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Tue November 29, 2011
Dr. Adam Rabinowitz, University of Texas at Austin - Digitizing Archaeology
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Adam Rabinowitz of the University of Texas at Austin outlines his efforts to preserve archaeological research for examination by generations of future archaeologists.
Adam Rabinowitz is an assistant professor of archaeology and Assistant Director of The Institute for Classical Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin. The ICA carries out multi-disciplinary archaeological research, conservation, and cultural resource management projects in the territory of ancient Greek colonies in southern Italy and on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Rabinowitz holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
Dr. Adam Rabinowitz - Digitizing Archaeology
Archaeology is a paradoxical field: it's a discipline that systematically destroys what it sets out to investigate. Since excavation removes all of the contextual relationships that allow us to make sense of the data, a dig is like a massively complex experiment that you can only do once and that no one can ever reproduce. As a result, archaeological research is only as good as its documentation.
Most advances in field archaeology in the last century have actually been advances in tools and methods for documentation and interpretation, not digging. We still dig with trowels, but now we record finds with laser surveying instruments, make 3D models of buildings, and integrate everything with databases and geographic information systems software. The digital revolution has increased exponentially the information we can now document, and the detail with which we can document it. But this has created a new paradox. Because the technology changes so rapidly, the rich digital data we're producing are much more fragile than the old paper records. You can still read handwritten excavation notes from 1890 -- but that MacPaint illustration on a 5 inch floppy disk is gone forever.
Preserving digital data is a human problem as much as it is a technological one. If it's too difficult, people won't do it. Our work involves the development of lightweight tools and methods that make it easy for archaeologists to document and preserve their digital data in formats that will be accessible in the future. Because bones and pottery are durable, we can excavate and reconstruct a meal eaten thousands of years ago. But unless we find ways to guarantee the longevity and accessibility of our digital documentation, twenty years from now no one will be able to reconstruct our excavation itself.