#9 Closer Look: ArcheoLINK Information System

A word about software posts: On this blog, I want to provide review type information about the myriad archaeology software out there, but also want to be clear about what precisely the review represents. In order from least to most rigorous, the different levels of software posts are: Closer Look, Hands-On, and Field Test. In “Closer Look” posts, I write about an application’s features and hypothesize about how an archaeologist might benefit from them. In “Hands-On” posts I write about my experience actually installing an application and trying out some of its basic features. In “Field Test” posts, I write about collecting or processing real data using the application.

Post updated 10/31/13 to include comments and clarifications from QLC, Inc. archaeologist and developer Michiel Kappers [shown in bracketed italics].

ArcheoLINK Background

 ArcheoLINK is a piece of software developed by archaeologists that aims to provide a complete system for archaeology project management, data recording, inventory, and analysis; in short, an Archaeological Information System (AIS). Dutch archaeologists Michiel Kappers, Willem Schnitger, and Elsbeth Westerman originally designed ArcheoLINK to meet their research and project management needs as heritage management archaeologists as well as for academic research in the Caribbean. The company Kappers et al. founded, QLC, Inc. recently created a US version of their software, ArcheoLINK-Americas, that is customized for American academic and CRM archaeologists. Kappers recently visited the Diachronic Design office and gave me a demonstration of both the latest version of ArcheoLINK, as well as some of the features they are currently developing. This post describes each of ArcheoLINK’s feature categories, as well as my thoughts on how field archaeologists might use these features. [Paragraph updated to differentiate between QLC, Inc., the company, and ArcheoLINK-Americas, the US version of the ArcheoLINK software.]

Project Management

Since moving to the United States, Kappers has worked with a few university departments and a multi-state Cultural Resource Management firm. In response to their needs, ArcheoLINK-Americas are currently developing several new features, including expansions of the project management features in the program (Figure 1). In addition to the current free form node structure, which allows archaeologists to manage shared electronic project documents, the expanded project management tools will allow archaeologists to keep track of research, business, and fieldwork electronic files according to the Phase 1: Research, Phase 2: Survey, and Phase 3: Data recovery model many archaeologists utilize in the United States.

Figure 1. Archaeologists can organize and monitor projects in ArcheoLINK.

I am particularly interested in how archaeologists could use the electronic document management system in ArcheoLINK to organize project documents; whether the documents reside into one storage area or remain spread across a network. During my work at CRM companies, museums, and repositories, I have often wished for a program that would let me gather, consolidate, and systematically rename electronic documents from archaeological archives and research scattered across shared network drives. ArcheoLINK appears very helpful in accomplishing some of these tasks. At the very least, the way ArcheoLINK enforces file naming conventions and metadata entry could help archaeologists avoid needing to repeatedly compare documents to find the most up-to-date artifact catalog or report draft and eliminate nondescript filenames like “reportDraft.doc” or “Alex’s Analysis.xslx.” ArcheoLINK can open many different file types and ArcheoLINK records can reference and link to virtually any kind of electronic file. Although a project manager can keep files spread throughout the network, I am excited about the ability ArcheoLINK offers to consolidate all linked files together into the same physical storage location. At the end of a project, the consolidation feature would allow archaeologists to easily gather and prepare files important enough to warrant archival at an archaeological data repository like Digital Antiquity’s tDAR or the Archaeology Data Service.

 In addition to the electronic document management feature, ArcheoLINK also allows managers to browse a table of projects and their associated metadata as well as map project locations using an integrated vector GIS. For archaeologists who oversee multiple projects at one time, this feature should provide an overview of both current projects, as well as previous projects an archaeologist conducted in an area.

Field Data

ArcheoLINK allows archaeologists to record proveniences (e.g. trenches, planums/levels/strata, features), finds (e.g. samples, artifacts), and specialist data (i.e. customizable forms that provide more detailed information about a find) inside separate database tables. More complex database tables lie behind these basic tables and allow ArcheoLINK to group together proveniences, finds, and specialist data in a wide number of ways that minimize the amount of data entry required for each record and then propagate changes throughout the database.

