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Like many other Scots resident outside Scotland, I have been following the referendum intently with a mixture of pride, envy and angst. Proud that as a nation it has engaged so fully in debate, envy that I (rightly) couldn’t take part, and angst because even now I find it hard to decide upon a vote I will never cast. This post (on a blog I haven’t used in over three years) is an attempt to explain my own thoughts, mostly to myself. Disclaimer: while I self-identify as Scottish (born in Inverness), I’m of English parentage, went to an RAF Primary School, studied at an English University, and have lived and worked in England for most of my adult life, all of which could play to a natural ‘no’ vote. On the other hand, I was raised in an SNP heartland, have always felt more comfortable around the Saltire than the Union Flag and support Celtic FC, all of which could be seen to count against it. This isn’t intended to persuade anyone how they should vote – I hope that by now most people will have found their own reasons for deciding yes or no.

The decision process has not been helped by some abysmal campaigning on both sides, but especially the ‘no’ camp. The ‘yes’ campaign has been very low on detail, often failed to distinguish between the SNP, the political left, and ‘Team Scotland’ (whatever that is), and could have done much more to denounce verbal and physical intimidation on the few occasions it raised its ugly head. In contrast the major players in the ‘no’ campaign have embodied almost every negative stereotype that Scots have of the Union and Westminster’s role within it. With the exception of a stoic but lonely looking Jim Murphy, and an indomitable but last-minute Gordon Brown, they have seemed utterly uninterested in developments on the ground until it was far too late. The vague but desperate promises made to win back ground have both failed to address the fundamental issues and understandably alarmed English backbenchers. Whether it is unfortunate that the diabolical trinity of Cameron-Clegg-Milliband should be required to defend the Union at this time, or whether it is symptomatic of a wider malaise to which independence is the only cure (for Scotland, at any rate) seems to me an important question.

There have been many other arguments for and against, from the economy to the supposed left/right drift between Scotland and England. Overwhelmingly these feel far too short-term considerations for the division of a 300-year old Union or the indefinite political future of a nation. A variety of business interests are undoubtedly right that their profits will be hit in the short and possibly medium term, but there seems little doubt that Scotland can stand on its own feet economically, albeit with greater potential for ups and downs as Ireland discovered. Likewise, Scotland being to the left of the UK is a comparatively recent development even if you believe it to be true at all, and was spurred on by the actions of Margaret Thatcher. Assumptions about Scotland’s political make-up 50 (let alone 300) years from now would be foolhardy.

The question of whether Scotland should be an independent country is a constitutional issue, but as the (written or unwritten) constitution of every country is unique, are Scots having to decide whether to maintain territorial and demographic integrity, or whether to accept the continuation of a specific form of political union? Cameron tried (and has unquestionably failed) to reduce it solely to the former by keeping Devo-Max off the ballot paper. It failed because many Scots (and I would count myself among them) see a great deal of value in a constructive union between the Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish, but have serious misgivings about the political architecture upon which the United Kingdom has been based since 1707 (and arguably 1535).

It is perhaps best illustrated with the question ‘could England secede from the United Kingdom?’ This is not simply a demographic question. Would the loss of Windsor Castle, Westminster, the Bank of England and the City of London, let alone 85% of the population, allow the remaining nations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to maintain an rUK that was perceived as such both by itself and the rest of the world? It is hard to believe that they could – not because Britishness and Englishness are equivalent, but because in the UK’s unwritten constitution there is an unwritten assumption that English law and government is the default British position. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish differences and devolution are fully accepted, but they are accepted as exceptions. Yet the reality is that England has become the exception as the sole British nation to have its domestic law and government intrinsically bound up with those of the UK as a whole. I am not aware of a single other political union in which that conflation of national and supranational status is true.

As commentators and backbenchers throughout the UK have pointed out, this is a fundamentally broken system which is as at least as unfair to the English as anyone else. It can never be reasonable to have a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish parliamentary Minister, who was raised and lives in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, exercising legal or executive authority over English domestic affairs. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has any such politician expressed a desire to do so (after all, the West Lothian Question was raised by a Scottish MP). The case is therefore black and white – either a political constitution is agreed upon in which politicians from all four nations can decide on their own domestic affairs, and collaboratively on supranational ones, or a situation continues which is always unreasonable to one nation or another, and continues to breed unnecessary resentments.

