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Euston…We have a Problem: HER Forum returns to the Metropolis
HER Forum Summer Meeting, 9th July 2014, Directory of Social Change, Euston, London 

(Post presentation questions and comments – in italicised type following each abstract – based on notes taken at the meeting).

View from the Chair - Chris Webster, Somerset County Council

Another successful meeting this time London, thanks to Nick Davis’s successful search for an affordable venue.  There were 70 attendees, which suggests that people don’t find travel to London a particular problem. A varied programme covering the Palaeolithic, archives and digital data supply in the morning led to a good level of discussion that continued over an excellent buffet. In the afternoon a talk on the initial results of the EngLaid project, was followed by an overview of the minor amendments process to the National Heritage List, for which thanks are due to Martin Newman as a very late substitute. At tea break I discovered another part of the chair’s role – cutting the 15th birthday cake for the HER Forum email list! Contentedly full of cake, the final presentation on the future replacement of the Oasis system was well received. Much of the meeting then adjourned around the corner at the Bree Louise, where discussion was still continuing when I had to leave to catch a train at 6pm.

Looking after the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic: Some urgent recommendations on HER structure and terminology – Francis Wenban-Smith, University of Southampton

Firstly, although I am (constructively I hope) critical in some matters, and I advocate some specific and practical changes, I am delighted to be engaging with the curatorial community through this HER forum. I very much hope this will lead to implementation of some of the suggested improvements, or at least initiation of a process of suitable consultation alongside development of a mechanism for implementation of some changes. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherer archaeology is a specialised area of archaeology, with which most curators and consultants are less familiar, and less confident in recognising and assessing the importance of different remains and suitable approaches to evaluation and mitigation. Although originally an academic Palaeolithic/Mesolithic specialist and lithic analyst, I have been heavily involved in curatorial matters and pre-development commercial archaeology since the early 1990s.One of my priorities through this time has always needed to be to argue for suitable recognition and mitigating actions for Palaeolithic and Mesolithic remains, which cannot be understood and assessed in the same way as more conventional sites such as earthworks and buildings. And this discussion has needed to take place not just with developers and "their" consultants, but also with curators and contracting organisations.However, these discussions only take place when sites are already on the radar of curators and consultants early in the planning process. And it is here that the HER plays such a vital role in being the core repository of accumulated information on the historic environment, allowing the presence of potentially important remains to be flagged up, leading to consideration of whether preservation or evaluation is required. It is therefore vital that information on the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic heritage is incorporated into the HER, and in a manner that allows areas of interest to be identified and their importance assessed in advance of development, leading to appropriate avoidance or mitigation. The purpose of this contribution to the HER forum is not so much to reviewthe different nature of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic evidence and explain the finer points of how to assess its importance. Nor is it to make (nonetheless relevant) abstract theoretical points about how the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic risk being marginalised by a curatorial discourse and practice that has since its 19th century inception been focused on "Buildings", "Sites"and "Monuments", and which maintains a thesaurus of site-types and remains that do not fully cover the richness and potential of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic evidence, including Quaternary deposits and palaeo-environmental remains. Rather, following from an EH-sponsored Palaeolithic-Mesolithic HER enhancement seminar in January this year, and from recent work on improving the representation of Palaeolithic sites in the Kent HER for the Stour Basin Palaeolithic Project (supported by English Heritage and carried out in collaboration with Kent County Council), I want to draw attention to some practical issues we encountered, including limitations of the current Exegesis HBSMR framework and thesaurus terms, and to suggest some specific actions and improvements.

Comment (Catherine Hardman, Archaeology Data Service) – The J J Wymer archive has now been scanned and is now available through the Archaeological Data Service. This will to be joined by the Jacobi archive towards the end of 2014.

Comment (Martin Newman, English Heritage) – The Southern Rivers Palaeolithic Project has now been processed into the national record and is currently available through NRHE and PastScape. 

