Data Entry: The unsung hero of archaeology

Mid-way through cataloging

Cataloging, check-in, artifact processing, data entry, whatever you call the process of taking and tracking artifacts, is the backbone of any archaeological project. Whether you are recording attributes of a small fire cracked rock scatter on an iPad out in the field or hand writing information about a projectile point on a piece of paper back in the lab these ways of summarizing the vast amounts of information we encounter allow us to do archaeology.

However, it isn’t glamorous. I’ve just started a short term contract to do artifact cataloging for a site excavated a few years ago and twice in the last week people have said “I hope it isn’t too mind numbing”. I always respond that I am happy to be doing paid work in my field, which isn’t always possible. The other reason I like doing this sort of work, and one that I rarely explain, is that without it the analysts would have nothing to do. Yes, typing into an Excel spreadsheet and writing in red marker on plastic or paper bags isn’t the most glorious part of archaeology, but it means that the interpretation of that site, and our ability to track the artifacts and information we’ve gathered, is possible. Being in a remote location with only a trowel and a backpack is a great romantic picture but without record keeping we would have no idea where artifacts came from. Whether I am working on my own PhD research, a paid job, or volunteering on a project, big or small, organizing that information allows us to access those items, through databases or tables, and understand what happened at an archaeological site.

So, what did I do on the Day of Archaeology 2016? Well I did a day’s worth of data entry and it’s not as easy as it seems. I’m contracted to catalog artifacts, which in this case means entering information about each artifact bag into a spreadsheet. That involves finding the number of the bag in a digital list, adding the material type and other information, and then checking if the information about where location came from is correct on the bag and in the table. If all goes well, I add a line to the spread sheet, assign the bag two numbers, one that identifies where it came from and one unique to the bag; write those numbers on the bag, put the bag in a box, and enter which box the bag is in onto the spreadsheet.

Worst case, every piece of information on the bag or about the bag needs to be checked against multiple layers of paperwork, that information needs to be typed into the spreadsheet with an explanation of what changed, and the numbers on the bag need to be altered to reflect these updates. The worst-worst case is when the paperwork doesn’t agree, and because it was excavated a few years ago, the notes are all the detail that we have. Thankfully, there is an information hierarchy within the paperwork that can help us figure out what combination of depths, provenience, and levels are correct correct. These worst-case scenarios spice up data entry and demonstrate the importance of having good record keeping and internal consistency. Digging precisely should also be accompanied by precision in paperwork so that archaeologists who look at these notes years from how are able to recreate the site in their mind and understand the site without having been at the dig.