On the Record: The Philosophy of Recording

An Introduction by Martin Newman

Datasets Development Manager, National Monuments Record, English Heritage. Email:


At the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference in Durham in December 2009 I organised a session on the philosophy of recording, and the three articles presented here originated in that discussion. The aim of the session was to consider some fundamental questions about the recording that archaeologists undertake but which are often overlooked, and think about these in a theoretical way. These questions included:

The first two of these questions are decisions that archaeologists have been making since the earliest origins of the discipline, often without a passing thought. It is not very often that we pause to analyse them at a theoretical level. As recording has developed we have been very good at categorizing, making inventories and constructing ontologies to describe the past around us, but less good about asking why we do so in the way we do.

The three articles presented here address some of the fundamental questions posed by the original session abstract. Geographically they cover the whole of Great Britain, considering the legacy of paper records in England, scheduling in Wales and the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

My own contribution to the session deals with the nature of information and how this can transcend the medium on which it is represented, and be treated as an item of material culture divorced from its physical carrier. One of the areas of record concerns scheduling, and Oliver Davis looks in more detail at how this is handled in Wales. The emphasis here is on the spatial relationship of the sites and the relationship of the concept to more modern interpretations of landscape. The contribution from Jonathan Bateman and Stuart Jeffrey looks at past editions of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and how metadata on papers can be generated to aid retrieval of information.

There are some interesting links to be seen between these contributions. All three demonstrate the use that can be made of old records of the historic environment and how information technology makes it possible to interrogate and disseminate the data in ways its originators could never have imagined. One aspect of this is how this interrogation enables a reflexive interpretative assessment of the data to be undertaken in order to reveal biases in the sample. This is of more than just academic interest, as it is important when planning future programmes of work. Furthermore, Davis includes a reference to the monumentality of a site which compares with the assessment from the contribution on the materiality of information. Bateman and Jeffrey also refer to the idea that language can be seen as material culture, which itself links to the consideration of the analysis of information by the ADS through natural language processing. The common thread across the articles is how the recording, whether through designation, on paper, digitally or in a journal, influences our perception of a site.

The session was organised in conjunction with the Information Management Special Interest Group of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA IMSIG). I would like to thank my fellow contributors to this themed section, including Sarah May and Dan Hull who presented at the original TAG session but were unable to contribute here. I would also like to thank Professor Julian Richards who acted as the discussant at TAG and suggested publication in Internet Archaeology. I hope the reader will find this collection of articles interesting and thought-provoking.



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