Computing and Archaeology in Jordan

by David Thomas


Computers are an almost indispensable feature of the 1990s. Their use (and abuse) is as relevant to archaeology, as to any other academic discipline. The potential usefulness of computers applies across the spatial and temporal spread of archaeological research, although the mere use of a computer does not, of course, necessarily result in better research. Over the past couple of years, the British Institute at Amman for Archaeology and History (BIAAH) has sought to increase the use of computers in archaeology in the Near East.

A British Academy grant in 1994 allowed BIAAH to equip a computer resource laboratory in Amman with 2 computers, a digitising tablet, a laser printer, a basic colour printer and a plotter. This sudden increase in computing facilities is of little use without someone with knowledge of computers and archaeology. BIAAH, therefore, added the post of Computer Officer to its permanent staff. This brief article attempts to outline a few of the ways in which computers are currently used in Jordan in general, and at BIAAH in particular. (Fig. 1 shows the location of the major sites referred to in this article).

How Archaeologists Use Computers in Jordan

As elsewhere, archaeologists in Jordan are rather impoverished academic cousins and consequently find that few software programs are designed specifically for their own use (software to aid the creation of Harris Matrices and the Bonn Archaeological Statistics Package are notable exceptions). They often have little option but to adapt and use software more suited to business or other academic pursuits.

Word Processing and DeskTop Publishing (DTP):

Archaeologists probably use computers most extensively as elaborate word-processors, to present and disseminate information. This rather mundane usage is, nevertheless, becoming increasingly important as the costs and time-delay involved in more conventional publishing become ever greater, particularly for a discipline with a small market. Archaeologists are increasingly rising to this challenge by producing their own interim reports and articles using DTP software. A couple of months ago, BIAAH purchased an Agfa scanner. Along with Adobe Photoshop and Aldus PageMaker software, BIAAH's computing facilities now create the potential for its users to produce archaeological reports, whose presentation is of a high quality.

Databases and Statistics:

One of the most powerful aspects of computers is their ability to process large amounts of data, quickly and logically. Almost as soon as an archaeological project starts, it seems to create more data than the human mind can handle comfortably; the development of databases and powerful statistics software has, therefore, been of particular use to archaeologists. In recognition of this, the BIAAH-based Khirbat Faris (McQuitty & Falkner, 1993) and Wadi Faynan projects have employed staff specifically to work on their ACCESS databases, while Bartl et al (1995) have conducted statistical analysis of X-ray fluorescence and thin section microscopy data from ceramics in Syria.


The Jordanian Department of Antiquities has followed other countries in developing cultural resource management projects. In recent years, a local company and the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR) have designed the Jordanian Antiquities Database and Information System (JADIS), which uses Microsoft's FoxPro database system to record data about known archaeological sites (Palumbo ed., 1994). JADIS is continually being updated and has the potential to be linked to Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in the future. ARC/Info was used to produce the maps which accompany it.

By September 1994, 8,680 sites had been entered into the database. About 75% of these sites are located in only 15% of the territory of Jordan, and much of the rest of the country remains unsurveyed. Recent research is seeking to re-dress this imbalance: for example, Dr. P. Watson (1996), a previous Assistant Director of BIAAH, has spent three seasons surveying the Pella Hinterland and has identified over 750 sites in a 36 kmsq area. On the basis of this, and other studies such as the Madaba Plains Project (Herr, 1996) and the BIAAH-assisted Southern Hauran Survey (Kennedy & Freeman, 1995) and surveys in north-eastern Jordan (Betts, 1993; Betts et al, 1996), Palumbo estimates that the actual number of sites within Jordan is anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000. All archaeological projects are encouraged to provide data about their sites in a standardised form, ready for input into JADIS.

Survey Data and Illustrations:

Archaeological data does, of course, exist in many forms. Photographs, illustrations and diagrams can be as important a part of the archaeological record as statistics and text. The majority of projects in Jordan still use the skills of a draughtsperson for publication standard maps and illustrations, rather than computer-derived images. The work of former BIAAH surveyor, Hugh Barnes, at Wadi Faynan (Fig. 2) and Wadi Kafrain (Prag & Barnes, 1996) and the CAD mapping and EDM survey at Petra (Joukowsky, 1994) are notable exceptions. Computer Aided Design (CAD) software is also being used at Jerash, by an Australian team who are planning the South Theatre, with a view to creating a 3-dimensional reconstruction of it (Sear, 1996). In addition to mapping and survey work, Joukowsky's Petra project also has plans to develop a computerised video tour of the Southern Temple.

