06 April 2011

Citizen scientists

On Monday, the Washington Post ran a little story about the use of public outreach in scientific endeavors. Granted, their example of Albert Lin, "explorer" and research scientist at UCSD, searching for Genghis Khan's tomb sounds neither archaeological nor scientific, but bear with me:
Through a Web site called Field Expedition Mongolia, which Lin and his colleagues developed jointly with National Geographic, volunteers are helping sift through 85,000 high-resolution satellite images of Mongolia. 
Every time volunteers log in to the site, they are shown some of these images. An online tutorial instructs them on how to look for particular objects and tag them as “roads,” “rivers,” “modern structures” or “ancient structures.” They can zoom in and out and scroll in all directions.
This project alone apparently garners 7,000 "citizen scientists" who all work for no compensation. How?:
“We found that we could make something that was engaging enough to inspire people to participate without having to pay them,” says Lin. “This is the part of citizen science that is most interesting to me: How can we motivate people to dedicate their time?”
By making it fun or game-like, of course. Apparently Lin was inspired to create an online expedition linked to his real one back when the Mechanical Turk came out at Amazon. Other projects have similar frameworks too like EteRNA (which my husband has been a happy participant with) and the North American Bird Phenology Program.

Apart from the fun factor, participants in this Khan project enjoy the thrill of the hunt and being a part of a larger project. As one user remarked:
“It’s one of those things where you’re adding your piece, and it’s about knowing that you’re something that’s much bigger than yourself, no matter how small the involvement.”
In case you are wondering, Lin does "ground truth" all dominant tags, which means he goes out to Mongolia to check out all the features consistently tagged as roads or structures, for example. Sometimes the identifications are way off, but other times (the article notes), really cool things have been discovered like a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age tomb.

What does this mean for archaeologists? Perhaps another avenue by which we can truly reach out to the public and have them involved with our research. While you may not consider John Q. Public as a primary stakeholder in your dissertation about archaeological landscapes in the Syrian Jazirah, if you step back and think about the tax payer dollars that went into your NSF grant, perhaps he does have a right to be somewhat involved in your work. Hell, I'd be happy if anyone on the "outside" was even remotely interested in my work!

I am not trying to bring the Ivory Tower crashing down or undermine all the years and money and toils I went through to become a specialist in archaeology. I'm not saying that a housewife from Ohio is going to be seriating my pottery. But wouldn't it be fun to have a huge group of people monitoring Google Earth for evidence of new looting at archaeological sites in Iraq? To sift through declassified 1950s satellite imagery of Syria to identify ancient roads, canals and cities? To enter information from 100-year-old artifact recording sheets into an online database? Talk about "citizen power!"

What does my non-archaeological readership think? Would you have the time, energy, and motivation to participate in archaeological projects like these?

02 April 2011

Poetry corner

Since my poetry has been described as "dark" and "angst-filled," I will spare you and instead post a lovely archaeological poem by Jay G. Williams published in the Dig-it-al version of Near Eastern Archaeology magazine (March 2011). The magazine is published by the American Schools of Oriental Research, whose annual conference is in San Francisco this year. So excited!

I especially like this poem because I dabbled a bit in fingerprint studies in my previous curatorial job. It also reminds us to "stop and smell the clay(?)" so-to-speak concerning these ubiquitous artifacts--ceramic vessels--that many archaeologists working in the Middle East can easily take for granted.

The Thumb Print

Like some dark, vacant
Ancient eye,
It peers, half- blinded
From the holy earth---
The handle of a common jug,
Once balanced on the head
By some young Danite ‘almah
(Or was she old and venerable?)
To fetch fresh water
From the Jordan’s welling,
Then dropped and smashed,
Through carelessness,
I guess,
For me to find.

Not smooth and glazed Hellenic ware,
This shard, slow-fired
And gritty crude,
Appears more Amos-ish
Than kingly,
A simple jug for daily use
In times of early iron.
No bounty for museums here.

Yet inside, smoothing out the clay,
Are finger marks,
And, by that vacant eye,
The proud creator’s special sign:
His thumb-print
Vaguely visible.

Then suddenly
All times collapse.
My thumb and thumb-print
And now we two,
So separate, it seemed,
By time
And place,
Are one at last:
In the eternity of consciousness,
The enlivened, molded clay of
The Eternal Potter.

- Jay G. Williams
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