Dig It: Digital archaeology goes paperless

The last 40-ish years of archaeological practice has been a transition from analogue to digital. The next generation of archaeologists will be digital archaeology natives. I’ll still carry around my notebook and compass though, just in case.

Archaeology is a pretty old science.

People have been practising archaeology in some form or another for hundreds (arguably thousands) of years.

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One of the hallmarks of archaeological practice is documenting everything we see, everything we did (or didn’t do) and how, exactly, we did it.

University libraries, archives and museums around the globe are filled not only with the belongings, or artifacts, of past cultures collected by archaeologists, but also with mountains of paper field notes, maps, photographs, negatives, slides and reports.

Until the late 1970s to early 1980s, archaeologists used paper notebooks, various field instruments, film cameras and typewriters to document their research.

Site maps and locations were painstakingly prepared using compasses, transits and measuring tape. Rolls of photographs were taken, developed and archived to document archaeological projects and sites. The vagaries of field conditions often meant archaeologists would not know if their photographs turned out until after they returned from the field.

The digitization of archaeology began with the more widespread accessibility of computer and software applications in the 1970s, which became mainstream in the 1980s.

Digital file storage and a backspace key that could actually erase a mistake saved untold hours of re-typing pages.

Spreadsheet software allowed archaeologists to compile and analyze large amounts of data that previously had to be done manually.

The 1990s and 2000s saw several key technologies become mainstream practice in archaeology.

The digital camera allowed archaeologists the ability to take as many photos as they wanted and to view them immediately.

Global positioning systems (GPS) and handheld GPS units meant archaeologists could now navigate to and plot sites much more accurately and with less effort than before.

Modern digital surveying equipment meant archaeological sites could be mapped more accurately and with more detail than ever before. Archaeologists (often with assistance from trained technicians) could digitally map and analyze the spatial relationships of sites with modern geographic information systems (GIS) software.

The widespread adoption of the internet allowed archaeologists to share and access digital archaeological information more quickly and in new ways.

Many governments began providing archaeologists, Indigenous groups and other land users with online archaeological databases, mapping applications and report libraries to aid in research and archaeological resource management.

Despite this, nothing had quite replaced the trusty notebook, compass, tape measures and paper maps.

The 2010s and 2020s saw another wave of technological innovation that is changing how many archaeologists practise fieldwork.

The widespread use of high-precision 3D mapping of the landscape (called LiDAR) has allowed archaeologists to find lost cities in the Amazon rainforest without ever leaving their comfy office chairs.

The rapid evolution of handheld computing (tablets and cellphones) and the resulting proliferation of apps have combined many tools (camera, GPS, GIS software, notebook, and maps) into one integrated device.

The development of cloud computing and virtual work spaces has allowed archaeologists to bring GIS tools, databases and mapping software into the field.

The falling cost of survey-grade GPS receivers has made these powerful mapping aids more accessible to archaeologists.

It is now possible to conduct all aspects of archaeological practice without needing a single piece of paper.

Done correctly, digital archaeology saves countless hours of searching (in libraries and jungles), transcription, scanning, data entry and forests of paper.

Site maps are more accurate and quicker to produce in a GIS, especially when field mapping is done digitally.

Many archaeologists have traded in some of their skills in map and compass navigation, drawing and sketching for coding and geographic information systems certificates.

Museums, libraries, archives and governments are trading in their stacks for server farms.

The last 40-ish years of archaeological practice has been a transition from analogue to digital. The next generation of archaeologists will be digital archaeology natives.

I’ll still carry around my notebook and compass though, just in case.

Ramsay McKee is a Kamloops-based archaeologist. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the region. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca.

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