As part of BIAAH's long-term Wadi Faynan Project, Ms. Leoni Blank at UCL has used aerial photographs and CAD software to create photogrammetric maps of Wadi Faynan, its topography, ancient field systems and settlements and surface evidence of mining activity. This work is particularly important given the significant changes wrought on the landscape and archaeology in recent years by increased cultivation. Copies of these maps are available from BIAAH, on disk or CD - contact Ms. C. Middleton, BIAAH's assistant secretary in the UK, for further information. Computers have also been used in conjunction with a resistivity survey of a cemetery near Tell El-'Umeiri (Waheeb, 1994) and to display lithic densities in excavations of Early Palaeolithic sites in Wadi al-Hammeh, near Pella (Edwards et al, 1996).

The Internet: World Wide Web and E-mail

Another way of increasing the availability of archaeological information and data is via the much vaunted, and perhaps over-hyped, Internet. Electronic mail allows rapid, cheap communication, while the World Wide Web (WWW) gives archaeologists the opportunity to create a Home Page (HP) about their project and to engage in discussions. A lively 'local Internet' also exists within Jordan; it includes conferences covering news, current affairs, business, recreation and the arts. Although all contributions to the local Internet are monitored, people are generally free to express their opinions and ideas; personal attacks are, however, not tolerated. A debate is on-going within Jordan about the freedom of speech, both in the press and on the local Internet.

BIAAH maintains a folder in the 'Friends of Archaeology' conference on the local Internet, as do ACOR and the German Protestant Institute for Archaeology (GPIA). The Friends of Archaeology publish a monthly Newsletter and organise talks and trips to archaeological sites. They attempt to raise awareness of Jordan's rich archaeological heritage and to ensure that development does not adversely affect it.

All members of BIAAH, both Jordanian and from overseas, are welcome to use our computing facilities, including access to the WWW, e-mail and the local Internet, subject to certain conditions (see fig. 3 for local map). BIAAH uses its folder in the Friends of Archaeology conference to publicise general information about the Institute, its facilities (including the library which is extensively used by Jordanian archaeology students), recent BIAAH-affiliated projects and fieldwork and WWW sites of archaeological interest. It has also been closely involved in debates about proposed development affecting archaeology and the environment in Madaba, the Dead Sea region and Wadi Faynan.

Since March 1996, BIAAH has used e-mail extensively, both to aid the smooth-running of the Institute and as a way of transmitting and updating archaeological data relating to Jordan. (The e-mail address for any comments and/or queries is: BIAAH's HP on the WWW came on-line last month. The HP was designed in Amman and edited by Ms. H. Kent at the British Academy in London. At the moment, it is largely text-based, but BIAAH hopes to use its scanner in the future to include more images. The HP can be viewed by going to the British Academy index of Overseas Schools - while the journal Levant also has a HP.


The Influence of Computers on Archaeological Projects in Jordan:

As in other countries, most archaeological projects in Jordan are gradually incorporating a greater computing component into their research strategies and techniques. Limits upon resources and computer literacy, however, continue to constrain the extent to which this occurs. In my experience, computers have particular influence in three areas: recording systems, surveying and publicity.

Recording systems are being adapted to utilise the analytical power of computers' database systems. The JADIS database, for example, provides lists of different types of sites, periods, topographic locations and disturbances and suggested computer data entry codes. Projects such as the Pella Hinterland Survey and the Wadi Faynan Project have used these lists and codes as a basis for their own recording systems, thus easing the subsequent entry of data into JADIS. The increased use of computer databases is unlikely, however, to replace paper records completely, due to the different merits and limitations of each system.

Surveying is benefiting greatly from the interaction between EDMs and computers. Software such as PenMAP can be used in the field to check and display survey data as it is recorded, thus highlighting erroneous readings. Sites of different periods or types can then be put onto different layers and so, using a base map of the topography, changes in the distribution of sites in time and space can be displayed at the press of a button. This type of approach leads neatly on to more rigorous analysis, using GIS, which will hopefully be used more widely in Jordan in the near future.

