Open source archaeology, a brief users guide (I)

A digital world like ours has many initiatives that perhaps we do not know, but that offer us open-source software for any task we can imagine. From whole operative systems (OS) to little programs for specific tasks, communities of coders work for free on alternatives to firmware software that in some cases can make us wonder why we still pay for programs when we can donate to this initiatives and enjoy great software. My work on GIS and GRASS was of course my first exposure to this technology but my best example would be LibreOffice: I have not used the Office Suit for more than a decade, and I have never encountered a problem on my research or on my publications.

App menu of ArcheOS. Look at all the archeological software ready to be used!

The idea for this post derives from the testing of ArcheOS, a GNU/Linux distribution designed by Arc-Team s.n.c. It is a fantastic tool for those of you interested on open-source software. But for many of you who are used to Mac or Windows, jumping into ArcheOS could be a big change. That is why I thought that perhaps a step by step guide of open-source in archaeology could be of some help for those of you who want to try without the risk of making too many changes into your computers. Although some programs in these posts come from my own experience, the inspiration to write them comes from ArcheOS, so even if you do not want to consider to install it, please have a look. It is totally worth it. Finally, I would like to remind you that many of these programs can be used in other OS such as Windows or MAC, so if you think trying a new OS is too much for you remember that many of these programs can be tried as well in your current OS.

Let us start for the beginning. Why trying another OS? This is a very personal decision, and I wonder whether there is actually an answer to it. What I can do tell you is that I felt attracted to Linux-based systems because at that time I felt it gave me a much better and direct control of the OS than other firmwares, Windows in my case. The price to pay, less user-friendliness. That is why the arrival of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution supported by Canonical Foundation, made such a difference. If you have ever used Google Play you would be surprise to know that I have been using Ubuntu Software Center to install my programs well before Android (another Linux based) arrived to our lives. The best about Ubuntu is that it will make your transition from other OS rather easy, and you can be sure that regular updates will be released from Canonical. The problem is that you need to create your own archaeological computer by installing the different programs one by one, and sometimes is not as easy as it sounds. Another thing we have lost from my times of Mepis is that now the graphics of Ubuntu, specially the Unity desktop, are much heavier. Linux distributions used to provide very efficient OS and one of the characteristics was to reduce the graphics compared to Windows or Mac. A solution for this and for those like me who miss the KDE desktop is Lubuntu, no more no less than a light version of Ubuntu. Also very resilient and, in my opinion, an excellent choice for archaeologists, who can recycle old laptops for fieldwork with a OS that can deal with the hardware limitations of outdated devices while using an up-to-date OS and software. A must-have in my opinion.

What about the OS that inspired these series? ArcheOS is a ready-to-use archaeological OS, and that will save you the issue of installing and setting many programs you would need. The only issue I find with it is that the releases take more time to be available (completely comprehensible, since these are prepared by a team of volunteers), although you need to remember that, being a Linux distribution you can also take updates from the on-line repositories. There is no question that this is a very useful OS, and even if you do not install it you can just be amazed about the amount of software you have available for archaeological research. But if you are just getting started in freeware and archaeology perhaps this is too much, and starting with Ubuntu or Lubuntu would be a better option.

So, how can you check them? A good way of having a look around is to create a bootable flash-drive. This way you can launch the OS when restarting your computer without installing it and having to create a partition in your hard-disk. Best way to do it is to have an .ISO of the OS you want to use and a software called Rufus. Quite honestly, this explanation in the Ubuntu Help Center is much better than anything I can create, so just have a look and get your flash-drive ready. See you soon for the next lesson.

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