Archaeological survey and geotagging

18Jun08

As a consultant archaeologist time is always valuable and so it is important to have a robust system for recording and capturing field data quickly. By the same token, shoddy field recording practices result in mistakes and at best this results in lost time or a poor report, and at worst can lead to missed sites or poor management outcomes. So developing techniques to help achieve a good balance between efficiency and quality are critical and emerging digital technologies have a lot of potential in this area.

On large projects, there can be a lot of field data to record: site data (including multiple site types), varying survey methods, ground visibility, previous ground disturbance, environmental characteristics and so on. In addition to the paperwork keeping track of  digital photos and GPS data is also critical, after all an incorrect coordinate or photograph number can cause major problems when it comes time to write up your results long after you have left the field. Trying to fill out a range of different proformas and document your digital data can be difficult enough on its own, but the addition of other factors such as hot sun, high humidity and friendly insects really can upset the best field recording system.

Because of all this, I place a lot of effort into my recording system and in particular, over recent months I’ve been looking for ways to help manage my digital data. Particularly digital photos, GPS waypoints and GPS tracks recorded during a survey. One useful trick I’ve discovered is that it is possible to ‘sync’ or cross reference your digital photos and GPS data. Digital cameras automatically embed exif data within the digital image file, and this includes information such as camera settings, date, time and so on. Similarly, the ‘autotracking’ option on most handheld GPS devices records useful data with each point they record – whether that be an automatically created track point, user-created waypoint and so on.

For a while now I have used the exif and GPS metadata to help make sense of problematic digital photographs of sites or places where your paper record is in error (ie, an incorrect coordinate or site number). In this case, it is fairly straightforward process to cross-check the time and date of your waypoint or track point with the time and date of your photos, so that you can fill in the gaps in any missing information. It is a nice fall back position when your memory and field notes have partially failed you and although simple, it is generally quite a reliable way of verifying problematic data. Importantly though, you do need to make sure you have the time and date correctly set on your devices!

In recent years ‘geotagging’ software has started to emerge and these enable you to automatically embed coordinates recorded in your GPS into digital photos taken at around that time. In short, you tell the software where your photos and GPS data files are and the software will automatically sync the exif data from your digital images with the metadata on your GPS, thus generating a series of spatially referenced photos. There are a range of benefits to doing this: you can just use geotagging for maintaining and archiving your own photos, however for me the attraction is the potential for using geotagged photos to report on and communicate results with clients or other stakeholders (such as Indigenous Traditional Owners or the broader community). In a consulting context, this method has potential for presenting your results in a more interactive and interesting way. For example, it is possible to send your geotagged photos to free web or software applications (via Google Earth or Google Maps) so that they display in an interactive format.  With the addition of survey results (eg. site data, survey locations, development areas, etc) it should be possible to create an interactive presentation for your client or others that could be uploaded to the web, sent on a disk or so on.

Geotagging has a lot of potential to help archaeologists with managing their field data and I’ll write more about my trials in this area in future. For web veterans who’ve been following trends in web technology over the past few years, this is all probably be nothing new however I’m yet to see archaeologists talk openly about how their experiences using these types of things. What other ways are archaeologists  using these and other technologies to help with recording and managing field data? Let me know in the comments below!

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