It is an extremely rare day that I find myself agreeing with Gordon Brown, Menzies Campbell, Carwyn Jones, and John Redwood. Nevertheless, in my best of all possible worlds I can imagine a federal United Kingdom (ok, ideally a federal United Republic) in which all four nations collaborate on an equitable footing. This is hardly a radical solution – a great many of the largest global countries are federal. While it might be too much to follow the Americans and Australians in creating a new extra-national capital, there seems plenty of appetite across all four nations for a settlement which respects the autonomy of each state while preserving the Union. The obvious step would be to replace an equally broken House of Lords (which has moved from reinforcing a hereditary elite, to one reinforcing the status quo through party-political appointments) with an elected Senate representing the four nations. Some model ensuring that at least two nations were in support of a given motion would seem a minimum practical requirement.

Unfortunately, and as my motley list of co-conspirators suggests, I fear that this is not a solution the Westminster political establishment has any interest in, due to the entirely unpredictable impact it would have on their political ambitions. Cameron has made clear that an English Parliament is ‘not remotely near’, and indeed, it has been obvious from the outset that all of the leaders of the ‘Big Three’ parties are keen to reduce political change to the barest conceivable minimum that will persuade the barest conceivable majority of Scots to vote ‘no’. If that does turn out to be the result (and the polls suggest that it will), our best hope is that the ‘Daily Record vow’ has already holed the UK political framework below the water-line.

On balance I would prefer a federal UK over an independent Scotland, and an independent Scotland over the UK’s current unwritten, unfair, and unsustainable constitutional arrangement. There are tantalising hints that the first is possible. Those hints will continue to give me hope for the UK (and Scotland’s place in it) if the vote is ‘no’. But for all that, there is nothing I have heard from our political leadership to suggest that they want anything but ‘politics as usual’. I personally feel that we would be Better Together as a family of nations, but not while England remains a constitutional anomaly. Until that situation is resolved my vicarious vote has to be a reluctant ‘yes’.


I’ll be giving a paper on Ptolemy at the ICA annual workshop on Digital Approaches to Cartographic Heritage at the Hague and it’s been a great excuse to finally put some ideas (old and new) down on paper. Comments welcome!


The Madaba map overlaid with divisions at 1/2, 1/3, 1/4 & 1/6th of a degree. This creates gaps in the coverage which may cause increased assignment to the exact and half degrees (0' and 30'). If assignment is based on labels overlapping the division of highest denominator the clustering will be exaggerated for longitude because of the left-right orientation of writing. This is precisely the effect we actually observe (see below).


Distribution of locations in Germania to minutes of a degree. (Black = longitude, White = latitude)


Just a quick post to announce some good news: Google have just announced the first recipients of their Digital Humanities Research Awards and the Google Ancient Places (GAP) project is one of only 12 projects funded worldwide. The project is in conjunction with Elton Barker at the Open University and Eric Kansa at UC Berkeley and we aim to make classical texts available in massive corpora such as Google Books easier to discover using spatial technologies. The project has already started to pick up mentions in the Guardian Digital Content blog and TechRadar. It’s very early days yet so I won’t say too much more at this stage but needless to say, if you are interested in the work, please get in touch.

For a very long time indeed I’ve meaning to post about a little hobby I have, toying around with Ptolemy’s Geography. Somehow or other I never quite managed to pin down enough time to marshall my thoughts together. Finally I took the plunge and threw in an abstract for the DigiClas Work in Progress Seminar and you can see and hear the results here and here.

I’m planning to write a paper on it, but until now my activity has essentially been driven by sheer enthusiasm for the subject. I hope you find it as fascinating a topic as I have and naturally I’d be delighted to receive feedback in any shape or form.

