“Peering Through the Sands of Time”: Hand-Held Electronic Outreach in Archaeology (Guest Blog Post by Mason D. Miller)

A few months ago, archaeologists from AmaTerra Environmental, Inc. and Environmental and Archeological Consultants, LLC working on behalf of the Texas Department of Transportation completed final analysis and reporting of excavations at the Kitchen Branch Site (41CP220). The site, located along the banks of the Kitchen Branch of Prairie Creek in Camp County, northeast Texas, dates to the Late Caddo Titus phase of roughly 15th Century A.D. Over the course of nearly a decade of intensive investigation and analysis, archaeologists explored the remains of a small, Caddo farmstead with a central house and ancillary structures. The work was extensive with archaeologists removing some 117 tons of sand (the equivalent of am adult blue whale!) from the site and, recovering more than 20,000 artifacts ranging from ceramic sherds and animal bones to pendants and arrow points. All of this work was boiled down to a massive final report that clocked in at more than 700 printed pages with a similar volume of unprinted, electronic appendices attached. The information held in that report is impressive and the product of many hours of dedicated work that has improved our understanding of these specific, and relatively lesser-known people in the region. The data and the analyses produced from this site are exactly what the science of archaeology is all about: learning about our predecessors; how far we’ve come and how similar we still are.

AT1Features recorded during excavations at the Kitchen Branch site (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

AT2Archaeologists excavating the Kitchen Branch site (41CP220) (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

AT3Ground-penetrating radar survey at the Kitchen Branch site (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

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Heat Map showing distribution of plain ceramic sherds within the Kitchen Branch site excavation block (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

AT5Sample of appliqued ceramic sherds from the Kitchen Branch site assemblage (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

AT6Assortment of Gary dart points from the Kitchen Branch site assemblage (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

AT7Assortment of Maud arrow points from the Kitchen Branch site assemblage (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

AT8Detail of a decorated ceramic pendant recovered from the site excavations (image appears courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation).

Anyone who is interested in reading about the excavations can go to their local library and request a copy of the full report through inter-library loan. How much, though, is someone going to actually do that? To actually seek such a tome out and in the end learn and digest from the tables and scientific jargon? The information inside is exhaustive but it could be seen to the casual observer as exhausting as well. Shoot, I wrote a decent bit of it and I get worn out!

It is because of this disconnect between the much-needed detailed science and the interests of everyone else that large excavations like these are required by state law to include public outreach. The public must get something out of excavations like these beyond just the massive report. For many years now, one of the primary means of getting information about a site or a culture out to where the public can see it is through the web page Texas Beyond History (TBH). This excellent site contains detailed, but approachable discussions of archaeological sites across the state of Texas that span the full range of human occupation here. Over the years it has become almost the default option for engaging the public in archaeological work. If you’ve never seen TBH, you definitely should check it out. It’s a great resource, even for us archaeologists.

Alternatively, public outreach may be giving public demonstrations or classes. For this project, the archaeology team initially considered putting on a Caddo ceramics training class. Traditional Caddo potter, Chase Earles, who manufactured several modern analogs of pots found at the Kitchen Branch site for this study, was going to lead a small (1-2-hour) workshop at a location that ultimately was never selected. This was to be attended by a maximum of roughly 40 people, who would learn about traditional Caddo ceramic techniques as exhibited from the excavation materials. While this could have been very interesting, the archaeology team thought that this option would have a smaller outreach footprint. Something else might reach more people.

AT9Various Titus phase ceramics fired by Chase Earles for the Kitchen Branch site analysis project (image courtesy of Chase Earles and the Texas Department of Transportation).

Around that same time, Apple released iBooks Author, a free program that utilized the iPad tablet to create interactive books. These iBooks included dynamic text in pleasing layouts, slideshows, interactive images, and more. We saw a lot of potential and, with the Texas Department of Transportation’s optimistic approval, elected to give it a try. Through that effort, we wrote Peering Through the Sands of Time: The Archeology of the Caddo at the Kitchen Branch Site (41CP220) in East Texas (by Mason D. Miller, Timothy K. Perttula, and Rachel J. Feit). In this book, the reader learns about the Kitchen Branch site, the excavation that took place there, the cultural history of the Caddo and those of the later Titus phase in particular, and much more in an immersive environment. Using the iPad platform, the reader can swipe through photographs of different plant and animal species identified from the assemblage. They can see examples of Caddo artifacts from other storied excavations in the region through paintings and photographs provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. And they can consult an illustrated glossary of the key terms used throughout the book.

AT10Digital cover of Peering Through the Sands of Time.

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Interior layout of Peering Through the Sands of Time.

