Vol. XIV, No. 2
CSA Newsletter Logo
Fall, 2001

Computing in the Archaeological Curriculum

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

The CSA Newsletter has contained too many articles about the need for expanding computer literacy among archaeologists. Too many because the issue should long ago have become moot; computer training should have been the norm before now. And too many because readers may tire of the subject. Nevertheless, it is a topic of critical importance to the future of the discipline; so I return to it here.

In particular, I remain concerned about the ability of archaeologists to record the information they work so hard to collect. Whether working on excavations or surveys, archaeologists record information commonly with database programs; GIS and CAD programs are also widely used. For instance, the CSA Newsletter article in Vol. XIII, No. 3, Winter, 2001: "Archaeological Computing Workshop at AIA/APA Annual Meeting," http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter01/nlw0105.html, cited statistics from the CSA/AIA Archaeological projects database indicating that 79% of the projects listed at the time used database systems, 55% used CAD, and 47% used GIS.

Databases contain the lists of artifacts and ecofacts, as well as information about excavation units and other site-specific details, while GIS programs add map data to object information and CAD programs store two- or three-dimensional data about excavations or structures. Other common program types -- graphics programs, web browsers, word processing, and the like -- have a great deal to do with how we express our knowledge, but the actual data that underlie our ideas and interpretations are stored with database programs, CAD software, and GIS programs. Thus, these program types are truly crucial to the practice of archaeology, and for that reason I am convinced that archaeologists must be able to use these three program types to record the fruits of their labors.

Given that conviction -- and in anticipation of a paper on this topic to be delivered at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Esslingen, Germany, this fall -- I conducted a poll on various email lists, posting a questionnaire about computer usage (see appendix to this article for a copy of the posting). The results are interesting -- and telling.1

A total of 56 responses was received. Of those responding, four did not fall within the requested parameters. (Responses were requested only from people who had completed their graduate instruction within the last decade or were still in a graduate program.) Of the 52 tabulated responses, five were from people who had been in information technology (IT) programs of one sort or another. The remainder of the respondents were in traditional archaeology programs; those ranged from archaeology programs in anthropology departments to archaeology programs in a variety of area-study departments to independent archaeology graduate programs.

The five respondents who were in IT programs took a total of 25 formal computer courses; eleven of those were in one of the three critical technologies (5 GIS, 4 database, and 2 CAD). The remaining 41 respondents, took a total of 49 formal computer courses (20 in the three critical technologies -- 15 in GIS, 3 in database, and 2 in CAD). These figures do not include one person who received a "graduate GIS certificate" not as part of an archaeology program, nor do they include two courses taken in high school. They do include four courses taken by one individual whose program required a secondary emphasis, in this case, IT. Also included were 4 2-hour classes, none in the critical areas, taken by one respondent.

Only a few people reported taking informal courses, and they were commonly workshops, not true courses.

Thirty-three people reported learning computer technologies on their own. Of those, ten mentioned database management software, one mentioned GIS programs, and three mentioned CAD.

There was no direct question about departmental computing requirements, but there were no indications of computer requirements from departments other than the technology-focused programs.

In general, it is clear that computer training is haphazard at best. Only half the total sample had any formal courses, including the five people in IT programs. The crucial data-recording technologies represented fewer than half the total formal courses taken, and fewer than half the people reporting that they learned programs on their own cited any of the three critical program types.

If graduate students are not taking many courses concerning the three crucial data-recording technologies and if those data-recording technologies a-recording technologies are being used on projects, who is doing the computer work on projects? Three types of people take on the work of computer specialists on excavations: self-taught archaeologists, people from IT programs, and outside contractors who are not archaeologists. Self-taught archaeologists may be very good with the technologies, but they are as likely to be ill-prepared as well-prepared, given the variety of problems that can be encountered. I have seen both extremes.

