Internet Archaeol 15. Richards. Summary

Online Archives

Julian D. Richards

Director. Archaeology Data Service, University of York, King's Manor, York. YO1 7EP, UK

Cite this as: Richards, J.D. 2004 Online Archives, Internet Archaeology 15.


Online archives are of increasing importance in Archaeological Informatics, but like any new genre they prompt a number of questions. What is their relationship to publication? What should go in them? How should they be delivered and indexed? Can they be preserved? Whilst their delivery requires technology, we must also consider how that technology should best be employed in the service of our discipline. This article attempts to address some of these questions but it need not be read from start to finish. The links from this summary provide one fairly linear route through the text but each section is self-contained and can also be accessed directly from the Contents page.

The problems posed by effective publication of archaeological fieldwork have exercised the profession for many decades. The issues raised go to the core of discussion of whether preservation by record is a valid concept, and indeed whether archaeological data exist. There are different schools of thought about the relationship between publication and archiving, but hopefully we can accept that data are recorded observations but still agree that they have a re-use value for re-examination and re-interpretation.

Since the 1960s archaeology has experienced a publication crisis point. The scenario is familiar. Excavation is destruction; it is an unrepeatable experiment and the archaeologist has a professional obligation to make a full and accessible record of his/her observations. Yet full publication is increasingly expensive and difficult, and excavation monographs are read by few people, and bought by even fewer. In England the development of post-PPG16 fieldwork has exacerbated the problem by creating a mountain of unpublished grey literature and making the work of synthesis even harder; a similar situation exists in other countries. Meanwhile museum archives are also reaching breaking point; most are running out of storage space, few can provide facilities for access, and almost all report low levels of usage.

Digital technology now offers the means by which the crisis may at last be overcome. It provides an opportunity to provide unprecedented access to archaeological data through online digital archives and to integrate synthetic interpretation with recorded observations in a seamless fashion, in a way which has been pioneered by Internet Archaeology. It may even allow a virtual re-integration of the paper and artefactual archives, which in the British Isles have become physically separated. However, the growth of the World Wide Web brings with it its own problems of locating relevant resources of quality which need addressing by effective indexing and access. Such resources need not be brought together in a central place but can instead be searched across distributed sites. On the other hand, if we maintain archives at a local level we must be aware of problems of data integrity. The trend for archaeological data to be captured and held in digital format, and even to be born digital raises issues of data preservation.

This article is based on the experiences gained and lessons learned during the development of the Archaeology Data Service over the last five years, presented here as a case study which links each of the above themes. It is clear that we need to plan for data re-use, and that archiving must be considered at the outset of a project, not just regarded as an afterthought once the final publication proofs have been checked, and that we must provide adequate documentation to allow re-users to understand the context of our recorded observations, rather than pretending that data can be divorced from the observer. This inevitably has a cost, but our profession has long played lip service to the importance of the structured and ordered archive, without necessarily doing anything about it. We must also train future generations of archaeologists to apply skills of source criticism in their use of archival sources and, as the distinction between archiving and publication becomes blurred and both are seen as part of the dissemination strategy for our discoveries, we must ensure that adequate academic and professional credit is given for both. Finally, the assistance of numerous others who have contributed to the ADS and the development of online archives is also acknowledged.

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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004