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Review: The Untapped Potential of Low-Cost Photogrammetry in Community-Based Archaeology

2 images about the Inuit community Canada

          The Untapped Potential of Low-Cost Photogrammetry in Community-Based Archaeology: A Case Study from Banks Island, Arctic Canada, is a paper that was printed in the Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, in April 2016. Written by Colleen Haukaas and Lisa M. Hodgetts, this research paper is a case study from an archaeological project they undertook in Banks Island, Canada. It bears a striking resemblance to the Ogham in 3D project, in that it is a community orientated archaeological project, using photogrammetry and structure from motion techniques, and similar software for translating the data into 3D models.

          The archaeological project involves the Inuvialuit Community of Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in Arctic Canada. An isolated and indeed, prohibitive space in terms of archaeological research, as the area is only accessible for three summer months. The paper argues that the use of photogrammetry is inherently successful in an archaeological project such as this, due to its low cost, open source or reasonably priced digital technologies, and isolated location; in terms of access, physical and virtual. The project is community based,  involving the indigenous community in various aspects of the study. It is important to widely consult and maintain ongoing conversations with local and descendant communities when using digital representations an Internet media to disseminate archaeological information and to recognize that communities are not monolithic and may include diverse opinions [Atalay, 2012]1.

          This critique will discuss methods and aspects of the case study, including the equipment and technology that was used to create 3D models of artefacts found in Sachs Harbour. The case study was carried out in 2003, so, seemingly, it is up to date: in terms of use and types of software, in this case Agisoft and Autodesk 123D Catch and the dissemination of data through online methods and social software. How the data was gathered, collated and shared between the Inuvialuit Community and the wider world, is contemporary with community -based archaeological projects that are currently being undertaken.

          Another aspect of this paper that I will focus on, is the ethical concerns of both the archaeologists and the Inuvialuit community. According to NEARCH, a EU project to explore the significant scientific and professional developments in archaeological and cultural heritage management, sharing selected knowledge with various audiences is a critical issue for today’s archaeology. From the perspective of archaeology, however, two issues arise:

  • Firstly, most archaeological data is still disseminated in paper form, such as journals and monographs.
  • Secondly, the material that is punished online essentially follow the paper model with regards to how the data is structured [NEARCH, 2016].

The archaeologists working on this case study are using new aspects of archaeology. The data produced, in the form of photography and 3D models, are shared online through social software that is accessible and already used by the Inuvialuit Community. Today there is often a tension between world archaeology and Indigenous archaeologies, between land claims, political rights, and the Heritage of Indigenous people, on the one hand, and a desire to tell a global story of human colonization, settlement and growth, on the other [Grozden 2012]. The need for both a world and an autochthonous view is both important and clear. The growth of the concept of community-based archaeology is an expression of these needs, and this paper deals with these issues. By opening a project to community influence, it could change the direction of study; from allowing access to sites, to decision making about what objects to map. Autochthonous beliefs, rather than heterochthonous ideals. Community members would be able to appreciate the interpretive nature of models, and as non-archaeologists they would likely approach the selection of objects based on a different set of goals and values [Haukaas et al. 2016].

          Haukaas and Hodgetts discuss new commercial and open-source software packages and web services, that have become more available and accessible, then expensive photogrammetry programs of previous years. They discuss, in detail, the two main software technologies they use, to generate the 3D models: Agisoft and 123D Catch, providing tables, such as the one below, with data to show the pros and cons of each of these programs. 



Program Target Quality Avg. Number of Computed Faces Avg. Processing Time (Minutes)
Photoscan Medium 42587 11
Photoscan High 1761410 115
123D Catch Medium 47626 15
123D Catch High 667507 27

[Haukaas et al. 2016]

          As well, as discussing the positive merit of using photogrammetry in terms of cost, they also discuss its uses in terms of context. Their case study was carried out in the Summer of 2013, targeting three Thule-Inuit archaeological sites. One of the sites, Seal Camp (OkRn-2), is a warm season camp, accessible only for a relatively short snow-free period during the summer. They described the urgency of their work, not just because of the small seasonal window of opportunity, but also because of the erosion of these sites due to climate change. The sites need to be documented and in as much detail as possible.

           The 3D models created were disseminated online, and several platforms were tested, for quality, durability and ease of access. The ultimate goal in generating these 3D models was to share them with community members via the Ikaahuk Archaeology Project Facebook page [Haukaas et al 2016]. They chose Facebook because of its accessibility, and availability to the local and wider community. However, due to some limitations, such as upload size, other cloud-based sites were also used , for example YouTube and Sketchfab. These allowed for better presentation of the 3D models. With the advent of Web 2.0, new cloud-based services and a more savvy generation, the exploration of low-cost photogrammety and other forms of virtual modelling, and an interest from the public in becoming involved in their heritage and archaeology, makes the future of community-based archaeology an exciting one.

The results or findings of this study, not only support community-based archaeology, but also correctly address ethical concerns, in line with the stated aim of the research. Who decides what to model and for what purpose, who decides which models to share and how, what do communities risk in making models of their tangible cultural heritage available online? [Haukaas et al 2016].

For many indigenous peoples, for example, there may be little or no difference between cultural property (i.e. things) and intellectual property (i.e. ideas or knowledge) and thus no separation between intangible and tangible aspects of cultural heritage, nor, indeed, between past and present. [Brown & Nicholas, 2012]. In the past, Euro-American archaeologists from empirical countries would pillage archaeological sites, albeit scientifically. Artefacts would be removed from the site, then studied out of context and away from the intangible aspects of the culture they were created in. Haukaas and Hodgetts noted that although there appeared to be broad support among community members, for sharing models, there were also concerns about what models were to be shared. Because the copyright regulation associated with the use of photogrammetry software and social media platforms can change, ongoing dialogue with communities about the types of heritage objects can be replicated and placed online, and who can access them, are important. [Haukaas et al 2016].  For a project to be truly community-based, these factors must be considered.

