Michael E. Smith lays down an interesting challenge at Publishing Archaeology: What are the hard problems in Archaeology? What questions haven’t archaeologists answered and aren’t likely to answer any time soon? A couple of ideas come to mind. I’ll start with the easier problem to express.
Is an ancient history or archaeology of religion a sensible project?
I’ve got an interest in ancient science, but one of the things most people researching ancient science would agree that science in the ancient world didn’t really exist. There’s something that’s a more systematic inquiry about nature, but something like natural philosophy would be a better description for the classical world. I’m not sure that the same term would work for other societies because philosophy carries a lot of baggage too. So when academics talk about ancient science, there’s this undercurrent that we’re not talking about science. Ancient science is not the same as modern science.
I’ve got an interest in ancient religion too. I’m not so interested in the content as such, more religion in a socio-political context. That’s something you can say that makes sense to modern people. If you said the same thing in the ancient world they’d think you were mad. It’d be a bit like saying you’re interested in fish, but only the ones that live in water. In the ancient world it was accepted that religion was entwined with civic life. There’s a second problem that what we call religion has developed from its ancient roots. Continue reading
I’m not planning to blog a lot on the Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples as is openly accessible. Your comments are going to carry a lot more weight there than here. But I’ll try and keep track of what other people are saying elsewhere. I’m expecting this to be the first paper of a developing argument, so I’ll need to see what people identify as problems and address them. There’s two comments in the Times today which I think neatly highlight one of the issues. One is from Efrosyni Boutsikas and the other from Mary Beard.
Boutsikas’ objection is interesting. I wanted a comparison data set to examine for Greece and the only one I know of that’s published is Retallack’s in Antiquity. To be honest it’s not entirely fair to use Retallack’s data as he wasn’t that concerned with astronomy. Instead he was looking at geomorphology, and I think he has some really interesting results. Now Boutsikas has her own survey, which she did specifically with archaeoastronomy in mind. That’s why I’m interested when she says of 107 temples in Greece only 58% faced east. That might cause me some problems and here’s why.
First we need three variables. n is the number of temples. That’s 107. p is the probability and event will happen, and q the probability it won’t. p+q = 1 because something has to either happen or not happen. So what value is p? It depends on what Boutsikas means by east. If she means the eastern half of the horizon, then p is 0.5 and so is q. By pure chance we’d expect np temples to face east. That’s 53.5. In her survey 62 temples faced east. That’s more than chance, so I’m right yes? Not so fast.
There’s never going to be exactly 53.5 temples facing east. Around 19 times out of twenty 20 there’ll be 53.5 plus or minus two standard deviations. If you want the chance of a false positive to be lower than 1 in a 100, then you need 53.5 plus or minus three standard deviations. The standard deviation (σ) for this kind of distribution is calculated by the formula:
σ = √npq
If we want the one in twenty confidence that means
σ = √(107 × 0.5 × 0.5) = 5.2
So 19 times out of 20 you might expect to find between 43.1 and 63.9 temples facing east. The result of 62 is inside this range, so there’s nothing significant. How do I explain that? I’m not sure I can. I can’t say what time period her temples come from. If she’s looked at Bronze Age sites and Roman sites in Greece then we’re not comparing like with like and it’s possible that when we compare temples built in the archaic and classical periods as they were in Sicily then we’ll have more of a match. Another possibility is that I’m simply wrong.
But this depends on Boutsikas meaning eastern half of the horizon when she says east. I use different definitions of east for different tests and make clear which are which in the paper because it makes a difference. If Boutsikas has put her temples into four categories, north, east, south and west, then east means eastern quarter of the sky and the equations turn out differently.
If east is the eastern quarter then 19 times out of twenty at most we would expect at most 35.71 temples. By chance there’s be over 40.19 temples in the sample less than 1 time out of 100. 62 temples would be over seven standard deviations away from the expected result. If that’s by chance it’s an amazing freak result. It means I can’t respond to Boutsikas’s claims until I can see the data to analyse, so I know what east means. She might have proven my paper wrong, or else proven it very right. How can that be when only just over half of the temples face east?