 I do wonder if the ArcheoLINK ontology will be useful for all archaeologists as I have yet to see how flexible the database is in practice. At the very least, the ontology seems abstracted enough that archaeologists could make it work on many different kinds of projects from survey to excavation, but may have to make extensive use of the “specialist forms” (see below) if they routinely record data that ArcheoLINK does not support by default.

Specialist Data

Archaeologists can create new data entry forms, like a custom ceramics recording sheet, to supplement the default forms in ArcheoLINK. These specialist forms allow archaeologists to record additional fields not already present the ArcheoLINK ontology. While archaeologists can create specialist data forms on their own, Kappers told me that ArcheoLINK-Americas can also provide assistance with mapping specialist data into the database so that archaeologists can focus on what data they need rather than how to program them into the database.

 As mentioned previously, I will need to experiment with ArcheoLINK to see how easily you can integrate specialist forms, such as a company’s internal feature recording form or a ceramic specialist’s recording sheet, into the overall database. If the database is able to link these efficiently to the main ArcheoLINK records, specialist forms could provide good balance between data standardization and flexibility that allow archaeologists to compare standardized site data across multiple projects, while still allowing them to record fine details as best fits a particular project or site.

[In his recent email, Kappers noted that “Specialist tables/forms added to ArcheoLINK will become an integrated part of the ArcheoLINK database”.]

Storage Data

In addition to field provenience and descriptive data, ArcheoLINK also allows archaeologists to assign artifacts they collected in the field to storage containers whose location they can also track. In my work organizing physical archaeological collections, I have noticed that some museum collections management systems, like PastPerfect 5, lack the ability to track moveable storage containers.

 During fieldwork, archaeologists can attach a barcode printer and use ArcheoLINK to print out barcode labels that can be inserted into each field find bag. Archaeologists can also scan preprinted barcodes using a barcode reader to automatically create  the field find’s database entry record. Later, lab staff can use the barcode scanner to quickly pull up an ArcheoLINK find record so that staff can add or modify data. When staff move an artifact or the lab manager needs to conduct an inventory, these barcodes also allow staff to quickly locate a record in the ArcheoLINK database or compile a list of all objects stored in a location. Similar to other collections management databases, ArcheoLINK allows archaeologists to perform “check-outs” of materials so archaeologists can track objects sent to a lab for testing, loaned to other researchers, or transferred to a curation facility. 

 Archaeologists may not always consider what happens to field collections after they are brought back to a lab or passed on to a repository, so I am pleased to see that ArcheoLINK includes features that make tracking and caring for field collections simpler. In particular, I was impressed to see that ArcheoLINK allows curators to quickly see if an artifact or sample needs special handling or storage conditions and to track object locations as different staff and researchers move or rehouse objects into different containers. This storage information is crucial for not losing artifacts and samples as archaeologists gather together material for research projects, send out loans, have samples dated, and pass on collections to archaeological archives. [Paragraph updated to clarify that scanning barcodes only creates a new record, but does not autofill more fields than the barcode number]

Analysis Tools

In addition to keeping track of field data, archaeologists can also group all ArcheoLINK data into Phases and Structures [Kappers adds: “As well as feature relations (older, younger, cuts, cut by, same as, contemporary with, etc…)]. In ArcheoLINK, Phases are time based groupings that present a synchronic snapshot of the site across one level, stratum, or dated time period. Structures are spatial groupings of features into coherent structures like a pithouse. Once an archaeologist has assigned records to these groupings, the archaeologist can then use ArcheoLINK tools to quickly create GIS maps that show the Structures present at a site during specific Phases [Kappers notes that “The GIS analytical feature (thematical maps and such) is in its last stages of development.”].

 I think the analysis features in ArcheoLINK could help archaeologists make better data based decisions out in the field. Rather than having to compile together data from paper forms and maps out in the field before deciding where to place new excavation units, an archaeologist could quickly get up-to-date data about what existing units contain and more easily correlate those data across the site. This ability would allow project directors to make important decisions more quickly and with less time spent leafing through dozens of pages of level forms and profile drawings. Additionally, grouping features in ArcheoLINK could allow archaeologists to quickly experiment with different associations to see how that affects their interpretation of the site (e.g. how does the interpretation change if a structure actually extends into an earlier Phase).