One of the most exciting aspects of this mobile platform is the ability to use three dimensional models. Within Peering Through the Sands of Time, people can not only look at photographs of Caddo pots, jars, and bottles, they can actually see them floating and rotating on the page! They can spin them around, look at them from different angles, and zoom in to pick out details! Dr. Robert Z. Selden Jr. of the CRHR graciously participated in the development of Peering Through the Sands of Time by providing electronic 3d models of several Titus phase vessels he had in his digital archive (and helping us work through some of the technical challenges that came with it). Additional 3d models of Chase Earles’ modern analog vessels were also included. In these examples, the models were not generated using high-resolution 3d scanners, but a photogrammetry (creating three dimensional space recreation by interpreting two-dimensional photographs) program called 123d Catch by Autodesk. With some processing work in Meshlab (a free three dimensional model program), they slide right into the book using iBooks Author. These models are an absolute highlight of the book and well worth checking out! If you own an iPad or a Mac computer, download your free copy of Peering Through the Sands of Time through iTunes.

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If you prefer the Android side of the things, there is a PDF version available through the Google Play store as well. This version keeps the layout and design, but it loses the interactivity (see below). Also, if you don’t want to mess with all these accounts, you can just download a PDF from Dropbox.

 And herein lies the proverbial ‘rub.’ There are a lot of outlets to get to this work for a reason: accessibility.

We set out to create a document that was accessible from anywhere by, conceivably, a large number of people all over the globe. To some degree we’ve done that with iTunes and Google Play reporting hundreds of individual downloads in eleven countries (the U.S., Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and even Japan!).

At the same time, though, the experience wasn’t as universal as we’d intended. After starting, we found that the Android platform simply did not offer a program that was as simple to use or feature-rich as iBooks Author. Attempts to generate an analog on the more-universal .epub format resulted in incompatibility after incompatibility to the point where we were left producing a static document that didn’t have any of the features of the iBook and lacked (at the minimum) the attractive layout. In the end, we elected to simply generate a PDF of the iBook (this is allowed under iBooks Author since the report is offered free of charge for download; if the book had to be purchased, we would not have been permitted to do this under Apple’s policies). We REALLY wanted to make just as much of a splash for the non-Apple folks as the Apple people, but our technical limitations made that impossible.

The only means to make a report universally accessible by electronic means is through a web page, like Texas Beyond History. Nearly every device out there (even a large number of the flip phones that still pop out of people’s pockets from time to time) can turn html code into something on the screen. Web pages, though, are not typically resources that you sit down to read at length. You don’t normally nestle down in a comfy chair and read a web page. You surf many different pages while you check your Facebook or read the latest sports scores. You don’t just sit down to read. You do that with a book! And that’s what Peering Through the Sands of Time is. It’s a bridge between the book on your shelf and the web page on your computer. The strengths (and limitations) of both at the same time.

Also, I was asked almost immediately after its publication when the print version would be made available. The simple answer is, “It won’t.” If you’re reading this, odds are that you will be able to find a version of the report that you can look at. What about those who don’t have a computer or some other electronic device to read this? Have we excluded them? I would argue that we have no more excluded them than all of the people who may have wanted to attend a Caddo ceramics class and couldn’t make it (or wouldn’t have even known about it in the first place).

I’ve also been asked how works like these will be saved for the future? What happens when iBooks are no longer consumed? In all likelihood, the iPad won’t be around forever? Will it even be here for 15 years? 10 years? 5 years? Who knows? Sales on these devices are down. Where will this book go when iTunes and Google Play go? I would argue that the intent of this report is not to advance science (beyond exploring options for reaching out to the public) but solely for public consumption. Scientific endeavor, like the massive formal report and all of the notes and artifacts, should be kept for the foreseeable future in the hopes that future generations can come back to this site and learn even more. Peering Through the Sands of Time isn’t that. It’s just supposed to be there while it’s… well… there. Much like the last example, how would you preserve a Caddo ceramics class for future generations? Or even TBH? Those files will become obsolete sooner or later, too!

In the end, I suppose it will take some time to see if the tablet platform is a viable method for public outreach. Maybe there will be a way to generate a more universal version at the outset. I am reminded of so many magazines’ digital editions. How do they do those? We’ll have to do some asking around for the next one, I suppose. Regardless, I think we’ve made a great first step in an interesting new direction. Will we slide off a cliff at the next bend? Who knows! I have found the experience to be an interesting one. If nothing else, it’s great to see that someone’s read about this site all the way over in Japan!

Be sure to check out Peering Through the Sands of Time on iTunes and the Google Play Store!

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About the author

Mason D. Miller is Media Director/Archeology Principal Investigator at AmaTerra Environmental, Inc. (mmiller@amaterra.com)

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Written by zselden

Selden (PhD, Texas A&M University, 2013) is a US Marine Corps veteran, cyclist, kayaker, backpacker, hiker, climber, fisherman and general all-around outdoor enthusiast. His research is focused at the confluence of archaeological methods and digital technology, and he is particularly interested in the application of 3D technologies to archaeological problems, geometric morphometrics, network analyses, predictive modeling, archaeological theory, and archaeological science.

2 comments

  1. Is the Kitchen Branch Site synopsis going to be on TBH and what are the C-14 dates for Caddo and Maud components?

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