Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bringing ancient rock art into the digital age

A new digital media project at Newcastle University is proving that academic thought is not set in stone. Through the use of a modern-day tablet – the mobile phone – Northumberland’s ancient rock art is being exposed to a new generation of enthusiasts.

Archaeologists have worked side-by-side with digital media experts on this International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies project, using new technology to share information about the famous stones.

During their research, it emerged that people were often left frustrated because they couldn’t find the rock art easily, which can be tricky to locate even with a GPS, as most of the markings are flat and often difficult to spot in thick vegetation and overcast conditions.

“Some of the stones are quite weathered and it’s not obvious unless you know where to look. You could be standing right next to it and not see it,” explained Dr Aron Mazel, who led the project.

The resulting mobile website, with clear, simple navigation, should now enable anyone to find the rock art panels. Annotated drawings, recorded commentary and photographs can also be downloaded to a mobile phone to enable visitors to see the patterns more easily.

The research initiative covers three significant locations in Northumberland: Dod Law and Weetwood Moor, near Wooler, and Lordenshaw, near Rothbury, and makes use of mobile phone barcodes, known as QR codes, which link into an interactive mobile website.

Visitors can either type in the website address found on signs at each location, or scan the QR barcode to be taken to the site automatically.

“I’ve been talking to the public about rock art for about 30 years, but this is a very different approach for me,” said Dr Aron Mazel. “I’m not the most technical person, so it has been a real learning curve to work with people who understand new technology so well.”

Dr Mazel said the fact that the geometric patterns were still such a mystery was perfect for engaging people in the project.

“If you look at rock art in many other parts of the world you can identify animals and humans and obtain a sense of what was going on,” he said. “But this is entirely geometric. It’s been here for about 6,000 years and we’re still no nearer to working out exactly what it’s all about and that’s what’s so exciting.”

The team, which consisted of Dr Mazel, Dr Areti Galani, and research associates Dr Debbie Maxwell and Dr Kate Sharpe, carried out five workshops in Rothbury and Wooler in September 2010 and March 2011 to discuss the project with local people and rock art enthusiasts and to develop design ideas. They also worked with the same group of people to test and refine the prototypes.

“We wanted to move away from the ‘guided tour’ experience, instead giving people the means they need to explore for themselves,” said Dr Areti Galani, co-leader of the project and a digital heritage expert.

“The people who took part in our workshops showed us that one of the most important things for them was speculation and space to make up their own minds – they didn’t want to be told what to think about it. This is the reason why we adopted a conversational tone in the content of the mobile website.”

There were initial concerns about mobile signals being patchy, but extensive testing of different phones and networks revealed that, although it may be poor in the car parks, once on the paths the signal improves significantly.

This project breathes new life into Stan Beckensall’s extensive archive, which was digitized by Newcastle University as part of the AHRC funded Northumberland Rock Art Project six years ago.

The team applied for a £150,000 AHRC Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact grant in late 2009 to enable them to take the previous project forward.

“We’ve worked really well together as a team to produce a fantastic product and all the landowners and management bodies have been really supportive,” said Dr Mazel. “Some of them have even offered to put the signs up for us. It’s a fantastic example of people working together rather than against each other.”

Past Horizons. 2011. "Bringing ancient rock art into the digital age". Past Horizons. Posted: July 9, 2011. Available online:

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