The Ever-Expanding Data-verse

We are back with the final installment of our data-collection adventure.  In our previous posts we have talked about a number of important sources we have been using to collect already existing radiocarbon measurements (what we would call ‘legacy data’). These have included lists produced and published by radiocarbon labs, large datasets compiled by researchers and publications from research projects. However, there are a few more very important sources that we have not talked about, until now….

The first is the Historic Environment Record (HER). A HER is a comprehensive database of the archaeological sites, historic buildings and historic landscapes of an area, and there are over 85 HERs across England, managed by local authorities. In Wales, the HER databases are run by the four regional Archaeological Trusts; Clywd-Pows (CPAT), Dyfedd (DAT), Gwent-Glamorgan (GGAT), and Gwynedd (GAT). In Scotland HERs are managed by local authorities and overseen by one over-arching body, Historic Environment Scotland. In Northern Ireland the Sites and Monuments Record (NISMR) is managed by the Department for Communities, and in the Republic of Ireland the Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) is maintained by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s National Monuments Service.

The Heritage Gateway portal for searching English HER records (left), and the map search function on Canmore for searching Scottish HER records

These contain a wide variety of records, from prehistoric findspots with a singe artefact to large multi-period archaeological sites and historic landscapes.  Furthermore, HERs are an ever-expanding resource; as new sites within the historic environment are investigated, the results are deposited with the local HER. This means they have up-to-date and comprehensive details about the historic environment within their local area. More importantly (and continuing our open access theme from previous weeks), the information HERs hold are public records, and anyone can access them, either through online HER records (visit the sites for England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Republic or Ireland) or by making an enquiry. HERs are also used in the development process, where the detailed data held by them is used to characterise the historic environment in particular areas ahead of excavation and development.  For Project Time, we contacted HERs across England, Wales and Scotland, and requested records for any site in their area which had recorded radiocarbon measurements for sites recorded as being ‘Neolithic’ or ‘Bronze Age’. Then, all we had to do was look at the radiocarbon measurements, find those that fell within the 3500–1500 cal BC range, and add them to our database (if we didn’t have them already from another source)! In Ireland there is no centralised database of radiocarbon dates and instead we used the data collated by Robert Chapple, as featured in our previous blog post.

The final data source we explored is the data produced by commercial archaeology units, who undertake excavation ahead of development as part of the planning process (as well as doing research excavations in some cases). We explored this data in two ways. The first has been using the enormous library of unpublished archaeological reports (also known as ‘Grey Literature’) produced by commercial units. In the UK, this is hosted by the Archaeological Data Service (ADS). Here you can search the library, containing over 60,000 reports from commercial excavations, and once again, it is accessible to everyone! Using this, we searched for just those sites that included ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Bronze Age’ archaeology, then reviewed the reports to find any radiocarbon measurements that may have been taken. This is, as you might imagine, quite a labour-intensive job, but thankfully the project undertaken by Bevan et al 2017 included an online crowd-sourced review of the grey literature on the ADS website up to February 2016.  As we have incorporated the Bevan et al 2017 data into our database (see earlier blog post), we only needed to review reports archived since February 2016, and add any new sites.

The ADS grey literature library

In the Republic of Ireland all site reports must be submitted to the National Monuments Service but these reports are not available online. However, one of the major instigators of commercial archaeological work is Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) and the reports associated with their work are all available online in the TII Digital Heritage Collections hosted by the Digital Repository of Ireland. The collection currently contains 2742 text objects, mostly archaeological reports. The only reliable way of searching through this resource was to open each report and to search for the word ‘radiocarbon’. There were no shortcuts in this case!

Finally, we have also been working with a number of commercial units directly who have been kind and generous enough to share their own databases of radiocarbon measurements. We have used this data to pinpoint sites that fall within 3500–1500 cal BC. We then used the reports of these sites, from the ADS library, from the units’ own open-access report repositories (such as Oxford Archaeology or Cotswold Archaeology ) or from reports sent to us directly by the excavators,  to collect all the required information.

And that is about it-and what is the result of all this, I hear you ask? Well, as we come to the end of our data collection, we have collected nearly 15,000 radiocarbon measurements, ready to be modelled! Come back to us in the new year, as we begin this next exciting phase of the project!

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