Tag Archives: archaeology

Paging the Past in “Herculaneum: Past and Future”

Herculaneum: Past and Future Book Cover Herculaneum: Past and Future
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
History › Ancient › Greece
Frances Lincoln

While Pompeii gets most of the play, it was Herculaneum that always seemed to capture my childhood imagination. In the book "Herculaneum: Past and Future," Dr. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill goes beyond imagination to provide a multi-faceted and compelling view of the ill-fated city.

Wallace-Hadrill crafts an engaging narrative that gives unprecedented dimension to the people of Herculaneum and their culture. Besides archaeology, the book covers, architecture, geology, preservation, conservation, anthropology, etc.This is a visually stunning coffee table-sized book that manages to be visually compelling while giving proper consideration to the narrative. More than 300 new images of Herculaneum are featured, including several fold-out panoramic photos. But this book is more than just pretty pictures. The graphs and architectural drawings (e.g. the site plans of the city and locations of excavated skeletons) add a surprising amount of depth you don't realize are typically missing in works that use a visual approach to examine scholarly cultural topics.

Herculaneum in Context

Beginning from the ground up, the first chapter examines the unique geology of the area--the cycle of seismic instability in the region that led to a constant state of repair, redecoration and reconfiguring of the structures there. The chapter also clears up misconceptions about why the city was left so well preserved. It's historic fate was set apart from Pompeii's by the direction of the wind. The chapter on the politics of archaeology poses the question: Why dig up the past? There are many motives, especially for a site whose location and history was never quite lost in the region's communal memory. The noted arrival of Charles Bourbon in the 1730s, was simply the beginning of the "glory years" in a cycle of discovery that occurred over the centuries.

Ruins Restored

The collapse of the ruins at Pompeii have been widely discussed, but researchers have recorded their concerns about decay at Herculaneum as far back as 1832 due to its being less explored by the public. Often good intentions have done more harm than good, as in the case of heavy varnishes damaging paintings and excavations collapsing original structures. This book came out of Wallace-Hadrill's involvement in a 2001 collaboration between the Packard Humanities Institute of California and the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii that was designed to address these concerns. This book is a treat for those interested in better understanding heritage preservation practice in historical and sociological context. The book also takes a deeper look into discovery into the conservation of individual artifacts, which has the makings of an interesting volume on its own.

English: Ancient Herculaneum (foreground), mod...
English: Ancient Herculaneum (foreground), modern Ercolano (center), and Vesuvius (horizon). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Town and its Setting

On feature of Herculaneum I find particularly enlightening is its numerous maps (historical and modern) and architectural models, which are key to keeping the reader oriented to what they're seeing and the nature of the cultural and practical influences. One of the most useful to me is a simple line map indicating the location of the Greek colonies founded in the with to sixth centuries BC and the local Oscan foundations under Etruscan influence in the same period.

The People and Culture

Along with delivering all the skeletons and imaginings of gruesome deaths one would expect, the author delivers a good bit of demographic data to fully illustrate the vibrancy and cultural diversity during the heyday of this seaport town. As he states:

The same point of death has the rare advantage, archaeologically speaking, of freezing a cross-section of the population, of different ages and social standing.

I've heard a lot about the boat sheds where many inhabitants met their deaths, and Herculaneum includes the story, photographs and even a breakdown by gender and age of the skeletons found there, and even a map that show the location and depth where they were found. The book backtracks to examine legal documents and statues of political leaders to construct a fascinating tale of the city's slave culture. Likewise, the architecture of the famous Suburban Baths attracted affluent visitors, which defined the public face of Herculaneum.

One of the most captivating stories in book details the Herculaneum Conservation Project's excavation and conservation of a marble head of a statue of an Amazon. There are photos of the half-buried artifact at the moment of discovery and an exquisite detail shot of painting around the eye. The rare preservation of the pigment (which is also extensively evident in the hair) is owed due to immediate involvement by professional conservators in its cleaning.

Standards of Living

It turns out, home size was not an indicator of class and wealth in Herculaneum. Indeed the town's growth over eras led to intriguing interpretations of architectural styles. The author usefully illustrates his insights with three-dimensional floor plans. The architecture and sculpture is most noted in these cultures since they are mostly what survived the catastrophe. Some carbonized wooden furniture survived in Herculaneum and is included. The small tables, cupboards and cradle provide a strikingly human element to this story. Perhaps because they are objects that the inhabitants would have interacted with (indeed, they look like those modern humanity uses), and not just dwelt in or admired.

The author thoroughly contextualizes class, architecture and everyday living. Most interesting was the Conservation Project's excavation of the sewers beneath the Palaestra block. The sewer was divided into one-meter lengths and excavated stratigraphically. Occasional sandy layers marked flood events. The finds there reveal more about the daily lives of the inhabitants as their art and architecture.

The Tale of Two Cities

The book's penultimate chapter provides an interesting comparison between Pompeii and Herculaneum. As the author states:

Put Pompeii and Herculaneum together, and it is like looking through two eyes. They may be close together, but that is enough to restore a sense of depth. It is because they are both similar and different that they give us a more three-dimensional view.

Here we learn that Herculaneum was a relative "small town" compared to Pompeii's metropolis. They had different political standings. Part of our fascination with Pompeii may be its famed brothels or the fact that it was one of the best places in the world to study gladiatorial games. The intimacy and complex personal relationships of Herculaneum's inhabitants put a damper on vice.

The Future of the Past

Wallace-Hadrill concludes "Herculaneum" fittingly with an analysis of the town's present, and the challenges it continues to face. These cities, though ironically well preserved by the disaster that befell them, were fundamentally damaged by it. Now exposed, their conservation is an ongoing challenge. This is especially true in Herculaneum, where carbonized material like structural wood beams are being held together by wax treatments. The politics of competing interests has played a role and has been famously blamed for structural failures in Pompeii in recent years,

Still, there are conservation victories, like the "House of the Gems" which is illustrated with before-and-after photographs. Regarding expansion of excavation versus conservation of what's already been unearthed, the author's closing thoughts comment on Herculaneum's being likened to a time capsule...

But a buried treasure lies secure for future generations. For our own generation, it is enough to appreciate the extraordinary value of the treasure that has already been dug up, to look after its merits, and to pass it on to future generations.

Note: This book was a review copy provided by the publisher. More information can be found at www.franceslincoln.com



iPads break digital ground in Pompeii archaeological research

Subscribe to Voices of the Past on  ITUNES


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:


Credit: iPad teaser image from Flickr

Enhanced by Zemanta

Archaeology 2.0: Open Context Means Deeper Connections to Broader Audiences

First off, I want to thank Jeff for inviting me to share a guest post on this blog. Although I appreciate the medium, I find that between parenthood, endless grant writing and reviewing, and working on Open Context, I’ve got less time than I’d like for blogging.

By background, I’m an archaeologist with a PhD awarded back in 2001. Since then, I’ve been increasingly interested in digital media and in trying to make archaeological research more transparent and open for wider participation. That’s what we’re trying to do with Open Context.


Kansa TeaserWhy Make Archaeology Open?
Archaeology largely financed, either directly (through grants) or indirectly (through historical preservation laws) by the public. Opening up data to wider sharing is a way for the public to see more benefit purchased by their tax dollars.

The benefits to the public are mainly indirect.  I doubt most people, except for the uber-archaeological-nerds out there,  are interested in raw counts of potsherds found in some remote ancient village in Jordan. Instead, the public benefits from greater openness because openness makes research more efficient, with less duplication of effort, and with greater scientific rigor. Making underlying data can open for inspection and reuse enables other researchers to “audit” claims about the past, or reuse old data to make new interpretations. Data sharing makes archaeology a discipline more worthy of trust and better able to address key issues about human history and our relationship to the natural world.


Most researchers would agree that there should be more openness and better stewardship of data. However, time and budgets are tight. Slogging through and cleaning up a messy database is not very fun. Preparing data for sharing is not something that will win you tenure (if you’re an academic archaeologist), or something that will win you the next contract (if you are a commercial archaeologist). The realities of professional life create a lot of inertia that keeps data stuck on the hard-drives of individual researchers, one crash away from irrevocable loss(!). That’s tragic, since archaeology uses inherently destructive methods (excavation). So loss of archaeological data represents a permanent loss of our shared history.

Money is also tight for this kind of work. Archaeological databases are often big, and complicated. It take time and often a lot of information technology expertise to make these suitable for public sharing. While open standards and open source applications now make this much easier and cheaper, it still takes some expensive programming effort to make something work well on the Web.

Working with Open Context

Open Context is very much oriented toward archaeological geeks. We’ve spent most of our time and effort making sure that the data can efficiently flow out of Open Context. The main reason for this emphasis is that we’re sure other people can do more interesting things with our data than we can!

