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Case Study: The Archaeology Data Service

The Archaeology Data Service (ADS) was established on 1 October 1996 with the mission to preserve, catalogue, and describe digital data generated in the course of archaeological research and to facilitate its re-use (Richards 1997; Richards et al. 1999). These activities are inseparable, as unless digital data are actively curated they will not be available to future scholars and unless researchers are going to re-use data there is little point in expending effort attempting to preserve them. Its geographical remit was wide, covering all archaeological research conducted by those based within the UK.

Core funding for the ADS comes from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB). The JISC is the body charged with developing information systems for UK Higher Education. Initially its main role was to provide grants to universities to enable the purchase of expensive mainframe computers; later its role shifted to the network infrastructure, particularly the JANET network, and more recently the provision of data content through its Data Services, and research and development through grant programmes such as eLib. From 2000 the JISC's remit was extended to include colleges of Further Education. From 1999 additional funding was provided by the AHRB, the principal funding body for arts and humanities research within the UK higher education sector. This reflects an interest, inherited from the British Academy, in ensuring that the archival future of the results of research funding was secure, and a realisation that it is inefficient to fund fresh data collection activities when vital digital research data might already have been collected elsewhere.

The ADS was set up as part of the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS). It is one of five disciplinary-defined distributed service providers, managed by a central Executive (Burnard and Short 1994). Two of the other service providers were already established in another guise, comprising the Oxford Text Archive (OTA), based in Oxford University Computing Service, and the History Data Service (HDS), based within the well-established social sciences Data Archive at Essex University. The remaining two services were also newly formed, comprising the Performing Arts Data Service (PADS) in the University of Glasgow, and the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS) at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design.

The bid to establish the ADS was developed by a consortium of university departments of archaeology, acting together with the Council for British Archaeology (Richards et al. 1999, 127-9; Wise and Richards 1999, 138-9). The ADS is hosted in an academic research and teaching department at the University of York where it enjoys close links with members of academic staff, but many consortium members have also retained an active involvement in the management of the ADS, and in activities such as the production of policies and guidelines.

The absence of a standard institutional framework for the AHDS service providers partly reflects the bidding process, but also the lack of existing exemplars and an interest from the JISC in experimenting with different institutional models. The assumption underlying the provision of disciplinary specific services is that subject expertise is required at every stage, from the creation of a dataset, through to its preservation, and assistance with re-use. Validation of data and documentation requires knowledge of the research value of the data. This model has met with varied success in the different disciplines represented. The performing and visual arts cover such a broad and disparate set of sub-disciplines that it has been difficult for these services to develop a sense of ownership from stakeholder communities, whereas in archaeology there is a clearer sense of community identity. Another problem with the distributed model is that users may fail to understand the roles of the respective parts, or may even fail to appreciate that they are related. There are also inevitable tensions between core and periphery and anxieties from funding bodies about their level of control of decentralised structures. In 2002 this led to some centralisation of service provision and a rebranding of the service providers as AHDS Centres for X, although in recognition that the ADS had developed a well-established identity it was agreed that the ADS brand would be retained, at least for the medium term, with the strapline that it hosted the AHDS Centre for Archaeology.

This distinction recognises the extent to which archaeology is cross-sectoral and stands out amongst the humanities for the amount of research which takes place outside of an educational establishment. Indeed, within the UK most data collection takes place within a commercial environment, with monitoring from central or local government. On the other hand there is tremendous potential demand for access to primary data from university students and researchers. It was recognised from the outset that the ADS could not operate solely within the academic sector and that, to be effective, it would need to establish a niche within the complex network of existing public and private organisations operating within the historic environment sector. This was further complicated by the different systems operating within the various constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, for instance, the National Monuments Record is maintained by the RCAHMS and has a statutory archival role for all archaeological interventions in Scotland (Historic Scotland 1996) although its coverage may be incomplete for private ventures such as university-based projects. In England the former RCHME was merged with English Heritage in 1999 and became the English Heritage NMR. The former RCHME policy was to provide a selective archive for the paper records of projects deemed to be of national importance. At a local level the archives, including both the finds and the paper, and any digital records, were expected to go to local museums but outside major institutions such as the Museum of London there was no provision for curating digital data. In both Scotland and England the regional or county Sites and Monuments Records, each with their own archival policies, added an additional tier of regulation, but very few explicitly referred to provision for digital data in the specifications for archaeological work which they drew up. In Wales, the RCAHMW maintains an index level record to sites and monuments, but most archives have been retained by the four Welsh trusts who run the SMRs and also carry out the majority of the fieldwork. In Northern Ireland the Department of the Environment, through the Monuments and Buildings Record (MBR), licences all excavation and requires archival deposition. However, it should also be noted that irrespective of policy, when the ADS was established no National Monuments Record had archived a single digital dataset and although some were aware of the problem, in some cases this had simply led to such data being turned away. From the beginning the structure of the ADS needed to reflect this complex landscape and an Advisory Committee was established, representing all the major stakeholders.

