British

Archaeology

The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 99

Issue 99

March / April 2008

Contents

news

Was missing body a Dutchman in Scotland?

Can international support save antiquities scheme?

Phase 2

features

Stonehenge: now what?
With the tunnel scheme scrapped, BA asks about the future

The wreck of the SS Mendi
John Gribble tells the story of forgotten war labourers

Stanway
Philip Crummy and colleagues report on an elite cemetery at Camulodunum

on the web

Recommended websites
Seriously good free texts, and new Welsh date index

letters

Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth introduces a new initiative to promote archaeology in the community

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

on the web

Beating the subscription demands

The internet promised free information for all, but increasingly charges are made for access to texts. Caroline Wickham-Jones tests it out.

The online launch of Discovery and Excavation (DES) by the Council for Scottish Archaeology and ADS (ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/library/des) marks a major addition to the world of information freely available on the web. What other archaeological publications can one find for free?

Digital publishing sometimes seems to have created a non-academic underclass as those who work outside university departments and mainstream public bodies come up against the all too frequent "subscription authentication request" when chasing a paper. We fall back on old fashioned interlibrary loans, or phone a friend. Before Farming (www.waspress.co.uk/journals/beforefarming) is one of many with flexible subscription rates, though poor Brits do not appear down their sliding scales. Online journals are excellent; shame that so many require a subscription.

Nevertheless, a lot of archaeological material is freely available on the web if you know where to look. Grandparent must be Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports (www.sair.org.uk) still going strong and free after five years (published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, with the Council for British Archaeology and Historic Scotland). There are 24 major reports to download here and more on the way. Back numbers of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland's Proceedings are also to be found on ADS (ads.ahds.ac.uk), as are their older monographs.

ADS has to be the first call for anyone looking for free archaeological data. A quick surf through their pages reveals archives, specialist reports and grey literature. They also host journals, from Assemblage (ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/assemblage/html) to Sussex Archaeological Collections (ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/library/sac).

Good free journals exist elsewhere, including Mesolithic Miscellany (www.york.ac.uk/depts/arch/Mesolithic/index.htm), and the Journal of Caribbean Archaeology (www.flmnh.ufl.edu/jca/current.htm) but they are few and well hidden.

A different approach is offered by Antiquity (antiquity.ac.uk/open.html), with an open access section including recent projects, obituaries, and reviews: but for the main journal and its precious archive, you need to pay an annual £75 ($108). Subscribers to Current Archaeology can, "for a short time", search back issues for free: a valuable opportunity before it too becomes chargeable (www.archaeology.co.uk). British Archaeology offers open free access to selected texts from all but the most recent issue, but mindful of image rights (which Current Archaeology seems to have forgotten) as yet no pictures (www.britarch.ac.uk/ba; site under review).

Historic Scotland, English Heritage, and cadwall have wide-ranging free papers (follow links at www.historicscotland.gov.uk/index/publications; www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.8334; www.cadw.wales.gov.uk/default.asp?id=126&navId=15&parentId=15).

Quirky downloads include BAJR (www.bajr.org/Documents/101Tips.pdf PDF 545KB), while the Institute of Field Archaeologists' papers are definitely not quirky, though mostly free (www.archaeologists.net/modules/icontent/index.php?page=35). Excavation websites increasingly offer open access to reports (eg: www.landscaperesearchcentre.org/AB%20Tier%202%20Project%20Parent%20Pages/Cooks2004.htm). An interesting contribution is JD Richards's paper, Internet archaeology and the myth of free publication, available free (sic) at www.ingentaconnect.com/content/alpsp/lp/2002/00000015/00000003/art00013.

There is plenty of free online stuff, but content is patchy. More interesting and specialised material can be hidden: it helps to know what you are looking for. It also helps to wear the kilt – Scottish institutions have led the way in open access.

Free archaeology on the web

  • Discovery & Excavation in Scotland – ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/library/des
    • 99% of fieldwork in Scotland, recorded as it takes place
  • BAJR: 101 Tips – www.bajr.org/Documents/101Tips.pdf
    • Everything you could possibly want to know about being an archaeologist – including some things you didn't (PDF 545KB)
  • Mesolithic Miscellany – www.york.ac.uk/depts/arch/Mesolithic
    • Specialised but quality, up-to-date, serious and informal communications, with invaluable back numbers. A model for others?
  • Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports – www.sair.org.uk
    • Free detailed site reports! Varied subjects
  • UNESCO World Heritage – whc.unesco.org
    • Lots of free downloads including descriptions of world heritage sites (some of which you'd pay for in a shop). Look for the list and documents

Making a date with Wales

Radiocarbon dates are not only difficult for researchers to track down, but as Steve Burrow and Sian Williams found when they compiled a database, often wrongly reported.

Over the past 18 months Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales has collated every published radiocarbon date from Wales and the adjacent English border counties from Somerset to Lancashire. The resulting database contains almost 5,000 dates: their laboratory details, calibration data, site and context details, sample type, the value the analyst thought could be placed on the date, any health warnings they noted and publication references. It is a blueprint for the writing of histories, both environmental and archaeological, dating back 40,000 years.

The job had its origins in a frustration. Previously, every research project we undertook had to begin with a lengthy literature search to establish the chronological foundations of the subject. This search had to be repeated every time we shifted our focus to a new subject. Better then, we thought, to carry out one massive literature search which would collate all dates, and never have to do more than keep pace with the literature thereafter. The result is an index of dates based on a review of 59 national, regional and subject-specific journals for the years 1955 to the present, as well as relevant monograph series – a total of over 3,000 volumes.

A copy of the database can be obtained from www.museumwales.ac.uk/radiocarbon, along with information on how to carry out your own searches and the kinds of results the database can produce.

Preliminary analysis has produced some interesting results. For example, there are more radiocarbon dates relating to the "dark ages" (early medieval period) than there are for periods such as the later neolithic and middle bronze age; while the most prolifically dated period of all is the later iron age. Most importantly, the database shows that there are a large number – probably underused – of dates relating to the Roman and medieval periods.

The database can be filtered to reflect specific research interests. For example, if only those dates based on human bone are viewed, clear peaks can be seen in the distribution, reflecting the use of megalithic tombs, round barrows, and Christian cemeteries. But there are also troughs, such as in the later mesolithic, when no skeletons have been dated, and in the iron age where burial rites are notoriously difficult to identify.

Geographically, the spread of dat es is also interesting. There are marked concentrations of dates in Snowdonia, the Somerset Levels and Severn estuary, making it relatively easy to produce detailed histories of these areas. In contrast, parts of central Wales, Shropshire and Worcestershire are comparative dating deserts.

As well as offering a resource for archaeological study, the database has also thrown up a more worrying concern. Each time a reference to a date was found its details were reported on the database. In almost 600 cases where radiocarbon dates have been published more than once, there are differences in the reported age. Sometimes, this is a result of laboratories changing their mind about the level of precision that can be attributed to their dates; in others it is a simple typo; but sometimes he figures are so wildly different as to be inexplicable. The database makes it possible to track these discrepancies and follow their propagation into the literature as others copy the errors into their own papers.

So the moral is, if you are a user of radiocarbon dates from Wales or the Borders, obtain a copy of this database. It may stop you from copying someone else's mistake. More importantly it might contain dates of which you would not otherwise be aware.

Steve Burrow is digital information manager – archaeology, and Sian Williams is collections management system, general assistant at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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