Necessary Component to an Archaeologist’s Toolbox: Toughbook Computers

Photo credit: (from left to right) Christina Friberg, Matthew C. Sanger, Ginessa Mahar

From high-altitude surveying in heat-stricken Nevada, to underwater excavation along the Jersey Shore, there’s no question that the work of an archaeologist requires constant digging and screening for artifacts in sometimes extreme environments.

Ginessa Mahar, a lab supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and her colleagues spend their time surveying sites with geophysical equipment and excavating 5000-year-old artifacts. The excavations can take weeks at a time. In one of her recent projects researching the Late Archaic period (3000 B.C. – 1000 B.C.) on a Sea Island in Georgia, Mahar and her team detected fire pits, storage pits, living surfaces, subsurface ditches and mounds, and otherwise disturbed soils. These surveys allow the team to better understand the area, providing data about the site’s layout while helping to guide their excavations.

The use of technology has increased in archaeological projects, as it improves the efficiency of mapping sites, studying remains and gaining information about a particular finding. With limited time on site and varying weather conditions, it’s critical that the technology used is suited for the changing conditions Mahar and her team find themselves in.

Photo Credit: Anna SemonWhen Mahar first used mobile computers in the field, she deployed a consumer-grade device to track information and run necessary software. “We tend to carry a lot of information with us and it’s nice to have all that information readily available,” stated Mahar. Unfortunately, in a short amount of time, the consumer-grade devices proved unable to withstand the environment of an excavation site. The computers’ battery was not able to hold an adequate charge throughout the day and the screen’s glossy characteristic made it difficult to view data, even under shade. Also, as is typical in environments of this nature, the devices were dropped and exposed to inclement weather, rendering the laptops inoperable.

Ultimately, Mahar and her colleagues realized they needed a more rugged device to deliver the reliability the archaeologists’ needed. Additionally, a sunlight viewable screen and sufficient battery life was a necessity among the team.

The team decided they needed the Panasonic Toughbook 30, a fully-rugged device able to keep up in the most extreme environments. Since the team had faced issues with durability and reliability in the past, the Toughbook 30’s military-grade certifications ensured the laptop could survive just about anything on an excavation site.

Since receiving the two Toughbook 30s six years ago, Mahar and her colleagues were able to increase their efficiency while in the field. Because of the Toughbook 30’s dependability, they now record, download and evaluate data from soil probes and gradiometers while in the field, avoiding the need to drive back and forth to the lab at the end of each day’s work.

Photo Credit: Diana Rosenthal

Mahar uses the Toughbook computers paired with specific programs while in the field. Remote sensing, which allows her to analyze underground components prior to digging, provides viable information that is instantly downloaded onto the Toughbook 30. This makes it possible for these archaeologists to learn in real-time if the excavation site is suitable to execute a dig. The Toughbook 30’s touchscreen also allows the team to utilize software programs, making mapping and data input much easier.

With a focus on geophysical techniques in the southeast – the study of soil resistivity and gradiometry – Mahar is constantly submersed in tropical, maritime environments. The Toughbook 30’s reliability gives Mahar, the team and the museum’s IT department piece-of-mind while excavating on site.

Learn more about the Toughbook 31, the successor to the Toughbook 30 used by archaeologists at the American Museum of Natural History. Also, find out more about Mahar’s toolkit in an interview she did with WIRED magazine.