For instance, we work hard at managing archaeological data, but we know we’re not great at presenting this information to the public. That requires other kinds of expertise that we just don’t have. But, by making our data fully available with all sorts of APIs and Web-services and by removing copyright restrictions, we open doors for all sorts of reuse. This enables experts at public presentation to easily repackage and reuse our content in ways that can make better sense to the public. For instance, along with other data formats, Open Context also renders its content in KML, the standard used by Google Earth:

Open Context data in Google Earth, showing animal bones from archaeological sites in the Near East


The public can also get into the act. Using our data is free and requires no special permissions. It does take a little bit (not a lot!) of programming knowledge to make good use of Open Context data. We’re really interested in getting mash-up developers to use our data in creative ways.  Open Context data can be mapped and combined with data from other fantastic open collections such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Nomisma.org, or even Flickr. You can even use our data in innovative games or mobile applications. All it takes is a little bit of Web-programming skills and a lot of imagination, and anyone can visualize and explore real research data.

If you want a much longer, and more academic discussion of these issues, please see this book that I helped edit: Archaeology 2.0   The book is free and open access, reflecting a growing movement to use technology to make scholarship and learning more open and accessible to everyone.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Talking Pyramids’ Vincent Brown on Managing News Content with Social Tools

Have you  ever wanted to learn hieroglyphics? What if a podcast could help you with that? There is one out there and it’s produced by this episode’s guest. His name is Vincent Brown. Vincent is kind of a new media renaissance man, with a focus on Egyptology and the pyramids. In addition to the podcast he created, he also maintains blogs and a very active Twitter community. That’s one of the things he’s going to talk about is optimizing your Twitter participation for creating a community: crafting relevant tweets and how to optimize those with hashtags as well. Here’s that interview. [Timestamp #00:01:39.6#]

Vincent Brown: I’m a web designer by trade. Before I got into freelance web design, I was an IT network administrator. I was a trainer as well and taught web design. I actually invented a form of Twitter with some guys in my group. I always thought that it would be fantastic to be able to update a website from a mobile phone. We actually got a prototype working. That was 2006, and in the same month, Twitter came out, so I jumped on to that. That’s the powerful aspect of Twitter–to have it on the sidebar of your blog and have those elements remotely feeding into it. #00:02:53.5#

Jeff Guin: Did you have any concept as to how things would evolve with Twitter? #00:02:54.3#

VB: No way. I wasn’t even thinking about social aspects. I was really just thinking about remotely updating a blog, and of course it’s much more than that. #00:03:05.3#

JG: You have quite a community there. Was it intentional for you to build a community through Twitter? #00:03:21.7#

VB: Originally, I started using it as a news outlet–as a micro-blog. My blog posts take hours to write. I get carried away, so there’s a lack of time for doing regular blog posts. As a way of combating that, I decided to post the micro-updates everyday. I generally put out 10-20 a day through my Google Reader feeds that I’ve developed over the years. And that expanded into doing lessons on Twitter as well. I was learning ancient Egyptian, which being a complex language, is a long-term study. I thought if would be great to help my colleagues who were studying with me to have flash cards. So I started by creating a flashcard for one word each day. At the end of the week, I’d compile them and make a chart, which I put on Flickr. Then I thought a video would be even more effective. So I created a video each week to recap six words. Being a trainer, I knew that learning requires extras like sound and visuals for easy memorization. I added music and different backgrounds and released it as Creative Commons content. I really enjoyed the community collaboration of using others’ content and doing that through Creative Commons is a good way, because it allows all involved to be credited for their work. #00:05:48.5#

JG: And this podcast is still available. I discovered it on iTunes. #00:05:53.3#

VB: Yes, it’s available on YouTube and Vimeo as well.  #00:05:58.4#

JG: Who were the folks you interacted with in social media early on? #00:06:01.9#

VB: The Brooklyn Museum was on the forefront early, doing amazing things. They took a few trips to the hospital with their mummy. They did CT scans on a mummy the museum has. Shelley Bernstein, the IT person there, decided to live blog it. I set up a live Twitter feed and embedded it in my blog. I also automated the Twitpics as well so they were coming out on my blog, and encouraged my readers to interact with them so that she was able to receive questions and could ask the curators and scientists questions. The museum also has embraced Flickr in a big way–really pushing The Commons. Flickr was one the first social media companies to embrace the idea of The Commons [here’s a list of participating organizations]. It’s a feature of Flickr, so it was powerful for the museum to put their archives on The Commons. There are a few others: Boston University and Harvard collaborated with Peter Der Manuelian of the Giza Archives, to create some fantastic representations of the Giza plateau and some of the tombs there. #00:08:54.7#

JG: Tell me more about your blog. That really is the heart of your community. #00:08:56.4#

Unas Pyramid - Sarcophagus chamber
Close up of the north-west corner of the sarcophagus chamber. The dusty lid of the sarcophagus can be seen in the lower part of the image (Courtesy of Vincent Brown's Flickr Stream).

VB: I started it in January 2008. I created a few other websites before that, including Pyramid Texts Online, which is more academic than Talking Pyramids. I traveled to Egypt in 1997. Although the internet was around then, and I did a lot of research online, it was really hard to ascertain which pyramids were open. I was disappointed to arrive at the Great Pyramid and found that two of the three chambers were closed. In fact, another pyramid that I was very interested in going to–the Unas Pyramid in Saqqara, which is the most elaborately inscribed with texts, was sadly closed when I got there. I thought there really should an online resource where travelers can go to find this out. That was impetus behind the site. I also wanted to get into blogging. A website is quite static. Little did I know that a blog requires much more attention, and regular updates. I’m still building up those pyramid pages. I’ve been using social media on those static pages by pulling in, for example, Flickr collections of those individual pyramids. I like that because the content is constantly changing without me having to manually do it myself. #00:11:16.5#

JG: How did you get interested in Egyptology? #00:11:21.5#

VB: It’s hard to pinpoint because I’ve always liked Egyptian music, especially. The first time I picked up a guitar, I wanted to play an middle-eastern sounding riff. It’s my favorite sound. One of my first memories when I was about four-years-old was sitting down with my father to make a cardboard pyramid. It was said that if you put a piece of fruit in a pyramid shape, it will preserve it. It was the era of Uri Geller who was doing the spoon bending tricks. So we put a grape inside and folded it up and sticker-taped the sides. Being four, I wasn’t sure what the word “preserved” meant, so I just thought as long as I could rattle the box and hear it, it was preserved! So that’s my earliest memory. Then, in 1996, I read Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tompkins. It was a pretty comprehensive book that got me really interested in learning more. A year later, I had saved up enough money to go to Egypt and it continued from there. #00:13:34.0#

JG: Is your professional background purely in web design, or are you also a professional archaeologist? #00:13:41.9#

VB: No, I have no professional background in archaeology or Egyptology. #00:13:50.1#

JG: Yet, you’re an authority … #00:13:57.5#

VB: Funny, isn’t it? That’s the nature of the web, combined with passion. If you love something enough and dedicate your time to it, then anyone can master anything. I have a lot of learning to do still. There’s over 100 pyramids in Egypt and that’s a lot of study. Also the language–that’s an ongoing thing that I dive in and out of as time permits.  #00:14:29.5#

JG: Let’s talk more about your Flickr stream, because you have a fairly comprehensive set of photos there. Tell me what inspired you to create your photostream and what the future might be for it. #00:14:45.5#

VB: As I said before I first found out about Flickr when I was teaching web design. It was a great project, because there were community organizations who needed websites made, and I had these guys who could create websites. It was a skill-building process in which Flickr became a major tool. Because of the Creative Commons content there, we could legally use Flickr as a source of images for these websites. I opened up my own personal account, and encouraged my friends and family to do the same. In the old days, you would have to compile photos into a five or 10 megabyte attachment in an email that no one wants to receive. Obviously, Flickr is fantastic for holiday photos. I also find it fantastic for research and use it as a search engine. Recently a friend told me about a church he was visiting in Holland, so I went straight to Flickr and found hundreds of photos. He was describing the patterns on the floor, and I responded “Yes, I see.” He says “what do you mean.” He was surprised so much was already on Flickr. It’s a hugely powerful tool. #00:16:49.7#

JG: You’ve got all the big guys covered: Flickr, Twitter, etc. Are there any other forms of social media that you use to deepen your connection with your audience. #00:17:01.5#

VB: There’s also Delicious.com. Delicious is really powerful. I used to have bookmarks, which got really big and unwieldy. Delicious is a terrific online tool that allows you to give your bookmarks tags to keep them organized and relevant.  That is also fed into the sidebar of the blog as well. The thing about YouTube is some people don’t realize how you can used for anything other than upload. I only have a few videos of my own online. However, I have created playlists for all sorts of topics, such as individual pyramids. These playlists are added automatically to each pyramid’s page. Apart from the playlists, I’m always favoriting as well. When you arrive at my channel, you always see the most recent video that I’ve favorited. Sometimes I don’t watch all the videos right away and will come back on the weekend and watch them all in the playlist then.  #00:19:48.2#

The big news has been the uprising in Egypt. I’ve tried to keep my focus on pyramids, but it’s hard with such a huge event, so I made up a playlist of the Egyptian songs that were written during and after the protests. #00:20:13.6#

JG: Have you found that those events have driven additional traffic to your blog? #00:20:14.3#

VB: Yes. I’m posting more regularly since this is big news. I’ve tried to keep my readers informed about the looting at the individual pyramid fields. That’s been hard. Official reports have been conflicting and it’s very ongoing. #00:21:05.1#

JG: A lot has been made of the role of new media in the social unrest in the Middle East and other places in the world. What’s your opinion? #00:21:14.0#

