Meet the Blogger: Electric Archaeology’s Shawn Graham on Simulating Ancient Social Gaming Networks

As a Registered Professional Archaeologist in North America a Member of the Institute for Archaeologists in the U.K., Shawn Graham knows the finer points of working in the field. But these days, he’s taking the world of archaeology — and ancient civilizations — into the digital realm with simulations called Agent-Based Models (ABMs). Shawn’s blog “Electric Archaeology: Digital Media for Learning and Research,” explores how we can learn more about how digital tools can be used to better understand archaeological phenomena and, more importantly, the people behind them.


Tell us how “Electric Archaeology” began?

By training and inclination, I’m an archaeologist. As part of my thesis work, I became interested in social networks in the past. But I was frustrated at some of the limitations of social networks analysis. It only allowed me static snapshots. I wanted something a bit more dynamic. One thing led to another, and I became interested in agent-based modeling, using ancient social networks as the skeleton. This led me to a conference at the University of Nebraska in 2006. Feedback I got there suggested that I should blog my research. I started ‘Electric Archaeology’ shortly thereafter. There are many archaeological blogs out there, but comparatively few that focus on archaeology-as-a-digital-humanity. So I found my niche.

What exactly is Agent Based Modeling?

Agent-based modeling (ABM) is a simulation methodology. But instead of trying to create some sort of comprehensive equation that describes the object you are simulating, you instead describe the behaviors of individuals. Then, you replicate these individuals, and allow them to interact in an environment. Because each individual has its own unique suite of characteristics, the way they interact cannot be predicted. So you end up with emergent behavior. This emergent behavior is what you’re interested in. Take for example a traffic jam (one of the standard examples for explaining emergence), Every car has its own driver. The driver has limited knowledge about what’s going on, on the road. She can see in front and behind. Woops! The guy in front has just stood on the brakes, so Suzy has to swerve. This causes Jacques to step on his brakes, and honk his horn… ad nauseam…

From above, these limited interactions cause a traffic jam to emerge. The jam travels backwards down the highway, relative to how the cars are moving. New cars enter the jam, and old cars leave the jam – but the jam continues to exist. The jam can be said to exist at a higher level of complexity than the individual cars that compose it.

How is this relevant to archaeology?

In terms of ancient history, one of my first ABM’s concerned the diffusion of information in the Roman empire. Specifically, I was interested in what the conception of geographic space implied for how information travelled about. The Romans didn’t use maps, per se. Rather they had lists of ‘itinteraries’, or descriptions of the towns one had to go through to get anywhere. Rather like saying, to travel from Montreal to Detroit, go via Kingston – Toronto – Windsor – Detroit, instead of looking at a map. So I turned these itineraries into an environment for my individual agents to interact on. Then I gave one a ‘message’, and measured how long it took for the message to diffuse to everyone else. I found structural differences in the way space was conceived then that seemed to map onto archaeological materials.

What did you learn with your first ABM?

Well, it did seem to suggest alternative explanations for patterns in things like the expressions used in tombstones – what might be called Romanization … but it was published, and so it showed me that there was something to this ABM approach that I could use for more complicated questions.

For example, how do political and cultural territories emerge? What was it about Roman social organization that allowed it to whether the periodic self-extermination of elites? That kind of thing. The first question I tried to address with my ‘TravellerSim’ model; the second one with my ‘PatronWorld’ model.

TravellerSim took about four months to build, test, validate, and write up; PatronWorld has been the project of about two years, but I’m happy to say that it’s in-press and will be published shortly.

So how do these technologies affect archaeology in terms of openness on the web?

They allow us to ask questions of the material that we couldn’t ask before. They make our assumptions about the past explicit — or rather, they force us to be explicit. When you make a model or a simulation, you are encoding a particular view of how the world works into your code. It’s a kind of rhetoric. So, I have to make all of my code available for others to interrogate, challenge, adapt, or expand. It could be that my models all contain some kind of fundamental flaw in my assumptions about how the ancient world work.

That would still be a good result, if someone else read my papers and said, “Graham’s wrong — his code implies x, y, and z, and we know that that wasn’t the case for reasons a, b, and c,” It forces openness.

If somebody publishes a model, but doesn’t let you see the code, then you have no reason to believe the results. For archaeology, I think it’s a good thing, in that it promotes openness with data. For any discipline, really. Folks who sit on data do not help advance knowledge.

How many ABMs have you made?

Three that I’ve brought to publication; I’ve got another three that I’m toying with. The neat thing about the envrionment that I use — Netlogo — is that the models are a bit like Lego blocks. You can use parts of one in another one. So once you get going, it builds up its own momentum. I know of a fellow at another university who is using some of the components of my models in his own models.

How prominent are these models in traditional archeology?

I think they’re gaining ground. They have been used successfully in research relating to the Anasazi in the American Southwest, and to a degree in work related to Mesopotamia. I think I might be the only person currently building models on Roman antiquity. Though I know of some graduate students who are beginning to explore it in their own research.

Social networks analysis is also gaining ground in archaeology and ancient history; it’s a rather different methodology, but a key feature of my ABM work is that I try to run my models from starting positions known from antiquity, based on the social networks that were evidenced then.

So how did you first get started with this?

Well, I first heard of the methodology when I was starting my Ph.D. back in 1999. I was chatting with a geographer from the University of Bristol; I was interested in GIS then, but he described running an agent model on top of the data from a GIS, and I was hooked.

