The brilliant technology of the ancient Romans will soon come to life through equally clever 21st century technology.
The city of Jarash, in Jordan, with its sophisticated architecture, irrigation systems and sporting arenas, is being recorded using a Google Earth platform with pop-up balloons attached to geographic place marks.
Archaeologists and computer software scientists are working together to create a website that will make archaeological data accessible and entertaining.
Stafford Smith, an Honours graduate, working with W/Professor David Kennedy, was determined that the information about life in Roman times that they had collected in Jordan would not be consigned to unread tomes on dusty shelves.
"I'm passionate about presenting our results in a popular way," he said.
Enter a team of final-year computer software students doing a unit called Professional Computing, in which they consult on real world problems. Under the supervision of Professor Michael Wise (Computer Science and Software Engineering, and Biomedical Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences) Sandeep Aggarwal, Jenna De La Harpe, Brian Frisch, Mulky Kamath, Andrew Khoo and Sam Spencer took on the project.
"A lot of our projects are along the lines of ‘Here's something we know can be done, now go away and do it'. But with this project, Stafford came to us with an idea and asked ‘Can it be done?'," Sam Spencer said.
"Google Earth is free to use and Google has great support for educational projects, so we set about creating a simple-to-use program using Google Earth plug-ins."
The group developed a web tool they have called LARA (Localised Archaeological Reporting Agent) to manage and search surveys and sites via a webpage. It is named after fictional archaeologist Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video game and film series.
W/Professor Kennedy has been working in Jordan for many years, recording remnants of Roman life, mainly through aerial photography, before they are lost to the relentless tide of development.
Stafford has been to Jordan twice with Professor Kennedy and is currently there again. They have been recording the city of Jarash and its hinterland along with co-director of the project, Fiona Baker from the UK.
"The pace of development is massive," Stafford said. "Within the old original city walls, there is an archaeological park where remains of Roman civilisation are preserved. But outside those walls, everything is being destroyed as roads, houses and buildings are constructed. The area had a big population around 300AD because the Romans had such good irrigation and water systems.
"We had permission from the Jordanian government to go into people's gardens and back yards to find and record artefacts and building remains. Over the past two seasons we have found looted tombs, remains of an aqueduct, multiple inscriptions in Ancient Greek, decorative pieces from Roman homes and foundations of houses. On this current trip, we have found many more tombs, graves, quarries and a scattering of Roman pottery.
"We can build up a picture from these of how ordinary people lived in their homes outside the city walls. Within the city walls, it is mainly public buildings, but we want to know about everyday life, and I want everyday people from the 21st century to be able to learn about it too," Stafford said.
The computer software team has created a system that allows people to ask questions such as "Are there Roman churches in the area?" or "Show me all the water storage systems". Up will pop pictures and data and the visitor to the site can zoom in and out of different sites. The challenge has been to make the format quick to respond and easy to use.
The project is called MASDAA, Making Archaeological Survey Data Available and Accessible.
"We are still working on it but are on track to deliver the website before the end of semester," said Sam Spencer. "Success comes from understanding what the client wants and working hard as a team to deliver it."
"This project means that survey data can be shared with people of all levels of archaeological and technical skill. After all, archaeology is the heritage of all mankind," Stafford said.
He had funding from the Vice-Chancellor to present his original idea for a pop-up archaeological website at the Australian Archaeology Association conference last December.
Published in UWA News, 18 October 2010