Computers & Texts No. 11
Table of Contents
March 1996

Third International Symposium on Computers and Archaeology

Rome, 22-25 November 1995

Maria Economou
Pitt Rivers Museum
University of Oxford

Computers have been used in archaeology since at least the 1960s in the USA, the UK, France, and West Germany, but their general diffusion throughout the discipline was slow until the 1980s. In the last decade information technology (IT) has been widely used by archaeologists, opening up new possibilities and reshaping their work in a variety of areas: in the field, during excavations and surveys; during the post-excavation process, for analysing data and constructing interpretation models; in exhibition and public presentation, after the analysis of the excavation archive has been completed, and in archaeological teaching and training.

A large number of archaeologists, museum professionals, conservators, and academics from all over Europe gathered in Rome in November to exchange views about the ways IT affects their work. The Italian capital, where a rich cultural heritage blends frequently with the latest technological developments and modern design, provided the perfect setting for the III International Symposium on Computers and Archaeology. Conferences of this kind are important for bringing together professionals and researchers working on cutting edge areas to discuss obstacles and opportunities.

Most European countries were represented at the meeting, although the Italian participants formed the majority. The USA, Mexico, and Israel also had a small presence. The symposium was organized by the Instituto per l'Archeologia Etrusco Italica-Consiglio Nationale delle Ricerche together with the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, La Association Internationale Archéologie et Informatique, and the Universi di Roma "La Sapienza". Dr Paola Moscati (Instituto per l'Archeologia Etrusco Italica), the scientific secretary and the organizing soul of the meeting, did an excellent job ensuring that everything ran smoothly. After the opening talks, two concurrent sessions were run, most of which were held at the well-equipped offices of the Consiglio Nationale delle Ricerche (C.N.R.) and were interpreted simultaneously in Italian, English, and French.

Geographical Information Systems

As with most recent meetings (such as the 'Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology' (CAA)), great emphasis was placed on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and the need to integrate GIS studies into mainstream archaeology, as well as correlate them with a sound theoretical framework. Under the theme of "Topographic and Urbanistic Studies" several speakers explored the possibilities of IT for monitoring archaeological sites, as well as putting new ones on the map. For example, Zoran Stancic (Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana) talked about the use of GIS and satellite images for cultural resource management in the Dalmatian coast; Dominic Powlesland presented a collaborative project of the Getty Conservation Institute with NASA which experimented with the analysis of satellite images for monitoring world heritage sites. Using the major Anasazi complex at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico to test several methods proved that, because of the resolution of most digital data collected, the possibility of using air- or remote-sensing data to undertake automatic global monitoring of anything other than large scale damage to World Heritage sites remains a dream.

Juan Barcel and Maria Pallares (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona) took a critical and healthy look at the opportunities that GIS offers archaeologists and stressed the need to move from visualization to explanation. They reminded that GIS is just another software tool, whose potential should not be overrated.

A number of speakers referred to the creation of electronic maps and historic Atlases, ranging from an Archaeological Map of Italy (Giovanni Azzena, Universi di Roma "La Sapienza"), to specific sites, such as the Corinth Computer Project, which aims to create an electronic archive of information about the successive ancient cities of Corinth (David Gilman Romano, University of Pennsylvania).

Many of the papers, focused on the use of databases for administering and managing the vast and often geographically dispersed work of the various Soprintendenzae and archaeological units, as well as for creating inventories of cultural objects. Portable computers can now assist field work, while directly transferring information to a central office for further analysis and study (Rubi Cohen, Israel Antiquities Authority). After the initial period of experimentation and innovation, computers seem to have currently spread from universities and research institutions to most excavation units and administration centres. The collaboration of a Computer Science Institute (Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas, Heraklion, Crete) with two Greek Antiquities Ephorates in Heraklion (13th Ephorate of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Antiquities and 23rd Ephorate of Classical and Prehistorical Antiquities, respectively), for example, led to the creation of DELTOS, a documentation system for the administration of site monuments and preserved buildings. The system's data management functions, complex search features, and multimedia capabilities have greatly facilitated administrative documentation, and addressed effectively the archaeological needs for cartographic, geometric, and photographic representation. DELTOS is being used as a building block in configuring a much needed geographically distributed national record of monuments in Greece.

The possibilities offered by the Internet and the World Wide Web were discussed by several speakers. The Internet is increasingly being used for academic purposes, offering wider access to research tools and distributing specialized information. A number of research databases are currently accessible on line, such as the East Mediterranean Pottery project, an Israeli initiative which supports queries of distributed databases over the Internet, an online database from Milan on amber objects, and another from the Tor Vergata University (Rome) on ancient coins. Michael Heyworth (Council for British Archaeology), Seamus Ross (British Academy), and Julian Richards (University of York) described a joint project, also involving various British university archaeology departments, to establish an electronic journal for archaeology. 'Internet Archaeology' ( will be fully refereed and will strive to set an academic standard comparable with the discipline's traditional print journals.