Imagine you’re at a casino. Someone is spinning the roulette wheel. Half the time it lands on the numbers 0–9 and the other half it lands on another number. It doesn’t matter than you can’t predict exactly where the next ball will land. In the long term that casino will lose money because something is affecting the wheel. This isn’t about having a hard and fast law for astronomical alignments. It’s about whether or not a significant number of temples are aligned to the sun. If you’re going say that there is or isn’t a significant number, first you have to know what a significant number would look like. Typically in the social sciences that would np +/- 2σ. I prefer np +/- 3σ because I’m making claims which people might not be comfortable with, so it’s reasonable I should provide stronger evidence.
If I am right that doesn’t mean Boutsikas’ and Retallack’s surveys can be junked. In fact it means the opposite. In Retallack’s case he’s showing there’s a clear correlation between the dedication of a temple and the soil type it’s built in. Now if there’s a general rule that Greek temples face east, the temples which don’t become more interesting because then you can ask “What’s special about those temples? Why were they built that way?” It’s the same for Boutsikas’ data. If there’s nothing special about the alignments then temples which don’t face east are nothing special. If, using this method, her data shows a tendency for eastern alignments then she has a data set with plenty of interesting temples that could tell us something about Greek religion. For instance it could highlight where a local cult was doing something special that you wouldn’t find elsewhere in Greece.
Clearly Boutsikas’ objection is serious and I’ll need to consider it carefully, but in this case it could be a case of cross-wired. I don’t think she’d seen my article when she talked to the Times because I hadn’t emailed it to her till last night. We’ve both been working on similar topics and so could have come to the same conclusions. If we been talking with each other then there could have been a bit of friction if we saw our ideas in each other’s theses. She’s been put on the spot reacting to a paper which she probably hasn’t read, but she’s clearly an expert in the subject because of her own research. She’ll go where her research takes her and I’ll go with mine. The reporter has picked up on that confusion. Does that leave him in the dog house? Definitely not.
I’m really pleased with the way Mark Henderson has written this up. It’s not his job to preach my wonderfulness, it’s to report on how this research fits in with other research. Getting the quotes from Efrosyni Boutsikas was brilliant because it shows there’s currently two models which come to opposite conclusions. As we both publish more those models will get fleshed out and adapt. Which one will be accepted? Hers? Mine? Some kind of hybrid, or even neither? It’s not just about getting the right answer. At the moment we might not even agree on what the right answer will look like. Which brings me to Mary Beard’s piece.
I think it’s great commentary. I think she’s spot on when she rejects the idea of a modern astronomy in the ancient world. I would quibble with her rejecting astronomy for the rhythms of day and night. That sounds astronomical to me and there’s also evidence the seasons were important. I think she might be trying to emphasise the importance of cosmological features, in the sense of natural order, rather than strict observation. The only real puzzle is that she’s saying that there’s it’s obvious that Greek temples align east-west when in the column next to her Efrosyni Boutsikas is saying they obviously don’t. This is a bit of an interdisciplinary gap.
From the outside you might expect archaeologists and classicists to talk to each other. They’re dealing with the same people in the same time period. In reality this doesn’t always happen. A few years back the Roman Archaeology Conference, the big conference for Roman archaeologists held once every couple of years was scheduled opposite the Classical Association conference. The two sides don’t always talk to each other. In the past few years Boutsikas has been publishing on her work. Ioannis Liritzis and Helena Vassiliou have been arguing that Greek temples were aligned towards or away from aurorae or stars. This is having no impact amongst classicists. Equally I can’t just turn around and say “Greek temples tended to face east” because all the researchers who disagree could ask “How do you know?” It’s obvious doesn’t work as an academic response, even though I agree with Mary Beard. I don’t imagine that would be her response in an academic forum. But what she’s done is she’s very helpfully shown that if I want to talk to classicists then show why I think I have something to talk about.
That’s why I’ve had to write this paper. I want to write more, but the first question anyone can ask is “How do you know that’s not just a chance result?” That’s why I developed this method. I wanted something simple and effective. The reason I put it in PLoS One is that it also has to be accessible. I’m planning to write more articles for specialist journals, but people reading those will need access to my data and my methodology. That needs to be available to classicists, archaeologists, astronomers and anyone else with an interest.
