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VCU Archaeology

They Went THAT-Away: The Humanities and Technology (THAT) Camp in Computational Archaeology

By Bernard K. Means, Project Director

Very uncharacteristically, I took no pictures yesterday, so I offer this digital model of a projectile point from Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Yesterday (August 10, 2012) I attended the The Humanities and Technology (THAT) Camp in Computational Archaeology in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As stated on the about section of their web site (http://caana2012.thatcamp.org/):

“THATCamp CAA-NA is co-sponsored by the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) conference North American chapter and the University of Virginia Library Year of Metadata and Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library.  The focus of this meeting is to facilitate communication and collaboration between archaeologists, technologists, students, scholars, librarians, museum specialists, and other interested individuals within the field of computational archaeology (also referred to as “digital archaeology”), from beginners to experts.”

Our organizer/moderator for the day was Ethan Gruber, Web Services Developer for the American Numismatic Society (http://numismatics.org/About/EthanGruber) who explained for first time attendees to the event—like myself—that THAT Camp is intended to be an “unconference experience” with vary loosely defined sessions and that no one should feel reluctant to employ the “Law of Two Feet,” e.g. jump from one simultaneous session to another, or even to form ad hoc sessions.  Although this sounded to me at first like a recipe for chaos, the opposite was the case—I can say that this was easily one of the most rewarding and intellectually stimulating experiences I’ve had in quite some time.

After the introductions, we voted on session proposals that had been posted on the THAT Camp blog site to determine their placement in the days schedules, and the amount of space and time each would need.  Session proposals included: research applications of 3D models; non-traditional applications of GIS; the web and public archaeology; data sharing of new and old projects; compliance and archaeology; on-site digital photography; and the user experience and digital models.  The latter session was one that I proposed and it proved somewhat popular—possibly because it was also integrated into a session on augmented reality.

The first formal session was on non-traditional GIS, but, in the true spirit of THAT Camp, a smaller, unscheduled “rogue” session formed around the uses of tablets in archaeology.  We discussed mobile applications of digital models that beyond the increasingly trendy—but worthy—efforts to incorporate digital models of artifacts into tours of archaeological and historic sites. I was interested in developing artifact identification guides of selected digital models that could be used in the field, but, as Terry Brock pointed out, these would also be useful in traditional laboratory settings.  Ethan Gruber mentioned one of his efforts, OCRE (On-line Coins of the Roman Empire):  http://numismatics.org/ocre/.  I mentioned the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (http://vzap.iri.isu.edu/).  Terry Brock made an important point that mobile applications also allow site visits for people who can’t visit sites. This discussion was very free-ranging, and I won’t do it justice here, but we did bring up three major reasons/justifications for mobile archaeology: identification of objects; recording archaeological data; and, sharing dating in the field.  We all agreed that mobile archaeology is very transparent archaeology.

The “User Experience: Actual Artifacts versus Virtual Objects/Augmented Reality” was also a wide ranging and dynamic discussion.  Participants noted, among other topics, that digital models of artifacts allow access to artifacts that are in collections or that are not on site; younger people at museums are more comfortable with using kiosks to access this digital data; and, that 3D models of allow people to see all sides of an object, which might be obscured because of how the object is displayed in a museum.  Brad Hafford of the Penn Museum (http://caana2012.thatcamp.org/author/whafford/) discussed an important project that he is managing: the Ur Digitization Project: Digital storage and dissemination of archaeological data.  The goal of this project is to virtually unite objects and field records that were dispersed following the Penn Museum/British Museum 1922-1934 excavations.  One question that I had was how useful other conference participants viewed replicas made from digital models; I passed around some of the artifacts that my Virtual Curation Laboratory team has produced using the Makerbot Replicator.  The basic conclusion was that the tactile aspect certainly compliments the digital models that people see, and also makes them appreciate the scale of objects in ways they can’t get from projections of their digital avatars.  As one person pointed out, we all like to project our digital models onto giant screens because this is a spectacular way of highlighting unique objects—but we lose the sense of scale this way (and, as my students and colleagues know, I’ve been guilty of this).

Following a lunch provided by our hosts, there were nine short presentations, or Dork Shorts, that each lasted only two minutes.  After seeing this presentation format, I did wish I had participated, but got wrapped up in a side conversation about different ways of approaching 3D scanning with David Koller.

The first formal afternoon session I attended was the “Web and Public Archaeology,” led by Terry Brock.  As I’m sure that Terry will blog about this himself, I’ll keep this short (and, plus, this blog is long enough already!).  We discussed the several audiences to public archaeology digs via the internet, ranging from the general public to hardcore researchers.  We considered issues related to public engagement and different forms of social media—especially Twitter, Facebook, and Blogs.  The question of what archaeological information is appropriate to a general public audience was raised.  I was particularly interested in the point that social media allows immediate broadcast of findings, thoughts, and interpretation, but that this process can come without sufficient reflection as the overall results of a public archaeology have not been fully digested.  Terry pointed out that this made archaeological investigations more organic, and made the process of archaeology more transparent, and I see these as two very positive aspects of social media.

The last formal session I attended was about data sharing and legacy data, let by Ethan Gruber.  This discussion focused on the nature of databases used for recording a wide range of archaeological data, and whether it was a good idea to develop a single standard for archaeological data entry.

The day, unlike this blog, ended too quickly, and I hope that I can make it to another THAT Camp or other related venue at a future date!!!!

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