Thursday, 30 January 2014

Holographic archaeology -- introduction

Garton Chariot Iron Age burial
© Trustees of the British Museum
The photograph on the left shows the spatial context of finds at an Iron Age chariot burial. A single stratum is depicted, as would be expected for such a site. The location of each object in the grave will be plotted and the meaning of each object will be relevant to the grave, itself. We could easily imagine that the chariot parts and fittings was intended to accompany the grave's occupant to be reused in some sort of an afterlife. If the site can be successfully carbon-dated, certain objects within the grave might be dated to that same period. As carbon dating gives only a set of date ranges plotted against percentages of probabilities, a greater accuracy for the burial might be obtained from typological and metallurgical analyses of the fittings we see. This can only go so far, though, without some comparisons made to other, similar sites in the region and even further afield. Gradually, we hope to build up a picture of burial practises at this site and for the time and/or culture, generally. An archaeologist who is focusing on the site would relate everything to the site. He or she might also say that if these objects had been scattered by deep ploughing then the context would be lost and the objects would tell us very little. Another archaeologist might see that one of the objects was extremely rare and had only ever been found as stray finds. That person might be constructing a typology of this class of object and the grave might thus help with the relative chronology in that project. The grave, itself, would thus be supporting evidence and the focus would be on that one object. The importance of the grave can only exist within the context of other importances in the mind of any observer. The site might also have other importances that are less obvious. Perhaps a new housing estate had been planned for that site and the grave was discovered  as part of that process. The importance to the developer would be very different to that of each of the other archaeologists, but that importance could affect the way the excavation is carried out -- especially if the archaeologists were hired by the developer! Or, let us imagine that an archaeology program at a university has been threatened by a reduction in its funding and this excavation, by that department, could swing the scales in its favor -- if it is important enough and the work can be published before the next budget meeting!. The university is a  business concern -- if such a site increases the interest of local kids in studying archaeology, then perhaps the funding should not be cut right now. Each viewpoint has its own set of importances, and there can be many more viewpoints than I have mentioned here.

A hologram shows an object from all points of view. If the hologram is broken, only certain points of view will be possible. Imagine that none of the objects are subjected to metallurgical examination (actually a common neglect): the archaeometallurgist would find nothing of use here. What if the typologist was looking for a specific detail that was not properly recorded in the excavation report and could not be discerned in the photograph? He or she would probably remain completely unaware of the potential importance of the site.

Various importances can be plotted on a mind map. I show the mind map above because of its good quality and that it also incorporates elements of an expert system. It would  be of great value to doctors, pharmacists and patients, alike. It does not neglect any aspect of its subject's importances. Now, imagine if the above mind map was also part of a larger study -- it might one for pain killers, anti-inflammatories, or heart medications. Aspirin and other salicylates being just one of its components. We are still dealing with a two dimensional representation. Just like the photo of the excavation, it will show only a single stratum. To represent other strata. Let's say the study focuses on pain killers, then similar mind maps might be constructed for opiates, and other methods of killing pain. It would not even have to include just various drugs -- it could include psychological coping mechanisms for pain, control of pain through hypnosis, paint treatments used by Bushmen in the Kalahari. The basic sort of mind mapping would present all sorts of problems, but more sophisticated systems can do much better. Take The Brain, for example. This product adds extra dimensions to a simple mind map, and you can shift from one importance to another and have a whole new visual mind map. Explore it for yourself here. Click on anything you like, and then click on something that is thus brought forward and keep repeating that process. If you get lost then just click on the "welcome!" tag again. I use this myself and can't think what I would do without it.

So far, the subject of all the various importances in any of our projects must be pre-determined, and that can be difficult if we actually want to to know them (many will be unconcerned about things outside of their own sense of what is important). What if we have recorded something focusing on one importance, and later think of another importance? Chances are that the primary recording will not be of much use for the second application.

This has happened before, many times: someone is shooting a photograph -- lets say of a friend in a landscape setting. The friend is in focus, but people or things in the background are blurry. Later, it is discovered that there is an important detail in the photograph -- Let's say it is some crime playing out in the background that was unnoticed by the photographer. The police later put out a call for anyone at the scene at that time, and the photographer steps forward. The police see that the criminal in the photograph, but despite what TV programs show happening in forensic labs, a clear likeness is not going to be created from that blurred image.  However, if the camera had been a Lytro which uses light field technology, you can focus on anything after you have taken the photograph. This is related to holographic technology in that viewpoints can be switched after the fact.

Of course, there is no magic technology that will restore a neglected importance in an archaeology report. You are just going to, somehow, discover what might be important later. This series will teach you ways of doing just that. It is not about what you think is important, but what the subject tells you is important. What you have to do is to not think at all, because the more you think, the less you will know. I'm going to teach you how to do that. How to discover importances, and not just apply your own.

The posts in this series will be occasional, but in sequence. I will (at the very least) provide a link to the previous episode in each post. The point of departure for each post will be something I had already done for my Coriosolite coinage research, but that might be applied elsewhere.

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