Digital Infrastructures for Archaeological Research

The ARIADNE network developed out of the vital need to develop infrastructures for the management and integration of archaeological data at a European level.  Many European countries are working, both individually and in combination, to develop data preservation and access policies. ESFRI, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, is a strategic instrument to develop the scientific integration of Europe and to strengthen its international outreach. One of its key goals is to facilitate multilateral initiatives leading to the better use and development of research infrastructures, at EU and international levels. The ESFRI program has provided funding for scientific research infrastructures across a range of disciplines. It provided start-up funding for the preparatory phase of DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities), and DARIAH has now been formally incorporated as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), a legal framework which will facilitate its long-term sustainability.

ARIADNE sits within DARIAH as a digital infrastructure focussed on the archaeological and heritage sector. 24 European partners, spread across 13 countries, have been brought together in ARIADNE. The network aims to bring together and integrate the existing archaeological research data infrastructures so that researchers can use the various distributed datasets. It plans to embrace Linked Open Data as well as Web Services approaches, and will use Natural Language Processing to enhance access to archaeological grey literature. The partners comprise most of the existing national services, including ADS, SNDS, DANS, the DAI and Fasti Online, as well as partners in other countries who hope to develop their own infrastructures.
The primary nature of archaeological data makes it particularly vulnerable to data loss, and the importance of heritage to cultural identity across many European nations makes it a key priority for support. But how well-placed are European repositories to meet this challenge? In many countries it has been assumed that libraries and archives, the traditional custodians of records, will simply take on this additional role. However, few are adequately resourced or staffed to deal with the scale and complexity of digital data, particularly the volume and range of data types produced by the archaeological sector. Several studies have recognized the value of discipline-based repositories in developing stakeholder communities, avoiding fragmentation, and establishing discipline-specific data preservation expertise (see Data Centre: their use, value and impact, Research Information Network, JISC 2011).

The UK’s Archaeology Data Service is the longest-standing digital archive for archaeology, and recently enjoyed its 15th birthday. The ADS was established in 1996 as one of the five discipline-based service providers making up the UK Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS). It is hosted by the University of York. It began with 2 members of staff, but now has 15. The ADS is the mandated place of deposit for archaeological research data for a number of research councils and heritage organizations and makes all its holdings freely available for download or online research. At the last count it provides access to over 18,000 unpublished fieldwork reports (the so-called grey literature) and over 500 data-rich digital archives. All reports and archives are allocated a permanent means of citation, or Digital Object Identifier, in collaboration with the British Library and DataCite. In 2011 the ADS was awarded the Data Seal of Approval, a form of accreditation for trusted digital repositories, making it only the second repository to receive this accreditation, after the UK Data Archive.

The ADS was the first archaeological digital archive in Europe, and was only preceded by the now defunct ADAP, in the United States.  In recent years, however, there have been related initiatives in several other European countries, although admittedly these are concentrated in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.  In 2007 the ADS was joined by EDNA, the e-depot for Dutch archaeology, which was established as part of DANS (Data Archiving and Networked Services), and funded by KNAW, one of the main Dutch Research Councils. Like the UK Data Archive, DANS originated as a social-science-data archive but from there it expanded into History and then, in collaboration with Leiden University, into Archaeology through a 2004-6 pilot study. As of 2007, agreements to deposit archaeological data at DANS were formalized in the quality standard for Dutch archaeology, making archaeology one of the largest components of the digital resources hosted by DANS. By the end of 2011 EDNA provided access to over 17,000 reports. EDNA employs two archaeological archivists, but also benefits from input from the much larger staff of DANS.

Recently, the Swedish National Data Service (SND), based at the University of Gothenburg, decided to extend its collection policy to focus on Archaeology. It has worked with the Department of Archaeology and History at Uppsala University to archive a number of archaeological reports. At present, SND is starting the publication of over 200 GIS files with excavation data from Östergötland. SND is a service organization for Swedish research within the humanities, social sciences and health sciences. It helps Swedish and international researchers gain access to existing data within and outside Sweden and provides support and guidance to researchers throughout the whole research process. A second Swedish infrastructure initiative focuses upon access to data pertaining to environmental archaeology. The Strategic Environmental Archaeology Database (SEAD) is based at Umea University, in northern Sweden. The SEAD project is funded by the Swedish Research Council and Council for Research Infrastructures. The SEAD project aims to facilitate the online storage, extraction, analysis and visualization of data on past climates and environments (and, implicitly) human impact. The SEAD project hopes accomplish those ends by providing online tools to aid international researchers in these tasks, and by providing access to data that are currently not accessible online.

