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Digital Lifetimes: Data Worth Saving

Data worth saving: layers of images from deep underwater archaeology sites enable later virtual exploration. ©VENUS archive

If you ever get a sinking feeling that all your photos and correspondence stored digitally may one day be lost in a computer crash or due to some future software incompatibility, then you might empathize with the folks who spend their professional lives thinking about ways to ensure digital forms of cultural heritage don’t disappear into the ether.

In fact, yesterday and today, people concerned with preserving digital 3D visualizations of ancient sites and other digital cultural heritage objects are meeting in London for a conference entitled Visualizations and Simulations, organized under the POCOS (Preservation of Complex Objects Symposia) banner.

I’m not there, but many of the talks piqued my interest, such as the one about the Villa of Oplontis project. This is a 3D, navigable model of a gigantic Roman era villa near Pompei. The villa was so enormous that the archeologists trying to excavate the site 20 years ago never managed to find its limits. The villa had at least 99 rooms and a 60-meter swimming pool. For comparison: An Olympic-sized swimming pool is 50 meters long. Although excavators never did find the villa’s perimeter, they did acquire an immense amount of architectural information about the place. This is being used to develop what sounds like a cool 3D digital model of the villa.

Room 32 in the Villa Oplontis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Art historian John Clarke is one of the leaders on the Oplontis project. He told me (by email) that his team is ensuring a good lifetime for all the digital recreation work by building a database of archival and photographs of the site, at very high resolution, just in case better software is developed than what they are using—and presumably in case there is some future incompatibility.

Saving the raw data in an accessible place is a priority for Jenny Mitcham, a curatorial officer for the UK’s Archaeological Data Service. This mega database holds “a wide range of digital objects, from the simple to the complex” including digital images, databases, spreadsheets, GIS, vector graphics, geophysics (of various types for both land-based and maritime), photogrammetry, laser scanning data, 3D visualizations.

(I had to look up photogrammetry. Wikipedia says it’s “the practice of determining the geometric properties of objects from photographic images.” Apparently it’s been used since the 19th century to do everything from measure tornado speeds to enable police forensics or archeology.)

One cool application of photogrammetry is the VENUS project, where folks are building new tools for virtual exploration of deep water archeology sites.

Here’s the deal from the website: “Underwater archaeological sites, such as shipwrecks, offer extraordinary opportunities for archaeologists due to their low light, low temperature and a low oxygen environment which is favourable for archaeological preservation. However, these sites cannot be experienced at first hand and are in constant jeopardy from activities such as deep trawling. The VENUS project will improve virtual access to underwater sites by generating thorough and exhaustive 3D records for virtual exploration.”

Making sure that all the digital goodies coming out of the VENUS program and other projects don’t get lost is a pretty major concern for the Archaeological Data Service. Mitcham mentioned that another challenge of running the ADS is “defining what data is ‘significant’ and therefore most important to preserve…This can be hard to agree on.” She also pointed out that some of the more complex binary and proprietary data can also be difficult for long-term preservation projects such as Archaeological Data Service.

I’m guessing that these issues and a lot more (such as the ethics of digital preservation) are being discussed by delegates right now…

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