Comment (FW-S) - That is good, but there still remains the fundamental problems that (a) the Southern Rivers Project site data (and also the later English Rivers Project data) are not fully integrated into HERs, and (b) different data are recorded in the SRPP/ERPP, the Wymer/Jacobi archives and in HERs.  Unless these supplementary resources are also consistently checked for planning and development control purposes (and then the site data interpreted by someone with suitable basic knowledge of the Palaeolithic and of curating the Palaeolithic heritage), then potential Palaeolithic impacts might not properly be taken account of.

Comment (HER officer) – A project along the lines of the one envisaged in the presentation could be undertaken through FISH.

Question (FW-S) - What is FISH was and who ‘owns’ this group?

Answer (HER officer) – FISH is the Forum on Information Standards in Heritage. It is a group that co-ordinates the management and development of data standards for the historic environment. Anyone interested in their activities should contact Dan Miles of English Heritage. 

Comment (Martin Newman, English Heritage) – This group also includes the English Heritage Data Standards Unit who maintain most of the wordlists and thesauri involved.

Comment (HER officer) – The question is not simply one of terminologies. Any findings could also be used to inform revisions of Informing the Future of the Past.

Comment (Chris Webster, Somerset HER) – Within HERs terms such as ‘events’ and ‘archive’ tend to be used as a type of shorthand. Consequently these words have acquired meanings differing from those more generally understood elsewhere. Also, in a specialist area of this type difficulties are inevitably going to arise when, for example, a 19th century account has to be processed by an HER officer.

Comment (HER officer) – From the HER perspective it might be a good approach for the findings of any possible project to be rolled out in a consistent format to local records by English Heritage.

Response (FW-S) - The objectives of the proposed project would include raising awareness of the Palaeolithic and achieving higher general levels of knowledge amongst HER officers and planning control archaeologists. This ought to extend to users as well as those managing data. For any new terms/frameworks to have authority and credibility, it will be important that they are based on academic consultation. To instigate this some means of bringing together a range of suitable specialists will be required.

Question (HER officer) – How would this be extended to recording by archaeological contractors?

Answer (FW-S) – This would be one of the issues that a new project would have to address.

Barcodes, Boxes and Plastazote: Using the HER as an archive repository - Quinton Carroll and Sally Croft, Cambridgeshire County Council

Archaeological archives in museums are amongst their most frequently used ‘objects’. In this sense archiving stands apart from other elements of museum collections. Whilst in most areas the cost of storage space demands an extremely selective approach to collection, Museums still seek to enhance collections, something which archive is capable of doing.

The Cambridgeshire HER serves as the central archive for events within the county. In recent years, however, conventional storage capacity for this material was reaching its limit. An estimate indicated that twice the existing capacity would be required just to accommodate the additional material anticipated over the next ten years.    

Initial measures to expand capacity were made possible when a programme to re-use County Council property assets made a former nuclear bunker available to the HER. However, to support a long-term collection programme an additional, sustainable and inexpensive alternative was required.

To this end archival storage facilities available in former salt-mine workings in Cheshire were investigated and eventually decided upon. The decision making process having weighed the perceived benefits of outsourcing storage (a reduction in the capital costs being experienced due to high land values and expensive leases plus improved storage care – complying with the PD5454 standard) against possible drawbacks (geographical remoteness, a need for detailed cataloguing, transport issues and general loss of control and accessibility).  

Preparing material for deposition with Deepstore required the development of new cataloguing procedures which also had to be applied to existing components of the collection, some of which had previously been quite poorly recorded. A new, but quite simple, cataloguing sheet (comprising 18 columns - mostly derived from fields in the HBSMR sources module) was developed, allowing indexing down to the level of archaeological context. For older elements of the archive it proved necessary to revisit sources, catalogues and reports to attain satisfactory levels of detail and accuracy.

Once catalogued and checked the material was re-boxed, secured with plastazote padding and a strapped-down lid and labelled (with bar coding). The bar coding controls are co-ordinated using the HBSMR Administrative Functions module. So far around 19,000 source UIDs have been generated for the project.  Bar coding and retrieval has proved very reliable with only three problems encountered so far.

