British

Archaeology

The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 102

Issue 102

Sept / Oct 2008

Contents

news

Windfarm dig finds boat in style of Sutton Hoo

Prehistoric village under Isle of Man runway

Rare house continues first farmers debate

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2

features

Hadrian in London
The 'Hadrian: Empire and Conflict' exhibiton is impressive

Hadrian's Wall
Abandoned after three centuries, but still alive

New WHS, the Antonine Wall
David J Breeze tells how to make a successful bid to UNESCO

THE BIG DIG: Stonehenge
Mike Pitts sorts out the technical data

additional content
Reading about the Archaeology of Stonehenge

The Stonehenge Olympics
Plans for the stones to get the new facilities ready for 2012

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website

letters

your views and responses

spoilheap

a piece about Bonekickers with no archaeological puns!

science

Seeking what is best for buried bones, Sebastian Payne looks at new leglislation

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Gill Chitty on the stones, the bill and beyond

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

on the web

Do digital records record everything we want to know?

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks into archaeological archives.

Top Site

Publication costs mean that much vital specialist material never appears in print, but can be archived as "grey literature". Gone are the days when one could keep abreast of new work by hearsay. Does internet access help us to know what is there?

The Archaeology Data Service (ADS) leads with an impressive collection of online material brought to you by a strong team. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, national organisations provide online access to catalogues of hard copy. English Heritage advertises several sources and hosts its own records in ADS, integrating the English NMR with other archives (though many searches still lead to catalogues of hard copy, eg Thornborough Henge B). Various independent bodies exist: Access to Archives is UK-wide, though searches are clunky and results usually refer to paper records.

Local authorities maintain historic environment records (HER, though many are still called Sites and Monuments Records, or SMR). Some are digitised but they are well hidden online. ADS hosts the Historic Environment Information Resources Portal but searches are not easy; better turn to Heritage Gateway.

Local archives can be temperamental. Norfolk Heritage works: information includes site and find lists, a glossary and detail of (paper) documentation. Local museums provide archives, usually as online catalogues (the Museum of London is an excellent example). Documentary material itself is rarely digitised.

Archives are held by commercial companies across Britain. Few offer their own online material, though many are linked to ADS. Research also provides information, but few universities offer direct access to detailed reports, Leicester University being an honourable exception. Project archives are even harder to find: High Pasture Cave in Skye shows what can (and should) be done.

I am an advocate of electronic information, but the (slow) rise of the digital archive is effecting a subtle shift in the record. What we find, how we study and interpret it, are central to archaeology. The social context of archaeology changes constantly and is part of this. The archive relating to the Broch of Gurness, in Orkney, contains files of correspondence together with sketches and notes: we can eavesdrop on what people said off the record, and how much was spent on coffee. Contrast this with the sterile information of Scotland's First Settlers archive.

Current digital archives ignore the social milieu within which we work. It may not be a good idea to release personal comments and accounts the moment they are written, but are we losing important information by deleting them from our files? Once erased they are lost forever.

Meanwhile, specialist information is disappearing into the archives. A solution has been provided by OASIS which links digitised archives to searches from various platforms including ADS, PASTMAP and CANMORE.

Archaeologists produce reams of information which should be publicly available. Electronic access facilitates this, but we still have a way to go.

Archaeological archives on the web

  • Archaeology Data Service – ads.ahds.ac.uk
    • Enough unpublished material to blow your mind
  • Wessex Archaeology – www.wessexarch.co.uk
    • One of the few commercial companies to offer historic environment records for projects on its own website
  • High Pasture Cave – www.high-pasture-cave.org
    • Direct access to specialist archives from the project website – what more does one want?
  • Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland – www.rcahms.gov.uk
    • A wide variety of papers, some digitised: what archives might contain
  • Cave Archaeology and Palaeontology Research Archive – capra.group.shef.ac.uk
    • A rare specialist group offering material online, with articles and gazetteers

Henry Rothwell is using Google Earth and Google Maps to bring Wessex henges to life

Via pins, balloons, links, kmz and CAD to hundreds of standing posts

Digital Digging example

Last year, shortly after Google increased the resolution on their Earth and Maps applications, I embarked on a experiment to create interactive maps which contained as much information about archaeological sites as possible. Previously the Earth program had been a novelty, but with the updates, monuments could be seen in a satisfying amount of detail.

About the same time, the facility was introduced to embed maps easily in webpages. You could also load "map pins" with images, text, and, more recently, video. Equally as important was provision for inserting hyperlinks. If there was too much information to carry in the "balloon" when you clicked on a map pin, you could simply click on the hyperlink and be transported to a more accommodating webpage.

I had decent resolution images, but I needed to add textual information. To track down certain types of monument – henges, long barrows, hillforts and so on – I had been using the Somerset historic environment record database. This allowed me to search by monument type and then pinpoint the location using a Flashmap. Chris Webster, the database manager, kindly allowed me to use the information. Without his cooperation, I would have to have shut myself away for months simply to have compiled the data on hillforts.

One monument I could not ignore was the henge at Stanton Drew. The two websites that returned valuable results were Wikipedia and English Heritage. Unfortunately, very little is known about the site: within a few paragraphs, both sources resorted to quoting folk-tales about a wedding party dance. I used the Wikipedia information because it adheres to a creative commons licensing system, which means you can use the material non-commercially. English Heritage has unfortunately tied up its text in traditional copyright law. The resulting page I constructed still did not really do the monument justice, and with Stanton Drew being one of the more ignored stone circles, I decided a little more effort was needed.

What English Heritage had that Wikipedia did not, were the results of the geophysics surveys performed in 1997. They created a stir when they were first published and, even in these days of 3D laser scanning and virtual worlds, are still an arresting sight. Again though, the survey images were copyrighted, so I could only link to them. Being determined not just to be another "links" website, I "borrowed" the English Heritage image and imported it into Google Earth, where I laid the image data directly on the location of the actual monument. I then exported this composite image to a CAD program and went about building a three dimensional interpretation of the monument. Once that was done I exported it back into Google Earth, and saved it as a .kmz file which can be downloaded from the Digital Digging website. If you have Google Earth installed, you can wander around this reconstruction to your heart’s content. The latest version has improved the controls so you can do this without unexpectedly flinging yourself over the nearest horizon.

The Stanton Drew reconstruction proved addictive, and soon I was building timber circles like there was no tomorrow. Up went the Sanctuary at Avebury, then onto Woodhenge and Durrington Walls (South), and finally Mount Pleasant and Marden. For those of you who do not want to download Earth or the accompanying files, you can see videos of the reconstructions on the relevant pages (alternatively, there are selected video clips on YouTube, see example).

The site has grown significantly in the past six months, and as well as a bevy of radio programmes you can listen to, we have videos, news of digs, features by working archaeologists, and plentymore in the pipeline: see www.digitaldigging.co.uk.

Henry Rothwell is a cartographer and database manager.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]