June 09, 2008


Iraqi heritage status update

At the UCLA/Getty Storage Symposium I was frequently asked about how the archaeological heritage of Iraq is faring these days. Also, today I am cleaning out my email inbox and came across some stuff I hadn't looked at yet. The Los Angeles Times published an excellent article back in January:
"BAGHDAD -- He works as a blacksmith in one of Baghdad's swarming Shiite slums. But at least once a month, Abu Saif tucks a pistol into his belt, hops into a minibus taxi and speeds south. His goal: to unearth ancient treasures from thousands of archaeological sites scattered across southern Iraq."
Read the whole article, it paints a pretty good picture of the situation. Also, the New York Times published a good article in February on the National Library in Baghdad and its courageous director Saad Eskander:
"Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive in Baghdad, finally had some time to catch up on his diary after a couple of very busy weeks. As he wrote in his latest entry, he was having trouble repairing the Internet system; the Restoration Laboratory 'was hit by 5 bullets;' and 'another librarian, who works at the Periodical Department, received a death threat. He has to leave his house and look for another one, as soon as he can; otherwise, he will be murdered.'"
Read it. Both articles were brought to my attention by the Iraqcrisis mailing list where many fine colleagues (esp. Chuck Jones) post the little information we are still able to obtain.

I would also like to thank SAFE - Saving Antiquities for Everyone for their continuing efforts. Recently, they again organized a Global Candlelight Vigil to remember the anniversary of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad five years ago. One of the vigils was held at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ:

Finally, some good news. Syrian authorities seem to step up their efforts to intercept smuggling of ancient Iraqi artifacts (Report: Syrian customs officials seize 40 Iraqi stolen museum pieces from smugglers, in the International Herald Tribune, May 21, 2008):
"... the pieces were seized at al-Tanaf crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border. They were hidden in a bag in an Iraqi crossing into Syria. The artifacts include different-sized glassware and clay tools." "This is the third smuggling attempt aborted in less than two months by Syrian customs officials. Last month, the Syrian Cultural Ministry handed Iraq back some 700 pieces of looted priceless antiquities seized inside Syria."

June 08, 2008


Live blogging the UCLA/Getty Storage Symposium (part 9)

There was sunshine, coffee and cookies—not for me, I'm a diabetic :-( —and we're back in the auditorium of the Fowler Museum. John Lynch (UCLA) presents: Tracing Portable Archaeological Finds: The UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology and the Challenges of Digital Archaeology. It's all about context! We gather more of it nowadays than ever before but our publishing and storing of it hasn't changed: paper. Digital publishing has all these advantages: updatable, as many images (in color) as you want, etc. But we still usually make facsimiles of the paper versions. The UEE is going further, e.g., geographical and geospatial searching/interacting. You can take info and use it in Google Earth, even with, for instance, chronological evolution of a site and its 3D-reconstructed buildings. The process of going back and gathering the data for 3D models of excavated buildings can lead to correction of the original (paper) publication, e.g., Robert Cargill's new theory on Qumran. The technology used by the Wii (with its handheld location determination in reference to a fixed point) could allow for easier collection of geospatial data. Open-access, public data is what is needed: complete, timely. He mentions the Open Context database and pointed me out as the one to ask expert questions... A typical report is an interpretation of what was excavated, which is good, but why not also publish all primary data to allow colleagues to searching across excavation datasets and solving new questions. It does also allow for long-term preservation of data as copies spread all over the world. Why is the new approach not widely adopted? Sharing is not encouraged: data receives its value from being secret, you need it for publications that will give you tenure. Furthermore, policies in different countries and licensing authorities are not yet requiring open access. There is also the problem of technical difficulties. Open Context uses ArchaeoML, an XML-based format. The content of the UEE will be peer reviewed and authors' rights will be reserved for limited time.

Liz Werden presents Condition Change at Painted Rock: 3D Laser Scanning for Conservation Documentation. Painted Rock is located inside Carrizo Plain National Monument, in San Luis Obispo county, California. By the way, I notice that the official website of the National Monument doesn't seem to mention the rock art, which is probably for the better. Oddly enough the US Geological Service has pictures up on their website (see the photo I used). She mentions that for every day of scanning, you have to count on 5 days of processing.

Craig Mauzy (American School of Classical Studies at Athens) talks about Analog to Digital: Transforming the Agora Collections to the 21st century. The ASCSA has been excavating the Agora in Athens, Greece, for the past 77 years. He shows an interactive QTVR (Quicktime Virtual Reality) tour of the Agora site. They are mandated by Greek policies to eventually provide open access to their excavation data and research. Nearly 400 houses were on top of the excavation site before work was started in the 1930s. They are now transferring the card catalogue into a digital database and scan the photographic archive. When they are excavating today, they enter items immediately into the database.

That concludes the symposium. It was very interesting. I hope I didn't bore some people too much ;-)

Update: I corrected a location name.


Live blogging the UCLA/Getty Storage Symposium (part 8)

I had lunch with colleagues on a sunny patio. Nice to be back inside an air-conditioned building though :-) Here we go with the next session: Developing Virtual Collections, introduced by Diane Favro (UCLA).

