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Exploring the opportunities of big data in archaeology

‘Big data’ is currently a hot topic and it is extremely relevant for archaeology, as new digital methods and a data explosion are radically changing archaeological research. What exactly is big data and how can we apply new data science techniques in archaeology? This was the topic of the 19th LCDS meeting, hosted by the Faculty of Archaeology on 12 May 2017.

Archaeology has been using quantitative techniques, such as statistics, and computers since the 1960s. But recently, the discipline has come to a point where the entire workflow of archaeological research - from acquiring data to analysis, visualisation and publication - is going digital. Computational methods and tools such as image analysis and 3D modelling provide us with new insights. On top of that, an explosion of available data is completely changing the field.

Big questions in archaeology

The 19th LCDS meeting focused on the challenges and opportunities of big data for the discipline of archaeology.  Where is the place for big data in archaeology? What does it look like? And how can big data be related to the discipline`s most important research questions? Dr. Tim Kerig focused on these ‘big’ questions and how they affect the nature of the discipline.

Karsten Lambers
Karsten Lambers

Subsequently, several case studies were used to exemplify various approaches. Dr. Karsten Lambers talked about automated approaches to archaeological trace detection in complex remote sensing data. He reviewed the chances and limitations of these recent approaches and discussed future avenues of research in this field.

Making old data accessible

Alex Brandsen discussed the application of data mining methods to old excavation reports. As Brandsen argues, these data intense ‘grey literature’ reports should be analysed and indexed with discipline specific adaptions. That way, a visual search and querying service can be provided, which allows researchers to quickly find the most relevant digital resources in the available repositories.

The second part of the meeting focused on network analysis with two lectures presented by Dr. Angus Mol and Dr. Christina Williamson. Where Mol discussed the theoretical background to network analysis in archaeology, Williamson presented a very interesting case-study focusing on agonistic festivals in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Combining data is the main challenge

What became apparent through the various talks, is that archaeology has very specific questions. Archaeologists work with very complex and heterogeneous digital datasets; archaeological and environmental data tend to have very different resolutions and scales. The main challenge is thus to combine data and to analyse it in a meaningful way. In order to do that well, bringing together expertise from different fields is crucial.

This LCDS meeting was truly interdisciplinary, leading to fruitful discussions between archaeologists and computer scientists: exactly what LCDS aspires to achieve.

During its monthly meetings, the Leiden Centre of Data Science brings together data scientists and researchers/professionals from other disciplines. Each of the events is centered around a specific topic or field of study. If you would like to stay updated on the events LCDS organizes, please subscribe to our mailing list.