For three years I have served on the Oplontis Project under the direction of Dr. John Clarke and Dr. Michael Thomas. The Oplontis sites are located in the small town of Torre Annunziata, about ten minutes from Pompeii. Oplontis shares the same fate of its neighbors Pompeii and Herculaneaum of being destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD. On site for the four week excavation season, my role is to catalog the finds recovered from our opened trenches.
After the season’s end, I stayed in London for two weeks to do further research on archiving and data management of archaeology projects. This research began in the aftermath of learning, years ago, about the erasure of Dr. Emmett Bennett Jr.’s email account at the University of Wisconsin following an Office365 migration. It still puzzles me. It raises the question, what plans are there by departments to archive their faculty’s research? Is there a plan for UT Classics?
I used this trip as a sort of launchpad to begin to answer this question. Before leaving, I had many discussions on this with other faculty and archivists at the University of Texas to frame questions for interviews and get wider perspective. Conversation touched on some Emeriti who possess decades of irreplaceable archaeological records and research but with no place to store it. On this trip, I wanted to compare how other universities are preparing faculty to preserve their research beyond publication and how to organize something of this scale for any department. I was fortunate to interview and brainstorm with many archaeologists, professors, archivists and digital archivists, architects, and data coordinators to begin to answer these questions. A final objective from these discussions and research would be a proposal which would address the issues and recommend solutions.
This report briefly recaps these trips and discussion.
Oplontis Project Season 2019
I began my trip in southern Italy at the archaeological site of Oplontis for the 2019 excavation season. This lasted from May 20 to June 15. There I worked on a number of cataloging projects regarding our excavation’s finds. My normal project is the on-site finds processing of recovered finds from opened trenches. This year, however, we completed a number of projects concerning our backlog in addition to normal processing. These related mainly to holes in our database and finds inventories. Last, I put together an inventory of the Special Finds excavated by the Oplontis Project at Villa A for future publication.
The season went well. It began with a lot of rain and a few cool days and ended with days hitting over 100 degrees (which is good for pot washing). With my team of catalogers, we completed all cataloging of this year’s finds, re-housed previous seasons’ finds in order to create new shelving space, and re-cataloged many of these old finds which were not consistent with current standards. All of this work will be entered on our database for the most up-to-date inventory of the objects recovered at the Oplontis Excavations.
In the back of my mind throughout all of these excavations is the question I also ask at PASP. What plans are there to archive this research, by professors or departments? If there is no plan, should there be? A season of excavation produces all sorts of records and metadata, like finds inventories, stratigraphy data, environmental sample analysis, photographs, and drawings. What is the future of the data collected for the Oplontis Project, or any archaeology project at the University of Texas, apart from its publication?
On these concerns, I had good conversations with architect Jess Galloway. Galloway serves on the Oplontis Project as a researcher of the Villa architecture and waterworks and has decades of experience with archaeology projects. Specifically we touched on legacy media and obsolete data collection by old versions of the AutoCAD software which he uses to capture precise measurements of the site’s architecture. This is a application many archaeology projects use.We discussed how old versions can be still emulated or migrated to stable formats. The importance of this is crucial: legacy archaeology projects, like in the 1980s-2000s, would record architecture or contextual information using AutoCAD but this data can possibly become obsolete with every new version. Soon, data might be irretrievable. Already, it is expensive to retrieve.
Reasons AutoCAD should be preserved that we touched on:
- Protects the integrity of the research
- Archaeology sites can be destroyed or change over time
- If the site is changed, old records can restore or inform original states
- Reduce costs now by migrating earlier to stable platforms
- AutoCAD (and other proprietary software packages) requires expensive licenses, making access to data difficult for collaborators
In the middle of the Oplontis season it was by good fortune that I met the former PASP archivist, Sarah Buchanan. One afternoon, we met by chance in the hotel lobby where I was lodging, “Hotel Villa dei Misteri”, located only a few minutes walk from the Porta Marina entrance to Pompeii. It was good to meet her (in person) finally, briefly catch up, and learn about her latest work. Over the summer, she worked on site for the Venus Pompeiana project, performing data management and collection.
There, we also caught up on our PASP report recently published by Archival Outlook.
Digging did not fill my entire schedule. On weekends, we were free to travel, so I made it to Baia, Naples, and Pompeii. Another group made it to Capri. The ruins of Baia were spectacular (grab the train from Naples to Lucrino and walk the rest of the way to Baia). Some highlights of Baia are its spectacularly placed Aragonese castle, its expansive Baths including the echo-chamber Temple of Mercury, and amazing coasts. Ruins are scattered throughout the city; a minute from the docks is a Temple to Venus and in the center of town is a huge ruin (shaped like an open egg) known as the Temple of Diana. Nearby Baia, fifteen minutes walk from Lucrino, is Lake Avernus, a volcanic lake where it was written in antiquity to be the entrance to the underworld.
