Dem bones, dem bones….

We’re continuing to make progress with the database – and this week we have completed inputting our draft list of archaeological reference resources for animal bone. These will shortly be sent to the Historic England-moderated ‘Professional Zooarchaeology Group’ for their review and comment.

As a result the database is expanding quite rapidly, and now includes 429 records of archaeological reference resources currently in use!

Arch ref res survey for ALGAO (England) heritage managers launched

As well as establishing how ‘specialists’ individually and collectively use Reference Resources, our project is keen to investigate the extent to which their use is required by ‘heritage managers’ – those dealing with work arising through planning applications and the like. We’ve just published a very short survey of ALGAO (England) members so that we can get an overview of the current state of play. We’re intending to then develop a more detailed understanding of how curators use (or signpost) reference resources by looking at a small number of case study areas.

Busy week…343 archaeological reference resources now captured!

We’ve had a really busy time over the last couple of weeks, cracking on with the project. In particular, we’ve been adding records to the database – including more Roman small finds references, and zooarchaeological resources from the Professional Zooarchaeology Group bibliography…. There are now 343 references on the database and counting!

Take a look at our list of specialist groups to see what a range of archaeological interests we are covering!

Project Restart – December 2016

After being on temporary ‘hold’ due to illness, the Project Team is pleased to announce that the Archaeological Reference Research Project is fully staffed again and back up and running. We’re now due to finish by June 2017, so we’ll shortly start posting more information about our progress to date, as well as getting in touch with our many archaeological colleagues – both groups and individuals – who are contributing to this work.

Accessing the data!

We now have our database, complete with data entry forms and now report forms for extracting information! Many thanks to Maggi for all her efforts in making this work – it proved to be a much more complex Access task than was originally envisaged.

We are now adding lots of Reference Resources to the database, and will be contacting specialist groups over the next few weeks with the relevant database extracts for comments, and to ask about specialists’ experiences of using the Reference Resources available to them. Watch this space!

More musings on Reference Resources

Historic England has defined what the term means, and we thought we’d got it straight (see webpage What are Reference Resources and previous blog post). But… I’ve started adding them to our database, which means I need to decide which references are Reference Resources, and which are not. In some cases it seems nice and clear, where there are books, online materials, or physical reference collections relating to a specific type of artefact or ecofact. But it gets fuzzy at the edges of these definitions – eg when is a book relevant as a Reference Resource? If it’s about the history of something, is it still a Reference Resource? Then it gets even more unclear with some excavation reports, typically the comprehensively produced examples that created or expanded existing typologies, and discussed the artefacts and ecofacts in their wider context.

This led me on to thinking about archaeological investigation and knowledge more generally. As archaeologists what we do is produce archaeological information by identifying or classifying things – features on site, sherds of pottery, worked flints, carbonised seeds, bones, shells, types of site, cropmarks and so on. Once we’ve identified them, we consider their meaning; initially in relation to the site/local area and/or the date and/or the type of thing itself; and subsequently perhaps in a wider context in relation to the region and/or the period and/or the broader class of thing. Some types of archaeological work just address the identification/classification/information stage, others go beyond this but stop at the next stage of basic meaning, but the most comprehensive studies look at things or sites in their broader context and wider meaning.

So how is this relevant to Reference Resources? Well, at the most basic level, a Reference Resource is something that helps to identify or classify archaeological features, sites, and materials. I think this way of looking at things helps with deciding which site reports can be considered to be Reference Resources. If an excavation report publishes a ceramic type series for a site or an area, this would be a Reference Resource for pottery. If an excavation report includes a comprehensive study of the significant assemblage of whatsits found at the site, setting them in a regional and national context, and the only existing Reference Resource for whatsits was 50 years old, this excavation report would be a Reference Resource for whatsits. However, if an excavation report just listed all the whatsits found using the 50-year-old typology, this would not be a Reference Resource for whatsits. I’ll see how this goes when I get back to the database.