The importance of publicity and information dissemination has increased as the available funds for archaeological research continue to dwindle and various academic reviews stress the link between publishing research, prestige and funding. Computers, through DTP, e-mail, WWW discussion groups and Home Pages, enable archaeologists to raise the profile of their projects and accessibility to their theories and research findings.

BIAAH's Use of Computers:

BIAAH is attempting to keep up with the positive developments in computing. Over the next year, BIAAH will investigate the possibility of expanding its computing activities to include more research using GIS, greater use of the DTP facilities and the development of multimedia guides to some of the BIAAH projects in Jordan. The existing database, statistics, word-processing and CAD software are currently used extensively by BIAAH and its affiliated projects; their use is expected to increase in the future.

Contacts with local Archaeological Authorities

BIAAH has a policy of assisting the Jordanian Department of Antiquities expand its computing facilities and it is also in the process of helping to arrange a DTP course in Amman for a representative of the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

The Syrian Department of Antiquities has an impressive, Apple Macintosh equipped computing centre in Damascus. This centre has ambitious plans to increase the number of in-house publications it produces, to create a database of its museum collections and archives and use its scanner to develop a digital photograph archive consisting of 25,000 images.

BIAAH is also attempting to arrange a visit to the UK for a representative of the Syrian Department of Antiquities's Computing Center. It is hoped that the Syrian representative will be able to visit archaeological departments in several universities and other organisations, to gain an impression of how archaeology and computing are currently interacting in the UK, particularly in the fields of databases, DTP, GIS and the WWW. (BIAAH would be most interested to hear from anyone who might be willing to help make such a visit a success.)

In these ways, BIAAH is attempting to facilitate the use of computers in archaeology in the Near East, not only by projects from abroad but also by local archaeologists and Departments of Antiquities.

David Thomas

BIAAH Computer Officer

The Head of Tyche (Fortune) - BIAAH's Emblem

The Tyche of Amman-Philidelphia wears a crown in the shape of a hexagonal citadel, symbol of the power and prosperity of the city. The sculpture is an imitation of a Hellenistic original and can be dated to the 2nd century AD. (Bienkowski, 1991: p. 54).


Bartl, K. et al (1995): Notes on 'Brittle Wares' in North-eastern Syria. Levant XXVII, pp. 165-177.

Betts, A. (1993): The Burqu' / Ruwayšid Project: Preliminary Report on the 1991 Field Season. Levant XXV, pp. 1-11.

Betts, A. et al (1996): Studies of Bronze Age Occupation in the Wadi al-'Ajib, Southern Hauran. Levant XXVIII, pp. 27-39.

Bienkowski, P. ed. (1991): Treasures from an Ancient Land: The Art of Jordan. National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside.

Edwards, P. C. et al (1996): The Early Epipalaeolithic of Wadi al-Hammeh. Levant XXVIII, pp. 115-130.

Herr, L. G. et al (1996): Madaba Plains Project 1994: Excavations at Tall al-'Umayri, Tall Jalul and Vicinity. ADAJ XL, pp. 63-81.

Kennedy, D. & Freeman, P. (1995): Southern Hauran Survey, 1992. Levant XXVII, pp. 39-73.

Joukowsky, M. S. (1994): 1993 Archaeological Excavations and Survey of the Southern Temple at Petra, Jordan. ADAJ XXXVIII, pp. 293-332.

McQuitty, A. & Falkner, R. (1993): The Faris Project: Preliminary Report on the 1989, 1990 and 1991 Seasons. Levant XXV, pp. 37-61.

Palumbo, G. ed. (1994): JADIS. The Jordan Antiquities Database and Information System. A Summary of the Data. The Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the American Center of Oriental Research. Amman.

Prag, K. & Barnes, H. (1996): Three Fortresses on the Wadi Kafrain, Jordan. Levant XXVIII, pp. 41-61.

Sear, F. (1996) The South Theatre at Jarash, 1994 Campaign. ADAJ XL, pp. 217-230.

Waheeb, M. (1994): The Electrical Resistivity Survey at the EB IV - MB II Cemetery near Tell El-'Umeiri. ADAJ XXXVIII, pp. 75-80.

Watson, P. (1996): Pella Hinterland Survey 1994: Preliminary Report. Levant XXVIII, pp. 63-76.

ADAJ is the Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

Levant is jointly published by BIAAH and the British School for Archaeology in Jerusalem.

©David Thomas 1997


© assemblage 1997