What amazed me was Baia’s absence of tourists for all its wealth of offerings. On a Sunday, castles, ruins, and beaches were all the more pleasant without fighting through crowds. Within the baths, I saw perhaps three or four people and no guards. There you could freely wander through tunnels, up and down stairs, observe frescos. It wasn’t too hot, with plenty of shade. Experimenting with the Mercury temple’s otherworldly echoes was an unexpected marvel. All this contrasts with Pompeii, where houses can be shut, guards can be too much, peddlers can be annoying, and crowds can spoil a view, or, the day.
Between the Oplontis season’s end and arriving in London on the next leg of my trip, I was able to spend time in Ravello and its awesome Villa Cimbrone, see many churches in Naples, and visit the Borghese Museum in Rome.
After Italy, I visited the United Kingdom for two weeks, basing myself out of London. This was my first visit ever to the UK. There, I had a few appointments with archives on the subject of what is done for preparing or processing Emeritus papers within their institutes. Also, I spent time at Museums to get first-hand knowledge of Linear B and Myceanean Greek history. Last, I also caught up with former PASP visiting scholar Regina Dürig who is nearing completion on her Alice Kober dissertation research. (One exciting detail was that she discovered a “new” photo of Kober on an archaeology project).
British National Museum
My lodging at the International Hall within the University College of London made it easy to visit the British National Museum. It was a ten minute walk from “home” in Russell Square.
This is one of the world’s largest museums covering cultures from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Japan, India, Africa, in nearly every era and all geographies in-between. The wealth of objects is indescribable and overwhelming, from the Rosetta stone, to Egyptian mummies, a full Samurai suit, and the Elgin Marbles. It takes some bit of planning and concentration not to get side-tracked. What interested me, primarily, then, was the Mycenaean Greek and Greek Epigraphy sections as they related to Linear B. The Museum holds two Linear B tablets on display amid a number of other Aegean script items (below, also are terracotta ball inscriptions in Cypro-Minoan script). This is the first Linear B tablet I have seen. Their size, which I had already known to be small, still is striking to me, especially the size of the written characters. Coming off my archaeology trip, there was so much to learn from the archaeological context of Linear B items with respect to what other objects exist. I had not seen many of the As an archivist, their provenance interested me (it was written they came to the British National Museum from Arthur Evans’ collection).
After my first weekend in London, I visited Cambridge for a day trip to meet their Classics Archivist, see their classics archive repository, and visit the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room. I was fortunate also to meet PASPian Cassie Donnelly who recently was awarded the CREWS fellowship. She has been there since early May.
In our meeting, I learned Cambridge Classics shares many dilemmas and solutions as PASP regarding how to archive Emeritus collections. Some of them are sensitive. Specifically, like anywhere, funding and staffing is an issue. This has the effect of simply putting archival processing “on ice.” Archivists are stretched thin working on several projects at once. Another problem is how to get professors or their heirs interested and welcome their collections. As equal a dilemma is then the processing and “selling” of these ideas to the University as objects with enduring usefulness. Conversation on how professor collections are “passed around” followed, which seems to be the more traditional (and unpredictable) route of Classics faculty collections being transferred to archives, or, even, accessed. (For example how this relates to PASP, see the letter from Letter From Emmett L. Bennett Jr. to Thomas G. Palaima, June 30, 1992, where on page 2 he briefly relates the a chain of provenance of Arthur Evans’ archival materials).
The archivist also demonstrated to me in some detail their utilizing the Access to Memory (AtoM) platform. This links their online archival finding aids to their collections materials, like that of Alan John Bayard Wace and also links them to a wider network of archives throughout the United Kingdom at Archives Hub. This is a direction PASP must explore, like encoding our finding aids and enhancing the access and browsing of our online materials.
After the meeting, I was toured through Cambridge’s many colleges and old town center by PASPian Cassandra Donnelly. I was shown the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room and felt some distant homesickness for PASP’s archives and excitement for all the archival material remaining to be processed.
Museum of London Archive / Bloomberg London Mithraeum
Back in London, I coordinated with the post-excavations manager of the Museum of London Archaeological Archives (MOLA) at the Mortimer Wheeler House to receive a tour of their operations and after that, a field trip to the London Mithraeum exhibit, located in the basement of the Bloomberg building. Museum of London Archaeological Archives preserves archaeological artifacts and research on London based excavation projects. The goal in this visit was to observe a large scale operation which deals with the creation, publication and preservation of archaeological data. This would inform some idea how to go about this, permanently, at the University of Texas, as opposed to the setup I am familiar with, which is project-by-project (like Oplontis or The Institute of Classical Archaeology).
This was a very useful field trip. The manager took me from bottom to top: from loading docks where recent finds had been delivered and their being processed, to the work floor where they are researched, to the databases they are linked and mapped out on ArcGIS, to their publication in books. From there she showed and demonstrated to me an RTI (Reflective Transformation Imaging) station used to photograph writing tablets from the London Mithraeum, something similar which has been done for many Linear B tablets.
It was important to see the organization and structure of tasks assigned to specialists. It amazed how their work cohered, how the division of tasks gets so much completed.