Ptolemy’s World map (Nicholas Germanus, 1482)

Boundaries and settlement clusters in Ptolemy’s World Map reconstructed in a GIS and overlaid with parallels of Longest Day (not latitude). The regions to the NW conform to these parallels which may reflect origins in the geographic texts of Marinos of Tyre. If so, the South-easterly areas which do not conform to them may be later inclusions.

The Computer Applications in Archaeology conference hopped across the pond again this year and was hosted in sunny Williamsburg, VA. I hadn’t been to Virginia before but was struck by its combination of charming woodland and swampy, well, swamps. Williamsburg is part of the ‘Historic Triangle‘ of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, which were the first colony, first capital and last colony (insofar as it was where we Brits surrendered) of Virginia. Williamsburg itself is more or less a themepark (complete with period dress actors) and was heavily reconstructed by Rockefeller Jr. from the thirties onwards. It’s pretty though. Jamestown, on the other hand, is just archaeological remains on a marshy island, but has a couple of interesting museums that make a reasonable stab of portraying the conflicting goals and world views of both the original settlers and their Powhatan hosts.

Thanks for the postcard, I hear you cry, but what of the conference? Well, I’m happy to report that it was, for me at least, one of the most stimulating CAAs I can remember. Without intending to blow my own trumpet, that was at least in part due the success of the ‘Semantic Web: 2nd Generation Applications’ session I co-chaired. By a stroke of bad luck, my original partner in the venture, Tom Elliott, was unable to attend, but Keith May of the EH/Uni of Glamorgan STAR Project made an equally stalwart companion on the day.

We had a large number of submissions for the session, and in the end were asked to move some into a separate one on Data Management the following day but this may in the end have been to our benefit, with two opportunities for discussion. This was something of a milestone at CAA, which has seen a number of presentations on SemWeb aproaches in the past but never this number or all brought together. The end product was interesting not just for the sum of its parts but also in showing just how healthy the SemWeb community in Archaeology is.

This seems to be for two reasons: the first is that there is an increasing acceptance that these technologies are just a little too big for any one research group to manage. In turn they’ve increasingly started to focus on different aspects rather than complete systems. In communities where there is no need to co-operate with one another (for example those working in Network Analysis) it has seemed harder to get collaborative ventures going, so this may be a promising indicator. Only time will tell whether it’s true but there is certainly a lot of enthusiasm at present. The second factor is that both ‘Bottom-up’ and ‘Top-down’ approaches slowly seem to be converging. This is most apparent in the increased use of small sections of big ontologies (like the CIDOC CRM), as well as acceptance by the ‘just give your own stuff URIs’ community that stable, independent resources that provide canonical URIs for shared concepts are invaluable for linking data.

All the papers were interesting, but some highlights for me included:

Sebastian Heath, who’s been one of the pioneers of making data available as URIs saying that, for him, the great moment is when you get ‘unexpected value’, i.e. when someone else uses your stuff in a way you had never even imagined. To me, that’s that’s the true spirit of scholarship.

Ian Johnson‘s team at University of Sydney Archaeological Computing Lab have been working on system called Heurist that seems to be effectively triples-based. Even more exciting to me was the theoretical work done by Cathy Campbell on describing time periods. If they could create a GeoNames-like service out of it I’d want it in my stocking this Christmas.

Kate Byrne reminding us that it is ‘better to be correct than complete’. I’m increasingly of the view that ‘correctness’ is over-rated too 😉 but it certainly is vital to recall that all Semantic data is inherently incomplete (as is all archaeological data). The less of it that is inaccurate however, the less fuzzy our aggregated view of the past will be.

Robert Kummer‘s point that ‘users don’t want a record, they want to understand a historical topic’. If the SemWeb approach is going to work at all, we still need to do a lot of work in this area.

– Although it wasn’t actually in either of the sessions above, my vote for best idea of the conference goes to Julian Richards‘ suggestion that there should be an annual prize for best reuse of archaeological data. Currently the discipline still seems too often focussed on new results and this would be a great way to encourage both data contributors and and analysts to come back to the ‘data mountain’ we continue to accumulate.

