Digital Documentation of Excavations: Achievements and Problems

Ilan Sharon, Catriel Beeri and Svetlana Matskevich

From the dawn of scientific archaeology to the beginning of the 1980’s no significant changes have occurred in the technology used by archaeologists to document their excavations. The tools brought by the first researchers who arrived here in the 19th century consisted of a pencil, camera, typewriter, theodolite and drawing table and these continued to serve them faithfully for most of the 20th century. The media in which the final report was presented – the printed book – is still with us today.
However, in the past twenty years we have been experiencing technological revolutions at an increasingly faster rate. Data base systems first appeared on mainframe computers and were quickly moved to personal computers. Word processors replaced the typewriter. The Total Station and GPS replaced the optical surveying equipment and CAD and GIS programs have provided us with computerized mapping and drafting. Digital photography has replaced film and three-dimensional photography is just around the corner. The internet has made it possible for scholars to access files and data bases from afar. Laptops and palm held computers have made it possible to bring technology into the excavation square itself and the wireless internet now allows the excavation’s computers to communicate with each other (and/or the internet). The process of preparing the “manuscript” for printing is now entirely digitalized.  Even the media in which the publication appears is becoming more and more of an electronic media. The preliminary reports in Hadashot Arkheologiyot – Excavations and Surveys in Israel are already being published electronically and it is reasonable to assume that in the near future final excavation reports will also appear in a digital format.
There are no archaeological excavations or projects today that are not computerized to some extent or another and there are those that are completely digital – that is to say the entire documentation process, from the moment the find is discovered in the field until it appears in the final excavation report, is done (or at least can be done) without pencil and paper.
There is no need here to go into the details of the new technological advantages – however there are aspects of the “digital revolution” that the archaeological community has yet to consider in a fitting manner. Here are a few of them:
  • Splitting Technologies: attempts to design programs tailored for archaeologists which will provide all of the solutions in a single package and which every archaeologist can work with have not succeeded and it is doubtful if they can be justified economically. In the absence of a “super program” each project relies on an array of store-bought programs. This creates a problem of transferring data from one program to another in the project itself and certainly between different projects. The question arises is there no middle road between the two extreme options?
  • Saving Data Over the Long Term: an archaeological report that was published in 1890 can be read just as easily today as it could when it was written. The tags written by John Garstang identifying the pottery sherds from his excavation in 1924 can also be read today (assuming that time has not physically taken a toll on them). On the other hand no machine exists in the country that is capable of reading the magnetic tape on which is recorded the first archaeological data base which I programmed in 1979 (and even if there was it would be impossible to run the program). Saving data in the digital world requires an ongoing transfer from one media to another and continual upgrades from one program to another program. Currently, the responsibility for doing this is incumbent upon the archaeologist himself (at least for as long as he is alive and active). No serious attempt has been made to cope with the question of preserving the data at the institutional level (and of course not at the national level).
  • Electronic Publication of Excavations: the pioneering attempts – in Israel and abroad – of creating archaeological journals on the internet have only just scratched the very outer limits of the potential of this form of publication. Unlike a narrative text, no one reads an excavation report from cover to cover. When we use the reports we usually leapfrog from the stratigraphic discussion to the plans and from there to the ceramic plates and back to the stratigraphy. That is to say: the excavation report is by nature a hypertext; the only reason it was written as a book is because of the limitations of the printed media. A truly computerized excavation report will allow the user to not only look at the data as it was presented by the excavator, but also examine other scenarios. For example: to propose stratigraphic changes and check how it will affect the ceramic divisions or visa versa. It is even possible to build a “data base headquarters” that will search a large number of excavation reports/data bases at the same time (see “Splitting Technologies” above). And again, even if we were to build such a system that could be run today (in place of or in addition to the publication of the printed report) which one of us can promise that in twenty years it will still work?

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