June 30, 2006

Uncovering progress in FOSS-based archeology

Author: M. Fioretti

Modern archeologists deal with immense quantities of numerical data. Processing that data can require highly customizable software, but, as in many disciplines, computer usage often remains limited to producing fancy PowerPoint slides. Yet for a variety of reasons, it makes sense for software in archeology to be open, viewed as a service, and controlled by the user community. In this way, even institutes with very small budgets can play a significant role.

The discovery of the free software philosophy and development model in archeology is a consequence of several methodology problems that caused what some call the "great crisis" of archeology. According to researcher Benjamin Ducke, "Since the 1990s ... there has been a lot of development on fundamental quantitative methods but no software to put them into practice on a broad scale." However, Ducke continues, today there is much more awareness of what is possible and needed, as well as the notion that free software and formats can play an essential role. Many researchers have realized that proprietary archeology software is a dead end from many points of view, both scientific and economic.

Archeological research is based on replicating and analyzing what others have done. That requires unrestricted access to both data and the algorithms used to generate or process them -- a philosophy that plays well with free software.

Money-wise, archeology is less attractive to commercial software developers than many other disciplines, since it has small budgets, a small market, and doesn't usually produce anything with any commercial value. It is also not uncommon for an archeological project to last through several generations of scientists, and all the tools that all the researchers used must always remain available. Relying on closed software from a single supplier can be dangerous in such a scenario.

Signs of interest

Lately, several archeologists and organizations, the majority of whom are based in Austria, Germany, and Italy, have started using and developing free software and advocating its adoption among their colleagues.

Since the early 1990s, Italy has been the home of the Archeologia e Calcolatori journal, which discusses ICT usage in archeology.

The Arc-Team recently released version 1.1.0 of the ArcheOS, Linux distribution for archeologists (screenshots here), and is eager to receive feedback from the community.

German researcher Benjamin Ducke and his department at the University of Kiel regularly use free software.

The Internet and Open Source in Archeology (IOSA) research group in Genoa maintains a portal full of valuable resources for the international community.

Tuscany contributes with ASIAA, the Laboratory of Spatial Analysis and Information Technology Applied to Archeology, coordinated by Professor Riccardo Francovich and Doctor Giancarlo Macchi. After releasing, free of charge but without source code, some utilities for intersite archeological studies, ASIAA is now developing an archeo-data management system, which should be released under FOSS licenses. This product will be based on PostgreSQL with PostGIS extensions, GRASS, and Mapserver. ASIAA also brings free software to the International Summer School in Archeology of the University of Siena; there are still seats available for the next course, scheduled for 10 - 17 September 2006 in the archeominerary park of San Silvestro.

The to-do list of FOSS archeologists

When it comes to office automation, archeologists are no different than other desktop users. Their field work, however, requires advanced geographical information systems (GIS) and 3-D modeling techniques. Laser scanning, for example, can be useful in archeology. The evaluation of free software alternatives for many of these tasks is just starting, but already looks promising. Tools such as BRLCAD, a modeling system developed by the US military, and the System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses, have been proposed for inclusion in ArcheOS.

Another typical archeological problem is the fact that to dig and study a site you have to destroy it. Voxel graphic techniques can create complete virtual models that preserve the original archeological record and permit its analysis. This could happen via GRASS and Paraview or directly with 3-D interpolation in the GRASS voxel space itself. Photogrammetric stereo-reconstruction, however, is still waiting for a free software solution. The best candidate to fill this gap could be, when ready, the digital photogrammetric workstation e-foto.

The Grosseto workshop

All this and more was discussed in May in a workshop at Grosseto, Tuscany. The event was such a success that the closing discussion lasted almost two hours, ending only when attendants had to leave to avoid being locked inside the building! At the end of the workshop, ASIAA's Giancarlo Macchi says, practically everybody was convinced that free software could be a good thing for archeology. While many people are still unsatisfied with the usability of some programs, Macchi says, they are now aware that free software can build better tools and revolutionize how archeologists have used computers so far, enabling them to develop and use on a large scale rigorous methods of quantitative analysis.

In spite of all these promising indications, the biggest obstacle to open archeology is data, rather than software. As we noted, without complete data it is impossible to replicate, validate, and extend others' research. Consequently, data must remain available for many years or decades. Switching to non-proprietary, completely documented formats, however, is only the technical part of the solution: who owns the data? Who can (re)distribute them?

Sometimes data are kept secret out of jealousy or envy but, much more often, they are held hostage by bureaucracy or even laws. Luca Bezzi of Arc-Team, for example, points out that in Italy, sharing data before publication by the Superintendence to Cultural Heritage is against the law. Releasing data under Creative or Science Commons licenses would greatly improve the situation, but could never be a complete solution.

Until these issues find answers, the usefulness of free software and initiatives such as the archeocommons will remain limited.

The Grosseto workshop will be repeated next year in Genova. The exact date should be decided next September, and Stefano Costa of IOSA will coordinate the organization. On the calendar for next October is a free software session of the international Archeologie & Computer Workshop in Vienna. In the meantime, anybody who wants to know more about these issues or discuss them with other pro-FOSS archeologists is invited to join the "Foss in Archeology" mailing list.

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