The Harvard Yard Archaeology Project: From Analog History to Digital Presentation

The Harvard Yard Archaeology Project, covered in the Harvard GazetteFor over a decade, sections of Harvard Yard have been opened up every other fall so that students in the College can study the history that lies beneath their feet. The excavation is part of the Archaeology of Harvard Yard (ANTH 1130 and 1131), a two-semester course offered biennially by the Department of Anthropology and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The Peabody Museum has displayed artifacts from this excavation in its "Digging Veritas" exhibit since 2008, and a recent partnership between Academic Technology for FAS (AT-FAS) and the Peabody is bringing the dig to life in a new, technologically-advanced way, using an online exhibition tool (Omeka) and an augmented reality (AR) application that allows users both to view 3D reconstructions of the trenches, and to access student-authored "object biographies" of key finds from the excavation.

'It's really a once-in-a-lifetime thing to be able to say I worked at America’s oldest college, dug up stuff, and then built a museum collection at the end of the semester'

—Rachel Freed, ANTHRO 1130 student
Boston Globe, November 6, 2018

"Students have the opportunity here to go from excavation into the lab to catalog and accession of the material into the museum collection and then the curatorial interpretation and public interpretation, so they get to see...the full aspect of what archeology is about" said Diana Loren, the course's co-instructor and the Peabody Museum's curator of North American archeology, in an interview with the Boston Globe. "It's really a once-in-a-lifetime thing to be able to say I worked at America's oldest college, dug up stuff, and then built a museum collection at the end of the semester," a student in the course told the newspaper.

The collaborative digital component of the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project, or "HYAP," began in 2016, when AT-FAS and partners in the Digital Scholarship Support Group began working with the course's instructors, Peabody curators Diana Loren and Patricia Capone, to integrate digital methods into the excavation, the course, and the presentation of finds to the wider University audience.

'We'd like to be able to tell stories about the objects that are found'

—Brandon Bentley, HYAP product owner
Boston Globe, November 6, 2018

In Spring 2018, the Peabody Museum and Academic Technology for FAS worked together to secure grant funding from Harvard's HUIT-FAS Project Review Board (PRB) to support work on this technically intricate project, which utilizes web and mobile applications, 3D art, a Total Station, photogrammetry, GIS, and orthophoto techniques to create an immersive user experience.

Because of this, and because of its reliance on multiple contributors across Harvard organizations (these include a Digital Teaching Fellow (DiTF) from the Anthropology Department and the students in the course, in addition to AT–FAS, the DSSG, and the Peabody Museum), HYAP has been a case study in collaboration and teamwork.

The project also has be benefit of keeping the wider Harvard population informed about the excavation. As Loren said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, "After we leave the Yard, you don't know what we've done. It's beautiful, thanks to Harvard's landscape services. This [digital reconstruction] kind of allows you to understand the process of excavation when excavation is not taking place." The Gazette article continues:

Overall, the app should build on the aims of the class, which Loren describes as, at least in part, "to provide a better sense of the multicultural institution, its goals in the early colony, and to have a place for that history to be remembered today." In the students' encounters with the real objects used by their predecessors, she said, they "have this visceral experience. These are students digging the past lives of students. They understand the history in a whole other way." The project app, she hopes, will further the mission "to make that history known and to share it."

"We'd like to be able to tell stories about the objects that are found," said Brandon Bentley, senior instructional technologist with AT–FAS and HYAP product owner, to the Boston Globe. "This is a highly trafficked area for tourists, so it’s a nice thing to able to share those stories with people who are coming through who may not know the history of the original site here."

The Harvard Yard Archaeology Project is currently under development, with a prototype AR application expected to be ready for user testing in Spring 2019.

Harvard Yard Archaeology Project in the News

Boston Globe: "Archaeology dig in Harvard Yard offers glimpse of student life over the centuries"
Harvard Gazette: "In Yard digs, there'll soon be an app for that"
Harvard Crimson: "New App Will Let Users Look Below Harvard Yard"

Work on the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project has been generously funded by a grant from the Harvard University Information Technology—Faculty of Arts and Sciences Project Review Board.