Making History with Data: Bringing UK Archaeology to the World
The American Association for the Advancement of Science might not seem like the first choice of event for archaeologists researching Iron Age settlements in the UK. But the truth is, archaeologists break through the boundaries between science and humanities all the time, whether using cutting edge biological techniques to find out what was in a Viking lunch, investigating sites in Avebury using a variety of geophysical surveys such as ground-penetrating radar, or working with 3D imaging to recreate ancient historical sites.
Creating the first Atlas of Hillforts in the UK and Ireland was one such project, and while it certainly had its roots in ancient history, the techniques necessary to create it would not have been possible without the advances of data technology and online tools.
Hillforts – defended settlements from the Bronze and Iron Ages – are spread across much of the UK and Ireland and are integral to British studies of prehistory. Despite the use of the term hillfort (itself a relic from the 19th century), they come in all shapes and sizes – they’re not always forts, nor are they always on hills – so attempts to categorise them can sometimes be a little on the indefinable side.
For many archaeologists, modern geophysical techniques and equipment are essential for finding the location and structure of ancient historical sites, as well as their hidden treasures. Magnetometry is one such technology, measuring small magnetic changes in the soil caused by the presence of buried materials.
As Gary Lock, co-creator of the Hillforts Atlas and professor at the University of Oxford, points out: “Most hillforts are quite big, obvious structures and they tend to have survived as earthworks. Geophysics has been used on the interiors of hillforts to say if there are any roundhouses or pits.”
When hillforts have been lost and almost disappeared into the landscape, they still leave traces of their whereabouts and for many years so aerial photographs have often been the best way to detect and describe hillforts across the UK.
Today, satellite imagery services like Google Earth are greatly improving archaeologists’ ability to spot the remnants of ancient settlements. These are all now well-established archaeological tools, but collating the information for the atlas project took a new, data-oriented approach.
“There are 4,147 UK and Ireland sites,” says Professor Ian Ralston from the University of Edinburgh, another of the project’s lead researchers, “and we’ve got a huge amount of information on each one, so for us the information had to go into a database. But databases confine you to be very structured; you have to have a very structured way of recording information.”
When you’re dealing with millennia-old lumps and bumps in the ground, creating structured categorisations can be a major challenge in its own right. Lock, Ralston and their team needed to create their own system for categorising the sites, which required more than a little testing: “After several ‘dry runs’ we did go out to Northumbria and Cumberland to test on the ground.”
In the end, the team had defined robust categories; everything from the sites’ entrances to the surrounding landscape. So when it came time to create the online tool, it was a matter of picking out the most important information for inclusion.
For John Pouncett, the team member tasked with building the Atlas’s online home, this was more difficult than you may think: “The biggest thing was managing the team’s desire, understandably, to use as much of the data as they could while still being able to distil that in a way that the public can use effectively.
“It was about balancing usability with a labour of love.”
For the team, that labour of love paid off with a dramatic response from the public resulting in more than 8.7 million views in the first four months and over 140,000 unique users.
It’s little wonder then, that there were some teething problems to begin with. As Pouncett explains: “At one point the database was handling over 250,000 transactions an hour so the user interface essentially fell over under that demand.”
Still, the site was back up in just a few hours that same day. Not bad for a team of Iron Age archaeologists used to working in centuries.
Professor Gary Lock, Professor Ian Ralston and John Pouncett will be in attendance at this years AAAS conference. For information on their online Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland project, visit them at the UK Research and Innovation stall.