The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 100

Issue 100

May / June 2008


There is more content online than usual for this bumper issue!


Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


John Wymer
Mike Pitts introduces an archaeologist with a fine eye for illustration

The Lost Royal Cult Of Street House, Yorkshire
The excavation of a unique Anglo-Saxon cult cemetery

Born digital: Making People Believe
How computers have changed the world of archaeology

The Office: Heritage and Archaeology at Fortress House
John Schofield finds unexpected things on Savile Row

Green Men & The Way of All Flesh
Richard Hayman uproots a fashionable myth

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones considers archaeological imagery, and The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland has a new website

100 letters & news

Some of the letters we received and news stories we revealed in the past 100 issues

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Communication is king, says Mike Heyworth, celebrating nearly 60 years of magazines

Extra online content


Sebastian Payne asks, what do forensic archaeologists do?

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston looks for early saints in Cornwall, and an introduction to visiting Cornwall's sites & monuments

my archaeology

Phil Harding, the man with five guitars


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Making People Believe

Born digital: Half a million years of technology... aren't we there yet? Standfirst... Leif Isaksen, Tom Goskar and Paul Cripps discuss how computers have changed the world of archaeology.

As in life, computers have become an integral part of archaeology. Surveying, researching, report writing, geophysics, interpretation, illustration, dissemination – nearly every stage of the archaeological process uses a computer. At Wessex Archaeology, one of the largest contract units in the country, they out-number excavation trowels by almost two to one: silicon has overtaken steel. Computers are analytical tools, typewriters, communications devices, sketchbooks, maps and journals rolled into one – loved and reviled in equal measure. But digital archaeology is more than just graphics, databases and the internet. It also forces us to think about the very archaeological process itself.

We believe there aremany areas in which archaeology can borrow from computer science, as it has borrowed from so many other disciplines in the past. Not only can it make some of the activities we undertake vastly easier and more efficient, but it may occasionally enable us to do entirely new things.The first thing it students are taught at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is that "Computer science is not a science and its significance has little to do with computers". It is above all the study of what might be called "information engineering": how can we make what we have discovered accessible and put it to new uses? How can we make information flow? It is particularly in the areas of integration, representation and participation that these changes are enabling us to rethink the possible. In this article we wish to show you just a few of the ways this might happen.

Portable Antiquities Scheme

The PAS records archaeological objects found by members of the public whilst pursuing their hobbies such as metal detecting, field walking or gardening. There is no obligation to report anything unless it falls under the remit of the Treasure Act (1996), but over 12,000 people have voluntarily brought forward their objects. The dataset now stands at over 300,000 records and 160,000 images.

Computers have been essential. A central database, edited and compiled on the web (, has allowed the scheme to produce a real-time, national picture of the objects recorded. It has enabled staff to create extensive coin guides, linked directly into the data being generated by the finds liaison officers, and provides the facility readily to create and disseminate GIS maps to an ever wider audience. The website allows anyone to access a basic version of the scheme's data. This is already in evidence on the Oxford Celtic coin index and is a revolutionary move that puts the data directly into the hands of anyone who wishes to use it.

PAS screenshot

The world-famous Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at the British Museum with a staff of regional officers around England and Wales, is a classic case of a project that would be almost impossible without computers and the internet url:

Changing ideas

In our attempts to interpret the past, archaeologists have drawn from virtually every discipline: physical sciences, geography, economics, psychology, philosophy and art history to name but a few. Other fields have helped us understand what humans did, as well as when, where and why they did it. Hanging side by side in Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, were spectacular ink drawings of artefacts and vistas from the days before photography by early antiquarians such as William Stukeley, and beautiful plans by 19th century pioneers such as general Pitt Rivers and Boblay, who developed the use of military survey techniques to record archaeological sites. By introducing practices from other walks of life such people helped to change the face of archaeology and the way it was recorded.

During the 1960s there was an increasing desire to adopt a "scientific" approach toward the past. This "processual archaeology" began to use computers, statistics and mathematics to record, classify and assess the archaeology. It attempted to map out and quantify the past, sometimesmore successfully than at others, and was occasionally criticised for crude applications of theories drawn straight from geographical science. Understanding came from interpretation of patterns in data, rather than being built up from individual human experiences.

