Returning to the Fellowship: The Epic Search for a Database

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative

This year, I am returning to the CHI Fellowship. I first participating in the program in 2011 when it was in its first year. My project for the first time around was creating an OMEKA for the MSU Campus Archaeology Project. The goal was to have somewhere to share information in a museum-like format. This time around, my goal is more related to my own research. I want to create a database for cemeteries, specifically as a way to organize my own research but also to share it with others once the dissertation is complete. Currently, the aim will be creating a database that focuses on Anglo-Saxon cemeteries with both cremation and inhumation type burials.

My wish list for the project includes:

  • -Organized database using KORA that is flexible for a variety of archaeological data including human remains, grave goods, complete burials, both cremated and inhumed remains, full cemeteries, and monuments
  • -Spatial component that allows for any object within the database to be located on a map and easily compared against other objects
  • -Easy to navigate user interface and easy to perform queries
  • -Clear metadata and links to original sources
  • -Open and linked
  • -Archaeologists able to access and add their own data to improve the database once it is open and released

Of course some of these things won’t necessarily be happening soon. The construction of the back end database will be the first step, and is critical to organizing information for my dissertation. The spatial element is also crucial, though likely this will be done in a secondary system like GIS at first. An easy to navigate and interactive front end will likely be the hardest part of the project, though it is probably the most important for creating something that is useful and easy to interact with.

Frodo faces the magnificent power of KORA

Frodo faces the magnificent power of KORA

As a first step to this project, I’m looking at similar databases created for similar eras and regions. This is important because I need to know what is already available and if this specific project has been done, and further it helps me determine how I want to structure my own project by comparing the positives and negatives of others.

Mapping Death

This is an interdisciplinary and multi-institution project whose aim is to locate, catalog, and create unified resources for burial and cemetery sites in Ireland from the Late Iron Age to Early Medieval Period. The user interface is easy to navigate and offers a fantastic advanced query. I personally like the way that users can interact with a map in both the query and browse options. Each site is an object in the database, and there is information about who directed the site, where it is located, the types of burials, the associated grave goods, related stable isotope or radiocarbon data, and any media that was deemed relevant like maps or tables. The primary problem is that this is that the only views are either regional maps or sites; there is no information on each individual burial. It would be nice to be able to at least download individual information for use is other projects. Also, there are portions of the site not accessible to everyone and permission must be gained before accessing them.  Overall, this is one of the most visually approachable and easily navigable databases available for this type of period.

Screenshot from Mapping Death of the Browse- Map View Screen

Screenshot from Mapping Death of the Browse- Map View Screen

Archaeology Data Service (ADS) Databases

ADS is itself a database that contains other databases, and there are three I want to highlight:

Since they are all part of ADS, they have the same user interface and outwards facing set up. Each includes information on who created the database, where to contact them, background information on the project, and other metadata. What is great about ADS, is often the primary information from the database, such as demographic and osteological information is included in the form of a download in CSV or XLS. This makes reusing the data a simple task, and is extremely helpful for individuals who want to do their own research with this material. The actual information provided for each and the way the database is set up varies by the project. Some, like the Graves and Grave Good one great images and information but only for select graves, and others like ASKED are more complete but only for a select region. The problem with this type of database is that it is limited by ADS on the visual interface, and there is no map view of the information. For some, like the Medieval Monastic database, maps can be downloaded- but the spatial information is not interactive or visible

Novum Inventorium Sepulchre

This site was built in memory of Sonia Chadwick Hawke, whose goal was to create a unified database for Anglo-Saxon era burials and grave goods found in Kent. There is a large body of excavation material from the 18th and 19th centuries, and she wanted to update and organize this information into a useable format. This database is the realization of her work. The user interface is a little outdated and provides only a simple, and low interactivity, map of the sites. Still, the database is quite good and interesting because it includes modern photos, illustrations and information about the burials as well as the historically written and drawn ones. It is a nice comparison of data to have. Each site investigated has lots of information, though the different sections aren’t always linked (ex. from site index it is difficult to access objects). However, it has loads of information, and I like the modern and historic interpretations and insights are included.

Over the next couple weeks I’m going to be assessing these different databases and determining the structure of my own. If you have other databases or contacts that should be added to the list or that I should check out (since I’m sure I missed some!), please leave a comment or contact me!

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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