At first glance, the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay doesn’t seem like much of a subject for archaeologists. The controversial camp, built to detain suspected terrorists after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, seems far too new, far too contemporary for archaeological research. And if that weren’t reason enough to steer clear, Gitmo remains firmly out-of-bounds to nearly everyone, a terra incognita behind barbed wire on an American naval base in Cuba.
But none of this stopped archaeologist Adrian Myers, who is currently finishing off his Ph.D at Stanford, from taking a good hard look at Gitmo and drawing up the first independent public maps of the facility.
Myers has a particular interest in modern internment camps and prisons, and he thinks archaeology can tell us much more about life in those grim barracks and cells than a stack of official government reports peppered with half-truths and omissions.
Read more at Last Word on Nothing.
I was just at Costco this weekend, wheeling one of those immense, T-Rex shopping carts past the ever-so shiny electronics section, when my eye fell on a row of flash drives. I currently back up all my research and stories on a battered 8 Gigabyte Kingston flash drive that I bought in Cuzco last summer and that I strongly suspect is a knockoff. But Costco’s new line of drives, the LaCies , are 32 GB and look like house keys. I immediately wanted one.
Now you might reasonably think that a brand-new flash drive would win hand’s down every time as a back-up system when pitted against, let’s say, a 5000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet. But you’d be very, very wrong. According to a fascinating study I recently came across by Paul Conway, who teaches in the School of Information at University of Michigan, there is one critical way in which the Sumerian clay tablet, the world’s earliest data storage system, beats the hell out of the flash drive jingling on your key chain. Longevity.
Here’s Conway’s main point. Someone who knows how to read Sumeria’s cuneiform script (which gets its name from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge”–an apt description of the little wedge-shaped marks that Sumerian scribes made with their styluses in moist clay) can still read the message on a clay tablet 5000 years later. Now what about a LaCie flash drive? All the computers we use to read it today will be obsolete in 20 years, and we will have no way of accessing what’s on it. It might as well be a big lump of metal. You scoff? Just think about the stacks of floppy disks that littered our desks back in the 1980s.
Conway calls this “our central dilemma”: the capacity for storing information is soaring exponentially just as the longevity of storage media is plummeting. In other words, the more ancient the storage system, the longer it tends to live. A 4500-year-old Egyptian papyrus can still be read, so can the Dead Sea Scrolls. But a book published in 1851 on acidic paper only has an average life expectancy of 100 years. And the pace of obsolence has greatly accelerated over the past 40 years: if I handed you a computer punch card or a magnetic tape could you read it?
I am not Luddite. I love new technology (bring on the iPad!), but it’s clear to me that Apple, Microsoft and Google don’t have all the answers. Maybe the guys in Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington ought to give a little more thought to cuneiform tablets and a little less to flash-in-the-pan data.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Over the past few months, I have developed very mixed feelings about the internet giant Google. I hate to see how Google is draining the life out of the newspaper industry, slurping up all the advertising dollars that once paid for investigative journalism, foreign bureaus, and very fat papers. All that has largely fallen by the way for many newspapers, who are now firmly focussed on survival.
But having said that, I can see that someone very high up the food chain at Google is passionate about archaeology. On November 25th, I wrote about the 3-D laser scanning project that Google is funding at the Iraq National Museum. The intent is to bring the treasures of Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations from the region to scholars around the world. It’s a wonderful plan.
Now Google has done something else that I really like. It has just posted a Street View of Pompeii, and it’s very, very cool. You are free to navigate the narrow stony streets of the ancient city at your desk, stopping to take a gawk at the market stalls and a spin around the forum. And all on a beautiful, blue-skied day in southern Italy.
I would like to applaud Google this morning for the important new project that it is undertaking in Iraq. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Google will be creating a new virtual Iraq National Museum, by imaging the museum’s crucial collections and placing them online. In a press conference yesterday in Baghdad, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Iraq officials and journalists, “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and ideas of your civilization available to all the people of the world.”
Like many, I am a little skeptical about what use Google might eventually put these images to. The megacorporation has already digitized vast numbers of books (including two of mine) without obtaining permission to do so, and the company is now trying to purchase sweeping digital rights to these books in a lawsuit hardly anyone understands.
But leaving that aside, I’d like to point out that Google is far from alone in its interest in creating virtual museums. Indeed, some research teams are already way ahead of Google. At the Unversity of Arkansas, for example, a team at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology led by Angie Payne has already scanned some 350 artifacts from the collection of the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park in Wilson, Arkansas. The result is the Virtual Hampson Museum.
The Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park holds an absolutely superb collection of Native American pottery, particularly from the Mississipian era. Now with the Virtual Hampson Museum, researchers can perform basic measurements on the artifacts and gather data for analyses, without scraping together grants for traveling. This will be very important for struggling graduate students in years to come.
Moreover, as more and more museums repatriate key artifacts from their collections–either to Native American tribes or to countries of origin– 3-D images of the artifacts can be still be preserved online, providing access to all. I’d call this the best possible solution right now to a very sticky issue.