Software Aids Analysis of Archaeological Data at Univ. of Wisconsin

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Software Aids Analysis of Archaeological Data at Univ. of Wisconsin

Archaeologist Lynne Goldstein bluntly describes her field as the study of other people's garbage -- "it just doesn't smell anymore," she notes. Bones, pottery chards, discarded tools and the ruins of ancient dwellings are what archaeologists must work with in their efforts to reconstruct past cultures. After all, Goldstein points out, "you can't ask questions or talk to anyone."

But unearhing such remains, however exciting, is only the beginning. Insight into their meaning and relevance is gained through careful analysis of statistical data about the frequency, distribution and circumstances of these finds. Goldstein cites as an example a prehistoric cemetery in which goods were buried with people. Data about what particular items were discovered in what type grave might lead to a correlation between shell pendants and the burial of children.

As an associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Goldstein teaches students how to conduct such analyses. She makes a distinction, though, between the ability to run formulaic tests on archaeological data and the capacity to actually interpret it. Students, she used to worry, were acquiring the former at the expense of the latter. "I began to fear that students were just punching numbers in," she says. "I wanted them to understand their data well enough to see patterns in it."

When Goldstein learned that statistician John Turkey at Princeton had developed exploratory data analysis techniques that facilitate an understanding of what data represents, she happily incorporated them into her classroom instruction. Soon thereafter she discovered that one of Turkey's former students, Paul Velleman, had authored a computer program that employed these techniques.

Published under the name Data Desk Professional by Odesta Corp. of Northbrook, Ill., the graphical data analysis and statistics package runs on Macintosh computers and lets users explore data via a unique visual interface. …