The AWS cloud gives our researchers faster access to cleaner data so they can collaborate more effectively to address new research questions and arrive at more cohesive interpretations of data.
Lindsay Der PhD Candidate

The Stanford Archaeology Center conducts interdisciplinary research projects worldwide, operates laboratories, and provides workshops and public lecture programs. The Center, which is based at Stanford University’s campus in California, helps link constituent departments such as Anthropology, Classics, Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Art History. It also works with other research organizations around the world.

The Center, along with the Department of Anthropology, supports the Çatalhöyük Research Project, a Neolithic archeological site in south-central Turkey first excavated in the early 1960s. Today, Çatalhöyük is considered one of the most important prehistoric sites in Turkey, revealing how life was lived in an ancient urban center that dates to around 7,400 B.C. The site includes the remains of agricultural activities, art such as wall paintings and plastered reliefs, graves, living quarters, pottery, figurines, and other artifacts that provide insights into how the people lived their daily lives. The site also contains animal remains that have puzzled researchers, including animal horns protruding from walls and seats.

Creating records of every item excavated is a critical task that allows researchers to gain a deeper understanding of this ancient culture and society. For years, the project’s on-site researchers entered geo-spatial information—used to identify where exactly artifacts were unearthed—into a database that was maintained and updated using time-consuming manual methods. It took one person 20 hours or more a week to enter and modify information using this system.

“It was a slow and costly process that also created confusion among researchers about which version of specific data was the most current,” says Lindsay Der, a Stanford PhD candidate working at the site. “We had a field database with one person in charge of controlling the local master copy—but that person was not always around. Because of the large number of researchers involved in the project, there were often changes made to information that was not updated properly, so we were constantly cleaning up data. It was particularly frustrating for collaboration efforts when there was uncertainty about the accuracy of the information.”

To improve the management of information collected at the site, the Center started using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) to run ArcGIS Server from Esri, a supplier of geographic information system (GIS) and geodatabase software. Esri provides ready-to-use Amazon Machine Images for ArcGIS Server, enabling customers like the Stanford team to set up and run their GIS applications on affordable servers that are accessible from anywhere in the world. The ArcGIS Server is connected to a Microsoft SQL Server database housed at University College London, which includes records on about 30,000 different deposits excavated at site . The Stanford researchers used this solution to analyze and publish digitized versions of all Çatalhöyük site maps and plans. These digital documents reveal archeological patterns that help researchers better understand behaviors and organizations within the ancient community.

By using AWS, the Stanford Archaeology Center researchers have easy access to vital data regardless of where they are, and have a system for ensuring that data used in collaborative efforts is accurate and up to date.

“With AWS, our process for updating data and collaborating is far more efficient,” says Justine Issavi, another PhD candidate working at the site. “It also facilitates collaboration between international teams. When there was just the one on-site staff person to update information, we were always on the hunt for that person to provide updates. Now with the AWS cloud solution, information can be accessed, added, and updated by multiple researchers across the globe. Data is current and readily available online for all researchers, whether they’re at Stanford, in Turkey, or some other location.”

The 20 or more hours of staff time that used to be spent each week on keeping data updated has now been redirected to more useful research work. With the AWS solution, Der says, research efforts are more efficient—and that is helping glean more insights from the ancient artifacts.

“The AWS cloud,” she says, “gives our researchers faster access to cleaner data so they can collaborate more effectively on new research questions and arrive at more cohesive interpretations of data.”