Uncovering the Past, Examining the Future in Archaeology

November 16, 2016

Jody Gordon and LeeAnn Gordon, an art conservator at Museum of Fine Arts Boston, pose before 3D-printed artifacts from Athienou in the Douglas D. Schumann Library & Learning Commons (Photo by Heratch Ekmekjian)

Jody Gordon and LeeAnn Gordon, an art conservator at Museum of Fine Arts Boston, pose before 3D-printed artifacts from Athienou in the Douglas D. Schumann Library & Learning Commons (Photo by Heratch Ekmekjian)

By Greg Abazorius

Jody Gordon, assistant professor of humanities and social sciences, is hoping to change the way scholars disseminate research, while also demonstrating the ways in which modern technology is changing how we unearth the past.

Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology is a collection of 20 case studies that examine how changes in technology and communications have revolutionized the archaeological world. Edited by Gordon, Erin Walcek Averett, and Derek B. Counts, the book is available as a free, open-access download through the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

“Ideally, academic knowledge should be free,” says Gordon. “Other similar books might go for around $150 and take several years to assemble.”

From the outset, the volume publisher, editors, and contributors of Mobilizing the Past agreed that, given the speed of technological change, information within was time-sensitive and needed to be freely disseminated to as many scholars as possible so that they could reuse it.

The “open access” publishing model, according to the International Open Access Week website, calls for “free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and reuse those results as you need.”

Gordon acknowledges that web-based technology has changed the way people collect and disseminate information, noting that more people than ever are learning about the work that he and other archaeologists conduct, and they’re doing it in faster ways.

While archaeologists of previous generations had to spend a longer time at a dig site, sketching items by hand and transporting them back to a different location for analysis, archaeologists today can take 3D images of the site and quickly upload them to an off-site depository without ever having to touch a pen or paper.

“We have an entire generation that was born digital. Many archaeologists are operating this way and doing amazing things that would have been impossible even five years ago,” says Gordon.

Gordon does wonder, however, if such speed can be a detriment to the overall process.

“We’re organizing things better by being paperless, and we’re collecting data quicker than ever before,” he says, “but we’re also leaving sites faster, and there’s value in spending some time at a site, really getting a sense of what went on, and taking the time to interpret things.”

Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future examines those themes through a variety of case studies, taking readers across the world from Pompeii and the Sangro Valley in Italy, to the Andes of South America and the deserts of Israel.

Gordon conducted much of his own work with the Athienou Archaeological Project in Cyprus, the island in the Eastern Mediterranean. Currently, several 3D printed artifacts from Athienou, some of which Gordon has studied in-depth himself, are on display in the Guarracino Family Gallery in the Douglas D. Schumann Library & Learning Commons. Gordon’s interest in the analytical value of 3D printing archaeological artifacts has resulted in a recent collaboration with Wentworth’s director of EPIC Learning, Steve Chomyszak. The two co-published an analysis of the best printing materials to use for the reproduction and study of ancient stone tools.

Gordon’s book on digital archaeology, meanwhile, has been recommended by Forbes.

“Today, just like in many engineering fields, rapid technological change, and the efficiency and new analytical techniques that it brings, is beginning to have a huge impact on the way that we do archaeological research and how we interpret the ancient world,” says Gordon. “That’s one big concept that we’re trying to convey with our book.”

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