Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Digitize This!! (oh wait, i already did)

Since our days in the field have unfortunately come to an end, Parc Safari 2010 has begun the process of discussing the possibilities of digital archaeology. As a group, we came to the consensus that in order for digital archives to be legible, standards must be applied to allow for comparability. Furthermore, metadatas must be created to facilitate useful comparisons based on ontologies. Our discussion this week turned to the effect of new technologies on field methods. While these technologies do allow for increased data acquisition, they must be taken up with a grain of salt.

It is fitting that during our discussion of the uses of technology in archaeology we should find ourselves with a perfect example of technology as a hindrance. Corroborating Backhouse’s claim “digital data is almost always useless because it generally has no contextual information with it”, the data points recorded by the total station lost some of their significance due to a misinterpretation of context (Backhouse 2006, 53). In order to understand this example, we need to go back in time to Parc Safari, week 8: after setting up the total station over our datum, a tedious process of leveling then adjusting then leveling again, we realized that our labour had been in vain because the stick on which the total station prism is mounted had been forgotten. Luckily, the total station is a technology designed to be adaptable; instead of using the prism to locate data points, a laser can be aimed directly at points to record their location. Since we had already plotted the location of each corner of PSTR1, we could use one of these corners for a temporary datum. This is where the problem came in: we knew that PSTR1 comprised of points 12,13,14,15 but we had not recorded in our notebooks the location of each of these points. So we made the assumption (which turned out to be incorrect) that the points must have been taken in either a counter-clockwise or clockwise manner, such that the northwest corner of PSTR1 would always be point 14. We then continued to plot all of the points for week 8 from point 14, which was actually the southwest corner of PSTR1. The result when Colin mapped the total station points of PSTR1 was a crooked map. In this way, our data suffered because we failed to record its context.

Total Station at northwest corner of PS2010TR1

Another limitation of digital archaeology is apparent in this example: that of digital maps. As Zubrow points out, the perceived reality of digital maps are often greater than is justified (Zubrow 2006, 22). Since our skewed map of PSTR1 is constructed of data points plotted by a sophisticated technology, somebody not involved in the project may view it as a completely accurate depiction. Unlike hand-drawn maps, which show the hand of the artist who produced them, digital maps have the appearance of being a “disembodied view from nowhere” (Zubrow 2006, 22). In reality, however, (like hand-drawn maps) digital maps “are located in culture, space and time” (Zubrow 2006, 22).

Map of PS2010TR1

Despite these limitations digital maps, and digital archaeology in general, provide useful tools for the archaeologist. As Chris pointed out, a hand-drawn map cannot be published in a paper thus necessitating its conversion to a digitized form. Not only does this conversion take time, it also “removes the data one more step away from the individual who made the observations in the first place. An interpretation on site recorded on paper is reinterpreted in post-excavation, introducing data irrelevance and data inaccuracy” (Backhouse 2006, 53). Furthermore, digitizing these maps allows a degree of play with archaeological data. In Bevan and Conolly’s survey of Kythera, Greece, for example, maps of terrain at multiple scales were layered over one another – a technique only made possible with GIS (2004, 132). By creating a mult-scalar map Bevan and Conolly were able to determine terrain curvature. In other words, which valleys appear as valleys at multiple scales? In a somewhat dated article, Dibble and McPherron seem to prophecy Bevan and Conolly’s approach when they write: “the fact is that we can and will explore more possible relationships when data manipulation is made much easier” (1989, 437). Since the possible questions an archaeologist can ask are increased by digital archaeology, “digital developments create or at least influence the creation of theory” (Zubrow 2006, 11).

The use of technology in archaeology offers more efficient, more sophisticated, and faster methods for use in data acquisition, analysis and archiving. Some of these possibilities have been described here. It is important to remember that without standards for recording such data it can become a drop of water in the ocean that is the archaeological record. It is also significant to acknowledge the effect that these new methodologies can have on archaeological theory.

Works Cited: Backhouse, P. 2006. “Drowning in Data? Digital data in a British contracting unit”. In: Daly, P. and Thomas L. Evans (eds.), Digital Archaeology – Bridging Theory and Method. New York: Routledge, pp. 50-59

Bevan, A. and J. Conolly. 2004. GIS, Archaeological Survey, and Landscape Archaeology on the Island of Kythera, Greece. Journal of Field Archaeology 29, 123-138.

Dibble, H.L. and S.P. McPherron. 1989. On the Computerization of Archaeological Projects. Journal of Field Archaeology 15, 431-440.

Zubrow, E.B.W. 2006. In: Daly, P. and Thomas L. Evans (eds.), Digital Archaeology – Bridging Theory and Method. New York: Routledge, pp. 10-33.

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