"Archaeology has a great talent for using new methods," says David Novák in an interview

I met with David Novák, head of the Department of Information Resources and Landscape Archaeology, at 9 a.m. at the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Prague. He called to tell me that he was running a little late because he was dealing with a crisis in the digital repository. That was exactly the topic I wanted to talk about with him. I was interested in how digital technologies are applied in archaeology, how to explaine "digital humanities" and also the expectations of archaeologists from the EOSC CZ initiative.

5 Apr 2024 Vladimíra Coufalová

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What's the "crisis" you've been dealing with since this morning?

Among other things, we run a digital repository and we're dealing with a not-so-complex outage of a service. There's probably been some kind of network problem, so we're just calling those affected to get someone to look into it.

You run the entire research infrastructure, right?

Yes, the Institute of Archaeology of the CAS in Prague, together with the Institute of Archaeology of the CAS in Brno, participates in the operation of the research infrastructure Archaeological information system of the Czech Republic (AIS CR) and its main component is called the Archaeological Map of the Czech Republic (AMCR), which serves primarily for the management and storage of data on archaeological excavations. This morning it revolves around the AMCR Digital Archive, one of the environments accessing the archaeological map. This is actually our main „focuse,“ because all the data from archaeological excavations that take place in the country go there. It is our long-standing repository that we plan to contribute to the overall EOSC CZ solution.

What services does your research infrastructure offer and for whom?

Primarily, we fulfill the legal obligations imposed on archaeological institutes, which are the place where information about the construction plans of individual builders and the results of related archaeological excavations are directed under the Heritage Act. The day-to-day activity is mainly aimed at archaeologists, but builders also enter the field when they announce what kind construction they will carry out. The data collected from the excavations is then offered as publicly as possible. There are minor restrictions associated with protecting sites from looting, but these are few. Our archive began in the 1920s and is now all digitised. It contains hundreds of thousands of records about the Czech landscape and its past.

How do you communicate your outputs to the public? For example, I recently read your article How Not to Lose History.

The article you mention responds to a specific topic, which is the use of metal detectors, especially by amateur prospectors. We have created a module within our infrastructure to promote cooperation between amateur searchers and archaeologists, and we are trying to give it a systematic and legal framework so as not to violate the law on heritage. For a large number of people, detecting is as much a hobby as, say, fishing. Their activity is difficult for archaeologists to grasp, but if this collaboration is set up in a meaningful way, it can work. Among awareness-raising events for the public I would mention the Archaeological Summer, where we offer people the opportunity to visit various archaeological sites with an archaeologist.

Which archaeological site would you recommend?

When I was still in the excavations, because now I am more in the topic of data care, I was researching, for example, the extinct medieval village of Rovný, near Zbiroh. A place in the woods that you just walk past and you might think there is something strange here, but it actually hides a lot of information. During the Archaeological Summer and through the AIS CR tools, we try to make people see the world through our eyes and learn how to find such interesting sights in the landscape.

How did you get into archaeology? You studied in Pilsen, are you from there?

I'm from Prague and I came back to Prague in the end. I found archaeology by chance. Originally my focus was more IT, but it wasn't an environment I wanted to stay in. My first idea was to study history where unfortunately, or fortunately, I failed the admission test. By various coincidences, I ended up in Archaeology in Pilsen, where I quickly started to enjoy my studies. I started to work on geographic information systems in archaeology, i.e. spatial analysis and landscape archaeology.

Can archaeology do without digging in the ground thanks to new methods?

Archaeology can't do without excavation, because it always yields the necessary data. But the need for excavation is decreasing, or we are much better able to prepare for it. Remote Sensing (RS) methods such as airborne laser scanning, satellite imagery or geophysical methods (GPR, magnetometry, geo-resistivity measurements) are used as ways of looking underground before digging into the ground. For dating we need the samples.

How do you further analyse the samples?

New methods significantly expand the possibilities of analysis. In recent times, what we call the third archaeological revolution, or the third scientific revolution in archaeology, it is the advent of DNA and isotope analysis methods, which, among other things, make it possible to trace the migrations of populations, or kinship relationships in communities.

With whom do you collaborate in the use of these methods?

It's not as if the archaeologist alone can do all this. Archaeolog gives the theoretical framework, asks scientific questions and conducts the excavations. He works with a broad team. Right here at the Institute of Archaeology in Prague, we have well-equipped laboratories with experts, but many analyses are carried out in cooperation between institutions. For example, we have a joint radiocarbon laboratory with the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the CAS, where we use a particle accelerator to measure 14C isotopes, which we use for dating. Other analyses are requested as services.

Are you returning from archaeology to IT and data?

In archaeology, technical support plays a crucial role. I have found a space where I feel useful. It's true that I've left archaeology a bit in favour of data management and ensuring that archaeology doesn't lose pace. Our excavations tend to be disruptive and situations cannot be revisited, so the emphasis on archiving excavation data has been strong from the start, we just needed to move from a paper-based operation to a digital one, which is not an easy process. But in doing so I am building on previous experiencecs of my colleagues who have been doing this for a long time.

Who do you cooperate with abroad?

The creation of the ARIADNE research infrastructure, which is at the service of the international archaeological community, has been crucial for our field. Its aim was to set basic standards for working with digital data in archaeology, and most importantly to put the data into a single portal so that it is accessible across Europe and beyond. We have been involved in this initiative from the beginning and have also started to build relationships between us and other archaeological repositories in Europe.

What experience does the Institute of Archaeology in Prague offer?

Our infrastructure is connected to the construction notification plans and we also communicate with the National Heritage Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Monuments and Sites, which uses our data for heritage protection. We recently presented how our data is being used by the Prague Institute of Planning and Development in the context of the protection of land use and heritage values in Prague. There, our data is being written into city planning and the planning of construction activities.

Can you tell me your definition of digital humanities?

I always remember the definition of my colleague Stefan Eichert from Vienna that digital humanities are like "teenage sex." Everybody talks about it, everybody wants to do it, but nobody knows what it is and nobody has ever tried it. I don't think digital humanites is just about new tools. They're about changing the paradigm in your head about how you work with data because digital tools give you different options than the standard pencil and paper and your brain. It's not just a fancy 3D model, it's when I start using these models for scientific purposes, to describe the finds in a better metric, to study the traces that are on the excavations, to try to combine the finds together in virtual space, etc.

How do you perceive the EOSC CZ initiative?

I think it's hugely useful and it's great that the issue of data governance has come here, maybe with a slight delay compared to Europe, but not too much, and that it's a topic! The effort that scientists put into preparing and processing data is enormous. Not to have captured data from projects that are, for example, processing excavations, would be a waste of resources. On the other hand, we can't ask scientists to come up with data management solutions on their own. Particularly in our field, where at the regional level people are doing archaeology more out of passion than because the profession can support them in a meaningful way. Scientists in data management need the support of EOSC CZ and also, most importantly, a place to store their data. I would say we need a low-threshold EOSC.

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Short bio

Mgr. David Novák, Ph.D. (Institute of Archaeology of the CAS Prague, v. v. i.)

He graduated in archaeology at the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, where he received a doctorate for his thesis focused on medieval and early modern settlements, or research on highland settlements and their role in the landscape. In 2012, he joined the Institute of Archaeology of the CAS in Prague, where he has been working as a researcher and head of the Department of Information Resources and Archaeology of Landscape since 2018. He is the main administrator of the large research infrastructure Archaeological Information System of the Czech Republic (https://www.aiscr.cz/en/). He is involved, among others, in the area of FAIR data management, the use of GIS in archaeology and landscape archaeology. He is involved in a number of national and international projects in the field of open science and digital humanities.

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