Digital Workflows in Archaeological Practice

This weekend, I read with tremendous interest an article by Michael Boyd and a cast of dozens titled “Open Area, Open Data: Advances in Reflexive Archaeological Practice” in the Journal of Field Archaeology (2021). The article documents the digital workflow employed by an open area excavation of an Early Bronze Ages site on Kos. It is state of the art and forms a kind of sequel to the Roosevelt et al. article in JFA 40 (2015) which lays out the digital practices employed by the Kaymakçı Archaeological Project in Turkey. It also complements some of the discussions in 2016’s Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek B. Counts.

The article is the kind of publication that will reward a deeper reading and critique than I’m probably capable of doing today. It is not only model in that it endeavors to make clear what the project did with their digital tools, but also how their digital practices supported open area excavations, in particular, which remain relatively rare in Greece. The authors made the point that this was done, in part, to reveal the inner workings of the digital “black box” that sometimes envelop their day-to-day practices. This means that this paper links digital workflow to field practices and readers of this blog know how much I love workflow.

I’ll just make three quick observations because this article is available under some kind of open access license. The software that the project uses is largely the iDig application developed in the Athenian Agora and run on iPads.

1. Integrating a Fragmented Workflow. One of the things that the authors acknowledge form the start is the desire to integrate the fragmented workflow of contemporary archaeological practice supported by the various specialists who produce a wide range of largely (and impressively) compatible data. What’s particularly intriguing tis that some of the specialists involved had to streamline their workflow to allow the project to integrate their data with field work in near real time. While it’s tempting to suspect that “the tail” of the technological potential of having a robust dataset from specialists at trench side (or excavation data readily available in the lab) might be wagging “the dog” of careful, deliberate documentation, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, the potential of digital integration encouraged more ambitious efforts to ensure specialists and excavators communicated regularly. The level of efficiency at this project seems also to be tied to it largely being a single period site, well-known through recent excavations, and with a substantial staff and funding.

It’s all pretty remarkable.

2. Tools and Time. Likewise, it’s interesting that the tools the project used – both software and hardware – were sophisticated, but not extraordinary. The primary data collection device at trench side was the iPad and the software, iDig, was available via Apple’s App Store. The limits of the iPad’s computing power and connectivity at the site meant that at times the syncs between devices — apparently done over Bluetooth — took longer than anticipated, and it seems that the software developed provided them some high level help in implementation, but if I understood correctly, most of the day-to-day functioning of the technology was within built-in capabilities of the software. 

The software will continue to serve as one of the ways in which specialists expand the project dataset and team members, at least initially, analyze and interpret the site in the short term. In the longer term the data will transition to ArcGIS where the volumetric information collected through 3D data capture can be analyzed more efficiently and synchronized with the field and lab data collected on site. The project provided the Python scripts that they’re using to refine their data and bring from iDig into an SQL data structure. 

The project noted that iDig did not make field recording faster, but it’s clear from this article that it did make it more efficient and expansive. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been incredibly time consuming and inefficient to facilitate the level of interaction between various parts of the project without digital technology.

3. Limits of the Digital. The authors also noted that the flexibility of iDig helped ensure that the interface itself did not overly structure the way in which field recording occurred. Individual excavators and specialists could, for example, create new fields and the iDig’s “minimal parenting approach” avoided the use of dropdown menus or other fixed response fields. I suppose this made the data produced by the project messier, perhaps less consistent and more idiosyncratic to specialist and situation, but also more robust in its ability to capture nuance and detail. The authors admit that the clean up necessary to make the data consistent was not a simple process. It would have been interesting to understand where the most significant variation between datasets occurred to understand how the minimal parenting approach produced incompatibilities (or pushed the project to negotiate variation). 

At the same time, the authors note that the capacity for iDig to create Harris matrices on the fly sometimes inhibited excavators from “questioning their developing stratigraphy.” This awareness, however, suggests that this is a manageable situation. In fact, the elegance of iDig’s Harris matrices might actually be a attractively ironic way to remind the excavator to question tidy associations.

It also offers nice reminder that open area excavation is messy and complex. It replaces the orderly grid of bulks with their relatively tidy displays of vertical stratigraphy with more ragged edges and complex associations produced through a range of formation processes. It goes without saying that, in most cases, the advantages of stratigraphically controlled open area excavating outweighs its challenges. The robust use of digital tools allowed this project to approach open area excavation with a remarkably integrated data set that must have facilitated decision making at trench side. 

To be clear, I’ve only just scratched the surface of this article, that I think will become a kind of classic example of practice in digital archaeology. I’d have liked to have seen a few examples of how this robust workflow worked in practice to produce new interpretations and knowledge, but I also get that unpacking the blackbox of method and procedure have value in its own right. Articles like this also reveal many of the assumptions associated with contemporary archaeological practices and, in this capacity, serve an auto-ethnographic function for our field. Do check it out!

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