Case study

Setting the standard for digitally preserving archaeological information

The Archaeology Data Service has transformed how archaeological research is communicated. Fragile digital data, often the primary record of sites destroyed through excavation, is preserved and freely available to all.

The issue

Archaeological data is unique. Because the process of excavation destroys the archaeological record that is excavated, data becomes the only way for future archaeologists to ask new questions of that record.

Preserving archaeological data and safeguarding it from loss is important to ensure it is easily accessible for future re-use, and is still a valuable resource for research.

The research

In 1996, two years before Google was founded, the Department of Archaeology began pioneering methods of using computing in archaeology. The department established the first internet journal in any discipline, Internet Archaeology, promoting open access 15 years before the government announced it would make publicly funded scientific research freely available, following the Finch Report.

One year later, the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) was established, creating the world’s first digital archive for archaeology.

Initial research focused on establishing procedures and standards for documenting and preserving data files. This led to a series of "Guides to Good Practice", continually updated through international collaboration. The guides are now co-published with Digital Antiquity in America, with input from multiple EU project partners.

With funding from the Research Support Libraries Programme and support from English Heritage, the OASIS project (Online AccesS to the Index of archaeological investigations) was established. This led research into the capture, flow and usability of data: from producers, such as contracting units and community groups, to users, such as local and national data managers.

As demand for online resources increased, the ADS considered how Europe (and European identity) could best be served by a digital infrastructure for cultural heritage. The ADS led the EU-funded ARENA project to research a shared, interoperable information infrastructure. ADS also co-lead the implementation of this infrastructure through the EU ARIADNE project.

Further research has been undertaken into digital preservation costs by establishing the Digital Archiving Pilot Project for Excavation Records (DAPPER). This research formed the basis of the ADS cost model and charging policy and was taken up in the cross-disciplinary Making Research Data Safe project.

The outcome

The ADS has transformed how archaeological research is communicated in the UK, and had an impact on digital publication and archiving throughout the world. The ADS leads the world in setting standards for the preservation and accessibility of archaeological data by and for the commercial, community and higher education sectors.

Over 400 commercial contractors now use the ADS to archive their reports on open access. In 2011–12 there were 110,000 individual downloads, with almost half of this usage from the non-HE sector. ADS is now setting the standard for recording archaeological data produced by the commercial and community sectors.

In developing a digital archive for archaeological data in the US, ADS has not only served as a valuable model but staff have provided critical advice and assistance. It's been a major driver of global efforts to establish interoperability of digital repositories to share archaeological information.

Keith Kintigh
Former President of the Society for American Archaeology
Featured researcher
Julian Richards

Julian Richards

Director of the Archaeology Data Service, and co-director of Internet Archaeology.

Professor Richards is a leading expert on computer applications in archaeology. His research specialises in the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age England, especially mortuary behaviour and settlement evolution.

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