In a part of the wider session entitled "Data dissemination: Networks, Museums and education, Publications", P. Archelin (C.N.R. France) argued that archaeological publication is in crisis and proposed the use of CD-ROMs for facilitating the dissemination of data in archaeology. A.C. Wolle (University of Southampton) discussed the opportunities which her work has demonstrated for the electronic publication and dissemination of excavation archives using Microcosm, an open hypermedia system developed by the University of Southampton.

Museums and Multimedia

Several presentations in this session examined computer applications in museums. Multimedia programs have opened a whole range of new routes in collections management and documentation, in some cases moving ahead from basic documentation to support and record the complex processes involved in the interpretation of cultural information. In this direction, A. Drandaki presented a collaborative project between the Benaki Museum, Athens and the University of Westminster, London which aims to develop a hypermedia museum documentation system, incorporating the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) encoding support. SGML is machine, system, and application independent and therefore ideal for encoding complicated museum information and making it available on-line. The paper of M. Christoforaki, P. Constantopoulos, and M. Doerr presented another initiative in modelling information for cultural documentation; this comes from the Institute of Computer Science in Heraklion (mentioned above) which is developing the CLIO system in collaboration with the Benaki Museum and the Historical Museum of Crete. By organizing information according to a specifically designed semantic model and by defining a conceptual modelling framework, CLIO is able to serve as a hypermedia scientific catalogue of museum artefacts, moving beyond basic documentation and administrative purposes.

Interactive multimedia also offers impressive opportunities for archaeological interpretation and public presentation. Several fascinating applications were presented in this area, ranging from the virtual reconstruction of the tomb of Horembeb by the Archaeological Museum of Bologna, to a multimedia itinerary in Southern Etruria (Divisione Beni Culturali, Napoli). This widening of the perspective from the computer screen (with high-quality graphics and video) to encompass the user and the surrounding environment, was the concern of a number of papers in this session, stressing the need for careful assessment and evaluation of these programs as interpretative tools. Although multimedia interactive kiosks seem to have captured the imagination of museum professionals and visitors alike, not many studies have been undertaken to evaluate the use of such programs as integral parts of museum exhibitions. Maria Economou (University of Oxford), along with M.L. Pagliani (Istituto Beni Culturali, Bologna) and S. Santoro (University of Bologna), presented studies of assessing computer usage in a museum environment, reflecting the variety of interpretative approaches and the wide range of parameters and particularities influencing each application.

Several papers, such as those given by Nicholas Zarifis (Archaeological Institute of the Dodecanese, Greece) and Douwtje van der Meulen (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) touched upon issues of human resources and the management of change, referring to the problems of introducing computer technology to traditional institutions and the training of personnel. Small, well-defined, applications and projects might not be exciting for furthering research in the field but, as was evident in this meeting, often seem to be well-suited to fit the specific purposes of cultural institutions and can be useful tools in the hands of archaeologists, conservators, and teachers.

Concluding Remarks

Generally, an amount of healthy scepticism was evident at the conference, with several archaeologists and researchers reporting the limitations and shortcomings of the technology, which is not a panacea and often creates as many problems as it attempts to solve. Another feature of the symposium was the concern expressed about the future and long-term preservation of electronic media and the frequency with which the technology changes. Many participants voiced their doubts and hesitations about using CD-ROMs to store and record cultural information. Will these still be available in the future and will they be compatible with the new systems that are constantly being developed? Although nobody can guarantee the longevity and future of compact discs, they are nevertheless becoming a versatile tool for distributing and archiving information. One of the reasons for their popularity is the fact that the Internet and the WWW, despite their many promises, are still very slow, badly organized, and often chaotic.

The closing session was held at the attractive surroundings of the Villa Farnesina, on the south bank of the Tiber. This centred on knowledge modelling and the formalization of archaeological interpretation and included papers presented by researchers with the greatest authority and longest experience in the field, like Jean-Claude Gardin, Tito Orlandi, and Jim Doran. Although not easily accessible and understandable to the uninitiated, this is still an area which attracts a lot of interest, since the logical way in which computers work has encouraged archaeologists to explore ways of encoding complex processes and to formalize interpretative reasoning. Seamus Ross spoke of the benefits of the formalization of knowledge to artefact classification, arguing that despite the strong criticisms made by those with little experience developing intelligent applications, expert systems can be of great help to archaeology. For clearly defined and well-documented sets of objects, expert systems and artificial intelligence offer promising results, although not much has been delivered yet.

Although the sheer number of papers meant that most speakers where only allotted 15 minutes or so, the organizers did make it possible for a significant number of projects to be presented. The limited time given to the speakers might be one of the reasons that most papers were descriptive and technical, without the greater depth required to discuss the issues arising from the use of the technology.

Despite these few organizational complexities, overall it was a successful and well-attended meeting with a very wide range of papers covering most issues in this field. It brought together a large number of archaeologists and museum professionals from several countries and encouraged the exchange of ideas and the sharing of experiences in an area where the rapid technological developments make communication vital.


I would like to thank Dr Seamus Ross, Douwtje van der Meulen, Anja Wolle, and Maria Christoforaki for reading earlier versions of this report. I am grateful to the Craven Committee, the Office for Humanities Communication, and Linacre College of the University of Oxford for their financial support which enabled me to participate at the conference.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 11 (1996), 24. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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