Open Heritage Scholarship 2

Last week I was at London’s Digital Catapult centre, building on the discussion we started with the thinkathon in Winchester. This time round, we wanted to bring in some other voices from outside the academic sector, so I invited Lindsey Green from Frankly Green and Webb, and Kevin Bacon from who I met when he organised a fun workshop for the heritage sector. We also had Jake Berger from the BBC, David Tarrant from the Open Data Institute and Nigel Smith from FutureLearn. Graeme, Adam and Elenora were also there of course, as where Bryan and John from we are open.

Graeme started the day while we awaited all the delegates, by explaining at little bit about the Portus archaeology project, and how virtual access to a (until recently at least) mostly closed site had been enabled though through things like the MOOC, a relativity new on-line tour, a BBC/Discovery Channel TV documentary and open publishing of some academic papers. The opportunity, he said, was linking these and more resources, so an interest sparked by one could be satisfied by others.

Then everyone had the opportunity to introduce themselves and explain a little bit about what they hoped to get out of the day. One of the most exciting things I learned here was RES, Jake Berger’s project which the BBC has been surprisingly quiet about. This little video explains it better than I can.

We attempted to run the session a bit like the earlier thinkthon, but its interesting to note that with more people, it didn’t work quite as well. In Winchester, with a smaller group, the We Are Open guys nudged our discussion to explore interesting avenues more deeply. But with this larger group Bryan ended up drawing and drawing trying (and sometimes failing) to keep up, and not contributing as much as he was able to do in Winchester. Graeme compensated by taking more of a “chair” role than he had needed to do during the Thinkathon, but I think in the end the discussion was shallower. But new concepts reached more minds in the larger group, so I hope we may have scattered some seeds that will bare fruit in future.

We started talking about MOOCs and the Portus FutureLearn. Though an open course, some hoops have to jumped through to make the content open, and in fact not all the content is open, student’s own comments are considered their copyright by default, for example, so they can only be seen by other students. One of the advantages of massively open courses is the broad range of students they attract, with different backgrounds and levels of expertise. They may well being to the course, though a comment a unique insight which no-one had considered before of real value, not just to fellow students, but to the academics behind the course. But that insight can’t be shared from within the course. Permission must the sought from the student.

Some contributions are made using other platforms. For example, in the Portus MOOC students were asked to submit diagrams and photos on Flikr. On upload Flikr allows the user to set the level of open access to the file, but the user can’t change that after the original decision, and the default, is copyright, all rights reserved. So despite the various levels of Creative Commons protection offered by other options, most of the material uploaded in this manner is also closed, not open. We talked a little about incentive’s for users to consider Creative Commons when they share their work.

I don’t think the open badges idea that we talked about quite a lot at Winchester was specifically mentioned here, but on reflection I think its bubbling under. For example, we returned to the idea of Experience Playlists.


The idea of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs across digital and possibly even realworld platforms is attractive. Not just for the trailblazer to look back on, but for other users to follow. But should it be more explicit than, say, Amazon telling us “people who bought this also bought these” or Google ranking popular links? Could an open badge system residing in the background on people’s phone discreetly create a visit timeline, like the one I left at SF MOMA?

Then we tackled Heritage Organisations’ different understanding (fear?) of what Open means. Different laws pertain in different states for a start, so organisations ability to make stuff open could be limited by the state in which they operate. Then there is the issue of willingness, not just of heritage organisations – for example, a museum might own the physical artifact of a contemporary painting, but not its Intellectual Property, of which the artist (or their estate) might retain control. Then when the museum is the outright owner of a work, they may fear that opening up access to its reproduction limits the ability to generate much needed funds. Though, as Lindsey pointed out, in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum may have shown other institutions the way in that regard. Personally I came out of the discussion no less convinced that a Creative Commons, share alike, non-commercial proposition is something that heritage organisations should proactively embrace.

We had a go at working out what we might learn from Citizen Science projects, but by this time, I think we were all getting tired, and I’m not sure we came out with any useful conclusions. My own notes get scrappy here, but I do remember pointing out the critical-mass challenge for public participation in heritage, which has dogged crowdsourcing heritage projects like History Pin.

And that might be indicate a good place to finish this blog. We discussed what we were trying to achieve with all this. And no-one was expecting miracles. We know there will always be a steep curve on the axes of number of participants and depth of involvement: while hundreds of thousands or millions might passively watch a TV documentary about Rome, fewer and fewer will participate at deeper levels of interest and active participation. all we want (expect) to do is tweek that curve just a little bit. No even as much as this sketch suggests (though that would be nice):

Sketches from Bryan Mathers,
Sketches from Bryan Mathers,


P.O.R.T.U.S is go!

