Global digital archive provides accessible link to the past
EU-funded researchers have digitally connected valuable archaeological sources from around the world, providing easy online access to professionals and instilling a culture of information sharing in the field.
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The ARIADNE project has created a registry of archaeological repositories and a portal to search and access them. At present, about 2 million records are retrievable. Users can filter their search by time period (e.g. the first century BC), place (e.g. Western Mediterranean), object (e.g. amphorae) and access a list of potentially relevant documents in several languages.
“We have set up a search engine for archaeology, but an intelligent one that is clever enough to return only what the user is looking for,” says ARIADNE scientific coordinator Franco Niccolucci from the University of Florence in Italy. “The success of a tool such as ARIADNE will ultimately depend on its usage. We estimate that a third of European archaeologists used the portal in 2016, even though it was incomplete at the time. There is a queue of institutions willing to have their repositories included in the registry, and new ones are being added continuously.”
Digital technologies are very important for archaeology because they enable documentation upon which research into the past is based to be stored and retrieved. Traditionally, digital repositories have been treated as information silos, without the capacity to communicate with each other. Archaeological data also tends to be scattered across a wide range of collections, journals and sometimes inaccessible and unpublished fieldwork reports.
This means, for example, that a researcher studying ancient trade routes through the distribution of Roman amphorae in the Mediterranean would need to consult unconnected archives spread across France, Italy and Spain a process that can be expensive and impractical.
ARIADNE was established to better integrate data and encourage a research culture of information sharing. This was achieved by linking knowledge currently dispersed across many repositories with the processing power of information technology.
“A famous archaeologist said in 1829, ‘no discovery is possible in archaeology without the mutual assistance of other researchers and the continuous circulation of information’, and this became our project motto,” says Niccolucci.
Project partners began by looking at existing archaeological data sets and reference tools and analysing current standards used in data retrieval. A survey of users’ needs regarding data provision was carried out to support data integration. They paid particular attention to documentation standards that reflect specific archaeological needs. The partners developed language-processing tools to deal with large amounts of unstructured textual data.
“Although we have succeeded in connecting a huge amount of data, we have learnt that the amount of information that needs to be processed is continuously increasing,” says Niccolucci. “That provides us with an incentive to continue this work. The number of research institutions that are interested in joining ARIADNE also continues to grow, which is great to see.”
Such enthusiasm will help the ARIADNE team establish a more open and inclusive approach to digital documentation in archaeology, which is one of the project’s key aims. In turn, this achievement will lead to greater collaboration and, ultimately, better research outcomes.
“In the long run, this will help to move the popular caricature of archaeology as something from the realms of adventure towards the domain of modern science,” says Niccolucci. “Archaeology should be a mix of field investigation integrated with precious knowledge contributed by others, all made accessible by tools such as ARIADNE. This will provide the basis for answering some fundamental questions concerning the history of mankind, such as ancient migrations, the spread of technologies and agricultural techniques, and so on.”