VB: It seems that is the case. It started with a post on Facebook by the Google executive Wael Ghonim that was an impetus for the uprising. Twitter was a very big part of that as well. We saw when the internet was turned off, that Twitter and Google joined forces to create a service that would allow people to send tweets through a public phone box, or any phone. We saw two giants come together beyond their competition. Then, once the internet was turned off, the people were in the streets and there came a point when social media didn’t matter anymore. But people were still recording video with their phones and other devices. When the internet came back up, we got to see those stories. Social media played a big part, and I don’t know if it would have happened without that first Facebook post. #00:22:55.2#

JG: How do you curate the news that you put out? #00:22:58.3#

VB: It’s very time consuming. It’s a matter of sitting down and skimming through those feeds. I also use Twitter as much as Google Reader. I have a lot of lists that I look at and particular people that I follow on Twitter. It takes me several hours everyday to do that. #00:23:50.3#

JG: Related to Twitter, you mentioned your lists. Explain how you’ve broken your lists down. #00:24:04.7#

VB: My lists are my meat and potatoes. That’s where all the action happens. I’ve got an Egyptologist list that is purely people working in that field. Then there’s a museums list, and a general ancient Egypt news list, which comprises anyone talking about the topic. This lists are private right now as I try to curate the information, but I’m considering opening those up more. #00:25:23.5#

JG: You are for hire as a web designer. What’s your web design specialty? #00:25:37.6#

VB: My specialty is care and attention to the client. I don’t do cookie-cutter sites. Training is important is well. I want to empower the person to be able to update their site as well. For that reason, I used WordPress a lot, so that people can update their content without having to pay me or someone else to do it. I also train them in social media and often set them up with a Flickr account and teach them to make that useful to promote their website. And also using social media to help them promote their site as well, so there’s an ongoing promotion service if they want that. If anyone does want a site made, they can contact me at Talking Pyramids or through my business website “Vintuitive.” People can have a look there if they want to see some of the sites I’ve made. #00:27:14.8#

JG: What’s your strategy for updating your social media? #00:27:18.4#

VB: For Twitter, I post 10-20 updates a day, depending on the news. YouTube, a couple of times a week. Flickr, once a week. Being from South Australia, it’s not easy for me to go and take photos of pyramids. Some I’ve posted have been from the South Australian Museum’s Egypt Room, for example. People also send me photos. Flickr is very powerful for contacting people who have just come back from Egypt. Everyday, I’ll finish my news posts with a photo, usually on Twitter. Those will usually come from a Flickr search. I’m always looking for feedback from visitors to find out which pyramids are open. Official sites will say one thing and things may be totally different on the ground. Ticket prices will also go up and down. It’s a bit time consuming, but it’s also a good way to expand the network. Those people will start following my Flickr stream and blog because they are obviously interested if they cared enough to visit the pyramids. #00:29:37.2#

JG: Do you find that you have different audiences for each of the social tools you are involved with? #00:29:52.8#

VB: They’re very different audiences. I have a lot of schools linking to a post on ancient Egyptian games. I think in year six primary schools, they do a segment on ancient Egypt. That post receives more hits on my blog than any other. I’ve got a post on how to make a paper pyramid that’s very popular with schools as well. I don’t know how many people follow me across these services. There are a lot of people who just follow me on Flickr. Same with Twitter. Some of those people who read my posts of Twitter never go to my blog. Some bloggers will only use Twitter to announce new blog posts. They are shortchanging themselves because Twitter is a fantastic resource for reading. I spend a lot of time reading there. It’s really just a matter of spending time to manage your filtering. I think most people, when they come to Twitter think this is all about “that guy eating a ham sandwich” or “someone watching television.” Of course, it’s about following the right people. #00:31:46.9#

JG: How do you filter you Twitter feeds other than your lists? #00:31:52.4#

VB: I use TweetDeck, which includes rows and rows of searches. I’ll run a search on “egyptian uprising”. There’s the hashtag #Jan25 which is what I tag any post to do with the Egyptian uprising. Hashtags are a big part of emphasizing what’s important on Twitter. I will do searches on particular hashtags and save it in a TweetDeck column. I’ve intentionally kept anything not related to Egypt out of that Twitter stream, and that’s why I have another Twitter account as vinbrown. I use that account for digital archaeology. #00:33:57.7#

JG: This leads to one of my pet peeves, which is use of hashtags. Many people are putting the hash symbol in front of every noun in their tweets, and it’s annoying and unreadable. From your perspective, what is proper hashtag etiquette? #00:34:14.2#

VB: Don’t look at the trending topics and use those hashtags.  Too many put something like #justinbieber in front of something that has absolutely nothing to do with him. I always put any hashtag at the front end of my tweet. It’s stripped out of the sidebar on my blog. Its is okay to make up your own hashtag, as I started doing with #digitalarchaeology. It’s being used my a number of archaeologists now.  #00:36:24.7#

JG: I’m seeing #digitalarchaeology in a number of tweets beside your own. What does it mean? #00:36:43.1#

VB: In the examples we talked about before, I think the work of organizations like the Brooklyn Museum online would qualify as digital archaeology. Also, much of the efforts to recreated archaeological sites in 3-D is a powerful thing. There’s also people like Sarah Parcak, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Parcak), and egyptologist who specializes in using satellite technology in two ways–not  just to search for sites on the ground, but also to use GPS to navigate to those sites on the ground. That process has enabled archaeologists to find new sites. That’s definitely digital archaeology. #00:37:55.4#

JG: Have you been involved in any uses of SecondLife in archaeology? #00:37:58.7#

VB: I dabbled in Second Life for a project of my own. But I found on the Discovery Channel a really innovative project in SecondLife, which was The Book of the Dead. Now we’re not just recreating a three dimensional space. #00:38:49.0#

JG: Are there any unexpected connections you’ve made through your online communication? #00:39:01.2#

VB: One thing I really haven’t talked about it Pyramid Texts Online. I’ve been contacted a lot through that website from people who are doing work in this field. For example, the Toledo Museum wanted to know if there was any way of getting high resolution images of the pyramid texts. It’s a long process of finding those hi-res images, but I did eventually find them. What I did with the site was to create a nonlinear presentation of the texts. There’s contention among Egyptologists regarding how they were originally sequenced. By putting them in a linear format in a book, you’re forcing the reader into a linear sequence. Really, the only way you effectively present them without bias is to present them in a 3-D sense. That’s how Pyramid Texts Online came about, in a two dimensional application of that idea. When you go to the site, you can read the whole north wall of the sarcophagus chamber. I recreated the wall from a photographic plate. Those photos came from an old book called the Pyramid Texts of Unas. Turns out the photos were taken in 1950 by a guy named Fred Husson. I did some research and found that he is still alive and well. I contacted him, and he didn’t have the photos, so it was back the research. Then I found that both of the people who were involved in making that book Natacha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino) and Alexandre Piankoff, were born in the same year and died within a few weeks apart in 1967 before the book was finished. So it was handed over to the curator of the Brooklyn Museum at that time. So I thought, if he finished the book, the images were likely to be in the repository at the Brooklyn Museum. So I contact Shelley Bernstein, who I had the interaction with on the “monitoring the mummies” project, and asked if she could find a record of the images. A week later, she got back to me and said they had found them. It was an exciting moment to have copies of those photographs finally go back to Fred. They were recently used in a publication.  #00:43:14.8#

JG: Do you use your own podcast to learn hieroglyphics? #00:43:19.2#

VB: That was the reason I created it. The vocab is the hardest thing. Eventually, you memorize all the signs and realize what they mean, but it’s another thing to know all the vocab. It’s an ongoing thing and I’m still learning. I can read basic steles and funerary inscriptions, but some of the more complicated things like pyramid texts are very difficult. We are now working to create a 3-D representation of the pyramid texts. Part of that recreation will include analysis of the texts from a variety of people, somewhat like a wiki. Each line could be translated, and then updated with additional commentary and viewpoints. The problem with a MediaWiki format is syntax, especially for the older members of the group.  #00:46:45.5#

JG: Why do you think that is? Not that wikis are mind-numbingly complex, but why should you need to know any code at all to use one? #00:46:46.4#

VB: Especially with Wikipedia, you would think they would drive that forward. They did recently upgrade their interface, but it’s still not there. It’s a fantastic resource. And you have to think, who’s making these edits if it requires that kind of technical know-how.  #00:47:35.2#

JG: I agree. Vincent, thanks so much for visiting with me. #00:47:41.7#

VB: Thank you, Jeff


Additional resources from Vincent:


Since No One Knows Us, We Decided to Social-ize: the National Park Service Northeast Museum Services Center


Some of you may not realize that the National Park Service (NPS) has “museums” or museum collections.  Many of you may not know what a Curator, an Archivist, an Archeologist or a Conservator actually does behind the scenes for any museum that you’ve been to. And most of you have probably never heard of the Northeast Museum Services Center – referred to by our initials (NMSC).  But, you undoubtedly know the power of social media to connect you and other readers with this type of information.

