EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Leif Isaksen, University of Exeter : 25th May

Over the last years, Archaeologists have identified the importance of sharing the information given the complexity and the amount of our data. The development of web and geospatial technologies has enhanced the capability to publish our information[1]. This does not only imply more original ways of presenting the results from our studies to the public[2]; it also enables archaeologists to work collaboratively through powerful online.

This has been the aim of Leif Isaksen, the speaker of the seminar on the 25th May, who is a professor in Digital Humanities at the University of Exeter and is Project Director of the Pelagios Commons. Leif defines himself as being interested in community exchange. This concern has determined his career towards the unification of his particular interests on the online visualisation and linking of spatial ancient data and his research ambits: Ptolemy’s Geography, the Tabula Peutingeriana and the geographic thought and representation in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Currently he is also an active member of the excavation team in the hilltop enclosure on Cluny Hill in Forres, Moray.

Leif’s talk revolved around the Pelagios Commons project and its focus on linked open geodata in the past-oriented humanities. The ambition of the project is to use the web as a medium for promoting the connection and exchange of online historical resources through the places they refer to amongst its community of users. He also emphasized the fact that its applications are not only restricted to Archaeology or History, as other fields such as poetry and literature also make use of it.

In order to introduce the background of the project, Leif used Herodotus’ Histories as an example and what he called the “semantic miracle”, regarding the identification of places referred in the text. Once this happens, it is necessary to apply the connecting principle to link the words to their location: annotate each string of characters with unique URLs linking to a gazetteer such as Pleiades. However, in this growing digital ecosystem of linked data, a huge variety of resources is available. However, Pelagios as a connecting infrastructure aims to become the toolset that puts all websites and documents about the study place according to the same structure.

Continuing with the same work by Herodotus, the audience was introduced Pelagios Commons’ website as first-time users: automatic identification of location names, color-coding, tagging and the eventual map visualisation. During this explanation, as an archaeologist, the first thing that comes to mind are all the sites whose location remains unknown or uncertain. This is resolved by providing a list of the sources referring to the name, which the user can use to decide if a location has to be assigned. Moreover, the user must confirm if the automatic identifications have been made correctly and can do any modification before the map is created.

Speaking in front of an audience full of GIS students, Leif was clear to note that one of the key points was that all identified places are available as a CSV file for further spatial analysis. Pursuing his interests, he also pointed out Pelagios’ capability to transcribe and annotate on old maps, a feature that has recently been improved so as to display other elements on it. The tools on the website seem to be countless. It is also possible to create emergent networks that connect text annotations together, in which you can apply network analysis. Furthermore, users can collaborate on the same document according to different levels of permissions.

Finally, Leif introduced the latest development of Pelagios Commons project: Peripleo. The website provides the user with a map and a search box. After supplying a word, the map displays the locations associated to the word, which you can click to see more information, and a histogram showing its usage over time. All these features seem exciting and tremendously useful when you want to check quickly the sources and the location of specific elements. As Leif joked, it is a good alternative to Google for historical elements.

After all the technical explanations, Leif addressed the growing scope of the project and engaged us to attend the Linked Pasts IV meeting on December 12-13 in Mainz, Germany. It is exciting to hear how projects like this are trying to engage professionals from all over the world through working groups and development grants. Hopefully this is just the start of the linked open data in humanities!

Guillem Domingo Ribas

(MSc in GIS & Archaeology)


The Archaeological Flavouring to ‘Scotland from the Sky’

William Mackaness

18 June 2018

Recently aired on BBC1 Scotland was the three part series, ‘Scotland from the Sky’, presented by Jamie Crawford, who works as a publisher at Historic Environment Scotland, an organisation dedicated to the advancement of heritage, culture, education and environmental protection. One dimension to the series was the role of aircraft in exploring the archaeology of Scotland.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Looking west along the Gask ridge (Copyright: Kathryn Murphy 2018)

Special amongst the first aviators to comprehend the enourmous potential of aerial archaeology was Osbert G S Crawford. Osbert was a British archaeologist who specialized in the study of prehistoric Britain and became the first archaeological officer of the Ordnance Survey in 1920. He first developed his interpretive mapping skills whilst in the Royal Flying Corps where he was involved in ground and aerial reconnaissance along the Western Front.



