My name is Chris Motz, and I am delighted to be the newest contributor to this blog. I will be writing a series of posts detailing the paperless workflow implemented at the Sangro Valley Project this summer, and will post updates as we revise that workflow throughout the year.
This year the Sangro Valley Project proudly joined the ranks of paperless archaeological projects, with great success. In this first post I will give an overview of our paperless initiative, and in later posts I will get into some of the more technical aspects. John’s writing has been a great help while developing our database, so I hope I can also be of some help to those creating paperless systems in the future.
The Sangro Valley Project (www.sangro.org), or SVP, was founded in 1994 and is now managed by Oberlin College in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell’Abruzzo and the University of Oxford. The project operates a summer field school in Italy for Oberlin and other students; it employs a multi-disciplinary team of specialists from Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The project’s goal is to characterize and investigate the nature, pattern and dynamics of human habitation and land use in the longue durée within the context of a Mediterranean river valley system—the Sangro River valley of the Abruzzo region of Italy, the territory of the ancient Samnites.
(Shameless plug: to get the latest news about the SVP and to see photos from this season, including our use of iPads in the field, please visit our new Facebook page.)
The SVP has used paper, Microsoft Access, Excel, fillable PDFs, and various other data formats throughout its history, but had never employed an integrated database until this season. From a development standpoint, this was both good and bad. On the one hand, we were able to redesign our recording practices with a paperless workflow in mind, and to build the database for use with iPads from the beginning. On the other hand, this meant that there was a lot of development that had to be done very quickly, with relatively little time for testing. Fortunately, the database worked mostly as planned, and I was able to work through the minor bugs without much disruption to the excavation and survey teams.
Data about each context (same as an SU — For reference, our recording methods and terminology are largely based on the Museum of London Archaeology Service’s site manual), small find, environmental sample, and level were captured in the field using FileMaker Go on our iPads. Later, specialists in the labs entered more detailed information about small finds, pottery, tile, and a handful of other items. In addition, an iPad with FMGo was given to each of our two survey projects: one that was mapping and gathering data on agricultural terraces and another that was field walking in the area around the excavation site. Apple’s Pages was used for field notebooks, while several compass, calculator, and ruler utilities were loaded onto the iPads (Clinometer proved particularly useful for the terrace survey team in measuring the angle of slopes). We used John’s syncing method and scripts to transfer data from the iPads to our server, with great success. We did run into some of the same issues mentioned in an earlier post, but things ran pretty smoothly after incorporating the 2nd generation of scripts.
The second area in which we experimented with new technology was site photography. For many excavations, the tagging of digital images takes place hours or even days after taking the photo. When dealing with dozens of photos of similar-looking soil, this delay can lead to errors in identification. To avoid this, the project adopted the Eye-Fi Connect X2, a camera memory card with built-in WiFi and associated software. This allowed photos to be sent immediately to an iPad where another application (Photosmith) allowed the trench supervisors to label and caption the images. Upon returning to the computer lab the images were synced to Adobe Lightroom over our Wi-Fi network, then imported into the database. The entire process happened wirelessly and seamlessly, enabling a significant increase in the accuracy of photo captions. I will go into greater detail on this technology and our procedures in my next post, so stay tuned.
During our 2011 season the paperless system quickly proved to have many advantages over traditional recording methods:
- much quicker exchange of information between the field personnel and specialists
- immediate labeling and captioning of photos taken in the field
- a significant decrease in human error through automation
- improved consistency of terminology, by using a structured vocabulary of options (pull-down menus)
- increased efficiency by eliminating the need to digitize paper records
- an increase in the accessibility of information to all staff members
- improved security of field data due to twice-daily backups.
While there were some growing pains, the benefits far outweighed the costs. For any large archaeological project, data organization is critical. The flexibility of both the hardware and software allowed us to finally integrate several types of research into a single, cohesive database.