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444 Interdisciplinary Activity Grant for Alex Brandsen and Wouter Verschoof-van der Vaart

Alex Brandsen and Wouter Verschoof-van der Vaart, PhD candidates in the Digital Archaeology research group and the Data Science Research Programme, have been awarded a 444 grant by Young Academy Leiden. They are going to use it to hold a session in Oxford on improving collaboration between researchers at the interface between archaeology and Machine Learning.

Machine Learning (the technique that gives computer algorithms the ability to learn) has much to offer archaeology, Wouter Verschoof-van der Vaart explains: ‘Archaeology has huge amounts of data to contend with, such as photos taken by satellites and aircraft, which need to be analysed. At present, we look manually at all of this information. If we can teach computers to do this, it would save a huge amount of manpower.’

Improve search engines

Alex Brandsen is conducting research into ways to improve the techniques used to search through digital archaeological reports. In the Netherlands alone, around 4,000 archaeological studies are carried out each year, in preparation for a construction project. This means that around 70,000 reports are now available. However, search engines are by no means able to search through them in an optimal fashion. This is because they don’t yet understand certain concepts. If we say ‘Young Stone Age,’ ‘Neolithic Period’ or ‘5000 BC,’ we mean the same thing. But a search engine doesn’t understand these concepts. More research should make it possible to teach search engines such concepts.

Fragmented field

Research into Machine Learning and archaeology, says Verschoof-van der Vaart, would be given an enormous boost if it was easier for researchers from the two disciplines to contact one another and exchange knowledge. ‘At present, the field is fragmented and many researchers are unaware of one another and the projects that they’re working on. That’s a shame because when we meet face to face we often find out that we are struggling with the same problems. These problems could be solved faster if there was more knowledge exchange.’

Online platform

To address this fragmentation and promote knowledge exchange, Verschoof-van der Vaart and Brandsen want to set up an online platform during a session of the next Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference. This will be held in April 2020 in Oxford. To enable them to carry out their plan, they have been awarded a 444 Interdisciplinary Activity Grant. This grant, which was established to mark the University’s 444 celebrations, is awarded to projects in the field of data and technology.

The grant is most welcome, says Verschoof-van der Vaart. ‘It would have been very difficult to go to Oxford without this funding.’

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