Ten Years of the ADS

Jeremy Huggett

Jeremy Huggett

Head of Department of Archaeology University of Glasgow

The ADS first began to take shape - as do so many archaeology projects - over a beer and sandwich in a bar, during the meeting of CAA UK in February 1996 in York. A fast and furious email exchange then followed, with messages flying between colleagues in York, Glasgow, Newcastle, Canterbury, Leicester, Oxford, Southampton, Bradford, London and Birmingham, and the bid document presented by the consortium members reached its final form in April 1996. Looking back over those emails today, two particular themes stand out amongst all the forensic discussion of the call for bids that took place.

First, there was considerable anxiety about the idea of a digital 'archive' being established on the basis of what at the time was only three year's funding. Clearly, no one could seriously pretend that this could be presented as truly archival in the absence of secure long-term funding. Nonetheless, that appeared to be what was required by the newly-formed Arts and Humanities Data Service of their prospective service providers. In the bid, this was finessed by emphasising the provision of a central point of access to distributed datasets held and maintained by others elsewhere - the ADS was to act as a 'metadata broker', cataloguing and providing flexible searching mechanisms for data hosted by the consortium or elsewhere. Only orphan datasets which had no natural home elsewhere would be considered for archiving by the ADS. One of the achievements of the ADS over the past ten years has been not only the success of its metadata catalogue as a first point of call for researchers, but also the growing confidence in the security of the data it does archive, underpinned by income generated through its commercial activities. As it has turned out, HE funding has been renewed following detailed reviews on each occasion and success in attracting external funding has meant a degree of financial security has been achieved.

the original 1996 ADS logo
The original 1996 logo

Secondly, there was early on a recognition that without collaboration with the non-HE archaeological organisations who produce most of the data utilised by British archaeologists, the project would only have limited impact and value. In recognition of this, the consortium membership included the Council for British Archaeology, and the bid emphasised the importance of working in partnership with the various national and regional bodies. Indeed, the success of the ADS to date is to a considerable extent due to the willingness of those organisations - in particular English Heritage and Historic Scotland/RCAHMS - to engage with and support the work of the ADS. It is perhaps a salutary reminder to consider how far things have changed in the past ten years. In 1996 the World Wide Web was barely three years old and most users outside of large businesses and universities accessed it, if at all, via modems at a tiny fraction of the speeds now available. Few outside the largest institutions could afford the cost of making web servers accessible to the world outside. So, for example, National Monuments Records were not accessible in the way they are now - an early version of CANMORE did exist, but could only be used by personal visitors to Edinburgh, for instance. The contrast with the present situation is stark, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that sectors of archaeological practice have been transformed in the process through the provision of access to digital resources, and the ADS has played a significant role in this.

It could so easily not have worked. At the time, the technology was new, and not particularly stable. Metadata and its associated tools were in their infancy. The datasets might not have been made available. The funding might have ended after the initial three years. It is well to recall that the Archaeological Data Archive Project in the USA closed in 2002 due to a lack of funding and the problem of assembling a large enough body of material to become useful. Both are familiar concerns for the ADS, but the support of the archaeological community along with continued backing from HE as represented by the AHRC and JISC has enabled the ADS to develop and grow, and rapidly pass the balance point at which stage its resources became useful (although we could speculate as to when that was achieved!). The fact that it did work has a great deal to do with the efforts of the staff of the ADS and also the contributions of the many and various members of the Advisory Committee. But without the support of the broader archaeological community, and their adoption of the ADS as an important data resource, it is certain that the ADS would not have advanced to the position it is in today.