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Digitizing the Past

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When Adam Rabinowitz was 15 years old, his aunt, an archaeologist, invited him to join her on a dig in Sicily.

Twenty-three years later, Rabinowitz, now the assistant director at the Institute of Classical Archaeology (ICA) at The University of Texas at Austin, is still traveling around the world getting dirt under his nails. And though much remains the same about archaeology since he first picked up a duster brush, a lot has changed.

Adam Rabinowitz
Dr. Adam Rabinowitz
Assistant Director, Institute of Classical Archaeology
Assistant Professor, Department of Classics

“For a long time, the history of archaeology came from the desire to have pretty objects,” he said. “Then, in the 19th century, the desire to prove the historical accuracy of Greek epic poetry, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, became important as well.”

Documentation has always been important to archaeology, but over the course of the 20th century, it became more important to preserve the contextual associations among objects and layers of history. These changes have altered the theoretical underpinnings of archaeology.

“At this point, archaeology is heavily focused on the documentation and recording of contextual associations between things and not just the nice objects themselves,” Rabinowitz said.

Other changes to the field have been brought about by technology. In previous eras, researchers logged their data in notebooks, which were preserved along with photographs, maps and objects, in a physical archive. In fact, Rabinowitz can still access the notebooks and negatives of people who conducted research more than a hundred of years ago at the same sites he is exploring.

Today, archaeologists are more likely to take hundreds of digital photos, notate the information in a spreadsheet on a laptop, and record careful geographically referenced information that only a computer can interpret.

“The development of digital technologies has exponentially magnified the amount of data we’re collecting, simply because we have the tools now to collect a lot more information much more easily than we did in the past,” Rabinowitz said.

Working with experts and resources at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), one of the leading academic computing centers in the nation, Rabinowitz is harnessing the richness of digital data to develop a greater understanding of the past. But the evolution of a digital archeological practice did not occur overnight. In fact, it was arguably decades in the making.

Professor Joseph C. Carter, the director of the Institute of Classical Archaeology, has applied cutting-edge technologies to interdisciplinary projects since he founded ICA in 1974. In the 1990s and 2000s, this focus on new technologies and methods made ICA a leader in the adoption of digital tools such as Geographic Information Systems and relational databases. But the ability to manage technology often lags behind the capability of the technology itself. Rabinowitz knows this personally.

For more information, contact: Aaron Dubrow, Texas Advanced Computing Center, 512 475 9439.

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