iTrench: A Study of the Use of Information Technology in Field Archaeology

  1. 1. Claire Warwick

    University College London

  2. 2. Melissa Terras

    University College London

  3. 3. Claire Fisher

    University College London

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This paper presents the results of a study by the VERA project
(Virtual Research Environment for Archaeology: http://vera. ) which aimed to investigate how archaeologists use
information technology (IT) in the context of a fi eld excavation.
This study was undertaken by researchers at School of Library,
Archive and Information Studies, University College London,
who collaborate on the project with the School of Systems
Engineering, and the Department of Archaeology, University
of Reading.
VERA is funded by the JISC Virtual Research Environments
Programme, Phase 2, (
programmes/vre2.aspx) and runs from April 2007 until March
2009. We aim to produce a fully operational virtual research
environment for the archaeological community. Our work is
based on a research excavation of part of the large Roman town
at Silchester, which aims to trace the site’s development from
its origins before the Roman Conquest to its abandonment
in the fi fth century A.D (Clarke et al 2007). This complex
urban site provides the material to populate the research
environment, utilising the Integrated Archaeological Data
Base (IADB:, an online
database system for managing recording, analysis, archiving
and online publication of archaeological fi nds, contexts and
plans. The dig allows us to: study the use of advanced IT in
an archaeological context; investigate the tasks carried out
within archaeological excavations; ascertain how and where
technology can be used to facilitate information fl ow within
a dig; and inform the designers of the IADB how it may be
adapted to allow integrated use of the tools in the trench
Research Context
Although archaeologists were quick to embrace IT to aid in
research analysis and outputs (Lafl in 1982, Ross et al 1990,
Reilly and Rahtz 1992), and the use of IT is now central to the manipulation and display of archaeological data (Lock
and Brown 2000, McPherron and Dibble, 2002, Lock 2003)
the use of IT to aid fi eld archaeology is in its relative infancy
due to the physical characteristics of archaeological sites, and
the diffi culties of using IT in the outdoor environment. Whilst
the use of electronic surveying equipment (total stations,
(Eiteljorg, 1994)) and digital cameras is now common place
on archaeological sites there are relatively few archaeological
organizations that use digital recording methods to replace the
traditional paper records which rely on manual data input at
a (sometimes much) later date. With ever increasing amounts
of data being generated by excavations onsite databases are
becoming increasingly necessary, for example at the excavations
at Catalhoyuk in Turkey (
catal/) and the site of Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport (http://, and some archaeologists have
begun to use digital data input from total stations, PDAs, tablet
PCs, digital cameras, digital callipers, digital pens and barcodes
(McPherron and Dibble, 2003, Dibble et al., 2007). For many
excavations, however, the use of IT is restricted to the analysis
stage rather than fi eld recording. The aim of the VERA project
is to investigate the use of IT within the context of a fi eld
excavation and to ascertain if, and how, it may be appropriated
to speed up the process of data recording, entry and access.
We used a diary study to gather information about the work
patterns of different archaeological roles and the way that they
are supported by both digital and analogue technologies. The
study was carried out by the UCL team, at the Silchester dig
during the summer of 2007. (
la/silchester/publish/fi eld/index.php) Researchers from
Reading also carried out a study into the use of ICT hardware
to support digging and data entry. A detailed record of the
progress of both the dig and the study was kept on the VERA
blog (
Diary studies enable researchers to understand how people
usually work and can be used to identify areas that might
be improved by the adoption of new working practices or
technologies. (O’Hara et al. 1998). They have been used in the
area of student use of IT, and to study the work of humanities
scholars. (Rimmer et. al. Forthcoming) however, this is the
fi rst use of this method to study fi eld archaeology that we
are aware of.
During diary studies, participants are asked to keep a
detailed record of their work over a short period of time.
The participant records the activity that they are undertaking,
what technologies they are using and any comments they
have on problems or the progress of their work. This helps us
to understand the patterns of behaviour that archaeologists
exhibit, and how technology can support these behaviours.
We also obtained contextual data about participants using a
simple questionnaire. This elicited information about the diary
