Author: Michael Rains
In 2005, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), part of the U.K. higher education funding framework, announced funding for a number of projects under its Virtual Research Environments program. The JISC described the purpose of a virtual research environment (VRE) as being to “help researchers in all disciplines manage the increasingly complex range oftasks involved in carrying out research” by providing a “framework of resources to support the underlying processes of research on both small and large scales” (JISC 2007). In practice, this translates into providing access, which in current circumstances means online access, to the resources (data) and applications (tools) necessary for research. Although not stated explicitly, the concept of collaborative working is also central to the JISC’s definition of a virtual research environment. In its earlier days, phrases such as “digital workbench” and “computerized desktop” (Rains 1995) were used to characterize the IADB; but by 2005 it was clear that the newly coined term “virtual research environment” could be applied equally well to it, and a joint bid by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading and York Archaeological Trust was awarded funding by the JISC for a two-year project under the acronym OGHAM (Online Group Historical and Archaeological Matrix). In 2007, an additional two years of funding was awarded for a continuation project entitled VERA (Virtual Environments for Research in Archaeology). This project included the original partners plus the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading and the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London.
Both OGHAM and VERA are centered around the Silchester Town Life Project based at the University of Reading. This is a large-scale, long-running, and ongoing excavation of part of the abandoned Roman town of Calleva Attrebatum at Silchester, which lies approximately 80 km west of London. Silchester has used the IADB as its data management system since the start of the project in 1996. The OGHAM and VERA projects were aimed at developing specific aspects of the IADB, particularly in the areas of improved data flow and collaborative working.
The Silchester project has a small core team based in Reading and a larger group of specialists studying, among other topics, animal bones, pottery, and glass. Most of these specialists do not live or work in or near Reading or Silchester. They all have only a part-time involvement in the project and either have other day jobs in museums or other institutions or work as freelance archaeological specialists contracted for a wide range of different projects. Many will also have their own research interests. As a result, specialists often feel isolated or semidetached from the project. Key aims of the two JISC-funded projects have therefore included improving the flow of information from excavation, through analysis and research, to publication and dissemination, and developing a collaborative working environment through which all members of the project team can feel truly involved. Many of the technologies we commonly associate with the term “Web 2.0” have enabled and, to some extent, driven these developments in the IADB.
Developments toward a collaborative working environment within the IADB have taken a number of routes, including, for example, the creation of internal messaging and chat systems, and the provision of online collaborative document-editing facilities. Significant among these is the concept of the virtual research domain (VRD), which was developed as a way of encapsulating the key features of a virtual research environment within the IADB. Each VRD is designed to address a particular research issue or activity within an archaeological project, such as the stratigraphic analysis of a phase of the site or the analysis of the coin assemblage from the site. Some key features of a VRD are:
• The VRD should provide simple, direct access to all the key resources required to address the particular research issue.
• Recognizing that the end product of most archaeological research is the production of one or more documents, the VRD must provide for collaborative online document creation and editing.
• Access to and use of the VRD must require minimal user training.
At the heart of a virtual research domain are one or more structure diagrams, which are interactive graphical representations or visualizations of part of the project database. The starting point for a structure diagram of, for example, a particular phase in the development of the site, would normally be a standard archaeological stratigraphy diagram showing the excavated contexts in the phase and the stratigraphic relationships between them (Figure 5.1). To this are added, for example, a plan of the contexts, one or more photographs, and any other resources from the project database considered relevant to the research topic being addressed. Most significantly, one or more documents are also added to the VRD (Figure 5.2). These will most likely be blank initially. They will be completed by the researchers working in the VRD and can be thought of as the “factory floor” of the virtual research domain. A VRD addressing the research topic of excavated finds might contain less stratigraphy and more artifact and image resources (Figure 5.3).
