Archaeology and the iPad

iPads at Pompeii. Photo from the University of Cincinnati.

There has been much talk over the past few weeks over an article on apple.com called “Discovering Ancient Pompeii with iPad“. In essence a team from the University of Cincinnati are using iPads to replace paper for much of their fieldwork at Pompeii.

From email lists, to archaeology and popular tech blogs, the news has spread as people discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a device being used on site.

ReadWriteWeb ask whether the iPad will really ‘revolutionalize how we seek the past‘ and looks beyond Apple’s slick marketing of the device. In his article, RWW’s Curt Hopkins really hits the nail on the head with what such a device could really offer: more time.

I left this comment:

You’ve hit the nail on the head with regard to the ‘revolution’ that the iPad (or similar) may provide archaeologists. Time. We can never have enough of it.

I’ve worked on archaeological surveys with HP iPAQs (remember them?) in aqua packs, stabbing at the screen through a plastic membrane with a golf tee, having to charge several times a day to complete a survey. It worked, and it saved us time. But, the screen was tiny, and text input was terrible. They were basic.

A larger device that really lasts a whole day without being vastly expensive has been a long time coming. Archaeology is pretty poor financially, as well as time-starved. If Apple made it or anyone else, we’d try it out. There are a lot of us looking forward to Android tablets.

There are other potential uses – a site-wide network that allows archaeologists to see the records of their colleagues could help a faster and wider understanding of the excavation – could help us dig better (or at least be better informed). A camera adapter for quick upload of photos and a touch interface to associate photos with contexts. Time saving, again…

There are still specialist apps that we need though, and ‘off the shelf’ ones can only go so far. An interesting experiment to watch.

Having used a handheld device in the field, and having had at least some experience of docking, downloading and designing forms to fill in on them, it really was a bit, shall we say, clunky. But it worked. I did use to dream of something that was just a bit bigger – peering at a map on such a tiny screen wasn’t much fun day in day out. Tapping the tiny letters wasn’t either.

I have long had pipe dreams about paperless recording systems, and perhaps we can now move at least a small step towards them. Issues regarding recording systems themselves aside, I have long felt that interface as well as practical aspects such as battery life and ruggedness are key. Grit gets into ports, vents and under keys on keyboards, and battery life is generally just a few hours on laptops, ruling them out (and have you ever seen how much a ToughBook costs?!).

On paper the iPad does look viable: a battery that genuinely lasts for more than a working day, a sleeve to protect the ports and screen, and it has wifi and bluetooth connectivity. Some models have 3G data and GPS built-in.

How will this work practically? I would be interested to learn if the overheating problem affected the team at Pompeii.  Then there is the screen to consider – just how good is it in full sunlight? How easy and effective is it to shade the screen?

From a user experience perspective, the iOS user interface does look like it would be easy to navigate, provided the weatherproofing works properly, in all weathers and with no danger of losing a stylus – it’s much harder to lose a finger. How good is that on-screen keyboard for entering text notes? I don’t have an iPad, so I don’t know, but from the times I’ve tried one, it looks like entering notes is fine – I just wouldn’t want to write an essay on one.

But how effective will off-the-shelf software be? Fine for small research projects, I’m sure, but large scale excavation, certainly by the UK’s largest archaeological organisations, will definitely require something specialised. Large archaeological databases running on SQL Server or PostgreSQL may not talk properly to FMtouch, for example. It would make sense to design a user interface for a database that follows Apple’s guides to make it easy to use by those in the field who may well have cold hands, and are being rained upon. It’s not all blue skies and fabulous Roman ruins in reality.

If it all works properly it will buy us what is always the rarest thing of all. Time. Less time doing data entry of handwritten context and photographic sheets, then getting them checked, and more time doing the analysis of the archaeology itself. Cynics may say overall time savings means less overheads, charge less money, and increase competition between commercial archaeology units vying for contracts, negating any benefit whatsoever…

Going back to the pleasant thought of  blue skies, some blue sky thinking about using a tablet computer in the field, iPad, Android, or equivalent, lays in the possibilities with the connectivity that these devices provide. If it were possible to set up a wireless network on site (it is not beyond the realms of possibility) with each device syncing wirelessly to a central (or remote) server, it may be possible to form a network between tablet computers. Staff could view a site matrix as it forms, browse contexts from adjacent trenches or from the other side of the site. Photos could be uploaded, and through drag and drop associated with records in the database.

The possibilities are exciting, and I believe that they far outweigh the possibile disadvantages. I think it’s time that, like those at the University of Cincinnati, we start to just give it a go, and maybe “think different” about the way we’ve always done things.

(Yes, Brendon, I think you should!)

Related links:
More detailed notes about the use of iPads on the PARP:PS project from the University of Cincinnati.

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  1. BLHill.net: More on iPads “In The Trenches” - 23 October, 2010

    […] Another commenter on RWW's article, Tom Goskar, expanded on the topic at his blog, with some of his own personal experience with handheld devices for archeological research in the […]