First International MedArchNet Workshop Paves the Way for Online Archaeological Community
San Diego, CA, Dec. 10, 2008 — Together with their counterparts abroad, archaeologists and computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego are one step closer to creating a seamless, highly detailed online network that links temporally diverse archaeological sites around the Mediterranean region.
Representatives from 14 international universities and several non-governmental agencies held a recent workshop at the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) to discuss the future of the Mediterranean Archaeology Network (MedArchNet). When complete, MedArchNet will serve as the most up-to-date source of data for Mediterranean archaeological sites dating from remote prehistory to the early 20th century.
The workshop brought together key researchers who control the archaeology settlement pattern datasets for Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula — the areas (along with Southern Lebanon and Syria) that comprise MedArchNet's first node, the Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land (DAAHL). Funding for the workshop was provided by the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), Equinox Publishing Ltd (London), the Cotsen Intitute of Archaeology at UCLA and the UCSD Judaic Studies Program.
Professor Tom Levy, associate director of Calit2's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) and co-principal investigator on the project, says the most exciting aspect of MedArchNet is the prospect of creating "portal science" for the archaeology community working in the southern Levant.
"For us, this refers to establishing an online community of archaeological researchers who can share large datasets by being members of the cyberinfrastructure," he remarks. "For researchers working in the Mediterranean lands which have seen so much turmoil throughout history, ‘portal science’ allows us to transcend borders, work closely together, and examine large datasets such as ancient settlement information (including the whole range of artifact assemblages from pottery to coins) that would be impossible using traditional methods. What was most valuable about the workshop was that for the first time we were able to bring an international group of some of the best archaeologists working in Israel, Jordan and Palestine in one room — and for two solid days — who have all expressed willingness to in-put and share data in DAAHL.”
Collaborating with Levy as PIs on the project are Arizona State University Affiliated Professor Steven Savage, who is director of the Geo-Archaeological Information Applications (GAIA) Lab, and Chaitan Baru, division director of science research and development for UCSD's San Diego Supercomputer Center. Savage says the team plans to fashion DAAHL (which already contains 40,000 archaeological sites) as a "database without borders" that could eventually be expanded to include archaeological sites in Egypt and beyond.
"DAAHL will function as an entrepot into the larger datasets available to researchers," he elaborates, "but in a way that will facilitate cross-border research and cooperation. Since the current international borders in the Middle East were drawn in the 1920s following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, it follows that the archaeological periods in the DAAHL are best studied from a regional perspective that is not restricted to resources located in only one modern nation state. The DAAHL is designed to do just that."
Once DAAHL and MedArchNet are fully established, they will represent robust tools for "mining" stories and narratives of archaeological research in the Mediterranean lands. Data (including high-resolution 3-D and multispectral images of artifacts) will be stored in a secure central facility, accessed and displayed over the Internet by way of a Google Maps/Google Earth interface, and visualized via emerging technologies such as museum-quality HIPerSpace tiled display walls. MedArchNet will also provide both OpenContent data and drill-down capabilities to access archived digital photographs and other digital collections that might require more limited access.
Professor Aren Maeir of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel's Bar-Ilan University says that as the project progresses, he will "try to gently cajole, push and even drag more Israeli archaeologists to join the program."
"MedArchNet is an excellent combination of cutting edge — or even 'bleeding edge' — technology and archaeology, in which true inter-regional cooperation can be manifested," he enthuses. "It will make archaeological knowledge, on may levels, accessable and understandable in a truly digital medium, and will provide an excellent resource for teaching."
In addition to school teachers, the network will be made available to everyone from travel agents to public policy makers and state-of-the-art researchers, and could eventually serve as a model for similar cyberinfrastructures in other cultural areas of interest, such as anthropology.
"In terms of world cultural heritage, I think the MedArchNet cyberinfrastructure will provide an important model for other regions in the world," Levy says. "Once we have it up and running, scholars, researchers, government administrators and the public will see how powerful a tool it is not only for archaeological research, but for all realms of material culture from all periods of time and all places where people are interested in world cultural heritage. For example, we are very interested in partnering with the National Folklore Support Centre for India in Chennai. They have thousands of interviews and videos dealing with traditional culture in India. The same cyberinfrastructure that we are building for MedArchNet could be adapted to the needs of our colleagues in India.”
In the meantime, MedArchNet will be of tremendous benefit to archaeologists in the Middle East, especially now that the project has secured crucial funding from WUN and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the umbrella organization for North American archaeologists working in the Middle East.
Explains Levy: "Now that ASOR has sponsored MedArchNet/DAAHL, we are working closely with Oystein LaBianca, the new chair of ASOR’s Committee on Archaeological Policy (CAP), to invite the directors of the more than 60 North American archaeological research projects to join, participate and contribute data. This is especially important because ASOR CAP affiliated projects undergo a peer-review process to insure that their research designs, data collection methods, and publication plans are of the highest academic standard. By bringing ASOR affiliated projects to MedArchNet/DAAHL, we will have an unusually robust database for archaeology in the eastern Mediterranean.
While Levy acknowledges that "the only way to maintain excellence in the research is to have experts involved," he also notes that facilitating such a large collaboration poses inherent challenges. Several of those challenges were discussed during the workshop, with some participants expressing concern about the sheer number of archaeological sites involved, and others pointing out that not all archaeological sites are currently marked on Google Earth. Still others called into question the possibility of establishing effective editorial quality control, while some warned that the "the politics of map-making" and the difficulty of interpreting data on different scales would complicate the effort. Also posing some controversy was a discussion about the establishment of a common working language — not an easy feat among researchers who span a multitude of nationalities.
"MedArchNet will work like a kind of ‘switchboard’ for directing people to different kinds of archaeological data and projects throughout a given region," Levy points out. "Because so many scholars and institutions have spent their life-times and tremendous resources on carrying out archaeological research in a given area, one of the biggest challenges is to develop protocols and assurances to maintain the ‘brand’ those individuals and institutions in relation to their research and output. Insuring ‘brand recognition’ and copyright for all those contributing to MedArchNet/DAAHL is an issue we are working on now."
The next step for Levy and his team will be to collect small DAAHL-related datasets from the scholars who attended the workshop, which include representatives from the University of Bergen, Israel's Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities, the University of Sheffield and Jordan's Friends of Archaeology organization. The workshop participants will also be asked to contribute a short research paper about their work in relation to MedArchNet for publication in a book to be published by Equinox.
"This will add a great deal to our existing database and demonstrate how approximately 30 researchers can work together," Levy says. "The book will serve as another ‘gateway’ to MedArchNet. At the same time, we are applying for funds from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources to build this cyberinfrastructure project. I’m pleased to say that the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP) has already pledged a significant sum to help us build the first digital atlas node outside of the southern Levant — one for the Aegean region. So we will be extremely busy over the next year."
Aside from the immediate benefits to the archaeological community, Savage says he expects that MedArchNet will also promote peace and understanding in the region.
“As the project expands beyond the initial Holy land Node, we envision these benefits spreading around the Mediterranean, which is still the scene of ethnic and religious conflict,” he remarks. “Because of its emphasis on building archaeological datasets without borders, MedArchNet and DAAHL will serve as a beacon to scholarly cooperation and contact. By doing so, we can contribute greatly to the stability of the region, and hence, to the world at large.”
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, email@example.com