This month we catch up with Willeke Wendrich, IDRE board member, on some of the technology, developments, and highlights in the field of Archeology.
Wendrich is editor in chief of the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE), an online database for archaeologists. She also serves as Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archeology. The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA is a premier research organization dedicated to the creation, dissemination, and conservation of archaeological knowledge and heritage.
Shifts in the field of Archaeology
According to Wendrich, both archeological recording and reconstruction techniques have been made increasingly more digital. Thanks to new technology, there has been an overall shift away from destructive archaeology. Most traditional recording methods, such as soil analysis, can only be done once and requires extensive physical excavation.
But now, with methods such as GIS (Geographic Information System), researchers can walk the landscape to point out important plot points, find concentrations, and perform extensive underground analysis without disturbing the location.
Archeologists are also regularly using LiDAR (Light detection and ranging) in combination with drone photography/videography to capture landscape data points. Wendrich points out that some of these methods used can be as recent as five years ago.
With photogrammetry and smart algorithms, researchers can reconstruct long lost architectural structures in 3D models. Not only can they source from new photographs taken with the purpose of recreating that model, but also from crowdsourcing old photos.
All these non-destructive technologies reinforce the goals of archaeology, which is the preservation of history, and knowledge for the long term.
But it doesn’t stop there. Wendrich also notes that there is a cultural shift in how archeology is conducted. Archeologists are more conscious of the colonial past and have shifted gears to share and return some of the power back to the communities that live around those sites.
Wendrich calls this a “teaching-learning continuum,” where the focus shifts to creating, sharing, and learning together with the people who live there where the archeology is carried out.
Changes in online data publication
Subsequently, Wendrich explained that there’s an active effort to stimulate researchers away from the impressionist way of description to a more dynamic and data-centric publication of archeology.
This dynamic format would facilitate the archeologists’ ability to go back and forth between various databases and interpretations.
Many authors publish their works at the end of their careers. But when they publish their results, it’s a messy compilation of 20-30 years of data that has to be cleaned. Such efforts to retranslate into a database format yields both unnecessary busy work and introduces mistakes. Especially when the questions, ideas, and measurements of the data changes over time. This makes it a very inconsistent process.
“We want authors to not think of a publication as something that is fixed but something that’s that should be used. We do that by making spreadsheets, databases, and interactive mapping available online as part of our publications”, Wendrich remarks.
Archaeology, by definition, is a painstakingly interdisciplinary effort. By and large, it’s a collaboration between specialists for excavation and remote sensing, to a slew of people who study the different fields of human, animal, plants, ceramics, textiles or plant remains, and more. In order to get a broad understanding of the past, researchers must move away from working in isolation.
That’s why it’s important to have a digital platform that can provide an accessible database of research. Data can now be combined in ways that were not possible before and new interpretations of the past can be made. Researchers are more able to analyze layers and layers of data in space and through time.
This ability to look at long-term development in humanity to what the promise of archeology is all about.
Archeology is not the great discovery of tombs that is so often touted by news headlines or the Discovery channel, as the namesake implies.
“I see those kinds of great discoveries as more like a treasure hunt rather than what we try to find out, which is human behavior, human interaction with the environment, and human/animal relationships. All these deeply human questions that have great relevance for the present. But they are not spectacular in the sense that they’re not gold, they’re not treasure…What I think is the real treasure of archaeology is what is deeply human in us nowadays and what can be recognized as a deeply human in the past”, Wendrich emphasized.
Unexpected Pandemic influence
With the pandemic, came the shift from in-person events to online interactions. As a result, these remote sessions had led to broader outreach for Wendrich.
She recently gave an online lecture for Harvard University, with over 200 people in attendance. Instead of what would normally be an audience of perhaps 50, she was able to reach people as far as Egypt, Ethiopia, and different countries in Europe.
Over the summer, her department’s Pizza Talk lecture series started to gain traction beyond the normal professional participants to the broader public.
“People who are willing to stretch themselves and stretch their understanding of archaeology now have a great resource all of sudden and are getting access to recent research”, Wendrich observed.
An ongoing project she’s excited about is the Digital Nubia, a digital reconstruction of the entire landscape of the Nile Valley before the building of the Aswan High Dam. Wendrich has been working on and off this project for the last five years. After the huge rescue efforts led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) effort in the 1960s.
This digital model will link out to all current research information, photographs, videos, and publications. Through digital humanity, digital anthropology, and digital ethnography, the model will combine all the knowledge that we have about the area through space and time.
Thanks and Considerations
Wendrich is thankful for IDRE as she considers it the foundation for all of her digital work. She credits Chris Patterson for developing the original Encyclopedia of Egyptology back in 2008.
“It’s just amazing work. To get the site started, to be able to share my vision, and share my vision with her and then have her vision working with that to create this thing,” said Wendrich.
She also made special mention of Deidre Brin, Digital Archaeology Lab and Data Publication Director, the Digital Research Consortium, Young Research Library, UCLA Digital library, and Digital Humanities minor for being part of a network of resources and help at UCLA.
Finally, she gave thanks to the UC President’s Catalyst grant, which helped fund her digital efforts to preserve cultural heritage.