          A positive outcome of this case study, aside from producing the 3D models, was the creation of a digital documentation strategy to guide which sites, features and artefacts were documented. Graves, and any objects associated with shamans were out of bounds. As archaeologist Larry j. Zimmerman has noted, archaeologists often claim to speak for past peoples, however remote. Implicit in this claim is the notion that they, as practitioners of a science, are the only ones capable of doing so; there must be dialogue with the indigenous community and their descendants [Zimmerman 1999]. Society is still shaking off its colonial, Euro-American ideals, and it is only through co-creation with the local community, that the true value of cultural heritage, intangible or tangible can be understood, documented correctly, and acknowledged.

           The research methods and the level of community involvement in the Ikaahuk Archaeology Project, are well documented and presented, however, they omit the implications of further research and practice, and a deeper opportunity for the community to become involved. Although the ethical precautions were discussed, there was no mention of a long-term strategy.

           Firstly I would see a need for long-term data storage, besides current web services. With new technologies being developed all the time, according to Deirdre Ní Luasaigh of Culture Ark, a digital archiving company, current formats we use could be obsolete in up to ten year. There is a need for intelligent long-term preservation, the future-proofing of virtual artefacts.2 Using a metadata standard such as Dublin Core, could prevent the loss of digital cultural artefacts. Aspects of this change from paper to paperless archaeology, are being investigated by organisations such as CoDa, the Centre of Digital Archaeology, who developed a Codifi, which replaces and augments paper based recording and rapidly accelerates data entry while providing a solid ‘born-archival’ workflow for documents, images, video, geo-spatial information and other recorded material. A defined metadata strategy is essential, and for future projects, should be put in place before any digitization of data begins.

          Secondly, although the descendant community was involved in aspects of the archaeological process, such as creating a digital documentation strategy, which included deciding what artefacts to digitally record, and how to access the material online, there was no record of engagement beyond this. Empowerment of the local participants by engaging them though life-long learning, should be a key component to community-based projects of any kind. To foster and facilitate a cross cultural and technological exchange between needs, abilities and access of the locality, with engaged digital citizenship for the Indigenous communities, which includes ownership of their digitalized intangible and tangible cultural heritage. In the paper, it was stated that these Arctic sites are difficult and expensive for the researchers to access, and also with accelerated erosion due to climate change, makes the study imperative if the sites are to be documented. A solution would be to crowdsource the digitization of the artefacts. There are several ways this could happen, including training willing volunteers, in the necessary technologies, provide systems and software for digitizing, to allow them to document their own culture from their own perspective. This could also encourage more members of the indigenous communities to become professionals, study archaeological and cultural subjects in college, to allow them the opportunities to become recognised academic experts in their own cultural heritage.

       In one of his one seminal works The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger warns us that the essence of technology is nothing technological, that is to say technology cannot be understood through its functionality, but only through our specifically technological engagement in the world [Heidegger 1977]. This could be tied to the current trend in indigenous and community archaeology. It is only through positive engagement of communities, and in particular indigenous communities, who should not be given the opportunity to take part in community-based projects, but instead, are giving us permission to carry out these projects. Permission to record aspects of their culture that they are happy sharing, in exchange for opportunities, such as training in heritage and culture and, importantly, ownership of their own contextual digital data.

          The Untapped Potential of Low-Cost Photogrammetry in Community-Based Archaeology, is a cohesive and strong paper on community-based archaeology. But it is only the beginning; of the recognition of the power Euro-American archaeologists had and has abused in the past and the opportunity that archaeologists now have, to really engage with the communities they are researching and documenting, from an engaged humanities point of view, rather than a scholarly, removed abstract. Haukaas and Hodgetts paper, published in the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage is the start, of a new way forward for archaeology; that is inclusive and digitally cutting edge.


1This is in the conclusion of the Haukaas/Hodgetts paper, although the quote is from Sonya Atalay, in her paper ‘Community-Based Archaeological: Research with, by and for Indigenous and Local communities’

2 Deirdre Ní Luasaigh ‏from Culture Ark, was a Keynote Speaker at Digitalis, a Digital Humanities conference held in UCC, April 2016.


Atalay, Sonya. (2012). ‘Community-Based Archaeologicay: Research With, by and        for  Indigenous and Local Communities’, Oakland: University of California Press.

Brown, Deirdre, Nicholas, George. (2012) Protecting indigenous cultural property in the age of digital democracy: Institutional and communal responses to Canadian First Nations and Ma ̄ori heritage concerns. Journal of Material Culture 17(3) 307–324

Gosden, Chris. (2012). Post Colonial Archaeology, Archaeological Theory Today, Edition 2. Edited by Ian Hodder. Polity Press. London. (Chapt 12)

Haukaas, Colleen, Hodgetts, Lisa M. (2016). The Untapped Potential of Low Cost Photogrammetry in Community-Based Archaeology: A Case Study from Banks Island, Arctic Canada. Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, 3:1, 40-46

Heidigger, Martin. (1977). The Questions Concerning Technology. The Question Concerning Technology. Garland Science. Germany

NEARCH. (2016). Web. New scenarios for a community-involved archaeology. http://www.nearch.eu

Zimmerman, Larry, J. (1999) Sharing Control of the Past / DebatingNAGPRAS’s Effects. Archaeology Archive, Web, Feb26th 1999. http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/native/debate.html

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