Researchers logging into the virtual research domain are presented with the interactive structure diagram as their interface to all the resources relevant to the topic of the VRD. A simple double-click on any item, whether a stratigraphic unit (context), plan, or photograph, will take them straight to that resource. For example, double-clicking on a plan will open the plan in the IADB’s interactive plan browser, which is, in effect, a small-scale GIS system within the IADB enabling the detailed manipulation of individual context plans and the drawing elements within them. If permitted, researchers can add annotations and other resources to the structure diagram. They can add their contributions to the VRD documents mentioned above and see the contributions of others (Figure 5.4). They can also use the IADB’s messaging facilities to communicate directly with other researchers. All of this is possible with minimal user training, while researchers who are more familiar with the system still have full access from within the VRD to all the facilities of the IADB.
The first practical use of the VRD concept during its initial development Figure 5.4. Online collaborative document editing within a virtual research domain. was to produce an online publication as part of the Linking Electronic Archives and Publications (LEAP) program funded by the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council and administered by the U.K. Archaeology Data Service. The archaeologists involved in the production of this paper were based in Reading and York but were able to collaborate effectively online through the VRD, which simplified and streamlined the research process and, most importantly, fostered teamwork. The resulting paper was published in Internet Archaeology 21 in 2007 (Clarke et al. 2007). The data on which the paper was based were archived to the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) and are accessible from within the Internet Archaeology paper.
Future improvements to the editing facilities within the VRD and the possible introduction of three-dimensionality will further enhance its effectiveness for researchers, while direct-to-Web publication of VRDs will allow faster dissemination of archaeological research results to the wider archaeological community.
The structure of the underlying IADB database, which we can think of as the “what” of the IADB, has changed little since the early days of the system. Most effort has gone into developing the system’s scope (the “why”) and the tools and user interface (the “how”). Expansion of the scope of the IADB—from relatively simple data management during the excavation and post-excavation analysis stages of a project through to data archiving, dissemination, and publication—have been enabled and driven by developments in the wider computing world. These include the falling costs and increased capacity of online data storage, the explosive growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the move to online web publication of archaeological reports. Online publication of the results of the Silchester Town Life Project—as the work progresses, not just at the end of it—has always been seen as a key aspect of the project (Clarke et al. 2004). Developments that we might characterize as Web 2.0 have, in a similar way, both enabled and driven the development of the user interface and tool set of the IADB. Put simply, they have made it possible to do within the environment of a web browser things that it was not possible to do before.
However, development of the IADB as a web application has also raised a number of problems. For example, the question of cross-browser compatibility is perhaps not a major issue for small-scale, closed applications used within a particular research team, but becomes highly significant when applications are opened out to a wider user base. Questions also remain over the long-term future of some of the new technologies often associated with Web 2.0—for example, Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), which is a subset of XML designed to represent two-dimensional vector graphics, particularly in a web environment. Support for this standard from browser manufacturers and large software houses has so far proved patchy and, in some cases, short-lived, while key alternatives such as Flash remain proprietary.
Over recent years, the emphasis on user interface and its functionality seen in systems such as the IADB has led to a position where it is increasingly difficult to separate data from interface. For modern IADB projects, a simple dump of the raw data is of much less utility and value than that data when accessed through the IADB interface. Indeed, many of the tables within the IADB database are there only to support the functionality of the interface and have little intrinsic meaning or value when taken out of the interface. This has major implications for data archiving and questions of sustainability of data. Many of the issues surrounding long-term data archiving and preservation—for example, the durability of storage media and technological obsolescence (how many computers can now read 5.25-inch floppy disks?)—are well understood, if not completely resolved. On the other hand, software sustainability has tended to be viewed mainly at the platform level, which in database management terms might be Linux/Apache/MySQL/ PHP (in the case of the IADB) or Windows/Access/Visual Basic, rather than at the application level of the user interface. York Archaeological Trust has digital records dating back over 30 years. It is interesting to note that those that remain most accessible today are the ones that have never been formally archived but, because they are part of the larger organization-wide database (the IADB), have been carried forward through each successive hardware and software migration and interface development. On the other hand, some records that, with the best of intentions, were “archived” to floppy disk or tape in earlier years are now largely inaccessible or indecipherable.
