Review of iPhones and Archaeology

Posted on December 26, 2011


This review came from Peter Eidenbach via the NMAC listserve. I haven’t found it anywhere else so I figure I would share his thoughts here-

iPhone on Archaeological Field Survey

Several months ago, my daughter the lawyer signed the family up for a new cell phone plan and got me an iPhone. I hadn't imagined what could be done with iPhone "Apps," the little programs that can be added via iTunes. Many Apps are free, or low-cost. Many are also available for Android phones. Allegedly there are some half-million apps, 37% of which are free.

Paid apps have an average price of $3.64. So far, I have found more than two dozen types of apps which could assist field survey; many types have several alternatives, free and paid. Because I am still learning to use many of them, my review will be brief, but I have tried out several of them in-field on small rural surveys. Here are the general classes, with examples, that I have installed and am trying out:

1. Cell Phone - obviously! But there are still lots of dead spots where we do field surveys. Maybe someday there will be full coverage and even free universal WiFi !! The iPhone's GPS, however, is continuous because it depends on the satellites not on the cell towers.

2. Calculator - build-in to iPhone. Now I can retire my old stand-by - a Sharp Scientific that I bought in 1972, which still performs like new (with occasional fresh batteries). Many other calculator apps are out there, including TouchCalc, a free scientific and statistics app.

3. Compass - also built-in. Compass rose in degrees, digital direction to the degree, mag. or true north, latitude and longitude, based on built-in GPS. A variety of other compass apps are also available.

4. Camera - built-in 5MP with 5x digital zoom, built-in geotagging (lat-long or UTM) - see #20 below.

5. Notes - standard notepad built-in, with full keyboard, transfer via email. Lots of alternatives.

6. Text entry with full keyboard used by many apps. Rotating iPhone switches from portrait to landscape view in many (but not all) apps, making text entry and other things easier. There are several levels of text entry/word processing apps, ranging from simple note pads to full-featured "word" programs like Apple's Pages, part of the iWork suite, which syncs with the same program on a PC via iCloud.

7. Safari Web Browser - built-in. WWW access w/ WiFi or thru cell coverage. The iPhone zoom function allows relatively effective log-in and operation within the NMCRIS database system.

8. Google Earth (and a wide range of map apps for many of the standard digital map sources) zooms to your location using builtin GPS. Other map apps include: Google Maps, 700 City Maps (download at $2.99 each map) and Free City Walks, Trail Maps ($2.99) from National Geographic,
HistoryMaps of the World, magnetic Declination map, a Free Wi-Fi map that locates the closest free wi-fi hub.

9. Downloadable USGS quad maps with waypoint entry, tracklogs, many standard GPS functions are included in apps like TopoMaps ($7.99), iTopoMaps ($7.99), GPS Tracks ($0.99), Elevation, Trails ($3.99), NaturaGPS, and iGeoTransLite (from Vietnam, whose full version is a whopping $59.99). Galileo Offline Maps ($4.99) will download maps for off-line use from 11 different sources, including the various "Open" maps, Mapquest, and "CloudMade" maps.
By far the best GPS/topo map app is iHike ($7.99) from Larry James who also produced Mac GPS Pro for the Mac. I have been using Mac GPS Pro for the past decade to exchange GPS waypoints, tracks, routes, etc between my Garmin handheld and my Macintosh laptop. It's the best Mac GPS program out there and supports dozens of handhelds, including most Garmin and Magellan receivers.

10. Convert coordinates with Map Tools ($0.99), which converts between Lat-Long and UTM. Many mapping apps (but not all) allow choice of coordinate system.

11. Survey instruments include Spyglass ($3.99), a visual sextant, gyrocompass, inclinometer, and GPS, Theodolite Pro ($3.99), optical rangefinder, triangulation, elevation, and MotionX GPS ($2.99).

12. ArcGIS app from ESRI allows users to access and add to their ArcGIS maps and layers from their iPhone and could probably be integrated with the NMCRIS GIS. Arc GIS app is especially useful because it can access a vast gallery of on-line GIS projects, including USA Soil Survey, USGS Topographic Maps, USA Federal Lands, USA Land Cover, and a selection of Historic Maps, including Indian Reservations 1878and Explorer's Routes.