I’ve published a paper with PLoS One which should be out today. The most common question I’ve been asked so far is: Why there? I’m applying for jobs in Archaeology and Ancient History, so why would I want to publish in an online journal that hardly anyone in those fields has heard of? Surely publishing in one of the big journals would be better? Here’s a few reasons.
The paper was submitted on the 8th of September and I got the acceptance, subject to revisions on the 30th of September. I wouldn’t be quite so happy if it had been rejected, but you have to be prepared for that. The faster there’s a decision the quicker you can work on the revisions or else re-write for another journal. The rapid response means that I can cite the data in this paper in other papers immediately rather than delaying writing about further work.
Research might be interdisciplinary, but not so many journals are. For this paper the alternatives would be publication in specialist archaeoastronomy, classics, archaeology or astronomy journals. I can do that and will do that in the future, but writing for those journals means writing for those specific audiences. If they’re subscription-based they also lock out a large proportion of the potential audience. If an astronomer is in a university without a classics department then it’s going to be hard for him to get a copy of the paper. Likewise many universities don’t carry archaeoastronomy journals. PLoS One gives me a platform to introduce the work and then I can publish tailored articles developing ideas in the specialist journals.
It opens conversation.
You can comment on the paper. So too can anyone else. This is particularly handy for interdisciplinary work. I’m hoping the conversation doesn’t end with this one paper. The article-based metrics will included some of citation search. Hopefully in a couple of years people reading this paper will be able to see where they can find criticisms and developments in other papers. That’s amazingly useful for interdisciplinary work where subsequent papers could be in journals in a variety of disciplines.
I’ve decided some form of open-access is essential for interdisciplinary work. The paper stands or falls on whether or not the binomial distribution is the right tool for the task. That means for academic honesty I have to submit it to a journal where the I can be reasonably sure it will be scrutinised by people familiar with basic statistics. Scientists might laugh at that as the mathematics in the paper is very simple. I think any classicist could follow it, but some could quite reasonably be wary of it. Is it statistical sleight-of-hand? They can read any comments left by statisticians or astronomers and judge how confident they should be in the findings. Likewise people unfamiliar with the Greek material can read the classicists’ and archaeologists’ comments and see if the human aspect of the research is sound.
It’s also important for me because I might learn something, and indeed I did. This is a better paper post-review than it was when I submitted it. I’ve re-thought how I process some of the data and that will have a positive on the next project I do.
After going through the process I’m impressed with PLoS. I think I hit every bump in the submission process, most of it due to the ordering of the paper being different to how I would normally write it. Still, the everyone was very helpful along the way. If you’re a recent PhD or grad student with a need to put out some publications, I’d recommend publishing with PLoS One. Of course I’m writing this before I’ve seen how the paper has been received, so you can check on my article metrics yourself to see if it’s being read or else sunk into obscurity.
I wasn’t aware of this book till I saw a review appear on the BMCR feed. If you’re tackling anything to do with ancient Greece and Rome then it’s a good idea to keep an eye on BMCR as there’s a constant stream of reviews highlighting interesting books. I’m very glad I saw this as it’s specifically useful to me because of a paper I’m polishing for submission. However it’s generically useful too because it’s a good book on the interaction of astronomy, cosmology and religion in archaic Greece.
The subject of the book is the Parthenia (Partheneion) by Alcman (Alkman) a poet writing in the 7th century BC. It describes part of a ceremony to devote something to a goddess, possibly Artemis though Bowra (1934:35) disagrees. He argues that ὀρθρίαι means at day-break rather than being a reference to Artemis Orthia. This is pretty much the problem with the Parthenia. It’s fragmentary and even the fragments we do have are ambiguous.
There’s some astronomical element to the poem, but exactly what in the poem is astronomical and what is being offered is also debated. Everyone’s arguments about what the poem means stands or breaks on a section which Ferrari calls ‘the most tormented passage in this section of the song’. Thanks to Google Books, I can add the two relevant pages below under Pleiades, Hyades and Sirius so you can see what the problem is.
The key passage in near English is something like:
For as we carry ὀρθρίαι φαρος
The Πεληάδες rise and struggle against us
Like the star Sirius
through the ambrosial night.
Depending on how you translate the Greek words you get a different outcome.