One of the fascinating things about archaeology is that there is always something new to discover, even about sites or objects which have been known about for decades or centuries; something which some non-archaeologists might struggle to understand. It is this which keeps many of us interested. But it is also something specific to our way of thinking about the world. In relation to the identification and study of archaeological features, sites, and materials, it means that there is always a wider context to consider, as new examples are found that throw a different light on what we knew ten years ago, or as the ones found years ago are studied in greater detail. We become used to this way of thinking, but it is not universal.


Musings on Reference Resources

We’re using capitals for ‘Reference Resources’ throughout this project, to indicate that they are something specific and defined. We’ve added a page to the website What are Reference Resources which aims to explain what these are, and includes the explanation given by Historic England in their Strategy for developing Research Resources. A brief approximation would be that Reference Resources are what specialists use to identify and make sense of things found at an archaeological site, and to set the objects found there into context.

What this project aims to do is to identify the Reference Resources that are used on a regular basis by archaeological specialists. Not the ones used very very occasionally, but those used regularly or at least within the last three years. We also want to find out about existing Reference Resources that people would like to use but can’t get hold of or access, or which are difficult to get hold of or access. In addition we want to take the next step of finding out about the Reference Resources people would like – updates to things produced years ago, or gaps that people would love to have the time to research, or wish that someone else would research and publish.

So far, so straightforward, it would seem. However, talking to different specialists and adding data to the database has shown us that identifying what to include as Reference Resources is not quite as straightforward in practice.

First of all, it became clear from our literature search and from talking to people at their conferences and meetings, that different kinds of Reference Resources are used and needed by specialists from different specialisms. Archaeobotanists need Reference Resources that help them to identify carbonised seeds, so if there is something about a relevant type of crop found at a site in Egypt, if the pictures are better than those from sites in England, they will use it. By contrast, much medieval pottery is locally or regionally produced, so many of their Reference Resources need to be about local and regional types of pottery. There are differences between different specialisms that we probably don’t think about most of the time, but which become significant when trying to work out what resources are Reference Resources.

We found it didn’t end there, though: there are more things to think about when considering when is a resource a Reference Resource; for which see my next post.


Conferences and meetings

Whilst a significant element of the project has been held up, we have been able to continue liaising with specialist groups, and going to their meetings and conferences. We met with the Medieval Pottery Research Group in London and the Archaeobotanical Work Group in Worcester in February, the Professional Zooarchaeology Group in Nottingham in March, and both the Study Group for Roman Pottery and the Prehistoric Ceramics Research Group in Norwich in June. It has been frustrating, as we’ve continued to have to tell everyone about the project in theory without being able to show and discuss with them the relevant Reference Resources included in the project database. However, very soon we will be able to send out database listings to groups for their feedback and comments.

Norwich Castle Museum


Mind the gap

With apologies for the gap in posting information about the project.

You know those wrinkles in projects that get in the way of progress? Well, we hit a wrinkle, but have now almost completely got past it. We’re now working to a revised timetable, which sees us currently adding data to our lovely new database, and compiling information for the project report, which we will be submitting to Historic England at the end of October 2015.

In the meantime we have continued liaising with specialist groups and attending their meetings; we have been searching out sources of Reference Resources, and we now find ourselves working on behalf of Historic England, rather than English Heritage.


Association for Environmental Archaeology Conference

We attended the Association for Environmental Archaeology conference in Plymouth (7th to 9th November). The theme of the conference was ‘The Big Picture: Archaeology, Society and Environment’ with a wide range of speakers. We had a table at the conference as a focal point for attendees to discuss the project, and distributed our flyers widely. It was good to make new contacts among AEA members, with plenty of interest in what the project was aiming to achieve.

The general discussion at the end of the conference was very relevant to the project. There was a call for more dialogue and improved mutual understanding between environmental archaeologists and curatorial archaeologists, in order to improve the quality of environmental archaeology undertaken within commercial archaeology.  This is related to what we will be discussing with curatorial archaeologists in ALGAO, exploring to what extent the use of reference resources is a quality benchmark.

The discussion then ranged over issues relating to large online datasets. The discussion then touched on the problems early career researchers have with finding out about the entire range of online reference resources that are available. Rachel commented that the project would address that need, and asked the audience to engage with the project.

It was certainly an interesting conference, and a great opportunity to spread information about the project.