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NWO subsidy for archaeological search engine: ‘There is no physical digging involved!’

When you want to analyse big quantities of archaeological data, you run into the issue that searching through excavation reports is extremely time-consuming. If only there existed a search engine specifically focused on querying these reports… But wait, work on an archaeological search engine focused on Dutch sources is already on its way! With the NWO subsidy Archeologie Telt, digital archaeologists Alex Brandsen, Milco Wansleeben and Karsten Lambers are including German, English, and Belgian sources, continuing and expanding on a fruitful collaboration with Suzan Verberne from LIACS.

Accessing archaeological information

‘The goal of this NWO project is very similar to the project we are already running: making it easier to access written archaeological information through a search portal.’ Dr Karsten Lambers explains. ‘We are currently focusing on unpublished excavation reports but will soon include books and journals as well.’ The ultimate goal is making these sources accessible to scholars and journalists alike.

In principle, every archaeological project should be concluded by a finishing report. If these reports can be searched through, vast amounts of data will become easily accessible for analysis.

Information science

Alex Brandsen, currently finishing his PhD, will take on this project as a postdoc. His work is unlike any of his archaeology colleagues. ‘I am basically researching information science: programming, extracting information from texts.’ He laughs. ‘There is definitely no physical digging involved!’

The search engine should function as a starting point for people wanting to tackle an archaeological research question. ‘We envision it to be used by everyone working in the archaeology sector, a true Archaeological Google!’


This, of course, sounds easier than it is. ‘Until now we have been focusing on Dutch language sources. A really big step that we are going to take now is to expand the search engine to the German and English language. That means that you will need to link keywords from different languages: Neolithic, Neolithicum, Jungsteinzeit. Technically, this is quite challenging, and we are using Artificial Intelligence to help us do this.’
But of course, you can only search through reports that actually have been digitised. ‘Nobody knows how many excavation reports have been digitised.’ Alex shrugs. ‘I guess around 70-80%, and most of these have been produced in the past 20 years.’ One of the project’s components is to encourage digitisation of sources by third parties. ‘The Royal Library in The Hague (Koninklijke Bibliotheek) has some 7,000 archaeological documents that have not been digitalised. Digitising these sources is one of the project’s goals.’

Case studies

It is clear that this project entails far more than ‘just’ programming work. ‘We will do several case studies using the search engine to investigate specific archaeological research questions.’ Furthermore, close cooperation with archaeological stakeholders like the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed) and Archol will ensure that the search engine is supported by the sector. ‘We hope that many people will use this new search engine,’ Karsten concludes. 

Also see the interview with Alex Brandsen.

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