A week or two back, I had an interesting conversation with my supervisor, which I didn’t think I should mention on-line until, today, he invoked the “inverse fight club rule”. So I can now reveal that P.O.R.T.U.S stands for Portus Open Research Technologies User Study – yes, I know, as Graeme said “recursive-acronym-me-up baby.” This isn’t the Portus Project, but but it does ride on the back of that work, and (we hope) it will also work to the Portus Project’s benefit.

P.O.R.T.U.S is a small pilot project to explore better signposting to open research, so (for example) people interested in the BBC Documentary Rome’s Lost Empire, (which coincidentally is repeated TONIGHT folks, hence my urgency in getting this post out) might find their way to the Portus Project website, the FutureLearn MOOC,  the plethora of academics papers available free through ePrints (this one for example) or even raw data.

Though the pilot project will use the Portus Project itself as a test bed, we’re keen to apply the learning to Cultural Heritage of all types. To which end I’m looking to organise a workshop bringing together cultural heritage organisations, the commercial companies that build interpretation and learning for them, and open source data providers like universities.

The research questions include:

  • What are the creative digital business (particularly but not exclusively in cultural heritage context) opportunities provided by aligning diverse open scholarship information?
  • What are the challenges?
  • Does the pilot implementation of this for the Portus Project offer anything to creative digital businesses?

The budget for this pilot project is small, and that means the workshop will have limited places, but if you are working with digital engagement, at or for cultural heritage sites and museums,. and would like to attend, drop me a note in the comments.

Petworth Park and Pokemon too

Yesterday’s post was timely, it turns out, because today, Pokemon Go was released in the wild. I downloaded it and caught my first two Pokemon in the Great Hall at Chawton, waiting for a meeting that I’ll write more about tomorrow. But after that meeting I was off down to Petworth to have a go with the new(ish) Park Explorer.

The Park Explorer is one of the outputs of a three year long archeology project, exploring what’s under the Capability Brown landscape that survives today. I have some responsibility for the way it works. When my colleague Tom explained his plan to build a mobile application, I dissuaded him. There is little evidence that many people  download apps in advance of their visit to Heritage sites. And even fewer wish to deplete their data allowance on the mobile network to download it on site.

Together, we came up with an alternative – using solar powered Info-points to create wifi hotspots around the park that could deliver media to any phone capable of logging on to wifi, and browsing the web. Though in this case it’s not the World Wide Web, but a series of basic webpages offering maps, AV, etc. We’re running this installation as a bit of an experiment to gauge demand, to see, if it’s offered, how many people actually log on.

Pokemon Go demonstrated why the technology might be useful. With the app newly downloaded on my phone I, of course, wanted to try it out in Petworth’s pleasure grounds. I’d guessed right, the garden’s Ionic Rotunda and Doric Temple are both Pokestops.  But the wireless signal is so weak and patchy (on O2 at least) that the game could hardly log on, let alone do anything when I got within range. After a frustrating few minutes I gave up and returned to the local wifi.

That crummy phone signal is one of the reasons we went to solar powered local wifi. Once I logged on I was soon listening to the voice of my colleague Tom as he explained some of the archeology of the garden, watching an animated film of the development of the park and scrubbing away a photo of the current three person gardening team and their power tools to reveal a black and white photo of the small  army of gardeners that used to work here.

All of this was very good. But there are some issues that I think need to be addressed if the idea is to catch on. First of all, finding the wifi signal and logging on isn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped. Your browser need to be pointed at to find the home page. The home page design leaves something to be desired. The floating button to change text size seems an afterthought that annoyingly obscures the text its trying to clarify. Navigation isn’t intuitive (no obvious way forward from the welcome splash pictured above, for example) or that well organised – I’d hoped that I’d be offered media that was closest to my position (as identified by the hotspot I was logged into), but the browse button just led to a list of things. Switching to the map view was easier, but it showed the design lacked a degree of responsiveness – see below how the word “Map” is partially obscured by the tile with the actual map on. The pins that link to different media suggest that its good to be standing in particular places to view that media, but on the few that I tried around the pleasure grounds, there seemed to be no discernible benefit to being in the right spot. In the end I settled under a spreading Oak to sit and work my way through what was on offer.

One feature that worked well to compare old and new and see change over the centuries was the scrub away photo feature. Even here though there was a fault in the responsiveness of the design. If I turned the phone into landscape mode, the picture became full screen and I lost the ability to reset it.

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I imagined how good it would be, if it looked and felt (and responded) like the National Trust’s current website. Maybe, with a bit of work, it can.