The NMSC is an NPS program that helps parks – primarily in the Northeast – with preserving, protecting and making accessible museum and archival collections. Our team of Curators, Archivists and Conservators are available for cataloging (both archeology and archives); museum research and planning; collections conservation and general technical assistance.  Think of us as museum consultants for the parks – we help parks to assess their collections management issues; to find funding to correct those problems and then to assist them with correcting those problems.

We were fairly late to the game, but we now realize the value of social media to any organization and have started additional public outreach through Twitter, Facebook and a blog of our own.

Is Tweeting Really for Us?

For at least a year or more, that was the question bouncing around our office about Twitter and other forms of social media.  Our office is a generational mix from 20 something volunteers, interns and technician that all want to be on the cutting edge of innovation to 40+ year old staff that are unsure of the value added by websites that our kids are using in their free time.  We are also like most entities nowadays, being asked to do more with less. Two of our full-time staff members left for other jobs in less than a year and we were unable to re-fill those positions.  In that time, the workload only increased.  With that in mind, should we be “wasting” valuable staff time on something “frivolous” like Facebook or Twitter?

I’ll admit that I’m one of the 40-somethings and I was on the fence about the value that we might get from putting any staff time towards social media.  But, I/we realized several things based on general observations, calls with our parks and an assessment of social media usage –

  1. Most people are unaware that NPS sites even have “museums” and/or museum collections. We hear the same thing that you may be thinking, “But, the NPS is Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. It does not have museums like Smithsonian.” You are correct that the NPS has very few traditional four-wall museums like the Smithsonian.  But, what we do have (and that we help to manage) are 26 million artifacts and archival documents in the Northeast alone in the real places that they were used or made.  That includes the landscape drawings of the Olmsteds at Frederick Law Olmsted NHS, the library of John Quincy Adams at Adams NHP, archeological collections from Jamestown at Colonial NHP, Civil War archival collections at Gettysburg NMP, and natural history specimens collected from Shenandoah NP.
  2. Since the NMSC is a behind-the-scenes group that even lacks a public domain name, most people (NPS staff included) are not aware of the services that we provide.  In many cases, the general public may have heard the title Curator, Archivist, Archeologist or Conservator, but may not really know what we do.  We all know the objects that we see on exhibit or the documents that we use for research, but collections care is also a critical component of the NPS mission that needs to be fostered.  Not to mention the fact that all cultural institutions need to help build and diversify the museum studies workforce.
  3. Social media has already become the information clearinghouse for the museum field. While we were blindly thinking that Twitter was just celebrity gossip or blogs are a dying form of communication, all forms of social media had become the accepted way of disseminating information for organizations such as Association of American Museums (AAM), Smithsonian Institution and most of our parks.  We had isolated ourselves and we were missing critical information.

So, in late 2010 with the relaxing of some NPS social media restrictions, we decided to join the rest of the world and test out a social media initiative for our office.

Now, Go Engage Your “Audience”

Giles Parker
Giles Parker, Museum Curator, Northeast Museum Services Center, National Park Service

Okay, so, we knew what we wanted to say about the museum collections in the National Park Service and about our work. Our goals were/are fairly simple: highlight the museum collections in the Northeast Region of the NPS; encourage the public (as well as NPS followers) to adopt an overall stewardship ethic; and connect (or re-connect) ourselves with non-NPS museum professionals in order to stay abreast of the latest curatorial trends.

BUT – Who is our audience? How do we attract them to us? What are the best forms of social media to do that? And, what format should the content take?  Many books have been written about the use of social media by museums; workshops are available and the web is full of great websites that provide guidance.  None of those are focused on a behind-the-scenes program like ours that works with collections from many disparate sites and focuses on region-wide collection management issues.  We decided to turn to one of our 20-something Museum Specialists (Megan Lentz) as our de facto Social Media Consultant to develop a short-term and long-term social media strategy.

Megan reviewed existing uses of social media by museums and brought her own usage to the discussion.  We then decided to start our slow roll-out with two Twitter feeds (@NPS_NMSC and @NMSC_Volunteers ), a Facebook Page and a blog focused on our Archeological Collections Management team.  Generally speaking, we’ve engaged our varied audience in a number of different ways:

  • Setting up searches on the federal government’s official jobs site for Curator, Archives, Archeology and Conservator job announcements that need wider distribution;
  • Creating Google searches focused on issues such as “museum storage,” museum security and fire prevention that affect all of our sites;
  • Developing a calendar of key dates for our parks – such as birthdates for historical figures – as times to highlight images and facts about NPS museum collections associated with those sites;
  • Connecting with our parks and other cultural institutions through Twitter and Facebook to find collection management information that we feel should be shared and discussed;
  • Generating threads that focus on key collection management issue including the use of museum collections in social media campaigns;
  • Initiating a feed focused on the work of our volunteers and interns program (@NMSC_Volunteers) to help build the workforce and reinforce the types of museum opportunities that are available;
  • Blogging about the work of our Archeological Collections Management team.  Most people know the Indiana Jones and the excavating side of archeology, but are unaware of the curation involved after the dig.  Postings have included research and photos on bottles that may have been used by George Washington, the history of matches, and a spotlight on pipe stems.
  • Utilizing a third-party social media dashboard (Hootsuite) to plan and space out postings to all of our accounts.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In less than 6 months, we feel like we’ve made significant progress towards our goals with NPS and non-NPS followers from across the nation.  In many ways, the numbers speak for themselves. We primarily provide service to 76 sites in the Northeast, but @NPS_NMSC (190+ followers), @NMSC_Volunteers (80+ followers), NMSC on Facebook (70+ followers), and our blog (300+ readers per posting) are reaching a much broader audience.  Hootsuite also provides analytics and many of our postings get 10 to 30 additional clicks for more information. Are those numbers that you’d be interested in?

Additionally, the current NPS Director Jon Jarvis was appointed in 2009 with a set of priorities that focused on Workforce, Relevancy, Education and Stewardship.  Our early successes with social media are also helping us and thus the NPS as whole to make progress in each of these areas as well.  We’ve been able to re-connect with the museum workforce outside of our region and outside of the NPS; help parks with relevancy by focusing on the latest trends in the use of museum collections; discover some of the latest technologies such as the use of Google Maps and also QR codes that might improve access to museum collections for educational purposes; and find information on fire prevention and security needs for museum collections.  And, we feel like we’ve only just started to scratch the surface.

Based on these early successes, we will continue to support and improve upon our current social media outlets.  We plan on getting more of our staff involved and thus highlighting more of our work as well as the collections in the Northeast.  We are also considering other social media options including a blog for our entire office.  Megan continues as our de facto Social Media Consultant and monitors the latest trends in social media usage.  We are also advocating for other NPS parks and regional programs to use social media in a similiar way (with an emphasis even less on “us” and more on the actual resources).  These statistics and early successes may also help us to advocate for a public domain name to reinforce the NPS stewardship role to the general public.


If you or your organization does not have a social media strategy at this point, consider the tremendous benefits and get started.  If you don’t have a 20-something on staff to work with as your Social Media Consultant, consider bringing someone on board or contracting with someone to develop and implement that strategy.  If you are interested in connecting with more museum or NPS information, consider following some of our parks and other cultural institutions through social media.  And, if you want to know more about NPS museum collections, what a Curator does, or what the NMSC does, consider following us on Twitter, Facebook or through our blog.

For a very small time commitment, you will find that social-izing is worthwhile.

Meet the Blogger: Kimberly Alderman of the Cultural Property and Archaeology Blog

For the average person, archaeology and legal issues may not seem to have an obvious connection. Tales of archaeological discovery evoke feelings of adventure and connection to our fellow humans past and present. Not so much for the legal system. Yet there are potentially a mountain of legal issues that could put a stop to any excavation. Kimberly Alderman tackles these topics in her blog Cultural Property & Archaeology in an approachable yet substantive way.

Where did your interest in archaeology and law originate?

My undergraduate degree is in Art History and Archaeology.  After university, I was doing contract archaeology work when I had the bright idea to go to law school to study “archaeology law.”  I had no idea at the time what that meant, and as it turns out there’s really no such program. But I was able to fashion myself an education in the subject by taking seminars in which I could choose archaeology law-esque paper topics.

What’s the mission of your blog?

I started blogging to better position and educate myself as a scholar in cultural property law.  They say there’s no better way to learn about something than by writing about it.  Also, I’ve met a lot of people with similar interests through the blog.  I feel like I am now part of a community of people who are dedicated to the scholarship of cultural property law, even though they aren’t all “scholars” in the traditional sense of the word.  The mission now is simply to maintain a high-quality blog dedicated to this very specific subject area.  There are others focused on similar subject areas, but mine is topically unique, as are theirs.

How did you decide blogging was the right tool for you?

Two years ago, I was living in remote Alaska, feeling fairly disconnected from the scholarly and legal communities.  The day I got satellite internet set up, I signed up for a WordPress blog and started “reporting.” I scoured the news for interesting articles, and typed up little summaries as best as I could figure out how.  I subscribed to a bunch of blogs that were topically related, and I started to get to know the other people who were blogging.  Voila!  The Cultural Property & Archaeology Law Blog was born.

Why is it important that legal issues are addressed in the conversation regarding archeology and cultural heritage?

