DHI QAR University and Heritage Project

Ur Ziggurat staircase

Knowledge will nevermore lost!

Due to the dramatic events that have shaken Iraq, the international community is giving its contribute to restore normality in the country through the international cooperation.

Iraq is impressively rich in history and archaeology. This is why many cooperation projects are focused on preservation, enhancement and protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage. The Dhi Qar University and Heritage Project is one of them.

The project manager was the Oriental Study Department of Sapienza University of Rome, leaded by Prof. Franco D’Agostino.

Epistematica participated to the Dhi Qar University and Heritage Project developing a cataloguing model suitable to support the safeguard of the archaeological heritage.

What was the project’s objective?

Franco and Sergio

Iraq has an impressive number of archaeological sites: it is second only to that of Italy. At the beginning of the war only the 10 percent of those sites were excavated and unearthed. Unfortunately, many sites suffered illegal excavations and many artefacts have been stolen.

Since the cultural heritage is a priceless treasure, the actions aimed at safeguarding it are greatly appreciated by the Iraq’s institutions. The Dhi Qar University and Heritage Project focused on the transfer of knowledge to local operators in this so crucial field.

The task of Epistematica was to develop an innovative method for cataloguing the archaeological finds to support the classification activities according to a model effective for scientific research and investigation. The method, the model and the prototype system have been shown and used during the training of officials from of local institutions carried out in Iraq.

What archeological finds were to be cataloged?

Given the didactical nature of the project, it was decided to catalogue archaeological and epigraphic finds coming from scientific and academic literature. The examples were carried out on Mesopotamia material of the third millennium BC, including Sumerian tablets and seals.

The prototype is available on http://dhiqarkb.epistematica.com/DHI_QAR/service

The classification also covered the epigraphic contents of the finds. As example, it has been performed the representation of a Sumerian text of the third millennium BC on a clay tablet from the ancient city of Ur.

What problems does the archaeological finds’ cataloguing raise?

The cataloguing of cultural heritage is nowadays a complex process that goes beyond the traditional disciplines of art history, archeology, and architectural history. It interweaves with documentary science, information science and applied computer science.
It is now a matter of fact that for a proper management of the cultural heritage it is essential to use all the means that the scientific research offers

The current international standards used in the classification process of cultural assets make it possible to describe the objects in a very thorough way.  Software applications help manage very efficiently the information within electronic catalogs, too. Search processes are greatly facilitated by software applications that provide powerful retrieval services.

However, even if the information technology has significantly allowed automating the processes, the paradigm on which the classification is based is not changed at all from past to present: it is still necessary to record the information about the objects on data sheets.

The knowledge about a certain object was and is still described by the grammatical constructs of a natural language. The use of computers has just facilitated the work of cataloguing and search — since it offers the advantages resulting from the dematerialization of the media.

To describe the knowledge about an object, the cataloguing process reflects the limits inherent in the use of natural languages.  The main problem is the multilingualism. An data sheet with labels and annotations in Mandarin Chinese can hardly be understood by an Italian and vice versa. There is also the issue of the irregularity of natural languages and of the consequent semantic problem. This is particularly relevant with regard of cultural heritage cataloguing.

To understand how important this issue is, we can imagine to catalogue an object using data sheets prepared by experts in three different areas: history of art, epigraphy and paleontology. The descriptions will reflect the three different points of view. Surprisingly, if we show the three data sheets to a third party who is not an expert in archaeology, he could believe they describe three different objects.

This is the real problem of the cataloguing traditional approach.

What solution did Epistematica design?

The idea was to devise an innovative cataloguing method that on one side complied fully with the standards used internationally and on the other let to link the different points of view to return a single representation of the object.

This new method allowed a more effective use of the computer in order to facilitate the researchers in their activities. Its application lead to the development of computer systems able to search data using evidences rather than the direct knowledge of the facts. In other words, the system would have facilitated a police officer who, not knowing a priori the offender, would have performed consecutive deductions to find out his identity.

The limit of the computer systems is that to perform the searches it is necessary to know the topic. This is unacceptable because it means, for instance, that our police officer should have known already the identity of the offender to search for him.

The solution implemented by Epistematica addressed these issues showing that they can be resolved.

With regard to the method of cataloguing, instead of creating one or more data sheets for each object, the knowledge about them has been described according to the formalisms of the logic. This made it possible to link the different points of view on the same object. At the same time the description became independent from the natural languages. In fact, by its nature, the logic is independent from any natural language and it is shared by all the human beings.

Descriptive items – such as text, images, movies, etc… – have been associated to each “knowledge sheet” representing the knowledge about a particular subject expressed in a logical way. The collection of “knowledge sheets”, thus obtained, was suitable to be processed by inferential systems.

The result was a catalogue where no prior knowledge was necessary to perform the searches. In fact,  the application designed by Epistematica help the users navigate within the catalogue being able to use the knowledge inserted by the experts at the time of the objects’ classification.

What have been the operational phases?

  1. A working group consisting of assyriologists, archaeologists expert in epigraphy, philosophers and Epistematica knowledge engineers developed the representation of the knowledge of a cuneiform text on a clay tablet from the archaeological area of Ur, in the Dhi Qar province. The work involved three researchers for about three months.
  2. A working group consisting of archaeologists from different disciplines, including art historians, epigraphists, paleontologist, philosophers and Epistematica’s knowledge engineers developed a knowledge representation on specific categories of finds from the archaeological sites in the province of Dhi Qar. The work involved about ten researchers for a period of three months.
  3. After having formalized the finds’ knowledge according the logic, the Epistematica’s team of knowledge engineers developed a prototype system to enter the objects, perform the searches and the navigation within the knowledge base.
  4. The results of the work were shown during a training course at the training center of Camp Mittica, near the military base of Tallil, in Nasiriyah – Iraq. The course involved Iraqi officials and scholars from the following institutions: National Archaeological Museum of Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar’s Archaeological Service, University of Dhi Qar, Iraqi Police and Army.

Why do Epistematica’s solutions represent a revolution in the cultural heritage’s management?

The logical approach to the cataloguing of cultural heritage is completely original and innovative. It also offers the possibility of representing logically the text associated to the epigraphic finds.

It provides a single and homogeneous description of each object, offering a representation that is independent from the language, decidable and formally correct. In this way it is possible to operate automated inferential processes such as automated reasoning. The advantage of this type of knowledge representation is that it can be used in place of raw data in order to create software applications capable of returning “wisdom” rather than mere information.

The logical approach changes the perspective of the computer systems’ use – from machines to maintain ordered data and to return information only to few experts, to a machine capable of managing knowledge to disclose the “wisdom” of the experts to anyone.

A revolution that inverts the traditional paradigm of knowledge transfer among humans and heralds the Knowledge Society.

What are the possible fields of application of the solutions adopted in the Di Qhar University and Heritage project?

The method of classification based on the logic is applicable to any object in field of cultural heritage: archaeological objects, paintings, books, monuments, etc…

Regardless of its nationality and language, every organization – which is a museum, an art gallery, a library etc… –  can benefit from this approach to store within their computer systems not only information about its cultural heritage, but also the knowledge that scientists, scholars and researchers have accumulated over time.