More work would be and investment though, so, first of all though we need to interrogate the system’s solar powered servers, and see how many people are giving it a try.

Hadrian’s Wall with Bricks to the Past


A couple of weeks ago we went to the Great Western Brick Show (which used to be the Great Western Lego Show, until one party or the other decided not to license the Lego trademark). This takes place annually at Steam, the railway museum in Swindon, and is just one of a growing number of large events run by AFOLs (Adult Fans Of Lego). It’s full of impressive models, but this year’s triumph was a huge diorama of a section of Hadian’s Wall.

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It was built by Bricks to the Past, a collective of Lego-builders with a particular interest in history. Their inspiration comes from University of Newcastle’s FutureLearn course Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier. I’ll have to try to persuade them to enroll on Southampton’s Portus course next time it runs, though they are probably looking for a non-Roman project next year.


The massive model depicted aspects of life on both sides of the wall, with a Pictish village and Iron Age barrow by Simon Pickard,  on the “uncivilized” side, and a Roman Villa by Steve Snasdell on the other.


I had a brief chat with the builders at the show and they talked about some of the compromises they made with scale, particularly on James Pegrum’s fort, so they they could fit interesting features (for example Roman latrines) into the diorama.


They also included features for future minifigure archaeologists to find, around the perimeter, people could peek underground into charnal pits and burial sites.


They had no idea how many bricks they’d used in the model, but it looked like hundreds of thousands. Having struggled with the roof on my Portus Magazzini model I was particularly interested in their imaginative use of cylinder and hinge bricks (among others) to create a variety of roof styles.


Apart from the diorama, the group also made other Roman archeology inspired models, such as a centurion, a Romulus and Remus plaque and a fragment of tiled flooring.

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All in all, it was an inspiring piece of Lego visualization.



Participate in research and (maybe) win!

Fleur Schinning is currently writing her master’s thesis as a part of her specialisation in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology. Public archaeology has been developing considerably in the Netherlands for the last couple of years, but much can still be improved concerning public outreach activities. This is why she has decided to focus her research on social and digital communication methods that might make archaeology more accessible for a wider public.

Her research is looking at several blogs from both the UK and USA; in these countries blogging seems widely accepted and used a lot as a tool in creating support for archaeology. To be able to explore how blogging in archaeology contributes to public archaeology,  she would like to question the bloggers and (this is where you come in) readers of these blogs. She has created a questionnaire for you dear reader, which can be accessed here:

All participants also have a chance to win a small prize; 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine!

Go on, you know you want to!

OK, just one more post about Lego #buildyourownportus

I can’t stop fiddling. I spent most of today back on LDD recreating the Grandi Magazzini components, to take account of the lessons I learned with the actual Lego model. I also changed the Gothic arch on the reverse, and added some roofing (omitting the ridge tiles, which are not available on Lego’s pick-a-brick service). Here’s a picture of what a few components look like, when put together to make part of the central range of the full building.


The scary thing is, now I’ve got a definitive version, using only bricks I can order from Lego, I can find out actually how much the whole thing might cost. Just the three roofed two story “units” in that picture would cost almost £90, plus postage. Based on those costs – the whole thing could be more than £1,250. Too rich for my blood.

The Magazzini Realised #buildyourownportus

Yesterday, I got the Lego bricks I’d ordered last week. So I set about building, to see if I’d got my LDD (Lego Digital Designer) design right. After I’d ordered them, I’d already spotted a few bricks I hadn’t put into the LLD model, and thus weren’t on my order list. But I was disappointed to that there were a a number of pieces – the corner tiles, the 1×4 bricks – that I’d entirely missed when I was ordering.

So I had to raid my boys collection – luckily he had plenty of the right sort of bricks, plus some others (tiles especially) that weren’t available from Lego’s brick order service. so what I’ve ended up with isn’t exactly the model I designed.

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In the building of it, I discovered weaknesses in the construction – for example, the solid wall can be pushed down off the model too easily when fixing the upper story onto the ground floor. But of course, the advantage of work with your hands, building with bricks instead of of bits, is that structural improvements are somehow more immediately apparent. The concept of learning styles has been pretty effectively debunked over the last few years, but there does remain the idea that you can learn about different things in different ways. My hands could “see” the model better than my eyes looking at the computer model.

One thing I wanted to check that I’d found very difficult to measure was the height of the two units stacked on top of each other. The archaeological evidence suggests the brick walls of the building were 11 metres high (the roof of course was higher still). Using my rudimentary 1 stud = 1 metre scale, my model should stand 11 studs high. Measuring height is very difficult in LDD, because one standard brick is more than one stud high, and especially because the LLD environment does not come with a vertical scale. Comparing my model with other CAD models of the building, it looks shorter, more squat, less elegant than the CAD ones. However, I was please to see that, when measured with a twelve stud tile, my physical model is just about eleven studs high.