Image Data

ArcheoLINK allows archaeologists to add images to database records as well. In fact, the database allows archaeologists to link each image to multiple database records, if necessary, as well as multiple groups such as “stone tools” and “prehistoric artifacts” (Figure 2). Archaeologists can attach dissemination quality thumbnail images to records so that browsing through records goes quickly. Once archaeologists have found the required records, they may open higher-resolution preservation quality images. The ArcheoLINK image viewer can also display each image’s EXIF information, which includes the kind of camera which captured the image, the time and date, and even GPS location if the camera supports that feature.

 A picture is worth a thousand words of description; these words are never truer than when applied to an archaeological site. Being able to quickly look at visual data can drastically change how archaeologists interpret a site, often for the better. If archaeologists are diligent about attaching photographs to the ArcheoLINK database throughout a project, a project director can quickly clear up ambiguities in field forms or notes by going over the attached photographs. This data will also be useful as part of the site archive when later archaeologists may have additional research questions which require data the original archaeologists did not anticipate and so did not record in their field notes or forms but that pictures may have captured. I also find that attaching photographs to records in the field is much easier than trying to do so back in the office, even with detailed photologs, which leads to fewer errors and lost photographs.

Figure 2. Archaeologists can add many photographs to each database record.

GIS Functionality

 ArcheoLINK includes a vector GIS which archaeologists can use to create and edit vector shapes in the field, as well as georeference raster images to use as base maps. The GIS is intentionally limited to essential tools and includes fewer analytical tools than GIS like ArcMap and GRASS, but exports files that these programs can edit. The GIS is integrated into the overall database and can automatically create some data based on each database record.

 The GIS will automatically map and correlate many data from the ArcheoLINK database, such as creating topology relationships based on a shapes associated database record, keeping track of all the database records and flagging records that need to have GIS shapes created, and altering project areas and trench dimensions to include all the associated planums (Figure 3). In addition, the GIS will map points inside the “Finds” layer for all artifacts and samples which include provenience information. Kappers also showed me the automatic clipping feature, which flags overlapping shapes and allows archaeologists to review and easily clip shapes so that they fit precisely with one another. ArcheoLINK allows archaeologists to immediately connect some documents and data to GIS shapes, such as connecting digital profile drawings created in ArcheoLINK corresponding section or profile lines inside the main map.

 Provided the data is formatted correctly, ArcheoLINK’s GIS can import spatial data from total stations and automatically create matching shapes. Finally, the GIS also exports spatial data in common file formats, including MapInfo TAB and MIF, ESRI SHP files, Autocad DXF, GML, and KML so that archaeologists can import and continue editing GIS data using their preferred programs.

 I think other archaeologists may find ArcheoLINK’s integrated GIS extremely useful simply because all the data entry, both spatial and descriptive, can be done in one program. This combination is possible in other mobile GIS applications like ArcPad, but the process is less than intuitive. Knowledgeable archaeologists could use standalone GIS like ArcMap and GRASS to accomplish all the same tasks as ArcheoLINK’s GIS, as well as analyses far beyond what ArcheoLINK is capable of. I think, however, that a streamlined GIS which excludes advanced analysis features and features most archaeologists may not need in the field would make the information derived more reliable by encouraging archaeologists to heavily use and correct GIS data while in the field. I am very interested in trying out the GIS to see if there are any essential features the GIS lacks and to see how easily I can learn the system after having used other GIS.

 Figure 3. The ArcheoLINK GIS can keep track of records without spatial objects (denoted by red “X”s) and automatically map some data.
Figure 3. The ArcheoLINK GIS can keep track of records without spatial objects (denoted by red “X”s) and automatically map some data.

Form Functionality

Although running ArcheoLINK in the field on either a laptop or a Windows tablet provides the greatest speed in data entry, archaeologists can also user ArcheoLINK to print out paper data entry forms for their crews to edit in the field and then enter directly into analogous digital forms back at the office.

