Saturday, 11 April 2015

Keep the revolution going?

Booking plane tickets well advance is always tricky, since one does not know how the conference programmes are going to pan out, but luckily to me, the CAA 2015 organisers in Siena had put a price tag to all workshops on offer on the first Monday, so using that day for travel did not rob me of anything covered by the relatively hefty conference fee. Since I was going to pay everything else than the conference fee, I was early with my bookings and ended up having proper British Airways flights – that turned out not to be so lucky after all on Good Friday. Nevertheless, the flight to the Pisa airport was pleasant, even if the 3.45 am departure from the coach station from Leicester was anything but. Thus, my transport to Siena was not determined by the quickest travel time or lowest cost, but point-to-point delivery that would make the probability of sleeping past the Empoli station or leaving part of my luggage in a train minimal. And hail my luck, the coach passed my hotel on the way to the Medieval upper town of Siena to the coach station that was only a stone throw away. In addition, my room had a balcony. Some luxury for sleeping after five exhausting weeks churning out grant applications and PowerPoint presentations.

I have lately concentrated on visiting the UK chapter CAAs, so this was the first visit to the main conference for a while. Last year the CAA in Paris clashed with the Nordic TAG where I and Phil had a session, so it was definitely not on the cards. Nevertheless, it seemed that the conference had matured and improved during the years without a visit. This may partly be due to the sheer number of the parallel sessions that at points hit eight. Thus, NOT finding suitable presentations felt impossible. A slight criticism could be directed towards the apparent clumping together similar themes: statistics, laser scanning, networks, GIS and geophysics seemed to happen on the same days, sometimes even at the same time. The former was actually good, since one could create pathways through the days following certain themes, whereas the latter split the audience and created moments when some persons should have replicated themselves in order to perform in different sessions.

This time around I was actually a co-session organiser together with Jorn Seubers from Groningen. We had both worked at Crustumerium and since we were involved in exploring the development of ancient towns and cities in central Italy, both using digital methods, it seemed natural to me to suggest we organize a session that emphasizes how we can explain things after describing and analysing material with different methods. Our session was relatively small, but it turned out to be very pleasant with thought-provoking papers. We also got a nice extra, since the organisers placed Lisa Fischer’s paper on the virtual Williamsburg (18th century AD) in our session. But the models were fabulous and the site in the United States is always worth presenting. In the end, it could stand as an example of a kind of reconstructions and educational material one could prepare, if the evidence was there.

Jorn started with some new information about the surface loss and transformation rates in different parts of the main settlement at Crustumerium and how these related to the surface collections. This was a beautifully argued and presented case study and showed also the usefulness of historic maps. I continued with my lamentably limping paper (at the end of my contract I had to prioritize those grant applications), but I could present new figures of the differences in past agricultural needs in southern and northern Etruria at Veii and Volterra. Then Francesca Fulminante presented the University of Rome Tre group’s work on the network analysis of southern Etruria and Latium Vetus. I knew from the start that this would be the centre piece of the session, but due to a programme change some of the audience arrived too late and could not hear the talk with some new landscape interpreting results.

At the beginning of the second part of the session Mariza Kormann (Sheffield Hallam) presented the structural stress modelling of an Early Bronze Age corridor house at a site in the mainland Peloponnese and she and her group could expand the interpretation to explain the usefulness of this structure. The two last original papers of the session were field project presentations. One of our own, the Stockholm Volterra Project, mainly presenting the field schools the Department ran and Andreas Viberg’s GPR results. The second was a lovely Polish project that has been exploring Gebelein in Egypt now for three years with increasingly varied digital methods. Their presentation had nice pictures, solid preliminary results and clarity.

Martin Millett gives a key note

We were lucky with our session, since Professor Martin Millett (Cambridge) was listening it all through and the latter part was partly witnessed by Professor Gary Lock (Oxford), a co-author of the Greek paper. Our session topic also fitted the themes of Martin Millett's key note speech a day before that suggested that we should answer more why questions with our methods. However, his main message was that we may think too small and should be studying vast areas and not just sites with a variety of digital methods. It is true that the Siena GPR results from Rosellae (Saito et al.), presented in the geophysics (or should I say prospection) session of the British School at Rome, are a step into this direction, but these kinds of projects require funding and means, so they are not necessarily possible for everyone. I also disagree with him that this large scale study is something new in landscape archaeology, perhaps in geophysics, but this view may be the result of me having been taught about the Bronze Age and Medieval field systems and county-wide patterns by the best in British landscape archaeology (I can only bow my head in the memory of Mick Aston). Nevertheless, potential for digital explorations at different scales was more than apparent in the conference.

Rushmeier and Forte on the podium

Generally, I went and listened the key note presentations and picked up potentially useful talks for my own work. Thus, I heard less 3D and rock art and more GIS, statistics and network analysis together with databases and a pinch of UAV droids. Some of the key notes were better than others and I must point especially to Holly Rushmeier’s illuminating paper on the early 3D scanning experiments she was involved in during the distant days of the early noughties. Sadly for her, her microphone was having its own show, but the subject matter lifted the paper above the average. Naturally for me, meeting Nicolò dell’Unto from Lund was enlightening as well.

Dell'Unto and 3D models of excavations

The ultimate lessons of this conference were that the combination of least cost and network analyses seems to have especially strong legs (papers by Mlekuž & Taelman and Slayton et al.) and the attempts in agent-based network modelling (Brughmans) are interesting. Annoyingly, the latter was a bit of a black box presentation, where the model was not thoroughly presented, but we were expected to trust the results. Nevertheless, it shows that at some point I have to spend sometime looking at those agent-based modelling tools in detail. The Ariadne project was visible over many days and their session had some promising papers, including a presentation of zoological open access spreadsheets for Italian protohistory (Trentacoste et al.). The Europe-wide collaboration between Archaeology Data Service and the Centro Nazionale delle Richerche also will give us 3D viewers and other tools (Galeazzi et al.). I also got good tips for my future research (Hermon et al.) and was probably presenting just a tad too loudly my opinion about digital revolution as a paradigm change in archaeology, but I am sure Isto (Huvila et al.) can take it. At least I and my fellow Finn had pleasant discussions in the icebreaker party where we Finns placed ourselves strategically at the end of the evening near the remaining chianti barrels.

Lastly and not the least, the whole conference reminded me why we go to certain conferences. Naturally, to keep up-to-date, but also to see friends and to meet new ones. I spent my last night in Siena having dinner with a group of female scholars either from or with a connection to Leiden. It was a lovely evening and also reminded all of us there that archaeological computing is not only a male domain.

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