I'm the Archaeology Inventory Manager at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, where I've been since 2008. I love big, messy datasets and context most of all.

The Long View of Archaeological Data: Making it All Work Together

One of the most important concepts to understand about archaeology is the value of information over artifacts. We learn about the past by studying not only objects, but their position in space relative to each other and the landscape, as well as their quantities and distribution on one site or across many.

All of this data is what makes up archaeological records. Archaeological records can be field notebooks with quick observations, detailed maps and measurements made on paper, photographs, sound recordings, digital data collected from surveying equipment and GPS units, databases with detailed descriptions of individual artifacts, the raw data and results of specialized laboratory analysis, the list goes on and on. It’s a lot of material, and without it, boxes of artifacts do us very little good toward understanding the human past.

Many of these archaeological excavations have been written up into publications and organized reports, summarizing this information and interpreting the sites’ uses and significance. But even great reports are written within constraints and to achieve specific objectives. As years pass between excavation and interpretation, being able to revisit the original data and records is key.

A view of the study collection room, with documents arrayed on a table and a laptop open for cataloging.

Creating an inventory of archaeological records collections at the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources


A day in the life of a distractible desk and data jockey

I’m Jolene Smith. I manage archaeology site data for Virginia at the Department of Historic Resources. We’ve got around 44,000 recorded archaeological sites in our inventory, with more coming every day. Archaeology in Virginia is driven by research and by compliance with environmental review regulations (which are, in turn, triggered by doing things like building a road, a housing development, a solar energy farm, you get the picture).

While we’ve got a lot of paper records, most of the work I do day-to-day is in databases (Here’s last year’s post as an example). I won’t post a picture of my desk and computer this time, I promise.

This year, I’ve set my sights on taking all of this incredible information and making big plans to link it together and make it useful for professional archaeologists and the general public.

My big project lately is to lay the groundwork for a digital repository for archaeology reports, photos, maps, etc. I’ll be continuing this project through the summer as part of the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice.

We are fortunate to have the ASV, a spectacular avocational archaeology organization, here. As part of the ASV’s Certification Program, DHR is hosting a week-long lab school at our curation facility and I’ll be showing folks how to record sites in Virginia through VCRIS, our (registration-based) online system. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about getting information from the general public, as well. Archaeologists get tons of calls and emails from people with found artifacts looking for more information and small family cemeteries to record. What’s the best way for them to get us information?

I spent my afternoon concocting big plans to develop free, easy to use tools to document this kind of information and then send it along to us (or any other organization) using mobile apps and easy-to-use web mapping.

While I was pulling tools together, I also returned to an idea I’ve been slowly working on for the past year: a matrix of variously free, cheap, and easy to use digital tools for heritage institutions and organizations.

A table showing details of the Airtable database web application.



On a completely different note, I also started planning for a redesign of the History Surrounds Us interactive compass exhibit for an event at the Virginia Capitol Square in September. Expect a big revamp from this.

See- told you I was distractable. Eventually, this will be all nice and openly accessible on GitHub as part of Local Preservation School.

I also asked my colleagues for updates for today’s Day of Archaeology post. Dee DeRoche, our curator says:

I’ve been responding to emails this morning, including brainstorming for ways to present archaeology at a late September Fair at Richmond’s Capitol Square and planning a spring workshop for collections professionals with other Council of Virginia Archaeologists. The afternoon will be devoted to preparation for next week’s Lab Workshop for Archaeological Technician Certification students, laying out supplies and equipment for processing artifacts, sorting flotation samples, and rehousing a forty year old collection into archivally sound containers.

Joanna Wilson Green, Easement Archaeologist (and the person you call if you find human burials) reports:

I spent yesterday in Arlington discussing the best method for identifying unmarked graves in a heavily urban context, complicated by the presence of multiple underground utilities and high public visibility.

We’ve got regional archaeologists out in the field, a State Archaeologist working on synthesis of last year’s excavations, and compliance archaeologists making sure all the Ps and Qs are minded.

So much to do! But there’s plenty of time. We’re archaeologists; we think in very long time-frames.

Until next year…

43,847 sites and counting…

Hi! I’m Jolene Smith. I manage all of the archaeological data for the Commonwealth of Virginia at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. We’ve got nearly 44,000 sites in our inventory, with more being added every day. While most of my time is spent in front of a computer and not in the dirt, what I do is no less important. It’s about the follow-through. It’s taking the data produced by the destructive act of removing artifacts and features from their context in the soil and making sure it is safe, accessible, and useful. It’s about making connections. Here’s a day in my life.  (more…)

The Big Picture: Archaeological Records after the Project is Done

Greetings! I’m Jolene Smith. I work for the Department of Historic Resources in Virginia, USA. I decided to post on Day of Archaeology because I am most certainly not what most people would consider a “typical” archaeologist. I manage digital and paper records and mapping for nearly 43,000 recorded archaeological sites in Virginia through our government agency, which is also the State Historic Preservation Office.

Sometimes I miss being out in the field, but certainly not today. It’s currently 100°F/38°C outside at lunch time, so I’m very happy in my air conditioned office cubicle.

Distribution of Sites in Virginia by County

Distribution of Recorded Archaeological Sites in Virginia (work-in-progress!)

My work so far today has been very heavy on GIS (Geographic Information Systems). I spent the morning creating a quick map showing the density of recorded sites in Virginia’s counties for a publication of the Archeological Society of Virginia (our state’s wonderful avocational archaeological organization). It’s still a major work-in-progress, but I’m happy I was able to easily generate this data. The ASV hopes to use this info as a guide for where to conduct future archaeological surveys. With a little more work, I’ll be able to clean up some errors, pretty it up, and label everything so the data will be easily understandable.

I spent much of the rest of the morning working on creating records for a large project conducted by a CRM (cultural resource management) consultant, making sure the GIS mapping is accurate and matches the information in our databases and in the printed site form records. Quality control is a big part of what I do. It’s fundamental to remember that archaeology is inherently destructive, so it’s critical to have good, clear records.

Here’s what I have on tap for the rest of the day: I’ll work with some more consultants to create records for new archaeological sites and add information to previously recorded sites. I’ll also be responding to a few emails from members of the public interested in recording small cemeteries in our inventory. Then, I’ll probably review a few archaeological projects that have been conducted at the future sites of mobile phone/telecommunications towers as part of Section 106 compliance to make sure that there won’t be impacts to important archaeological deposits. Quite a variety, isn’t it?