Outside contractors may be excellent, and, assuming proper vetting of credentials, they should be well-versed in proper design and application of the relevant tools. However, if they don't know enough about archaeology, what is the likelihood that they will design systems appropriate for the work? I think the likelihood is actually rather high, but one example from my experience shows what can happen when things go awry. A database I saw working in Greece a few years ago was acceptable in terms of data organization. The data input system was barely acceptable for the way the project worked, but the data access procedures were so poorly implemented that anyone using the database was always -- always -- at risk of altering the data permanently and irrevocably without even knowing it. There was no available procedure for simply looking at the data on screen in a safe mode; inspecting any record opened that record to accidental, permanent alteration. The project director did not know that; neither did anyone there working on the project at the time. Who would intentionally design such a system? A computer science student who was not on site, had no understanding of archaeology, and, it would seem, had little familiarity with normal work habits anywhere. The database was designed by someone who knew a good deal about computing; it functioned well enough, though not optimally for the way it was used, until users did more than enter data.

People trained in archaeology IT programs clearly offer an appropriate combination of archaeological knowledge and computer skill, and they seem to be the best prepared potential computer specialists for archaeological projects. Depending on the training of individuals, there may be problems with meshing the particular needs of a specific project with the capacities and experience of the computer specialist, but, in general, those who have completed such programs should be the best prepared for this work. Nevertheless, a close look at the actual course work of those who took part in the survey (an extremely small number that is too small to be representative) suggests that even these programs produce students with varied preparations -- the five students took a total of 5 GIS courses, only 4 database courses, and only 2 CAD courses. More than half the course work was the course work was in the areas that are not critical data-recording technologies.

The survey sample is too small to permit any judgment of IT programs in archaeology, but a bigger issue remains, regardless of the quality of such programs or the quantity of graduates. No matter who is responsible for the data-recording technology on a project, that person is a specialist whose work must be guided, directed, and overseen. The project director must be able to issue appropriate guidelines, examine results and plans knowledgeably, and evaluate the overall process effectively. How can a project director do that if he or she has no independent understanding, much less expertise?2

Computer skills are not easily evaluated. It is possible to produce a database that seems fine but will not stand the test of time. Indeed, it is not just possible to do so, it is easier to produce one that seems acceptable than to produce one that is acceptable. Consider the example cited above.

Databases lie at the heart of GIS systems, so problems with databases have an equivalent potential to damage GIS systems. For a database or a GIS, the ability of a project director to judge is virtually nil unless that person has had reasonable training. The important quality issues are often very subtle, and the differences between a good database and a poor one are not apparent to an untrained eye. In addition, there are issues involving the mapping process -- for example, understanding map projections and how they impact bringing extant maps into the model -- that add to the potential for problems with GIS.

Similar quality issues present problems in the CAD world. There are many subtle but important differences between a good model and a poor one; indeed, too many examples come to mind. Perhaps the simplest is the issue of surface normals - see CSA Newsletter, XIII, no. 3, Winter, 2000: "A Subtle CAD Problem -- The Surface Normal," Harrison Eiteljorg, II; http://www.csanet.org/newsletter/winter01/nlw0107.html. Few excavators would understand this issue, much less think to ask a CAD expert about his or her understanding of it.

Setting up the crucial data-recording technologies used on any archaeological project requires considerable skill and training, and archaeologists cannot be expected to have the requisite level of skill and training to do everything on a project. However, they must be able to make intelligent decisions about the work of the specialists who are in charge of all crucial aspects of the project. Without significant training, they simply cannot make those decisions about data recording technologies. I believe it is time for graduate programs to stop turning out archaeologists who are unprepared in this area. An old world archaeologists who cannot read the appropriate languages for his specialty or a new world archaeologist who cannot deal with statistics would not be considered properly trained; those skills are demanded and tested. One who has not been trained or tested as to the ability to evaluate the data-recording work on his or her own project, on the contrary, may still considered well trained to do field work. This is absurd.

It may seem that the foregoing indicates that archaeologists who do not plan to do field work have no need to understand these critical data-recording technologies. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Here again, the analogies of foreign languages and statistics work well. Scholars must use those skills to do research in libraries and archives, not only in the field. By the same token, scholars who are intending to work with archaeological data will increasingly be required to use those critical data-recording technologies to access the data. Knowing how to use the required programs is only a part of the battle; anyone accessing digital information must be able to evaluate the quality of the data storage and organizational schemes that have been used. Users' requests for information from a database, a GIS data set, or a CAD model will only yield fruitful results if the underlying data structure has been properly designed and well understood. So all archaeologists must learn computing skills -- to excavate or perform surveys properly and to access the fruits of other archaeological projects.