It’s one thing to have a fascination with ancient objects, but without an understanding of the meaning of those objects, they’re just pretty trinkets.  It is equally important to have an understanding of the modern significance of those objects, whether as political tools, legitimizers or something else.  The study of cultural property and archaeology law is a quest for sustainability.  The physical manifestation of our past is finite, and if illegal excavation or exportation goes unchecked, then those artifacts and sites will be destroyed without having extracted the full possible social value from them.  Put simply, there could be no heritage community without legal protection for that heritage.

Your blog made a list of “50 Best Blogs for Archaeology Students.” How did you feel about that?

The only comment I would have on this distinction is that I think its good to educate archaeology students on the more pragmatic aspects of the discipline.  Traditionally, the study of archaeology has focused more on historical meaning than present meaning, even though both are important.  In art history, I learned that a painting created in 1750 about biblical times can tell you far more about life and society in 1750 than it can tell you about Judas or John in whatever biblical setting is pictured.  Similarly, how our modern society and legal system approaches the protection of ancient objects, and which objects are given preferential value over others, is sometimes more revealing than studying the objects alone.

Describe the big legal issues that arise in archeology/cultural property.

One of the biggest points of discussion at present is the international dispute over repatriation of objects seized in the past (quite often, in colonial times).  Less “hot topic” legal issues include looting, theft, the illicit trade and protecting sites of historical value in the face of development.  There is also significant discussion over where the burden should lie when dealing with unprovenanced antiquities — should museums and private collectors require that objects have paperwork proving they were legally excavated and exported, or should the burden be placed on source countries to stop these objects from leaving the country or post notices on the international databases of missing objects?  A topic that I’ve been getting increasingly interested in as of late is intangible cultural property.  Sometimes people (particularly indigenous groups) can inherit a “cultural property interest” in something that is intangible — an old song melody, a dance, even a sunrise.  This is taking us out of the property model altogether and that’s fascinating.  In terms of my role, I’m just an observer.  I report my observations via the blog, but whether the world cares or not, well, that’s up to them.

Where do you draw inspiration for your content?

I read a lot of other blogs, my favorites on similar areas being those by Tom Flynn, Derek Fincham, and Paul Barford, each for very different reasons (Tom’s insightful and witty, Derek is always right, and Paul is mind-bogglingly prolific.)

I also have Google News set up to give me an RSS feed on critical keywords (“cultural property,” “UNESCO,” things of that nature).  I sort through a lot of junk via those feeds to get to the interesting and relevant stuff, and that’s what makes the blog valuable.  I don’t purport to present *everything* of value on my subject area, but I try to make sure everything I post has value.

How has social media helped you share your interests?

I have no doubt that without blogging I never would have connected in the way that I have with other people who are interested in my subject area.   By utilizing social media, I’ve been able to create a virtual network of friends and colleagues who have helped me tremendously in terms of staying involved and progressing in my scholarly pursuits in this fairly narrow subject area.

What is your advice to someone interested in learning more about heritage-related legal issues?

In terms of starting a blog, that is very easy: write.  Getting involved with heritage related issues is another thing, and depending on your area of expertise there are a lot of organizations which would serve as great starting places.  A couple that come to mind include the AIA (Archaeology Institute of America), ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), LCCHP (Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage and Preservation), and SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone).  There are also groups on the other side of the fence in terms of political views, including the ACCG (Ancient Coin Collectors Guild).  You have to figure out what your personal goal is (preservation at all costs? context over commerce? repatriation of objects to source nations? protection of traditional notions of property rights?).  Whatever your philosophical disposition when it comes to ancient objects and sites, there’s an organization to suit your needs.

What is planned in the future for your blog?

I intend to keep doing what I’m doing to the best of my ability.  Recently, I’ve started to focus more on multimedia sources of information (promoting audio and video on other sites), as that seems to be the thing.  I’m also always open to readers making suggestions as to what they’d like to see more or less of, whether in regard to content or delivery.  That’s one of the great things about blogs; they are dynamic.  They are easy to change when you yourself change, as you grow as an individual or as a scholar.

What is your blog’s ultimate goal?

My blog’s ultimate goal is to promote the scholarship of cultural property law in a fairly impartial way.  Not impartial in a way that I’d hesitate to say if I think a particular argument espoused in a book, article, or on another blog is rubbish, but legally impartial.  In my opinion, there is so much morality loaded into cultural property and archaeology law perspectives at present that a lot of the reporting is spoiled by preconceived bias.  The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog strives to provides a middle ground, where the strengths and weaknesses of all sides’ positions can be considered with the impartiality of a legal observer.

“Justice” teaser graphic by mindgutter on Flickr

The Archaeological Box’s Matt Thompson on developing membership websites and refining the use of social media as a support mechanism

Founded in 2009, The Archaeological Box is a media-rich website that incorporates features like Google Maps and podcasts in two languages. It also incorporates a store and professional accounts. In this interview with Matt Thompson, the site’s founder, we’re going to explore the concepts of content management systems, including Drupal, and what goes into supporting the site through social media.


Guin: How did the site develop and how did you come up with the name? (timestamp #00:01:52.6#)

Thompson: A few of my colleagues and I from school realized that we had a lot of information gathered individually and that it would be more practical if we could share it. So the site started as a small venture for a group of five people. We quickly realized that we weren’t the only ones in this situation and that information was lacking in the field of archaeology. Resources are hard to find and when you do find them, they often aren’t complete. We agreed that if we were going to do this, we’d go big. It grew into the Archaeological Box. We just rode the wave to what it is today. We’re still adding daily. As for the name, I’d like to say there was a well thought-out plan, but our site is bilingual. We found the name in French first. We are a French-speaking team mainly. It has a dual sense as a box with all the information in it. But in French, it can also mean “the firm” or “the enterprise.” So it also meant the “archaeology venture.”

Guin: What was on the site initially? Was it more like a blog? #00:03:37.0#

Thompson: At the very beginning it was just news. Daily, we’d find news articles on archaeology. Anyone who’s familiar with archaeology sites will know how important Google is for survival. Even before we started putting the the site only, we supported a “mini version” so Google would get to know us. Then we found our web designer and started building the components of the site. We started adding photos, blogs and events.

Guin: It’s one of the most professional and refined archaeology sites that I’ve seen. What are some of the other components of the site? You said you have a podcast and are going into other new media adventures … #00:04:58.9#

Thompson: Other than podcasts, we have field school repertories and archaeological site listings. We have an archaeotourism section where people can post travek reviews or look for archaeological travel packages. There’s something for everyone.

Guin: How did the travel packages come about? Does it help support your site?  #00:05:32.5#

Thompson: The travel section serves as the general public portal to the site. The general public accesses the site through the archeotourism portal where they have access to news, events, travel reviews, packages and forums. Our main site is built around a Google Maps search engine. Archaeotourism has similar feature, which includes any hotels that have packages with us for tour groups, car rental deals for tourism. It’s an interesting part of the site that’s being developed more.  #00:07:19.0#

Guin: You mentioned that site was developed professionally, but there are a lot of people who are starting up with pre-made blog sites or ready-made social networks like Ning. What’s the advantage for building your own site from scratch? #00:07:43.0#

Thompson: We are using a content management system called Drupal, which offers a lot of flexibility. That was most important, that we be able to do whatever we wanted to do. As much as our website designer will take care adding things, others I can do myself without much knowledge of the web programming. I can add groups, or use the messaging system or add a customer service window. Those are blocks that are already available via Drupal. It also allows us to custom-develop our site. We did look at Ning and the possibility of developing a Facebook page or creating a cheap version of a social media website. We quickly got to the point that we couldn’t go any further with doing what we wanted. So that’s when we decided to find a web designer and do it right. #00:09:10.2#

Guin: Is Drupal open source? #00:09:15.5#

LOGO-BA(PNG)Thompson: Drupal is open source. A lot of people know it. A lot of people know Joomla. It’s pretty much the same thing. It works with “blocks,” and you’ll see that on our website. And I think that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of information on our site and a lot of first time visitors will be overwhelmed by what they see. As much as we try to cut things out of our homepage so it’s not so heavy, we need to guarantee a certain level of quality at the same time. So having a block-type system that’s very clearly identified, we hope to make it easier for viewers to make sense of what they’re seeing. We started with WordPress in the beginning when we just had news because it’s foolproof. We use two host platforms which allow automatic install of Drupal on the website. We can add things pretty easily. We’ve been adding groups to the site, which have been in prototype states. We set them up and began testing them for functionality, but making the final tweaks to the layouts is where the web designer is so important. So that’s the side-effect of using Drupal: you need to go into code and tweak stuff.

Guin: You’ve got a lot of content on your website. I noticed you have memberships. Why did you decided to follow a membership model? #00:11:38.8#

Thompson: We have two main types of users: personal users and business users. Since the beginning, we decided we wanted to have free personal memberships. There is a cycle that if you don’t have personal members on the site, business members won’t come. But if you don’t have business members, the personal members won’t come. So we decided to have two types of business accounts. A regular business account that is also free and allows basic capabilities for viewing and posting. Then we added a business-plus account. It’s not very expensive and gives these businesses potential to develop a more profile as a viable business portal. You can add a portfolio, create an events manager, add a corporate blog, photo albums, etc. In regard to the personal accounts, we protect users’ information. But a lot of site protect too much information. Business members don’t need us to hide their information, so we tried to create a balance where personal information is locked away and only members can access it. But non-members who only want to come to the site to look at the news, events and field school listings can still have access to a basic level of the site. By creating sign-in option, we were able to serve all these audiences.

