Technological tools for data acquisition in archaeology: How are they affecting the archaeological knowledge production

Dorina Moullou, Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/ Hellenic Open University, Rebeka Vital, Shenkar Israel, Stella Sylaiou, Hellenic Open University, Suvi Debenjak, Inari Software, Hrvoje Kalafatić, Institute of Archaeology in Zagreb and Rajna Šošić-Klindžić, University of Zagreb

Keywords: data aquisition; archaeology;knowledge production;digital tools’data management

Data acquisition has always been of the utmost importance in archaeological practice. In recent decades, increasing digitization in data acquisition has made a huge impact in the way archaeological fieldwork is carried out, both in terms of methodology and interpretation. Although digital tools and approaches are widely used, data documentation guidelines, standards, and ontologies haven’t seen wide adoption in this discipline.

Through the presentation and review of various case studies of data acquisition methods (survey, photogrammetry, laser scanning), this paper aims to address issues of reflexive approaches to the construction of archaeological knowledge and discuss the implications of the different methods under review, in the work process of the archaeologist and in the field in general.

With the development of laser technologies, work on archaeological sites changed substantially the way one can acquire data about the existing state of a site. Total stations have been used in the field of topographical survey already for several decades. Total stations have the ability to document a limited number of points on a site and give their accurate geo-referenced location. In the past, archaeologists used to utilize these points to scale and place their drawings and measurements of the site that were acquired with more conventional methods, namely measuring with tape measures and sketching. During the past two decades, architectural laser scanners were developed. These scanners have the ability to acquire millions of points from their environment, which produces a point cloud of a highly accurate documentation of the site. Techniques of photogrammetry also developed during the past two decades, that also allowed for a high level of documentation in an outcome of a three-dimensional model with high quality realistic textures.

These methods and techniques saved the archaeological team a lot of time on-site. During several hours or days, depending on the size of the site, the archaeological team can have a very accurate documentation of the existing condition. However, the more advanced these digital tools became, the more data was produced. Today we have so much data about archaeological sites that the challenge is to manage and organize it as well as keep the databases updated and easily accessible. This challenge has created the need for new types of specialists in the field of archaeology, namely specialists that deal with data management, technicians that run the equipment, 3D modelers that can access and manipulate the 3D point clouds and photogrammetry models, IT infrastructure support etc.

As archaeology is a destructive science, it is of course a good thing to gather as much data as possible, but more data can easily overwhelm us and hide the important bits beneath information that is irrelevant to the question we are asking.

Moreover, since the time spent on site (with the actual remains and features) for data acquisition is significantly reduced and the data is “in a computer”, a large part of field documentation has moved from the field to the office. Despite the obvious advantages in cost, time and ease of data acquisition, there is a high risk of missing actual archaeological information that is derived from on-site observation as well as the inability to re-check stratigraphic data and uncertainties that inevitably follow the process of archaeological excavation and the initial stages of interpretation. This is particularly the case in prehistoric sites, where no walls or any architectural features survive and the remains are pits and holes in the ground, often recognizable only by the nuances in the color and composition of the soil.

Misunderstandings may also occur when the excavation drawings and 3D models are made by scholars not present at the site during excavations, or people unable/not trained to understand and interpret an excavation.

It seems that as new technologies are being developed and gaining foothold in archaeology, we are facing an explosion of data without having the procedures and methods needed in place to deal with it.

The first problem that arises stems from splitting the data into data silos, which makes it much more difficult to see the connections between the different data-types, the second problem is the sheer amount of data.

To prepare for new technologies in the future we need new procedures and methods, which make it easier to handle the unforeseen data, that new technologies will bring us. In addition to this, we need to copy other fields of science, which use information-systems to transform large amount of data into meaningful information, so that we can effectively use the data we are currently gathering.

If we take a look at archaeological work with data as an information system that covers the whole workflow from field to publication, then we can build custom-made software for archaeology, which is able to do much more than just act as data storage. This gives us the advantage, that all information is in one place and can be cross-referenced and that we can make tools, which bring for example advanced statistical analysis to everyone. In that way we can reduce our workload instead of increasing it and focus on the archaeological questions that need to be answered.

Yet, a critical question arises. Can archaeology be approached as an information system workflow, regardless of whether it is on or off site; or documentation and interpretation should “return” to the site, regardless of the technology used to acquire the data?