Monday, March 17, 1997

Can You Dig It?

When computers are combined with archaeology, you can conduct a Paleolithic excavation right in your own home.


David Romano, keeper of the Mediterranean section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, remembers, to the month, when the computer appeared on the horizon in archaeology - or, at least, when it rose to shine over his own professional landscape. The computer was an IBM. As he recalls, it hit the public marketplace in May 1981 - the same month he finished his dissertation.

``It was apparent immediately,'' he said, ``that I could have saved years.'' Since then, Romano has become more than just another computer-friendly professor. In his own decidedly understated way, he is computer-zealous. Romano's most ambitious project thus far is the computer-mapping of ancient Corinth and the region around it - 500 square kilometers - color-coding roads and monuments and farm fields that date to when Julius Caesar set up a full-scale colonial enterprise there.

``We're really just at the birth of this application,'' said Vincent Pigott, associate director for new technologies at the University Museum. Pigott has organized a seminar on computers and archaeology, which will be open to both archaeologists and archaeophiles, Saturday at the museum. The computer, he said, ``is a powerful tool by which to bridge the gap between the professional scholar and the interested public.'' The conference will feature a presentation by Romano, demonstrating how topographical maps, aerial photographs, satellite images and excavation notes may be combined in a computer program such as his Corinth project, so that each piece of information becomes easily accessible, and more significant, for archaeology buffs as well as field researchers.

The conference is part of Penn's celebration of ENIAC, the first all-electric general-purpose computer, which was developed at the university a half-century ago. Gregory Farrington, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, will speak about the development and impact of the machine that ushered in the Information Age. It will also feature a lecture by Carl Eugene Loeffler, research director of the SIMLAB National Robotics Engineering Consortium at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a series of talks by officials from the Dalton School in New York, a wealthy prep school that developed a computerized program designed to take the place of a traditional sixth-grade ancient history course.

But the virtual keystone for the conference may be a presentation by Harold Dibble, curator of the museum's European Archaeology section, of his excavation field work in southern France, composed for computer use as a ``virtual dig.'' Dibble has taken his raw data, from the site research through the actual excavation work to the methodical analysis of his findings - and digitalized the information, dividing it into nearly infinite combinations and degrees of significance and interest.

In acknowledging Dibble's work, the conference is being called ``The Virtual Dig: Computers and the Pursuit of the Past.'' In Dibble's words, his ``virtual dig'' presents each stone tool ``just like I saw it coming out of the ground.''

Dibble came to Penn after designing one of the first museum computer databases, for the Arizona State Museum. Working on behalf of Penn at an excavation site at Combe-Capelle in southern France in the late 1980s, he began using a computer to sort and record data from the Paleolithic period dig. He put together a CD-ROM on the Combe-Capelle dig. He made a virtual dig of the Combe-Capelle dig.

``Each of those points, or shapes, is a tool, or a rock, or something,'' Dibble said last week, moving through the program on his computer. ``. . . The color-coded red is animal bone, and green is tools. . . . ``We can also change the screen,'' he said; the picture switched to assorted piles of red shapes and green shapes. ``We're looking at it from the side. We needed a way of seeing what comes out of the ground. . . . We had to see the patterns, keep control of the stratigraphy. ``You can click on an object in a pack. If you get one with a photo, then you get a black-and-white photo,'' he said. With a click, the green speck became the reality-sized photograph of a paleolithic scraper - the tool that an individual human being used, perhaps to skin a deer or a wild horse, a quarter-million years ago. ``You can't do this in a book. You can't show a lot of color illustrations either, of tools, or what the site was like when you were working there - that kind of stuff,'' Dibble said. ``It would be horribly expensive.''

Dibble's project at Combe-Capelle ran from 1987 to 1990, with a final ``study season'' in 1991. Because his team put all the information gleaned at the dig into computers as the ancient artifacts were uncovered, he was able to complete - and publish - his findings by 1996.

But then, considering the mass of information that he and his assistants had gathered over the years, Dibble realized that he could create a program that would allow anyone to conduct his dig - or their own dig. He provided the data - all of it - as well as his conclusions.

And then he added another challenge. He priced everything - each excavation tool, each activity, even the difference between staying in tents and hotel rooms - and estimated how much money an archaeological team could reasonably expect to garner in foundation and museum grants. The bulk of his own yearly excavation budget, which ranged from $20,000 to $22,000, was funded by the National Science Foundation.

That meant choices: ``You'd like to go in with a dental pick, and recover every little thing. But you can't, because it costs too much money,'' he said. ``The idea of this is to teach students how to do archaeology using real data,'' Dibble said. ``Where to go, how to dig, what to save. . . . `What do you want to do?' '' ``There are really two ways computers can go in archaeology right now: In research, using them in the field and for publishing - and then, this sort of education aspect,'' he said. ``The next step, for virtual digs, is for us to take video photography of the artifacts. . . . I'd like to add sound and video.''

Computers entered museum technology director Pigott's life in 1986. ``Our first digging season in Thailand, in 1985, we did not go into the field with a computer,'' Pigott said. ``And then by the next year, it was quite clear that not having it in the field was putting us at a disadvantage.'' So his team returned to the site near Lopburi in central Thailand armed with the latest in field science: ``Prior to laser theodolite [a surveyor's mapping tool] and a computer, it probably would have taken three months to map a site that I think took us three weeks,'' Pigott said. ``Through virtual reality, you see the walls come up [on an ancient human habitat]. You see the roofs come up . . . the fireplaces reconstructed, storage vessels placed where they would have been. . . . ``There is a gap between the scholar and the interested layman,'' Pigott said. ``And it behooves archaeology to do its best to bridge that gap. I think the days of esoteric, ivory-tower-school research-for-its-own-sake is at an end.''

Besides which, computers can assist archaeologists in saving time, and money, in successfully hunting up really important human relics. That's how Romano sees it; that is what his experience at Corinth has demonstrated. He and two research assistants have set up a Corinth Web site.

``Now we have most of the city in digitalized form,'' he said. ``We're revising the Web site. Everything will be `clickable.' . . . We'll add a bibliography on ancient sources to it.'' As he spoke, graduate students Nicholas Stapp and Guy Munsch were scanning additional data into the Web site on two computers. ``I never dreamed I would be doing this 10 years ago,'' Romano said. ``We can use this technology to predict what will be found in a particular part of town, and direct the actual excavation leader to dig a trench in a certain spot - and find a Roman road,'' he said.

IF YOU GO * ``The Virtual Dig: Computers and the Pursuit of the Past,'' will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33d and Spruce Streets. Fee: $60; $50 for members and senior citizens, or $40 for full-time students. Contact: 215-898-4890. ``The idea of this is to teach students how to do archaeology using real data,'' says Harold Dibble.

Photo: Harold Dibble, European Archaeology curator for the University Museum, composed a virtual dig of an excavation in southern France.

Photo: Vincent Pigott of the University Museum believes the computer can bridge the gap between scholars and interested amateurs.

Illustration: Virtual Dig

© 1997 The Philadelphia Inquirer