Archaeology and the question of open access

This time last year I was in the middle of a ‘survey of relevant literature’ for my PhD. What that really meant was browsing every journal I could lay my hands on to track down articles which discussed castle slighting. It was a task which spanned months. There’s a lot to be said for hard copies and I find it much easier to read the printed word for extended periods than a screen. But when you are searching article titles to see which ones merit further investigation, digital is so much easier.

It is all about open access.

In short, open access means making content available to as many people as possible. The Archaeology Data Service leads the way in this area, making journals, monographs, and even excavation reports accessible. It can be used by the general public, archaeology professionals, or academics and researchers. A few months ago, English Heritage worked with the ADS to make 80 high-quality monographs available through the service. From their website, you can access back issues of Medieval ArchaeologyThe Archaeological JournalProceedings of The Society of Antiquaries of ScotlandSurrey Archaeological Collections, and many more.

Open access is not uniform. At one point I was keeping track of whose journals were available online and whose weren’t. I contacted a couple of societies, asking if they planned to digitise their catalogue. The answer was that while they hoped the journals could be made available digitally, the process was time consuming and by implication expensive.

Some societies, such as the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, opt to host their content themselves. I’m not sure of the reason for choosing this over using the ADS, but it may be because it is easier to control how the content is delivered that way. While I would like to see a central place where people looking for open access journals can go to find information, the important thing is that the research is available in the first place. A straightforward Google search is often enough to flush out open access journals, but Open Access Archaeology has a search function which makes browsing easy.

This means that we should celebrate the lengths some organisations have gone to to make their contents freely available online.

Sites such as Research Gate and Academia allow authors to self-archive their work. The University of Exeter stipulates that a copy of any research published while you are a student there must be deposited in Open Exeter Research. I’m pleased that my university has adopted the policy. Pragmatically, making your research open access – whether as an individual researcher or an learned organisation that has been around for 150 year – makes it far more likely that it will be picked up by others and influence their work. If you want to make a difference, you need to put your research out there. My experience is that open access helps young researchers, especially those who might have limited time such as myself. The economics behind it are interesting, but not something I’m really familiar with. What I do know, is that without open access I would not only have taken much longer to get to the current stage in my research, but that there are some sources which would have essentially remained out of my reach.

Norwich and the art of the recreation

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s easy to forget that the buildings we take for granted as part of our historic environment would have looked completely different when they were in use. Ancient Athens and Rome were gleaming cities of pristine marble, and castles were austere military structures. But centuries upon centuries of weathering and wear and tear have changed them beyond recognition.

Castles were often whitewashed inside and out, and high status area could be richly equipped with tapestries and decorated furniture. To see how a reconstruction can utterly transform a space, you don’t have to look further than Dover Castle. As English Heritage’s flagship medieval property, they seem keen to keep it fresh and interesting for the 350,000 visitors who pass through its gates every year. The work at Dover cost £2.45 million and took two years to complete (a Time Team special offered insight into the work done there).

So it’s no small feat to recreate the medieval world in glorious technicolour, but that is precisely what Norfolk Museums Service hopes to do at Norwich Castle. In February it was announced that £1 million was coming from central government. The fundraising isn’t over, but that is a sizable step which will allow for a digital reconstruction of the great tower. The intention is to carry out “major restoration work of the 900-year-old castle, including architectural, archaeological, structural and environmental surveys”. It is also hoped that visitor numbers will increase by 100,000 every year, though it isn’t clear what the baseline figure is.

The restored King's Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The restored King’s Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

So what might a restored Norwich Castle look like? A lot of research was done by the English Heritage team behind the Dover Castle project, and might offer a guideline, especially as the emphasis at Norwich will be on the 12th century which is around the time Dover Castle’s great tower was built. Norwich’s keep was built between 1095 and 1100, while Dover’s was built during the reign of Henry II. Like its later counterpart, Norwich’s keep was built by the king of England and both are similarly proportioned: Norwich is 21m tall and measures 29m by 27 at the base, while Dover’s great tower is 25.3m high and about 30m by 30m. So straightaway it looks like some of the research underpinning the Dover project eight years ago will be appropriate at Norwich.

What was striking about Dover is the way the vibrant primary colours of the furniture and tapestries were transformed by the lighting. Under broad daylight, they looked gaudy but in the darker setting of the king’s apartments they suddenly looked much more stately.

It doesn’t matter how many times you are told that these places would have been lived in by the richest of society: it takes a formidable imagination to look at bare walls and try to picture these buildings as they appeared in their heyday. Maybe most of the money set aside for Norwich will go towards repairs and more muted restoration work, but I hope to see something similar to the work at Dover Castle.