The later rise of "post-processual" archaeology led to criticism of the analytical technology. Drawing upon the thoughts of continental philosophers, archaeologists now attempted to take into account the inner lives of people, which meant accepting that we can never be truly objective about the past. Computers and their apparent dependence upon concrete answers were obvious targets. It is easy to claim that computer-based approaches are too reductionist, that they treat past societies deterministically, that they are ignorant of archaeological theory and that too much faith is placed in the results. In fact, these observations and criticisms have been around ever since the first projects using computers got underway. But we have come a long way since then and our ideas about the past continue to change. As we shall see, so must our ideas about technology.

At the click of a button

A common use for computers is to help with the integration of multiple information sources gathered on site or through desk-based research. Complex data management is in many ways at the very core of archaeological practice. Few if any discoveries have meaning on their own. It is the context in which material is found, both local and global, which gives it meaning. But that context is simply made up of other discoveries. So to evaluate our finds we need to bring together, in a simple way, all other relevant information. With or without the use of computers we frequently use statistics, graphs and schematic plans to do this job, but informatics can enable us to do much more.

As a great deal of archaeological information is spatial in nature, digital maps are becoming popular. Geographic information systems (GIS) are designed to work with this spatial information, to store, analyse and publish. Increasingly they lie at the heart of archaeological information systems such as historic environment records (HER) and context records, as well as providing online access to information via interactive maps. We can use field software, like Ark ( or IADB (, that enables us to move from excavation plan to Harris matrix (a graph showing stratigraphic relationships between excavated contexts), to digital photo at the click of a button (see box below). This gives site staff access to information that previously may not have been generated until after the excavation was over, providing important feedback in the field and reducing the gap between excavation and interpretation. In another situation we might use English Heritage's Heritage Gateway ( to search, for example, for bronze age henge monuments across multiple HERs. Sophisticated mathematics can now be applied to groups of radiocarbon dates to reduce the margin of error from centuries to a single generation (see box below). All of this is possible because it enables us to see things in relation to the many relevant contexts.


Representation is fundamental to the archaeological process. With evidence that is as fragmentary and distorted as ours, the need to visualise it, even as a mere hypothesis, is vital. We might do this with an artist's impression, a technical section drawing or an essay on the phenomenology of landscape. Computers and sophisticated software are helping us. Pictures will never replace written reports, but they can provide us with a simplicity, immediacy and accuracy that greatly enhances our understanding.

We can now fly through a virtual representation of a physical landscape, for example around Stonehenge, to help us understand the relationship between monuments in a way that is impossible on the ground or from a helicopter (see LiDAR spread in printed magazine). We can create 3D models of sites as complex as a burial pit, yet simple enough to understand so that every bone can be seen in context, with more information always just a mouse click away. We can even reconstruct an ancient environment, filling it with the plants whose seeds were recovered by archaeologists (see image opposite page). Individual trees, plants and people can all bemodelled using specialist software. We can make the clouds in the sky look real, and mimic the way that light travels through the haze at sunset. We can make people believe that this was exactly how a place looked in the past.

Alternatively, we can represent an abstract view to illustrate a particular point or test a particular hypothesis. The potential is virtually limitless. Importantly, we can compare endless different and potentially contradictory viewpoints. A powerful tool indeed, but one which we must wield very carefully.


The greatest revolution is occurring in the area of participation. Before the arrival of developer funded archaeology, much fieldwork was conducted by university departments and local amateur societies. Since archaeological considerations have become part of the planning process, an increasing proportion of fieldwork is now undertaken by professional archaeologists. Yet as the scope for public involvement in the field has fallen, public awareness and interest have grown considerably. Calls for greater community participation have often been met with fears that academic rigour might be jeopardised. Yet if our work is to have any purpose, it is paramount that not only should we reach as wide an audience as possible, but that people should feel ownership and involvement in what is, after all, everybody's history.

We, as professional archaeologists, are inmany cases best placed to make informed interpretations. That is not to say, however, that the views of the wider public are any less valid: merely that all arguments need to be made transparently and assessed on their individual merits. Developments in communication technology, and in particular the internet, mean that we can finally have our cake and eat it, opening up archaeology to all, without creating chaos.

