Jericho Mafjar Project

Archaeologists uncover benefits of a custom app


  • Determined to simplify data collection in the field and share finds with other researchers, Ph.D. candidate Michael Jennings created a FileMaker Go for iPad database for archaeology.


  • Higher Education


  • Used FileMaker Go in the field to gather archeological findings and share them with other researchers


  • Created instantly digitized, searchable and sharable record of excavations on high-profile digs such as Jericho Mafjar; moved from paper to searchable, easily shared digital records
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Much of what we know about the ancient world has been unearthed through archaeological excavations. With handheld picks, trowels and tape measures, archaeologists have uncovered the past. Yet ironically, many of their findings have remained buried, trapped on paper records in dusty basements, largely inaccessible to other researchers. But today, archaeologists at some of the world’s highest-profile digs are capturing details of their discoveries in the field and bringing them to light using custom apps developed using the FileMaker Platform.

"We document what we excavate on the spot with our custom app, recording data using established scientific principles," said Michael Jennings, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.

Traditionally, archeologists have relied on paper logs, lugging hefty binders around the world on airplanes. Data is sometimes lost, and findings may be affected by illegible handwriting. Information gathered in the field is often not entered into a computer until researchers are back home, thousands of miles from the site and months away from memories of the initial find.

According to Jennings, time wasted in manual data entry is better spent analyzing finds and making discoveries accessible to other researchers.

Now, everything we find is instantly digitized, searchable and sharable.

— Michael Jennings, Ph.D. Candidate, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of Chicago
Jericho Mafjar Project 1

Problem: missing paper records

Jennings worked on the Jericho Mafjar Project, focusing on Hisham’s Palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar site in the West Bank. Famed as one of the most important of the desert castles of the early Islamic period, Hisham’s Palace is a vital monument in the history of Islamic archaeology, featuring a lavish palace and great bath decorated with fine mosaics, elaborate stucco figures, stone sculptures and frescoes.

In addition to its beauty, Hisham’s Palace provides insights into life in the Jordan Valley in the 8th-11th centuries when Christians and Muslims lived as neighbors. In a rare collaboration, Palestinian and U.S. archaeologists are working on the site shoulder-to-shoulder.

At Jericho Mafjar, one of the main challenges faced by the research team when they began is that records for the northern area of the site, excavated by a Jordanian team in the 1960s, were missing. The current researchers had to start from scratch.

First, they examined each wall and architectural feature. Originally, the team used physical photographs and sketches, later transferring these records to databases on laptops.

According to Jehad Yasin, project field director, this process worked, but consumed too much time in laborious, after-the-fact data entry. Seeing that a field-worthy custom app would assist researchers by eliminating paper and double data entry, Yasin worked with Jennings to create a custom app for use on iPad devices and the Web. Jennings noted that building the custom app for iPad devices was exceptionally simple and fast due to the team’s use of the FileMaker Platform.

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Solution: modernize field research with a custom app

Today, using a custom app developed for the needs of the dig, the research team is modernizing archaeological recordkeeping.

When researchers reach a new excavation unit, they take pictures using the built-in camera on their iPad device, load the images directly into their custom app, draw a quick sketch on top and import it. Total documentation can be completed in minutes.

“Our custom app on iPads and on Web in the office contains all the necessary data in one record,” said Anthony Lauricella, area supervisor for the project.

The FileMaker Platform also allows research teams to adapt apps on an as-needed basis.

The team has been able to modify or add fields – adding a yes/no radio button indicating the presence of re-used blocks as part of a wall’s construction, for instance. All data about a wall or architectural feature is available in a click, making the information transparent to re-interpreters or future excavators.

"By creating preset lists, available via drop-down menus, for everything from soil composition and coin types to historical phasing, we have been able to both speed things up significantly and introduce standardization in responses,” said Jennings. “This better allows us to find patterns in the data.”

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The custom app also helps in analyzing research, making it easier to uncover the relationship between walls from different eras to explain the rise and fall of different civilizations and cultures within the city. To date, researchers have filled in more than 1,000 records forms.

Jennings said he could not imagine how much time this would have taken without the team’s custom apps - particularly in terms of keeping the relationships between walls updated on paper.

“Our custom app gives us a new-world solution for old-school archaeology,” said Jennings. “The trowel is still our most important tool for figuring out how the elements relate to one another – but having an app developed on the FileMaker Platform gives us a framework for organizing our observations and easily sharing them with other researchers around the world."

To learn more about the FileMaker Platform, download your free trial. To learn how to build your first custom app, visit the Custom App Academy to watch a series of free educational video tutorials.


Jericho Mafjar Project