Grid takes dig into the future

July 29, 2005

The Silchester Roman Town archaeological dig near Reading seems an unlikely spot for a high-tech computing project.

But plans by Reading University academics to create a virtual research environment for the Roman excavation reflect the way that archaeologists are benefiting from e-research.

The environment will allow on-site data collection, digitisation and storage of materials and the ability to search all data gathered.

By 2006, it is hoped there will be an online conferencing facility that will give excavators immediate access to experts in various disciplines and locations.

It is the kind of project that the arts and humanities community may see more of, with the announcement this week of £2 million for e-science from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Joint Information Systems Committee.

David Robey, director of the AHRC's ICT in the Arts and Humanities Programme, said: "The national e-science agenda has already had a major impact on the natural sciences and medicine, and has been extended to the social sciences as well. The time has come for the arts and humanities to catch up."

The arts and humanities e-science project will pave the way for projects to develop resources, postgraduate studentships and a support centre at King's College London. Next year, the council will call for bids for research and development projects.

The idea behind the AHRC-Jisc initiative is to get researchers to tailor existing computer "grid" technologies - the new information technology networks that allow sharing of research across the internet that have been developed in the sciences - to suit the arts and humanities.

"Digital resources in the arts and humanities have grown at an astonishing rate in the past 20 years," Professor Robey said.

"The problem is that researchers do not yet have the capacity to make the fullest use of these resources because they are not generally connected. Grid technologies make it possible to do this.

"This is all about sharing data," he said. "The real advantage comes when disparate databases are connected.

"With the Silchester project, for instance, this could mean linking excavation data with weather or marine data."

Professor Robey added: "It's about getting computers to work together to help people to work together and share resources and data in much more powerful ways than the internet currently allows."

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