 There are obviously some conditions where hardcopies of data entry forms will come in handy as a backup to digital data entry: when batteries die, equipment breaks, or simply when field archaeologist are more comfortable collecting data on paper. I am glad that ArcheoLINK includes the option to print out data entry forms based on the database tables. I pity, however, the poor staff person or student who will then have to enter this data by hand. Archaeologists considering entering a large amount of data by hand may want to consider services like Captricity which offer a flat price per field for entering form data into electronic formats. I believe ArcheoLINK does have the ability to do bulk imports in addition to manual data entry for each record so, once I get the chance to conduct a “hands-on” review of ArcheoLINK, I will report on how well I can import data from digitized forms into ArcheoLINK.

Hardware Options and Accessories

In addition to attaching barcode printers and scanners, archaeologists can also attach external sensors, such as a digital scale, to ArcheoLINK to speed up data entry (Figure 4). Currently, ArcheoLINK runs on Windows desktops, laptops, and Windows 8 tablets (Figure 5).

 As opposed to other data collectors that run on iPads or Android tablets, the typical setup for ArcheoLINK appears to be a Windows laptop set up in the field or back in the lab. This approach offers some advantages, as larger field projects could assign an individual or small team responsibility for entering all data into ArcheoLINK, which requires training fewer people in proper data entry. I would think, however, that a mixed method where each excavator starts data entries on a tablet device and then syncs their records to a centralized server, perhaps on a laptop, where an administrator corrects data entry errors and can quickly attach information from scales, scanners, and cameras would provide the greatest efficiency in data entry.

[Kappers adds: “This is already possible. On site a network could be set up where field devices store data directly on a server. However if that is not an option ArcheoLINK has a merge functionality with which different versions of a same project database can be synchronized together in a controlled manner. “]

Figure 4. Archaeologists can attach external equipment to ArcheoLINK to speed up data entry and labeling.
Figure 4. Archaeologists can attach external equipment to ArcheoLINK to speed up data entry and labeling.

 As of the date of writing, Windows 8 tablets, while less popular than iOS or Android devices, are very capable machines and start at prices of around $400. $400 is competitive with equally powered computers, and is lower than most iOS tablets, but higher than the cheapest Android devices. According to Kappers, ArcheoLINK already runs on Windows 8 tablets (but not Windows RT tablets), and QLC, Inc. is making adjustments to the ArcheoLINK user interface to improve control with touch screens.

Figure 5. ArcheoLINK can be run on mobile devices such as the Windows XP laptop shown here or the smaller Windows 8 tablets.
Figure 5. ArcheoLINK can be run on mobile devices such as the Windows XP laptop shown here or the smaller Windows 8 tablets.

Query and Monitoring Data

ArcheoLINK allows archaeologists to query and select their data using standard Structured Query Language syntax like SELECT, SUM, GROUP, UNION, and more, but archaeologists can also sort and filter data using a “data grid” format similar to what they might be used to from Microsoft Excel (Figure 6).

Figure 6. ArchaeoLINK allows archaeologists to query data using structured query language (SQL).
Figure 6. ArchaeoLINK allows archaeologists to query data using structured query language (SQL).

 I think that having some querying functionality immediately available as data is entered into the ArcheoLINK database is crucial to being able to ask complex questions of data out in the field. I do not know that ArcheoLINK includes as many options as other database programs do for creating custom views and reports, but even being able to create tables from queries will be useful when getting views of how information about each site develops throughout a project.

System and Account Management

ArcheoLINK allows archaeologists to create different user profiles that specify which users are allowed to create, edit, delete, or even view certain parts of the database. This functionality extends to the granularity of specific fields and includes other features like input masks, which require that certain fields match a specific string format such as site numbers always containing nine characters and include leading zeros, e.g. “45WH00001,” or that some fields are mandatory and must be filled before leaving a record (Figure 7). These kinds of control allow data security, data standardization, and, since every change is tied back to a specific user account, data accountability.

Figure 7. Archaeologists can require that fields be filled out in a standardized format by using the “input mask” controls.
Figure 7. Archaeologists can require that fields be filled out in a standardized format by using the “input mask” controls.

 In working with other database systems, I have found tracking user actions to be extremely useful in both correcting errors out in the field but also in knowing who to contact for clarification later on. By tracking which worker enters data it is easier to clarify any ambiguities and extremely useful as a historical record. Rather than having to translate someone’s initials (e.g. RBA), user accounts allow every single record to include the full name of both the person who created a record as well as who most recently changed a record (e.g. Alleen-Willems, Russell). In other systems, user accounts can also include contact information such as phone numbers or addresses. Additionally, there is potential for tracking employee performance if ArcheoLINK allows queries like “number of finds entered grouped by user account” or “miles surveyed grouped by crew.” This information would be incredibly valuable for archaeologists drafting budgets for project proposals  and provide estimates based on data rather than a project manager’s best guess.

