How Archaeologists are Bridging the Past and the Future with Technology

with Archaeologist Dr. Alex Elvis Badillo

Archaeology is constantly evolving with new technology. In this interview, archaeologist Dr. Alex Elvis Badillo discusses how he uses technology in the field to capture, record, and preserve his team's findings.

(Badillo documenting an excavation using structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry, an image-based technique for capturing 3D data. Credit El Proyecto Arqueológico de Quiechapa.)


“Drawing engages different parts of the brain and allows the archaeologist to highlight specific aspects of the excavation that are important to the interpretive process.”

Tell us about yourself. How did you decide you wanted to be an archaeologist? What is your favorite aspect of your job?

I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist after taking a class at university called Introduction to Anthropology, the study of humans. Not many people know that Archaeology is one of the four sub-fields of Anthropology. When I found out that it could be a career, I was hooked! I love travel, collaborating with people, and working outside, but most of all - I love the detective work of archaeology. As archaeologists, we are constantly trying to solve a mystery based on the evidence we recover from our investigations. This is where digital technology comes in handy. One of my specialties in archaeology is finding ways to apply new technologies to archaeological research in ways that can improve our understanding of the past.

Excavation Supervisor working on touching up excavation drawings after a day’s work in the field. Credit The Pompeii I.14 Project.

What brought you to Pompeii? What kinds of information are you hoping to gather from this dig?

Well, first, I am not a classical archaeologist, that is, I am not a specialist in Old World archaeology, or the site of Pompeii for that matter. My training is in Mesoamerican archaeology, and the projects I direct are in Oaxaca, Mexico. However, because of my specialty in the applications of technology in archaeology, I have had the opportunity to work on many projects beyond my own. For example, I have worked in southern Peru, various states within the USA, and southern Italy. Each project is different in what its research focus is, and each project presents different challenges when it comes to reconstructing the past. 

I was invited to work at the site of Pompeii by Allison Emmerson, the director of the Pompeii I.14 project. We hope to learn about the people who lived in the southeastern part of the city. We want to find out what their everyday lives were like, and how they relate to us today. How did people living in the ancient city of Pompeii deal with issues such as social inequality or even things like refuse disposal? My role on the project was to help lead the Digital Data Initiatives team with my colleague Matthew Brennan. We were asked to develop a paperless and 3D documentation workflow that would collect, organize, and prepare data for analysis for all excavations on site. 

The goal was to use a tablet computer, in our case the iPad Pro, for data entry in the field and in the laboratory using digital forms. We recorded everything we could observe and measure. We would document everything, soil colors and textures, artifact finds, stratigraphic relationships, etc. This would include documentation with photos and scientific sketches. In addition to collecting data about each part of the excavation and entering them into the iPad, we used an image-based documentation method called structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry to record digital 3D models of the excavation throughout the process. The 3D models have scale and are measurable and they have a photorealistic texture, which makes them seem like a digital twin of the real thing!

Using Survey123 on iPad Pro for ceramic analysis in Quiechapa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit El Proyecto Arqueológico de Quiechapa.

What made you decide to make the switch to using an iPad Pro in your work? How has it changed your understanding and perception of the data you collect?

We began the process of designing the digital workflow 7 months prior to the field season. I was planning to use this paperless and 3D workflow on two projects during the upcoming summer, one in Oaxaca, Mexico, and one in southern Italy at Pompeii. I spent quite a bit of time investigating what would be the best device and application for the job. We decided on the iPad Pro primarily for the battery life and the Apple Pencil 2, which was quite phenomenal. 

Digital data entry in a tablet computer is not a new concept and archaeologists have been using this technology for over a decade, but it has certainly changed the way we structure and interact with the data we collect. For example, we can quickly access it for preliminary analysis. We developed a dashboard where any archaeologist working on the project can immediately interact with the data as soon as it is uploaded from the iPads to the cloud. This is dramatically different from how archaeological work was before. It used to be that you would have to wait weeks or months to see trends or patterns in the data when using paper forms and graph paper drawings. Additionally, because our data is ‘born digital’ there are fewer errors due to transcription from paper to digital formats.

Plan view (Top-down) drawing of excavation area shown within Concepts. Thick black lines represent the walls of the structure. Credit The Pompeii I.14 Project. (Left & center) Profile view drawing of a wall showing the various stratigraphic layers shown within Concepts. Credit The Pompeii I.14 Project. (right)

As part of your workflow, it sounds like you’ve found Concepts to be very helpful. How does the app fit into your research and communication process? What aspects of it have been most useful to you in your work?

This past Summer, I used the Concepts app in archaeological field projects in Mexico and Italy. When designing our paperless workflow, we really wanted a drawing app that would be easy to use yet complex enough to make detailed scientific drawings. After searching and comparing similar apps, we settled on Concepts. 