If you think φαρος is a robe or veil then you’re in good company. This is known from other rituals. Usually that means that people then translate ὀρθρίαι to describe Artemis Orthia, a virgin goddess with an interest in children and childbirth. That makes Πεληάδες the Pleiades. Many people then make this a spring festival — and that for me is where this translation breaks down.
The Pleiades are not like Sirius. They’re staggeringly unlike Sirius. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and the Pleiades are an open cluster of faint stars that are like a smudge of light to the naked eye. If your eyesight’s good you can make out individual stars. That would suggest that’s it’s not the appearance that matters but the timing of their appearance. In that light, the spring festival makes sense. In this period the Pleiades first appeared in the morning sky in May. The problem is the reference to Sirius. Sirius was setting in the evening sky at this time. It didn’t rise till July. This is why I cannot see how the poem describes a spring festival. The presence of Sirius seems to rule that out.
The alternative taken by a smaller group of people is that a φαρος is a plough. This would be Ferrari’s interpretation and Martin West’s too who generally has a big brain when it comes to lyric poetry. If a plough is being brought then this becomes an autumn festival. There were many harvests throughout the year, but the agricultural year restarted each autumn after the last harvest with the ploughing of the fields. This is astronomically better because Sirius would have been visible in the morning sky which very neatly ties to ὀρθρίαι meaning day-break. That’s essential because Greek religious ritual often happened in the morning or just before sunrise. This doesn’t give me so much of a headache, as it’s physically possible, but I still struggle with the Pleiades being like Sirius. That’s why I’ve tended to like a third option that Ferrari mentions.
Πεληάδες doesn’t just mean faint open cluster of stars. It also means doves. If were serious about wanting to solve this puzzle then I’d be looking at dove migration and historical and archaeological evidence for hunting. Birds tend to migrate in autumn, that works with φαρος as a plough. Songbirds also tend to fly at night. Travelling through the sky like Sirius through the night would be a bad simile, but less so than the Pleiades as stars option to my ears. This would tie in with the kind of astronomy Hesiod practiced. He didn’t just look at stars, but also at ecological signs, like the migrations of birds and the behaviour of other animals.
Don’t go investing too much in my belief though. This is an opinion formed from a fairly small amount of reading. One of the things that makes this book so useful is that it draws on an extensive amount of evidence. You don’t have to agree with Ferrari’s destination to see that the trip is worthwhile. She also pulls in evidence from archaeology and art as well as drama, especially Euripides. I think it’s speculative work, but it’s certainly not baseless speculation.
However, I’m not fully convinced by the explanation. Nearly all the supporting evidence post-dates Alcman’s work by a long way. Euripides was writing in the fifth century BC. I think that’s important because I think something happens to astronomy in this period. The fifth century is when Meton pins down his luni-solar cycle. It’s also a time when there’s a stronger sense of Hellenic identity, partly as a reaction to the threat from Persia. I think the book is extremely helpful for exploring what people in the fifth century thought about the connection between the heavens and religion. I want to believe that we can take this evidence and apply it back to seventh century Sparta. It would make my life so much easier, but I don’t think there’s the certainty in the evidence to fix the Parthenia to the autumn. My opinion might change in the future. I found the text a bit, ha ha, laconic. It means I’ll have to read it a few times to get a better idea of some of the more subtle arguments. It’s not a badly written book and definitely not deliberately obtuse, but it is concise.
All in all though it’s very thought-provoking. It puts some flesh on to models that try and connect religion and astronomy. It means that ritual isn’t just about the material, but also about how it’s used. It would be interesting to see if anyone else had evidence approaching the same problem from the opposite direction. A survey of temples to see if there’s some sort of archaeological correlate with the astronomical behaviour might be useful.