Given the number of courses graduate students must take now, it is hard to imagine adding more requirements to the curriculum; so I invite readers to make suggestions for remedying the current situation. I will offer my own as a stalking horse. As with necessary languages, I would suggest a test, not necessarily specific courses, for all archaeology Ph.D. candidates in each of the three critical technologies, databases, GIS, and CAD. The tests would not be designed to demonstrate mastery of programs or even program types, but would insure that degree candidates understand basic concepts, data structures, differing approaches to data storage, and the like. I would suggest that M.A. candidates be required to pass the same test in database design only.

A realistic application of such a test requirement must surely include courses -- courses taught by people who understand both archaeology and computing -- for those who need them. Some students will not need them, but others will.

Readers' suggestions and responses are encouraged, as are comments about existing requirements that relate to this issue.

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

1. The questionnaire was distributed over the Internet via email discussion lists, including AIA-L, Aegeanet, Arch-L, Archcomp-L, and ANE. The respondents were from a group more likely to be somewhat computer-savvy -- those who subscribe to one or another of those Internet discussion lists. The respondents are likely to represent a slightly more sophisticated group of computer users than a mailed survey would have yielded. Return to body of text.

2. Many other special skills are left to the vagaries of student choice and also evaluated by project directors -- surveying and photography, to mention two that are needed for virtually all archaeological projects.
In fact, those two are good examples. Proper surveying is crucial to archaeological projects; surveyors must be able to produce accurate plans. Many archaeologists cannot do the survey work and must rely on the skills of the surveyor. However, the work of the surveyor is transmitted to the project director in simple, direct, tangible forms -- plans and maps -- that can readily be evaluated. Poor work may be impossible to correct in some circumstances, but it can be seen, recognized, and, at the least, halted.
Photography is quite similar. Excavators may not be able to produce good photographs, but photographs, but they are able to judge photographs and photographers. Poor results will not be tolerated. Return to body of text.

The survey:

I am writing to this list (and others, please pardon any duplication) to try to find out more about computer training for archaeologists.

Surveys by myself and others suggest that most computer-savvy archaeologists are self-trained, that there have been few formal courses for teaching computer skills to archaeologists, and I want to try to find out if that is still the case. If you have been a student in a graduate program in archaeology in the last ten years, I would greatly appreciate your taking the time to answer a few questions about your training in computer skills.

After filling in the blanks, just send this form to me at the address listed in our email contacts page.

1. Date of B.A. (year):

2. Date of graduate training (last year in the program):

3. Type of graduate program (archaeology in an anthropology department, classical or near eastern archaeology, Egyptology, etc.):

4. Did you take any formal classes in computer technology?

4a. If so, please describe the nature of the class(es), e.g. general computing skills, database design, GIS, CAD, etc. Please describe each class separately & be sure I can tell how many you took.

4b. If so, was the class/were the classes taught in the archaeology department/program or through the computing center or computer department?

5. Did you take any informal classes in computer technology?

5a. If so, please describe the nature of the class(es), e.g. general computing skills, database design, GIS, CAD, etc. Please describe each class separately.

6. Were you expected to learn computing skills on your own?

6a. If so, what skills and with what assistance?

7. How would you describe your experience with each of the following:
can create
data files   
can & do make
macros or
programs for
the application   

word processors.
email pgms.
web browsers.
Photo editing pgms.
Line Art pgms.
Desktop Pub. pgms.
database mgmnt pgms.
GIS pgms.
CAD pgms.

If you would like to include your name or any other information, please feel free. Also, if you would like to know what results come from this survey, please say so here, and I will let you know after the results have been tabulated.

Many thanks,
Nick Eiteljorg

To send comments or questions to the author, please see our email contacts page.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

Next Article: A Spreadsheet as a CAD Aid - Again

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