[Internet Archaeology]

Internet Archaeology Archive: Paper given at the Society of Museum Archaeologists annual conference in St Albans, 15th-16th December 1996

Electronic Journals and Archiving

Alan Vince


This paper is divided into three parts. In the first, I describe at some length the archives of the City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit. I worked in Lincoln between 1988 and 1995, first producing an electronic archive of excavations carried out between 1972 and 1987, and then being part of a team involved in the analysis and publication of those excavations. In the second part, I look at the way in which Internet Archaeology, the electronic journal for archaeology of which I am the Managing Editor, has dealt with the division between publication and archive. Finally, in the third part of the paper, I re-examine the division of archaeological fieldwork and research into published and unpublished material and question how this concept will survive the inevitable transfer of most archaeological data onto computers.

Part One: An Electronic Archaeological Archive

The electronic archive of the City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit was created in two clear stages. These correspond to the Site Archive and Research Archive as defined in English Heritage's 'Management of Archaeological Projects' (2nd Edn). I should point out, though, that this division is perhaps clearer in the case of past excavations in Lincoln than it will be anywhere in future, since in 1988 we were faced, essentially, with records created on paper, drawing film and photographic emulsion (and the physical finds and samples removed from the site). Computers were not regularly used except as word processors. This clear split is obviously less easy to maintain when the post-excavation work on an archaeological site starts with a computerised site archive.

Site Records

As with most archaeological fieldwork, Lincoln excavations were recorded either using notebooks or some sort of record sheet or card pre-printed with field names. These formal records, made to serve as a permanent record of the excavation, are supplemented by formal measured plans, sections and elevations and by informal sketches and notes. The latter are actually the most revealing documents since they show why an excavation proceeded along certain lines and where the excavators laboured under misapprehensions. As a first stage in creating the electronic archive, computerised indices were created of all paper records and certain records were then transcribed, in all or part, onto computer. Stratigraphic records and finds registers were checked as they were transcribed, so that the final archive was not simply an unintelligent copy of the paper record but a database in which one could have some confidence in the quality of the data (although, obviously, it still depended on the quality of the original excavation and post-excavation procedures).

The Research Archive

The research archive was created in a situation where computer access was not a serious problem, although temporary recording sheets were often used rather than recording directly in an electronic medium. It consisted of a database recording the phasing and interpretation of every recorded deposit and an on-line description of each context group together with identifications and quantification of artefacts and ecofacts from the excavations. There are two levels of data in the archive. Firstly, there are records whose prime purpose was to enable the potential of the material for further study to be determined and secondly there are records whose prime purpose is to allow inferences about activity on the site itself to be made. These inferences might be chronological, pertaining to site formation, or of more general application. The perceived purpose of the record affected the care with which it was created and the design and relationships of the data table. As with the site archive, however, the initial distinction between the two types of research archive record is not really sustainable. In certain cases, for example, the amount of work required to demonstrate that a class of finds was worthy of further study was no less than that required to make the permanent record and in many others the amount of disputed work (ie the discrepancy between the effort required to produce the full record and that required to assess the potential value of making that record) was very low. It is better to think of the data as belonging to two, or more, levels of detail. All finds ought to be recorded to a certain basic level and these records replaced or enhanced should a successful argument for further work be made.

Furthermore, as work on the Lincoln electronic archive progressed so it became clearer and clearer that post-excavation work was not linear. Work on pottery and other finds, animal bone assemblages, botanical samples and so on was constantly producing results which led to a better understanding of the site stratigraphy. The model which we had followed:

was simply not suited to the work we were doing. Nor could we modify our methods to make them fit this linear model.

