Home > Archaeology, The New Media, Web/Tech > Digital Workflow and Microhistory

Digital Workflow and Microhistory

As you might imagine, I am pretty excited that Steven Ellis’s team’s use of the iPad as their primary,field data recording device is getting some attention lately.  I imagined this kind of digital workflow when I began working with Scott Moore to design the digital recording components of our project in Cyprus.  Scott and I, from what I recall, always assumed a paper stage.  This is what that stage looks like now:


I think that we fell back on the old archaeological wisdom that a paper stage somehow serves as a more dependable back up that digital copies. This led us to copying the entire archive each year and carrying it home (and still managing sometimes to lose copies of the original or not have them where we needed them). With a fully digital workflow, it is, of course, much easier to make copies of every stage of the documentation process and store them multiple places, and, provided that a good version control system is in place, manage these copies.

I know that I also subscribed to the idea that paper copies preserve more fully the archaeological thought process.  We insisted that our trench supervisors not keep separate, personal, notebooks (they did anyway) and write directly onto our recording sheets as they excavate.  The hope was that the image of the stratigraphic unit form provided the best record of the process of excavation. In fact, as much as was possible, we have sought to associate digital images of these sheets (and the trench plans of each stratigraphic unit) with the digital copies of this data.  This remains a time consuming process of keying the data from each sheet and digitizing each days trench plans. Having supervised the keying of most of our field data, I can attest to the hours of time and concentration that went into producing our digital versions.  It’s mostly done now, but it was a onerous process and we haven’t quite produced data with the kind of immediate transparency that we had hoped for (although it is all still possible).  Using the iPad to record directly into digital form the basic data from the trench would pay immediate dividends by streamlining the data collection process.

On the other hand, I do wonder whether some of the data associated with the archaeological process might be lost. I was thinking about the faint evidence for revision that appears on our paper recording sheets – typically under various forms of erasure (usually a strikethrough) – that preserves irregular fragments of the archaeological through processes.  If Wikipedia has taught us anything, digital recording makes it possible to record this same data by recording each change to the data set and each earlier version.  In effect, the digital data collection could preserve a kind of digital palimpsest of each key stroke, deletion, adjustment, mistaken measurement.

I am fascinated by this kind of micro-history and its potential to reveal patterns of behavior across an entire project and capture a more intimate look at how the archaeological method is performed.

Just for fun, I used The Archivist to capture some of the buzz about the Apple story on Ellis’s use of the iPad. The Archivist lets you download all the Tweets associated with any search criteria.  For my little experiment, I captured all the Tweets that used the word “Pompeii” and “iPad”.  As of 6 am this morning when I staggered into my office, I captured 520+ Tweets.  I then plotted them by hour over the last few days.  Here’s the chart.


They have averaged about 5 tweets an hour over the last 100 hours or so.  The peek was 95 tweets per hour between 12:20 pm and 12:20 pm on September 23rd.  Thus surge continued over the next hour where they had over 80 tweets and subsided to under 40 tweets later by 3:30 or so. The great thing about The Archivist is that it lets you download your Tweets so that you can data mine them using an application like RapidMiner.  I didn’t do that, but I did do some simple mining.  For example, Ellis’s name is mentioned in 131 of the tweets (or about 25% of the time) and about 16% of the Tweets are obvious “RT-style” re-tweets. In Tweets with both Pompeii and iPad in them Ellis’s university, University of Cincinnati, was never once mentioned nor was his project’s name, the Porta Stabia project (even in two Tweets that appear to come from “official” University of Cincinnati channels!).  In the hyper economical world of Twitter, there are good reasons not to include long word like Cincinnati or relatively obscure project names.  In contrast, the most common phrases is “Discovering ancient Pompeii with iPad” which was the title of the Apple article and it appeared in 62% of the Tweets (suggesting the far larger number of retweets happen than had the traditional “RT” designation).  For the record, my Tweet, which occurred very early in the Tweet cycle led to only three retweets. 

This is the kind of micro-historical analysis that could be possible by mining the minutia preserved in a fully digital workflow.

By the way, it’s a double blog day! I thought that I needed to do something to mark my 800th post and in the tradition of the National Register of Historic Places, I thought I’d just put up a marker (with a few links, it is a blog after all).

  1. Fee
    October 1, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I agree, and I’m struck by how valuable tracking that change in archaeological thought over time might be. There are a whole host of ways we could do it electronically. I’d suggest we could chronicle much more of that thought process by digital means than through a paper trail.
    Of course, it still comes down to the user actually recording those changing interpretations in the field. So any tool that gets implemented needs to be so easy to use that it isn’t inconvenient for keeping track of our changing ideas. Otherwise, those changes will fall between the cracks.

  1. January 7, 2011 at 12:38 pm

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