From pottery to programming
Interdepartmental collaboration applies ancient ideas to modern computer networks
Although the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester is only a few hundred metres across campus from the Department of Computer Science, there would seem at first glance to be a great gulf between the two subjects. Yet a new research programme is bridging that gap, while also incorporating the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester and archaeologists from two other British Universities.
Tracing Networks is the name of a major undertaking to study the spread of technical and artistic knowledge around and across the Mediterranean from the late Bronze Age to the Classical period, which is roughly 1500BC to 200BC. By studying the networks involved, the researchers hope to develop new ideas which can be applied to 21st century computer networks.
"We’re looking at movement, but not of trade or objects," explains Professor Lin Foxhall of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. "We’re looking at the movement of knowledge: how it spreads geographically and how it can jump from one craft to another."
Styles and techniques may spread in numerous different ways such as migration, conquest, trade or simply the natural dissemination of an innovative idea which improves on existing knowledge.
“Studying knowledge allows us to trace things that we can’t otherwise study," says Professor Foxhall. “For example, cooking technology follows the spread of food. We can also look at coins, not as objects in their own right or even as a monetary system, but as a technology."
As well as obvious, visible factors, the researchers will be able to analyse objects geochemically – but, for the most part, non-destructively. Such analytical work will enable the team to discover, for example, the origin of the clay used in pottery or the component parts of dyes and paints.
“Archaeological material is scarce and often in a very fragile state and instrumental technologies improve all the time," points out Dr Ann Brysbaert of the Department of Museum Studies. “We always look into employing non-destructive techniques where possible so that future work with new research questions and newly developed methods can still carry out groundbreaking research too."
Professor Foxhall and Dr Brysbaert are working with Professor Colin Haselgrove and Dr Ian Whitbread from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History and Professor Jose Fiadeiro and Dr Emilio Tuosto from the Department of Computer Science. Professors from the Archaeology Departments at Exeter and Glasgow are also involved.
By studying thousands of different objects, including pottery, coins and loom weights, the researchers will be able to create an ‘ontology’ which will represent the connections and networks involved. These will then be recreated as computing ‘paradigms’ which can be applied to the way software applications organise themselves in 'global computers' (wide area networks).
“With a database, you can only retrieve information directly from the stored data – provided that you know the right questions to ask," explains Professor Fiadeiro. “We will build an ontology-based repository and collaborative environment which will be able to infer new knowledge and reveal things that we could not otherwise find."
Tracing Networks: Craft Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond (to use the full programme title) has been funded through the Leverhulme Trust. The theme for funding bids to the Trust in 2008 was ‘networks’ and the University of Leicester proposal was awarded a grant of £1,729,180 to cover five years of work. Outputs from the project are likely to include books, papers, conferences and a permanent website, making the data collected and the links identified available to future researchers.
The gulf between a potter, working his craft in a Greek village three thousand years ago, and an information technology specialist in a 21st century British university is vast. But effective collaboration between Departments, based around expert knowledge and cutting-edge technology, reduces that gulf to a few hundred metres between buildings and ultimately to one click of a computer mouse.