ArcheoFOSS: free/open source software and archaeological research, ten years later

Posted on July 29, 2015


Another batch of videos from CAA– this time on a subject near and dear to my heart:

In 2006, when the first “Italian workshop on free/open source software and open formats in the archaeological research process” took place at the University of Siena, the whole idea of “adopting” different software tools seemed largely irrelevant and out of scope, even from the point of view of archaeological computing. Today, open source is technically ubiquitous in the form of cloud computing and mobile platforms – and it may seem again pointless to defend its adoption or usage as “revolutionary” or transformative in any sense for archaeological practice. Yet, communities of archaeologists continue to gather and discuss the topic, create and share tools (admittedly, without any ground-breaking advance for the discipline), sustaining the adoption of FOSS in higher education, training and CRM.

There have been several “open source” sessions at past CAA conferences, but it seems more appropriate to take a chance at discussing the merits, challenges and drawbacks that the FOSS movement in archaeology has brought to the wider discipline, altogether avoiding balkanisation in the form of “ghetto” show-case sessions. Therefore, we are proposing a session to encourage submissions tackling especially the actual impact of FOSS on archaeological practice, and looking beyond to the diffusion of software development tools (e.g. git) in digital archaeology, the need of nurturing a free software ecosystem for archaeology without losing focus on the actual aim – an ambiguity that is perhaps shared by the wider CAA audience – without limiting to software strictu sensu, it is clear that open hardware development and the “makers” movement have a valuable potential as ingredients of a DIY toolchain.

#epicfail? Has Open Source in archaeology failed?

Authors: Gabriele Gattiglia, Francesca Anichini

Abstract: And then one day you find ten years have got behind you from the first ArcheoFOSS edition. The impact of Open Source in archaeology has been surprisingly (?) limited, it have not been part of any radical development in how we conduct archaeology, and in the last years has suffered a loss of appeal among researchers and archaeologists. The use of open source software should have overcome the limitations dictated by software currently used, leading the use of computer applications in archaeology to match with the goals, needs, and aspirations of archaeologists. Open Source has had the possibility to create computer application not simply derived from proprietary software, but applications create appositely by and for archaeologists. This path was too often neglected. Why? Two main reasons can be identified. The first can be viewed in theory ladennes. Open source was a computer science issue, the transposition to archaeology was not associated with a strong theoretical approach. Open Source was not able to propose new development, new forms of doing archaeology, that include new ways, and standards, of handling, processing and modeling information. This is related to the insufficient recognition that the intersection of computer application and archaeology provides new paradigms and/or research venues. Open Source in archaeology goes beyond the mere application of software, in fact, it represents an area where archaeologists can focus on discussion about the nature of archaeological data, their definition, representation and manipulation. ArcheoFOSS seems on the point of losing this battle, just when a new nourishment, in form of a more theoretical approach, is coming from the introduction of open access and open data instances. The second reason is connected to education and formation. There is an absence of a proper academic curriculum: Open Source skills can’t be relegate solely in post-graduate courses. On the contrary, it’s necessary to provide future archaeologists with a level of competency both in archaeology and computer science such as to enable them to move from one discipline to another with ease, and to generate novel insight. Only proper training can permit them to engage in the development of new IT tools consonant with archaeological interests, and to foster a deeper conceptual understanding of how applications work as a necessary step towards the creation of new ones. The full benefits of Open Source would only be possible if such preparation is in place for archaeologists to reap the benefits themselves. No one told us when to run, did we miss the starting gun?

