Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dibbling in Technology

Hello all, I apologize for the delay in getting this post up. My “lap-top” computer (Dibble 433) succumbed to the rigours of the field last week (roommate sat on it).

Our discussions the week before last focused on the uses and limitations of technology within the field. As time goes on and technological advances continue their endless march towards the singularity/Wall-E, archaeologists finds itself in a bit of a quandary. As Dibble so astutely points out, “'lap-top' computers” are getting smaller every day (433), and the traditional ways of recording data in notebooks and performing analysis by hand are quickly becoming dated. New technologies for recording data more precisely and accurately, as well as the new types of data that emerge as a result of a more expansive toolkit, radically alter the ways in which archaeologists conceive of their work. Though they bring solutions to many existing problems, they also carry, in a manner somewhat akin to the Biblical Plagues, a host of new ones.

We began with a discussion of Zubrow, who addresses some of the issues associated with the growing adoption of technology in “Digital Archaeology.” One of the first points he brought up was whether digital developments were primarily methodological advances, or whether their adoption resulted in the creation of a new theoretical toolkit. While its true that more precise ways of recording data are essentially methodological, its also true that new theories could become necessary in order to address the new types of data being generated.

We also discussed another point that Zubrow made, regarding the greater ubiquity of data generated from technological sources. The open-source effect, in which the data was available to a greater range of people, among a wider array of disciplines, has important consequences. This brought up a discussion of Tdar, a site which hosts archaeological data from a variety of sources, most of which were not peer reviewed, in order to promote greater access to research. One important observation that resulted from an agglomeration of data such as this is the need for a universal standard by which to group and arrange data. A standard format promotes greater accessibility. However, one perceived danger of such a standard is that hinders theoretical advances by constraining possible new avenues for interpreting data.

Our next discussion concerned the work of Andrew Bevan and James Conolly on the island of Kythera, Greece. This study remains the benchmark for the use of GIS and digital data collection, as they covered a ridiculously large amount of the Island's area with an equally ridiculously large array of measurements in order to gain data for the questions they were asking. One of the questions they asked was whether surface visibility affects the amount of artifacts recovered from a site, a question that reminded me of our own efforts to survey the terrain at the graveyard in order to gain a sense of what may or may not be buried beneath the surface. In our case, surface visibility was extremely low, making the placement of our test pits essentially a shot in the dark. Fortunately we were able to rely on previous knowledge of finds in the region in order to better situate our pits, but visibility definitely affected our fieldwork. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Bevan and Conolly found no significant correlation between surface visibility and artifact finds. Surprising in the sense that archaeologists have long relied on the degree of surface visibility as a means of estimating the possible number of finds in an area. Yet the research showed that there was no significant variation between the artifacts found in areas with low visibility vs high visibility, due to the fact that visibility is but one of several factors determining the likelihood of an artifact being recovered. I say not so surprisingly in the sense that its logical that the amount of visibility doesn't affect that actual placement of artifacts, a distinction that archaeologists need to keep in mind. In our case, based on past experience and our background knowledge, we were able to work in regions where our chances of success were high. Yet we didn't assume that the number of artifacts in the regions we surveyed were low just because we couldn't see them.

The work of Bevan and Conolly underlines the need to take into account not only the actual process of data collection, but also the time needed to interpret and analyze it when doing a project. Their immensely technological approach also highlights the stark reality of the actual prevalence of digital archaeology within the field, which according to Colin hovers around 30%. This is due not only to adverse environmental conditions in field- rain and technology, or dirt and technology don't often cohabit peacefully, but also archaeologists desperately clinging to the tried and true (as well as cheaper) methods of manual data entry. This was pretty apparent when at the first few drops of rain in the field we had to run to cover up the total station with a tarp. I can't see the station being used very much in rainier conditions.

Our discussion helped us gain a better understanding of both the solutions and the problems that the introduction of technology brings. Discussions in a seminar may not seem as fun as digging, possibly because it isn't, but it gives us valuable perspectives into the reasons behind why we do what we do, and how we can do what we do better. Following the seminar we proceeded to retrieve our own data on the field from the total station. It turned out to be surprisingly close (Colin almost fainted) to the real thing. Yeah! No real anomalies seemed to exist regarding the points on the map. All that remained to do was to match the tags on our recovered and newly cleaned bones to the points on the map, in order to fuse the data and create a dataset for our work this year. I feel that our project thus errs on the side of success. We found an elephant, for the love of god.

Works Cited:

Bevan, A., Conolly, J., 2002. GIS, Archaeological Survey, and Landscape Archaeology on the Island of Kythera, Greece. Journal of Field Archaeology 29, 123-138.

Dibble, H.L. & S.P. McPherron, 1988. On The Computerization of Archaeological Projects. Journal of Field Archaeology 15, 431–440.

Zubrow, E.B., 2006. Digital Archaeology: a historical context. In: Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. London, Routledge, pp. 10-31.

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