Vol. XV, No. 2
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Fall, 2002

Networked Access to Digital Archaeological Archives in the European Arena

Jon Kenny and William Kilbride

This short article introduces the ARENA project, one of a number of European Union funded projects that seek to confront the considerable challenges to be met in the world of digital archives in Europe.

E-commerce, E-government and associated ambitions for the role of knowledge and information in society is perhaps more challenging on this side of the Atlantic than in America. It would be fair to say that the European Union is a little frightened of the prospect of E-commerce. The USA, with a large home market, a unified legal and tax system, and a single common language, is well-placed to take the lead. Europe, with a similar population and economy, is divided among at least 15 official languages and has diverse legal institutions and tax systems; these are obvious and unavoidable handicaps. Little wonder then, that the EU is spending a great deal of money to try to overcome some of these obstacles. Cultural heritage is, perhaps Europe's most obvious and visible asset - so path-finding projects and research that address Europe's fundamental problems with information exchange, but which are based in the cultural heritage sector are particularly welcome to the decision-makers that have identified and seek to address the challenges of information technology.

The opportunities afforded by digital archives of European cultural heritage are not just about decision-makers; they also open up opportunity for an ever-growing band of academics and citizens who can use these resources for a wide variety of research and educational purposes. In addition to improving the availability and research potential of data to the academic world such resources are available to an ever-growing band of enthusiasts. This democratising effect on the use of archives is illustrated by the recent successful launch of the Defence of Britain Archive on the Archaeology Data Service website based in the UK. The Defence of Britain Archive is the result of a major national archaeological study of Britain's twentieth century defences - gun emplacements, nuclear bunkers and (unused) fall-back positions which would have been used in the event of an invasion from the Continent. The data generated by this project is immediate and compelling - indeed many of the enthusiasts that have swamped the ADS for information about the archive have direct personal connections with the material in the catalogue. The Defence of Britain project has shown that there is a popular appetite for digital archives.

That potential is multiplied when we consider the vast potential of Europe's historic environment. But this all sounds too easy. Just like ancient Rome, the arena for digital archives can be a dangerous place. Four specific challenges need to be met: language differences for data sets, extending the experience and training of cultural heritage professionals, awareness of digital archiving issues relation to preservation and access, and finally the shadow of national boundaries built into so many of our interpretations of the past.

How can these challenges be met? Because the outcomes are so exciting there are already a variety of initiatives in place. Some struggle with the vast and ensnaring tendrils of language and multilingual thesauri. Others work on spreading training and awareness amongst heritage practitioners and archivists. Yet more seek to create specialist networks or create a common standard to form the very fabric of a network.

Most recently, the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) has joined the fray. Inspired by the concept of an interoperable network for archaeological archives across the continent, the ADS is lead-partner in the ARENA Project (Archaeological Records of Europe: Networked Access Project). This is a partnership of six agencies representing Poland, Romania, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and the UK. ARENA is a path-finding project that aims to create an exemplar portal to European digital archives for archaeology. Using integrating technologies such as Z39.50, OAIMH, XML and map-based searching to allow interoperable access to archives between the partners, this portal will provide access to selected digital archives on different aspects of European archaeology. 1

Negotiations are already underway as to which archives will make the vision a reality, and a variety of issues of integrating resource discovery have been identified -- such as time lines and metadata.

Perhaps more important than any tangible outcome is the knowledge and expertise it aims to bring. ARENA is intended as a learning curve for all the partners, each of whom brings specific expertise on different aspects of cultural heritage computing. Moreover, a series of training events and conferences will allow this expertise to be shared by many others. The first meeting of partners took place in April 2002, and at the time of writing, preparations are well underway for the first major workshop in Thessaloniki at the annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologist. Further workshops are planned to coincide with the Computer Applications in Archaeology conference in Vienna in 2003.

The last few years has seen a lot of research and development in the field of digital preservation, as the clear threats and problems become better known and understood. Applied research is still needed into the finer details, but the prospects for digital preservation are looking up. Arena is only one of the very many projects that are helping that transformation along. Rome may not have been built in a day - there is still a great deal of work to be done to avoid the threat of a new digital dark age. No fine classical city would be complete without an arena where the beasts could be tamed.

For more information about the ARENA project contact Dr Jon Kenny (jk18@york.ac.uk) or see the Arena website at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/arena/. The Defence of Britain Archive is available online at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/specColl/dob/index.cfm.

-- Jon Kenny
    William Kilbride

To send comments or questions to either author, please see our email contacts page.

1. Z39.50 is a standard protocol that allows users to interrogate different databases, located on different servers and with diverse data models using a single query and single interface. Developed in the library sector, it is increasingly being used to integrate cognate datasets in various subject areas. Performing a similar task, but operationally very different is the Open Archives Initiative Metadata Harvesting protocol. Whereas Z39.50 spools out queries to discrete databases, OAI harvests metadata elements from diverse datasets, then queries a single union catalogue generated from the combined metadata of these diverse databases. Thus, while Z39.50 broadcasts queries across many machines simultaneously, OAIMH gathers these datasets together in advance and carries out only one search. Both approaches depend on combining metadata elements, for which the Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) is useful tool. XML allows for data elements to be stored within a highly structured, but essentially simple ASCII text format, but in such a way that items of interest can be identified easily. Thus, a simple text file can behave like a database file.

These integrating technologies can be used in a number of imaginative ways to mark-up and present archaeological archives - but more fundamental are the archives to be used. Return to body of text.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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