The iPod Touch: Part of the 21st Century Archaeology Toolkit

Posted by on Sep 1, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | One Comment

Yesterday, I was very excited to tune into the livestream of Steve Jobs and Apple’s Music Day. Not because I’m a huge music fan (which I am), or because I really wanted to know who the musical guest was going to be (Coldplay. Nice.), but because I’m an archaeologist.

Wait, wuh?

That’s right, the introduction of a new lineup of ipods had me excited, because there was the possibility that the new iPod Touch would be the tool that would make the type of digitally engaged archaeology (and any other form of digital community engagement) that I have been championing for a a while now readily available. And Mr. Jobs didn’t disappoint.

For those of you who don’t know, for the past couple of years I have been live tweeting archaeological excavations for the MSU Campus Archaeology Program (@capmsu). These tweets take place in the field, and include photos of our discoveries, discussions about our field methods, and the ability to answer questions from the public who sit in the comfort of their homes, offices, or wherever and join us on our excavations virtually. They are also forwarded to our Facebook and Flickr accounts. This has greatly expanded the traditional scope of public archaeology: what used to require a visit to the archaeological site doesn’t anymore. People from all over the world can take part, and they can engage directly with archaeologists while they’re excavating.

However, the entire project had one major drawback: it required a smartphone and access to a network. This meant that if you’re an archaeologist who just has a regular cell phone, the process won’t work. Campus Archaeology ran into this problem when I stopped being the Campus Archaeologist. My predecessor doesn’t own a smartphone, and asking him to pony up the cash to purchase one, and lock himself into a new contract with a company he might not want to be a part of, isn’t exactly fair (particularly since we’re graduate students). Not to mention, most archaeology programs are on a budget, and getting a company phone so that you can tweet typically isn’t worked into the budget.

Enter the new iPod Touch. I have been eyeing the Touch for a while now as a possible substitute: there is no phone, and therefore no contract, but it has the ability to get wifi internet. What it didn’t have before was pretty simple: it had no camera.

But now it does.

The new iPod Touch is really, almost entirely, an iPhone without a phone. It can take photos and video, find your location, even do FaceTime, the virtual video chat. There are a number of possibilities for public engagement with these elements.

Photos: well, this is obvious if you’ve followed any of our tweets: you can take pictures of what’s going on, tweet them, share them on Facebook, upload them to Flickr, and start a conversation about what you’re finding with the public.

Video: the truth of the matter is that video is going to be one of the new elements of record keeping in archaeology. Now that it is incredibly accessible, small, and easy to do, archaeologists can record difficult excavation techniques, demonstrate techniques to the public, or do quick in the field video blogs about what has been happening in the field. Perfect for both the public side and the research side of archaeology.

FaceTime: I haven’t had a chance to fiddle with FaceTime, so I’m not entirely certain what it’s possibilities are. With that said, I’m envisioning live chats from the field with different community groups, classrooms of students, or other archaeologists called in for a consultation. More on this sometime in the future.

Location-Aware: With the increasing possibilities surrounding location-based interactive social networking, the opportunities for public engagement using Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla, and, eventually, PlaceThings will allow the iPod Touch to be used to enter in new, culturally relevant hotspots that wouldn’t exist otherwise. For example, Campus Archaeology has entered a few spots on Foursquare that were sites of buildings that don’t exist anymore (above ground, anyway). These then pop up as Tips, so that people near by can learn more about them. Of course, you have to be mindful of looting, so choose your spots carefully.

In all, their are a number of possibilities for using the Touch for public engagement, the most important being that it is much more flexible than the iPhone or any other smartphone in regards to affordability. I am certain that there are probably a number of applications for data collection and basic field notes, map drawing, etc., but I just wanted to focus on public engagement here. Of course, there is the potential drawback of needing a wifi signal, so this might not be ideal for all archaeological situations. That said, wifi will only become more available, particularly with the introduction of items like the Virgin Mobile Novatel MiFi, a portable wifi hotspot you can carry in your pocket. In all, the iPod Touch is a perfect edition to a 21st century archaeology tool-kit, and will greatly improve the ability for archaeologists to engage with the public.

What other options do you think might be available with the iPod Touch? If you have any suggestions of where else this technology could be used by archaeologists or others, please, let me know!