13. Field guides - a variety of field guide apps, including Peterson (Feeder) Birds, various Audubon guides, including Nature Desert Southwest ($9.99). Geology NM ($4.99) with 27 layers, RockHound ($1.99), Common Rocks Reference, Tree Book, Leafsnap, TX Snakes ($0.99), MyNature Tracks ($6.99), etc. are convenient for field reference. Additional references can be saved as PDFs and uploaded to iBooks. I have already done this for the Fort Bliss Ceramics Guide.

14. SoilWeb uses GPS to identify your location's soils and links to the NRCS Web Soil Survey. The app was produced by the UC Davis California Soil Resource Lab which also supports a very user friendly search interface to soils maps overlain on Google Earth which can be reached in Safari at:

15. Unit conversion tools like Convert!!! and Convert Units for Free are free.

16. Drawing and painting graphics programs are quite varied and include GPS Draw which draws a track line as a graphicshape, BlankPage and Drawing Notepad freehand drawing; vector drafting apps like iPocket Draw ($9.99), Sketchbook Mobile X ($0.99), iDesign ($4.99).

17. Spreadsheets and database apps include iSpreadsheet ($2.99), Logical Data,General DB, TapForm ($6.99), and FieldAssets ($16.99), designed for engineers to collect field data on individual properties.

18. Graph provides a flexible, highpowered data display program with 1D, 2D,and 3D graphs, maps, and least squaresplots using newly entered data or data downloaded from the web.

19. iBooks provides the ability to download public domain and paid books, and upload your own documents as PDFs by simply dragging into iTunes. I have installed my own Compact Primer in Historic Preservation, Federal Historic Preservation Laws, and scanned PDF copies of the Fort Bliss Ceramics Guide, Middle Rio Grande Ceramics, and various other field guides.

20. Dictate with Text recognition - a number of speech recognition apps will record voice, text recognize and send text messages. Dragon Dictation relies on a wifi connection to connect with its powerful translators. The built-in Voice Memos and QuickVoice will record and send voice messages.Most of these apps are limited to 30 second segments.

21. ArchaeoBox tracks and links to news stories of interest to archaeologists. And Eurekalert ( from AAAS does much the same via the built-in browser.

22. MetaBrowser reads iPhone photo metadata, including photo GPS coordinates. After transfer to a laptop, GPS metadata can be read by GraphicConverter (Mac) via Google Earth. In the above list I have indicated the pricesof full versions of the paid apps. All the rest (without prices) are free. As I try all these apps out in-field I will update this post with a list of recommendations. In many cases, some of the content— free field guides, documents, spreadsheet and database formats—could be shared among iPhone users. We also might want to see if any of us know an app developer who we (or NMHPD) could recruit to develop, for example, an ARMS Site Form app, a NIAF Form app, etc.

I began this post on my laptop in a generic text editor. Once I got familiar with the iPhone, I emailed that text to myself, copied and pasted it into Pages, and expanded it, adding formatting; a useful exercise in using the Pages app. Because I am a fewfingers typist, it wasn't to difficult to adapt to the tiny keyboard, especially because of the powerful spell-check and auto word complete. I found that 24 pt. type size worked quite well in both text-entry and document reading modes. Obviously, the iPhone wouldn't be the best choice for writing that long-overdue dissertation, but it's size and portability make it especially useful for quick, unanticipated survey recording.

Great review of what you can do with a iPhone for archaeology. I think Peter hits the nail on the head in the first few paragraphs- service. Lots of the simple apps do not need to be connected to the internet but some do and that can cause some real problems out in the field. Of course that all depends where the "field" is. In New Mexico, where I use to work, even in the cities service can be pretty spotty. I imagine other places less removed from digital civilization would not encounter these problems. Though, as with most problems dealing with tech, time will probably make these problems go away.

Can't wait to hear more about the field tests.