So I’m going to deconstruct the model and rebuild it, physically and in LDD, with the bricks beside my screen. My aim is to make it stronger, and use less bricks. I’m not sure we are going to be able to build an entire model during the Festival of Archaeology (especially at standard list prices), but I still want to build the most efficient, model I can.

Which I’m sure was the aim of the Roman builders of the Grandi Magazzini, nigh-on a couple of millennia ago.

The Magazzini Simplified #buildyourownportus

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Yesterday I returned to the Lego model of the Grandi Magazzini, that I was building in Lego Digital Designer last year. We’ve got an idea to do a day of modelling during the upcoming 25th Festival of Archaeology. Obviously, we’ll cover the “proper” modelling (CGI and 3D printing for example) as well as Lego, but I thought it would be fun to enable every visitor to the department to make at least one of the “warehouse units” and, over the course of the open day, build up more and more towards the complete Grandi Magazzini.

But to do that, I need to redesign my model. Not all the pieces I used in Lego Digital Designer are actually available. For example, my first model made extensive use of a “BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2” arch, which isn’t currently available – but more on that later. I needed to redesign the model using only bricks (and colours) that are available on Lego’s pick-a-brick custom order service.

But not only that, I wanted to make it slightly easier to build physically – my previous model would not have allowed for building a single unit and then plugging it on to the main model, at least not without some deconstruction. I alos wanted to use fewer bricks. They are not cheap on the pick-a-brick service.

With those three aims, I set about remaking the model, sticking as much as possible to the dimensions of my previous attempt which, a little bit through judgement, but also with a lot of luck, just about managed to keep to the one stud per metre scale I’d decided upon.

I lost some of the detail in the bricks I couldn’t use, but the most missed brick was the BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2, which was a lovely Romaneque arch. I had to replace it, in most places with two half-arches. In some places it actually worked better the arches of each floor’s colonnade are now closer to the 5.2 metre width that the evidence points to. The 1x6x2 brick restricted each opening to a width of just four metres. Inside though, the “vaulting” on the rearmost room looks distinctly “gothic”. I decided I could live with that, but the same thing happens on top floor of the rear external walls. Those half-arch bricks are relatively efficient, cost-wise, so I’ve retained them on that rear wall for the time being. But I fear their impact in multiplicity, across the exterior might give the wrong impression, it might make the building look like a monastery, more ecclesiastical than mercantile.

Its funny isn’t when visualizing something, how you have to be aware of the interpretations that people bring with them to the visualisation. If people had never seen gothic architecture, I might be happier to leave these arches as they are. But I have another idea involving a shallower arch, which while still not “Roman” in shape, may be less of a compromise. This solution will look more 19th century industrial, but perhaps that “industrial” interpretation is closer to what we think was the original use of the building.

Right now though, I’m leaving it as is. Its time to move away from the computer and the theory, and try to build what I’ve designed in real life. So I’ve ordered the required bricks from Lego (for £25 including postage) and when they arrive I’ll see how easy it is for my boy (our target market for this I’m sure) to put together.

On Sirmione, jewel of peninsulars

Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas,
jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters
or the great sea, or either ocean,
with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you,
scarcely believing myself free of Thynia
and the Bithynian fields, seeing you in safety.
O what freedom from care is more joyful
than when the mind lays down its burden,
and weary, back home from foreign toil,
we rest in the bed we longed for?
This one moment’s worth all the labour.
Hail, O lovely Sirmio, and rejoice as I rejoice,
and you, O lake of Lydian waters, laugh
with whatever of laughter lives here.

Catallus Poems, 31 Sirmio


Last week, the family and I took a break in Italy. We stayed on the shores of Lake Garda, and the first thing we did, was visit one of the most important cultural attractions of the Lake, GardaLand.

But the very next day, we went to the southern peninsular, Sirmione. At the very tip of this rocky finger which, on the map at least, seems to command views right up to the Northern end of the lake, lie ancient Roman ruins.

They are misnamed. Known, since the eighteenth century at least, as the Grotte di Catullo, most of the visible ruins date from long after that pre-Christian poet died. But as his poem (above) evidences, he did once live on the peninsular, and regard it as his home. And there is evidence of another, older, villa upon which the buildings that these ruins describe was built.


