Sunday, November 20, 2011

Some free tools for Archaeologists

Hello Everyone,

     I have recently been noticing on the social network channels (Google+, Facebook, Twitter) a lot of people integrating the Ipad and its software suite for many applications for archaeologists. I cannot agree more that this piece of hardware could be VERY useful in the field. It might even be more so, once a Topcon Total Station can be integrated (if it's not already possible).
     However, not every archaeologist or archaeology club has the resources to go out an buy an Ipad or a smart phone for that matter. Not many individuals have the $1,000 for Photoshop or Illustrator, let alone for the expense of Autodesk CAD or Arcview GIS. What about us little archaeology guys and gals who want functionality on the cheap for digitizing maps or using a GIS (Graphic Information Systems) program to help us out? This is your day! I'm going to lay a few great programs for those of us on a budget.

Operating Systems:

English: A screenshot of Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty N...
Image via Wikipedia
Ubuntu Linux- A great open sourced operating system that combines the simplicity of using apps like an Ipad and the stability of Apple. Of special note is the way a user installs and uninstalls applications. Ubuntu has an app store with hundreds of free open sourced programs that are simply installed and uninstalled like an app for Android or IOS. Many of the programs I'll talk about are in that app store for free! Plus its easy to use Unity interface is clean and streamlined. The whole operating system can be downloaded and installed onto a thumb drive and placed on a netbook.

English: AROS Research Operating System screen...
Image via Wikipedia
AROS- A lightweight fast operating system based on the Amiga OS. It is clean, fast, and has a great user support community. This operating system is for those of you who just need a dependable, fast OS for web surfing and using Google Docks for most of your work. Right now there are a limited number of ports for AROS on the research end of things, however, if you have an old machine that cannot run Windows Vista, or Windows 7, AROS can breathe some new life into it!
It's perfect for an archaeologist on a very tight budget looking for a web machine for researching projectile points!

Drawing Programs:

Inkscape- A free vector graphics drawing program.This program is like iDraw only free, and you don't need a Mac or Ipad to use it. This program has a great feature set, and is an excellent replacement for Adobe Illustrator. It will import files directly from Auto CAD (.dxf files), pdfs, Corel, Word Perfect, the list goes on! This program is great for digitizing field maps, plan views, feature profiles, etc. I've posted an image here of a feature I drew. (Mac, Windows, Linux)

Paint.NET- A free drawing program with many of the great feature of Adobe Photoshop without the cost. Is this Photoshop? Well, no. It is not going have feature for feature what Photoshop has, but for the archaeologist on a budget, it does amazing work. There are layers and layer controls and the ability to save in a variety of Tiff, Jpeg, and Png files. There is also an incredible library of plugins to extend Paint.NET's capability.  If you are looking for something that has many of the great features of Photoshop, this program is easy to use, and easy to navigate, and expandable. (Windows only!)

GIS: Graphic Information Systems

Image via Wikipedia

Grass GIS - This is a  powerful system and fully capable to today's standards for GIS applications. Grass works with 2d and 3d maps and images. Grass GIS has been in development for over 20 years and used throughout the government and its agencies for spatial analysis. This software is compatible with Arcview GIS formats. (Windows, Linux, Mac)

QGIS (Quantum GIS)- a GIS system with an easy to use graphical user interface. As my friend Matt pointed out on Google+, QGIS' "strengths are in its graphical orientation were as GRASS is better at analysis and processing". QGIS can run inside or a GRASS shell bring extended features into the QGIS system.  (Windows, Linux, Mac)

MapWindow GIS- Is a windows specific program and another full featured GIS system. The developers constantly revise and update the software adding more features and stability. It has many features that make the software package impressive and easy to use. (Windows)  

SAGA (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses)- This one is new to me. I learned about it a short time ago and decided to check it out. 
It seems as though SAGA is packed with features as well, and can load many of the Esri files. I have not used this program other than explored some o its features, but again its free. SAGA touts itself as a "user friendly" application, judging by its interface, I would say that it is. Check it out, its a small file size, so don't be afraid to give it a try! (Windows, Linux)

Computer Aided Drafting

LibreCAD- A small lightwieght 2d CAD program that has finally made it 1.0! It's small, compact, and easy to use. It has a few features missing that AutoCAD has, but then LibreCAD isn't a AutoCAD replacement. I use to to plot out excavation grids, test units, and shovel tests. I save those as DXF files and import them into Inkscape for further processing. Sure maybe AutoCAD can do everything I want, but why pay thousands of dollars for it when i can use free programs to get the same job done?

Office Suite

LibreOffice- I've used OpenOffice for years, but switched when Oracle bought the code. LibreOffice is a Microsft Office replacement. It is also Free! LibreOffice can open, save, export, to all Microsoft document files, and it uses the Open Document Text and all Open Document file types. LibreOffice includes a Word (Writer) Power Point (Impress), Access (Base) , Excel (Calc), replacement and even a drawing program! I have typed many site reports, research papers, and made countless power Point presentations to use while teaching classes with LibreOffice. Please it is worth a look, and its Free! 

      These are just some of the programs out there that can take the place of, or supplement the existing programs offered by large corporations. Many of the developers of these programs I've listed here represent non-profit foundations, or the hard work of individuals. As always, if a free program makes you money, please give a little back to these organizations that made the choice not to sell their programs. Archaeology can be fun and expensive, hopefully some of these programs can help bring down the cost and add a layer of additional analysis to your projects!
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  1. Another one worth mentioning is QGIS, which is a great tool to combine with GRASS. It is much better at making nice-looking maps, whereas GRASS is better a analysis and processing. Also, it is much more graphically oriented than is GRASS.

  2. I also forgot to mention GIMP! A great little drawing program for Windows, Linux, and Mac.

  3. Great post! I'm subscribing to the blog and hope to read more from you!

    A few additional recommendations:

    -Zotero is a free reference manager that archs can use to keep track of articles and other research media

    - Blender and Google Sketchup may be used to create complex and simple 3D models of sites/artifacts respectively

    -Finally, there are a number of projects that work to create entire operating systems designed for use in archaeology, including the ArchaeOS (

  4. RWillems, thanks for the follow! I think I might have to do a part 2 of this blog post with reader favorites!

  5. Awesome! I'll look forward to it.

    I've been investigating ArcheOS a little. Ver 4 is still in alpha, but I've been impressed so far. It's a live boot Linux distro (based on Debian Squeeze) that includes default packages for many the programs you list here (e.g. LibreOffice, Inkscape, GRASS) as well as other OSS CAD, 3D modeling, statistics, and photogrammetry software.

  6. I have no experience with SPSS, but apparently there are two different Free/Libre replacements out there, PSPP and R. I don't know if any other readers here have experience using those in an archaeological setting.

    I did some work with Grass my senior year of college ('03-'04) and found it difficult to work with compared to ArcGIS, but it showed promise. I've sadly had no reason to go back to it in the intervening seven years, hopefully it's caught up.

    I did most of the images for my thesis in GIMP. Basic photo manipulation, showing both sides of some lithic tools. On another project, it did the color correction and scaling very well for some hideous photos I had to do with a handheld camera on a red background.

    And to echo an earlier comment, Zotero is pretty awesome. I think I turned half my MA program onto it.


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