Monthly Archives: October 2011

Open Source, Software Piracy and Archaeology: a dissertation bit

Hello from sunny Qatar! Most of my spare words and thoughts have been going toward dissertating, so I thought I’d post some of my textual thrashing. (breaks in the text added so it won’t set off the tl;dr alarm)

“While some archaeologists are marginally aware of Creative Commons licensing, many archaeologists, myself included, exclusively use proprietary software. The software often is the industry standard and there are not necessarily good alternatives to use. In 2011, common proprietary software includes ArcGIS, the extremely popular global information system software suite, costs USD 1500 for a single-user license and Microsoft Access, an overwhelmingly popular database software costs USD 99 per license. More specialized software such as Autodesk costs USD 4000 for a single license. Increasingly interpretive projects and publications call for visualizations that require the detail and complexity that expensive proprietary software can provide.

Whether they are students or professionals, archaeologists generally do not have the money to purchase the sophisticated software with expensive licensing, so the copies are often illegitimate, and can stop working at any time. While it would be imprudent to identify specific individuals, archaeologists generally have thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of illegally downloaded software to perform everyday tasks and do not hesitate to publish results and visualizations gained from using this illegal software.  Whether or not the archaeologist has a philosophical commitment to Open Source and Creative Commons, it is in their interest to prevent the catastrophic data loss that is possible with proprietary formats and illegitimate software. To this end, LP Archaeology has developed their own database software called ARK, which is open source and available for archaeologists to download.

Sadly, much of the proprietary software that archaeologists use has not been replaced by similar open source software. Even in cases where there are free alternatives such as Open Office, archaeologists do not feel like they have the time to learn something different and worry that the results will suffer. Obviously a more formal study of software use among archaeologists would be required to make steps towards correcting the issues surrounding Open Source software, data formats, and preservation standards. Still, there are many places for archaeologists to fit into the Open Source and sharing spectrum, whether it involves Creative Commons licensing for photographs or developing specialized software — supporting these efforts would benefit our collections, our connection to our stakeholders and the longevity of the archive.”

Is it ethical to use pirated software for archaeological work? Why or why not?

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Pseudoscience, Archaeology, and the Public

There’s a minor tussle going on over at Aardvarchaeology and Archaeological Haecceities over a public lecture at Linnaeus University in Sweden. The lecture is by Semir Osmanagich, a fringe “archaeologist” who claims to have found pyramids in Bosnia. I actually posted about this back in 2008 with photos of some of the nice geological sections that have been gouged into the hill:

https://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2008/10/12/the-bosnian-pyramids/

When I saw the invite to the lecture “The Bosnian Valley of the Pyramids in Context,” I have to admit that I cringed–surely a university wouldn’t lend any credibility to this obvious hoax. In the comments over at Aardvarchaeology, Cornelius Holtorf explains, courtesy of Google Translate:

We invite him, not because we are his interpretations of scientific seriousness, but because we think we have to discuss his work and its effects. The Bosnian pyramids have affected not only tourism and the perception of cultural heritagein Bosnia, but is also how we look at the cultural heritage of the wider community. Can fictional heritage have the same (or greater) power than genuine cultural heritage? What is it that the tourists are really looking for when they visit cultural heritage sites and how they present archeology and heritage to the world media so that it has an impact? What is Osmanagich himself at his critics within the scientific archeology and the archaeologists who work in Bosnia?”

This should be an interesting talk–I’d very much like to see the lecture and the discussion afterwards. Osmanagich’s work is fascinating in this respect; how did he get so far with such an obvious hoax? Why is the idea of pyramids in Bosnia so compelling to so many people? I admire Dr. Holtorf’s work and would like to be as high-minded, inclusive and controversial as he is–I mean, why not discuss the implications of imaginary heritage when compared to actual cultural heritage? Sadly I think I would have a problem getting past Osmanagich’s wanton destruction of actual archaeological sites while bulldozering for imaginary architecture, and I hope someone at Linnaeus University takes him to task for that. A full rundown of the situation is available on wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosnian_pyramids

Oddly enough, an interesting parallel popped up on the Catalhoyuk facebook page–a handful of posts by Artūras Jazavita, projecting a “proportional grid” on many of the photographs of artifacts and architecture:

His proposition is that the Catalhoyuk “proportional grid” is the same as Gobekli Tepe, a claim that oddly echos some of the recent academic literature about Gobekli. By posting his photos on my blog, am I giving him undue credence? Or am I putting it into context, much like the invited lecture above? Should the Catalhoyuk Facebook page owner delete the posts? I actually find the inscribed photographs strangely beautiful, though completely imaginary in their claims:

By offering high-quality digital images to the public, there is a risk of our photographs being co-opted by pseudoscientists who use them to advance these specious claims. We could restrict access to the photographs, or not invite controversial speakers to our universities, but perhaps this would rob us of the chance to counter the claims, or even for us to draw inspiration from their imaginations. As I understand the situation, Dr. Holtorf wants to know why Osmanagich’s work is so compelling, and perhaps then try to refocus this public interest back to actual cultural heritage. Artūras’ images made me want to take out my drawing tablet and sketch on some archaeological photographs. Can we co-opt the co-opters? Can we steal back the imaginations of the public from the psuedoscientists?

Meditation on a Broken Horse

Sure enough, among the chalk rubble, medieval pot sherds and sheep bone, there they were–big, articulated bones. Not really something you want to find during what was supposed to be the last day of digging, but most archaeologists will tell you that is exactly when you find the most important, or in this case, the most complicated digging–the last day.

There was a lot of speculation about the position of the horse, whether it was one horse or two, but I just kept digging–the bones would reveal all. The sacrum of the horse was wedged into a tight cut and upside-down, looking all the world like the folks trying to cram it into the hole in the chalk had to actually widen the hole specially for it. Various comedy scenes fired in my head as I carefully cleaned between the caudal vertebrae, up the lumbar, revealing the ribs.

On its back, the horse’s ribs formed an arching, cavernous void. I brushed the rich, brown, midden-soil from ribs, each that mottled orange-white of freshly excavated bone. I found the teeth shortly afterwards, thinking at first that the head had been removed, but no–it was arched back sharply toward the tail, in a backwards, upside-down fetal position. The legs were covering the head, making the horse look like it was cowering, hiding its eyes. We realized that the legs had been chopped off and thrown in on top.

It was breakfast time, and the site cleared out. Though the horse had been adequately excavated (especially considering the distinct lack of time we had to remove it from the ground) I wanted to spend a little more time with it. It was sunny that day and mottled patches of sunlight shone through the old oak trees around the site. I gave the horse skeleton a gentle final clean, clipping away roots and removing stray pebbles from its eyes, shoulders.

I’m getting married this week–my fiance and I dug up the horse together, sharing tools, chatting about the likely position of the horse, the various bones, what was done and what needed to be done. We work well together and a shared excavation project was a nice change from trying to schedule buses and flowers. Though a bit macabre, the horse is beautiful in its own way, arranged in an unlikely position in a trash pit and revealed centuries later by the hands of two people who are very much in love.