To give an example, we could take a site where, through analysis of the excavation records and the recovered finds we could assign each element of the site stratigraphy both a value on the scale of reliability of excavation and a value based on the likelihood of the artefacts within it being contemporary with the deposit (ie a residuality index). Presenting dating evidence as a simple list of latest finds from the deposits would clearly be misleading without reference to these other factors. On the other hand, presenting all the datable artefacts (or even worse all the artefacts/ecofacts whose presence/absence might affect the likely date or phase of a deposit) would clearly be impossible in a printed publication. Furthermore, as research progressed so various working hypotheses failed and had to be replaced: type X might be earlier rather than later than type Y; type Z might actually be divisible into two types Za and Zb of differing date or interpretation. What seemed to be required, therefore, was the means to publish a statement about an excavations date and interpretation which would both be a statement of current thinking - a synthesis of our conclusions - and an entry point for anyone wanting to work with the archive. Periodically, it might be necessary to re-examine this statement and perhaps replace all or part with a revised one. Whilst the Lincoln post-excavation work was probably one of the most extreme instances yet tackled of trying to integrate the results of a large number of interventions, I do not think that this means that conclusions based on our experience are invalid. If anything, perhaps, problems were raised on our project which have not yet become evident on many other sites. To summarise, therefore, I think that the Lincoln post-excavation project demonstrated that it is necessary to make arrangements for the continued study of the site records, both the site archive and research archive. It also suggested that the conceptual difference between the various types of archive may be real but is bound to be blurred. In any case, the entire archive - whether recorded on site or off and whether recorded for particular purposes or for posterity - needs to be maintained as a working system.

Part Two: Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology is an electronic journal which resides on the World Wide Web. It is by no means the first example of the use of the Internet to publish archaeological research but is the first, probably, which has attempted to use the Internet as a permanent medium for the publication of that research. A comparison might be between pre-prints and magazine articles - which constitute grey literature - and journals of record. The audience for the former consists of fellow workers and interested laymen whilst the audience for the latter may not yet be born. As with all such artificial constructs the boundaries are fuzzy. Seminal work can be published in obscure, hard-to-obtain media whilst our journals are bound to contain some work of no lasting value. Nevertheless, the distinction is important since it affects the way in which information is presented and the choice of information to include.

The first issue of Internet Archaeology was published on the Web in September 1996 and contained papers on a variety of subjects. Three of these papers were concerned with methodology: the potential of Virtual Reality Markup Language for archaeology, the use of high-resolution magnetometry in site excavation and the application of a statistical technique - Kernel Density Estimates - to archaeological data. The remainder were all based on the study of the results of archaeological excavations and the artefacts found on them.

Roman Amphoras

Paul Tyers published a survey of amphoras from Roman Britain (Tyers 1996). This work followed on from the pioneer work of David Peacock and David Williams and took their work further by being able to plot the findspots of amphoras throughout Britain, and in several cases elsewhere in the Western Empire, and then to draw conclusions about the trade which resulted in these distribution patterns. Unlike a printed publication, it is possible both to look at the published distribution maps and to find out more about them. By using a mouse to click on the maps it is first possible to get a larger, more detailed, map and then to obtain information on the findspots themselves. Since this is one of the first works of its kind, it is not possible to go further but clearly a dedicated researcher would want to be able to look at a map, get a list of the findspots and then look at on-line publications for each one. Questions might include:

Looked at from the point of view of a single excavation report, papers like this could cut out a tremendous amount of background information which today would have to be repeated, on the assumption that the report would be unintelligible without this information. Looked at from the viewpoint of a museum, one would want to be able to access this report from the museums own electronic records and to be able to update the report in the light of future research. Most museums keep copies of publications which include information on artefacts from their collections and in many cases you will find valuable annotations in these copies. Perhaps other specialists have queried the identification, or have had scientific analysis undertaken which confirms it. Graffiti or painted inscriptions may have been recognised or stamps identified and classified. The vessel may be included in an exhibition, or published in a museums catalogue. At present, a researcher could only access such additional information by writing to each museum in turn.

Clay Pipe Kilns

Dr Allan Peacey undertook a study of the archaeological evidence for the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes which we have published in parallel with a traditional printed monograph, published by British Archaeological Reports (Peacey 1996a; 1996b). This study involved the study and interpretation of excavation plans and the classification and quantification of pipe-making waste. This material is very disparate, some now being in museum or archaeological unit collections and the remainder still in private hands. Dr Peacey has used his own fabric classification - based on the preparation of the clay rather than the source of the raw materials - and has devised and applied a classification for all the bits of kiln furniture, and furniture supplements (ie bits of clay utilised during the loading process rather than being pre-formed, fired and reused). This is a good example of a specialised classification which would quite likely cut across the systems employed by the bodies responsible for the post-excavation analysis or curation of the collections. Here too it has been possible to plot the distribution of different types of evidence and to retrieve this information by findspot, based on the use of clickable maps. At various points, this paper too ought to point back to other published or archive material. There is no consideration of the co-location of other industrial evidence, for example, nor is there any possibility of studying the topography of these production sites in the period immediately prior to the foundation of the pipe manufactory or to examine the loss of coins or use of ceramics on manufacturing sites. To make these studies you need access to a fuller excavation record, as you also would in order to check Dr Peacey's conclusions.


