One year ago this month, I accompanied Eric Poehler’s (Assistant Prof. of Classics, UMass-Amherst) Pompeii Quadriporticus Project to—appropriately—Pompeii for three weeks of field study. It was my third week as post-bac for Five College Digital Humanities. On my first day in Pompeii, I was kicked out of a Burger King under accusations of passing off counterfeit Euros. I also had the pleasure of getting sunstroke on a chartered boat off the coast of Positano, near Sorrento. I tried, unsuccessfuly, to rent a car so I could drive the two hours up into the mountains to visit my grandfather’s village, which Italian Google suggests is now a ski resort. In short: it was better than your first month on your job.
To commemorate the occasion, I’m re-publishing a concatenation of two or three blog posts I wrote last summer about what PQP is, how we worked, and what kinds of technology we utilized in the field. Later on in the summer, I’ll share an interview I did with Eric on his experiences running a DH project.
After eighteen full hours of travel, during which I battled the indifference of Neopolitan airport workers and essentially competed in a triathlon through the Dublin terminal as I tried to make my connecting flight—and consequently being this close to spending a night in Ireland—I have arrived back in the United States with a (marginal) tan, a bottle of authetic limoncello, and a jar of Nutella the size of my head. [ed. note from 2014—I have only just thrown this Nutella out like a week ago] My work with the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project has come to an end, save the spare iPad sitting in my office that will eventually make its way back to Eric Poehler.
(And yes: we made many jokes while in Italy about how this is the kind of project where the phrase “spare iPad” doesn’t sound ridiculous. Ben, our project manager, had about four in his checked luggage. The TSA must have thought we were either smugglers or exceedingly enterprising.)
Classical archaeology wasn’t a core feature of any of my majors in undergrad, so I admit to having been intimidated by PQP at first. I might not have suffered from an Indiana Jones delusion, but I certainly anticipated that the learning curve—if not the technique curve—of archaeological work was going to be more than a little daunting. But PQP doesn’t take the traditional dig-focused tack of most classical archaeological projects. Rather, Eric and his team have drawn on a variety of low-cost technologies to practice non-invasive archaeology. The upshot: we didn’t actually dig anything up. Instead, we used visual analysis and computational technologies (mostly iPads) to look at wall surface construction, mortar composition, and spatial relationships to work out building timelines and ways the Quadriporticus—a key, though undertheorized, building in the ancient city—was used.
In a way, the iPad itself was, after the Quad itself, our main subject of inquiry. Eric liked to joke that this was “the fourth year of a three year project,” and while that was sometimes reflected in the scattershot way we approached collecting the final odds-and-ends of our data, that this year was, in many ways, extra allowed us to focus deeply on the ways we used technology in the field. We used many different kinds of digital technology—spectrometry, photogrammetry, and 3D mapping—but the iPad was in many ways our core piece of tech.
We used iPads for two main purposes: database management and wall analysis visualization. The first is a fairly straightforward idea. The iPad’s portability makes it naturally suited to inputting data in the field. The second is a bit more complex, and requires me to break down a little bit exactly what we were looking for as archaeologists. As I said above, PQP practices non-invasive archaeology—no digging allowed. Rather, we (to put it a bit glibly) looked at walls and thought about them. By analyzing the wall’s structural composition, mortar, and relationship to surrounding walls, we’re able to piece together swaths of the Quad’s history without having to dig anything up.
iPads helped us take this raw architectural information and visualize it. We used programs called iDraw and Omnigraffle to create images and visual matrices to get a better sense of an individual wall’s composition and timeline. Below is a drawing made by yours truly of a wall (WF_030, to be exact), in which you can see the individual strata, both ancient and modern, that make up this section of the Quad.
An iDraw of WF_030. You can see each stratigraphic unit (SU) in a unique color. The red and white ranging rod in the middle is essentially a meter stick.
Of course, we ran into difficulties. We lacked a stable wifi connection and so couldn’t synchronize our databases in real time, which led to large sections of our work sometimes vanishing without a trace. Unfortunately, we had to spend a not-insignificant chunk of our time this season backtracking and re-doing previous work. Moreover, I noticed that this project’s focus on technology created a second learning curve entirely separate from the work of archaeological analysis. It was difficult for all of us—seasoned students of archaeology and newcomers like myself—to integrate all of the different kinds of knowledge we had to acquire over the course of the three weeks.
Am I going to become an archaeologist? My answer is still: “Probably not.” But I’m grateful for my time in Pompeii, not only for the exposure to a completely new field, but also as a case study for how to run a DH project from the ground up.