I guess it’s not too vain to add that the importance of making it quick and easy (as in ‘one rainy afternoon’) for archaeologists to create Linked Data from their own datasets was the key take-home message of my presentation (whether any one wanted to take it home is for them to say :-D)

There was plenty more besides but we’re hoping to publish as many of the papers collectively as possible so updates will follow. Please also note that we intend to keep the conversation going over at the Graph of Ancient World Data (GAWD) Google Group so come on over and join us. Other than the SemWeb sessions, I was also very interested in developments over at Digital Antiquity, and of course ArchCamp 7 rocked the house as well. I also joined the CAA Steering Committee so as Student and Low Income rep so if you want any points raised, drop me a line.

Happy Easter all!

Things have been trotting along at their usual merry pace down here in Southampton but the big news is that we’ve recently released the First Call for Papers for the forthcoming InterFace 2009 Symposium. The symposium, which is bringing researchers from the technology and humanities disciplines together, has been a long time in the coming: it all started with a presentation that led on to a watercooler chat, which turned into an open meeting followed by a pub conversation leading to a cautious mooting of ideas and ultimately a funding bid. Six months later, courtesy of Roberts Funding, we got some seed money to get the thing off the ground. Frankly, it’s been tugging us like a fighter kite ever since.

We’ve been very fortunate in getting some seriously heavyweight speakers, but more importantly we’re hoping to see this as a two-way street. There is important work going on in both fields which can illuminate and inspire the other. For me, the crux of the whole event will be the sessions which bring people and ideas together – speed-dating, posters and lightning talks. I’m a big enthusiast of BarCamps (and in particular, Antiquist‘s very own ArchCamp) but here we’re trying something slightly more formalised and hi-octane. With luck, there’ll be enough happening in two days to keep people reflecting on it for months afterwards.

Please consider submitting something and if you’re in a Humanities or Computing department, pass the word on!


First Call for Papers

InterFace 2009:
1st National Symposium for Humanities and Technology

9-10 July, University of Southampton, UK.

InterFace is a new type of annual event. Part conference, part
workshop, part networking opportunity, it will bring together
postdocs, early career academics and postgraduate researchers from the
fields of Information Technology and the Humanities in order to foster
cutting-edge collaboration. As well as having a focus on Digital
Humanities, it will also be an important forum for Humanities
contributions to Computer Science. The event will furthermore provide
a permanent web presence for communication between delegates both
during, and following, the conference.

Delegate numbers are limited to 80 (half representing each sector) and
all participants will be expected to present a poster or a ‘lightning
talk’ (a two minute presentation) as a stimulus for discussion and
networking sessions.  Delegates can also expect to receive
illuminating keynote talks from world-leading experts, presentations
on successful interdisciplinary projects, ‘Insider’s Guides’ and
workshops. The registration fee for the two-day event is £30. For a
full overview of the event, please visit the website.

Paper Submissions:

If you are interested in attending, please submit an original paper,
of 1500 words or less, describing an idea or concept you wish to
present. Please indicate whether you would prefer to produce a poster
or perform a 2-minute lightning talk. Papers must be produced as a PDF
or in Microsoft Word (.doc) format and submitted through our EasyChair

– Register for an easy chair account:
– Log in:
– Click New Submission at the top of the page and fill in the form.

Make sure you:
– Select your preference of lightning talk or poster.
– Select whether you are representing humanities or technology.
– Attach and upload your paper.

If you encounter any problems, please e-mail

A number of travel bursaries may be available to successful applicants
– if you would like to be considered for one, please email and provide grounds for consideration.

Papers should focus on potential (and realistic) areas for
collaboration between the Technology and Humanities Sectors, either by
addressing particular problems, new developments, or both. Prior work
may be presented where relevant but the nature of the paper must be
forward-looking. As such, the scope is extremely broad but topics
might include:

* 3D immersive environments
* Pervasive technologies
* Online collaboration
* Natural language processing
* Sensor networks
* The Semantic Web
* Agent based modelling
* Web Science

* Spatial cognition
* Text editing and analysis
* New Media
* Linguistics
* Applied sociodynamics & social network analysis
* Archaeological reconstruction
* Information Ethics
* Dynamic logics
* Electronic corpora

Due to the limited number of places, papers will be subject to review
by committee in order to maintain quality and a balanced programme.
Applicants will be notified by email as to their acceptance. Accepted
papers will be published online one week in advance of the conference.

