iPadless Archaeology

With this week’s introduction of the Apple Watch and the proliferation of “wearable” technologies across the Android and Apple ecosystem, many archaeologists are celebrating the start of the iPadless era. Archaeologists have long recognized the limitations of collecting survey and excavation data in the field with an iPad, but the alternatives seemed either counterintuitive (for example, a return to paper) or prohibitive (developing bespoke robots to conduct excavations). The greatest difficulty being that the iPad was a completely separate piece of technology from the archaeologist resulting in a series of movement and actions that were inefficient and emphasized the division between the body of the archaeologist and the tools required to record archaeological interventions.

So, at the dawn of the iPadless age in archaeology, I offer a few observations.

1. The Fragile Tool. Any archaeologist who has used a portable, tablet computer in the field has had the experience of dropping the device in a trench, feeling it slip from his or her hands into a roaring rapid, or leaving it on the top of a field vehicle before leaving the field. The results of these events almost always result in a destroyed device, the loss of data, and the reduction of the field teams capacity to record information on a daily basis. Despite the more substantial form factor, iPads proved susceptible to many of the same issues that plagued the use of notebooks or paper recording forms. Because they were separable from the archaeologist’s body, they could easily be separated resulting in the loss of data and equipment.

2. A Digital Tool in an Analogue Form. Imagine if the first iPod was the same size as a Sony Walkman or a portable record playing device. The adoption of a familiar form may have overcome some initial resistance to adoption, but ultimately limited the potential of the device. The standard size of the iPad is essential similar to large-form paper notebook or a sheet of paper. This results in the archaeologist engaging the device much like a piece of paper or notebook. It becomes a tablet on which archaeologists inscribe observations, details, and images. In effect, the form of the iPad reinforces that it is a replacement for paper, and accordingly it takes on very similar roles in an archaeologist’s hands. 

3. The Haptic Turn. Wearable technologies like the Apple Watch and Google Glass meld technologies with the archaeologist bodies establishing a platform for archaeological recording that does not involve the manipulation of a separate tool (whether it be a notebook, iPad, or, say, digital camera). Not only is the movement necessary to engage with a camera or a tablet inefficient costing a team hundreds, if not thousands of minutes over the course of a field project, but it divides the task of excavating from the task of recording. As a result, data is lost in the movement from excavating to recording because the goal of excavation (as we all know) is to collect data from the excavation, not to collect data produced by the recording process. By dividing our work into excavating and recording, we create an artificial barrier between our haptic experience as archaeologists and the data we collect. As long as our recording methods are technologically and physically separate from our work as excavators data will be lost in translation.

4. The Body. Apple Watch and Google Glass do not offer right now an immediate solution to the translation of haptic encounters into data for analysis, but they do establish a platform as these devices are aligned closely with the human body and have the ability to record what the body encounters. For example, the Apple Watch has sensors designed to record movement as subtle as changes in heartbeat in the wearer, and while it lacks its own GPS array, it communicates with a phone or other device (securely tethered to an archaeologist’s body) to record the location of the archaeologist. Combining location or position aware technologies and motion sensors, we are not far from being able to recognize the difference between gentle troweling and going at a level of fill with the big pick. If we introduce a device capable of capturing video at the eye level of the archaeologist (like Google Glass), we may no longer need to separate the process of excavating from that of recording. The very body of the archaeologist in all its subtlety and embodied knowledge becomes a data collecting array. 

5. The Cyborg. Wearables are the first step toward the creation of the archaeological cyborg in which the biological advantages of the human body are seamlessly melded with the technology. The excavation process and documentation processes will merge to ensure the collection of the mythical “pure data” directly from the edge of the trowel, the archaeologist’s gaze, or the subtle movements of the archaeologist’s body. The division between tools and the archaeologist will increasingly blur as the goal of collecting every possible bit of data from the destructive process of excavation will be within sight (and movement) of the field. The only limits, of course, is our ability to perceive the data that our movements produce, but with technology will only enhance these things. Through ever closer integration with technology, the archaeologist becomes an extension of the disciplinary imperative to collect data. 

As the destruction of antiquities and even ancient sites continues in the Middle East, archaeologists feel increasingly pressure to ensure that every possible bit of data from a trench, survey, artifact, or site is collected and preserved. While it might be impossible to protect every artifact (both ancient and archaeological) during the excavation process, it is increasingly possible to gather incredibly high resolution datasets that allow for the computer mediated reconstruction of archaeological reality. Soon, the destruction of antiquities by such extreme groups as ISIS will be mourned no more than corrupted sector on a hard drive completely backed up into the cloud.

The iPad, like the notebook or the paper form, was a momentary, if profoundly flawed, convenience in the inexorable movement toward total data. The iPad era will be remembered with the same affection that those misguided souls feel for paper notebooks, vacuum tube amplifiers, or fountain pens.   

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