Our first speaker is Ron Street (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York): Molding Reliefs from the Pyramid of Amenemhat I, and 3-Dimensional Imaging for Sculpture Conservation. He is most of his time involved in making commercial replicas but also does scholarly projects. He went to the actual 12th-dynasty pyramid of Amenemhat I (ca. 1970 BC) in Lisht, Egypt. For large items, milling is still the only affordable way of making a facsimile. 3D-imaging produces a better replica however. It was used in the re-reconstruction of the Ur-Nammu stele to create a virtual model that allowed to improve upon the original reconstruction from the early 20th cent. It's not back in the galleries yet. He shows other projects, emphasizing that the hand of a skilled artist is still needed to do the ultimate retouching and finishing of a facsimile.

Next is Jean-Angelo Beraldin (NRC Institute for Information Technology, Canada) focuses on 3D scanning, modeling and processing. The patented technology that the Visual Information Technology Group developed is even used by NASA. He shows a video giving a brief overview of cultural-heritage applications of their 3D expertise. There are 3 acquisition methods: triangulation, time of flight, inferometry. Using 3D data and modeling software is not easy to use, the experience of the scanner matters. Color is added either by measuring reflectivity or by draping photos over the 3D model. Technologies are comercially available but mostly for manufacturing and infrastructure industries. A business model is still missing for cultural heritage applications.

Kandace Pansire (UCLA) speaks on The Difficulties of Preserving Spatial Context: Karanis, tourism and the olive oil industry. Ancient Karanis (modern Kom Aushim, in the Fayum oasis) yielded a large amount of papyri. The local sebakhin used the mudbrick for fertilizer and even put in a small railroad for transport. Consequently, a lot of the site is just destroyed, gone. Also, the architectural remains exposed by the old University of Michigan expedition in the 1920s-1930s have since decayed substantially. The new archaeological project is a collaboration of UCLA and the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (The Netherlands). She surveyed the area and found olive grinding stones, presses and settling vats. It is hard to ascertain often whether they are still in their original location. This a tourist site, tourists pick up stuff and drop it elsewhere. A road is lined with olive presses, probably not placed there in antiquity. She is trying to preserve the spatial context using GIS and virtual modeling. The project doesn't have the finances to use better technologies.


Live blogging the UCLA/Getty Storage Symposium (part 7)

Back from the coffee break. Now we have my old professor at UCLA presenting a paper, Giorgio Buccellati. He discusses the Urkesh Global Record, a real-time publication system of the portable finds from the ongoing excavation at Tell Mozan—I'm an alumnus of that dig myself (1988). The royal palace they uncovered dates back to 2250 BC. A temple (late Chalcolithic-1300 BC) was built on a terrace next to a plaza. The recording system is very extensive and there is an auditing process. The entries can then be incrementally added to as items are studied typologically. The great bulk of the finds consists of ceramic sherds and bone. The database allows for immediate publication of finds as lots of details were immediately entered (stratigraphical, functional). They also make sure that the excavated walls which are at least partially mud brick are preserved by constructing removable covers. Even after 20+ years, the walls haven't deteriorated. They adhere to an incremental publication philosophy. They have Syrian students (5 currently) on the dig too. He applied for a grant inside UCLA for the website. Archaeological websites that are recognized and used a lot are usually presenting data, he also wants to provide an argument, matters that are less pure data. The web environment also allows to make that argument in innovative ways that can't be done on paper. So it should get the same respect so to speak as paper publications. A colleague pointed out the website Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Labná - The Puuc Region, Yucatán, México. During the discussion, Wellman is offering the template of his condition survey database (CARS) to use freely for any colleague (open source!).

Update: You can contact Howard Wellman by email at wellmanconservation@comcast.net.


Live blogging the UCLA/Getty Storage Symposium (part 6)

I just dragged my luggage from one end of the UCLA campus to the other: my Aerobic Exercise Camp is proceeding apace :-) Today we start Session 3: Digital Management of Portable Finds; Tools for Archaeologists and Conservators, introduced by Aaron Burke (UCLA).

Kenneth Hamma (Getty Trust) speaks first. He recalls the good old days when he was digging in Cyprus and had a "portable" computer that weighed a ton and had measly storage capacity. in 1995, the Getty started the digital cataloging of their collection and soon found that time and people were the key obstacle, not equipment and the like. Eventually, to address the lack of comparability between catalogs in different institutions, the Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) system for cataloging using standardized terms and definitions was set up. The Getty then developed the CDWA Lite (Categories for the Description of Works of Art) system which allows a minimal cataloging routine, usable for any kind of institution, bowing in a way to the realities of the real word. The Open Archives Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) is an excellent protocol to embed the catalog data and provides the common language for accessing museum and library collections as well as individual objects over the web. He discusses my Alexandria Archive Institute's Open Context system as a good example of where we are headed. A colleague asked about the reluctance of many institutions to share and expose their data/collections to the world. He replied that it is a matter of policy. Anyway, things are moving fast: if you're not available on the web somehow, you risk becoming irrelevant or at least miss out on exposure, recognition for your institution or project. Aaron Burke introduced the term expectation inflation.

Howad Wellman (Howard Wellman Conservation) talks about A Tale of Three Surveys: Flexible Condition Surveys for Mixed Archaeological Collections. He used to work at the MAC Lab (Maryland Archaeological Conservation) where he developed and evolved their conservation condition survey database system as an integral part of the long-term care of their collection (it is the depository of all state-funded archaeological projects' finds). The actual catalog of their holdings is totally separate although they're hoping to connect them in the future. A lot of their finds come from CRM projects and are not treated, conserved. However, this condition survey database is now actually being used by the conservators to choose interesting finds that should be conserved properly.

Update: fixed an annoying typo.