Some posts take quite a while to write. This is a response to Candy Minx and Martin Rundkvist who were discussing the Antikythera Mechanism back in 2006 (Antikythera, Time, A Reply to the Minx). Candy Minx thought that the Antikythera Mechanism was an expression of what was already known and embedded in a society through things like myth and ritual. Martin thought that the mechanism was far more complex, indeed needlessly complex, for an ancient society and so was something quite different to the folk astronomy of the time. Originally I planned to write a fence-sitting compromise. I thought that Candy Minx was right to an extent, there was no need for a device like this because rituals and folk observation could allow people to time the year as well as they needed. At the same time I thought that Martin was right to point out that the mechanism gave results with far more accuracy than folk astronomy needed, or would even recognise. A different sort of astronomy is visible in the Antikythera Mechanism. I didn’t blog too much about the 2006 paper because I attended a few of Mike Edmunds’ talks on the topic and heard that more would be published, which happened in 2008. Anyhow in my own fluffy and fence-sitting way I’ll now offer my compromise.
Someone with an extraordinary imagination built the Antikythera Mechanism and, if he were alive today, we wouldn’t hesitate to call him a scientist. I don’t know if the designer was in the same league as Newton or Galileo, but he was certainly the equal of Kepler, Copernicus or Brahe. It’s hard to overstate how extraordinary the device described in the 2006 paper is, but I’m going to give it a go.
If you’re the one person who hasn’t heard of the Antikythera Mechanism then Nature have a handy video introduction.
All that remains now is a collection of corroded lumps found off the island of Antikythera. The 2006 paper described what the team discovered after x-raying the lumps to read the hidden inscriptions without prizing apart the device and damaging it. Prior to this paper it was thought that the device could keep track of the Sun and the Moon. This is no small feat.
Epicycle et deferent. Image by
The Sun would be moving slowly against the background stars, so over the course of a year it would pass through all the signs of the zodiac. The Moon however is more complex. The Moon also moves in front of the background stars, but it only takes about 27 days to do this. It’s called the sidereal period. So you need a couple of gears to drive those two motions. But you wouldn’t really think of the sidereal period as a month. For most people the synodic period, the time between one New Moon and the next or the time between one Full Moon and the next, is a month. This is around 29½ days. Throw in extra gears for driving other displays showing eclipse cycles and it’s clearly a complex device. The original studies found evidence of epicycles, gears mounted on other gears. Add other features like displays for eclipse and lunar cycles on the back and it’s obvious you have a complicated device. The 2006 research showed that in fact it was all a bit more complicated than that.
The Moon’s movement isn’t constant. It speeds up and slows down. This is because its orbit isn’t exactly circular. Instead it’s slightly egg-shaped. The point furthest from the earth is the apogee and the point closest to the Earth is the perigee. When it’s near the apogee it travels slowly, but when it moves closer to the Earth it picks up speed until it passes perigee and then it slows down again. This is called the first lunar anomaly. The difference is noticeable by the naked eye, if you’re willing to make systematic observations. This is all simply explained by Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. There’s small problem. Kepler used ellipses.
You can’t use elliptical gears. The point of gears is that they must have intermeshing teeth. An elliptical gear would lose contact with the driving gear as its axis changed. Instead it seems that the mechanism used two gears, one slightly off-axis from the other. The rotation was connected by a pin-and-slot arrangement, so that the one gear wouldn’t turn at quite the same rate as the other gear. The on-axis gear can then be turned reliably by the drive gears, while the motion of the moon can driven by the off-axis gear. So you have a device that can track the sidereal, synodic and anomalistic months, all while the Earth is spinning round the Sun. If that’s causing your head to spin you might want to skip the next paragraph.
There’s another problem. The lunar anomaly describes the Moon’s travel from one apogee to the next. This apogee is also rotating around the earth. If the apogee is in Aries then two and a bit years later it will be in Cancer, and another two and a bit years to move into Libra until it too has travelled through the zodiac over about nine years. So now we have a device which tracks the Moon around the Earth, and its phases and it’s variable speed and variations in that variability, while also keeping track of the Sun’s position, potential lunar and solar eclipses and intercalation cycles so you know when to stick an extra month in to keep the lunar months in step with the solar year round gears, some mounted slightly off axis to create a pseudo-sinusoidal variation using circular gears to replace ellipses. If you have funny feeling near the back of your head right now, that’s probably your brain trying to crawl out of your ears. The Antikythera Mechanism is insanely complex. Still just because it’s insanely complex, that doesn’t make it scientific.
