On Monday, Eamon and I sat down at Obelix. We both graduated from Saint Anselm College this past May, Eamon with a degree in computer science. With a programming background he has been able to assit the dig in an important and I think surprising way.
I wanted to draw attention to Eamon for a few reasons. He isn’t the profile of a typical archaeology student. I think a great aspect of the field is the variety of experience it invites and requires. There are so many skills which are critical to a successful excavation. Every year we're joined by chemists, architects, latinists, and artists. Last week an archaeobotanist from Oxford came to take samples from Coriglia and the Cavita. In a presentation she spoke about some of her past work in Herculaneum, studying ancient seeds and plant material in an attempt to better understand the ancient Roman diet. There’s so much material to literally sift through and parse; it takes a village.
As we sat down, clouds had started to form over the bar. By the end of our talk it was hailing and lightning had struck disconcertingly close to the metal-framed canopy over us. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation we had before Mother Nature scared us off.
JC: So let’s start. A computer science major on an archaeological dig.
ED: Well, I’m a latin minor. So I found out about the dig being around the Classics department. And there’s sort of that, you know. You hear it hyped up, you hear about it from your friends doing it, sounds fun...It’s also just cool. You know, it’s in Italy, in summer, it’s six weeks. It’s one of those things when you meet somebody new, [they’re] like, “Hey you’re a computer science major?” Yeah, and I’ve been on an archaeological dig. I always bring that up. It’s a cool thing.
JC: ‘Cool’ is a valid reason.
ED: It totally is. So, that’s part of it. It’s sort of like for that experience...It feels weird saying this. I’m not a college student anymore. But, it’s part of college, do what you can. So when your professors run archaeological digs and they say, “Hey, this would be a great experience for you, come.” You take those opportunities.
JC: We talked about it before I started recording and you mentioned it again right now…
JC: The Latin minor. I don’t think that’s an accident, the kid who does programming and also does Latin. In your mind do you see these as completely separate things? Or do you see them related in a way?
ED: With Latin and programming, I like both of them because...it’s sort of like small-scale problem solving. So if I have to write a program to do something, it’s understanding the problem. [It’s] understanding the resources I have available, the techniques I have to approach it and the same thing with Latin. You can look at it a whole paragraph or sentence at a time. I think, “Alright, what’s going on here. How can I read through this, what steps do I have to take. Then, in sort of a similar way, they are both languages. There’s syntax, there’re different ways you can get a feel for for how it works. They’re very different things, but the way they make me think, and the way I have to approach them, it’s certainly similar.
JC: Again, in terms of syntax and problem solving. Has your Latin made your programming better? Vice versa?
ED: Oh. Hmm. Maybe? I’ve been programming for as long as I’ve been doing Latin. I think there’s certainly a connection. Maybe as far as I’m using the same synapses. I can’t really think of a time when one has helped the other...but I’m sure there’s something along those lines.
JC: This year you’re in the Photo Lab, but you were here... two years ago?
ED: Two years ago. So I came two summers ago, and then that following October Prof. George and Prof. Rulman invited me back just to sort of ‘kick-off’ the Photolab. But I wasn’t here last summer.
JC: The last time you were here you were digging. This time you are exclusively in the Photo Lab.
JC: Most would be wondering what they did to deserve that.
ED: I enjoy the Photo Lab. I’ll say that without a doubt. But last year they found all this stuff in C, extensions up by where I was digging, then obviously Dave and his vault. That’s wicked cool...and I’m like, I wanna go back. I want to see this. It’s been two years, so part of me really wants to go. I packed my trowel.
JC: That being said...It’s about to open up.
JC: That being said though, you’re in the Photo Lab for a reason. Your programming and computer science background. How does that tie into what you’re doing right now?
ED: So I’m doing lots of behind-the-scenes database building. One thing is that with all of the photos we take...Well to back up, you really can’t do archaeology unless you publish it. Right? It’s a destructive science, you can only do it once. So if you just do it and you don’t tell anybody about it, it’s waste. It’s wasted. You have to publish it somewhere. When you have all these thousands and thousands of artifacts that come through and you take hundreds of thousands of pictures, there has to be some way you can share that. I’m sort of in charge of creating the database and getting that system up and running so we can publish this data. So what does that mean? It means researching solutions as far as what is compatible or what fits our needs best. It’s also managing these terabytes of data of these photos, so I’m doing lots of that behind-the-scenes stuff. So really, in Photo Lab, I’m not taking photos, I’m not sorting photos, I may provide guidance but I’m doing a whole lot of coding, systems administrating, database management stuff.
JC: And just today right? You were working a program to help sort through all that material.
JC: Without getting too technical, what were you able to do with your programming background to help streamline the photolab process?
ED: So with these hundreds of thousands of photos, there are a lot of things you can do that’re fine for a small scale. As far as taking images and putting them into the database. If you had a few you could click and drag...or right-click, ‘insert the photo’. But that’s impractical to do with everything. So it’s a whole lot of time upfront to get all the code up and running and to do the logic and to get the program. But it has to be done to do this in any reasonable amount of time. So that’s part of the reason I’m here. Because I have that background, I’m able to write the programs and get the algorithms sorted out so that we can push everything up seamlessly….and also so that there’s a structure in place when someone else has something to put up.
JC: By definition your experience of the dig this year is a lot different than someone in field. Have there been instances, special finds for example...things maybe that were dug years before you or I were here, that have made you think, ‘I’m really glad to be in the Photo Lab and able to see this?
ED: Everything in the Photo Lab has been from the cave. So I’ve been able to see everything that’s been pulled out of of the cave which is really cool. So that’s great. I know Kat has been doing some illustrations, so she’s been pulling them out, it’s great to take a look at that stuff.
JC: Do you think your relationship with the artifacts is fundamentally different than if you were in the field?
ED: Ya in a sense. So…I know this isn’t how archaeology should be, but when you find something in the field, it’s your find.
ED: ‘Who found the coin today?’ That’s what people ask.
JC: ‘Who got us ice-cream for after dinner?’
ED: Ya, exactly. So, when you’re in the Photo Lab it’s so much more about the artifact. In a sense it’s about everyone who’s going to see the artifact. The other side of archaeology. My baby, the database, the code, and all that stuff...
JC: It’s a side that’s ostensibly boring.
ED: Well, yeah. I’ll be honest, the sorting and photographing is really monotonous...
JC: But it's some the most critical stuff to do well.
ED: It is! It’s not the fun of digging it up, but it needs to be done. If people weren’t doing this, we could never dig in the first place.
JC: This is totally unfair and I probably shouldn’t use it…Who’s more important, you? Or those monkeys in the field?
ED: Oh, come on.
JC: Haha. I’m sorry. That’s so unfair.
ED: Ya, nobody can say, “the field monkeys” with a straight-face. It’s obviously us...not even a fair question. ⧫
- 7th June 2016
- Posted in Blog Entries