The Oxford Archeology Image Database is a new project, launched last June, dedicated to preserving and presenting fragile images from archeological excavations. Not only are the images available on the site in the best quality possible, they are also identified with a number of tags, making the images easier to find and identify. Tim Clayden tells us about his motivation for constructing this very useful database.
By Tim Clayden
The digital camera was invented in the 1970s, but the technology did not become available to ordinary users until the early 1990s. By the late 1990s digital photography was commonplace and for at least a decade film based images are now the rarity having been almost fully eclipsed by digital photographs. One immediate result of this technological revolution is that images are easily taken, copied, modified and distributed – all in the click of a keyboard.
By contrast all photographs prior to the early 1990s were the product of ‘wet film’ photography. If the cost of each image is considered, film photographs were hugely more expensive than digital pictures. Cameras too were not cheap. At least one of the team members at Nimrud in the 1950s and 1960s could not afford a camera – unheard of today when even mobile phones have good quality cameras.
The net result is that while images of excavations are now easily and cheaply made and distributed (in published or unpublished form – e.g. on webpages), images taken before the early 1990s are rarer and subject to physical decay. The bulk of the pre-1990 photographs were taken as slides. This means that there is literally one copy of the image. But film decays. In some cases the colours fade or merge one into the other leaving the image increasingly blurred. In other instances the film itself can either become brittle and crumble, or emulsify and effectively melt. Film also attracts dust which over time embeds within its structure. Given that copying of images taken on film is time consuming and expensive it is the case that such photographs are increasingly lost.
The loss of photographs of excavations and sites before 1991 is unfortunate. In many instances the excavations have not been fully published, and even if they were only a fraction of the photographic archive was published. Almost exclusively publications have had to publish illustrations in black and white to keep costs down. Seeing these images in colour adds to the understanding of the object/ scene being photographed. Also lost is the record of a site over time which might also be of interest – for example the progress of sand dunes over Nippur. Overall, the loss of such photographs represents the loss of a record of what was excavated leaving gaps in our understanding of the ancient remains. This is also true of sites such as Dūr-Kurigalzu, Babylon and Nimrud which have been subject to restoration work before the original excavated remains have been fully recorded and published.
An additional and horrible spur to the work was the destruction committed by ISIS at Nimrud in April 2015. The very physical remains of some sites were being lost. It seemed very appropriate to do what could be done to preserve at least the images of these sites.
Against that background in 2014 I began work to establish whether there was a way of making available to others undigitised photographs (i.e. film based) of sites. The obvious solution was to establish a website as the host medium for such images having been digitised first. However, it soon became apparent to me that an unstructured data base of images would be hard to use and ultimately of little value. A website which could be searched across a range of data points for each image – site name, description of the image, photographer, date of photograph, date of the remains in the image – was obviously of better utility. Further as the objective of the website was to make such images available for use by scholars and others, a unique reference number (URN) for each photograph had to be generated. Doing this manually was not an option as being too time consuming – an automatic system was required.
As there were no commercial software packages available that matched my requirement I looked to software developers to develop what was needed. I turned to a Leiden based company – Landscape, who specialise in making data useable, understandable and manageable. The company consists of recent graduates of the university with academic backgrounds ranging from computing to political science. Their work focuses on the management and visualisation of complex data sets to help interpret the data. Over a series of discussions and a workshop we collaboratively developed the website which is hosted in the UK.
In June 2015 with the help of the Lorne Thyssen Research Fund for Ancient World Topics at Wolfson College, Oxford, I launched the website (the bulk of the costs have been borne by myself). The process is simple. The photographs have first to be digitised and then uploaded with the various ‘tags’ completed making possible searching across the data base. It is this last bit of the process that takes the most time, but which is the unique aspect to the site.
Use of the images is governed by the UK law on copyright and in particular the principle of Fair Dealing in the UK Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988 (and paragraphs 29 and 30 in particular). In summary it allows use of the images in research and private study without cost, and that only when an image is to be used in a commercial context (e.g. advertising) will a charge be made for use of the photograph. The only other stipulation is that the OAID URN is given when the image is used along with the name of the photographer and the date the photograph was taken.
The site now hosts over 1500 photographs from nearly forty archaeological sites in Iraq from Babylon to Yarim Tepe with images contributed by a range of people including Warwick Ball, Dr Stephanie Dalley, Dr Julian Reade, Professor Michael Roaf, Anne Searight, Dr Christopher Walker, Dr Paul Zimansky and myself (a number of the images have been contributed by persons who wish to remain anonymous). Some amateur photographs from museums are also available including from inside the Mosul Museum after ISIS destroyed a number of the displays; objects in the University Museum, Philadelphia and photographs of the 1920-30s excavations at Kish from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The quality of some of the photographs is not ideal, but they do preserve a unique image and thus have value.
The OAID complements the work being done in other areas to preserve photographs of sites in Jordan, Syria, North Africa etc. I welcome further contributions to the website – preferably as digitised images (or with funding to digitise photographs). Most importantly offers of assistance to upload and label images would be very helpful.
Tim Clayden, Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford
All pictures are available on the oaid.co.uk website.