Guin: What kind of business customer are you looking for? #00:14:09.6#

Thompson: We have several, which leads me to another complication of building a site: developing categories. Whether it’s for news articles or business members, you need to find a way to include everyone. The hardest thing we faced was deciding how members would be classified on the geography of our Google Map. When we got to the Asian section, we forgot to write “southern and eastern Asia.” Likewise, that was an early difficulty: figuring out what we need to offer as business “types.” At first we thought of everything possible–members from museums, archaeological sites and interpretation centers, archaeological missions, tourism, hospitality, etc. There’s not really a limit for the types of people that we wanted to welcome to the site.

Guin: You mentioned Google Maps. Tell me how you’re using it. #00:16:02.9#

Thompson: When we first started using Google Maps, we wanted a shock value. We wanted people to get to our site and be impressed by something “different.” We think our site does have a shock value, but we also wanted to make sure it was high quality. So if you are impressed by the look of the site, you’ll also be impressed by its content. Google Maps allows us to do both things. It’s nice to look at. It also permitted us to create a search engine based on our site. So you can search for our members on the site, whether they are listed on Google or not. We used a Google Map and overlay our business members with pins that are located on the map by address or by longitude/latitude for archaeological sites because a lot of sites and field schools don’t have addresses. So when you create your account, you click on the map and add your pin where ever you want it to be.

Guin: Do people have the option to include what information they want displayed on the map, or does it just bring up their profile? #00:17:39.6#

Thompson: If you click on a pin on the map, it will open a small window with a member’s profile picture and a short description. If you’re a business-plus member, then you’ll have more information such as a web address. For a regular business member, it will bring up your account name with a link to your profile.

Guin: You’re using other forms of social media outside the site as well. Tell me about those. #00:18:11.5#

Thompson: When we started this thing, we went all across the web. Every social media outlet that could help us, we were on it. We had an account. For folks who are in social media, you quickly realize you can’t do everything. I’ll use our Facebook page as an example. When we first got on Facebook, we posted everything on it. And our membership went up fairly quickly. A hundred new members came from our page every two weeks. But most of those members don’t come to the site because they could get all the information they wanted on Facebook. So we quickly decided to pull back from outside social media. So we kept Twitter and Facebook and we control the information that’s put out there. We use Twitter to post news, so every news article on the ArchaeologicalBox.com is also posted to Twitter. We use Facebook for announcements on the site. Whenever we post a new podcast, we’ll put it on there. New additions or functionality to the site.

Guin: I think it’s important to have your community area and let the social media tools support that. A lot of people think they have to optimized every social media tool with all of their content. Really, the purpose is to use those tools to bring new audiences in. #00:20:23.0#

Thompson: As I mentioned, we have two podcasts. One in English and one in French. Both are news podcasts. We put together a selection of the most important articles. We have a short podcast of about 20 minutes for the English podcast and about 10 minutes for the French podcast. Ironically, the French podcast is recorded in Seattle. The English podcast is recorded in Montreal. In the summer, we have a more relaxed podcast where we go visit sites. #00:21:50.7#

Guin: One of the things that interested me in your site is the “lecture series” area. #00:22:15.5#

Thompson: With “information” as our theme, we realized there was something lacking in the archaeology world. And that was a “free” global lecture series where members from communities that don’t necessarily have structured archaeological organizations or funds to put to that could still welcome renowned archaeologists to speak to them. So we created this series that pairs together lecturers and hosts from around the world for free. There’s no payment. Members will tell us their travel schedule and we’ll match them with hosts that have given us their availability. So we if have a lecturer from Australia who is going to Vancouver to lecture at a university for three months, and there is a host in Vancouver who is looking for someone to lecture about South Pacific archaeology, we can match them.

Guin: I’m sure that you have had a lot of experience in the development of the site. I know that in developing a few sites myself, that building websites can become addictive. A lot of things come up that are unexpected. I’m sure there are archaeological and other heritage organizations looking to start up their own sites now. What advice do you have for those people?

Thompson: We had no idea how much time and resources something like this would take. But we were a good team that had the patience and time to put into this project. So I think anyone who want to build something similar, needs a good support system. Sometimes I’ll get calls at one in the morning: “the site’s down; what do we do?” You need to good support system to be ready for those things.

Guin: Do you use social media personally to engage with friends or other interests? #00:25:46.3#

Thompson: I do have things like a profile on Facebook. But most of my time is spent on developing the ArchaeologicalBox.com. Everything’s available there, right? We can have statuses, blogs, photo albums, so why go anywhere else.

Guin: Are there blogs or bloggers that you follow? #00:26:50.5#

Thompson: I do take the time to follow some of the social media blogs. And in the interest of being a good social media geek, I went to PodCamp (a podcast camp) in Montreal. I met so many people with interesting and smart things to say, so I follow some of their blogs as well.

Guin: That leads to another question: how do you find the news for your site? #00:27:50.5#

Thompson: We control the news a lot. Members can post news articles, which we approve. There is a team of four of us that divide the week per days and go through the web about two hours each day. What’s fun about our way of doing the news is that we don’t use RSS to gather information. You can be sure our news is fresh and not duplicated.



Enhanced by Zemanta

Meet the Blogger: Kurt Thomas Hunt on putting the sexy back in archaeology

sexy light tan

Kurt Thomas Hunt and “his crew” are redefining archaeology, and collaborating to bring excitement to this old-school profession. Hunt promotes his blog and his brand, Sexy Archaeology, through a variety of social media tools, including FlickrTwitter and Google+. He even does a little e-commerce on the side…

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you developed an interest in archaeology?

Kurt HuntMy interest in archaeology started when I was a child. Being a product of the early 1980s, it goes without saying that the Indiana Jones films had a massive influence on me. I was enthralled by thoughts of traveling the world searching for treasure. I dug up my entire sandbox looking for ancient ruins.

As I got older, I began to see that archaeology was nothing like what it is in the movies, it’s much more rigorous and scientific. While some people may be turned off by this, I found it even MORE interesting.

I received my BA in Archaeology from SUNY Potsdam and my Master’s at the University of Bristol. Bristol has a fantastic Archaeology for Screen Media program that allowed me to combine my interests in a both media production and archaeology. Now I’m putting some serious thought into a PhD. I figure if I’m going to go, why not go all the way?

You have a unique blog. Where did the “sexy” moniker come from?

I’ve always enjoyed blogging. To me there is something deeply appealing in writing a piece and having the ability to receive feedback from people from around the globe. Right about the time I started my Master’s, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious to share archaeological news with people and sort of highlight what I considered to be the best archaeology out there.

Sexy Archaeology, by my definition, is any archaeology which is excitingly appealing. It’s my brand, my seal of approval. It’s the discoveries and research that I feel should be basking in the public spotlight.

You find different ways to get your viewers involved. Could you tell us about the Sexiest Field Crew Competition?

The sexiest field crew competition was a lot of fun, and there was an enormous amount of positive feedback from it. The idea behind the contest was not only to promote the Web site, but get people involved in it.

Most archaeologists start out working summers on a field crew. That can mean long, hot days working with the same people. I thought the contest was a great way for archaeologists to get creative and have fun with their jobs and the people they work with. Judging by the feedback and the pictures, I’d say the crews really enjoyed themselves. I think there was something like 30 entries overall, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that it was 30 crews from all around the globe, I think it’s pretty impressive.


You are currently soliciting on your site for various archaeologists of different backgrounds for an ongoing television series. Could you tell us about that?

The idea of creating an archaeology-based television show is something that’s floated around in my head for years. Like I said, my real interest is blending media and archaeology. I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in contact with a few different production companies who share a similar interest. Executing that idea is a different story. I’m very critical of the way archaeology is portrayed in the media. Production companies are focused on entertainment and pulling in viewers, and they are endlessly recycling things like the search for the Holy Grail, Atlantis and all the 2012 nonsense. If I’m going to do anything, I’m going to place the science first. But it’s very difficult to find that happy medium between entertainment and education, especially when archaeology can often be a very tedious process. In the last few months, I’ve taken things into my own hands. I’m currently refining the concept I have for the series, and hopefully in the near distant future I can start making the rounds with it.

You currently have one of the (if not the) largest archeology groups on Facebook. Why did you start it, and what are your goals or intents with it?

The Facebook group started well before the Web site. The idea behind it was to assemble people under the same banner and get them networking. So much more is possible when people in the same field start networking. I’ve managed to meet dozens of very interesting characters through the group. I was in Reno for New Years and bumped into a couple members in a bar, had a great chat about what they were doing in the field. I know quite a few people who have come to the group looking for suggestions on field schools and employment and found the help they needed. That is exactly what I wanted to see- archaeologists helping archaeologists.

Where else are you online and how do you use that to communicate archaeology?

I have a blog where I unload all my non-archaeological thoughts. It’s a place where I can keep in contact with my friends when I’m traveling. I’m quite interested in non-science writing as well, so when I find a free chance I vent there.

