Small Archaeological Projects and the Social Context of their Data
December 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
I am still working away on the paper that I will deliver after the holidays at the Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting in Seattle. As with everything this time of year, it is taking me long than I thought it would and my ideas are refusing to coalesce without some rather painful reflexive thinking.
My paper is titled “Archaeological Data and Small Projects” and is scheduled to appear in a panel called Managing Archaeological Data in the Digital Age: Best Practices and Realities. My goal is to present some of the social and technological realities of how our project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, dealt with the translation of archaeological from the field to the computer. A very preliminary summary of my paper is here. The goal of my post today is to clarify and expand some parts of this summary as I begin to revise my paper for January.
One thing that several commentators have mentioned is that the use of iPads or other digital recording devices in the field increased efficiency in collecting, analyzing, and disseminating archaeological knowledge. These tools made it easier, in effect, to bridge the famous gap between the field and laboratory by eliminating the intermediate step of producing paper field notebooks which are then digitized “back at the lab” for inspection, study, and archiving. Smaller projects have struggled a bit to keep pace with the technology necessary to capture the various kinds of information produced at the edge of the trench (photographs, illustrations, and text) and to synthesize it in an integrated database.
Our project captured archaeological information at the edge of the trench or from the survey unit using paper forms. A project director then translated this information into a format suitable for archiving and analysis in a database. While kept paper copies of the original trench notebooks and scanned them for both archival purposes and as a check on our databases, we conducted most of our analysis based on the data keyed into our trench database. (We are currently going through this same process with the trench notebooks from Polis-Chysochous on the western side of Cyprus.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, this particular workflow is inefficient. There are, however, reasons for these practices. First, paper forms or notebooks are almost infinitely flexible data recording tools in the field. A trench supervisor can defy the standards established by even the most rigid form by simply overwriting the expected data type, changing the form midstream, or expanding it to meet a new challenge or observation in the field. While this flexibility constantly threatens to produce data that is incompatible with the information being collected in other trenches or survey units in the study area and runs the risk of losing information, it also allows for trench side innovation, creativity, and ad hoc solutions to the almost limitless variety of objects and relationships encountered in a trench. Moreover, the paper form – when filled out correctly – makes it very difficult to delete or overwrite potentially meaningful mistakes. The record produced by the paper form, then, is in some ways more stable and dynamic than that collected directly in a digital context.
I’d like to say that these advantages were our primary motivations for collecting archaeological information on paper forms at the side of the trench, but they were not. We found paper forms easier, less costly, and more stable than using a digital tool to directly gather data from the unit or the trench. Moreover, we knew how to make a good paper form, so the learning curve was quite modest. Conversely, our various database were notorious fickle creatures. The few times that we made it possible for a student or even a trench supervisor to key the data into one of our excavation databases, we ended up supervising their work closely, making tweaks to the database, and working with them to figure out ways to accommodate various incompatible or irregular entries on the forms within the more rigid structure of our database. After a short time, we concluded that it was easier for a project director to key the data into the database and use the translation from paper to pixels as a way to review and understand the data coming from each trench.
The technical limitations of our project staff and the relatively small areas exposed by our excavation or documented by our survey played a key role in shaping our workflow. It also shaped the process of digital data production by producing a distinct, intermediate step between archaeological documentation in the field and translation of this information into digital data. The documentation work performed at the edge of the trench or by the survey team leader derived from conversations with various team members, experience in the trench or the fields, and the systematic engagement with the stratigraphy or artifact scatters in situ. In contrast, data entry mode involved the solitary keying of field observations into a database. Archaeological information recorded in the field was inevitably smoothed during data entry as I massaged the flexible character of paper forms to conform to the rather more rigid fields in our database without the benefit of trench side observation or collegial conversations with various participants in primary information collection. The field sheets were frequently in a different order than they were produced in the field and the tedium of data entry often invoked a kind of frantically repetitive fugue state. Data entry was strangely satisfying, however, in that one could see the conversion of hours of fieldwork into a quantifiable series of records that became a shorthand for the quantity and quality of information collected from the field.
The experience of data entry and field collection were significant different in terms of both the kind of information produced and preserved and the experience of the process. Our method was, of course, inefficient. The massaging of data to fit into a rather less flexible database likely caused some kind of data loss particularly in exceptional cases where the forms did not anticipate the kind archaeological “reality” in the field. Of course, maintaining data entry as a separate, distinct step of the process also allowed for use to adapt our databases on the fly to accommodate archaeological information from the field.
Whatever the limitations or advantages of various forms of data capture produced by archaeological projects, the processes put in places by small projects with limited expertise invariably shape the kind of information recorded and analyzes. The tools and social contexts of a project dictate the kind of knowledge a project produces.