Building domain-agnostic databases using design patterns

Authors: Ian Johnson

Abstract: The conventional approach to designing SQL databases is tightly coupled to the specifics of the data to be recorded; tables typically reflect the entities modelled, the relationships between these entities and lookups for controlled values; the interface software is built to manage those structures. Consequently, this approach to managing data tends to generate problem-specific databases, which are tightly tied to a particular method of recording. The structure itself carries much of the semantic payload, which may also be embedded in locally programmed functions. While there are plenty of tools for streamlining development, from database wizards to UML and frameworks, this approach to database design is ultimately a programming approach with limited portability across projects. At the other end of the spectrum, spreadsheets have a very low entry barrier and can be very efficient for handling structurally simple and repeatable datasets, such as specialist analyses involving samples, quantification and graphical display. However, when turned towards heterogenous collections which should be modelled as separate entities and relationships, they have encouraged unspeakable crimes against data modelling! Such spreadsheet ‘databases’ may end up a spaghetti soup of multiple entities per table, rampant redundancy, uncontrolled coding, multiple values per cell, positional significance, and cells blown out with discursive text. They are often a response to the mismatch between the data modelling required and the expertise and/or technical resources available. In the mid 1990s, Jens Andressen and Torsten Madsen at Aarhus University developed an elegant model for their IDEA database system, which reduced the archaeological excavation landscape to just three main tables – deposits, finds and constructs – which could then be adapted to a wide range of different recording systems. A decade later I started designing Heurist ( based on an even simpler database construct of just two main tables – records and data values – which are agnostic on the nature of the entities recorded. The records table simply defines the record type and provides a foreign key value identifying the set of key-value pairs in the data values table which form an entity (as with IDEA, another 40 tables manage the coding and content of these tables). A further decade later, the FAIMS project ( is using an internal database with the same two main tables – entities and attributes – for their field data collection tablet app and synchronisation server. In this paper I will show how widely disparate archaeological data can be modeled in such a meta-database hosted on top of a conventional relational database manager (Access for IDEA, MySQL for Heurist, SQLite for FAIMS). The key to these systems is not to deal directly with the structure of the data, but to identify commonly occurring database design patterns and to implement generic procedures to handle them independent of context. In the paper I will formally define a set of design patterns appropriate to archaeological data, and assess the Heurist and FAIMS applications against this set of patterns. By doing this we can identify opportunities for further development.

Archaeological science as community enterprise

Authors: Néhémie Strupler

Abstract If 10 years ago it seemed largely irrelevant and out of scope to adopt FOSS (Free and OpenSource Software), the setting dramatically changed. Nowadays to address methodological and
theoretical issues in archaeology, FOSS are attractive and promise access to powerful toolboxes accompanied with lifelong sustainability. An unexpected or unintended outgrowth of the adoption of FOSS is the interaction with FOSS Communities and the philosophy of software development. Such communities “are a global melting pot of diverse professions and skills that contribute to the progression of the goals represented by the software” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Humanitarian-FOSS”). Thus, archaeologist adopting FOSS deals with free, informal and wider communities, so-called FOSS communities. Each software or a specific package develops a community maintaining the software, providing advices, case examples, advertising and developing new tools. Looking for help, new ideas, possibilities of new tasks, reading or collaborate in the development of FOSS give access for archaeologist to others, less formal, but scientific communities. Platforms like Wikipedia or Stack Overflow challenge scientific communication and the reward principle driven by the traditional academic. This paper addresses how FOSS and FOSS-communities provide a common language and goal through which foreign disciplines are revisited. It also takes this different perspectives to look how this framework could enrich and challenge science and more specifically archaeological research.

pyArchInit- python for archaeology – Part II

Authors Luca Mandolesi

Abstract “PyArchInit- python for archaeology”, presented in 2013 at the CAA of Southampton had reached an important goal: the birth of a new users and developers community. PyArchInit is a plug-in for the open source software Qgis, developed by archaeologists for archaeologists. The plugin allows any archaeologist to works in a single environment, using alphanumerical sheets and specifics geo-tables through specific GUI. Everyday we develop new part of the project, building routines that emulate the way of thinking of the archaeologist, and make faster, easy and precise the job for the researcher. One important innovation about PyArchInit is the Time-Factor: through a sperimental script we build a specific index to manage the position of any geometry in the temporal dimension, independently by elevation. Also we had augmented the way of exporting data in PDF formats and the system of the interaction on Qgis canvas with the stratigraphy directly through the Harris Matrix or the through the Stratigraphics rapport.Also the development of statistics and geostatistcs about archaeological records continue. In fact has been improved the tool for spatial analysis with R softwere to make prediction map, graphics and statistics reports.Here we want to show all news of pyArchInit and to provide a tool for archaeological documentation and excavation management.

To see more videos like these please go to the YouTube channel Recording Archaeology-

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