Modern recording system should be dedicated to individual needs and standards. The solution is based on single stratigraphic units recording system linked to external data. In 2010 we worked with this simple and powerful system for recording and organizing information on excavations in Gdansk. The system is based upon publicly available web-based FreeApps distributed by Zoho with the possibility to include attachments in any format to database records and store all data on web servers. Application reduced the time to prepare a draft system for several hours. In this article we present the system configuration, modifications, and field experience in the recording of data and creating reports. This web-based system supports multiple hardware platforms, including the iPads. We propose to integrate all data sources, such as text, images, maps, plans, and even movie records into one interactive online information solution for a better control and group working on archaeological projects.
Methodological discussion on conducting a proper stratigraphic documentation has accompanied researchers at least since Sir E. C. Harris published his rudiments of a model of stratigraphic presentation in archaeology in 1979. The system of stratigraphic exploration recorded with the use of the Harris Matrix has been considered by archaeologists as universal and correct. Each archaeological site is a unique relic of human activity and it may be graphically represented with mutual temporal relations between its particular stratigraphic contexts (Harris, E.,C.,1992) . This can be done in various forms of two-dimensional and spatial visualizations (Day, W.; Cosmas, J.; Ryan N.; Vereenooghe, T.; Van Gool, L.; Waelkens, M.; Talloen, P; 2007; Bobowski B., 2007). Positive layers (deposits of anthropogenic activity which raise the ground level by means of accumulation or leveling) occur most frequently at archaeological sites. Such layers are supplemented with standing features, e.g., walls, timber contexts, or structural contexts (e.g., pavement surfaces). A particular form of stratigraphic contexts are remains of human activity related to a subsidence of terrain, or negative contexts (feature cuts). Properly prepared field documentation results in a comprehensive description of all recorded stratigraphic contexts in textual, graphic and photographic forms. Availability of digital recording tools offers an opportunity to carry out independent documentation within the framework of a defined field standard by many researchers at the same time. A large amount of data (e.g., photos made by various cameras, reports prepared by several persons on independent computers, digitalization of data from stratigraphic context descriptive recording sheets, digitalization of drawing documentation or gathering of digital plans from various recording devices) leads to a data chaos being experienced by the team who prepare an excavation report. Introduction of computers into field sites only apparently improved the opportunity to select and analyze basic data which are recorded at the archeological site. A development of computer documentation systems resulted in creation of several good solutions, just to mention such applications as ArcheoData, Intrasis, or the ARK Internet project. In practical terms, archaeologists do not commonly use dedicated documentation systems for a prosaic reason, i.e., their commercial nature. The main deficiency of commercial systems is their overlay nature as applications which run in larger CAD or GIS environments. The open-source ARK – Archaeological Recording Kit is an interesting project. This is a non-commercial application and it enables one to carry out most documentation activities which are available in commercial systems. The server-based nature of the application provides an opportunity of work for several persons in a group, without the need to exchange data between particular workstations (personal computers). The system configuration by archaeologists with no experience in computer applications seems problematic. Upon observing the work of my colleagues, I have noticed their reluctance to introduce changes in the way of organizing of digital documentation. I have chosen the simplest program solution which is available on-line. As the Polish proverb says, it is good to be a carter on a straight road.
A principle of modernizing the work with computers during our field research was to build a simple documentation system which works as it should do, i.e., in a simple and trouble-free manner. Simple means that it can be used by each person who knows how to use a computer concerning office applications or the Internet. Trouble-free means that it must be an application which does not require installation and which works independently on the local computer terminal (a server system which is available on-line). I have chosen a universal shareware solution which is available on-line, i.e., the Zoho Creator application. The Zoho service is one of larger providers of on-line applications (partially shareware ones) in the Internet. The company’s profile (4 million of users of on-line applications in June 2011) provoked confidence concerning data security. The Zoho offer is divided into groups of communication, business and production applications. It is the Google company that is the pioneer in the distribution of on-line applications. Google documents enable one to cooperate in a group on on-line documents in the real time. Since the time when Google made its on-line office package, simple office applications such as a word processor have ceased to be associated with over-developed programs which discourage the users with a multitude of incomprehensible functions. The only thing the user needs is a web browser and Internet connection. Google Docs was launched at the end of 2006 and it provoked considerable turmoil. Although Google was not the first – the already appreciated Zoho package was launched earlier – it was only the growing popularity of Web Apps that forced Microsoft to start intensive works on an on-line version of MS Office. Group work on documents in Web Apps is organized in a perfect way – changes made by users are displayed in the real time and several persons can work on one text file or presentation. The Zoho product proved to be competitive for the tycoon of the Internet sector. At the time of its launch it turned out to be better, as it had an application of a fairly good data base. It enabled users to store files of all formats as attachments to particular database records. They also provide the opportunity to export data into formats which are accepted by traditional office applications operating in installed versions on particular computers. The Zoho Creator solution turned out to be an ideal tool for organizing data included in single context sheets, storing files (graphic, text, vectorial or movie files) as attachments to database records, as well as for on-line control of the progress of work in the course of excavations.
