It is 2018! Time to document our archaeological digs digitally, wouldn’t you say? We have it all: CAD to draw plans; GIS for maps; photogrammetry / structure from motion for 3D models and rectified photos; databases to connect all this with feature description… why use paper at all?


I am a fan of digital archaeological documentation. A 3D model is a great way of representing archaeological features because, let’s face it, the feature is 3D in realitas. It may be more precise by leaving out the “human factor” and offers great methods of analyses. Also it may be much easier for people outside archaeology to understand what we are talking about when we show them less abstract forms of representation than profiles and plana  .


I completely agree with martinpapworth @

He argues that

When drawing, you must constantly ask questions of the subject. If I cannot see something properly, I take the trowel from my bucket and clean the surface. It enables me to understand and then use my pencil to make a record of the new discovery […].

Drawing is interpreting

This is exactly the point I’ve recently discussed with a friend: He argues for an all-digital documentation, no drawings, just a well made photogrammetric documentation. And though I love the idea of a well done photogrammetric documentation, I cannot help but say: “No. If I stand in front of my profile I see more than what I will see in the photo or 3D model”. Because light changes, because my position changes and mostly, because I can take my trowel and clean a little bit where things were unclear. I will never be able to do that on a 3D model. And I will not have seen the unclear bit until after I rendered the model in high resolution, at which point the dig has moved on and it’s too late.

Drawing is an integral part of archaeological science, because by drawing we already recognise, categorize and analyse our findings. I could not imagine drawing the feature / profile, whatever, without being on site. The same as drawing an object just by photo… A photo is just a representation of the “real” archaeological feature and it would not be able to answer a question I ask of the subject, as Martin puts it.

… and it takes time

I understand the problem my friend is calling attention to: Drawing takes a lot of time. You halt all progress in the trench, sit down and may literally take all day to document and draw. Especially rescue archaeology often does not have much time, because what they don’t manage to dig, may be lost forever (thinking of huge opencast coal mines here) or well, the digger is literally standing behind them. We all know the problem.

Drawing digitally on site

One solution, which offers at least to reduce the time needed for a drawing has recently been discussed by Chris Webster (@archeowebby) and Paul Zimmerman (@lugal) in their podcast ArchaeoTech no. 75: Take a picture with your mobile device and then draw on it digitally (with vector graphics) while standing in front of the feature you are drawing. If your photo is rectified and scaled you can skip all the measuring you usually need to do while drawing and you are still able to clarify bits you can’t see well on the photo. This also has the nice added bonus that you don’t need to retro-digitalise the drawing. They root for this method and say if the vector drawing programs for tablets continue to improve it will be the future approach used in archaeology.

Morgan & Wright on archaeological documentation

At this point in “drawing history”, Colleen Morgan (@clmorgan) and Holly Wright (@diggingitall) take a pause and in a very well researched and thought-out article (blogged on here) look at the history of archaeological drawing to consider how this “redrawing of photos” instead of “drawing manually on paper” might change our engagement with the archaeological record. They maintain that drawing in the field enables the drawer to not just engage with the object s*he is drawing (Martins point above) but also to discuss the findings / stratigraphy etc with co-workers, creating an environment in which collective knowledge production is possible. In this space teaching and learning happens multisensorially and conversationally , meaning touching, (smelling, tasting,) seeing, analysing, transferring to paper and talking about it.

The authors touch on studies done in the fields of Architecture and Design looking at the impact that switching to digital methods has on the cognitive process while sketching. Though sketching may not be the same process as archaeological field drawing, it shows that the haptic element in drawing manually has an impact on how humans are able to perceive space and abstract from things. They conclude that,

a 3D model is not a substitution for drawing, it is another way of knowing and recording archaeological deposits […] ,

which I completely agree with. Also they vote for a hybrid methodology:

The challenge for developing digital recording is retaining the pedagogical, co-constructive, and cognitive qualities of by hand recording, while integrating the beneficial affordances of digital recording. .

At this point I really would like to try drawing on a tablet to see how it affects my perception and interpretation of a feature. So far I’ve only drawn by hand on paper and later digitised things. The former I love, the latter I hate…

Long term storage of the digital-only documentation?

There is one other big issue with an all-digital documentation, which is being discussed by data scientists and archaeologists: How do we guarantee people will be able to open and modify a digital file we create today in the future? Morgan and Wright touch upon this topic pointing out that publication and archiving of 3D forms of representation lag behind the amount of documentation done in 3D. So far, 3D objects are mostly published in 2D print — something that really is not in the spirit of 3D — or in online repositories (such as sketchfab or 3Dhop), where we need to address the issue of permanence of URLs / DOIs and similar. But this is actually a huge topic I would like to tackle another time… (update: I did!)

To conclude I want to reiterate, that I really like 3D documentation and the structure from motion recording Sebastian is doing absolutely looks great. But at least at the moment I don’t think it is able to replace archaeological field drawings. So let’s sharpen the pencils and not just the code!

[h3title title=”Bibliography” style=”quad”]
Morgan, Colleen, and Holly Wright. 2018. “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording.” Journal of Field Archaeology 43 (2): 136–51.
Olson, Brandon R, Ryan A Placchetti, Jamie Quartermaine, and Ann E Killebrew. 2013. “The Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project (Akko, Israel): Assessing the Suitability of Multi-Scale 3D Field Recording in Archaeology.” Journal of Field Archaeology 38 (3): 244–62.

Sophie Schmidt

Founder & Editor

About the Author

My name is Sophie, I am a prehistoric and computational archaeologist and have been research associate at the Universities of Bonn and Cologne, as well as for the NFDI4Objects project at the German Archaeological Institute. I teach statistics for archaeologists, work on new methods in settlement archaeology (GIS, geostatistics in R and stuff) and am interested in archaeogaming. Now I started my PhD-project on the 5th mill. BC in Brandenburg (that's North-East Germany).

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