survey participants (role, team, status) and their experience
of using the technology on site. A cross section of people
representing different types of work and levels of experience
were chosen. For example we included inexperienced and
experienced excavators; members of the fi nds team, who
process the discoveries made on site; those who produce
plans of the site and visitor centre staff.
A defi ned area of the Silchester site was used to test the
use of new technologies to support excavation. In this area
archaeologists used digital pens and paper, (http://www.
408&cl=us,en ) digital cameras, and Nokia N800 PDAs (http:// Diaries from this area were
compared to those using traditional printed context sheets to
record their work.
This paper will present the fi ndings from the study, covering
various issues such as the attitude of archaeologists to diary
studies, previous and present experiences of using technology
on research excavations, the effect of familiarity of technology
on uptake and use, and resistance and concerns regarding
the use of technology within an archaeological dig. We also
evaluate specifi c technologies for this purpose, such as the
Nokia N800 PDA, and Logitech Digital Pens, and ascertain how
IT can fi t into existing workfl ow models to aid archaeologists
in tracking information alongside their very physical task.
Future work
This year’s diary study supplied us with much interesting data
about the past, current and potential use of IT in the trench.
We will repeat the study next year to gain more detailed data.
Participants will be asked to focus on a shorter period of time,
one or two days, as opposed to fi ve this year. Next year we
will have a research assistant on site, allowing us to undertake
interviews with participants, clarify entries, and build up a
good working relationship with experts working on the
excavation. Two periods of diary study will also be undertaken,
allowing for analysis and refi ning methods between studies.
This will also be juxtaposed with off-site user testing and
analysis workshops of the IADB, to gain understanding of how
archaeologists use technology both on and off site. We also
plan to run an additional training session in the use of ICT
hardware before the start of next year’s dig, in addition to the
usual archaeological training.
The aim of this study is to feed back evidence of use of IT to
the team developing the virtual environment interface of the
IADB. It is hoped that by ascertaining and understanding user
needs, being able to track and trace information workfl ow
throughout the dig, and gaining an explicit understanding of
the tasks undertaken by archaeologists that more intuitive technologies can be adopted, and adapted, to meet the needs
of archaeologists on site, and improve data fl ow within digs
We would like to acknowledge the input of the other members
of the VERA project team, Mark Barker, Matthew Grove (SSE,
University of Reading) Mike Fulford, Amanda Clarke, Emma
O’Riordan (Archaeology, University of Reading), and Mike
Rains, (York Archaeological Trust). We would also like to thank
all those who took part in the diary study.
Clarke, A., Fulford, M.G., Rains, M. and K. Tootell. (2007).
Silchester Roman Town Insula IX: The Development of an
Urban Property c. AD 40-50 - c. AD 250. Internet Archaeology,
Dibble, H.L., Marean, C.W. and McPherron (2007) The use
of barcodes in excavation projects: examples from Mosel
Bay (South Africa) an Roc de Marsal (France). The SAA
Archaeological Record 7: 33-38
Eiteljorg II, H. (1994). Using a Total Station. Centre for the Study
of Architecture Newsletter, II (2) August 1994.
Lafl in, S. (Ed). (1982). Computer Applications in Archaeology.
University of Birmingham, Centre for Computing &
Computer Science.
Lock, G. (2003). Using Computers in Archaeology. London:
Lock, G. and Brown, K. (Eds). (2000). On the Theory and
Practice of Archaeological Computing. Oxford University School
of Archaeology
McPherron, S.P. and Dibble H.L. (2002) Using computers in
archaeology: a practical guide. Boston, [MA]; London: McGraw-
Hill/Mayfi eld. See also their website http://www.oldstoneage.
McPherron, S.P. and Dibble H.L. (2003) Using Computers in
Adverse Field Conditions: Tales from the Egyptian Desert.
The SAA Archaeological Record 3(5):28-32
O’Hara, K., Smith, F., Newman, W., & Sellen, A. (1998). Student
readers’ use of library documents: implications for library
technologies. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human
factors in computing systems. Los Angeles, CA. New York, NY,
ACM Press/Addison-Wesley.
Reilly, P. and S. Rahtz (Eds.) (1992). Archaeology and the
Information Age: A global perspective. London: Routledge, One
World Archaeology 21.
Rimmer, J., Warwick, C., Blandford, A., Buchanan, G., Gow, J.
An examination of the physical and the digital qualities of
humanities research. Information Processing and Management
Ross, S. Moffett, J. and J. Henderson (Eds) (1990). Computing
for Archaeologists. Oxford, Oxford University School of

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None