The database project implied the application of a questionnaire describing the features of stratigraphic contexts, based upon the solution that was first presented in 1980 by the Museum of London. The context recording sheets system describe features of unique human activity in the past (Archaeological Site Manual, 1994). A minimum of information concerning a single context should contain (Barker P., 1994):
- context type
- site code
- context number
- grid & square location
- stratigraphic location
- description of context
- references to finds
- references to photos, drawings, plans
Descriptive sheets are a perfect tool for computer analyses and data management. Typical on-line applications are not popular yet, apart from the afore-mentioned ARK project. A creation of a universal scheme for a new database, which would allow for information on all categories of features of archaeological contexts can be considered as an impossible task at the stage of designing the database. Practically, the simple and easily configurable Zoho Creator on-line database enabled us to edit the list of features of the questionnaire (context sheet) and to supplement the existing scheme with new attributes which occurred in the course of preparing the field documentation. All this was possible without a need to employ a programmer. Assuming that single contexts with given features (e.g., type, shape, dimensions, chronology, stratigraphic position, etc.) will be entered into the database, a digital questionnaire may be used in order to describe them. It will contain repeated selection fields, selection lists and traditional text fields. A form chart should be concise in its shape and should have a maximum screen resolution 1024 x 768 px. (default tablets screen resolution). It should be displayed in the window of a web browser operated by portable devices (tablets), e.g., iPads, which are used directly at the site, tablets with the Android system or traditional PCs which are resistant to weather conditions (we tested a rugged Panasonic Toughbook). In this solution it was particularly important for me to secure a universal access via multiple platforms using the interface of an ordinary web browser. Additional information in the form of files (e.g., photos) should be easily attached to the database and stored within the space of a safe external server. If one makes use of this simplest solution, the result of digitalization of data from charts will be reports including basic information on particular stratigraphic contexts. Such reports may be exported, e.g., to a table form. At each moment we will be able to view files referring to particular contexts without the need to search in various data storage devices (memory cards of several cameras, recording devices or computers). A condition for an efficient operation of the system is the Internet access (e.g., via Wi-Fi or 3G/4G mobile phone technology) at the site, as well as the researchers being consistent in common and systematic use of the documentation system.
Our system is based upon the idea of on-line databases. The simple Zoho Creator tool eliminates the need to purchase a hosting server with the SQL database service function. A graphic interface enables persons with no programming experience to build their own databases. The first step is to create a user account in the http://www.zoho.com service. We then select the Business Apps / Creator option and switch Create Application on. A question concerning the way of designing the application appears (How do you want to create the application?), so we select the From Scratch option and enter the name of the application and the form. We select the No Template option and switch Create Now on.
After the Form Builder turns on, we switch the Forms tab on. On the left side of the screen we find fields for entering data (Basic Fields). Usually, we will be most often using the field to enter data in one line (Single line), the list of expanded data which are predefined by the user (Dropdown), the Checkbox, the Date, the switch which enables us to add attachments to database records (File Upload) and possible the Add Notes field. We drag selected fields one by one to the right side of the work screen. We can modify attributes of particular fields, with regard to:
- edition: field name, required field option, blockade of duplication of data in the field, access terms for users, attributes and the field name in the script, field view in the form – original value and widths; we can also add instructions for persons who will be entering data
- script operation: actions performed by the script when entering and saving data (the edition of options is not recommended for inexperienced users)
- deleting fields in the form
After the form for entering data is created, the next step is to configure the data view. We switch the Views tab on. On the left side of the screen we find fields of view settings options (View Configuration). We can select a convenient window of data display (Display Properties):
- list – the most often used view
- summary – a context sheet, with a possibility to define the number of cards displayed within the width of the screen
- calendar – a possibility to display records in the form of a calendar, according to the criteria of date of entering into the database, date of the last modification or date of preparing the context sheet
The Column Properties option is used to decide whether a given field of the form (Label Name) is to be displayed in the presentation. Additionally, one can change the name of the form field (Display Name), which will be displayed in the presentation view. The Set Column Widths field is used to set the width of presentation columns. We can select a default width, depending on the amount of data, or define the width in pixels or percent. In the group of configuration options concerning database records (Records) we can set criteria of presentation display:
- Set Criteria – selection of all data for presentation, or only of data subject to filtering as defined by the user (in the default option all the records are displayed)
- Set Filters – it enables the user to predefine filtering
- Set Grouping – data can be grouped for better information management; the option enables the user to predefine groups of records with identical data
- Set Sorting – in the default setting data are sorted in the order of entering into the database. The user can set the sorting order according to criteria (record fields) corresponding to his or her needs, e.g., according to the number of the stratigraphic context
We can set user privileges and limit their rights to add, edit or delete data (Set Permissions). We can also apply a non-standard action (Custom Action), which allows for an e-mail to be sent to the administrator after a new record is added to the database.
