. Tablets are the next phase in that revolution. Another advantage is that unlike other technologies–from total station surveys to ground penetrating radar–tablets are made for the general market and so you can take this technology into the field and practically everyone knows how to use it as opposed to just one technical specialist. #00:14:55.8#

Guin: What’s your perception of how widely this is being adopted in other archaeological sites? #00:15:01.9#

Ellis: Just from the feedback from the Apple people, it seems to be taking off. There’s certainly a lot more projects now that seem to be gearing up. One of the questions is about the expense of these devices. On the other hand, when you look at the cost that goes into publishing archaeological excavations, the cost of tablet computers is quite minimal. I think more and more projects will start to take them on. #00:16:13.7#

Guin: Technology is integrated into all aspects of archaeology at this point. Perhaps in the popular imagination, folks still think of archaeology in terms of Indiana Jones, but that’s changed a lot. Archaeology is very integrated with digital technologies. Tell me about some of the other hardware that you’re using at Pompeii. #00:16:52.4#

Ellis: We’re using a number of technologies at Porta Stabia and another project I co-direct the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project. We’re working with ground penetrating radar there. Pompeii has been particularly interesting because it’s the oldest continually excavated site in the world, so it’s seen everything. It’s been there for every chapter in the development of archaeological research. #00:18:10.9#

Guin: How long have you been at the site? #00:18:14.8#

Ellis: We’ve been at the site since 1997. #00:18:22.9#

Guin: So many people know about Pompeii. Is there something about it that might still be surprising to the public? #00:18:33.4#

Ellis: I think what’s surprising is how little we really know so far about the history of the site. There’s so much attention to the volcanic event that destroyed the city that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the preservation of the site. The site wasn’t really preserved–it was destroyed for the most part. In that sense, I think the public is surprised about what is destroyed and what preserves and what we are left with to understand that final period of the city. But we are interested in finding out how the city developed over the centuries to get to the way it was in 79 A.D. when it was destroyed. That’s where the wave of interest has come from in the last ten years. We’re trying to push the boundaries that way. #00:20:00.1#

Guin: How do you put those pieces together? #00:20:00.1#

Ellis: We’ve been doing traditional excavations below the ground level before the 79 A.D. period. The approach is similar to urban archaeological sites that have several hundred years of complex history. We walk into a site that was cleared for us in the last 200 years or so, down to the 79 A.D. layer to record what is standing, and then excavate down to the floor layer to find the earlier versions of the spaces, the rooms and the walls–all the activities that happened there. For our own excavations, that takes us down to about the second century B.C. It’s very difficult to walk across Pompeii today and see that much which is older the the second century B.C. There are few layers, though. We have some activities from the fourth century B.C. We go back even further than that to the very earliest lava that was deposited there 10,000 years ago. #00:21:56.2#

Guin: Are you involved in other archaeological projects than Pompeii? #00:21:59.1#

Ellis: I direct another project in Greece at the Panhellenic Sanctuary at Isthmia. We’re looking at a section of the ancient Panhellenic Sanctuary that was excavated by the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1970s. They found a whole array of wall and buildings which they were never really able pinpoint when they were there and what kinds of buildings they were. So we’ve been trying to apply some of the techniques we learned in Pompeii to learn how sanctuaries worked in antiquity beyond just being temples and monumental buildings–looking at all the infrastructural items that help them to operate. #00:23:24.3#

Guin: How much time do you spend during the year at archaeological sites? #00:23:40.2#

Ellis: I’m away for about two months of the summer at those sites. Then, periodically throughout the year. #00:24:03.9#

Guin: Is the team working continuously, or is the excavation seasonal? #00:24:11.4#

Ellis: We have seasons when most of us work on the site but some people are based there or and elsewhere throughout the world who are working on material throughout the year. #00:24:40.2#

Guin: You mentioned that you have some preservation issues in Pompeii. Since you aren’t there all the time, how do you ensure the work you do on site is preserved throughout the year? #00:25:05.8#

Ellis: We backfill our trenches at the end of the season. Anywhere we’ve broken ground. We also have people in Pompeii who are there throughout the year and keep an eye on the site. It’s always on our mind with the city in such peril. #00:25:51.8#

Guin: Is you team involved in trying to make the situation there more stable? #00:25:59.2#

Ellis: We have conservation effort going on there onsite. In terms of the architecture, we have an engineering team that checks on the site before we arrive each year to make sure everything is stable, and then check on the site again when we leave. There’s also the artifactual stuff that we’re pulling out of the ground. We work very hard to conserve that material. #00:26:44.5#

Guin: You have a colleague, Dr. Andrew Wallace Hadrill, who has published a book on Herculaneum. Do the various archaeological teams in that area interact much? #00:26:56.8#

Ellis: In terms of official projects, there’s about 6-10 of them. We have a good relationship. We go to see each other’s sites and collaborate on data. We always seem to be at different stages in our projects and often work at different times of the year, so it’s not always easy. #00:27:52.1#

Guin: What inspired you to become and archaeologist? #00:27:56.2#

Ellis: The wanderlust. The sense of adventure. Particularly for that “adventure of time.” My father is a travel writer, so I was fortunate to have all sorts of great travel experiences. I remember very distinctly visiting archaeological sites and being blown away by them, as most people are. I had enough naiveté to make something of it. I really enjoy that sense of being able to travel back in time through imagine. Anyone can travel all over the world, but to travel back in time is a greater challenge. Archaeology helps me feel like I’m doing that. #00:29:14.9#

Guin: What do you do from here? Pompeii seems like the ultimate in the archaeological profession. What do you still dream about? #00:29:30.4#

Ellis: I love studying ancient cities–especially Roman cities. I’m also fascinated in how communities are formed and interact with each other. These are all questions we have in the modern world as well, so I find lots of great parallels that way. Pompeii is a magical place, but I do have designs of packing up one day and heading off to another Roman city. I’ve often joked that I’m cutting my teeth at Pompeii. There’s so much there. If I can take the skills I’m learning there somewhere else, I’ll feel very lucky. #00:31:02.6#

Guin: Does the city still have the ability to surprise you? #00:31:05.7#

Ellis: It really does–every season, every week, everyday. We discovered the ninth known public well in all the cities. These are very important infrastructural spaces because they were brought in fairly early in the construction of Pompeii. They were very important social centers. What we found in it was the volcanic debris of the 79 A.D. eruption. It had collapsed the roof, the upper floor and the floor itself into this large public well. It was fascinating to go through and make plaster casts of the wooden beams that had fallen in. We also found a wicker basket and we planned to do some analysis of what might have been in the basket. Trying to connect things like that into bigger questions of what’s happening in Pompeii at the time of the eruption, etc. All sorts of things to find in there. It keeps it fresh. #00:32:48.1#

And that was Dr. Steven Ellis of the University of Cincinnati. If you’d like to learn more about the work going on at Pompeii, you can find a full transcript of this interview–along with all the relevant links–on our shownotes site at voicesofthepast.org.

Also in the show notes, I’ll have a link to our post “Going Mobile.” Marcus Wilson explains the trends and implications of emerging mobile technologies for Cultural Organizations.

That’s it for this edition of Voices of the Past . Until next time, I’m Jeff Guin, and I’ll see you online.

Related Link:
http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/ipad_at_pompeii_does_tech_really_revolutionize_how.php

 

Credit: iPad teaser image from Flickr

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