The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
ASCSA

iDig in use in the field

01/07/2016

iDig: A Glimpse into the Future of Archaeology

Joanie Blackwell

What is iDig?

iDig is a digital app that aspires to transform archaeological recording and analysis. It was developed by Bruce Hartzler, who has worked for the past 18 years as the IT Specialist for the Agora Excavations in Athens. He has hand-crafted a tool with which field archaeologists can record excavation data easily, accurately, and consistently in real time, then process and share it quickly. Error-checking and on-the-spot analysis are empowered by interactive access to plans, photographs, and the records of previous excavation seasons. iDig has been used in the Agora for four seasons and is being adopted by more international excavation teams with every year that goes by.

Speaking with Hartzler, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the world who could so fully combine the disparate identities of Classical archaeologist and tech developer. His expertise bridges the gap between dig staff (experts in many fields but seldom in IT) and the recording/research tools they need to record, analyze, and share scientific data. His innovative approach may change what is possible in archaeology.

How Does iDig Work?

An archaeologist must record in the field a complex 4-dimensional matrix of what was found where: the dirt removed, what each layer looked and felt like, the pottery/objects/features and their relationship to the architecture and fill, and numerous other measurements. This data is usually dispersed – in hand-written dig notebooks, sketches, paper questionnaires, a laptop or tablet, in the memory of a total station, and on pottery/small find tags. At the end of the dig day, the team heads back to the lab to consolidate all that information into one or several databases, retyping text and elevations, inserting photographs, and then trying to compare this with relevant information (generally in handwritten excavation notebooks) from past seasons.

With iDig, trench supervisors enter their data for each new deposit on the spot, including a wireless feed of coordinates and elevations from the total station. “It’s our primary way of collecting data now. It rides the line between data collection and data analysis,” says Hartzler. “With the immediate plotting of data, you get that visual check and can catch errors much easier. The faster the feedback, the cleaner and tighter the data. Also, the integration with archival data makes a big impact.”

Each trench has 2-3 iPads for the supervisors and assistants, with Hartzler and the Field Director carrying their own. The system synchronizes the data 3-4 times a day among all the devices being used in the trench. This level of access with real-time feedback is unprecedented. But it’s not just the streamlined recording that makes the difference. The archaeologist can enter the data faster and easier, while also accessing a literal “big picture” plan of a designated area to see what was excavated there in previous years.
The Agora staff has even come up with a name for the seemingly magical ability to trace one’s finger around a selected area on screen to see previous dig contexts: you “Camp it” (the verbal form of Excavation Director John Camp’s name) to get that immediate mosaic of vertical layouts, telling the story of what happened in the selected area in antiquity progressively throughout the centuries.

Most excavations use GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software for surveying and analyzing topography, plus database programs for recording objects found and archaeological contexts (for example, this trench/unit/bucket, from soil corresponding to this sample, within this architectural feature). iDig data can easily be imported into Filemaker, Access, GIS, and other software packages. The analysis aspect of iDig is so strong on its own that staff in the Agora labs and offices keep it open on their computer desktops as they work.

What is iDig’s Impact?

iDig certainly speeds workflow, but Hartzler points out that “For me, it's not about faster. Archaeology has been slowing since the beginning; John [Camp] sometimes comments on how much faster we used to dig at the Agora. We’ve realized we need to be more careful, and, as we’re able to, have been adding layers of study like soil samples and flotation.” This vital work requires precious time and attention. Hartzler wants to app to help: “The point is to make the recording of data as easy and painless as possible. So I try to do a lot of autofill based on context. You want the computer to do as much of the recording as possible, not the human.”

He continues, “My goal is to free up headspace and reduce the cognitive load so that all the mental effort can be spent on thinking about what’s happening archaeologically. Ideally, those in the field should be able to focus on archaeology with 100% of their minds, with the data recording itself. So it’s not about faster, but about more efficient and less tedious.” This making room for open-minded discovery and heightened analytical thought while material is being dug is a big deal. There are countless examples of excavators who, upon making a breakthrough discovery, exclaimed, “It was there the whole time; I don’t know how we missed it!”

The other major impact Hartzler hopes iDig will have is increasing cross-site collaboration and research through data compatibility and sharing. “People are moving away from single-site scholarship,” he explains. “The focus now is cross-sites, communication, movements of people, and cultural exchange. And for all this we need interoperable, cross-compatible data.”

While acknowledging that complete compatibility remains a distant vision, he stresses that “even a small amount across the top” would revolutionize archaeological studies. For example, the Kerameikos (Ancient Cemetery of Athens) and the Agora had no boundary between them in antiquity, but are now managed and excavated by different national schools. The German Archaeological Institute at Athens, which runs the Kerameikos excavations, uses a very different recording system that makes sharing data very difficult. Even though one site could tell us so much more about the other, our imposed methodologies prevent them from communicating with one another and from revealing their shared history with us. Any dig that uses iDig, however, generates data that can easily be shared and compared.