The scale of the place is fascinating. We arrived on the ferry from Peschiera del Garda, which is the very best way to arrive because it showcases the ruins as the ferry rounds the tip of the peninsular. From the water, the great brick and stone arches (which, if I read the interpretation correctly, comprise just the footings and undercroft of the villa) look huge. Their presence alone makes the massive scale of building five at Portus less surprising. You mind yourself thinking, as your boat chugs round to the dock, that this could not be some private villa, but surely, such an impressive building, which such a commanding view of the lake, must have had some sort of governmental purpose? The modelled illustrations on the interpretation boards play up the that sense of scale. And on a hot day (like the day of our visit) you wonder if you really want to take the walk from one end to the other. But then, you are surprised by the compactness of the site. Or at least I was. While walking among the pillars and columns, I was still impressed and overwhelmed by their height, but walking between them, traversing the site, across its width and length, and domestic scale reasserted itself, and yes, you can believe it might have been a villa (all-be-it an impressive one).


I mentioned the interpretation panels, and its worth returning to them. There’s a language problem – and its not that I don’t know any Italian. The panels were all double sided and repeated the same information in Italian, German, French and English. The problem was the language of archaeology. Take this example from the MiBAC introductory leaflet:

“…and to confirm the building currently to be seen was created as a single project defining its orientation and spatial distribution, following specific criteria of axiality and symmetry.”

My computer doesn’t even think “axiality” is a word at all, but I think I understand. The problem is, if I understand at all, its only because I’ve been hanging around with archaeologists quite a lot recently. And I don’t think this is a problem of poor translation from the Italian – the less jargon-y text is translated perfectly well. I think its evidence that the interpretation project could have benefited with a storyteller on the team.

I’m rushing off soon, so one final interesting note. The archaeological evidence shows that as the building fell into decline and disuse, it became a place to inter the dead. This is a practice that puzzles me and many fellow students on the Portus MOOC, yet it seems quite widespread. I wonder if the next iteration of the MOOC should explore this aspect even more…

PGRAS Southampton – Day 2 (there is no Day 1)

On Thursday, I attended the second day of the Archaeology department’s Postgraduate  symposium, at which every PhD student is expected to deliver an annual presentation on their research. Part timers like me are required to only present every other year, so this time I was an audience member only, and Chair for one session. I hadn’t managed to go to the first day, because I was at work. Here are some selected personal highlights of the day.

Eleonora Gandolfini kicked the day off introducing her work on MOOCs, local communities and cultural heritage. She’s looking at how the global might become local to engage communities in the archaeology of what is close to them – for a start, she’s been creating text translations of our Portus MOOC into Italian. Here presentation included a couple of pleasant surprises for me: the first mention I’d heard that Portus has a past life as a safari park (which I’m sure wasn’t news to most of my peers), and a reference to, and display of, my virtual Lego model of Building 5!

Dan Joyce followed with a review at all the low-cost technology that can be used in archaeology, then Danielle Newman looked at using ethnographic techniques to interview archaeologists on public engagement. Her mention of the difficulties of how different professional communities using terminology differently struck a chord with me, interpretation, for example, is word that I and my archaeologist peers use very differently I think.

For example, Trevor Rowe talked about how Augmented Reality, which most people only think of as an not-quite-there-yet technology for interpreting the past to visitors, might be used to help archaeological interpretation of data while on site. Later in the day, when Elizabeth Richley was talking about her work combining different data sources in 3D, I wondered when her work would be combined with Trevor’s to create “Archaeologist Goggles.”

In the following session, the presentation that stood out for me and, it seemed, excited the room was Leah Holguin’s talk on Disappearing Landscapes of the Gobi Desert. It seemed a lot of people wanted to share her adventures, and I must admit, with all that sand and isolation, it felt like “real” Indiana Jones style, archaeology.

I chaired a session on walls, with Nicholas Dugdale skyping in to present his analysis of Roman marble shipping, Katherine Crawford and Isobel Pinder with two different takes on Roman religious processionals, and James Miles updating us on his structural analysis of Winchester Cathedral.

The final session ended with a really tough question for Peter Brugger who is researching the use of 3D printed versions of artefacts in museums. He was challenged with a question that amounted to “what’s the point?” After all, it doesn’t weight the same, or even feel the same, its by no means a replica – what is the learning outcome of a visitor interacting with it? But something he had said in his presentation made me think he already had the answer, that fiddling with the plastic version drew visitors’ attention to the real thing. So I wonder if its not an interpretive medium as such, but should be considered rather more like museum lighting, an atmospheric, sensory effect that help people understand where to look.

Well that’s a whistlestop tour of my notes from the day, there were plenty of other presentations as well, but I’m off to Italy shortly, so that’s all you get from me.