Inevitably there were some concerns from existing bodies about what role this new player would take and some initial energies were directed towards allaying suspicions and emphasising that where there were existing bodies, the role of the ADS would be to facilitate access to their collections rather than duplicating activities. Fortunately technical developments, such as interoperability, have set the trend for moves away from monolithic centralised systems and towards the distributed model, as promoted by the AHDS, and by the ADS particularly in the HEIRNET report Mapping Information Resources (Baker et al. 1999). Under this model the emphasis is upon targeting specific user groups and whilst public bodies have been under increasing pressure to make their resources widely accessible to an audience drawn primarily from schools and the general public, the ADS has focussed on the academic community, whilst recognising that the professional archaeological community will also benefit from resources provided for those with a high degree of archaeological knowledge. Thus the ADS is able to provide a shop window into the higher education sector for those sectors which were in danger of becoming divorced from them. During the late 1990s the JISC was developing the model of the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER), a loose confederation of distributed services and archives linked by adherence to common standards and protocols. In reflecting the structure of archaeological research the ADS has found itself in the special position of providing a bridge between the DNER and external networks, such as those for schools, libraries, and museums.

A key reason for the success of the ADS has been the support of research funding bodies and their eagerness to embrace the cause of digital preservation and access. In part this was fortuitous, with ADS filling a clear and identified need; in part timely, given governmental pressures to provide public access to information, particularly through the use of Internet technologies. For those working within a traditional academic environment the majority of funding bodies either recommend, or in most cases now require, the digital data which results from their awards to be offered to the AHDS for long-term preservation. For those undertaking archaeological research that includes the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, the Carnegie Trust, the Wellcome Institute, the Council for British Archaeology, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. For science-based archaeology the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has also designated ADS as the approved data archive. In addition, the Society of Antiquaries of London requires its grant-holders to offer digital research data to the ADS, unless this is precluded by specific archival requirements abroad.

Agreements with research funding bodies are necessary to raise the profile of digital archiving within the academic community. Surveys of Leverhulme and British Academy grant-holders (Austin 1998) revealed significant numbers of digital research products without a secure archival future. Nonetheless the academic community has proved slow to deposit data. In part this reflects the long lead-in time for research projects, and the need to plan digital archiving from the outset. However, it also reflects the low academic priority given to the creation of an ordered and well-documented archive, and the length of time required for this. Academic priorities in the United Kingdom are determined by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and peer-reviewed publication is seen as the ultimate goal of every project. There is a need to accord a similar status to archives, which certainly should become more straightforward as the distinction between archive and publication becomes blurred, but may require the academic refereeing of archives.

There is also the long-standing need to overcome the feeling of personal ownership of data, and the reluctance to allow others free access to one's cherished data, despite all codes of ethics emphasising that prompt release is a key attribute of the professional archaeologist (IFA Code of Conduct). Rahtz (1988) identified this reluctance as early as 1988 when he tried to establish an Archaeological Information Exchange, a precursor of the ADS. Another aspect of the reluctance to make data available via another organisation is the not-invented here syndrome. In the 1980s the annual proceedings of the Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference were packed with examples of locally developed relational database management systems. In the 2000s archaeologists each develop web-based database applications on local university servers without heeding the costs of migration to common standards should they move on and their past employer lose interest in their research.

On the other hand, the ADS is not required to accept all the data offered to it and some form of selectivity is appropriate. Preservation carries a cost and it is important to establish the re-use potential of any dataset before expending resources on its preservation. Indeed, for some files with little re-use value, hardcopy printouts and rescanning may provide the most cost-effective means of archiving should the demand arise. The ADS Collections Policy focuses on the quality of the data, the completeness of the documentation, and the re-use potential. There has also been an effort to develop strengths in particular thematic areas, such as databases of archaeological dates.

