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Guest Blog: Robert M Chapple Irish

Radiocarbon Date Open Data
Posted on May 16, 2017

Who is this dude?

For many people, going from being a field archaeologist,
digging up sites across Northern Ireland, to working in
data analytics seems like a big jump. In some respects
thats true theres a big difference in where I go to work
and the way I collect data, but there are many
commonalities too. While archaeology may appear to be
about finding cool stuff from the past, at its core its really
about gathering data. Data on past lives, social
organisation, diet, health, funerary practice its all
archaeology and its all data!

For all that, these days I describe myself as a recovering archaeologist. After more than 20 years in the
commercial sector, I made the difficult decision to leave the profession in 2011. I was lucky enough get the
opportunity to retrain with a large IT company in Belfast. My IT day job mostly concerns producing data
visualisations for a range of clients within the organisation, but I still maintain a number of personal research
interests within the archaeological world.

What if???

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One night back in 2006, I was sitting at home, writing up a final report on the excavation of a type of site
known as a burnt mound or Fulcaht fiadh. At these sites, stones were first heated in a fire and then plunged
into a trough of water. The process brought the water to the boil and resulted in lots of heat-shattered rock.
Although a number of hypotheses have been advanced over the years (including their use in making beer or
for dyeing) they are conventionally thought to have been used as cooking places and their core period of use
appears to have been in the Bronze Age (c. 2350/2200-650 BC).

The usual research pattern for writing up a site of this type often includes comparing its morphology with other
similar sites, either on the same excavation, in the same county, or seek parallels with well-known published
examples from elsewhere in Ireland. This is a perfectly valid approach and one that Ive frequently used. On
this particular night my mind was drawn to another burnt mound site that I knew Id soon have to write up. The
radiocarbon dates Id received for this second site indicated that, although separated by a large physical
distance, they would have been relatively close in time nearly contemporary, in fact. However, one site was
characterised by a single, deep, sub-rectangular trough, while the other had a pair of shallow, circular
troughs. It really struck me that the research methodology outlined above would never bring these two sites
together, no matter how close in time they were.

This was my What If moment I wondered what if we had a single, searchable repository of
radiocarbon dates where we could compare radiocarbon dates from similar sites? or even dissimilar
sites that were actually contemporary It might be just as interesting and rewarding as comparing

What is a Radiocarbon date?

For anyone not familiar with archaeology, it may be of benefit to break away for a moment and explain what a
radiocarbon dating actually is. At the simplest level, its a laboratory method that uses the predictable decay
(half-life) of the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 (14C) to determine the age of carbon-bearing
materials. Carbon is found on archaeological excavations in a number of forms, including wood (remains of
hearths or burnt buildings) or charred cereals (remains of, say, a burnt out cereal drying kiln).

The amount of surviving 14C is measured and this is used to determine how old the item is. This can then be
used to determine the age and phasing of activity at the archaeological site. The date comes back from the
lab in the form of XXXXXX BP (Radiocarbon Years Before Present), and this calibrated to produce a
calendar date. For example, a date of 245622 BP would calibrate to the period from 753-416 cal BC.

The date can also have significant metadata associated with it that will be of value to certain researchers,
including excavation context, the exact type of material dated, lab processes etc. Its pretty complex, but those
are the basics.

The Irish Radiocarbon &

Dendrochronological Dates Project
Unfortunately, my wonderful What If was beset with troubles. The
biggest one was the dates themselves. They are scattered across
a vast array of books, journals and grey literature reports. Even
where they are available, they can be difficult to access academic
books are frequently produced in relatively small print-runs, some Roberts Library
journals may only be found in specialised research libraries, or

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behind pay walls.

The grey literature reports may exist in only one or two physical copies, otherwise residing on an
archaeological consultancies hard drive. No matter how you look at it, bringing this data together would not
be an easy task. My simple solution was to start with my own library and go from there. Ive been collecting
books on all aspects of Irish archaeology since I was an undergraduate and, while not without lacunae, its
pretty good. Because you just cant beat a snappy title, I called it The Irish Radiocarbon &
Dendrochronological Dates Project (IR&DD). The most recent version of the resource holds data on 8,288
radiocarbon determinations and a further 313 dendrochronological (tree ring) dates.

Next Steps
For all that, something had been bugging me for a while. Radiocarbon dates are a rather specialised form of
data that even professional archaeologists can find difficult to use. However, the dates themselves relate to
real life events in the physical landscape. The specialised nature of archaeological literature means that it
often fails to effectively connect with interested non-specialists in local communities. The difficulties in working
with radiocarbon dates are such that this further, seemingly arcane, specialism obscures this important data to
all but a small number of professionals. My question was How do I reach these people?

My thought was to turn to Tableau, the tool I use daily in my IT career. The enterprise data visualisation
package has a slightly-limited version (Tableau Public) that is free to anyone to download and use. That is
why I spent much of my free time over the summer of 2015 manually adding geolocations to every Irish
radiocarbon date. By autumn of that year I was able to spend time with Tableau creating and editing my

At that point my process timeline was this:

10 years of manual data gathering

three months of geocoding
one week of Tableau visualisations

The result has been an evolving collection of dashboards that allow both professional archaeologists and
non-specialists the opportunity to see and interact with this data in new and meaningful ways.