Finally, we come to the paper by Philippa Tomlinson and Allan Hall on the archaeological evidence for food plants in the British Isles (Tomlinson & Hall 1996). The paper is in three parts of which the first is a rehearsal of the type of evidence found and the factors affecting its survival and interpretation. The second part is the main body of the paper, a survey of plant use through time illustrated by summary tables showing the number of deposits of each major period with evidence for the use of a particular foodplant. Part three is a summary of trends in the data and a comparison of the archaeological evidence with that derived from documentary sources. Except for the most common foodplants, every statement in the second part of this paper could, and should, be hedged around with qualifying statements about the variable quality of the excavations, the poor dating of many archaeobotanical samples, and the exact nature of the evidence. However, such an approach would have been tedious in the extreme to read. The alternative with a printed paper is to rely on your judgement of the capability of the writer to have made all of these decisions for you or to expand the paper into a monograph accompanied by a mass of tables containing the detail. However, in this case we are able to refer on-line to a complete database of published archaeobotanical samples complete up to 1992. A copy of the ArchaeoBotanical Computer Database (or ABCD) sits in the background waiting to serve up precisely this data. If you want to know all the sites from which apple remains have been recorded it will tell you, and it is then possible to go further into the database and see a summary of the stratigraphic details of each sample, a list of all the taxa from those samples and so on.

The ABCD too is a specialist database but, unlike that for clay pipe kilns, it is one with a very wide application. The database allows the authors to record all the nuances of identification beloved by plant taxonomists. It is, in its present form, what is known as metadata - data about data - but there is little in the average archaeobotanists published data which is not present in the ABCD. In other words, if everyone had guaranteed access to an on-line copy of the ABCD there would be little justification in publishing archaeobotanical data in any other format. Furthermore, since the ABCD was constructed to make sense of data of widely varying quality, there is no reason why the same structure could not be used for every situation - from a record of a rapid assessment through to the most detailed study.

Future issues of Internet Archaeology will include papers which take these methods of blurring the distinction between data and report into the area of excavation reports, field surveys and the analysis of metal artefacts, as well as continuing with the publication of papers on the applications of new technologies to archaeology.

Part Three: The Future of Excavation Publications

Integrating my conclusions on the shape of archaeological excavation archives based on the Lincoln post-excavation project and electronic publication based on Internet Archaeology, one comes up with some interesting conclusions. The first question that arises is what ought to happen to papers such as those by Drs Tyers, Peacey, Tomlinson and Hall when new data become available. With a print publication, eventually the author, or another author, will produce a new survey, sometimes merely adding new data and sometimes re-examining or augmenting the previous data. All three papers would benefit from the addition of new data. Every year, for example, the Journal of Roman Pottery Studies publishes an index of pottery reports published in the preceding year together with keywords indicating the pottery types present in that report. Once in a while new clay pipe kilns turn up. Historic Scotland is funding the Environmental Archaeology Unit at York University to augment their ABCD records for Scotland. Will this data appear in Internet Archaeology, and, if so, in what form?

There seems to be widespread agreement that the value of the databases accompanying these papers, and their future companions, will be enhanced by their being kept up-to-date. However, if the original papers data is simply updated it would no longer be possible to maintain the connection between text and data. The text might say that a particular amphora type is unknown before the 4th century whilst the accompanying distribution map could include new 3rd-century examples. The user needs to know what data were considered by the authors so as to evaluate the use those authors made of the data. The solution seems to be to publish supplements, so that it is possible to have an extra box to click in each case stating something like 'For data collected between 1996 and 1999 click here'. These supplements ought to be accompanied by papers by their authors assessing the value of this new data, referring back to their original papers and either patting themselves on the backs or admitting that new data had led to new interpretations.