In fact you can argue about whether or not Science existed in the ancient world. Certainly a lot of elements like testing ideas with experiments didn’t really become popular till after Galileo. On the other hand some natural philosophy of the time was based on observation. There was certainly technology which was the result of applied knowledge. With those kind of provisos a lot of ancient historians would be happy with the idea of ancient science, albeit a science different to post-Renaissance science. In this case, the sheer intense observation and calculation involved in making the Antikythera Mechanism marks it out as a work of ancient science. There’s also another factor which might make it more scientific than artistic.
To some extent the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project have been interested in hanging a name on the device. It was thought to have originated in Rhodes and sunk on its way to Rome, which would have connected it to the home city of Hipparchus, one of the great astronomers of antiquity. The 2008 paper has examined the parapegma on the mechanism and discovered it may be connected to Syracuse, home of Archimedes.
A parapegma is a calendar, usually with holes for sticking a peg into for marking the days. In the case of ancient Greece they’re interesting when they tell you what day of the month it is, because each Greek city had its own set of months. The months were usually named after religious festivals, and this was tied into local politics. That meant having your own calendar was a good way of showing your independence. The best match for the months mentioned on the mechanism is Tauromenion, modern Taormina, in Sicily. This is likely to have shared some months with Syracuse as it was re-settled from there in the fourth-century BC, so Syracuse is a strong possibility for the home of this device. Archimedes is said to have invented a planetarium according to Cicero and is thought to have written a lost book on astronomical devices. However he could not have made this device. Archimedes died in 212 BC. The Antikythera Mechanism is currently thought to date to the second half of the second century BC, but that might change. But it was very likely to have been made after Archimedes death and that’s what makes it scientific.
Art can be collaborative, or it can be personal. Science in contrast is built on cumulative knowledge. The person who invented the gearing did not have to be the person who made the astronomical observations. He didn’t even need to live in the same century as the astronomer. In fact the maker of this device might not have done either. He could have followed a kit and added his own personal touches on the casing. There’s a core to this device which, once expressed, is independent of personal vision. Archimedes didn’t have his own personal Moon which moved in a different way to everyone else’s, while an artist can have a personal interpretation of the Moon.
A reason people might think the Antikythera Mechanism is a work of art is that it’s clearly the result of a lot of imagination. Great art requires imagination, but so too does great science. It requires the kind of imagination that can look at a toolbox full of circles and see ellipses. The kind of imagination that can watch wheels turn within wheels as bodies waltz to the music of the celestial spheres. Another common factor between art and science is that great art can show a new way of looking at the world, and great science does this too. That’s why I disagree with Candy Minx when she says “Science is always playing catch up with the poets.” Science can reveal beauty too, as a visit to the Antikythera Mechanism Research Group’s homepage would show.
Freeth, T., Bitsakis, Y., Moussas, X., Seiradakis, J., Tselikas, A., Mangou, H., Zafeiropoulou, M., Hadland, R., Bate, D., Ramsey, A., Allen, M., Crawley, A., Hockley, P., Malzbender, T., Gelb, D., Ambrisco, W., & Edmunds, M. (2006). Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism Nature, 444 (7119), 587–591 DOI: 10.1038/nature05357
Freeth, T., Jones, A., Steele, J., & Bitsakis, Y. (2008). Calendars with Olympiad display and eclipse prediction on the Antikythera Mechanism Nature, 454 (7204), 614–617 DOI: 10.1038/nature07130
This is a development of an idea I had last year after reading a post by Christina on a visit to the National Museum in Copenhagen. In short most museums I go to seem to have much darker galleries for prehistoric material that classical material. That has to have a psychological effect, but does it also have a physiological effect? Is the difference in light enough that there’s a difference feeling to observing prehistoric material to classical material because of the room and not the content? You could also ask similar questions of European and Rest of the World exhibits. Are African exhibits in more dimly lit rooms, and if so what does this say about ‘world museums’.
It should be an easy enough question to answer; simply visit a range of museums in exotic locations with a light-meter and then number-crunch to find the answer. That’s not very efficient though. It means arranging permissions, travelling to the museums, and logging the data. It could take three or four days in terms of travel to some places to log 50 numbers. When it comes to number crunching more is better so is there a way round this? I suppose I could hire people to wander round museums for me with lightmeters, but that would be expensive and my bank is already experimenting with new shades of red to print my balance. It’d be handy if I could just find the data I want lying around the net somewhere. Regular readers will know I’ve been thinking about Flickr’s API a lot, and they won’t be surprised to hear that’s where I might have found the answer. A lot of people have been taking photos in museums and I think they could help.