One of my favorite things about your site is how daring it is… Why did you choose to take archaeology to this “level?”

One of the biggest challenges I encountered when I was creating Sexy Archaeology was finding a way to stand out among the already sizable number of archaeology-based Web sites out there. I knew that if it was going to succeed, my Web site had to be unique. Too many good news stories are lost in boring presentation or dense literature. I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to attract people to the news as much as my site. Therefore I knew that my little niche in cyberspace had to exist on a different level.

In your blog you mention how every archaeologist has a story to tell. What is one of yours?

I remember working in the southern Kenya Great Rift Valley in the hundred-degree heat. My back hurt from sleeping in a tent and hadn’t bathed in weeks; I was covered in dirt and sweat, struggling to take the next step. At one point I had to stop and ask myself, “what the hell I was doing. Is this really what I wanted to do with my life?” Then something caught my eye: a small, circular ostrich eggshell bead. I remember holding it in my hand, realizing that I was the first person to hold that artifact in tens of thousands of years. It put me back in the game. Archaeology is a lot of hard work, but when you find something like that, it really reaffirms your love for the field. I live for moments like that.

Who contributes to your site?

Sexy Archaeology owes a lot of people a big thanks for contributing their time and energy to the website.

Matthew Davenport (aka the Spaz) has been with the Web site since the beginning. He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve met and is just as passionate about archaeology as I am. Matt contributes stories when he has the time.

Matt Thompson from TheArchaeologicalBox.com has been incredibly generous in the financial support of the website.

Then there is David Connolly from BAJR, the British Archaeological Jobs Resource. David was a great help in promoting the Sexiest Field Crew Competition in 2009 on the ArcheoNews podcast.

Tim Taylor and the crew from both the UK and American Time Team series have also been a wonderful help.

I could never begin to list the number of people who send me links to stories or other websites. It’s a big world out there, I think without the contributors Sexy Archaeology would cease to exist.

You have something even more unique on your blog–a store. What all can folks purchase and what all is entailed on your end to maintain the store?

The store is in the midst of a massive revamp right now. Some archaeologists are very particular about their field wear so I’ve made it a priority to design something that people would actually want to sport in the field. The store itself is thankfully maintained by a third party, but a portion of every T-Shirt purchased goes in to helping pay the bills. So buy some T-Shirts!

What can we expect for the future of Sexy Archaeology?

Sexy Archaeology isn’t going away anytime soon, that’s for sure. When I launched in 2009, I wanted to give it a year to see how things went. If I enjoyed doing it and if it received a positive response then I knew that when the second year rolled around I’d really push it forward.


Now the time has come. I plan to have a lot more thought pieces this year. I think a lot of archaeologists are good about keeping up with the happenings in their field, but I’m not sure how many ever peel back the surface on some of the issues. I want to drive archaeologists to think a bit more theoretically and not just familiarize themselves with the big issues, but understand the implications our work may have and how it affects our field.

Aside from that, I’m going to be rolling out a podcast miniseries in the coming months as well as a brand new Sexiest Field Crew Competition for 2010 and some new T-shirt designs. I’m very excited about it.

What is your advice for folks interested in getting into archaeology and blogging?

Anyone with even the slightest interest should give it a go. So much of archaeology is made possible through the financial contributions of the general public (in fact almost all of CRM). Our careers depend on people remaining interested in our field. We as archaeologists have an obligation to the public: to keep them interested, to share discoveries and information and to educate. The more people we have involved in doing that, the brighter the future of archaeology will be.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Exploring Archaeology on the Social Web

archaeology social web banner

Guest post by David Connolly and Maggie Struckmeier of Past Horizons & BAJR Federation

With the increase in social networking and interactive web-based systems over the past few years, archaeology has in general been slow on the uptake, however, there were those there at the start and those that are catching on to the potential, with more appearing on a weekly basis.  They range from the stunning, innovative and genuinely useful (which get filed under favourite) to those that may have the best intentions but miss the point completely.

Not wanting to focus on the negative, it goes without saying that Voices of the Past, Past Horizons and BAJR Federation are great examples of technological openness and creativity, but it would be unfair to put them into our top ten sites.  So, without further adieu, these are the websites we feel add to the experience, by utilising the social web that now has become so much a part of lives.

Facebook Groups & Fan Pages

There are several hundred ‘archaeology groups’ and pages – however, the secret is in the interactivity, rather than just sitting there, with a never ending procession of people advertising their own pages, which then contain a list of other people advertising their page or group.   There are three stand-out groups/pages that make a good start to any day, are unique in their content and also have an active membership who contribute, comments, photos and useful links.

The Official Movement To Bring Sexy Back To Archaeology: Funny, irreverent and with attitude–a great supplement to the main website/blog.

Arch PointsEverything you never thought you wanted to know.  One nugget of information a day, from how to survive a charging buffalo to recording painted plaster.

How to be an Archaeological FieldfashionistaAn outlet for both those moments of archaeological fashion genius as well as those archaeological fashion disasters. Good fun and a way to keep connected.


Flickr is another site with a plethora of groups dedicated to archaeology from the local through experimental, aerial and world views.  But my current favourite:

Archaeology Travel PhotosLove this group as the photographs are constantly being added (over 22,000 at last count) and this means that you can travel the world of archaeology and find places and sites you may have never heard of.  Many images are complete with locations and detailed descriptions, which means you can learn a little more each day.

Canmore: Search over 275,000 buildings, archaeological and maritime sites across Scotland. Discover what photographs, drawings, manuscripts and books are in their collections and view over 100,000 digital images

And now our favourite bit: Add your own contributions to Canmore. Search for a site, register, and upload an image or add some information. Next time you go for a walk, and take a good image of a site … upload it! Next time you see a site and feel that it could do with a better description, or want to update the condition, or have additional information from local studies … add it! This is the way that National Records are supposed to be!


You would think that archaeology and video would go well together, but strangely, this is a desert in as far as dedicated channels are concerned.  We are always on the look out for new ideas and inspiration from videos on YouTube, but can go for weeks without a single decent upload. But there are 3 exceptions!

Archaeological Institute of America channelVideos about archaeology by the Archaeological Institute of America — excavation, site preservation, interviews with archaeologists, and more!

Penn State Abington AnthropologyFor students in the Anthropology and American Studies courses taught by Dr. P.J. Capelotti at Penn State Abington College. Here you will find videos related to the history and archaeology of polar exploration methods in historical archaeology and more.

Thames Discovery on VimeoWe love theses, because they range from the informative and very, very watchable, to the very, very funny! All created by Anies Hassan of Tollun Films, he has a slew of videos that show what can be done in archaeology, with a bit of imagination and an eye for a show.  Training videos on the Thames Discovery Programme, Timelapse at Catal Hoyuk, records of an excavation and even a bit of dance.  What more do you want?!


A document sharing site that links to every other social network from Twitter to Facebook, allowing the easy sharing of documents, reports and articles with a mass audience, as well as creating a stored archive.  The early adopters of this technology have remained the leaders so as we have to ignore the BAJR reports and guides, we will point towards a specific Archaeology Scribd contributor, that always has something fresh to read:

Wessex Archaeology: With 317 documents and reports online, they are doing their best to make archaeology accessible. And with over 17,000 subscribers, they must be doing something right.

Teaser photo elements courtesy of webtreats and Wessex Archaeology

Meet the Blogger: Electric Archaeology’s Shawn Graham on Simulating Ancient Social Gaming Networks

As a Registered Professional Archaeologist in North America a Member of the Institute for Archaeologists in the U.K., Shawn Graham knows the finer points of working in the field. But these days, he’s taking the world of archaeology — and ancient civilizations — into the digital realm with simulations called Agent-Based Models (ABMs). Shawn’s blog “Electric Archaeology: Digital Media for Learning and Research,” explores how we can learn more about how digital tools can be used to better understand archaeological phenomena and, more importantly, the people behind them.


Tell us how “Electric Archaeology” began?

By training and inclination, I’m an archaeologist. As part of my thesis work, I became interested in social networks in the past. But I was frustrated at some of the limitations of social networks analysis. It only allowed me static snapshots. I wanted something a bit more dynamic. One thing led to another, and I became interested in agent-based modeling, using ancient social networks as the skeleton. This led me to a conference at the University of Nebraska in 2006. Feedback I got there suggested that I should blog my research. I started ‘Electric Archaeology’ shortly thereafter. There are many archaeological blogs out there, but comparatively few that focus on archaeology-as-a-digital-humanity. So I found my niche.

What exactly is Agent Based Modeling?

Agent-based modeling (ABM) is a simulation methodology. But instead of trying to create some sort of comprehensive equation that describes the object you are simulating, you instead describe the behaviors of individuals. Then, you replicate these individuals, and allow them to interact in an environment. Because each individual has its own unique suite of characteristics, the way they interact cannot be predicted. So you end up with emergent behavior. This emergent behavior is what you’re interested in. Take for example a traffic jam (one of the standard examples for explaining emergence), Every car has its own driver. The driver has limited knowledge about what’s going on, on the road. She can see in front and behind. Woops! The guy in front has just stood on the brakes, so Suzy has to swerve. This causes Jacques to step on his brakes, and honk his horn… ad nauseam…

From above, these limited interactions cause a traffic jam to emerge. The jam travels backwards down the highway, relative to how the cars are moving. New cars enter the jam, and old cars leave the jam – but the jam continues to exist. The jam can be said to exist at a higher level of complexity than the individual cars that compose it.

