3.5 Spatial data 'born digital'

From a practical-technical point of view, one development more than any other has had a profound impact on digital spatial recording. The advent of centimetre precision Differential GPS (DGPS or RTK GNSS) revolutionised how we go about fieldwork – not least when viewed in the context of rescue archaeology (Figure 4). By its very definition, rescue archaeology is a matter of recording and documenting, usually ahead of some new construction that would otherwise destroy any archaeological remains. The process of working against the clock and within tight budgets is what makes up the bulk of archaeology today – not only in Denmark and the UK, but in most European countries where contract archaeology is a consequence of the ratification of the Valetta Convention for the protection of the archaeological heritage (Kristiansen 2009).

Figure 4: (VIDEO) The advent of DGPS systems meant that field recording could be done faster. Spatial data was 'born digital' and not derived from hand drawings. Illustration based on data from the Jelling Project (Nielsen 2015; Holst et al. 2013)

In Denmark, most excavations take place in rural areas by means of initial trial trenches followed by full excavation. The GPS was quickly accepted as a tool for doing fast and efficient recording, effectively drawing vectors by 'connecting the dots' of sequential measurements. The adoption of GPS provides an example of the (unintentional) standardisation of spatial recording related to implementation of new technologies. Danish archaeology is overseen by the Agency for Culture, and excavation activities are distributed among a number of local museums, each responsible for their region. Apart from some general guidelines regarding reporting, museums act as autonomous units, with methodologies varying according to traditions and excavators. GPS equipment has become a convenient household item at every museum, and through the development of ArkDigi (ArkDigi/MapDigi) for converting measurements into discrete objects (polygons and points) and the endorsement by the Agency for Culture of MapInfo as a GIS platform in 1998, these tools combined to form the 'standard way' of doing rescue archaeology. The positive side of this was of course the inadvertent normalisation of methodological practices. Naturally, it was also met with some opposition, as the quality of spatial data started to decline (Precht 2007). It became increasingly easy to do bad archaeology, reliance on poor-quality measurements sometimes leading to over-simplified recordings characterised by unrecognisable edged or circular drawings of features. Parallel to these developments, the focus on data management and analytical post-processing of excavation data by Andresen and Madsen led to excavation management systems, although not explicitly including the direct link to spatial data or GIS (Andresen and Madsen 1996a; 1996b; Madsen 2003). Unfortunately, these systems were never implemented on a larger scale, but succeeded in illustrating the challenges of data management when excavation data become digital and more dynamic.

Paradoxically, having the exact geographic position and being able to display a position and general classification on a map eventually became the accessible digital outcome for Danish archaeology. To some extent, this can be seen as a direct consequence of the 1984 inauguration and following developments of The Cultural Historical Central Register or the Danish National Record of Sites and Monuments (DKC) (Christoffersen 1992; Hansen 1992). Over the years DKC evolved as an administrative tool in cultural resource management, and archaeologists saw their work reduced to a dot on a map with only the most basic information, while there was no centralised place to store GIS data and basically no incentive to do complex spatial recording. In the period from 1984 to 2001, DKC was, however, accompanied by an annual journal of excavation abstracts alongside methodological papers 'Arkæologiske Udgravninger i Danmark/AUD' (Det Arkæologiske Nævn 1984-2001). This combination offered an accessible annual overview of excavations and their outcome, as well as sustained the exchange of methodological ideas.

The fact that a central database was never developed to accept spatial data led the individual museums to invoke their own 'standards' for storing and organising the vast amount of GIS data, usually related to the rest of the textual documentation only by corresponding feature numbers. The grass-root movement of MUD (The Excavation Database of the Museums), which is a privately funded initiative supported by almost all the archaeological museums in Denmark, exemplifies the need to organise excavation data, but unfortunately still lacks the integration of spatial data (MUD 2014).

Archaeology in Denmark is still affected by the inherent problems of handling spatial data when it becomes digital. The fact that GIS and CAD were introduced at a time before it was considered a viable solution to use web strategies for organising and storing data meant storing spatial data in a file system. Anyone who has worked with the proprietary file formats of the leading commercial GIS suites like MapInfo and ArcGIS know that each map layer is represented by not only one file (.tab, .shp, etc.), but a handful or more additional files, often leading to hundreds if not thousands of interdependent files that are a challenge to handle consistently. It is, however, also related to the level of preparedness to respond to new technologies by rethinking existing methodologies.

By contrast, in the UK commercial archaeology has influenced digital and methodological developments in other ways (Everill 2012). Although the competitive element can be criticised for risking the devaluation of archaeology by letting the cheapest tender offer win the contract, on the other hand, the commitment to compete results in an incentive to try out quicker, more efficient and by all intents and purposes better and more flexible approaches (Everill 2012; Kristiansen 2009). In this day and age such solutions are often digital. The incentive to do faster and more efficient documentation within rescue archaeology is common, but in one key aspect the two countries differ. Where the Danish museum archaeology tends to work towards one, albeit only basic and mostly textual, central recording of sites and monuments, the different UK excavating institutions have more or less developed their own tools and frameworks for integrated documentation. Interestingly, online public dissemination and accessibility appear to play a significantly larger role in UK archaeology, and is usually a key aspect to the different recording systems.

Beyond commercial archaeology, digital documentation in the UK was pioneered as long ago as the early 1980s through research projects like the Heslerton Parish Project (Powlesland 1998). The comparably longer tradition and more (successful) extensive use of remote sensing and geophysical survey probably expedited the development of techniques for handling a wide array of spatial representations (e.g. geophysical raster representation) and Powlesland and May further extended the integration and testing of new technologies for field recording through the DigIt project (Powlesland et al. 2006, Powlesland and May 2010).


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