2. Recording the Past: PAS and the NYCC HER

The introduction gives a broad brush overview of what I consider to be the main factors affecting the development of HERs - the influence of the OS system, the digitisation of HERs and the development of standards. The next section will give a brief description of the NYCC HER and PAS in light of these main drivers.

Portable Antiquities Scheme

The Portable Antiquities Scheme is purely focused on the recording of artefacts and their locations (Pett et al. 2003), and has involved liaison with HERs. This new project has caused HERs to reconsider how they record artefact data (Addison 1999; Fernie and Gilman 2000, C11). The history and rationale of the PAS can be found elsewhere (Portable Antiquities Scheme, Chitty and Edwards 2004; Dobinson and Dennison 1995). The key points for this project are that PAS records artefacts in a web-enabled database built to conform to the MIDAS and INSCRIPTION Standards.

The experience of the PAS, and attempts at data exchange with HERs, has made HER officers more aware of the problems of incorporating findspot data into HERs in a way that can help DC decisions. This has been highlighted by the fact that in many cases, artefacts recorded by the PAS are only to a parish level, despite the fact that the importance of findspot locational data is recognised within the PAS (Pett et al. 2003, 21). This problem holds particularly true for the Yorkshire area (Simon Holmes, pers. comm.) and is generally due to the fact that many reporters to the scheme, often metal detectorists, are reluctant to give the precise location of the reported artefacts. The PAS does not seem to have grappled with the problem of GIS mapping of their artefacts records, or at least any such work is not accessible via their website.

The development of the North Yorkshire SMR/HER

The North Yorkshire County Council Archaeology Service was set up in October 1975 in the Planning Department, with one aim being to compile the SMR. From an early stage, it was realised that computerisation would help officers to cope with the quantity of data, and led to the development of a bespoke software database: the 'North Yorkshire Archaeological Record System'. The development of the North Yorkshire System took place on a mainframe computer and was a complex piece of software, designed to allow the input of data to a high level of detail, down to individual artefacts, and for this data to be interrogated geographically as well as thematically.

The only difference between a site record and an artefact record within the system was that a different record type was entered in the appropriate field. Otherwise, all the data fields were used in the same way, allowing artefact records to be geographically recorded individually, and recorded in some detail. In some areas this led to the creation of quite complex records. For example, the hierarchical nature of the system meant that an artefact could be created as the top level record, and in this way was usually used to map stray findspots. However, at lower levels an artefact could be recorded as being linked to a particular site. In some cases, the level of detail was such that an artefact could be mapped to the particular trench that it came from within an excavation. As each of these records could also be geographically recorded, when GIS became available, the plots for such areas were extremely dense and often confusing. Over time the system further evolved into a number of discrete subsets, but for the relevant sections of these, the key main data source was the OS cards for the area, and other sources where available. It should be obvious, therefore, that the OS system has influenced the data in the NYCC SMR.

All systems change

The database was downloaded off the mainframe system in 1995 onto a Windows-based PC, as part of a general restructuring of the County's IT systems, and was quickly adapted into an Access database with GIS (Mapinfo) capability. For some time, a significant backlog of data had been building up for the archaeology section to input into the system, as a result both of pressures of work and the complexity of the system. Between 1996 and 1998 an SMR Data Audit was carried out and, in 1999, Bullens Consultants were commissioned to carry out a review of the HER system and look at options for development. The eventual outcome of these processes was the decision to adopt the Exegesis Software. In April 2002 the NYCC System was migrated to the Exegesis HBSMR software version 2.10. The transfer involved the migration of a number of disparate Monument databases into two main modules of the Exegesis software; the Monuments Module and the Finds Module. Similarly, other data were also migrated into the appropriate modules (Events, Consultations, and Source and Archives Modules).

THE NYCC experience

The recording of artefacts within the NYCC system can perhaps serve as a suitable example of the sorts of issues that HERs have with artefacts generally. The system as originally designed allowed the recording of artefacts to a great level of detail, including to a particular excavation trench. There are records showing locations of chance finds, as well as those showing records which are only known to a generic parish level or rough geographic location. In reality, the recording of artefacts to a trench level was rapidly abandoned, as it became obvious that recording to this level of detail would take far too long (Smith 1997). The backlog problem, which still exists, means that there is also a significant element of artefact data which is in the wider non-digital HER but has no index within the digital system. Finally, the mapping of artefacts highlights the general HER problems with GIS. Most findspots are recorded as point data within the GIS, even those which are only known to a level of precision which would suggest they would be better mapped against e.g. a parish polygon. OS-based records taken from 'marginalia' type records often cluster on the intersection of kilometre square grid lines.


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Last updated: Wed April 25 2007