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Section 1: Grey Literature Explored

1.6 The importance of archaeological grey literature

The prevalence of grey literature in archaeology is due to its many advantages. It is relatively cheap and quick to produce, flexible in terms of format and provides the opportunity for the author to go into considerable detail where necessary. These reports can serve scholars and lay readers alike with research summaries, facts, statistics and other data that often offer a more comprehensive view than a published report (Weintraub 2000).

Those undertaking archaeological research often depend upon archaeological grey literature as the main source of information on recent discoveries. The client report is likely to be the only documentation about a development-led project and must, therefore, serve also as the academic record. In the majority of cases, however, the report is unsuited to this purpose as it is normally designed to answer site-specific questions relating to archaeological survival, rather than broader research questions concerned with interpreting the past (Champion et al. 1995, 12).

Some may argue, therefore, that these reports are not worthy of publication, particularly those containing negative or limited information that is difficult to interpret or assign to a specific period. In a development-control context, however, negative results are essential when providing an assessment of the archaeological potential of a specific site. Analysis of a range of results from projects within an area will help to build up an understanding of the quality and extent of survival of the archaeological resource of a location as an aid to directing further work, predicting the impact of land-use change and informing management.

1.7 The inaccessibility of archaeological grey literature and the 'research gap'

'The inaccessibility of archaeological data is one of the foremost barriers to effective, creative, and accurate syntheses of data across regions and countries and time periods' (Wise and Miller 1997). A recent survey of publication user needs highlighted a number of key factors. Significantly, despite the growing body of archaeological grey literature, there is a high level of unfamiliarity with the genre because it is hard to find. There are concerns that there are delays in the appearance of summaries of new work, and inadequate syntheses of results (Jones et al. 2001). The results of this survey are further explored in Section 4.1.2.

For archaeological researchers, awareness of reports literature is poor. Identifying a report that contains new information on a particular period or find type can be laborious. Reports are dispersed around the UK and held by a variety of bodies. They rarely have an index, and often the briefest abstract or summary. It is difficult to search for particular information without reading through the whole document. In 2003, for example, Professor Richard Bradley from the University of Reading sent a research student to visit each HER to identify and examine grey literature relevant to the production of a new synthesis of British and Irish prehistory. This is a similar process to that undertaken by the Archaeological Investigations Project, discussed in section 2.1.2 (Darvill and Russell 2002). It is estimated that university teaching is as much as ten years behind the latest discoveries; 'in universities the archaeologists of tomorrow are being taught the archaeology of yesterday' (Hardman and Richards 2003).

As has already been discussed (Section 1.5.2), there has been a move away from larger archaeological organisations, with geographically defined areas of operation, towards a greater number of contracting units operating across wider areas. In the pre-PPG16 era, county and city-based units were aware of all previous work in their area because they were the ones undertaking it. Now that archaeology operates in a competitive tendering situation, contractors are often unaware of what their competitors are doing and there is less opportunity for synthesis of recent work. As Sidwell et al. (2000, 123) observe 'the concept of collaboration and sharing has less support in a commercial organisation than in government or academic institutions'. This is compounded by the fact that the recent literature is generally only available in the local HER, which may levy a charge for commercial access and is often at some distance from the base of the potential user. Limited use for research has been highlighted in the assessment report on English HERs prepared by Baker and Baker (1999, 23), whose analysis identified only a 5% use of HERs for research purposes, against 86% for cultural resource management.

A recent study, Participating in the Past, undertaken by a working party of the Council for British Archaeology has examined the extent of public participation in British archaeology (CBA 2003b). In looking at publicity and communication difficulties, this report notes that 'even in an age priding itself on providing information, mismatches between provider and potential recipient will always occur. Sometimes these failures are budgetary, sometimes they arise from poor communication skills. Occasionally putting information into the public domain may be considered undesirable by the "owner" of the information, for example because of commercial sensitivity or fear of trespass or theft' (CBA 2003b, 3.4).

