2. Why Develop the WEB-CD Catalogue?

The long duration, large scale, limited parallels and very limited dating evidence from the Anglo-Saxon settlement site at West Heslerton have provided the basis for considerable reflection and re-evaluation of the results as the excavation progressed. Tremendous effort has been expended in defining the recording strategy and a great deal more in its implementation as a part of the data gathering process. It is essential that the results of this exercise be made readily available to all members of the project team in an easily accessible form. It is only in this way that hypotheses can be successfully tested, and scenarios developed that, when combined, will form the basis of the 'final' report. A report that is likely to offer multiple alternative interpretations rather than a single dogmatic view, a report that itself should be accompanied by the full data set made available digitally in a number of forms.  It seems that all too often the development of what we might call 'consumer archaeology', resulting from protective legislation such as Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 (PPG16) in England, is producing non-reflective interpretations from work that is so constrained both by limited funds and very limited site investigation that there is both little data and very limited use of primary data in the production of reports. Moreover, to the reader of so many excavation reports it is increasingly difficult to identify not only what the full record might have been but what has for some reason been omitted from the report.

No excavation is perfect and despite the most determined ambition to collect 'good data', all excavation archives are subject to problems arising from the difficult working environment, limited time and resources, all of which combine to impose compromise on every aspect of the excavation and recording process. Data collection, despite careful attention to objectivity, is subject both to varying focus, as ideas are introduced and are discarded, and to the subjective and intuitive nature of much of the interpretation process. There is nothing wrong with interpretations made in the field on the basis of an individual or collective view of one or other aspect of a site, for this is one of the most important and exciting dynamics of the excavation process. However, at the analytical stage, the interpretation should be supported by the collected data, not so much to provide a blow by blow account but to give context to the ideas articulated in the archive and ultimately in the report. In the past, the need to work towards 'archival' quality data sets has led to considerable re-working of the primary data, for example by 'inking in' the pencil section drawings. No matter how carefully this is undertaken it does change the source data and, in our view, digital scanning of the pencil original both preserves the primacy of the original and constitutes a considerable time and therefore cost saving.

An initial part of the analytical process at West Heslerton was to define and test a methodology for the distribution of the archived data to the many contributing specialists so that they are fully informed not only with regard to the source of the materials each is examining but also the remainder of the assemblages and the broader context of that material. A simple distribution of databases would not be satisfactory, since this would require a detailed understanding of the databases, their functionality and content and, additionally, would require extensive support from the core team. Extensive training might be required which could detract from the work in hand. The core members of the project team use G-Sys, a geographic data management system designed from the outset for archaeological use,  as the primary data management tool. This provides a truly dynamic environment for the integration of digitised 3D plans, databases and imagery and, whilst individual members of the team will be able to draw upon this as a resource in their analysis, it is best that such work is undertaken with other team members, all with the ability to draw upon full assemblages, share data and ask questions. Ultimately it is proposed that a Java application be built which can draw dynamically upon the full resource. This, however, lies in the future and its development should in no way be tied to the immediate data distribution process. One option would be to put the full catalogue on a WEB server. However, the time and cost of downloading the data, which needs the support of high resolution graphics. is such that this is not a good solution given the fact that most members of the project team have only relatively slow modems for their internet connection.

What was needed was a dynamic catalogue bringing together the full range of data and interpretation, to which new information could easily be added, yet leaving an audit trail through the data and its evolving interpretation. The catalogue should employ a standardised methodology and be produced in a form that would require only the most elementary computing skills to be useful. It should incorporate much more than simple lists and should include both the raw evidence and the initial interpretations. Such a catalogue should represent the key groupings of contexts - their structural, spatial and stratigraphic relationships with both the material culture and environmental data, presented in summary and also in detailed form. In addition it should also be prepared in a publishable form, thus reducing the need for later re-working.

A feature of the record at West Heslerton is the use of 'Master Contexts' which allow the team to define related context groups, such as all the post-holes relating to a single structure, the fills of pits, or contexts relating to a single phase of an enclosure complex. As part of the full data check all contexts are related to a Master Context; where a single isolated feature is apparently unrelated to any larger group, that feature itself is designated a Master Context. Some groups identified in the field were assigned to Master Contexts during excavation but in most cases the detailed Master Contexts were identified during the analytical phase. By ensuring that all contexts are related to a Master Context, verification and checking to confirm that all contexts have been considered and presented in the catalogue is relatively simple. As the analysis proceeds, new Masters are defined which in turn can connect other Master Contexts. For example, if three structures are defined as a property at a single phase, the property may be given a Master of its own. The use of this recording system should facilitate the presentation of interpretation, since the number of individual records are reduced but can still be accessed from the Master record. The need to encompass database, plan, section and photographic data within a single system made this an ideal candidate for the application of Internet tools to generate a catalogue which could be accessed by anybody using an internet browsing package such as Netscape Navigator. By distributing the data on CD-ROM in what we term a WEB-CD, the normal restrictions imposed by slow Internet access which requires a minimalistic approach to graphics in particular do not apply. High resolution images can be distributed as part of the data set which can  be accessed quickly from the CD-ROM. 

The data relating to each Master Context is compiled into a single WEB page. Each page includes the plan at a standard scale, the basic structural statistics, a summary description, matrix information, section drawings of each feature scanned from the pencil originals, and the core data from the context, object, faunal and environmental records, including summary lists and totals. At the initial stage few entries are complete as they require specialist input, further discussion and phasing information to be added as the work progresses. In order to secure an audit trail through the data and any changes in the interpretation of each Master Context, additions and information regarding parallels are managed through additional pages linked to the Master WEB page.

Having defined the composition of the content it was realised that multiple methods of access would be required, to allow both instant access to any particular context and spatial access to any particular part of the site. A single page lists all the contexts present in the data set with a link to the relevant WEB page. By using a simple 'Find in/on' page search, included as part of the internet browser, any record can be accessed. For spatial searches, clickable maps generated by G-Sys are used to allow the user to browse through the site-space, jumping in or out of particular structures and feature complexes at will.


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Last updated: Mon Oct 5 1998