Archaeology and blockchain: a social science data revolution?
Blockchain technology is revolutionising financial systems. Could it do the same for archaeological data?
Museum and data storage might both be aided in the future with blockchain technology. Photograph: Keith Myers/MCT via Getty Images.
This month the world’s first “archaeology coin” launched to fanfare from a small community; however, it might be part of a coming social science data revolution. Named Kapu, the digital currency is similar to Bitcoin, but specifically designed for archaeology. The technology underlying Kapu and Bitcoin is called blockchain and it may change data storage and cultural heritage protection. While the public is unaccustomed with blockchain, there is good reason to believe we may be witnessing the first step in what will become a standard technology over the next decade.
Everyone from financial markets and politicians to libertarians and doomsday savers are taking an interested in blockchain. Many of these individuals are not focused on the currencies, but the use of blockchain as a means to store and share data. It can create a record of assets that cannot be tampered with and it is being tested for assets such as homes and cars, organic food and sustainable fisheries, and, of course, artifacts.
Blockchain is the technology that underlies the digital currency Bitcoin, as well as newer digital currencies. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
How does blockchain work? It is a complex technology, but the underlying idea is quite simple. Blockchain is a public ledger, unlike a ledger kept by a bank or government institution. Each person who owns a “coin” also maintains a copy of all other assets and transactions, creating a peer-to-peer asset and transaction registry network. This provides transparency and avoids centralized “trust” institutions such as banks. The result is a “distributed” network where all the ledgers and transactions are replicated on delegates’ or users’ computers throughout the network. Data manipulation can be prevented since it will not be approved by the network.
Anyone who has had a hard drive die or server fail can understand the value of data storage without a single point of failure. Well-distributed blockchains have no single point of failure and cannot be controlled by a single entity. The good news is that blockchains can store more than financial ledgers- it can be used to store nearly any digital information.
Blockchain is an open source technology that allows for further innovation. For example, the digital currency Ethereum created “smart contracts” that are self-executing. Imagine that payment for a package going through once the delivery truck’s GPS signal arrives at your house. As one of the latest coins, Kapu is integrating innovations from earlier digital currencies. It is based on ARK, an influential digital currency that is building a platform called SmartBridge that links different blockchains (e.g. Bitcoin to Ethereum) to create a “digital ecosystem.”
An explosion of applications is occurring at the moment. Artists are protecting and selling music through a system called Mycelia, which uses blockchain to create a more equitable sharing and payment method. The UK company Provenance uses blockchain to track food production supply chains, such as tracking fish from source to consumers in the world’s markets and restaurants to prevent illegal fishing and slave labour.
Kapu is a new digital currency using blockchain designed for archaeology. Photograph: Martino Merola
What does blockchain mean for archaeology and other research fields? Think of each coin as a block capable of storing data. A block can be subdivided countless times to create subsections, so it may serve as a directory for a museum or university. Record of your “block” is public, but its contents are encrypted. The data is stored across the network and it is immutable except for additions by the owner.
The CEO of Kapu, Martino Merola, grew up in Capua, Italy, and created the currency out of concern for the cultural heritage in his city (Kapu is the ancient name for Capua). He has been involved in digital currencies for a number of years, but saw potential for blockchain and archaeology. When we spoke, he said Kapu would like to “revolutionize how archaeological and heritage data are stored, preserved, and made accessible.” Given the limited funding for archaeology in many countries, Merola says blockchain offers a cheap and simple solution for encrypted data storage that can be accessed through different levels of permissions. Merola and his team have created the framework, but are seeking universities and museums to collaboratively experiment with data storage and information sharing.
What are some applications of blockchain for archaeology? Currently, data is archived in libraries and services such as the Archaeology Data Service (ADS). Blockchain could offer an immutable record for archives. This is especially useful for museums who could store their artifact catalog with blockchain privately, but provide different levels of access to staff, researchers, and the public. If a museum were to be looted, it could release data using hash codes to law enforcement to prevent export or sale of artifacts of matching descriptions. Archaeologist Grant Cox says, “The Kapu team is investigating the best ways to store different types of data and will be evaluating ways to use the block chain to develop a distributed public network to sustain and host heritage content” through recently developed tools. While these tools are still being experimented with, the building blocks are in place, Cox says, and ready for archaeological applications.
Blockchain can maintain immutable property records, leading to proposals for real estate records. An application for antiquities ownership could follow. Antiquities are less regulated than the eggs in your local supermarket, creating a market that is rife with fakes, forgeries, and trafficked antiquities that are known to fund organized crime and terror organizations, as recently highlighted by Islamic State’s widespread looting of artifacts. Were an artifact to have a blockchain record, each time it crossed a border or was sold to a new collector the record could be updated to show it was legitimate. Conversely “blood antiquities” would have no record and faked records could not be manufactured as they often are today. Border security could then compare records of artifacts declared at customs to databases such as INTERPOL. A step further might be to store blockchain information with products like SmartWater or coded DNA which are currently used to invisibly tag artifacts. Once hashes are recovered from the SmartWater or DNA, the database would provide the record of the artifact.
Kapu is a digital currency designed specifically for archaeology and named after the ancient city of Capua in Italy. Photograph: Martino Merola
Another application for researchers working with living subjects may be self-executing smart contracts. Ethical guidelines require the protection of data from human subjects. Ethnographic data is typically stored for a set amount of time (e.g. five years) and then confidential records are destroyed. Blockchain could encrypt and store these records, then the smart contracts could destroy confidential data after a set period of time.
In an interview with Julius Bär’s Next Generation, Alberto Perucchini discussed applications of blockchain for finance and investment, stating, “2016 was hype around block chain... 2017 is the year of the first implementations.” Kapu and archaeology are one of these new implementations. Will Kapu be a success? No one can say for certain; however, blockchain has great potential for social science data.