iPads at Pompeii Print E-mail

This page is meant to give some more details on the use of iPads to document our excavations. This is being explored in greater depth at the blog Paperless Archaeology.

There have been many infrastructural changes at PARP:PS over the past year, many of which center on the closure of excavations in VIII.7.1-15 and the opening of excavations across the road at insula I.1.1-10. This expansion of the project - its aims and responsibilities - led to the reorganization of the team and the way in which we do things. The most immediate of these changes saw the introduction of a completely electronic workflow for digital recording centered around iPad tablet computers; a veritable 'paper-less project'.

The iPads helped us replace field notebooks, clipboards of forms, large drawing boards with piles of A3 paper for drawing, and even little things like calculators and To Do lists.

The recent interest that Apple took in the ways we have revolutionized our field-work resulted in a feature article at their website (the original URL, http://www.apple.com/ipad/pompeii, is no longer active but you can see a pdf of the page here). Given the massive volumes of traffic to that story, and thus to our project, we thought it could be useful to outline a little more fully the ways in which this new technology is helping us to document our excavation of a complex urban neighborhood.

We can outline some of the uses of the iPads here, but we are still gathering some usability information from the trench supervisors and hope to have a more formal presentation this winter. Come back soon as we will also upload some of our training materials so that you can experiment with these methods (or improve them) on your own.


Forms are ubiquitous in archaeology and have been since the 70s. Little has changed since then. Paper forms are used to standardize the data that we collect in the field. They often then get copied, scanned, and/or digitized later in the project. In short, for something that is supposed to make our research better, they take up a great deal of our time.

The obvious solution to this is to key data into a database immediately, in the trench. But the conditions of most archaeological field projects hinder or totally obstruct the use of laptop computers in the field. They have lots of moving parts and tons of ports to get dirt in. The greatest use of direct data input in archaeological projects is in the dig house, for artifact processing.

This year we replaced the paper forms with a limited database interface using FMTouch on the iPad. FMTouch works offline, so the database is synchronized to the iPad regularly but doesn't require a constant connection to the wireless network. It synchronizes happily with our FileMaker Pro database.

The stratigraphic unit (SU) records are created as soon as the SU gets a number. The records are updated continually, that is, bucket counts and descriptions are constantly updated. Since the records are synced twice a day the whole team can keep up with the progress of the trench.

Scaled Drawingsi1pss00043

The use of scaled drawings varies by project. At PARP:PS we draw when enough features are available to warrant a new illustration, roughly a new drawing every other day.

For 2010 we adopted the use of iDraw on the iPad. This software features layers, and a good array of drawing tools necessary for the technical drawing of tenches. More than that, it let us duplicate an old drawing, remove elements that were no longer needed, and quickly add the new elements to the drawing.

The drawings are exportable in PDF format which are sent to the architect. When the field drawings are combined with the total station measurements, we can produce accurate final plans very quickly. Even our sketches, prior to being geo-referenced by the architect, were of publication quality as they were being drawn right there in the trench.


Notebooks combine the data from the forms and the field drawings to record the thought process behind the trench supervisors understanding of the relative chronological (and spatial) relationship between the stratigraphic units (SUs).

Notebooks consume large amounts of the trench supervisor's time. The supervisors often have to rewrite data from their forms or redraw their field drawings to complete their notebooks.

While we experimented with various notebook apps, some which combine voice recording, text, and drawing, we ended up with a basic word processor with Pages. Information from the forms in FMTouch and drawings exported from iDraw can be pasted and inserted into Pages, keeping the amount of duplicate work to an absolute minimum.



We create Harris Matrices for our trenches. In previous years we recorded them on paper and these were sometimes transferred to an electronic format (of various kinds) at the end of the season.

This year the matrices were recorded in OmniGraffle software. Like the database, the SU was drawn onto the matrix as soon as it was numbered in the field. Our understanding of the relative chronological relationship between one SU and another obviously changed over time, but the matrices were backed up daily and made available to the finds people for preliminary sorting. The ability for specialists of so many various disciplines to access the on-going data-collection was instrumental in the overall reading of the site during the field season, and to an extent that was otherwise unimaginable in the past.

Other items

The photographs taken by the trench supervisors were taken from their cameras almost every day and all photos from their trench were available in the photo app for browsing and/or inclusion in their plans and notebooks. Supervisors, wherever necessary, could easily access photos from other trenches for comparative analysis.

There are hundreds of small details that must be attended to in an excavation, especially for trench supervisors. In order to keep track of those items we encouraged the use of task management software on the ipads. We use Things for this.

We were always on the lookout for other ways to make the trench supervisors' lives easier. Since they are constantly losing their calculators we installed Jumbo, an oversized calculator on the ipads.

Initial Conclusions

The trench supervisors started training on the ipads in the spring and while they were skilled in the basic uses of the software before they got into the field, we did find a somewhat steep learning curve waiting for us as we trained the rest of the excavation team to put these skills into practical use. But even with the training and reorientation of our overall workflow we found that the information was gathered in a more timely fashion, and the immediacy of the distribution of data created a much more cohesive archaeological group than in previous years. Data was moved very quickly between the trench people, finds people, the architect and survey team, and the project director.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 April 2011 05:20
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