Linking databases for comparing research

Report from the EAA 2022 COMFORT roundtable, Session #399 “Linking databases for comparing research: do we need a European hillfort information system?”

Anna K. Loy (CAU Kiel), Hans Whitefield (ZBSA Schleswig), Timo Ibsen (ZBSA Schleswig) and Loup Bernard (Université de Strasbourg, CNRS UMR 7044)

The past decade has seen a rapid proliferation of regional and national databases for prehistoric fortifications across Europe. Hillfort catalogues have appeared in the UK and Ireland, as well as Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. This proliferation and the ever-increasing scope of research on fortifications raises the question of whether these tools are sufficient or if there is a need to create super-regional or international databases. The 2022 COMFORT roundtable at this year’s EAA Annual Meeting addressed this issue under the themes of Purpose, Practice, and Sustainability.

The purpose of fortification catalogues is to provide foundational datasets for broader regional studies and international projects. While it is in some ways limiting to catalogue fortifications, enclosures, hillforts, and other reinforced places independently, the discussants concluded that such tools provide a consistent basis for the large-scale research of many research projects. Catalogues and atlases of archaeological sites have been a mainstay of archaeological practice since the 19th century. They provide a gateway by which researchers may familiarise themselves with different regions and cultures. While fortifications do not exist in a vacuum, they have the potential to serve as long term archives of cultural developments in a particular region (and they may potentially do so across many scales). Therefore, they can be independently catalogued without oversimplifying the complex landscape of cultures and settlements. The literal prominence of fortifications also means that having a developed and easily accessible catalogue of them can attract community engagement and awareness of cultural heritage. However, to fulfil this purpose, several challenges must first be overcome.

The practicalities of creating large scale catalogues requires an approach that focuses on synchronous and simplified data; however, a degree of caution is necessary, as this can be overly reductionist. This is typified most readily by the problems of terminology that can vary broadly not only between regions and languages but also among researchers. While promoting the use of more neutral terms such as ‘enclosure’ may be useful, any catalogues or databases will need to take an approach that integrates legacy terms and typologies as well. To overcome this difficulty, an approach may be to preserve independent regional databases and simply provide a central network under which new and existing databases are linked, thus providing more comprehensive coverage of the information at hand.

If a traditional approach of using a single institution or a small international team is to succeed in creating a Europe-wide database of fortifications, it will need to compromise between compiling useful archaeological data that is also modest in terms of workload and maintenance. A central linking service that connects databases may be the first step toward creating a singular international database if it is not the end goal in itself. An international database of prehistoric fortifications would require a high degree of flexibility and variability. In addition, multiple projects handling large-scale archaeological data have already shown that data can be increasingly complex and harder to handle the more details are included. Should no one person (or team) continually handle the data and funding, it (the data) should be kept basic and lean to maintain functionality.

A community-driven approach would greatly increase the capacity of any database and may also address the issue of sustainability. Large scale projects such as Quantum Geographic Information Systems (QGIS) demonstrate that there is a high potential for community-driven approaches, especially when the community is open to professionals as well as enthusiasts. A multi-user platform would allow for the growth of the fortification research community and greatly expand the available labour pool. Researchers and stakeholders of previously-isolated or neglected regions could have access to more research tools and a more equal footing with better-studied and -funded areas. A WebGIS platform appears to be an ideal approach, not only for cataloguing, but also to make other research tools available. Nonetheless, there is a risk that the quality of data may be affected by unqualified or malicious users. Mitigating these risks can be addressed by a community certification process that places users into appropriate tiers of editors and users. While a publicly-available dataset requiring no credentials should be considered, the deliberate obfuscation or fuzzification of data is more likely to harm the state of research and public knowledge. This issue is typified by the use of openly available Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data by looters, who actively use, promote, and distribute open-source LiDAR data for archaeological sites that are both scheduled and unscheduled. While restricting data on fortifications is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome of protecting sites, in the case of newly-discovered sites, a time embargo for entry into the database could be utilized in order to protect sites from unprofessional or nefarious activities. A final (albeit more academic concern) is the reproducibility of data and availability of source material. While the digital object identifier system (DOI) is highly effective, more obscure literature and archival work (especially from Eastern Europe) will need to be catalogued and possibly reproduced. A large and motivated community may overcome this problem, but further discussion is needed on how to best resolve this issue.

In sum, all of the discussants at the roundtable agreed on the need for a European WebGIS to facilitate hillfort research. It was also generally agreed that a system linking existing databases would be helpful to facilitate more international research. However, many discussants also argued for the centralisation of data. The centralising approach brings with it several challenges not only in terms of language, but also regarding sustainability. A multi-user platform could facilitate this more readily than traditional institutional approaches, and would serve to connect researchers, the public, and stakeholders. Further sessions to address these important issues are planned for both the next EAA Annual Meeting as well as in the form of COMFORT (Community for Fortification research) workshops.

The participants’ contributions were based on their own experiences and aided by valuable input from the audience. We thank the discussants, especially David Novák, Vytenis Podėnas, Mads Thagård Runge, Heiki Valk, Leonid Vyazov, and Gintautas Zabiela for their contributions.

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