Butler Archive Project
September 5, 2020
Undergraduates Dig into Digital Archaeology
Written by Christopher Moss *88 from excerpts by Julia Gearhart and Jamie Saxon
With the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling excavations planned for 2020, virtual archaeological research continued on campus this summer. Two certificate in archaeology candidates, Noelia Carbajal ’22 (classical and ancient studies) and Isabella Impalli ’22 (civil engineering), dug into the digitized archives of Howard Crosby Butler, a 1892 alumnus who joined Princeton’s faculty in 1895 and led a series of groundbreaking expeditions to study the ancient monuments of Syria. While the publications of Butler’s expeditions are still landmarks in the field, the expedition’s unpublished notebooks contain fascinating and informative day-to-day accounts of the expeditions, as well as detailed hand-drawn plans with additional measurements and other documentation.
The project began when Dina Boero, assistant professor of ancient Mediterranean history at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ), proposed having her students work with the archive during summer 2020. Two TCNJ undergrads, Ryan Abramowitz and Zachary Kozak, began creating a dataset containing all the locations cited in the Publications of the Princeton Archaeological Expeditions to Syria, along with their modern names, variant names, and geographic coordinates, a difficult challenge given Butler’s sometimes unorthodox transliterations of Arabic names.
Carbajal and Impalli’s work entailed deciphering and transcribing the handwritten entries in the dozens of diaries, tracing the expeditions’ journeys exactly as they were recorded. After transcription, they worked on verifying the names of places and archaeological sites mentioned in the journals, consulting other material in the Butler archive, doing additional research, using mapping software, and traveling through the depths of Google in search of coordinates for place names. As they worked, they became increasingly adept at reading every detail of Butler’s journals, navigating irregular penmanship and misleading orthography.
Images of the field book pages have been uploaded to the annotation platform Recogito (recogito.pelagios.org), part of the ecosystem of Pleiades (pleiades.stoa.org), an online community-built gazetteer of ancient places. Tom Elliott, associate director for digital programs and senior research scholar at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU, is assisting with the Pleiades and mapping components. Julia Gearhart, director of the Visual Resources Collection (VRC) and curator of image and historic collections, enlisted the help of VRC assistant Jacob Wheeler ’20 to ensure that sufficient archival material was scanned and available for the project. The ultimate goal is to create an interactive digital map charting Butler’s expeditions, with all the documentation Butler generated about each location. This data will then be shared with the public and with organizations compiling historic documentation on endangered archaeological sites in the Middle East.
Through their work, the students came to appreciate that not all archaeology takes place in the trenches, and that creating and interpreting written documentation is also an essential archaeological endeavor. They were also able expand their knowledge of the ancient world to the areas of Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, as well as to the Early Christian period. All of the students have opted to continue their work on the project during the academic year, fulfilling the fieldwork requirement of their certificate in archaeology, and potentially incorporating the archive into their senior independent work.
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