Vol. X, No. 1

Spring, 1997


CSA Director Harrison Eiteljorg, II, attended the CAA Conference (see CAA 1997 - Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference in this issue) principally to participate in a session organized by the Archaeological Data Service (ADS). The ADS is the archival organization in Britain described in the last issue of the Newsletter by its Data Coordinator, Alicia Wise (Feb., 1997, "UK Consortium Opens Archaeology Data Service"). Ms. Wise; Julian Richards, Director of the ADS; and Paul Miller, Collections Manager, also spoke in the session. Other speakers were David Dawson (Museum Documentation Association), Henrik Jarl Hansen (National Museum of Denmark), and Gillian Quine (Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England).

In this session there was considerable discussion of computing protocols and metadata issues that should affect how easily archival information can be found and used. Mr. Dawson quoted an 1888 document suggesting the need for a complete index of materials held by British museums, proving that our concerns about access to information are neither new nor unique. Another issue raised by Mr. Dawson was that of providing multi-lingual access, something rarely discussed in the U.S.

Mr. Richards and Ms. Wise described the work of the ADS. They pointed out the importance of making re-use of data sets not only a possibility but a reality. On a practical level, actual re-use helps to validate the exercise. They noted that the ADS will archive data when required to do so, though it had originally been established to provide indexing and technical help.

Paul Miller discussed metadata issues, that is, the collection of information about the data sets in an archive. These metadata will ultimately comprise an index so that potential users can find what, among the available data sets, may be of interest. The problem with such metadata is that the information about the data sets must be so general that the categories will apply across disciplines yet specific enough to be of real utility.

Harrison Eiteljorg, II, spoke about the Archaeological Data Archive Project, spending most of his time addressing the issue of data migration. He discussed some concerns with specific data types and also talked about the experience gained so far, pointing out, for instance, that AutoCAD® files had been migrated to the latest format but that files were also being held in the previous format because many people using AutoCAD had not purchased the latest version. Such practical considerations will inevitably affect the operations of any archive.

Mr. Eiteljorg also suggested that the archiving of archaeological data is likely to be mandated by host governments in the near future (a comment confirmed by a member of the audience later, a member of a governmental commission assigned the task of regulating the archiving of archaeological data). He argued that scholars would be better served by moving on their own to archive information.

Discussion in this session was vigorous. There were strong opinions about the importance of data standards to the utility of archives and equally strong opinions about the importance and types of metadata to be gathered. There was also a suggestion that the entire archival exercise may be futile, since the information obtained from data in any computer form is closely tied to the manner of expression. That, in turn, is determined by the software as well as the data, in which case the preservation of the data alone may not be sufficient. This problem may well become more acute as more sophisticated "object-oriented" data become more common, making the data into more than simple bits of information. It seems likely that everyone who participated in the session will be thinking about that question for some time.

One of the fruits of the session was a fuller sense of shared purpose for the ADS and ADAP personnel. Indeed, given the complexity of the problems facing archives and the volume of material to be stored, ADS and ADAP personnel are already considering ways to cooperate on archival problems and processes.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the Archaeological Data Archive Project or the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the subject index.

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