Cyber-Archaeology and Digital History at ASOR 2014 Annual Meeting


The 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in San Diego, California was the largest ASOR meeting yet: four-hundred eighty papers (in ninety-seven sessions) and forty-six posters were presented, showcasing the work and research of hundreds of scholars. One of the chief focuses for the 2014 Annual Meeting was digital archaeology (or “cyber-archaeology”) and digital history. In addition to the usual sessions devoted to excavation reports, theoretical discussions, and summaries of research, a large variety of projects using and developing new technologies were also showcased.

In total, there were nine presentation sessions focused on digital work in ancient history and archaeology. Additionally, the University of California at San Diego also hosted a reception at the Qualcomm Institute for ASOR showcasing their own cyber-archaeology technology and projects being developed within the University of California, San Diego.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the digital projects that were showcased during the ASOR 2014 paper sessions. Here I will focus on a few presentations given during the The CRANE Project: Large-Scale Data Integration and Analysis in the Orontes Watershed session chaired by Timothy Harrison (University of Toronto) on Thursday, November 20th as well as the Technology and Texts: New Scientific and Digital Methods for the Analysis of Ancient Near Eastern Writings I (chaired by Christopher Rollston of George Washington University) and the Technology in Archaeology: Recent Work in the Archaeological Sciences (chaired by Andrew J. Koh of Brandeis University) on Thursday, November 21st 2014.

During the CRANE Project: Large-Scale Data Integration and Analysis in the Orontes Watershed session, several scholars presented their sub-projects and research under the CRANE (Computational Research on the Ancient Near East) Project. CRANE is an interdisciplinary collaboration that seeks to create a computational framework and tools for the integration and analysis of data from multiple archaeological projects working within the Orontes Watershed region of southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria.

Integration as Inspiration

The 2013 Zincirli team on site, as seen from the quadcopter (photo R. Schloen).

Sandra Schloen of the University of Chicago opened the CRANE session with her co-authored presentation (co-author, Miller Prosser of the University of Chicago) on a program called the Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment (OCHRE). This tool allows diverse data to be integrated and accessed by multiple individuals involved in a project. “Designed with collaboration in mind,” OCHRE allows data to be linked, shared, and queried both within a project and with other partnering projects. Schloen presented the way she and her team have used OCHRE in their study of the Orontes Watershed region.[1]

Beyond Digital Imaging

Photograph of RS 15.022+ by Miller Prosser, copyright PhoTEO/Mission de Ras Shamra

In a later presentation during the first Technology and Texts paper session, Prosser presented how OCHRE might be used in other projects for integrating various data and imaging from archaeological, philological, and epigraphic research. Often the data and images resulting from such digital studies become “relegated to servers or hard drives, in danger of being lost in a digital morass.” Scholars have long recognized the difficulty of accessing each others’ digital work once the data has been created. Further, OCHRE is also useful in that it allows the user to break a text down into minimal meaningful parts to be analyzed. This process of “atomization” allows the user to isolate sections, lines, words, letters, or wedges for analysis and comparison with other texts. “Hot spotting” within OCHRE also allows the user to place live links on images (like polygons, outlines, sketches) to identify loci and link them to more info within the database. Programs like OCHRE promise to not only make digital publication a reality, but also to make  archaeological, philological, and epigraphic publication more accessible and collaborative.[2]


Field photograph from the Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli with hotspots in the OCHRE database. Photo credit Miller Prosser.

In another sub-project of the CRANE project, Timothy Harrison (University of Toronto), Lynn Welton (University of British Columbia) and Lisa Cooper (University of British Columbia) presented their work towards creating an automated system for ceramic classification. The CRANE project seeks to “create a large database of ceramic forms, categorized according to previously devised typologies,” in order to allow cross-analysis and translation between various typological terminologies. This will also allow for new materials from recent excavations to be more rapidly processed and integrated into the larger body of scholarship. The team hopes to ultimately integrate this data within the OCHRE framework “to examine broader questions of chronological and geographic ceramic distributions.”[3] More about these projects and the many other aspects of the CRANE project can be found on the CRANE project’s website.

In the Technology in Archaeology session, a variety of papers examining issues of technology in archaeology were presented, including the work of the Athienou Archaeological Project. Erin Averett (Creighton University), Derek Counts (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), and Michael Toumazou (Davidson College) presented their work within the Athienou Archaeological Project in collaboration with the University of Kentucky Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments and Tethon 3D. During the summer 2014 pilot season, the team used a cost-effective 3D scanner (developed at the University of Kentucky) to record essential data with structured light scanning on sculpture fragments from the Athienou-Malloura sanctuary in Cyprus. This scanner allowed the team to create a sample corpus of 3D image files “representing the variety of types, scales, states of preservation, and use/surface wear found in the sanctuary’s sculptural assemblage.” This technology allows certain measurements to be taken more quickly and accurately than by hand, and it further allows the recorded sculpture fragments to be studied outside of Cyprus after the end of the study season. Furthermore, since many of the sculptures found at the sanctuary have been broken, during the second phase of this project, the team plans to develop an algorithm “that will use geometric dimensions, surface texture, as well as break patterns to propose potential joins among the thousands of fragments.”[4] A further application of the Athienou Archaeological Project is particularly promising for the classroom: the team has worked with Tethon 3D to create 3D-printed replicas of certain objects using new materials that mimic the color and texture of original objects, as seen below.

Top view of 3D-printed replica above.

Top view of 3D-printed replica above.

Another replica of an Athenienou sculpture fragment, 3D-printed and painted in the likeness of the original.

Another replica of an Athenienou sculpture fragment, 3D-printed and painted in the likeness of the original.

This small sample of ASOR presentations clearly demonstrates that the archaeological and ancient historical branches of the digital humanities are thriving and growing. In the coming weeks, I’ll be adding more information on the other ASOR presentations that show how scholars not only continue to use and invent digital tools for traditional scholarly inquiry, but further they are finding ways to ask new questions of the data. Enabled by technology that allows scholars to see the ancient world from entirely new perspectives, I’m excited about what discoveries the future holds in archaeology and ancient history studies. I hope you’ll find these developments as exciting as I do.


[1] Abstract: “Collaborative Research in a Database Environment: Many Projects, Diverse Data, One Research Goal,” ASOR Annual Meeting Program and Abstract Book (2014), 98. 

[2] Abstract: “Beyond Digital Imaging: Integrating Digital Images and Philological Research Data,” ASOR Annual Meeting Program and Abstract Book (2014), 132.

[3] Abstract: “The CRANE 3-D Ceramic Visualization and Shape Recognition Project,” ASOR Annual Meeting Program and Abstract Book (2014), 98.

[4] Abstract: “Piecing Together the Past: 3D Modeling and Cypriot Votive Sculpture from Athienou, Cyprus,” ASOR Annual Meeting Program and Abstract Book (2014), 125. 

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