A Digital Recording System for Archaeological Survey

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 4

Danny Gregory, RPA
New South Associates, Inc.

During the last couple years, New South Associates, Inc. has been developing and testing a new provenience tracking and data collection system for archaeological survey.  In a nutshell, the system involves recording shovel test data with smart phones instead of field books.  Despite that simplistic description, the true utility of this system stretches much further.  Our current version of this system uses smart phones with a free database application, a pre-plotted survey grid (built in ArcMap 10), a database tailored to the project, Google sheets for data collation, syncing, and online backup, and ArcGIS online for accessibility and data visualization.  We’ve used this system on multiple projects, most recently for survey and testing projects at Fort Polk (Louisiana) and Fort Campbell (Kentucky and Tennessee).  This system was built through a collaboration of New South employees and field technicians, but the bulk of the credit is due to J. Javi Vasquez, RPA, branch manager of our Louisiana office.

Figure 1. ArcGIS Online Portal Showing Shovel Test Database

Figure 1.  ArcGIS Project Map Showing Completed and Positive Shovel Tests.  Deeper Cultural Deposits are Represented by Larger Dots.

At Fort Campbell, three separate projects (one survey and two testing projects) were being conducted simultaneously, so multiple databases were necessary.  Recording shovel test data with the phones requires about as much time as writing notes in a field book, but is much more detailed (see the video below).  The database automatically collected data on the time, date, GPS coordinates, and the hyperlinked file name of any photographs taken.  Small Bluetooth GPS receivers can also be used in place of the phones internal GPS to provide sub-meter accuracy and to navigate around dense brush or other obstacles.  Other spatial data can be uploaded to the phones such as previous site locations, survey area boundaries, shovel test locations, aerial photographs, or topographic maps.

Each day, the phones are synced to an online database, which can be linked to a web-based map portal such as ArcGIS Online.  The online map shows which shovel tests are completed, which contained artifacts, and can even symbolize other attributes such as the depth of the cultural deposits (see the map above).  All crew members can view data, making planning the following field day much simpler.  This web-based map, which is updated daily, is password protected but can easily be shared with clients, agency reviewers, and project managers.

Outside of the fieldwork benefits, this system provides a robust, geo-referenced set of archaeological data that is conducive to spatial analyses.  At Fort Campbell for example, we used the database to produce contour maps of the depth and thickness of the cultural deposit at a large (22-acre) prehistoric site.  Merged with the geomorphological assessment, test unit profiles, and soils data, this allowed us to map the areas of the site with intact terrace remnants that are likely to contain intact archaeological deposits.  The data necessary to conduct these analyses is typically recorded on surveys.  But capturing it in a spatially-referenced database is a far cry from written notes spread across dozens of field books.

We’re constantly finding new uses for this system.  One recent innovation is the use of barcodes to track artifact bags.  Barcodes can be scanned by the phones in the field, linking them to a database entry.  Another scan in the laboratory instantly provides all the provenience information for that bag. This system also has potential for large-scale analyses.  Landscape-level analysis of archaeological trends is only one possibility.  Data from multiple projects can be analyzed to more accurately gauge survey rates, site density, and artifact recovery in different states, regions, or environments.  This system even helps with the dwindling amount of curation space by reducing the amount of archived records, though the makers of waterproof field books may one day find their sales dropping.