Unfortunately, at that time, building an ABM was rather complicated (it’s still not altogether easy, but it gets easier all the time), so I had to shelve the idea. I resurrected it when I did my postdoc. I saw a workshop on ABM advertised, persuaded my supervisor to let me go, and I was away to the races, as it were. The workshop at Nebraska was their Center for Digital Humanities’ first workshop on the subject, and I was an invited finalist. The other folks were presenting interesting work on data mining and lexigraphical analysis of historical texts.

My work was certainly different. 🙂 But I got a real boost from the feedback I received there, and I’ve been carving out this niche ever since.

I should clarify – the workshop I attended to learn about ABM was at Mesa State College in Grand Junction Colorado; that was in 2005. The Nebraska workshop was in 2006.

What role does your blog play in your research?

The blog connects me the wider community of researchers who use agent based modeling in their own work. Agent models are used to understand everything from how pedestrians might cross a new intersection layout, to the spread of Avian Flu. There’s a lot of fertile cross-collaboration, in terms of sharing ideas and so on.

Shawn Graham

“For any discipline, really … Folks who sit on data do not help advance knowledge.”

Where else are you online?

Well, I’m in LinkedIn, and I participate in some group blogs like the Ancient World Bloggers Group. My day job is as an online faculty trainer, so I’m online in that sense every minute of the work day 😉 I also contribute to some general Classics social network sites like ‘eclassics’ on ning. I post occasionally to game sites like too.

Could you tell us some about the “When on Google Earth” project?

“When on Google Earth?” is just a game, really … I saw a blog post by some geologists, who were playing “What on Google Earth?” In their game, someone posts a pic from Google Earth, showing a particular landform. The aim is to identify the nature of the landform, and where it is on earth. The winner gets the bragging rights, and gets to post the next picture. So I adapted it to archaeology. There is a lot of archaeological material visible on Google Earth, so I had it in my head that this could be a kind of public archaeology. I started it this time last year, and it’s now in its 79th edition. Some other folks created a Facebook page to keep track of the game. After that initial post I made, I haven’t been able to win a round since!

You seem to be finding archeology through many of the social networking sites. Could you explain to us the “TweetMapping Archeology?

TweetMapping is a concept where the tweets on various subjects are mapped against either the location where they were made, or against the location that they mention. On the original tweetmapping site, the fellow used Yahoo Pipes to create an application that would tweetmap whatever search term you punched in. So I punched in ‘archaeology’ and ‘archeology’ and linked it to my blog.

The idea then is to give the most up-to-date view of what is sometimes called ‘the hidden web’, the web that Google and the other search engines don’t search (although that is now rapidly changing). So if anyone was tweeting about the latest archaeological news, ‘TweetMapping Archaeology” ideally would display it.

Could you tell us your involvement in Second Life as Canadensis Yellowjacket?

Ah! That’s a project currently onhold, until I can get a better internet connection! I’m on satellite internet, so the lag time makes navigating SL extremely difficult, if not impossible.

But what I have been trying to accomplish there was related to public archaeology and archaeological education, and the concept of immersiveness. When you play a video game, or enter one of these 3-D worlds, you soon stop saying — “my character just flew up the side of the building” and you start saying ” I just flew up to the roof!.”

They allow you to project yourself into them (there’s really interesting work going on at the moment about this phenomenon as it relates to autistic people). So, if you can’t go on excavation, you could at least learn something about what is involved by being a part of a virtual one in Second Life. So I built one. I could link objects in Second Life to archaeological databases elsewhere on the web.

Once I get better internet service, I’ve been invited to build one of my “excavations” on the island owned by the American Anthropological Association.

Another possible use of SL for archaeology involves reconstruction sites. A fantastic project is the virtual ‘Catalhoyuck’ project and OKAPI; see Colleen Morgan’s work (she’s absolutely brilliant), which she blogs about at

So with all the different ways to connect out there, what do you think is the future of archeology and related conversations?

It’s going to be exciting. I know some folks are experimenting with Google Wave, though I haven’t had the opportunity yet. Google touts it as the next best thing… a sort of real time multi-user collaboration suite. I think the best archaeology is going to be using the web and whatever else emerges on it to make the ‘writing’ of archaeology more participatory, more collaborative. You might call it more democratic. But I hesitate to say, since I’ve got a bad track record in predicting the future.

As an undergrad in 1994, I was asked to write a paper about what I could find on the internet regarding the Etruscans. I believe I wrote something to the effect, “this internet is filled with garbage and will never be useful to archaeologists.” So anything I say, take with a large lump of salt.

Platforms are beginning to emerge online that allow archaeologists to share and disseminate the raw data generated during their studies; that will be an interesting thing to watch.

What would you like to come of your blog?

I would hope it continues to attract readers who view it as a great resource; I also hope it continues to be a venue that connects me with researchers and other interested individuals who can say, “have you thought about … have you seen …” My blog I regard as my ‘public service’ to the profession.

It’s where I reflect on what’s happening, and provide pointers to new technologies that might have an impact on how we explore and understand the past.

I saw one person tagged it on delicious with ‘mildly interesting’. If I can get that up to ‘fairly’, that’d be good … 😉

What is your advice to beginning archaeologists and bloggers?

Well, a blog is a great place to reflect on what you’re doing, and what your interests are. More and more graduate students are keeping blogs about their research, and are using them to reach out to other students and professionals. Ask yourself why you’re doing this, and where you hope to take it.

Some excavations keep blogs as a way of reaching the interested public; and some of the most exciting research is documented on blogs, since the publication cycle can take so long. Academic blogs are starting to be viewed as legitimate publication vehicles, and that’s a trend I hope continues & accelerates.



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