The HERMES Initiative – Crispin Flower, exeGesIS SDM Ltd.

"HERMES" is an idea under discussion for a new sustainable data exchange service for UK archaeology and cultural heritage. HERMES would be a portal for HERs and other data providers to make rich data available as structured downloads and web services, licensed for commercial use where needed, in response to area searches. It would incorporate a flexible charging and licensing mechanism from the start. We will present the results of our consultation exercise with HERs and Contractors, and explain the detail of the ideas.  We are looking for feedback and ideas from the HER Forum to assess the viability of the proposal and to shape it to your needs.

Question (HER officer) – Will it be necessary for an HER to have GIS accessibility through the Heritage Gateway to allow it to participate in HERMES?

Answer – No, the system could work through XML, although GIS would enhance and simplify the process.

Question (HER officer) – Won’t a consultation based HER result in a loss of control of the data? Once material had been downloaded what would stop contractors simply ‘picking and choosing’?

Answer – The large majority of searches are likely to be spatially orientated and will allow the contractor to sift for relevance. The contractor’s choices will be high level ones, however, allowing sufficient structuring of the data to achieve enhanced understanding. To work within this framework HERs will, in turn, need to have secure licensing arrangements in place.

Question (HER officer) – Would contractors be prevented from looking at the data before they were bound by the terms of the license?

Answer – Contractors will not get full access to downloaded data without a license.

Question (HER officer)– For some HERs the process of responding to enquiries has become an integral part of data-cleaning and enhancement. Won’t the proposed system circumvent this element of quality control?

Answer – This will require a dialogue between contractors and the HER. The general preference amongst contractors seems to be to receive imperfect data more quickly.

An Update on the EngLaid Project – Anwen Cooper and Christopher Green, Oxford University Institute of Archaeology

The English Landscape and Identities project, Oxford, is now well into its third year. We have worked hard to establish the character of the various digital datasets we have assembled and also to make these datasets work for us. We are starting to realise the interpretative potential of these data, and to explore some of the themes that are central to the project. Our public outreach programme has also been a great success thus far. In this paper we will outline how our work with local researchers (including HER Officers)has shaped the direction of our study. We will highlight key findings from tests undertaken to characterise our datasets, and summarise strategies we have developed to deal with the complexities of working with ‘big data’. We will offer highlights of our initial interpretative findings both at an England-wide and case study level. Finally we will outline our plans for publication, and raise the kinds of data feedback we have been able to offer to data providers so far.

Improving NHLE Entries (or ‘Will talk for cake’) – Martin Newman, English Heritage

Minor Amendments to NHLE have been a major success improving the quality of entries on the NHLE, improved searching and made EH more responsive to partners including HERs. As well as summarising what has been achieved so far this presentation will look at a revised approach to MAs. Analysing what has been reported has enabled a strategic programme of MAs to be dawn up to proactively make corrections to entries before errors are reported. Additionally this will also look at the removal of legally demolished buildings from the list, addressing the issue of duplicate listings and adding missing entries. It will also look ahead to a partnership project with the British Geological Survey on which is using NHLE data and will feed back amendments on building stone type used in listed buildings.

Question (HER officer) – With reference to the Euston Arch (the last slide on MN’s Powerpoint) If it was re-erected would it automatically still be listed?

Answer – No if a listed building was dismantled and re-erected in a new location the parts would still be listed but the building as whole would need to be re-assessed for designation.

Question (HER officer) – What are the plans for updating records involving Old County Numbers (OCN)?

Answer – HERs will be informed when these updates take place. Updating is not being undertaken on a county/authority basis, however. This is being undertaken in batches according to a prioritised list which includes all sites designated included in the 1913 which had not subsequently revised to include a description. If an HER has particular problems relating an OCN the instance should be reported to EH Designation who may be able to raise its priority.  

Question (HER officer) – Is there any possibility that the searchability of designations involving multiple house numbers could be improved?