Important Dates:

* Paper Submission Deadline: 1 May 2009
* Acceptances Announced: 18 May 2009
* Conference: 9th-10th July 2009

Confirmed Speakers

* Dame Wendy Hall, University of Southampton,
President of the Association of Computing Machinery

Insider’s Guides:
* Stephen Brown, De Montfort University
Knowledge Media Design
* Ed Parsons
Geospatial Technologist, Google
* Sarah Porter
Head of Innovation, JISC

Project Showcase:
* Mary Orr & Mark Weal, University of Southampton
Digital Flaubert
* Adrian Bell, University of Reading
The Soldier in Later Medieval England
* Kathy Buckner, Napier University

1) Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)
Arianna Ciula (old webpage), European Science Foundation & Sebastian Rahtz, Oxford University
2) Visualisation
Facilitator TBC
3) Data Management
Facilitator TBC
4) New Media
Claire Ainsworth & John Copley, University of Southampton

For further information, please visit the conference website
( or e-mail

A quick plug for the CAA session I’ll be chairing at CAA Williamsburg with Tom Elliott. If you’re interested in submitting we’d love to hear from you but be quick – the deadline is December 19th!

The Semantic Web: 2nd Generation Applications

Chairs: Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton, United Kingdom, and
Tom Elliott, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York
University, USA


Semantic Web technologies are increasingly touted as a potential
solution to the data integration and silo problems which are ever more
prevalent in digital archaeology. On other hand, there is still much
work to be done establishing best practices and useful tools. Now that
a number of projects have been undertaken by interdisciplinary
partnerships with Computer Science departments, it is time to start
drawing together the lessons learned from them in order to begin
creating second generation applications. These are likely to move away
from (or at least complement) the monolithic and large-scale
‘semanticization’ projects more appropriate to the museums community.
In their place we will need light-weight and adaptable methodologies
more suited to the time and cash-poor realities of contemporary

This session will be a forum in which to present current work,
appraise previous projects, identify best practices and look for
collaborative opportunities. Papers are invited which explore the use
of any Semantic technologies in archaeology – especially those
recommended by the W3C: RDF(S), OWL and SKOS. Subject matter may be
either abstract or with reference to a particular project but in
either case should seek to engage with the unique technical challenges
in this area. The target audience will have at least some previous
experience in this field so a reasonably high level of technical
discussion is expected. Specific areas of interest include (but are
not restricted to):

* The role of the CIDOC-CRM as a domain ontology in archaeology
* Integrating live legacy databases
* Ontology mapping and alignment
* Spatial and temporal semantics
* Barriers to uptake amongst non-IT professionals
* Top-down (e.g. ontology-based) vs. bottom up (e.g. RDF/a-based) approaches
* CoolURIs and stable web dissemination
* Coreferencing
* Triple- and quad-stores
* Trust, authentication and reification
* Semi-antics: integration with RSS/Atom and Web 2.0 technologies
* Visualization and interfaces

Technical demonstrations are also welcomed. The session will conclude
with time for general discussion and debate.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few good congregations recently and something of a running theme has cajoled me once again into the blogosphere. The first was ‘Digital Heritage in the New Knowledge Environment: Shared Spaces & Open Paths to Cultural Content‘ hosted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens. Following that, I managed to make half of the TEI and CRM-SIG meetings in London.

The former was a real eye-opener in a lot of ways. My background is in theatre, philosophy and archaeology, so I’ve always assumed Athens was pretty much built for me. Fortunately it didn’t disappoint. If sitting on top of the Areopagus at sundown with a couple of tinnies can’t bring the philosopher out in you, your days have run their course. The National Museum is a candy box of eye-popping archaeological delights (shame about the website), and, well I guess I’ll just have to take in a show next time.