How Did iDig Come About?

iDig wasn’t a light bulb type of idea. In some ways, it’s been in the works for more than 20 years. When Hartzler came to the ASCSA in 1996 for the Regular program as a Masters student in Classics, he wondered, “Why isn’t there a TLG for archaeological data?” (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the “Treasury of the Greek Language,” is a searchable digital library containing virtually all Greek texts surviving from the period between Homer, or the 8th century BC, and the fall of Byzantium in A.D. 1453.) He continues, “My past 20 years of working here has been all about making that happen: a digital format that allows us to do something with it. The Notebook Annotation Project, the website ascsa.net, and iDig are all bubbling from the same river, each making the next possible.”

Indeed, iDig is a direct outgrowth of earlier projects of Hartzler’s that began with the daunting task of assembling over 80 years of Agora data into a user-friendly digital research tool. In the 2000s, Hartzler developed a mobile digital field recording system that integrated Palm Pilots with total stations and synced the data with Filemaker. In 2009, he launched ascsa.net, a searchable database of all of the American School collections, including all finds and contexts from the Agora and Corinth, as well as photographs and archives from the Gennadius Library. This was the “raw firehose” as Hartzler likes to call it, with which “you can do research without having to burn calories looking up references.” Countless scholars around the world now enjoy unprecedented access to School-affiliated material. A year later, the Notebook Annotation Project (funded by the European Economic Area) provided the final piece to pave the way for iDig. In this project, all of the Agora’s excavation notebooks and grid references were scanned to allow the user to see what was happening on the site geospatially.

When the iPad came out in 2010, it was able to store and display nearly the entire database, and the possibilities (like syncing in archival data from previous seasons) “just started presenting themselves.” Bruce created iDig in 2011, and implemented it at the Agora the following excavation season, in 2012. So “it was an evolution,” explains Bruce of iDig’s existence. “I wanted to see a cross-section or a matrix and draw a line. You take one step like that, then you see three more possibilities. Ideas snowball once you get a little bit of a tool. It’s constantly growing; it wasn’t born as one big idea.”

The unique thing about iDig, thanks to the developer himself being on excavation staff for two decades, was that it evolved in the field. “I would see people using it in a roundabout way and ask why they were doing it that way, to which they’d reply, ‘to make it do this.’ I would say, ‘Well, I can make it do this if that’s what you want it to do,’ recounts Hartzler with a laugh. He continues, “I wanted to make a more humane software; software is so cruel sometimes in what it expects from the person. I think of software as a sculpting process to fit what humans need.”

After two years of field development, user feedback slowed to a trickle. The archaeologists had adapted themselves to the software, a natural tendency when there is a lot of work to be done, but not one that drives the software to continue improving. Hartzler decided to use iDig himself in the field to get a sense of it as an archaeologist and a user instead of as an observer and developer. He and Dr. Camp opened a trench, Camp recording on paper and Hartzler on the app. “It was amazing,” said the IT specialist. There were so many times that things just became clear and I thought ‘what was I thinking to set xyz up this way?’ It closed the gap between imagining what people are doing and actually being the user; for me, crossing that line made me think about recording archaeology instead of focusing on the software. That switch to the other side revealed enormous amounts of rough edges and annoyances. I reprogrammed things right there on the spot.”

Who Is Using iDig?

iDig is currently being used by several excavations in Greece, including at Thebes (where it was beta-tested), directed by ASCSA Mellon Prof. Kevin Daly and Prof. Stephanie Larson, ASCSA alumni/ae who teach at Bucknell. The Belgian excavators at Thorikos and the Swiss teams at Eretria and Amarynthos have also adopted it, and it is being considered by several more digs.

While iDig is a powerful tool wherever complex spatial information must be integrated with real-time descriptions and legacy data – even in non-archaeological contexts – it is understandable that the early adopters have been other Greek excavations, which currently have the most to gain from the data-sharing capabilities of the app. Hartzler reports that the feedback is very positive, especially in terms of how easy the app is to customize to a team’s own specific workflow.

What’s Next?

While funding is necessarily always at the forefront of archaeologists’ concerns, a key strategic objective of iDig is to attract other digs to use it.  Archaeological data processed through iDig is inherently in a form easy to share. Ultimately, the scattered puzzle pieces of the ancient world (and the foundations of Western civilization) will fall more easily into place, thanks to the collaborative exchange of data iDig fosters among scholars, institutions, nations, and cultures.

In terms of upcoming projects, Hartzler is currently working on an iPad-based interface for the Agora notebooks that allows one to browse and read original paper sources like file cards and archival photos. He is also busy developing other specialty apps to feed off the data stored at ascsa.net.

Whatever the future holds, Hartzler reflects on the experience of developing iDig as incredibly eye-opening, not only in terms of archaeology, but also beyond: “The gap between a person developing software and the person using it is so clear to me now. We need to train people who can be bridges like that. It’s a compromise between the human and the machine. You have to understand both sides and where you can compromise. This applies to whatever field you are working in, including medicine, law, etc. Being at an interdisciplinary and collaborative place like the ASCSA closes that gap.”

Download iDig at the Apple store

Read tips on using iDig here