Answer – This is a rather complex area but the subject of postal addresses on the list will be being investigated.

Question (HER officer) – Is there any possibility of polygonised mapping being introduced?

Answer – Retrospectively mapping LBs isn’t being considered since it might give incorrect or misleading information relating to curtilege. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, however, does permit the creation of new listings which allow fuller recording in this respect. And buildings can amended using these provisions.                         

Comment (HER officer) – Conservation Officers periodically become involved in legal tests relating to curtilege. The issue of Listed Buildings’ curtileges is, however, a grey area which is not always understood by either solicitors or the general public. It might be worth considering including a generic caveat regarding this issue with each response.

Response – Caveats of this nature do exist within the NHLE but the possibility of their being made more prominent could be investigated.

Question (HER officer) – Has the use of OS derived data any bearing on the continued use of point based location?

Answer (provided by Matthew Reynolds, English Heritage) – Some particularly concentrated areas of buildings were a source of concern to the OS in this respect. This resulted in their reverting to a point-based format.

Question (HER officer) – I know of instances of duplicate records for sites which straddle administrative boundaries. In one example, a bridge, the listings are for two different grades. Is anything being done to correct these?

Answer – Yes, the NHLE has been checked for duplications and, when encountered, these are being corrected. The information within the duplicate records is being examined for inconsistencies, if there are none then one entry is being amended so that it covers the whole structure and the other removed. Where there are discrepancies in the grade or description these are being refered to the apropriate Designation Team covering the area for investigation. 

Question (HER officer) – To what e-mail address should minor amendments be directed? .

Redeveloping OASIS to Suit You – Catherine Hardman, Archaeology Data Service

HERALD: The redevelopment of OASIS. Having your say!

We all know that the historic environment sector has undergone a great degree of upheaval over the last few years as a result of the recession-busting moves by both central and local government and, perhaps even more importantly, the slump in building activity. It was therefore even more heartening to be able to talk to the HER Forum in more detail about the investment in OASIS to redevelop the system to better meet the needs of the historic environment community it endeavours to serve under a project entitled HERALD.
We understand that there are elements of the OASIS system which are very twentieth century; this is not a total surprise as the original project was initiated in 1998! A very useful survey and subsequent report by Pye Tait Consulting undertaken in 2011-12 highlighted a number of issues, some very pertinent, some issues of misconception about the function and form of the system as it is now. What we hope to do now is take the results of the Pye Tait survey and build on that to identify what we need to do to bring the form and system behind it up to date in technological terms but also make it fit for a range of different purposes.

With the HERALD questionnaire being sent out to all sections of the community last week the OASIS team were pleased to be able to talk to the members of the HER community on their 15th anniversary of the Forum, and encourage them to be involved and have their say about what they would like a ‘new OASIS’ to be.

The OASIS system first came into being in about 2000, but its genesis really dates from 1998 when a concordance exercise tried to ensure that the English Heritage excavation Index was as complete and comprehensive as possible. The OASIS form was produced to provide data to continuously update an on line index to the mass of archaeological grey literature that has been produced as a result of the advent of large-scale developer funded fieldwork and a similar increase in fieldwork undertaken by volunteers. So the OASIS system was all about the data contained within the fields of the form.The Grey Literature Library didn’t come along until years later (2005) when we realised that the data acted as a fantastic set of resource discovery metadata for a report hosted on line. It was in 2007 we welcomed Scottish users to the system and we made a few changes to the form to accommodate them, this also enabled us to include a module within the system to record geophysical survey events in more detail. The benefits from recording the geophysics surveys came to fruition when in 2011 we archived English Heritage’s Geophysical Survey Database; we designed the database in such a way that as new records on geophysical survey came into OASIS we could eventually include them in the larger corpus, keeping alive what would have been a static database. OASIS data to also used to feed other databases, in Scotland it helps initiate online applications to Historic Scotland for C14 funding bids, contributes to Discovery and Excavation in Scotland records and around the UK coast supplies data to the Marine Environment Data Information Network (MEDIN).

