A group from the ADS was recently lucky enough to attend the international Computer Applications in Archaeology (CAA) conference. It has changed a lot since it started in the 1970s. I remember one of the papers I saw there - on the potential of machines called microcomputers for excavation recording. Times change, but the conference is still attended by an interesting mix of computer scientists and archaeologists. As always, the most useful conversations often take place outside the formal sessions. Despite its growth in size, CAA still provides a valuable forum for interaction.
The keynote address was by Professor Heinz Zemanek, an Austrian computing pioneer, who helped develop the very early IBM mainframe 360 series. His conclusion was that there is a pressing need for archaeologists to preserve their digital data, but that this should be done in a distributed fashion. Music, of course, to ADS ears!
Elsewhere at the conference, preservation did not seem so high on the agenda: imaginations were captured by ever more realistic virtual realities. A more surprising omission was discussion of XML, the eXtensible Markup Language.
XML has similarities with the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Web browsers use HTML tags to pick out titles, headings, fonts, and so forth and display them accordingly. XML extends this to identify the format and content of text. It has great potential for sharing data, so long as there is consistency in the tags used. It can mark fields in a database, allowing fields to be searched or harvested. It can highlight keywords or concepts in a document, creating an automatic index. It will let users choose the items they want to display from a document, and how they are presented.
XML is employed by ADS in a number of projects described in this newsletter: to index excavation archives in the ARENA project; to tag descriptive data about archaeological research in the OASIS collection forms; and to deliver data from the web portal HEIRPORT. Each of these projects uses XML to support intelligent interaction between systems - but the human interaction at meetings and conferences such as CAA is just as important so that these systems are useful as well as clever. Technological fads come and go, but the need to interact never changes.