Digital past 2011

RCHMW organised their 3rd conference on digital heritage documentation on 14th /15th February which is a very useful meeting point for data users and providers in the sector. ‘Digital Past‘ represents the best of the outward looking work of the Welsh Commission and serves to underline the value of reaching out to peer organisations. It is a great privilege to be asked to contribute. I was asked to speak on the thorny issue of documentation standards along with Catherine Hardman of the Archaeological Data Service York. We got a bit of a discussion going on the need for standards under the shadow of the looming cuts in institutional support for heritage. As the public sector shrinks the voluntary sector will need standards and guidelines like never before.

Since Pieter-Jan De Vos drew my attention to what ‘Big Society’ (see here) might mean for heritage, and being an early victim of heritage cuts I tend to see a sharp contrast between public sector (institutional) projects and the capacity of the private sector. To fill the growing gap left as state support for monuments and sites diminishes volunteers and philanthropic funding will be stretched hard.  With the prospect of active conservation for but a handful of ‘celebrity’ projects and  the less attractive sites being left to crumble I see the vulnerable sites facing irreplaceable loss. It’s all very well raising local awareness of historic value but without funding basic maintenance it just doesn’t get done, surely the national heritage deserves better!  How a new minimum maintenance model works I’m not sure, there is the idea that community support for heritage will fill the gap but I can’t see the skills needed surviving without support of some kind: it’s the loss of continuity that is troubling, most of English Heritage’s key skill teams are now gone: the Ironsmiths workshop, the Painting Conservation studio, the Gun Carriage workshop, the Directing Architects Division, the Metric Survey Team are all gone; just where are the draughts-men, where are the craftsmen our historic fabric is so in need of?

Fortunately the skills dump has not hit Scotland and Wales anywhere near as hard as England and I am encouraged to see their teams prosper but its clear Heritage is seen as a soft target for cuts.

Stuart Ainsworth demonstrated just how little field survey is needed for the archaeological investigation of upland, moorland areas now he has rich metric data at his fingertips in the form of Lidar and aerial photogrammetry. Wondering how ‘Big Society’ can replace the forthcoming 30% cut in service from English Heritage, perhaps, as the mapping data gets better, we won’t need so many investigators in the future and landscape analysis could be a community ‘desktop’ exercise? After all there is a very strong ‘amateur’ following in archaeology!

Bringing together museum, archaeology and built heritage expertise is something of a rarity and the emphasis was on data use over capture which indicates not only a maturity of the key technologies but also an acceptance of the work of technicians as fundamental. There is hope yet (despite the on-going divestment in technical skills at English Heritage) that surveyors, CGA technicians and CAD operators will have a distinct and recognisable role in  heritage projects.

It took 3 attempts to get the kite, wind and light co-incident but I was able to demonstrate KAP practice to a select few and with great pride share the key image (top of the page) with the discussion group on standards. Good sunlight also brought out an enthusiastic light aircraft pilot too and my kite was over-flown by about 200m by a twin engined ‘plane which rocked the Lifter but did no more harm that raise my heart rate for a few moments, it’s always uncomfortable when aircraft pass me at less then the 600m CAA agreed height limit.

The quality of the presented projects was stunning although I’m still puzzled by the use of terms like ‘photoreal’, ‘methodology’ and ‘digital preservation’: an agreed glossary would be a real help to us all here! The tendency for 3D technologies to push their own agenda (for example laser scanner users still ignoring the value of photogrammetry and even stating past data sets are inferior to ‘modern’ scanned ones) is less evident than previously.

There is much that can be done with a camera and it was great to see the excellent work done by Adam Stanford other low cost technologies (as well as my own efforts by PAP and KAP) were represented by the excellent work with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) by the team at Southampton University in getting really high definition image capture mobile and accessible (but sadly still without scaleable output;  some 4 years after I took this up with Mark Mudge) I discussed using camera calibration as a method of scaling the wonderful outputs so that measurements could be possible when viewing the ‘digital surrogate’ objects.

My redundancy at English Heritage has put me outside the instutional framework so I had some fun having a dig at the cartographic failures in EH’s  ‘Understanding Landscape Archaeology a guide to good practice‘. The gist of this is here.

Toby Driver and Susan Fielding are to be congratulated on getting the very best of current practice together and the enthusiasm they have for their work is inspirational….I am moved to resurrect RecorDim TG16 and see what can be done to move the 3 planks (Work Practice, Specifications and Data Standards) of  a Heritage Documentation standard forward: now more than ever we need to understand and implement a national ‘baseline’  record of our heritage, we are going to need it!

About billboyheritagesurvey

Heritage worker
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