January 2004, Issue 1

Bringing Archaeology into the Computer Age

Professor Anthony "Tony" Tuck, PhD (Brown University), recently joined the Tufts faculty as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Classics. Tuck brings the latest techniques in computer-based collaboration to archeology through his work on the Etruscan (pre-Roman) site of Poggio Civitate, 25 km south of the Tuscan city of Siena. His work involves the design of databases, and human interfaces to these databases, as much as it does painstaking excavation with trowel and brush. His goal, he says somewhat abashedly, is to "revolutionize archeology."

Etruscans flourished in the centuries before the emergence of Roman civilization, with many of the cultural indicators that we associate with later civilizations of the region, including playwrights, historians, and linen books. "Rome was a collection of huts at the time," Tuck says. Etruscans also had at least some monumental architecture (buildings with religious or civic significance), of which Poggio Civitate is an example.

Poggio Civitate fascinates Tuck because the site appears to have been dismantled around 550 BCE. Buildings were leveled, wells were sealed, and the people left, never to return — or, in any event, that is one interpretation of the archeological record.

On one level, the dig at Poggio Civitate is like any of thousands of others. People survey an area, construct a grid, and then remove soil, cataloging any artifacts they find in the process. What makes Poggio Civitate unique is what happens to the catalogue. All information about the site is entered into a database — physically located on a server in Siena — that is optimized to "maximize the potential for electronic discourse."

Professor Tuck explains: "The database itself is a multi-platform information archive structured around a customized search engine. We've built into the database a series of links to various forms of information. We've been working for a few years on various kinds of interfaces for the archive: pedagogical, research, and layman. At the moment, we're focused on the development of the research side of the interface, since it is from that interface that everything else will grow. The excavation site is huge. We have an enormous catalogue of sculpture, ceramic, and metals — all inventoried and catalogued according to type and context." The database will provide not only "digitized versions of these old articles, but also templates for future work." Tuck hopes to provide a worldwide forum for discussion of the archaeological work that is going on at Poggio Civitate.

"When I said that we're hoping to revolutionize archaeological research, what I see happening is the database providing a forum for evolving research. As we excavate new material, it is added to the database, which in turn is available for scholars to consider, develop or amend theories and hypotheses already posited within the context of the database itself. What we're trying to do is not particularly revolutionary in terms of what computer science people are already doing. However, the technological opportunity in the humanities is fairly unusual."

"Archeology is physical history," says Tuck. He welcomes help from others in the humanities, such as economists and sociologists, in interpreting that history. Archeometry, the science of measuring the ancient findings — for example, determining dates and the physical composition of artifacts — offers challenges for physicists and chemists. And of course, there is new and exciting work in computer science and information architecture; the Tufts Perseus Project, an online library of classical texts, is an exciting parallel. Professor Tuck is looking forward to hearing from his new Tufts colleagues about cross-discipline research ideas in these or any other areas.

For more information, go to http://ase.tufts.edu/classics/.

 

 

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