In each of the examples given from Issue 1 of Internet Archaeology a good case can be made for this data living in the journal - the databases are either clearly individual specialists working tools (as with the clay pipes and amphora papers) or cut across any possible national interests (the ABCD already covers Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales). What happens, however, when we come to publish a report on a major archaeological excavation? Surely we would be encroaching onto ground already occupied by museums? Museums are the recipients of excavation archives, and if the the excavation was carried out by museum staff it is possible that the excavation records are fully integrated into those of the parent museum from the start. Having studied the IT systems of several museums - both large and small - it seems to me that there is little prospect of museums having the resources and skills needed to integrate the variety of electronic systems they are likely to receive alongside the more traditional finds and paper records into their own records. There are no easy solutions and it may be that the current system, whereby archaeological contractors are employed to undertake a piece of fieldwork, produce an archive and perhaps a report and then to pass over total responsibility for the records they have created to another body, is fatally flawed if at the end of the day we are left with the records of a plethora of unrelatable individual interventions.

I would suggest that one model for the smaller museums to follow would be for an archaeological repository to subcontract its electronic data storage to an external data bank, such as the Archaeology Data Service and for journals like Internet Archaeology to make links to this data bank rather than maintain the entire electronic archive as a part of the paper. Once data had been handed across to a museum, it also assumes responsibility for its maintenance and it would be for the museum, or its chosen subcontractors, to keep the data up to date and to control access. In the case of our Internet Archaeology papers I would expect the split in responsibility between the journal and the museum to be easily definable, using the MDA Spectrum essentials as a guide (MDA 1996). Any data relating to the curation, display or documentation of an artefact would easily fit into this framework. Other datasets, such as the specialist databases, wouild perhaps be best treated as published sources with a note (hotlink) to their existence entered into the museums database.

The larger museums might be different. Already, several have their own IT departments and websites. That at Manchester actually allows access to real data - a partial listing of the archaeological collections - and others include photographs and descriptions of archaeological finds. It is very likely that these developments will continue, whatever the financial state of the museum world at present. The museums which either have already or will inherit major archaeological excavation archives. for example the British Museum, the City and County Museum at Lincoln, the Museum of London, Norwich Castle Museum, the Verulamium Museum, Winchester City Museum and the Yorkshire Museum, may eventually obtain the personnel and expertise to build and maintain their own electronic archaeological archives or add the functionality of an archaeological archive to their existing documentation systems. This could be encouraged by agreeing to accept one data model and funding its implementation on the individual institutions computer networks as a consortium. However, this would require both the will, on the part of museums, and a perceived need, on the part of the academic community to lobby for funds.

Many years ago, the DoE (and subsequently English Heritage) did its best to encourage the formation of unpublished archaeological archives within museums. That at the Museum of London was probably the best funded and most ambitious in the UK. It is very unfortunate that it was developed at a time when computers were in common use but the use of networks and distributed databases were not. It is highly likely that a revamped, on-line MoL archaeological archive would attract many users - certainly more than ever turned up to use the old DUA archive reports. In London, and probably at many of the museums mentioned above, all the pieces of an electronic archive are probably available in one form or another and it would not be an impossible task to recast the data in a more user-friendly, internet-aware format. Furthermore, several of the publications on London would make excellent papers for Internet Archaeology. Perhaps here there is scope for collaboration and a joint funding proposal?


English Heritage (1991) Management of Archaaeological Projects, English Heritage

MDA (1996) SPECTRUM Essentials Museum Documentation Association (http://www.open.gov.uk/mdocassn/)

Peacey, Allan (1996a) The Development of the Clay Tobacco Pipe Kiln in the British Isles Internet Archaeol 1 (http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue1/peacey_index.html)

Peacey, Allan (1996b) The Development of the Clay Tobacco Pipe Kiln in the British Isles British Archaeol Rep Brit Ser 246

Tomlinson, Philippa & Hall, Allan R (1996) A review of the archaeological evidence for food plants from the British Isles: an example of the use of the Archaeobotanical Computer Database (ABCD) Internet Archaeol 1 (http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue1/tomlinson_index.html).

Tyers, Paul (1996) Roman Amphoras in Britain Internet Archaeol 1 (http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue1/tyers/index.html).


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