How is this relevant to archaeology?

In terms of ancient history, one of my first ABM’s concerned the diffusion of information in the Roman empire. Specifically, I was interested in what the conception of geographic space implied for how information travelled about. The Romans didn’t use maps, per se. Rather they had lists of ‘itinteraries’, or descriptions of the towns one had to go through to get anywhere. Rather like saying, to travel from Montreal to Detroit, go via Kingston – Toronto – Windsor – Detroit, instead of looking at a map. So I turned these itineraries into an environment for my individual agents to interact on. Then I gave one a ‘message’, and measured how long it took for the message to diffuse to everyone else. I found structural differences in the way space was conceived then that seemed to map onto archaeological materials.

What did you learn with your first ABM?

Well, it did seem to suggest alternative explanations for patterns in things like the expressions used in tombstones – what might be called Romanization … but it was published, and so it showed me that there was something to this ABM approach that I could use for more complicated questions.

For example, how do political and cultural territories emerge? What was it about Roman social organization that allowed it to whether the periodic self-extermination of elites? That kind of thing. The first question I tried to address with my ‘TravellerSim’ model; the second one with my ‘PatronWorld’ model.

TravellerSim took about four months to build, test, validate, and write up; PatronWorld has been the project of about two years, but I’m happy to say that it’s in-press and will be published shortly.

So how do these technologies affect archaeology in terms of openness on the web?

They allow us to ask questions of the material that we couldn’t ask before. They make our assumptions about the past explicit — or rather, they force us to be explicit. When you make a model or a simulation, you are encoding a particular view of how the world works into your code. It’s a kind of rhetoric. So, I have to make all of my code available for others to interrogate, challenge, adapt, or expand. It could be that my models all contain some kind of fundamental flaw in my assumptions about how the ancient world work.

That would still be a good result, if someone else read my papers and said, “Graham’s wrong — his code implies x, y, and z, and we know that that wasn’t the case for reasons a, b, and c,” It forces openness.

If somebody publishes a model, but doesn’t let you see the code, then you have no reason to believe the results. For archaeology, I think it’s a good thing, in that it promotes openness with data. For any discipline, really. Folks who sit on data do not help advance knowledge.

How many ABMs have you made?

Three that I’ve brought to publication; I’ve got another three that I’m toying with. The neat thing about the envrionment that I use — Netlogo — is that the models are a bit like Lego blocks. You can use parts of one in another one. So once you get going, it builds up its own momentum. I know of a fellow at another university who is using some of the components of my models in his own models.

How prominent are these models in traditional archeology?

I think they’re gaining ground. They have been used successfully in research relating to the Anasazi in the American Southwest, and to a degree in work related to Mesopotamia. I think I might be the only person currently building models on Roman antiquity. Though I know of some graduate students who are beginning to explore it in their own research.

Social networks analysis is also gaining ground in archaeology and ancient history; it’s a rather different methodology, but a key feature of my ABM work is that I try to run my models from starting positions known from antiquity, based on the social networks that were evidenced then.

So how did you first get started with this?

Well, I first heard of the methodology when I was starting my Ph.D. back in 1999. I was chatting with a geographer from the University of Bristol; I was interested in GIS then, but he described running an agent model on top of the data from a GIS, and I was hooked.

Unfortunately, at that time, building an ABM was rather complicated (it’s still not altogether easy, but it gets easier all the time), so I had to shelve the idea. I resurrected it when I did my postdoc. I saw a workshop on ABM advertised, persuaded my supervisor to let me go, and I was away to the races, as it were. The workshop at Nebraska was their Center for Digital Humanities’ first workshop on the subject, and I was an invited finalist. The other folks were presenting interesting work on data mining and lexigraphical analysis of historical texts.

My work was certainly different. 🙂 But I got a real boost from the feedback I received there, and I’ve been carving out this niche ever since.

I should clarify – the workshop I attended to learn about ABM was at Mesa State College in Grand Junction Colorado; that was in 2005. The Nebraska workshop was in 2006.

What role does your blog play in your research?

The blog connects me the wider community of researchers who use agent based modeling in their own work. Agent models are used to understand everything from how pedestrians might cross a new intersection layout, to the spread of Avian Flu. There’s a lot of fertile cross-collaboration, in terms of sharing ideas and so on.

Shawn Graham

“For any discipline, really … Folks who sit on data do not help advance knowledge.”

Where else are you online?

Well, I’m in LinkedIn, and I participate in some group blogs like the Ancient World Bloggers Group. My day job is as an online faculty trainer, so I’m online in that sense every minute of the work day 😉 I also contribute to some general Classics social network sites like ‘eclassics’ on ning. I post occasionally to game sites like Civfanatics.com too.

Could you tell us some about the “When on Google Earth” project?

“When on Google Earth?” is just a game, really … I saw a blog post by some geologists, who were playing “What on Google Earth?” In their game, someone posts a pic from Google Earth, showing a particular landform. The aim is to identify the nature of the landform, and where it is on earth. The winner gets the bragging rights, and gets to post the next picture. So I adapted it to archaeology. There is a lot of archaeological material visible on Google Earth, so I had it in my head that this could be a kind of public archaeology. I started it this time last year, and it’s now in its 79th edition. Some other folks created a Facebook page to keep track of the game. After that initial post I made, I haven’t been able to win a round since!

You seem to be finding archeology through many of the social networking sites. Could you explain to us the “TweetMapping Archeology?

TweetMapping is a concept where the tweets on various subjects are mapped against either the location where they were made, or against the location that they mention. On the original tweetmapping site, the fellow used Yahoo Pipes to create an application that would tweetmap whatever search term you punched in. So I punched in ‘archaeology’ and ‘archeology’ and linked it to my blog.

The idea then is to give the most up-to-date view of what is sometimes called ‘the hidden web’, the web that Google and the other search engines don’t search (although that is now rapidly changing). So if anyone was tweeting about the latest archaeological news, ‘TweetMapping Archaeology” ideally would display it.

Could you tell us your involvement in Second Life as Canadensis Yellowjacket?

Ah! That’s a project currently onhold, until I can get a better internet connection! I’m on satellite internet, so the lag time makes navigating SL extremely difficult, if not impossible.

But what I have been trying to accomplish there was related to public archaeology and archaeological education, and the concept of immersiveness. When you play a video game, or enter one of these 3-D worlds, you soon stop saying — “my character just flew up the side of the building” and you start saying ” I just flew up to the roof!.”

They allow you to project yourself into them (there’s really interesting work going on at the moment about this phenomenon as it relates to autistic people). So, if you can’t go on excavation, you could at least learn something about what is involved by being a part of a virtual one in Second Life. So I built one. I could link objects in Second Life to archaeological databases elsewhere on the web.

Once I get better internet service, I’ve been invited to build one of my “excavations” on the island owned by the American Anthropological Association.

Another possible use of SL for archaeology involves reconstruction sites. A fantastic project is the virtual ‘Catalhoyuck’ project and OKAPI; see Colleen Morgan’s work (she’s absolutely brilliant), which she blogs about at middlesavagery.wordpress.com.

So with all the different ways to connect out there, what do you think is the future of archeology and related conversations?

It’s going to be exciting. I know some folks are experimenting with Google Wave, though I haven’t had the opportunity yet. Google touts it as the next best thing… a sort of real time multi-user collaboration suite. I think the best archaeology is going to be using the web and whatever else emerges on it to make the ‘writing’ of archaeology more participatory, more collaborative. You might call it more democratic. But I hesitate to say, since I’ve got a bad track record in predicting the future.

As an undergrad in 1994, I was asked to write a paper about what I could find on the internet regarding the Etruscans. I believe I wrote something to the effect, “this internet is filled with garbage and will never be useful to archaeologists.” So anything I say, take with a large lump of salt.

Platforms are beginning to emerge online that allow archaeologists to share and disseminate the raw data generated during their studies; that will be an interesting thing to watch.

What would you like to come of your blog?

I would hope it continues to attract readers who view it as a great resource; I also hope it continues to be a venue that connects me with researchers and other interested individuals who can say, “have you thought about … have you seen …” My blog I regard as my ‘public service’ to the profession.

It’s where I reflect on what’s happening, and provide pointers to new technologies that might have an impact on how we explore and understand the past.

I saw one person tagged it on delicious with ‘mildly interesting’. If I can get that up to ‘fairly’, that’d be good … 😉

What is your advice to beginning archaeologists and bloggers?

Well, a blog is a great place to reflect on what you’re doing, and what your interests are. More and more graduate students are keeping blogs about their research, and are using them to reach out to other students and professionals. Ask yourself why you’re doing this, and where you hope to take it.

Some excavations keep blogs as a way of reaching the interested public; and some of the most exciting research is documented on blogs, since the publication cycle can take so long. Academic blogs are starting to be viewed as legitimate publication vehicles, and that’s a trend I hope continues & accelerates.



Enhanced by Zemanta