Off-the-shelf Technology in Archaeology

This week’s @mobilearc15 question was: My favorite off-the-shelf app for paperless archaeology is _______. @mobilearc15 is the official twitter feed of the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future conference held at the end of this month.

When I thought about that question, I reflected on the usual contenders. I can’t imagine intensive pedestrian survey without ArcGIS. I can’t imagine processing finds data and integrating artifacts and stratigraphic interpretations without relational databases like Microsoft Access. I thought about how much time in the field software like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop have saved us by allowing us to manipulate illustrations and photographs to improve their legibility and scalability.

I’ve spent the better part of the last month working my way through the archaeological data that we’ve collected over three years of excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla. Doing this, I’ve used a range of paperless archaeology tools from Adobe Acrobat to ArcGIS and Access.

My favorite off-the-shelf app for paperless archaeology is Scrivener#mobilearc

Scrivener is a word processor developed by Literature and Latte in 2007. My impression is that it was designed specifically for novelists and screenwriters. It’s most important and useful feature is the ability to manage long, complex texts by breaking them into more manageable sections while keeping them all together in the same file. Scrivener allows me to move these sections of text around freely and to set targets of word length for each section which does wonders for keeping me on task and on length. As someone who writes in 1000-2000 word chunks (or smaller), the opportunity to have all my small chunks of text together in the same program is worth the $45.00 price of Scrivener.

To other features make it my favorite paperless archaeology applications. First, unlike ArcGIS 10, Access, or the truly horrendous Microsoft Word, Scrivener never crashes. It is rock solid stable. It automatically saves during work and saves a back up of you file at the conclusion of ever session. Moreover, you can import directly to your Scrivener file all sorts of additional media that are useful when writing into a “research” folder in your Scrivener project. So most Scrivener projects have two sections. One section titled “Drafts” includes your ongoing compositions. The other section titled “Research” is available for any documents that you might need while writing.

For example, in 2013, I went into PKAP lockdown. For a stretch of three weeks I worked on the conclusion to the PKAP I volume for 8 to 10 hours a day. To produce this 15,000 word conclusion, I wrote 10 short, 1500 word, sections and arranged these in my draft section. The research on which these sections were based came from articles saved as pdf, other chapters of the volume, saved as Word files, and jpeg images of our survey area. Using my 15 inch MacBook Pro, I could arrange the section of the text that I was writing next to a research document like a image of the survey area or a final report. I realize that this is possible to do this in other ways, but the convenience of Scrivener makes it particular appealing. Scrivener is really well suited for long documents like book or article length manuscripts. 

The biggest reason that it is my favorite paperless archaeology application is that Microsoft Word had become more and more painful for me to use. I did not like long documents, I found the menus distracting and unintuitive. It was unstable (at least on the Mac). And I found it fugly. 

The downsides of using Scrivener are familiar to anyone active in the digital world. It does not save to an archival format, it is a commercial application, and is not quite smoothly compatible with many mainstream citation software (like, for example, Zotero). It does not easily support file sharing between collaborators which is probably its most substantial draw back. It really is a solo writing application. Finally, Scrivener is not the place to do final formatting for a manuscript. When you’re done your Scrivener project, you export it as an .rtf file and open it in Word, hold your nose, and finish the formatting there.

The general public tends to understand archaeology as simply fieldwork and paperless archaeology sometimes tends to be limited to integrating digital tools into work at trench side or in the survey unit. In reality, these trench side tools are just one stage in a larger digital ecosystem that begins with data collection and ends with the publication of analysis and the publishing and archiving of data. Scrivener is my favorite application in that process.

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