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ISAW Papers 7.16 (2014)

Exploring an Opportunity to Link the Dead in Ancient Rome

Katy M. Meyers

Death is a constant, however social responses to this event and subsequent treatments of the dead have varied widely through time and space. Since the beginning of archaeology, there has been interest in burials and funerary monuments with the hope of interpreting these different responses to death (Parker Pearson 1999). As theory, method and technology have developed through time, our interpretations of mortuary sites have been able to create more nuanced interpretations of why particular societies respond to death in specific manners (Rakita and Buikstra 2005). The physical remains of the dead, the burial context, and the funerary rites they received can reveal much about the lifestyles of the people in the past. However, all of this interpretation relies on the presence of one type of evidence: primary data. Linked open data (LOD) provides a much needed approach for archaeological studies of the deceased, as it would increase sharing of data, improve links between archaeologists, and further study within the discipline at an increased rate. Using Roman Imperial burial practices as an example, I argue here that mortuary archaeology would benefit greatly from the implementation of LOD.

Despite the popularity of the Roman Empire in modern academia, it is still not well-understood how imperial expansion was felt by the provinces, and how this affected their mortuary programs (Hingley 2005). Across the period of Roman occupation, burial practices varied based on a number of factors including region, citizen status, social rank, family beliefs, and religious cult affiliation. At the beginning of the empire, cremation was the most popular form of burial, with inhumation a secondary option. By the mid-2nd century, the frequencies between the two forms had reversed, and by the 4th century cremation was a rare practice (Nock 1932). Due to imperial tolerance, burial type was not state-mandated and the only stipulation was that the burial itself must take place outside the walls of the city. However, the types of tombs, the funerary rites, and the choice to cremate or inhume was left to the mourning community. This meant there was great diversity in the types of burials found throughout the empire, despite the strong Roman cultural influence (Toynbee 1996). The extent of adoption of the Roman identity in their various territories meant that burial practices were interpreted in a variety of ways, with some provinces changing with Roman invasion, some forms of hybrid mortuary programs and others maintaining their ancestral ways (Webster 2001).

The questions that stem from a brief overview of Roman Imperial burials are what were the different mortuary practices and how did Roman influence change, influence, or be rejected by different social groups across the provinces? Answering these questions would help us to better understand how Roman Imperial identity was differentially accepted or rejected by the provinces, and what happened to these practices over time with waning imperial power. The data required to answer this question is immense and expansive- but it does exist. Excavations have been done of Roman Imperial and Roman Provincial sites from around the Mediterranean, Europe and Britain (Keegan 2002, Killgrove 2005, Morris 1992, Murali and Girard 2000, Philpott 1991, Wahl 2008, Williams 2004).

There are two primary problems that prevent synthesis: there is no standard method for classifying cemeteries that would allow for direct comparison of the mortuary sites, and this data is rarely found in accessible formats digitally or in print. In a study by Roberts and Mays (2010), they found that of the over 250 articles written on bioarchaeology in Britain from the top four journals, 79% of them were based on collections from only 5 locations. While this uneven use of skeletal collections can be attributed to a number of reasons, the one that they highlight is the availability and knowledge of collections.

Applying standardized LOD methods to the domain of Roman Imperial mortuary practices requires developing and reconfiguring data to fit four principles as stated by Tim Berners-Lee (2007), the inventor of the World Wide Web. First (1), all data must have stable uniform resource identifiers (URIs) that allow for them to be identified as unique objects at any time. Second (2), these URIs must have hypertext transfer protocol identifiers so that they can be accessed via the web. Third (3), the URI must have useful metadata that is created using a universal standard and provides information to the individual looking up the data. Finally (4), the metadata includes links to other related URIs in order to build an information network. If the goal of archaeology is indeed to interpret the past from its physical remains, then the concept of linked open data provides an opportunity to gain access to the physical remains and interpretations freely through interconnected digital networks. The progress of archaeological work requires building upon the works of others, which could be aided by the introduction of LOD.

For example, in an ideal system I could look up a specific Romano-British burial site in York, the grave would have a stable HTTP URI so that it could easily referenced and could be accessed online. It would contain useful data about the grave such as what physical remains were found in it, the age and sex of the individual, types of grave goods found with it, but also who excavated it, what methods they used, and who put this information online. Finally, each of the pieces of metadata would be linked to other stable HTTP URIs so that connections between evidence could be made. In regards to being open, it also means that we would not have to pay, gain permission or be part of a specific organization in order to freely download or access this information.

Despite the increased use of digital applications and databases, we are far from the goal of having a linked and open network of mortuary archaeology data for any region or era. The sharing of mortuary and skeletal material has just begun, with sites like Open Context providing a framework for linked open bioarchaeology data. Other groups like Archaeology Data Service and the Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology are putting primary data from mortuary sites online in an open and accessible, though not linked, format As archaeologists, we not only want to interpret the past, we have a responsibility to share our data so that others can build upon it. "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Newton). The data itself is just as important as the interpretations we draw from it. If we had full access to all the primary data that has been previously collected, we could achieve so much more. Increased access and improved connections between datasets within bioarchaeology and archaeology would reduce sampling bias and perhaps reveal new patterns. While this scenario may not be possible, it is up to us to try. Even the small amount of data that has been placed online has already shown (Roberts and Mays 2011) that it is shared more, utilized more, and has produced more nuanced interpretations due to its high availability.

Works Cited

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Philpott 1991 Philpott, Robert, 1991. Burial practices in Roman Britain: a survey of grave treatment and furnishing A.D. 43-410. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum.

Rakita and Buikstra 2005 Rakita, Gordon, and Buikstra, Jane, 2005. “Introduction”. Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on MortuaryArchaeology for the New Millenium. Rakita, Buikstra, Beck and Williams, eds. Gainsville: University Press of Florida. Pp. 1-11.

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