Transferring analogue excavation documentation into the digital age – an interpretative chaîne opératoire

Felix Rösch, Göttingen University

Keywords: Analogue archaeological documentation, Digital archaeological documentation, Chaîne opératoire

In post-war Germany, the sixties and seventies were characterised by the Wirtschaftswunder, a period of outstanding economic prosperity. As wealth grew, so did the funding of the Humanities. Archaeologists from Kiel University were able to set up a long-lasting research project in the Baltic Rim, which focussed on the Viking Age proto town of Hedeby, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its medieval successor Schleswig (Jutland peninsula, province of Schleswig-Holstein). At both sites, highly standardised large-scale excavations were undertaken from the mid-1960s onwards. Workers and often prisoners excavated artificial layers of 15 cm.Archaeologists and professional drafters documented each resulting planum in a high-definition drawing, containing all relevant information. Other methods of documentation like photography and descriptions of features were only applied in exceptional cases (Carnap-Bornheim, Hilberg, and Schultze 2014; Schietzel 2014). The outcome was huge numbers of large-scale drawings on transparent paper displaying information about thousands of features and a complex stratigraphy. The 3,000 m² excavation Plessenstraße 83/3 in the medieval harbour area of Schleswig, for instance, resulted in more than 250 drawings (Rösch 2018, 60–66).

At both sites, the scholars never managed to analyse all drawings as they were too detailed and the tools available such as light tables and file cards had their limitations. This changed with the introduction of computational applications and especially GIS in archaeology (Rösch 2016). This enabled the scholars to process complex data from large-scale excavations during post-excavation analysis. For Hedeby and Schleswig this was undertaken with great success and as a result it changed our perspective on those sites (Schultze 2008; Kalmring 2010; Rösch 2018). The works can therefore be considered a benchmark for the (re-)evaluation of other old excavation sites documented in a comparable manner.

When it comes to the production of archaeological knowledge, the transfer of analogue data into the digital world provides many opportunities but also several obstacles. These obstacles are often technical but particularly appear during the transfer process of data. All the steps involved in archaeological knowledge production, from planning to excavating, analysis and publication, are subject to interpretation and are therefore to be understood as social products (cf. Hodder 1997). When digitising and reassessing the old excavation documentation from Schleswig, the author and his co-workers performed many operations that changed the nature of the data. In archaeological publications those operations, if described, are referred to as methodology generating “objective” data not implying an interpretative aspect. For transparency and to give other scholars the opportunity to track every interpretive step, the aim was to systematically disclose all steps involved in the course of the excavation and post-excavation processing of the medieval harbour site Plessenstraße 83/3. This was achieved by developing an interpretive chaîne opératoire.

The chaîne opératoire is based upon the approach of T. Davidović (2009) who used the actor-network theory (Callon 2001; Latour 2002) to describe the excavation-based archaeological knowledge production. Here knowledge creation is understood as a translation network, where the complexity and ambiguity of the features are transcribed into clear statements. These statements are called inscriptions, they include a variety of documents such as drawings, written descriptions, photographs and digital files. The network comprises boththe human actors that are shaped by individual knowledge, conventions and traditions, and the non-human actants, for example, features with their climatic, pedological and environmental conditions, excavation equipment, instruments as well as the written and graphic inscriptions. During the processing of the harbour excavation, this approach was used to create an increased understanding of the site from the post-excavation processing both at the desk and in the laboratory.

In total, seventeen major interpretive steps were determined between the initial planning of the excavation and the publication of the book. Nine of these steps belong to the excavation period conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. These had to be reconstructed from documents and interviews as the author did not participate in the original excavations . The other eight steps involve the period of post-excavation processing as part of a project in the mid-2010s. For each step, the actors and actants involved, the inscriptions produced and the interpretive aspect were defined and discussed (Rösch 2018, 45–70).

For instance, step 6 of the chaîne opératoire described the definition of features and layers on the cleaned planum or profile. This was undertaken by the excavation leader and the drawer (actors) at the features/layers with a spike (actants) which resulted in a planum/profile with delineated features (= (temporary) inscriptions). The discussion of features and layers is the literal interpretation that is strongly dependent on the individual’s tacit knowledge and personal skills of the actors. The abilityto identify features and layers must be considered as “the” special knowledge of field archaeologists (Davidović 2009, 107).

Another example can be given from the post-excavation process. Step 10 of the chaîne opératoire involves the scanning of the analogue drawings, their rectification and digitisation in a GIS. A technician and a trainee using a computer with GIS software undertook this. The resulting inscriptions were numerous shapefiles consisting of polygon features with attributes. When it came to the different layers, boundaries had to be reconstructed while wooden features often lacked additional information.

By examining two out of the seventeen steps, it becomes apparent just how many actors and actants are involved in the production of archaeological knowledge and to what extent procedures are based on individually made decisions. These individual decisions become traceable through the presentation and disclosure of the translation network, the methodological tools and a critical review of the sources,. An interpretive chaîne opératoire therefore enables other scholars to draw their own conclusions, whilst also raising our awareness of the subjectivity and problems occurring from transferring analogue data into the digital world.


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