Vol. IX, No. 4

February, 1997

UK Consortium Opens Archaeology Data Service

Alicia Wise, ADS

Britain has a newly established digital archive for archaeological data, the Archaeology Data Service (ADS). It began life on October 1st, 1996. The ADS is one of five service providers in the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), a project funded by the body responsible for information systems initiatives in all UK universities. The purpose of the AHDS is to link digital archives in archaeology, history, text studies, performing arts, and visual arts. (A short announcement of the ADS appeared in the last issue of the Newsletter.)

Besides collecting, describing, cataloging, preserving, and providing user support for digital resources that are created as a product of archaeological research, the aims of the ADS are:

The way the ADS will achieve these aims is by:

Why a service for digital archiving?

Archaeology is in a special position in that much of the creation of its data results from destruction of primary evidence, making preservation of, and access to, data all the more critical in order to test, assess, reanalyse, and reinterpret both the data and the hypotheses arising from them. Over the years, archaeologists have amassed a vast collection of computerised data, much of which is in danger of being lost due to degradation of the media on which data are stored and to software and hardware changes. A number of these at-risk systems contain the only records of unpublished excavations, making their preservation all the more important.

Digital archiving can be an expensive process; however, there is a great economy of scale. Digital data need to be refreshed (periodic copying to new media types or into updated file formats) and migrated (transferring into forms required by new operating systems or new data structures). Currently the best option available in British archaeology for ensuring the broad range of software, hardware, and expertise required for data refreshing and migration is through the ADS and AHDS. This is because the ADS consists of a consortium of eight universities (including computer science departments) and, through the AHDS, is affiliated with four other digital archives and all their constituent universities and advisory organisations. It is only with this scale of resources that digital archiving becomes practical.

Digital archiving is also important because it is better than any other method, including traditional paper publication, for ensuring that data remain accessible with the full usefulness of the original. Publication of the output from a database carefully crafted by a specialist over many years, for example, loses its importance and usefulness when reduced to a static printout in a paper-based publication. The function of the digital data set, the ability to look at variables in relation to one another, is lost and would be extremely expensive and time-consuming to recreate unless digital archiving occurs.

Who else thinks digital archiving in archaeology is important?

Funding agencies for British Archaeology recognize the importance of long-term preservation of the intellectual resources they pay to create. The British Academy, which funds the British schools abroad; the Wellcome Trust; the Leverhulme Foundation; and the Economic and Social Research Council all either recommend or require that grantees deposit digital data with the AHDS or one of its service providers.

Archaeological bodies also recognize the importance of digital archiving and, more importantly, the connection of existing archives through a metadata catalogue. This is clear from examination of the membership list for the ADS Advisory Committee. The membership of the committee includes nearly two dozen trusts, museums groups, preservation organizations, and academic societies throughout the UK, all of which are concerned with this issue.

Specific archaeologists and archaeological bodies have dedicated even more of their time to ensuring the ADS runs properly. The ADS is managed by a consortium of the Universities of Birmingham, Bradford, Glasgow, Kent at Canterbury, Leicester, Oxford, Newcastle, and York, with the Council for British Archaeology, and the Royal Commissions for Ancient and Historic Monuments in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Even more importantly, there is recognition among the wider archaeological population that we need one place to access information relating to archaeological data. Though the ADS has only been in existence a short time, requests for information like, "Where can I get a list of all Neolithic sites in Britain?" arrive regularly. Isn't it time that there was one way to find these basic answers?

Access methods

Access to information recorded in the metadata catalogue (metadata is a term which refers to basic descriptive data about the contents of a file) will be through a single point of access, but the metadata entries behind this single point of access will be distributed; that is, the metadata entries will exist on various computers at cooperating sites. Potentially all contract units, sites and monuments records, museums, university departments, trusts, etc. that hold digital data and have internet access will hold their own metadata entries as well. The ADS approach facilitates integration and standardisation of access to data that may be stored at a number of distributed sites and in this way builds on much of the ongoing work in archaeological documentation standards. It is hoped that this integrated catalog can be extended to the holdings of other digital archives as well.

Primary access to data digitally archived with the ADS will be provided via the Internet through a combination of World Wide Web access (for general accesses and queries) and FTP file transfers (for downloading files and datasets). Alternative delivery mechanisms such as CD-ROM are feasible, but not a preferred option, and we will await feedback from potential users to determine if this is a desired service. With all universities and an increasing number of museums having Internet access, and with the likelihood that over the next few years more archaeological units and individuals in Britain will come online - particularly if this type of resource is available - the advantages of holding and maintaining a distributed archive with a single point of access rather than generating numerous disk sets or CD-ROMs seem to outweigh the initial limitations of requiring network access.

Collection policy

The ADS is prepared to archive any digital information of interest to British archaeologists. This includes archaeological information both inside and outside Britain (though the latter will involve collaboration with existing digital archives around the world).

Data depositors will be responsible for documenting their data, how it was created, and any restrictions on its use. Ideally, data sets will be available for everyone to search and possibly even download, but the ADS recognises that there will need to be restrictions on who can access detailed site information and to what uses they can put this information. The role of the ADS will be to communicate these restrictions to potential data users via its metadata catalogue and to ensure that documentation is complete enough to allow potential data users successfully to evaluate and interpret information that they discover.

Information about the ADS can be obtained at the following conferences:

Full information about the ADS, including a copy of its collection policy, is available on the Web at: ads.ahds.ac.uk/ahds/welcome.html or intarch.ac.uk/ahds/welcome.html or by emailing the office (info@ads.ahds.ac.uk); Julian Richards, Director, (jdr1@york.ac .uk); or Alicia Wise, Data Coordinator (aw25 @york.ac.uk).

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the subject index.

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