Itineraries - Protagonists


by Stephen Fox

Robert G. Chenhall (1923, Maurice, Iowa – 2003, Albuquerque, New Mexico) started his scientific career as a member of the Anthropology Department at Arizona State University, specialising in the theoretical aspects of data collection and evaluation. Hereafter, Chenhall’s researches have had an influential impact on the development of American archaeological computing, as a few recent publications still recognise nowadays.

In 1965 he founded the «Newsletter of Computer Archaeology», as a pioneering attempt to release information on computer-aided researches and their results. As a leading specialist, Chenhall was engaged in exploiting the potential of the programme sponsored by the Arkansas Archaeological Survey aimed at filing information on site survey records and the associated artefacts in a database. His article “The impact of computers on archaeological theory: An appraisal and projection”, which appeared in 1968 in the Journal «Computers and the Humanities», besides providing a survey of archaeological projects involving the use of electronic computers for data processing, was a consistent attempt to create a theoretical framework in which they could be gathered and related, in order to demonstrate their influence on archaeological theory.

By following Chenhall’s career, the history of the implementation of computers in museums in the United States and the evolution of museum documentation systems can be also traced. 1968 was a key year for Chenhall’s institutional life and the recognition of his international outlook. He actively participated in the Symposium “Computers and their Potential Applications in Museums”, held at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in April 1968 and organised thanks to a grant from the IBM Corporation. Chenhall’s talk “The analysis of Museum Systems” was delivered in the session dedicated to Documentary Applications and mainly focused on issues regarding records management in museums.

He could therefore outline a forceful distinction between “Information Retrieval”, whose primary concern is the range of technical problems associated «with the physical transmission of meaningful information, not the content or meaning of the information transmitted», and “System Analysis”, which is vitally concerned «with what is communicated through information retrieval techniques, as well as with why this communication takes place and what is accomplished by it». In short, the first involves the technical side of the organization of records and files, while the second deals with the final aims and objectives rather than with the technical tools implemented to accomplish them.

Chenhall’s foresight and clarity of purpose were well established as early as 1966, when he participated in Rome’s International Symposium on Mathematical and Computational Methods in the Social Sciences. The following year, in his article “The Description of Archaeological Data in Computer Language”, published in «American Antiquity», he illustrated an inventory of archaeological artefacts coming from an Anasazi cave site – the Three Turkey Ruin – located in north-eastern Arizona, prepared on an IBM 1440 computer. To be successful, the descriptive system for storing and retrieving archaeological artefacts is expected to develop models that are representative of the “real world” of material objects, sufficiently expandable or open-ended to be applied to yet undefined situations, and adequately specific to be convertible into machine language.

At the beginning of the 1970s Chenhall’s interests converged towards the use of computers in cataloguing archaeological collections (“The archaeological data bank: a progress report”) and in 1971 he organised the international Archaeological Data Bank Conference at the University of Arkansas. In a period when the challenge and limitless potentials of computer applications were gaining ever-growing attention from museum curators and administrators, Chenhall advocated that they should positively consider a museum as a complex network system, «in the same way that we might look at a missile, a business, or any other enterprise, through the eyes of a systems engineer». His research, at that moment, concentrated on the systematic modelling of automation processes for museum cataloguing. In 1971 he became a member of the Board of Directors of the Museum Computer Network (MCN) – a small association of museums founded in 1967 with the purpose of helping museums in the automation of records registration, sponsoring the use of the GRIPHOS Management Information System – as well as of the Board of Directors of ICOM’s International Committee on Documentation (CIDOC), with which the MNC had soon established international contacts. In 1972 Chenhall was involved in the Museum Data Bank Coordinating Committee, whose main goal was to create a universal cataloguing system that all museums could apply to their holdings.

In the 1970s, his two most renowned books were published: Museum Cataloging in the Computer Age (Nashville, Tenn., 1975) and Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging: A System for Classifying Man-made Objects (Nashville, Tenn., 1975), which received early reviews and several revised (see for instance Introduction to Controlled Vocabularies) and updated editions (see lastly Nomenclature 4.0). As stated by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), Chenhall’s Nomenclature lexicon has become the standard reference cataloguing and indexing tool for thousands of American history museums.

Some of the institutions Chenhall had offered his scientific contribution to are very active even nowadays. In particular, CIDOC currently provides the museum community with advice on the management and good practice in museum documentation. To facilitate communications between national and international bodies responsible for the recording and protection of the archaeological heritage, CIDOC’s Archaeological Sites Working Group (ASWG) was established in 1992 with the aim of creating an international standard for archaeological sites inventories. ASWG has also the task of drafting a directory of both national and regional archaeological records for Europe and North America. The creation of a multilingual glossary for selected key-areas of controlled vocabulary within the core or basic data standards is also pursued (comparable examples of which are, for instance, the Getty Research Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus or, regarding the visual traditions of classical antiquity and its fortune in western culture, the still “in-progress” Warburg Institute Iconographic Database).

CIDOC and its Documentation Standards Working Group (DSWG) have long endeavoured to create a general data model for museums, focusing on information interchange and integration. In 1999 their efforts resulted in the first complete edition of the “CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model” (CRM), which became official standard ISO on 12 September 2006, revised in 2014. The continuous need to meet the requirements brought about by the development of conceptualization for information integration, together with the necessity to create a central forum for harmonization of the many potential application issues, led to the establishment of the CIDOC CRM Special Interest Group. In order to support the archaeological excavation process and related entities and activities, CRMarchaeo, an extension of CIDOC CRM, was created in collaboration with the European project Ariadne with the purpose to provide tools to manage and integrate existing archaeological documentation and facilitate their semantic encoding, exchange, interoperability and access.


VMAC – 2017