The latest discoveries can be made available to all at limited cost and to any level of detail. Information can be tailored to particular audiences and access to sensitive information can be controlled. Best of all, we can encourage everyone to have their say without losing track of who said it, and if necessary, what their claim to authority might be. The Portable Antiquities Scheme, for example, has transformed the relationship between archaeologists andmetal detectorists (see box above), whilst the Pleiades website ( has enabled a much wider network of contributors to assist in developing their map of the ancient world without causing its decline and fall. These projects work by harnessing the power of communities. In doing so they not only make their results available to all: they make the task easier and do it better.

Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating revolutionised the study of prehistory. Unfortunately, when it was recognised that laboratory dates needed to be calibrated because of changes through time in atmospheric carbon 14 levels, archaeologists had to redraw their timelines. Calibration was originally done by hand with a graph. This method became inadequate, however, when whole groups of radiocarbon dates needed to be understood as part of a site chronology. Bayesian statistical analysis offers the advantage of integrating all sources of archaeological chronological knowledge, including stratigraphy, history, coins and other scientific dating techniques. Until the mid 90s, however, the processing power required for the statistical sampling methods meant that Bayesian programs were not readily available.

Computer programs such as OxCal and BCal represent significant steps forward in interpreting groups of radiocarbon dates. These programs allow for a formal analysis of groups of radiocarbon dates that account for the statistical scatter inherent in the method. This scatter might falsely suggest early starts, long durations and late ends for phases of activity – parts of our present "fuzzy" chronologies for prehistorymay be as much products of the method as reflections of the real world. Routine statistical modelling with desktop calibration programs has the potential to revolutionise our archaeological chronologies; the implications for our understanding of causality, change, and culture are profound.

Exciting frontier

We are entering an exciting new age for archaeology. Computing is allowing us better to organise, analyse, present and disseminate the ever growing information about our past. The internet ismaking a huge impact as it connects archaeologists and the public in ways never before imagined. Traditional print journals are re-assessing their future as more and more information goes online.

Even so, we must proceed with caution. As archaeologists become more reliant upon computers it is vital that we use information standards. The promise of integrated systems that will enable us to use all of our data together will only materialise when we "talk the same language". Standards mean that completely different computer systems can cooperate, and will help to keep our data usable in the future. Fish, the Forum on Information Standards in Heritage (, is a community body which produces a range of useful materials including lists of terminology and technical specifications. If you are interested in employing a digital approach in your next project, there are plenty of places to turn for help. Online communities such as Antiquist ( or the Digital Classicist ( mean that you will almost certainly find someone keen to lend you a hand, or be able to help others.

The future big advances, as always, will come from borrowing developments elsewhere. Computers will never give us "the ultimate truth", but they are able to put everything we have said, photographed, filmed and found directly at our disposal, along with the tools to manage it. Natural language processing for instance,may well allow us to begin converting all those site reports into structured information. Why does that matter? Imagine being able to access the sum total of our knowledge with search engines that "understand" the concepts we are looking for, and provide us with related information wemay not have known exists. There has never been a more exciting frontier in archaeology. Archimedes said that given a place to stand he could move the world. it may not do that, but with a warm place to sit and a hot cup of tea, you can just, perhaps, begin to change it.

Leif Isaksen is researching the integration of archaeological data systems for a PhD at the University of Southampton; formerly he was senior IT development officer at Oxford Archaeology (, Tom Goskar is archaeological multimedia developer at Wessex Archaeology. Paul Cripps is geomatics manager at Wessex Archaeology.

Ark at Portus

Modern archaeological excavations generate amassive amount of data (contextual records, photos, GIS files, 3D models etc) and themanagement and dissemination of these varied datasets is a growing problem. The archaeological recording kit (Ark) has been developed to meet this challenge and provide excavation directors with an open-source solution to housing and analysing their data. Ark's modular design means that it can be configured to work with any type of recording system and allows archaeological data to be immediately viewed and disseminated through a standard web browser.

Southampton University is using Ark as the data management system for a study of the port of imperial Rome ( The AHRC-funded Portus project is focussed on an excavation in the centre of the port area and a survey of its periphery. As it explores key questions about the development and form of the port, the project is employing innovative digital technologies. Laser scanning survey, GPS and high resolution photogrammetry are complemented by a largely "born-digital" archive and a range of GIS and computer aided design tools. Southampton's Archaeological Computing Research Group is using 3D computer graphic visualisation for a better understanding and presentation of the port.

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