As archaeologists, at times, we create simple sketches to record spatial relationships of stratigraphic layers, features, and artifacts or to share ideas with one another as we develop our interpretation of past events. At times, we opt to create a scientific drawing, or map, that includes scale. Concepts allowed us to do both. The digital graph paper and ability to assign scale in a project was used quite a bit as we made plan view (top-down) drawings of the excavation. The ability to take a photo through the iPad and then immediately trace certain elements onto it was used quite a bit as well. Concepts has a variety of tools within the app that makes it a ‘must have’ tool for any archaeologist of the 21st century. Funny enough, the most useful tool that I found was the ability to export as an *.svg file and then open it up in Adobe Illustrator with the same layers that we created in our Concepts file. This is quite an important feature for archaeologists. We often struggle to digitize drawings and prepare them for reports and publications.

In Pompeii, we used Concepts primarily for excavation. At various moments throughout the process, the excavation supervisors would stop and map the excavation using Concepts. Their maps would be recorded with the digital form that they would submit for each stratigraphic unit that they were recording.

In Oaxaca, we used Concepts to document the excavation, but we also used it for an interesting project involving a 18th century indigenous painted cloth document called a lienzo, which measures approximately 80 cm x 60 cm. The painted cloth depicts the territorial boundaries of the little town where I work known as San Pedro Mártir Quiechapa, with the town in the center and the surrounding landscape features, rivers, pathways, and towns surrounding it. This lienzo is an important piece of local history and identity in Quiechapa.

I used Concepts to trace the various elements of the lienzo in different colors and transcribe the old colonial text, written in both Spanish and Zapotec, into readable digital text. I created a high-resolution image of the lienzo, imported it into Concepts, and then digitized it using the various tools provided in the software. Once I was finished, I was able to export and print the lienzo with the highlighted elements and the additional legible text. Since the cloth document is very old it is difficult to see certain elements in the painted imagery, such as historic structures and faded Colonial period writing. The digitization brought these elements to the forefront and made them easier to notice.

Moreover, this technology enabled me to share this rare document at a local public event. The lienzo is over 200 years old and permission to view/handle it is rarely granted. At the event, people were able to view the paper print out of the lienzo or interact with the digital version of it via Concepts using an iPad without harming the original. While viewing the lienzo, elders from the town were able to evaluate the transcriptions and make critiques and suggestions in order to improve the transcriptions. The experience was wonderful. The digitized lienzo made in Concepts facilitated the communication between local community members and my team about local history.

Screenshot of iPad showing the lienzo within Concepts App. The image includes the digital tracings and an example of the transcribed text. Credit El Proyecto Arqueológico de Quiechapa. (left)

How does sketching play a role in your work?

In archaeology, we carefully excavate and record as much as possible throughout the process. Excavation is a destructive process, and we have one shot at getting it right. Information about spatial relationships is critical to archaeological interpretation, thus, sketching and mapping are always a part of the documentation process. Even if we are using technologies that can generate 3D digital twins, drawing is an important part of the process. Drawing engages different parts of the brain and allows the archaeologist to highlight specific aspects of the excavation that are important to the interpretive process.

Badillo uses the iPad Pro for his field work in Quiechapa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit El Proyecto Arqueológico de Quiechapa.

What are you most looking forward to as you continue this project over the next two years?

We look forward to continuing the workflow that we developed for data collection this past field season and finding creative ways to interact with and analyze the data in ways that will advance our understanding of how Romans lived their everyday lives.

Excavation Supervisor working on scientific drawings in the field using Concepts App. Credit The Pompeii I.14 Project.

How do you anticipate your new data-gathering process and findings will influence the future of tech in your field?

Archaeologists have been moving towards fully digital paperless workflows for quite some time. Innovative apps that have useful features like Concepts certainly help with this transition process. Using Concepts on the iPad with the Apple Pencil 2 makes this transition nearly seamless. It feels like writing on paper, yet the tools available with just a gesture or tap on the screen are useful and enrich archaeological work in unimaginable ways.

Quiechapan town authorities and restoration professional discuss the painted lienzo at the Burgoa Library in Oaxaca City. The lienzo (foreground) is in a brand new showcase for public viewing. Credit El Proyecto Arqueológico de Quiechapa

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve discovered from Archaeology?

Everything! Human behavior is predictable at times, following individual drives, societal norms, etc., yet what I love about it is how diverse humans can be. This becomes more complicated when you are dealing with past societies. Sometimes we think we know what to expect based on what we already have learned about that past culture, but often we learn something brand new that makes us rethink our current views about the past.

Alex Elvis Badillo, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Department of Earth and Environmental Systems, Indiana State University. Badillo is an anthropological archaeologist and specialist in applying new technologies to archaeological practice. He is the founder and director of the Geospatial and Virtual Archaeology Laboratory & Studio (GVALS) where he works on research focused on human-environment relationships finding creative ways to apply new technologies to anthropological problems.

Read more about the project in Pompeii in Apple's article iPad Pro is revolutionizing how archaeologists preserve the ancient history of Pompeii 

Hero image: Excavation Supervisor sketching in the field using Concepts App. Credit The Pompeii I.14 Project. Photo credit: Apple Inc.
Cover image: Badillo documenting an excavation using structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry, an image-based technique for capturing 3D data. Credit El Proyecto Arqueológico de Quiechapa.

Interview by Annelise Sandberg



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