The complicated ditch-system of the Strageath Roman fort was first revealed by air photography in 1957 by J K St Joseph. The disturbance to the earth is just as visible today (Copyright: Kathryn Murphy 2018)

Following the end of the war he worked with others (notably the marmalade magnate and archaeologist Alexander Keiller) to gather and conduct his own aerial campaigns including an aerial search for Roman archaeology in the south of Scotland in a de Havilland plane in 1936, piloted at that time by Kenneth St Joseph (also a renowned archaeologist and pilot). As part of the series, the BBC enlisted the services of Dr William Mackaness, School of GeoSciences at The University of Edinburgh. He and his wife Nicola own and fly a de Havilland Tiger moth, based at Scone airfield near Perth. The adventure entailed flying from Perth to Cumbernauld, picking up various archaeology along the Gask ridge and the Antonine wall, whilst being filmed from a helicopter riding shotgun.

Processed with VSCO with nc preset

G-BWVT – A 1942 Australian built de Havilland Tiger Moth piloted by William Mackaness

The mission had been variously cancelled due to weather and logistics, but on the appointed summer evening, the sun cast its golden beams across the Scottish landscape, and we gently traveled back in time.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

‘Kaims Castle’ framed in the flying wires of the Tiger moth. The Roman fort is unusual in having a rectilinear rampart defended by curvilinear trenches  (Copyright: Kathryn Murphy 2018).

The Gask ridge refers to a linear set of forts and watch towers, built by the Romans between 70 and 80 AD. Pre-dating the Antonine wall, it extends for 10 miles over land to the north of the River Earn in Perthshire, Scotland. For those wishing to savour the associated imagery and that of the archives of Historic Environment Scotland, there is an accompanying book entitled ‘Scotland From the Sky’ published by Historic Environment Scotland (RRP £25), – available from any reputable bookshop!

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

The ridge patterns indicative of the multiple and changing occupancy of Ardoch fort (Copyright: Kathryn Murphy 2018)


I am most grateful for use of the copyright images captured by the archaeologist, and graduate of Edinburgh University’s Masters in GIS & Archaeology, Kathryn Murphy, taken on a subsequent flight in June 2018 (




Biggest Changes to UK data provision ever contemplated as OS MasterMap becomes free and open

The UK Government made its most important announcement ever today in relation to spatial data provision in the UK when it agreed that “key parts” of the Ordnance Survey’s MasterMap will be made openly available for the public and small-businesses to use.  MasterMap is the definitive detailed base map of the UK and until now has been the  OS’s closely-guarded crown jewels.  Coming remarkably quickly after the UK Government’s enthusiasm to set up a Spatial Data Commission, and a pledge  “to establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular” in Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Autumn 2017 Budget, the Government is determined to “drive forward the UK as a world leader in location data, helping to grow the UK’s digital economy by an estimated £11 billion each year.”  The AGI welcomed this new initiative.

Of course, the devil is in the detail: not all of OS MasterMap will be given away for free.  The focus is on land and property, so it is property extents and topographic indentifiers (TOIDs) which form the basis of this announcement.  There is little doubt that a significant driver here is maximising the amount of land available for house-building.  Other datasets that will be made available for free up to a threshold of transactions through OS-managed APIs, effectively restricting free use to small businesses.  These components include Topography Layer (including building heights and functional sites); Greenspace Layer; Highways Network; Water Network Layer; and the Detailed Path Network.

In many ways the announcement is remarkable.  Reducing the cost of MasterMap was seen by many observers as the new Geospatial Data Commission’s most difficult task, yet the announcement comes almost before the Commission has been set-up and certainly before the Commissioners have been appointed.  It will change the way Ordnance Survey does business, taking away at least some of its main source of revenue and making it forever reliant on government funding.  The government has put aside £40 million per annum for the next two years to fill this gap; it remains to be seen how this will be funded in the longer term.  Given this seems to be a significant announcement at the start of the Geospatial Commission’s journey, there is a degree of excitement as to how this will develop over the coming years.  It comes down to economic benefit; if this benefit is proven and the UK economy is richer because of it, then there must be more to come.

Regardless, this development will provide an enormous boost for our students as they go out to work in a world where the costs of spatial data have dropped drastically, and gives genuine opportunities for them to create their own small businesses, based on free and open-source software and free data.  It also challenges those who have promoted the Open Street Map (OSM) project.  This crowd-sourced data generation project was undoubtedly one of the drivers which have led to the freeing-up of the OS MasterMap data, but its modus operandi in the UK is changed overnight.  The OSM project already had to adapt when the Labour Government under Gordon Brown decided in 2010 that OS should give away its small-scale data for the national good.  OSM adapted by increasing its scale to provide a free alternative to the more detailed data maintained by OS.  It will now have to adapt again and may become a niche product without a USP and never seen as definitive.