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Bronze age archives rescued from obsolete technology

Posted on 10 February 2000

A team of archaeologists has recently completed one of the most unusual rescue operations ever attempted. Instead of neat trenches or sharpened trowels, this expedition was mounted entirely at the click of a mouse and the hum of a computer terminal.

It is a cliche that archaeologists destroy their important primary evidence: a properly managed excavation leaves no stone unturned. So, when archaeologists from Newham Museum Archaeological Services, the Passmore Edwards Museum and the Manor Farm Museum worked on almost 180 sites in North East London, all that remained of their sites were the archives preserved in the vaults of local museums. The archives included data from a large number of unpublished excavations, with very impressive Bronze Age material from the banks of the Thames. But, when the Newham Museum Archaeological Service was closed, the sites had to be rescued all over again - this time, from the obsolete technology in which the data was preserved.

Archaeologist Keith Westcott of the Archaeology Data Service explained, "The formats of computer files change rapidly: a file created in state-of-the-art software one year becomes obsolete the next, as the software is updated. Old disks are useless when the hardware is no longer available to read them. Then there is the problem that magnetic disks and tapes can become corrupted.

"If these files contain the only record of a site that has been destroyed, then it is very important that we take every possible step to preserve the data."

Using the latest computer technology, Dr Westcott and colleagues at the University of York, have rescued and preserved over 7,000 files containing some 120 megabytes of data that would otherwise have been lost for good. 'Ancient' software and 'archaic' formats have been uncovered, and the data in them moved to modern standards.

This is all that remains of almost ten years of field work and analysis all round north east London, by a variety of field units. The archive includes data from a series of unpublished excavations which together combines to provide important Bronze Age Thames wetlands information. It also includes data on excavations at Tilbury Fort, Stratford, Langthorne Abbey and Barking Abbey.

Prominent London archaeologist, Clive Orton responded to the news with delight. "This work has rescued from oblivion the work of many dedicated archaeologists over many years, and has restored an important part of their past to millions of Londoners."

In addition to preserving the data, the ADS's comprehensive web server means that the data is now available to anyone who is connected to the Internet. The online catalogue holds easily accessed information on over 350,000 archaeological sites in the UK.

Notes to editors:

  • The Archaeology Data Service is based in the Archaeology Department of the University of York
  • The Newham archive arrived at the Archaeology Data Service on 220 disks. 6342 files were recovered totalling some 120 Mb.
  • The archive is now mounted on the ADS's Sun Ultra 2 Enterprise server 1200 with 256Mb of RAM, maintained by the Computing Service within the University of York. The system is connected to the Internet via a 100Mb link
  • The ADS web site is at , the catalogue is at and the Newham Field Work Archives can be located as an "Excavation and Fieldwork Archive" from the "Project Archive" area of the catalogue
  • This press release with other material can be downloaded from the ADS web site at
  • Use of the ADS catalogue is provided free of charge to amateur and academic researchers.
  • The catalogue includes data from English Heritage's Greater London Sites and Monuments Record, The National Monuments Record for England, The National Monuments Record for Scotland, The Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record, the West of Scotland Sites and Monuments Record, The Shetland Amenities Trust Sites and Monuments Record, the Museum of London Archaeological Archive, the York Archive Gazetteer, the Council for British Archaeology's Index to Radiocarbon Dates and much more.
  • Clive Orton is Editor of The London Archaeologist, and Reader in Archaeology at University College London. He has a long track record in research and teaching about the archaeology of the capital.

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153