In developing any new system or application, it is important to keep in view the reason for doing it. What problem are we trying to address? Does the solution actually resolve it? With any new technology, hardware or software, it is easy to become blinded by its newness and lose sight of its original reason for being. An example of this can be seen in another strand of the VERA project which aimed to improve the flow of data or information throughout the lifetime of the archaeological project. As part of this, extensive trials were undertaken to test the use of digital pens to speed up the digital capture of site context records and their accessioning into the project database. Previously, these records had been written onto pro-forma Context Recording Sheets on site and then manually transcribed into the IADB, normally as part of the post-excavation process. While the digital pens have been found to perform well from a technical point of view, it is not clear that their use has produced any significant time savings with regard to the production of digitized context records. This is particularly true when the extra resources allocated to the trials are taken into account. In fact, it can be argued that the digital pens are not addressing the real problem. The amount of actual text on a typical Context Recording Sheet is relatively small— rarely exceeding 100 words—and so transcribing this text has never been the most time-consuming part of the process. Irrespective of whatever decisions may be made in the future about the continued use of digital pens and other technologies, these issues have prompted an ongoing fundamental reappraisal of the structure and function of context records within the IADB. Recent trials have examined the use of scanned images of Context Recording Sheets (with appropriate metadata) in preference to full transcription of the context record.
Both the digital pen trials and the VRD development strands of the VERA project have highlighted another important issue with regard to the introduction of new techniques and technologies into long-running systems with well-established methodologies such as archaeological excavation projects. As mentioned above, for many years the Silchester Project, like most other excavations, has used hand-completed pro-forma Context Recording Sheets. Over time, a comprehensive system has been developed to manage and check these forms. For various reasons, the digital pens trial opted not to use digital versions of these forms, but to use free-form digital notebooks. This fundamental change to the recording system caused many problems for the management and checking of the data. For example, while it was easy enough to check what had been recorded in the digital notepads, it was much more difficult to check what had not been recorded, whereas empty fields on the Context Recording Sheets were easy to spot.
Virtual research environments will only be adopted into regular use if researchers feel that the solution offered truly addresses a need that they themselves perceive. In other words, it’s not enough for the solution to adequately address the problem; the problem itself has to be a real one.
In conclusion, it can be seen that the technical advances and programming developments that have made possible Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and Google Mail have also allowed archaeological systems such as the IADB to develop into something much better than they were, say, five years ago, and this will hopefully continue. However, these same developments have also highlighted the need for a clear understanding of the problem being addressed, and the importance of detailed user needs analysis being undertaken alongside the technical development of new applications and approaches to archaeological data management.
In the two years since this paper was first written, significant development has taken place in two aspects of the IADB mentioned briefly above.
The use of the IADB as a web publication tool has been developed both within the Silchester Project and at York Archaeological Trust. By creating individual web pages as documents within the IADB, and then using the IADB to manage and publish them, the project teams were able to achieve a much closer integration of IADB data resources (such as context records, lists of finds, and the like) into the pages of the web report than was possible within the LEAP project. The recent Silchester Project web publication, “The City in Transition” (Fulford and Clarke 2010), demonstrates well this close integration of report and database publication.
The use of scanned images, or facsimiles, of Context Recording Sheets (CRS), along with appropriate metadata, in preference to a full transcription of the CRS, has been adopted as standard practice by both York Archaeological Trust and Canterbury Archaeological Trust. In contrast to the use of digital pens described above, this approach to context recording has been found to save considerable time and to enhance the overall quality of the record (Fisher and Rains in press).
When assessing the long-term significance of the VERA project (and its precursor project, OGHAM), it is clear that many of the developments that took place as part of VERA, as well as others such as facsimile context recording, which were prompted by it, have now been adopted widely by IADB users. They have fulfilled the stated aims of the VERA project by promoting lasting improvements in the processes of initial record creation and post-excavation analysis and research. In addition, although this was not an explicit aim of the project, it can be argued that VERA has made a significant contribution to the ongoing development and refinement of approaches to Web-based archaeological report and database publication.
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