iPads in the Field and Reflections on Archaeology’s Digital Future

This is a post that might appear sometime in the next little bit on the ASOR Blog!

This past summer my excavation on Cyprus experimented with using iPads to document our excavations in the field. Since 2003, I have co-direct the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project with Prof. R. Scott Moore of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Prof. David K. Pettegrew of Messiah College. Over this time, the three of us designed our archaeological methods, in-field procedures, and data structure. During the 2012 season, we embraced the opportunity to test and refine a web application developed by Prof. Sam Fee at Washington and Jefferson College. Messiah College generously loaned us the iPads. Our trench supervisors and excavators embraced the experiment. And Sam was willing to work within with our existing data structure, databases, and ontologies.

By iPad standards, the cleverly named PKApp was simple in design. It drew upon relatively little of the iPad’s sophisticated hardware or processing power. We did not have the resources or the funding to develop a robust server-side or mobile digital infrastructure. In fact, the simplicity of our application’s design and the limited resources available to our project is probably the most significant aspect of our work. If a small and otherwise unremarkable project can develop a bespoke iPad application, it prompts us to consider how the techniques, procedures, and methods used to collect archaeological data are no long just the purview of digital project or technophile excavators. Digital archaeology is no long a particular subset of archaeological practice, but fundamentally coterminous with careful documentation in the field.

That we could develop and deploy an application demonstrates that we have officially entered a period of rapid technological change for archaeological data collection. Mobile computing has well and truly begun to replace old fashioned pen and paper notebooks. Responses to this change range from nearly unbridled enthusiasm to concerns about how the technology actually works and how our current infrastructure will continue to adapt to rapidly growing digital archives.


Here are my three thoughts along these lines:

1. Practical Realities.

Sam Fee presents the technical details for our application in the March 2013 issue of Near Eastern Archaeology. From the user’s perspective, however, the application is straightforward and uncomplicated. It provides places to enter the basic data collected over the course of excavation as well as open text fields to record descriptions of the stratigraphy and features.

The application ran on iPad tablets, but could have run on any tablet computer (or laptops) with only some small tweaks. The iPad proved durable and effective in the field. The screens held up against the glare of the Mediterranean sun, and the batteries survived the rigors of a full field day without any issues. The application worked flawlessly as well, collecting data entered by student and depositing it nightly in a designated email account.

Just to be certain, we continued to document our trenches on paper forms. This made sure that we had a complete record of our trenches in the event of a technology failure. None occurred.

2. Methods and Procedures.

The most remarkable thing about collecting data in a digital form at the side of the trench is that we have much better control over the quality of data that our trench supervisors records. We can control the entries into the database to ensure, for example, that soil descriptions are done according to standard Munsell categories, we can prevent anyone from incorrectly numbering a stratigraphic unit, or we can ensure that trench supervisors record elevations in an appropriate format. This ability to smooth data on the side the of the trench and to avoid problematic entries improved the quality of data from the moment that we began to use the application.

At the same time, however, we created an environment where the trench supervisor typed his trench descriptions. For most academics typing – even on the cramped, on-screen keyboard of the iPad – is at least as fast as writing so speed of recording was not an issue. What did pose a challenge was understanding how a typed record of a trench might differ from a handwritten record. We noticed for example that it was easier to delete a description that proved to be incorrect or inaccurate than it would be in a notebook. In fact, as many projects, we encouraged trench supervisors to strike through mistakes in their notebooks and forms to preserve a record of how their thinking changed over time and to share scratch paper and even informal notes prepared in the field. When a trench supervisor deletes a record that change is gone. Technical details like this gave us pause as we considered how digital tools could inadvertently change the kind of data we record from the field.

3. Digital Archives.

Once we produced data in digital form, we had to think hard about how we plan to preserve it for future generations of researchers. Traditional archives exist for the preservation of paper and pen documentation, and while a new generation of digital archives has begun to emerge, the standards and technologies needed to preserve and make available digital records remains in flux. We haven’t necessarily settled on a digital repository for our data, but we will almost certainly save our data to a number of institutional repositories.

The need to have a long term digital archive, however, is just part of the issues surrounding born-digital data in archaeology. With born-digital data, the process of archiving goes from being something that occurs at the very end of the project to an ongoing concern. Each day on PKAP, for example, we sent the data recorded on the iPads to a cloud service for archiving. For the daily archive, we sent our data directly from the iPad to the commonplace service of Gmail. The data was then accessible to the project directors who could back it up on their laptops and create multiple copies ensuring that our excavation data almost simultaneously exited in multiple places. This was a satisfactory and free short term solution, but hardly a long term step to ensuring a persistent record of our work.


The remarkable thing about our use of iPads, development of a web application, creation of methods and procedures to facilitate data collection, and use of a digital archive is that none of us on the project – except Sam Fee – are “digital archaeologists”. Despite our only rudimentary familiarity with the complexities of application development and implementation, the entire experiment was remarkably painless, low cost, and produced results that were better and more secure in most ways than our use of pens and paper. The democratization of digital data collection in archaeology marks a sea change in how the field works in basic ways. Digital tools are no long the domain of sophisticated projects with substantial budgets and dedicated specialists, but there for any project willing to create strategic alliances and to take the plunge. As I noted at the top of this blog post, the days of digital data capture in archaeology are no long in the future, but upon us.


  1. I’m extremely interested in developing a field recording app for my dissertation work. Can you tell me what program you used to build the app?


    1. Bill,

      Check out the article cited in the blog for the tech specs. As far as I know it was all hand-coded.



  2. Christine Melia October 8, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Hi Bill,

    I am currently writing my dissertation on how data capture through mobile technologies can contribute to Archaeology. As such i am extremely interested in the project you re involved with. Is it possible to email some queries to you?


    1. Christine,

      Absolutely. Use my gmail account (billcaraher(at)gmail(dot)com).



      1. Hi Bill , I emailed you on a few occasions now but have not gotten a reply

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