Features and Forms Again

I probably have one more day in the field this season on the Western Argolid Regional Project. Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve surveyed close to 2500 units and recorded important data for each unit on paper maps and paper forms. We then keyed this data into a database and plotted our maps on a GIS to produce density maps. Our ceramicists, Scott Gallimore and Sarah James, continue to move through the 30,000 artifacts recovered from the field. These objects come from about a 10% sample of the surface of our survey units (in other words, we walked each unit observing 2 m of 10 m swath, but only about 50% of each swath was visible.)

All of our field data was recorded on paper forms in pen by our field teams. It is instructive for us to understand that over the course of a 6 hour field day (around 7 am to around 1 pm) our teams spent around 2 hours walking. The remaining four hours was spent filling out paperwork, moving from unit to unit, and taking care of collected artifacts. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking a bit about the benefits and liabilities of increasingly the efficiency of fieldwork. In fact, I’ve generally advocated approaches to fieldwork that encourage teams to slow down, move more carefully, observe more closely, take time to think critically, and resist the urge to turn time in the field into simply recording.

Of course, it is easy to advocate these practices from the luxury of a faculty office at repose in the warm embrace of tenure. In the field, where resources and time are limited (both to a 6 week season and a 3 year permit in Greece), it is really hard to slow down field work. If anything, there is relentless pressure to speed up, do more, sleep less! The temptation is particularly strong when it comes to the systematic collection of data. The urge to produce an impressive map, a substantial database, and quantitatively meaningful dataset can quickly drown out a commitment to more open-ended practices. If handwriting, paper forms in the field, slow the pace of data collection or even improves our ability to understand the complexities of the archaeological landscape, then perhaps the extra time necessary to write on paper is worth it.

Even a continued commitment to paper forms, however, does not ensure that our team leaders and field teams record thoughtfully (rather than just systematically) everything that they observe in the field. For example, we noticed that larger features that cannot be quantified or documented according to a set of rigorously enforced standards tended to get less attention from our teams. For feature recording we asked our teams to describe walls, buildings, kilns, wells, cisterns, or other manmade “features” in a free text area of the survey form. In general, these teams struggled to consistently record the shape, construction style, and location of features in units. We don’t think that our teams overlooked features as much as under-documented them over the course of their typical field day. The filling out of a survey form, then, became a microcosm for the larger issue facing intensive survey (and perhaps all of archaeology). The temptation is to collect easily quantifiable data or phenomena that we can articulate within relatively narrow parameters at the expense of more complicated artifacts in the fields. The latter slows the field team down because each instance requires a new description and this kind of creative engagement with each instance on its own terms produces a kind of messy data that is difficult to aggregate. The request by team leaders and field walkers to streamline feature description reinforced the pressure that they felt to document objects in the landscape in a thorough and systematic way without structured prompts.

As we spend the week organizing data from the field, I once again thought about whether we need to move more aggressively to using tablets to collect data in the field. Part of me sees the transition from paper forms as part of a larger process of improving the efficiency of basic data recording. This should, in turn, free up our team leaders to understand the landscape in a more nuanced and synthetic way. On the other hand, the demise of paper forms may push us further along a path where we engage the landscape in a highly fragmented, systematized and granular way in the name of efficiency.

So as we continue our digitally-mediate move toward efficiency in archaeology, I’ll continue to think about how the tools we use shape the landscape we create. 

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