But a new system could be so much more than this and we look forward to working with our ALGAO colleagues to get the best out of this great opportunity.Keep in touch via the OASIS Blog

and for questions/comments about the redevelopment email or

Question (Francis Wenban-Smith, University of Southampton) – How does ‘grey literature’ get to the ADS? Are contractors obliged to provide reports?

Answer – Contractors are expected to upload reports if the requirement to do so is specified in the project brief. It is possible to link one OASIS record to another so a specialist could upload their report and link it to an other OASIS record.  

Question (Francis Wenban-Smith) – Can the OASIS system be accessed through Google?

Answer – No. The OASIS system is a private, closed system requiring user names and passwords. There are catch points within the system which allow gradations of accessibility.            

Question (HER officer) – Are their national rules for the deposition of reports? (Set, for example by professional bodies). 

Answer – There is little beyond what the HER sets within the project brief. There have been instances in which contractors have assumed that putting a copy of the report in with the finds has satisfied their obligation in this respect.

Comment (Gill Campbell, English Heritage) – Experience gained through involvement with the Archaeo-Botanists’ Working Group suggests that specialist grey-literature reports are not necessarily going to be signposted. The picture provided is usually only a partial one. A wider understanding of indexing procedures is required.  

Response - Some of the indexing within OASIS pertaining to specialisms can be unfocused and over detailed. There may, however, be the possibility of enhancing the metadata associated with a specialist report by pulling out specialist terms. (For example, in the event of a term being referenced ten times or more it could be indexed automatically).

Question (HER officer) – Would it be possible to generate an OASIS form from a grey literature report?

Answer – This might be possible and may seem sensible in the case of older reports. The tools to do this are not yet available but is something the ADS is looking into

Comment (HER officer) – I have tried to fill in the questionnaire but was only able to get to the question ‘where in the system is OASIS validated?’ None of the options provided were applicable but no further progress was possible until an answer had been provided.

Response – This may be a technical issue but please email me with the details and we’ll try and sort it out.

Comment (HER officer) – OASIS should give greater involvement to specialists, community groups and buildings recording groups. These are all areas to which HERs wouldn’t currently be able to afford high priority.

Response – The questionnaire has been issued to IHBC and community groups with encouraging results. Comments from this sphere have been heartening; often along the lines of ‘we’ve grown to love it’.

Question (HER officer) – The grey literature library is good but aren’t there elements of duplication between this and HERs which also hold event and source data? Shouldn’t means be investigated to bring the two together seamlessly?

Answer – It would be very useful to make links and we would be happy to explore the possibility of greater concordance.

Question (HER officer) – Wouldn’t a better approach be for the report to be lodged with the relevant HER rather than ADS? The ADS serve as the primary resource for grey literature, a role which we wouldn’t wish to lose. However, allowing access to metadata through the HER (and via the Heritage Gateway) could well yield results.

Answer – Whilst the ADS is a parallel resource in terms of grey literature the libary extends beyond grey literature provided via OASIS. There is, however, some element of overlap and the idea can be investigated.

Comment (HER officer) - It should be remembered that not all HERs are on the Heritage Gateway. 

Comment (Keith May, English Heritage) – I’m impressed with the numbers that have responded. The project is keen to engage with the sector. The principal aim is to make a full range of reports available. We are eager to find out more about what users want and to develop better understanding of this interface.

Comment (Martin Newman, English Heritage) – Mark Barratt of English Heritage will be writing a blog on EH activities supporting this project.

Question – What is the recognised UID for the OASIS project?

Answer (HER officer) – There isn’t one single UID. OASIS brings together a number of codes which relate to different viewpoints of investigation and associated discoveries and reporting. If a single UID is used it should be the HER number.

Comment (Chris Webster, Somerset HER) – I have occasionally found examples where geophysical investigations have been included as appendices of Evaluation reports. 

Answer –The two could be split into separate events and the two records linked; how these are recorded would be up to the relevant HER.