The conference itself was one of the most stimulating I’ve attended in a while. As a mixture of Greek cultural heritage professionals and a more international group of invited digital specialists, the division between open and closed world views was starkly drawn. Inspired by the location to draw a gratuitous athenian analogy, I dubbed the competing factions the ‘new platonists’ and the ‘new socratics’. The platonists hold the view that there is some kind of objective value in culture that needs to be identified, nurtured and above all protected from the more philistine elements of globalistion. This can only be done by an elite professional class of curators (priests?) and academics (philosophers?). Meanwhile, the socratics see our role as entirely different – it is not our duty to protect, but rather to provoke, undermine and play with the narratives and interpretations we all normally take for granted.

Of course, we are all a mixture of both these tendencies, but depending on context one side or the other tends to play out. I was flying the flag of the socratics on this occasion, but similar arguments were levelled in excellent papers by (in no particular order) Stuart Eve, Eric Kansa, Stefano Costa, Kostas Arvanitis, Anna Simandiraki, Gregory Paschalidis and Christos Galanis. On the other side we heard about the need to protect culture from ‘globalisation’, the danger of putting archaeological data online where the public can see it (DVD is the preferred medium because you can make it look like a book), and the honest, and difficult, question as to whether countries with deeply contested histories can risk supporting multicultural perspectives in public museums.

Some interesting (and unexpected) light was thrown on that question by Greg Crane at the TEI meeting. The answer to the question ‘who is the most important classicist of the 20th Century?’ is arguably: The Ayatollah Khomeini. Prior to the 1979 revolution he was a political philosopher specialising in the Athenian philosophers. Apparently the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the name implies, is founded largely on the principles of Plato’s Republic. Can it be that the strongest argument against the greatest defence of paternalism in history is that same theory played out for real? The following day at the CRM-SIG, Greg raised the other big question close to my heart – How can we ask the big questions of Antiquity? We are finally in an era when our research is no longer limited to the amount that a human being can read (and recall) in a lifetime. The information deluge and the tools developed to deal with it have completely changed the ballgame. I would add that not only must we start to ask new questions but we can no longer answer the old ones. In the Googlepoch information is produced too quickly, and the gaps in our knowledge are too apparent, for us ever to feel completely sure of ourselves again.

And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

PS A recent blessay on language by Stephen Fry captures the spirit of what I mean far better than I ever can.

Ah if only it were true and I could spend the rest of my days idling amongst the pines of Lazio, a trowel in one hand and a sizable glass of Falesco in the other. Still, at least I get my annual jaunt to frolic amongst the spectacular ruins of Rome’s imperial harbour next week. Whilst I’m there I may even try and blog a little on the official project website. Meanwhile, check out the flickr stream. I particularly like the stop-motion skeleton excavation.

I’ll also be popping into AIAC in case anyone’s around…

A couple of things came down the RSS pipe today that seemed well worth a comment.

The first, courtesy of Lisa Spiro, is a nice piece of research which perfectly illustrates the point I made in the Athens Paper: New Media sources (in this case, Wikipedia) look set to increasingly compete with traditional ones, even in academia. Why and what this might mean for the future are things she discusses in a thoughtful and interesting post.

This makes it all the more encouraging that Internet Archaeology are once again using the power of their format to do something interesting. The beauty of a Web resource is that they can mash up their own content to make it easier for users to find just what they want – something particularly valuable in a journal with such a wide remit. In this case they’ve gathered together all their Roman papers, but they say it’s “the first of what we hope to be many themed content pages”. I certainly hope so too 🙂 But hey, that’s still only broken down by themes that the IA editorial committee find interesting. How about a Tag cloud of keywords? or even (whisper it low) community tagging…?

Oh, and two other niggles, guys: 1) Breaking papers into sections is fine for the web but a real drag when all you want to do is print it out and read it over a cup of tea. Surely a PDF download is easy to create for most of the articles? 2) Like a lot of other folks, Zotero RDF has revolutionised my citing. Or at least it has for IT texts – one search, one click and I have all the details. Sadly, Archaeology has lumbered along behind as ever and I almost inevitably have to type in citations by hand. Perhaps IA could lead the way in this too? Don’t take this as a whinge though – you’re still my favourite Arch/IT journal 🙂