It might sound bleeding obvious that all of Flickr’s photos were taken with a camera, but in the case of digital cameras Flickr can also store a lot more data. Attached to a lot of the photos is EXIF data. If you visit a photo like this one, you’ll see there’s a more properties link on the right side of the page. That takes you to a page like this one. It tells you the ISO setting, aperture and shutter speed for a photo. ((Usually — HDR photos won’t because the have multiple exposures)) If the camera is automatic then it will pick what it thinks are the best settings. The camera is set to manual, then the photographer is still probably going to choose what it thinks are the best settings. Therefore this gives a way to calculate relative changes in light.
For example ISO settings come from the days when people used film for photos. ISO 200 would react to light one ‘stop’ faster than ISO 100. ISO 400 was one stop faster than ISO 200 and two than ISO 100. So the ISO setting will let us calculate how many stops down the film speed is. The aperture is an odd scale because it relates to the size of the aperture of the lens relative to the focal length. But it can be calculated, f/22 is a stop up from f/16 and f/11 is another stop down and so on. The same can be said for shutter speed You can go from 1/800 to 1/400 to 1/200 and so on.
Therefore, if you fix a datum you can measure how many stops up or down from that datum a photo is from the EXIF data. This is related to the light in the image and the camera lens looking into a gallery or display is a proxy for the human eye. It’s not perfect, you’d want a lot of photos but one thing Flickr has is a LOT of photos. It also has the API, which makes it very easy to transfer the relevant meta-data into a database for interrogation.
One reason I’m interested in doing this project is that I have no idea what the result would be. It could be emphatic, ambiguous or show that I have a very selective memory when it comes to lighting. It might sound obvious that you’d want to research something you don’t know the answer to, but to gain funding you have to show a likelihood of a positive outcome — or that the methodology is at least sound. I don’t know if this is the case, so the project won’t attract funding, but the API makes it cheap. Certainly cheaper than flying on budget airlines round Europe.
In terms of publication it seems like a good fit for Internet Archaeology. Internet Archaeology is moving in steps towards open access. Given the… umm… eccentric attitude the AHRC takes to digital media, and the current economic climate that’s a difficult move they’re making. The fact they are moving to Open Access makes it one of the most attractive venues to publish in academic archaeology. In this instance a database which can link back to the source files at Flickr would fit neatly into their hyperlink-friendly model. A bit of ingenuity with the SQL queries and database fields and it should be possible to make it a useful application for further research.
The biggest problem I see at the moment is whether or not estimating relative light levels from the ISO, aperture and shutter speed will be enough to distinguish between genuine differences in lighting. There are other non-trivial questions. If photos are of the exhibits rather than the galleries, then will the artificial light negate any measurable differences? It would certainly lose darkness in the peripheral vision. How do I gather the data? Can I pull it straight from the EXIF files from any photo on the site, but would this be reasonable if the photo itself is set to copyright? Would setting up a Flickr group for the project and trying to herd in volunteers, or sticking to CC licenced photos be better?
I think I could probably set up a small-scale test of this over the autumn and then take it from there, Still, it would be helpful if someone could spot all the flaws in this plan for me, rather than leaving me to stumble into them, so feel free to leave your comments below.
Some blog posts are a long time in the writing, but this sets a new record for me. Around May 2000 I was trying to think of a way of ripping off Le Corbusier’s quote A house is a machine for living in with regard to tombs.
It’s not a position I’d strongly defend. Tombs do other things as well. They mark territory to newcomers who may not know the local land. They’re a way of appropriating resources and position for the individual, if they plan their funeral while they’re alive.
If you want to be poetic, they also could be time machines. Once you have a settlement with a concept of deep roots, then it becomes possible to think about projecting your influence beyond your own lifetime. You can touch the future from a distance, but if that works, it only works in the memories of the living. It’s might seem a fanciful idea, but it’s spelled out in the earliest surviving history.
This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory…