A useful set of values that underpin the creation and management of good data are FAIR, the guiding principles for scientific data management (2016). These principles guide data producers from all walks of life who create, manage, and preserve digital material. They are: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). The guiding principles are easily mapped onto our professional imperative as archaeologists to create a stable, ordered and accessible archive.
- Findable – the digital archive from your project is uploaded to a public repository, and rich metadata are assigned along with a unique and persistent identifier. This identifier will be assigned by the repository (like a museum accession code) and can be cited in the same way a publication can be.
- Accessible – digital material, including both data and metadata, should be retrievable in a variety of formats that are usable by people and machines. Anyone with access to the internet should be able to access at least the metadata associated with a research project, and to understand the conditions under which digital data can be accessed. To meet the CIfA Standards fully, the intended trusted digital repository must also support public access to project data in perpetuity.
- Interoperable – digital data is uploaded to a data repository that can exchange and make use of information with other platforms, facilitating data aggregation and cross-searching. Within the heritage community, metadata use standard vocabularies such as MIDAS Heritage.
- Reusable – data should be richly documented using metadata that meet relevant community standards and provide information about provenance. Data archives are released with a clear and transparent usage licence, so the data repository can manage reuse appropriately. Data formats should be limited to widely used, open formats consistent with archive needs. In short, data should be easy to use and easily cited, meaning it can be easily integrated into future research.
You can read the full paper here: https://www.nature.com/articles/sdata201618.
These principles are used across multiple research communities and remind us that the requirements outlined within CIfA Standards are relevant in a wider discussion of digital data management in research projects. The standards applied to data within archaeological research are consistent with other sectors and may also be required by funding bodies, such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who require articulated plans for data management for all funded projects.
Infosheet #1 - FAIR Principles and archaeology looks at what FAIR principles mean when it comes to archaeological archives and digital data.
CIfA Standards and digital data
This online resource is underpinned by CIfA Standards and guidance. The most relevant professional standard for archaeological data archives is the Standard and guidance for the creation, compilation, transfer and deposition of archaeological archives (2014, updated 2020). This provides a benchmark for the archaeological community for all aspects of the archaeological archive.
The CIfA Standard for archaeological archives (2020) is that:
All archaeological projects that include the recovery or generation of data and/or archaeological materials (finds) will result in a stable, ordered, accessible archive. All archaeologists are responsible for ensuring that the archive is created and compiled to recognised standards, using consistent methods, and is not subject to unnecessary risk of damage or loss. It is the responsibility of all curators of archaeological archives to ensure that archives are stored to recognised standards for long-term preservation and made accessible for consultation.
The following statements indicate how CIfA Standards can be met during everyday project delivery.
- Digital data created as part of an archaeological project must be managed to the same standard as all components of the project archive.
- Project planning documentation, such as WSIs and project designs, must include a data management plan (DMP).
- The content of the DMP should be consistent with the example provided as part of this resource.
- The digital data archive should be reviewed as part of the overarching selection process for the project archive.
- The receiving repository for digital archives must be a trusted digital repository, accredited by CoreTrustSeal.
- The trusted digital repository should be notified early in the project planning process and identified in the DMP.
- The DMP will be updated by the project team throughout the project, highlighting any changes in agreement with project stakeholders.
- The final version of the DMP should be deposited with the digital components of the archaeological archive and included with the final technical report.
This guidance supports the implementation of good practice archive management and recognises that this may be an incremental process. The Dig Digital Health Check supports individuals and organisations in identifying steps that need to be taken to be fully compliant. This self-assessment tool can also help demonstrate recognition that digital preservation is vital and part of the organisation’s remit, and that there is a commitment towards implementing digital preservation.
Infosheet #2 - CIfA Standards and archives presents infromation you need to know about CIfA Standards and digital archives, including requirements which relate to collection, management and monitoring of archives.
Standards and repositories
CIfA Standards and guidance require that archaeological archives are stored for long-term preservation and made accessible for consultation. As well as being part of CIfA’s Code of Conduct, the need to support public benefit and open access is also underpinned by the National Planning Policy Framework (see Paragraph 199, Footnote 64).
When it comes to digital data, that requirement means that the data repository must be able to guarantee long-term preservation and ensure that all data is both useable and accessible into the future – it must be a trusted digital repository.
An archaeological archive should also be available for public access – a sentiment fully endorsed by the Society of Museum Archaeologists in their definition of a publicly accessible repository:
A publicly accessible repository is one that is capable of providing physical and intellectual access to stored collections and their associated data to a wide and diverse range of audiences.
Following the Mendoza review of museums, Historic England recommended that museums should not be expected to curate digital archive material from archaeological projects, in favour instead of deposition in a trusted digital repository. CIfA Standards are consistent with this recommendation, requiring that digital elements of a project archive must ideally be deposited with a trusted digital repository with a commitment to long-term preservation and access.
CoreTrustSeal is a quality stamp for repositories that indicates they can look after your digital data for the long term. You can find out which repositories have been accredited via the Core Trust Seal website.
Currently, the only UK-based repository that deals with archaeological archives and has gained this accreditation is the Archaeology Data Service (ADS). This is about the change, with national repositories in both Scotland and Wales both working towards CoreTrustSeal accreditation. It is imperative when working in the UK to check the national guidelines of the country you are working in – just as you would for other parts of the archaeological archive.
You can find more details about the different approaches to digital material across the UK in Infosheet #3 - Digital archives in the UK.
Review data standards
Technical data standards are not included in this resource but should always be considered. Using recognised standards will help ensure the quality of your data, including descriptors used for terminology in both reporting and metadata.
Where specific data standards are required, you should identify them within the DMP and reference any general standards you might use as an organisation (such as an excavation manual). Undertaking an organisational review of technical data standards may be a useful exercise – although it sounds excessive, such a review could be useful when writing project-specific DMPs.
Project documents that might stipulate or record specific data standards:
- The project brief or tender documents might signpost data standards that the project team should follow
- Repositories of the physical archive (some prescribe thesauri)
- Your organisation’s Operations Manual or Excavation Manual may articulate specific approaches to data acquisition and management, including the use of data standards
- Your DMP can be used to highlight relevant data standards where they might have a bearing on data acquisition or management, or an impact on the quality of the archive (see Section 2 of the downloadable Data Management Plan checklist, which you can find in the Planning page of this resource)
All records and materials recovered during an archaeological project and identified for long-term preservation, including artefacts, ecofacts and other environmental remains, waste products, scientific samples and also written and visual documentation in paper, film and digital form (Perrin et al 2014, 20).
CoreTrustSeal accreditation is the quality stamp of repositories that manage digital archives. See Trusted digital repository.
A data management plan, or DMP, is a document which describes how you are planning to manage the data gathered through the delivery of a project, and what will happen to that data (eg. plans for sharing and preservation) once the project is complete.
These guiding principles provide a simple definition of the core principles of good data management: Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability and Reusability (FAIR).
In order to be findable, your archaeological data will require a globally unique and eternally persistent identifier. In other words, a permanent ID, which will most likely be provided by the trusted digital repository.
Metadata are data about a digital resource that is stored in a structured form suitable for machine processing. It serves many purposes in long-term preservation, providing a record of activities that have been performed upon the digital material and a basis on which future decisions on preservation activities can be made, as well as supporting discovery and use.
The form of metadata required for archive deposition may be specified by the receiving repository; for example, see ADS guidelines for depositors.
The process of applying a selection strategy to a working project archive to determine which archive components, including documents, digital files and material objects, should be included in the archaeological archive. The aim of selection is to ensure that the archaeological archive contains everything required to establish the significance of the project and support future research, outreach, engagement, display and learning activities.
Formal, accessible, shared, and broadly applicable language for knowledge representation. A standard vocabulary provides a community-recognised specification that determines the precise meaning of concepts and qualities the data represents. For the archaeological sector, MIDAS Heritage provides this, which means that data is encoded using a standard which can be read on all applicable systems.
A trusted digital repository is an accredited service that supports the long-term preservation of digital archives through the provision of specialist resources, knowledge, capacity and technical solutions that facilitate the storage, curation and accessibility of data in perpetuity. This recognised and universal system of data archive standard has provided the basis for certification of repositories using the CoreTrustSeal accreditation.