The most recent initiative to establish a national archaeological digital research infrastructure in Europe is the IANUS project.  IANUS is funded by the DFG (German Research Foundation) and coordinated by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), which is part of the German Foreign Ministry. IANUS was established in 2011 with an initial staff of two, to identify what would be required to set up a digital archive for German archaeology.

There have also been recent parallel developments beyond Europe. In North America in the last two years there has been a small number of significant initiatives which seek to provide cross-institutional support for digital archiving. Although seen primarily as a data publication tool, Open Context, based at the Alexandria Archive Institute, has developed a relationship with the California Digital Library to provide for long-term citation and preservation, and it is now one of two repositories mandated by the National Science Foundation. (See Kansa and Kansa, “Open Context: Developing Common Solutions for Data Sharing,” CSA Newsletter, January, 2009; XX1, 3; and Kansa and Kansa, “Publishing Data in Open Context: Methods and Perspectives,” CSA Newsletter, September, 2010; XXIII, 2.) The other is tDAR, hosted at Arizona State University, and supported since 2009 by a four-year start-up grant to its parent organization, the Digital Antiquity consortium, from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation (See McManamon, Kintigh, and Brin, “Digital Antiquity and the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR): Broadening Access and Ensuring Long-Term Preservation for Digital Archaeological Data” CSA Newsletter, September, 2010; XXIII, 2.)
In Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund have funded Sustainable Archaeology, a 9.8-million-Canadian-dollar joint initiative between the Western University and McMaster University, with the initial aim to digitally consolidate archaeological collections that are currently scattered across the Province of Ontario, Canada. These initiatives better position Northern American archaeologists to address growing pressure to make the results of research and the data underpinning that research freely and publicly accessible.
In Australia too, there have been numerous attempts to develop a digital research infrastructure for archaeologists. The latest of these is FAIMS (Federated Archaeological Information Management System), a highly ambitious project led by the University of New South Wales and funded by the Australian Government’s NECTAR program. FAIMS is a 12-month project which aims to “assemble a comprehensive information system for archaeology. This system will allow data from field and laboratory work to be born digital using mobile devices, processed in local databases, extracted to data warehouses suitable for sophisticated analysis, and exchanged online through cultural heritage registries and data repositories.” (; last accessed 7 September 2012.)

There are many other major research infrastructures where the focus is upon networked access rather than digital preservation. Classical archaeologists are relatively well provided for in this regard. FASTI Online provides a database of archaeological excavation projects for Classical Archaeology since the year 2000. The project originated in Italy, but now includes a further 9 countries. It is run under the auspices of the International Association for Classical Archaeology (AIAC), with software support provided by L-P Archaeology. Entries include some basic information about the site as well a summary of each season of excavation in both the local language and translated into English. The site is searchable by means of a map interface, structured searches and free text searches.

At the level of artefacts rather than excavations, Arachne is a major resource. Arachne is the central object database of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the Archaeological Institute of the University of Cologne. It aims to provide archaeologists and Classicists with an online research tool for quickly searching hundreds of thousands of records on objects and their attributes. Wherever possible, Arachne uses highly structured object-metadata which is mapped onto the CIDOC-CRM, in an attempt to provide solutions which will contribute towards an archaeological semantic web. Such solutions recognize that whilst modern Europe is highly politically and institutionally fragmented, many archaeological research questions transcend modern political boundaries. It is unrealistic that such data will ever be brought together in a single database, and, in any case, it is better maintained at the national or regional level where there is ownership and often a legal responsibility to maintain archives. Therefore we should look to options for interoperability which allow cross-searching of distributed resources.

As early as 2002-4 the ADS led a consortium of European partners on the EU-funded ARENA project. (See multiple articles in Issue 18 of Internet Archaeology.) One of the outcomes of the project was a portal which provided a distributed cross-search of sites and monuments records for six countries. However, this relied upon dated technologies which had been developed for cross-searching library catalogues. In 2009-10 the ADS was able to work with DANS to migrate the ARENA portal into a more flexible web services architecture, as a technical demonstrator for the DARIAH program. (See ARENA portal and Issue 18 of Internet Archaeology.) More recently, a new network has been launched which aims to introduce Linked Open Data into online resources that refer to places in the Ancient World. Pelagios stands for ‘Pelagios: Enable Linked Ancient Geodata In Open Systems’. It brings together a long list of partners, including some already referred to above, such as Open Context, Arachne and Fasti Online.

This text is based upon “Digital Infrastructures for Archaeological Research: A European Perspective” by Julian D. Richards, published in the CSA Newsletter XXV (2), September 2012, available from