After, we visited the ruins of the Temple of Mithras in downtown London. The London Mithraeum is in the City of London area and are come from the 3rd century Roman London. Upon entering the entrance in the Bloomberg building, visitors are first faced with a wall of finds on exhibition from the site. They are diverse as iron nails to mosaics to writing tablets. One writing tablet on display actually contains the oldest mention of London.
Downstairs, visitors enter the lowest level of the site, seven meters beneath modern pavement. It is called the Mezzazine. There, one waits for the next presentation of the Temple of Mithras ruins. In the waiting area, there are more interactive displays which provide information on the history and mythology of the Mithras cult. They also tell the story of the temple ruin’s discovery after the Blitz, their public exhibition (and slight damage) on the streets for several decades, to the modern reconstruction now housed below the Bloomberg building. Resin casts of the tauroctony are explained in detail for their symbolic imagery by the displays. (The real tauroctony and some other sculptures of the London Mithraeum is on display at the Museum of London, a few minutes walk away).
Visitors are then let into the room housing the ruins. It is a large, dark, rectangular room, with the ruin walls set into the floor. Visitors walk on a platform around them. Then, a rectangular box of light encloses the ruins, mist lightly drifts in, and sounds of chanting begin as low murmurs to gradual humming. At the end of the ruins, a large tauroctony altar display glows. Pilasters appear as shadows within the box of light by carefully hung “capitals” dispersed throughout the room.
What really impressed me was was the harmony between the Temple ruins and the art installation they were couched inside. The dark atmosphere, sound effects and lighting all conjured an atmosphere of awe for the passing ritual. Then it is over. Visitors are only allowed in for the moment of the “performance” and then are ushered out. This was very different than simply “presenting” the ruins, as, perhaps, could be compared to the British Museum’s Nereid Monument.
It reminded me of the importance of making the Past fresh. There is room for both traditional museum displays and more interactive presentations. In the Linear B realm, the paintings of Nikos Samartizidis conjure similar feelings.
A short overnight trip to York included an appointment with the digital archivists of the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) of the University of York. ADS sets the standard for the digital preservation of archaeology data ranging from commercial to academic projects within the UK. They preserve and make widely accessible completed archaeological datasets from around the United Kingdom.
An American counterpart is the Digital Archaeology Record (tDAR) and Open Context, two data repositories that are specifically for archaeological data. Here at the University of Texas at Austin, the Texas Data Repository (TDR) is a new option for archiving any kind of data produced at UT. It’s free for UT researchers but not just for archaeology data. Currently PASP has two datasets, SMID and the Cyprus Inscriptions database, preserved and accessible at the Texas Data Repository.
A few lessons from the Archaeological Data Services:
- They provide guidelines to users on how to submit and curate their data for longterm preservation
- Publishing their own research on changing standards and technology
- Simple yet rigorous data management help
- Paid service. Researchers must budget for future preservation.
My take away from this meeting, with respect to my own research of how to preserve faculty collections, are the costs. ADS is not free nor is it cheap to run. Digital archiving requires maintenance, staffing and money for continued access. Here it was highlighted that these costs should be addressed in earlier research phases of archaeological projects.
Outlining a Path Forward
The purpose of this visit was to survey what options exist for archiving faculty collections which include archaeological records. It highlighted a number of mutual dilemma across many institutions and also solutions. These would be addressed to not only PASP but also UT Classics more generally. This trip was only a beginning to collect information on this problem.
There’s no easy answer. Emeritus professors should not worry what happens to their materials after retirement. A plan for archiving their papers properly would address many issues raised from this trip (and experience):
- Ensure to them there is staffing and space to archive their works properly.
- If they worry their collection is isolated and not used, ensure to them meaningful collaboration within larger archival networks so that they are part of a larger system, like UK archaeology and archives has with Archaeology Data Services and Archives Hub.
- Consider incentives to keep professors papers within their departments.
- Ensure that professors are aware to budget for the preservation of their materials.
- Ensure we provide guidelines so they are practicing some degree of data management to make the transition from its everyday use to longterm preservation is more stable and efficient.
- Consider how to do more than digitize materials; already, PASP does outreach within the department, like Cassandra Donnelly’s “Clay Time” workshop, or, utilizing materials in creative arts, like Samartizidis, or interactively, as in the case of the London Mithraeum, or integrating them into course work. For instance, in the case of archaeologists like Wace or Blegen, archives might attempt reconstructing through GIS site plans or in databases their finds registers.
This summer I was fortunate for all the cities, museums, people (including three PASP-ians), I was able to connect with. There’s no lack for inspiring or practical conversations or ideas. It stressed the variety and prevalence of the interest in ancient history, from traditional museums, to art installations with ruins as a center piece, interactive apps, to pavement drawings of archaeological trenches (like above).
Drawing from it and other case studies (like collections at PASP or at UT), I hope some awareness of the problem has been clearly stated and some solutions that could benefit everyone.