Digital archaeology and infrastructures for sharing – an interview with Nicolò Dell’Unto

Nicolò Dell’Unto is an associate professor and senior lecture in archaeology. His research focus on developing digital methodologies for archaeological analysis. He is part of a team that is maintaining and developing the Lund University Digital Archaeological Laboratory (DARK Lab) which is a research infrastructure that develops visualization strategies for analysis of archaeological data.

Karolina: How does open science connect with archaeology?

Nicolò: Open Science (OS) is the key to progress in archaeological studies; however, several cultural and methodological changes are necessary to achieve Open Science in archaeology. I think we need to start implementing digital infrastructures capable of promoting FAIR principles and, most importantly, enable users to produce knowledge. We need also to identify strategies for linking OS to career paths, e.g., how data published through a digital infrastructure can be cited through a DOI and in this way have an impact on the cv of the researcher that shared the data. The covid 19 pandemic was an important moment for mapping limits and potentials of the different infrastructures available. For example, we noticed that many infrastructures mainly provide information about the location where archaeological materials can be retrieved. This is of course very useful, but not sufficient for triggering a process of knowledge production. Since 2020, we have been exploring web visualization systems for making our data, mainly 3D models,  available and useful in situations like the covid pandemic. We experimented with systems based on 3D web visualization, designed to provide people with access to all information they need for running research from home without necessarily installing any software or downloading any dataset to their computer. The Digital Collections available through the DARKLab website were designed with this purpose in mind.

Karolina: Could you explain what the DARK lab’s digital collections contain?

Nicolò: The digital collections available through the DARKLab website are organized into three main categories: Excavations, Monuments and Artefacts. Excavations provide access to 3D datasets acquired during different field investigations. Currently, it is possible to review and reuse data from the archaeological field investigations carried out in Kämpinge, Gribshunden, Västra Vång and Södra Sallerup. Some of these systems were used during the pandemic to support courses in field archaeology, at for example Stockholm University, and link researchers working remotely with material from Gripshunden and Västra Vång. In Monuments, it is possible to access the datasets acquired during the Republican Forum Romanum project, the Swedish Pompeii Pompeii project and the Lund Cathedral project. Furthermore, the 3D web system designed to publish monuments allows the users to explore the models at different resolutions gaining spatial information and morphological details that would be difficult to see on site. The Artefacts are published through the Dynamic Collections web platform, is an ongoing research project developed in collaboration with the Lund University Historical Museum and the National Research Council of Italy CNR-ISTI. The Dynamic Collections project aims to develop a novel 3D web infrastructure to support higher education and research in artefacts analysis. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, all teaching at Lund University moved online, reinforcing the urgency for such an infrastructure. The Lund University Digital Archaeology collections are part of the VR funded infrastructure Swedigarch. This new infrastructure is a large consortium which includes many Swedish universities and Heritage institutions. The idea is to experiment and find solutions for connecting archives, which are very different in purpose. This will give us the possibility to work in synergy.

Karolina: What information can you access and what can you do in Dynamic Collections?

Nicolò: Through the system, you can (1) retrieve several measures such as length and of angles, (2) create different sections of the artefacts, (3) produce high-resolution orthoimages and (4) access meta and para data. Furthermore, it is possible to remove the colour information and manipulate the light to highlight information usually invisible on the original object. The system allows different recording types of annotations.  Once “interpreted”, the artefacts and the annotated interpretation can be saved on the user’s personal computer and shared with others. For example, when studying a specific artefact or group of artefacts you can use the system to annotate your thoughts, retrieve measurements etc. Once finished, you can download and forward your interpretation to a colleague. This person can upload your interpretation on the 3D web platform and further implement the research. This dynamic interaction can also be performed between the teacher and the students in class. The Dynamic collections is an archive (or a repository) of 3D objects. However, a collection is a different things… A collection is an expression of a specific scientific culture. The platform developed for the Dynamic collections project allows users to create personal collections of artefacts assembled to address specific research questions. Furthermore, the collections created through the web system can be authored, described, annotated and shared! This is, in my opinion, the coolest tool that we have developed so far because it allows researchers to use the system to generate new knowledge!

Karolina: In your view and from your experiences, which are the possibilities and challenges related to open science in archaeology?

Nicolò: Open science, in general, is a very broad concept, and this could be confusing… However, working with a broad definition leave us a larger space for experimenting with different solutions. It is utopistic to think that archaeology or any other discipline can become completely open in a very short time. Therefore, we need to work hard to:

  1. Construct new and more innovative infrastructures.
  2. Create new generations of researchers capable of engaging with digital data.
  3. Include and promote research methodologies that require datasets available across different disciplines.

Although there is still a layer of concern among the community of researchers about implementing a fully Open Science approach, I am confident that this process will lead us all into new and more effective research trajectories. Things are changing rapidly, and being part of this change is just great!

More information about Nicolò’s research is available here.

February 17, 2022

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