The public respondents to this survey had several criticisms, particularly of curatorial archaeologists, who they felt were too preoccupied with planning matters to communicate. They deeply resented client confidentiality clauses that could restrict access to excavations and results, making a mockery of the idea that the 'past belongs to everyone'. There was suspicion that competitive tendering had made commercial archaeological organisations cut corners and avoid public participation and that curators were not taking this on board as an issue. The results of archaeological fieldwork were often seen as difficult to access and a grey literature report in an HER some months or years after the event was a poor outcome. Records of archaeological fieldwork were considered inaccessible to non-specialists, and respondents felt that commercial units did not communicate well between themselves. It was suggested that the communication skills of archaeologists in general were far from adequate (CBA 2003b).

1.8 Calls for wider circulation and new methods of publication

There is widespread concern among a number of national archaeological bodies, and even at Parliamentary level, at the inadequacy of this current situation of reporting and publication in British archaeology. These concerns are not new; they have been voiced since the 1970s. The history and development of archaeological publication is discussed at length by Jones et al. (2001) and by Hills and Richards (forthcoming). This history of debate provides an important context for the discussion of electronic delivery in later sections.

Williams (2003), notes that major barriers to the creation of syntheses of archaeological work are lack of primary data in a useable form, and the scale of archaeological information that is still inadequately disseminated. There is inconsistency between the rate of development of fieldwork and post-excavation techniques; our current model for report writing has remained virtually unchanged for the last hundred years. Williams (2003) sees that the tools offered by information technology need to be developed, in particular in the presentation and structuring of data that can easily be re-combined in response to a range of alternative questions and models, and states: 'The publication and dissemination of information from archaeological investigations has always been a complex, and often under-resourced, area of archaeological endeavour. Information Technology offers an opportunity for a fundamental change in archaeological practice, not only in how we disseminate information, but more importantly, in the way in which we structure information and conduct research. English Heritage will seek to develop projects that explore the potential of digital publication. These will seek to explore the balance between conventionally printed information and what is available digitally, with practical support for initiatives that will be used to promote meaningful debate. We will also seek to explore, both through our internal and external projects, new techniques for the dissemination of data' (Williams 2003, 17.16).

David Miles (2004) has drawn parallels between the spread of new printing methods in the early 16th century and advances in information communications technology in the 20th century. He notes that most archaeologists can appreciate the potential of new ways of disseminating publications and archives, but the form that such integrated publications might take is still harder to identify. English Heritage is 'keen to highlight examples of best practice that can be adopted and advanced by the rest of the discipline' and 'seeks to promote the development of the use of appropriate new media for archaeological publication, particularly in ways that serve to provide wider and easier access to the archaeological material' (Miles 2004).

The All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group (APPAG) appealed in 2001 for written submissions on the current state of archaeology in the UK. The resulting report makes many observations and recommendations related to publication and communication of archaeological information (APPAG 2003, 35). Four of the main recommendations are reproduced here :

Responding to this APPAG consultation report, in particular recommendation 176, the Council for British Archaeology (2003a) welcomed APPAG's concern about this matter, recognising the 'grey literature' problem, and other issues in keeping abreast of research work and publications. However, not everyone hailed the future development of electronic publication with the same expectation. McAdam (1995), as an editor, had concerns about image quality on computer screens, compared with those in printed volumes. She felt that computer users would refrain from accessing material at home, in addition to the long hours they spend at work, and that consumers would be reluctant to move away from the printed book, particularly for large volumes of text. McAdam (1995) concluded that 'the publishing industry feels confident that print and paper will be with us for many years to come' and that 'there is no evidence that the demand for access to such archives is large enough to justify the necessary investment in developing them'. In addition, 'it seems probable that if electronic publication in any form has a role, it will be as an adjunct to, and not a replacement for, the traditional paper report. This role will probably be restricted to a few sites and types of site, and the bread and butter of archaeology will continue to appear in print'. These views were published nine years ago; it is interesting to see how much the debate has moved on.

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