Cybernetica Mesopotamica

A Balzan Foundation Research Project

II. System and website

The Urkesh Global Record

Giorgio Buccellati – June 2023

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The system of digital books

The domains differ greatly among themselves, and so do the websites that embody their results. Within them, the Urkesh Global Record (UGR) holds a special place for two main reasons.

  1. Archaeology may be seen as "natively digital," meaning that its record rests on a large quantity of disconnected fragments that are recomposed into unity as the excavation progresses. Also, there are many different participants who contribute to this unified record, resulting in some cases in what we call a "segmented narrative," i.e., a sequential arrangement of initially disaggregated observations that coalesce into a meaningful whole. This is unlike most other fields of scholarship, and it lends itself ideally to a digital treatment that results in a universe of interrelated data and, more importantly, into a discursive argument that draws on multiple concurrent planes (interplanarity).
  2. The interplanarity inherent in the system is amplified by the fact that it applies not only to a single website, but also to a vast array of websites that are all construed in function of each other. They are conceived as "digital books," meaning that (a) each has an internal all-encompassing structure, construed as a broad argument where the individual pieces cohere into a larger unity, and (b) together they form a higher systemic unity, the "global record" that applies to the entire site being excavated.

This can then be seen as an ideal experimental laboratory for the implementation of the digital discourse theory. In what follows, a brief description of the various types of digital books will highlight the complexity and richness of the system.

We currently have an array of eighteen websites within the system, that together constitute an integrated and organic whole (see presently). They are operational, though in different stages of completeness, and several more are being worked on, to be fully completed by the end of the tenure of the Cybernetica Mesopotamica project. The amount of data contained therein is staggering.

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The primacy of the unit books

From the perspective of standard archaeological practice, it is an anomaly to give pride of place to the single excavation unit. Such a unit is “arbitrary” in the sense that it is not initially defined by typological criteria (we do not know what will be found in the ground), and when a “meaningful” entity is uncovered (a room or even just a floor surface partially enclosed by walls) we do not have, within that unit, the full entity in its entirety (the rest of the room may belong to a different excavation unit.) Hence in standard practice publications privileges the resulting “entity” (the full room, the whole building), rather than the excavation unit.

It is an important conceptual aspect of the Urkesh Global Record (UGR) that we privilege instead the excavation units, each of which is recorded with its own website, or digital book. This results in a large number of websites, which are very extensive in scope and in terms of the material they contain (see for example the data set of A15, with 500 megabytes in cumulative file size and some 60,000 ceramic sherds and vessels.) A publication on this scale is possible only in a digital format, not only for practical and financial, but especially for conceptual reasons.

The Urkesh Global Record (UGR) approach allows in effect to create not just isolated repositories of data, but, more importantly, websites that are by their own nature interacting with each other, so that the whole system constitutes a larger meaningful unit. The websites discourse with each other so that a comprehensive argument is developed, one that rests on the individual components but is at the same time unitary in structure and content.

One fundamental aspect of this approach is that every single observation ever made is retained (hence the notion of a global record), but is presented in such a way as to be meaningfully accessible as it merges with all other observations into a proper multilayered, or interplanar, argument.

A major outcome of this approach is that it yields a greater measure of objectivity with regard to the archaeological record proper, i.e., the record of how things are in the ground (“emplacement”). The record of the observation is in fact the only objective fact that remains after the original emplacement has been dismantled and its components have been disaggregated. The digital approach implemented in the Urkesh Global Record (UGR) retains these original observations in numbers that are extremely high: again for A15, the total is a third of a million. And yet, these truly big data are presented in a way that they can be “read” as well as queried and searched.

We currently have a total of fourteen unit books or websites (A6, A9, A12, A14, A15, A16, A20, J1, J2, J3, J4, J5, J7, OH2).

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The topical books

While the unit books are the building blocks of the system, the topical books provide the broader perspective that is normally associated with the publication of the archaeological record. In our system, this type of publication is the terminal point of the publishing trajectory that starts with the unit books.

The various types of topical books are as follows.

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Two books are currently in this category: the Mozan sitewide website provides the overall frame within which all excavations take place, while the grammar gives the full categorization system used by the whole system.

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Area books are meant to describe a topographical area within which several units have been opened. The book for area AA is currently only a stub, see for example the brief introduction or the overview.

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The website about the AP palace is the first of the digital books that deals with a functionally well defined area. We also have a stub for the Temple Plaza.

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The Ceramics digital book is almost completed and is due to open soon. Work has also started on the digital books for human figurines, metals and paleoanthropology.

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One more class of topical book is envisaged, to describe material from any given broad chronological period or horizon. None has been started yet.

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