Classics' Technology Polyglot
John Wallrodt calls himself “a technology polyglot.
John Wallrodt calls himself “a technology polyglot.” But most people would describe the former McMicken Roman archaeology graduate student as “a very interesting and talented guy.”
Wallrodt’s official title for the last five years in the Classics Department has been Coordinator for Systems Development, a position that combines not only database and web design, scanning, organization of large data-sets but also acting as computer guru, workshop organizer, teacher, and general fix-it person. He says he’s “not aware of any other Classics departments in the United States that have their own dedicated IT people,” and he obviously knows what he’s talking about since he runs the Computer Special Interest Group for the Archaeological Institute of America.
Ask him what his job involves from day to day, and he’ll start off by focusing on archaeologists and classicists. “Their work is not,” he says, “as simple as it may seem.”
Then he explains that architects, geographers, publishers, graphic artists, and web designers rely on only a few software tools, whereas “archaeologists and classicists have to be familiar with all of these as well as databases, digital archiving, networking, collaboration tools, and data from various languages that include specialized vocabulary and symbols for such things as ancient Greek, papyrology, epigraphy, ancient musical notation, Linear A, and Linear B. It’s my job to understand all of these, how to use them in our work, and to train students and faculty on their use so that they don’t feel lost in their own data.”
This is clearly not an easy task, especially when he is working in the field. Using the Troy excavations as an example, Wallrodt remembers “having to set up a procedure and method to work with 50 international scholars who excavated 10 trenches at a time and produced 300 small finds, 3,700 pieces of pottery, 4,000 photographs, and 1,600 drawings and then having to make all that data available to scholars in 10 countries as research material for five articles containing 400 drawings, plans, and photographs—all on an annual basis.”
You might think that with a job like that he would spend most of his time holed up in Blegen Library. Think again. Wallrodt has traveled not only to Troy (Turkey) but has also acted as data manager for field projects in Granicus (Turkey), Apollonia and Durres (Albania), and Pylos (Greece). He has helped to set up the International Center for Archaeology in Albania and has organized workshops for the Archaeological Institute of America.
All that travel may sound romantic, but he knows that “working in the field presents unique difficulties.” For example, in Albania, the project team often experiences six to eight hours of power outages a day during working hours, and there’s no real network access. Things are only a little better in rural Turkey.
This means that researching hardware and software problems in the field is almost impossible. Once outside the United States, says Wallrodt, and it’s practically impossible to get parts for computers, especially laptops, so field repairs are often “creative.”
He recalls that it isn’t unheard of to have to construct parts as they are needed: “When something doesn’t work out as planned, I often say that we’ll go to Plan B or C, but there have been several times when we got to Plan F or G before we were able to solve the problem.”
At Troy, for instance, he worked with several international team members and often had to troubleshoot computers in Russian, Polish, German, and Bulgarian, as well as English.
“This can be quite tricky when you also have to deal with computers running Windows 95 through XP and Mac OS 7 through X.”
Nevertheless, Wallrodt believes that computers have revolutionized the way archaeologists handle data and that “it’s for the better.” Today everything from planning (acquiring digital maps and satellite photography) to the collection of data on a site (mapping, networking, and databases) to presentations afterwards (electronic submissions for paper publications, as well as digital publication as an end product) is handled electronically.
He describes the difference in output by comparing the department’s 1988 experience in the Troy project with its final excavation in 2003. In 1988, limited time and resources allowed for production of only a single Word document describing coins that had been found. But by the time the project ended in 2003, there was detailed information on almost 6,500 inventoried finds and over 400, 000 pieces of pottery.
Noting that “the goal in archaeology is to research, analyze, and publish,” he views the majority of his time in the last few years as “an effort to streamline that process.” At Troy, for example, he worked with ceramics experts to overhaul the process used to record pottery so there is now less need to rehandle ceramics and greater accuracy in databases.
Another change is that publishers are accepting and publishing digital media, which means that he has been busy archiving Carl Blegen’s 1930s films to DVD and preparing 30 boxes of pottery in the Troy Study Collection for the web.
Having led the department’s successful seven-year effort to make its 35,000+ slide collection available online, Wallrodt spends a lot of his time these days pondering how to catalog and digitize archaeological paperwork, film, and other multimedia from over 75 years of exploration. “There’s an entire room of it,” he says. “It should be interesting.”
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