Vol. X, No. 1

Spring, 1997

CAA 1997 - Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference

H. Eiteljorg, II

I was able to attend the twenty-fifth anniversary Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference in Birmingham, England, this year. Although I had once given a paper at the CAA Conference in absentia, I had never before attended a CAA Conference, and it was a very exciting few days for me. Discussion of computer technologies were intermixed with more basic considerations of philosophical issues regarding the use of computing technology in archaeology, and many interesting points were raised. I want to report on a few.

Since this was the twenty-fifth anniversary conference, there were several papers, including the keynote address by Irwin Scollar (Unkelback Valley Software Works), that looked back over the twenty-five-year history of the conference. Mr. Scollar analyzed at the subjects of the papers presented over the years and concluded that trends in topics could be traced to hardware and software developments. For instance, the development of dBase for PCs preceded a rise in the number of papers dealing with database management, and the arrival of relatively inexpensive hard drives for mass storage preceded an increase in the number of papers dealing with image analysis. Indeed, it seems likely that developments like these are quite important in determining the direction of computing in archaeology, since the technology occasionally makes dealing with certain problems easier, thus encouraging scholars to try new approaches.

Nigel Clubb (Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England) also looked back at the last 25 years, but his real concern was what the past might tell us about the future of computing in archaeology. Mr. Clubb's biggest concern seemed to be the lack of cooperation not only among archaeologists but also among disciplines. Much of our information, for instance, may be of considerable value to others (tourist boards, to name one example), and much information collected by and for other scholars, particularly GIS data, may be of value to us. Cooperation on that level requires major work with indexing that will permit us to find information we need, using categories that are not specific to a particular discipline. As archaeologists may need to find GIS files collected for oil drilling, for instance, highway planners may need to find archaeological survey data, and each group needs to be able to find the other's data.

Another of those who took advantage of the occasion to look back was C. Jane Evans (Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit), who wondered aloud about the improvements brought to the practice of archaeology by computer technology. She seemed to conclude, rather sadly, that we have been encouraged to collect more data and, as a result, may be working harder without improving our results. I was not certain that she had considered the qualitative improvements in data gathered and stored by computers. Databases, after all, are more than card systems, and CAD models are more than complex drawings. They make it possible to hold more and better information in more informative ways.

Ms. Evans encouraged scholars to ask themselves harder questions about computer usage, suggesting that what piece of software or hardware we use may not be nearly so important as why we are using computers at all and how we expect them to aid in the job. In light of that, she argued, persuasively I thought, that computer system design should be a part of the most preliminary parts of the archaeological project design process. Archaeologists should be thinking about the integration of the technology from the moment they start to think about the job itself. I could not agree more.

Hans Dieter Bader, from the Centre for Archaeological Research in New Zealand, mentioned the value of doing early trials with computer systems before starting in with a full project, suggesting that data entry of a relatively small number of items would help to point out weaknesses before they are too hard to change.

Mr. Bader, in his discussion of his own work in Australia, also mentioned what I thought was an excellent idea for recording such things as pottery body colors and body material. He pointed out that color charts and standard descriptions of materials may not be very helpful. Instead, samples from the site could be used to provide color and material standards. For each new color or material type a sample could be kept as a reference. The samples could also be photographed and included in the database so that the reference could be called to view at any time. This seems a very good way to deal with a difficult practical question. (I would also suggest including in any reference photograph a standard Kodak color chart.)

The most long-running discussion at the CAA Meeting permeated many of the sessions, and it has been an issue for many years. It is the question of standards. A good number of the people at the conference represent national cultural heritage organizations. For them common data storage techniques are very important. These scholars must know the same things about different monuments, and they must be able to ask the same questions of different data sets.

Research scholars, on the other hand, enter research projects with their own goals, and their data-gathering and data-recording techniques must reflect their goals.

There is some common ground, but there is considerable conflict over certain kinds of standards, and the conflict is unlikely to disappear until there are good ways to deal with disparate data sets.

Proscriptive standards, provided to enforce true uniformity of data sets, are strongly, even vehemently, rejected by some. Such standards require specifics categories of information and specific lists of entry possibilities. Indeed, they have been so strongly rejected by some that they are less likely to be suggested than they were a few years ago.

The simplest standard requires that each data set contain its own full and complete description so that any user may determine the nature of the data without reference to external information. I heard no one contest the imposition of that as a minimum.

Between the two extremes are disputes about such matters as controlled vocabulary and specific computer formats. Consensus remains distant. Some would eagerly impose stringent standards tomorrow; others would agree with Thorsten Madsen that the word standard makes us "think of something big, nasty and bureaucratic." I suspect many would also agree with him that "Standards, however, are too dangerous and devastating to be left to commissions."

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the subject index.

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