Additional functions which are less used in the creation of a documentation system are:
- report creation options (Reports) – these are useful for preparing reports for numeric data using the Pivot Table and the Pivot Graph
- Share – this functions enables us to invite users to cooperate and to define the nature of the application (Public / Private)
- Settings – it enables us to set the view of the application panel; Customize – to set basic data concerning the name, the domain where the application is available, the way of logging on, access via encrypted connection, indexing permission for search engines and the system time for applications
ACCESS TO APPLICATION
After we are done with basic steps concerning the design and the configuration of the application, we can start entering and browsing data. We switch the Access to Application on. In the standard view of the system there is the Home window on the left side of the work screen. It contains the name of the designed form and the presentation. As we did not create a Report, e.g., as a Pivot Table, the Reports section remains empty. There is no problem with entering the data. We can add (upload to the server) any number of attachments to each record, e.g., photos. Due to data transfer speed and a low capacity of the free version (1000 records, 200 Mb of space for data), I recommend to decrease the resolution of graphic files before they are sent to the server. It must be remembered that a given record may be saved after all the fields defined as required are completed, e.g., the number and the type of the stratigraphic context. Data can be entered manually (e.g., using the tablet) or imported (More Actions) from Excel, CSV and TSV formats.
If we select the presentation icon in the Home group on the left side of screen, the display will be switched to data presentation. I have earlier defined the list as the presentation view. The presentation is used for browsing the contents of the records and it enables the user to complete and edit them. Under the name of our application we find access to the following functions concerning particular records:
- Bulk Edit
- Search – this also offers an opportunity to set advanced filtering
A significant function of the application is a possibility to bulk import the data which are saved in popular formats (More Actions / Import Data). Reports can be prepared in several ways. The easiest solution is to export data and edit them using an offline applications on a local PC (More Actions / Export Data). The application enables the user to export text data in many popular formats: Excel, PDF, HTML, XML, JON, CSV or TSV. Binary data can be downloaded to a local computer by simply launching the reference in the list of presentation. An interesting and a very practical solution is a separation of text data and binary data, which enables the system to work efficiently even in the case of a low speed of the Internet connection.
Data gathering at the archaeological site in the course of exploration is the most important research process of field archaeology. Archaeologists gather data in a proper way during the fieldwork; however, there is no consistency and proper decision concerning the classification of information scattered in various sources. In practical terms, in the post-excavation phase an arduous and counter-productive process of gathering data from various sources takes place. The selection of photos and plans and the digitalization of paper descriptive sheets take the majority of time that is necessary for post-excavation research works. Reports are often of schematic nature and they often cannot be supplemented with necessary data, which went lost already after the proper fieldwork. I want to stress the danger of overload of unordered information, which may lead to loss of essential data from a properly documented archaeological site. The only way is to put data in order at the gathering stage. We cannot force field archaeologists who are not expert programmers to know and learn new and considerably developed documentation-archiving applications. I recommend to use the most simplified form of a safe database, which functions as a folder binding scattered information in one central place. This place is accessible for many researchers who can work independently on one project. This folder enforces a certain order of data archiving and can be easily modified (in the case of a need to edit data categories) already in the course of excavations. Tests on the introduction of the simple documentation system have demonstrated that the process of setting a folder by users with minimum IT experience takes no longer than a couple of dozen minutes. Obviously, the proposed solution which is based upon the Zoho Creator is only a proposal of one out of several on-line applications which can solve the basic problem of a transparent and safe documentation application for archaeology. What is innovative is a possibility of a digital relation of textual information on a sheet to references in the form of attachments to the sheet. Well-ordered data which are stored on a safe server will considerably shorten the process of preparing fieldwork reports.
Archaeological Site Manual, Museum of London Archaeology Service, Third Edition, London, 1994.
Barker P., Techniki wykopalisk archeologicznych, translated by Z. Kobyliński, Warszawa, 1994, p. 79-83.
Bobowski B., Archaeoscope – interface for 3D stratigraphy visualization, Computer Applications in Archaeology, Tomar, 2007, p.151-153.
Day, W.; Cosmas, J.; Ryan N.; Vereenooghe, T.; Van Gool, L.; Waelkens, M.; Talloen, P; 2007; Linking 2D Harris Matrix with 3D Stratigraphic Visualisations: An Integrated Approach to Archaeological Documentation, Computer Applications in Archaeology, Tomar, 2007, p.155-160
Harris, E.,C., Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. Second reprinted edition, Polish edition, translated by Z.Kobyliński, Warszawa, 1992.
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Paper was presented on CAA2011 in Beijing