For the commercial and public historic environment sectors there is the need for clear requirements to deposit digital data alongside other archival material, enforced within the planning process. The curatorial sector hold the key to policing this as through their specifications for work, county archaeologists can require digital data deposit. Whereas the costs of preservation for the academic sector are covered by core funding, the ADS has taken the view that commercial depositors should be required to pay a one-off deposit charge at the time of deposition. This is analogous to the box storage charge levied by museums. The ADS has therefore developed a charging policy which declares explicit per file charges, and enables contractors to budget for the creation of a digital archive. In practice it is estimated that digital archiving costs are between 1% and 3% of total project budget, decreasing for larger projects where there are economies of scale for large numbers of identical file formats. This additional project cost may also be reduced by savings in the publication budget as it may be more appropriate to make detailed data available via the digital archive rather than in print. Significantly, for some large developer-funded projects the prospect of making the academic results of the project available by digital dissemination is very attractive. Major projects such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) and excavations at Heathrow and Stansted conducted for the British Airports Authority (BAA) by the Framework Archaeology Consortium have looked to digital publication as one of the main means of dissemination. For many commercial companies, a project web site may offer a more widely accessible publication and better potential for good public relations than a traditional academic monograph.

For most archaeological curators and contractors working within England, the national guidelines and policies of English Heritage remain influential in determining local policies. The procedure known as MAP2 recommended in the second edition of the Management of Archaeological Projects (English Heritage 1991) is applied to many projects, whether or not they have direct English Heritage funding, and English Heritage now requires all projects funded through its Archaeology Commissions budget to ensure secure archiving for their digital outputs. It is to be expected that members of ALGAO may develop similar guidelines for projects they oversee, recommending deposit with a recognised digital archive. As noted above, similar policies already exist at national level in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although they may not make the digital component of the archive explicit and such policies may not have always been rigorously enforced. The national acceptance of such approaches will make life easier for contractors who may have to operate within the jurisdiction of several authorities.

At an international level there are no bodies equivalent to the ADS. For many years the Archaeological Data Archive Project in the United States promoted the importance of digital archiving (Eiteljorg 1995) and had a key catalytic role, but lack of support led to it ceasing preservation activities in 2002 (Eiteljorg 2002). At the time of writing, few European countries have national digital archiving strategies for archaeological data but the situation is changing rapidly and bodies in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Romania, and Poland are beginning to study preservation needs. Some of this work is being sponsored by the European Commission which has funded several projects on digital preservation, including the ARENA programme, led by the ADS (Kenny et al. 2003).

Digital preservation at national level requires agreed standards and the provision of help for data creators and potential depositors. As well as one-to-one guidance by telephone, personal visits, or email, the ADS has published Guidelines for Depositors including details of recommended file formats. It has also contributed to the AHDS Series of Guides to Good Practice with the publication of Guides for specific data types relevant to archaeological research. To date these comprise:

The Guides do not seek to be proscriptive about recording methods or how data should be created. Instead they make recommendations about how that data should be documented if it is to be preserved and re-use is to be facilitated.

Finally, it was necessary to develop a framework for rights management across the AHDS, to protect the legal rights of the ADS and of depositors. Depositors are expected to sign a Deposit Licence and to declare their copyright in the data collection, providing certain assurances that it does not contravene laws of obscenity and so forth. Indeed, they retain the copyright in their data and simply grant the ADS a non-exclusive right to distribute the data to third parties for research purposes. In return the ADS undertakes to use its best endeavours to ensure the long-term preservation of the data and to require users to observe certain conditions of use. These are set down in the Common Access agreement which requires users to observe the copyright in the data, not to pass on the data to others, and to acknowledge the data creator. Anyone is permitted to use data held by the ADS so long as it is for research or educational purposes, and these are defined quite broadly as purposes intended to develop knowledge and where the research output is itself destined for the public domain. Therefore re-use by commercial contractors of data held by ADS is not prevented so long as publication of their work is not limited by issues of client confidentiality.

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Last updated: Wed 28 Jan 2004