Data Import and Export Options

When using a new program, I always think about how easily I can extract data back out of that system. According to Kappers, ArcheoLINK stores its local database as an Access readable “.apr” file. The program also supports exporting both tabular data and GIS data in several common formats including Excel XLS, Access MDB, dBase DBF Adobe PDF, HTML, XML, Tab-delimited text, MapInfo TAB and MIF, ESRI SHP files, Autocad DXF, GML, and KML. Archaeologists can export both the entire database as well as subsets created through queries or from individual data grids.

I have not seen the “.apr” file extension before, so I need to test and see how well ArcheoLINK’s apr and mdb files open in Access. Preferably, I would want ArcheoLINK to export database tables along with their relationships so that the entire database can be opened in another program. That said, ArcheoLINK supports a lot of the other file types I would require for both tabular and spatial data. I expect that other archaeologists would also need this flexibility in order to send data to state offices, colleagues, and especially when archiving datasets. As stated earlier, I believe that ArcheoLINK also supports importing data, but I will need to work with the program more to describe the file types and import process.

[Kappers adds: “The .apr file was ‘made up’ by us as developers and it stands for ‘Archeo(LINK) Project’. Although it is an Access file it is password protected and cannot simply be opened in Access, which would be much too dangerous since data integrity will almost always be corrupted as the average person does not know the database structure enough and does not know enough about databases in general to not corrupt the data. A raw export of the full database can be exported as a non password protected Access database. Besides this all ArcheoLINK screens have datagrids that show data sub sets as query results in human understandable single tables, which can also be exported from every datagrid in the most common formats. The .apr file is only one of two ways to work with ArcheoLINK and is often used for smaller databases with only one or a few (smaller) projects in it. I.e. ‘single project database’. The .apr way to work with ArcheoLINK will of course also function within a network with multiple users but is also used outside in the field when a network is not available. To work with .apr files Access does not need to be installed on the device. The other way to use ArcheoLINK is through a client server network database such as Oracle or SQL-Server. This is typically done at organizations that need/want to collect and manage a lot of data of many projects (usually not the CRM firms that finish a project and move to the next, but more the organizations that receive that data such as state departments, museums, but also like wise organizations that do field work themselves and want to collect and analyze data such as also universities). Often this way (multi project client server database use) and the other way (single project .apr use) are combined at these organizations for field work situations. Besides the above mentioned Merge functionality ArcheoLINK also has of course an import and export functionality to im- export ArcheoLINK projects to and from ArcheoLINK (multi/single project) databases.”]

My Initial Take on ArcheoLINK

 For many archaeologists, I think ArcheoLINK provides a pretty useful all-in-one solution for planning and conducting fieldwork, and then organizing, accessing, and doing preliminary analysis of data back in the office. The biggest disadvantage that I see is that I am not sure how much CRM companies or academic archaeologists would have to adapt their procedures to the ArcheoLINK program, rather than the program adapting to their procedures. Kappers has pointed out to me, however, that ArcheoLINK-Americas strongly suggests that clients purchase ArcheoLINK with both customer support and training so that Kappers and his staff can help tailor the program to procedures already in place and that ArcheoLINK trains local experts who can help the rest of the organization with day to day questions. Of the systems I have seen so far, ArcheoLINK provides the most complete package of features for not just fieldwork, but all stages of archaeological projects: from planning to depositing records and collections at a repository.

Have you worked with ArcheoLINK? Do you have questions about its features or abilities? Please post them in the comments below. Don’t forget to see my list of other digital archaeology tools as well!

[Kappers has provided Diachronic Design with a demonstration copy of ArcheoLINK so that I may write a “Hands-On” review. Keep an eye out for this post in the coming months!]


Closer Look Conducted:  September 17, 2013
Demonstrated by: Michiel Kappers with Russell Alleen-Willems asking follow up questions.

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