big data and archaeology

When you think about data analytics it’s unlikely you think about archaeology. But you should. And here’s why:

Oxford-based start-up, Democrata, is developing a big data based solution to automate environmental impact assessments and minimise the risk of damaging historical sites.  The company says its solution will save engineering and construction firms millions and also help preserve irreplaceable archaeological artifacts.

big data construction

When construction begins an archaeological investigation must take place to ensure historic sites are not destroyed. If the survey identifies such a site, construction is delayed while excavations take place. This can impose extensive – and costly delays – on the project. For example the Crossrail project was delayed for months to excavate 3,000 skeletons from the Beldlam burial ground after it was found at the site of the Liverpool Street ticket office.

City of London research suggests the average cost of archaeological work in its jurisdiction is between 1% and 3% of total construction costs. Construction contributes over £90 billion to the UK economy, so the uncertainty as to the potential presence or otherwise of archaeological remains poses significant costs.

Now a big data solution aims to help reduce this uncertainty. Engineering and Technology Magazine  (E&T) explains Democrata has mapped the entirety of the UK using 3D software originally developed for the British Geological Survey.

The computer analyses a series of indicators chosen because they may suggest the presence of archaeology: historic population dispersal trends, specific geology, flora and fauna, proximity to a water source, a trail or road, standing stones and the presence of other archaeological sites. The system assesses the relationship between all these inputs and predicts if archaeology may be present.


To crunch all this data the solution uses the powerful analytics processing supercomputer at Hartree Centre. Data sources include Defra, English Heritage, Scottish Natural Heritage, Ordnance Survey, the Land Registry and many others.

Combining data from so many sources illustrated a few problems, Democrata co-founder and former CTO SAS, John Morton told Computerweekly: “The data has usually been created for one specific business purpose," he says. "This is not a new problem – it is something you get in large corporations. But you need to look at the data in a slightly different way for a new purpose, so you start to look at completeness.”

Geoff Roberts, Democrata’s chief executive, told E&T: “We plug all of the data into this mapping system and are able to fly over and through the UK landscape to see the level of risk in any location visualized in color-coded layers.”

The idea was inspired by a presentation from the Archaeological Data Service in the UK at a Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) open innovation day. STFC and IBM provided a nine-strong development team and access to the Hartree Centre’s supercomputer to help Democrata realize its project. The 131,000-core computer processes all this information, including natural language processing of historic documents using IBM’s Watson technology.

This interesting application of data analytics comes as the EU and UK make significant contributions to the open data movement, including an £11m EU investment in three open data initiatives and the making available of valuable flood data.

The Democrata story suggests just one of the many ways such information may yield unexpectedly useful insights that could open up fresh opportunities on the road ahead.

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.