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Click to view on Tableau

At the time of writing, the front page of the dashboards shows a map of the island of Ireland with every date
represented as a single dot. Here the user can select the county or counties that interest them most and/or
the broad archaeological time periods of relevance to them. This can be at the very broad level of Neolithic,
Bronze Age, and Iron Age, or somewhat more granular where the Neolithic, for example, is split into its Early,
Middle, and Late phases.

Tableau also includes a suite of tools to select rectangular, circular, or irregular areas for more detailed study.
On machines with geolocations enabled, it allows the user to centre the map on their own location and see
the dated archaeological sites and artefacts in their own areas. The second tab is designed for the more
specialised researcher (or perhaps one that doesnt agree with my approach to phasing the past). Here the
user is again able to select single of multiple counties, but there is a wider range of temporal controls
available. Four sets of sliders give various forms of control over the selection of time period, from the
uncalibrated age BP; the calibrated modal date BC/AD; the calibrated intercept date BC/AD; and the
calibrated intercept date BP. This should give even the most sophisticated user the power to narrow down the
dataset to just what theyre after. The final tab is a dynamically-filtered reading list, giving reference to
published works and a selection of the associated metadata for each date.

From the feedback Ive received, it is clear that the Tableau dashboards have been an aid to professionals
and university students interested in both landscape and temporal research, allowing them to quickly and
easily select the subset of the data that is most relevant to them. The feedback Ive received from a number of
non-specialists is that this project allows them easy (but not dumbed-down) access to local-level information
that they would not normally be able to find. In so doing, it is starting to bring an appreciation of deep-time
archaeology to parish-level research. For myself, I hope that this resource both the dashboards and the
underlying dataset will continue to spur interest and engagement with our ancient past.

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Whats it really worth?
Depending on the laboratory you use to produce a radiocarbon date, along with other factors, such as the
speed at which you need the results and the exact type of process used, you can spend between US$390
and US$595 per date. Taking an average of US$490, this would indicate that the IR&DD resource represents
data worth US$4,061,120 or about 2,929,044.

Without doubt, thats a significant chunk of money, but (for archaeologists, at least) the real value lies in the
data and what it can tell us. Unlike estimating the cash price of creating a radiocarbon date, the knowledge
value here isnt additive, its multiplicative. What I mean by this is that one date is just one date it dates one
thing: the pit, ditch, or post-hole it came from. Many dates from a single site (or from a range of similar sites)
can allow us to create detailed chronologies either of the phasing of that individual site or the evolution and
development of the site type as a whole. In this way, the knowledge gained is worth more than the sum of its
parts. This is the opportunity that the IR&DD resource offers all of the dates together could reshape our
understanding of Irish archaeology.

Radiocarbon Landscapes
In my own work, Ive attempted to pioneer the use of what I term Radiocarbon Landscapes where
connections are made between contemporary events across the island that would not be drawn together by
traditional research pathways that concentrate on morphology alone. For example, this approach to the study
of burnt mounds pulls together other burnt mounds, but also contemporary settlement sites and burials etc.
While I dont claim that it is a research silver bullet to obviate all other methodologies, I do believe that it is a
more holistic approach to archaeological research.

Set your data free

Whatever use I put this data to, I am mindful of the collaborative nature of this project, relying on the interest
and good will of so many others. For this reason, Ive taken the position that I act as curator, rather than
owner of this data. Although this dataset was originally created as a personal research resource, Ive always
been keen to share it freely with any interested scholar. Initially, this was simply via email, but since 2010 it
has been available to download. I offer the resource without fees, restrictions, or copyright claims of my own.

I have also taken the decision to keep the data in a vanilla Excel spreadsheet. My reasoning for using Excel
is that it offers the greatest accessibility and flexibility to other users who can either work with it in that format,
or easily import it to more specialised applications.

To date, the IR&DD resource has been used by a wide range of archaeological researchers. These include a
number of Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research (INSTAR) projects, including the People of
Prehistoric Ireland: Health and Demography project; Prof. Stephen Shennans Prehistoric Demography
project at UCL; it is a core document in two undergraduate courses on archaeological data analysis; and has

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been used by more undergraduates, MAs, PhDs, and post-Docs than I can easily count.

I think you can guess that Im very proud of this achievement. While I take pride in the fact that other people
are able to use my work to gain new insights and understandings, Im more proud of the idea of whats
achievable by putting available data together in one place and making that freely available for me those are
the real achievements.

Where to next?
My first instinct is to adhere to Bob Dylans advice in Tangled Up in Blue and Keep On Keepin On.
Archaeological sites continue to be excavated, dated, and published and while that endures there will be a
need to keep the dataset as up to date as possible. The dashboards will, I hope, continue to evolve as I
develop the technical skills to create further visualisations and refine those already available. However, the
biggest and most important step forward for the profession must be the normalisation of the concept of open
data generally (and 14C data specifically). Much progress in this direction has been made in recent years, but
it will only continue if we can demonstrate its value to all stakeholders both professional and non-specialist.

This is a guest blog post from Robert M Chappel, an ODI Belfast supporter.


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Posted in Blog posts and tagged archaeology, data visualisation, open data, Robert Chapple, Tableau.

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