Adapted from: Recording and Analysing Burial Grounds © Harold Mytum and the Council for British Archaeology, 2019, 2020
When we talk about legacy data we mean data that has been produced via some sort of graveyard survey or cataloguing of burials, but which wasn’t undertaken using our recording methodology and code system. This kind of dataset is very common. They might arise, for example, from the transcription of burial registers and their linking to individual memorials; or from a monument condition survey that followed Historic England or Council for British Archaeology guidelines; or they might have been surveys based partially, but not wholly on Harold Mytum’s (2000) Recording and Analysing Graveyards.
Legacy data is often high quality and of great value to researchers, both locally and nationally. Unfortunately, however, it is very difficult to get hold of individual surveys if they are not archived in a central repository, and that is assuming a researcher would know that the survey data existed. Moreover, if a researcher did recover several legacy datasets from different surveys, they would find it very difficult to make comparisons between them because of the different ways in which the data had been produced and stored.
The DEBS project was set up to address this twin problem of standardisation and archiving. The Burial Spaces Research Database has been designed to act as a national repository of burial space surveys, with memorials all recorded to a similar standard using a single unified methodology. There is value, then, in converting a legacy dataset to one that can be used within the Burial Spaces Research Database. By doing this, the data becomes searchable and comparable.
It is important to note that no data need be lost in the conversion process. When the Archaeology Data Service comes to archive your dataset, they can include collections of old recording forms or tables of legacy data within the project archive (click for example). However, unconverted legacy data cannot be included within the Burial Spaces Research Database, and therefore it will only be partially searchable.
In order to convert a legacy dataset into a format that can be included within the Burial Spaces Research Database, you will need to make sure you fulfil the minimum standards outlined by the ADS:
To support future research on burial grounds, it is recommended that surveys are as comprehensive as possible, adhering to the methodology laid out in the DEBS guidance. However, at a minimum, surveys should address the following characteristics:
For surveys focused on the material form of monuments
Broad type (e.g. Headstone, Tomb, etc), date of memorial, condition of memorial, measurements.
For surveys focused on commemorated people
Surname, forename(s), date of death, age at death.
As outlined above, your legacy data must be (re)organised on a per-memorial basis, and it must be submitted to the ADS using one of the DEBS data entry tools. More information can be found in the dedicated guidance on using the data entry tools.
In some cases, translating the data will simply involve copying and pasting from one spreadsheet to another. Measurements, for example, might at the most require conversion from imperial to metric. However, difficulties are likely to arise when attempting to fill out fields that are restricted to set answers, or which require you to input a code from the code sheet. In these latter instances, you will have to go through each characteristic you wish to convert and reinterpret them in line with our guidance. Arguably, the most difficult part of this process, but perhaps the most rewarding in terms of its archaeological and research value, is reinterpreting monument type. It should be noted that while we would prefer you to use the code system to its fullest, you can if necessary assign only a broad type to each monument (e.g. 1000 Tomb, 2000 Grave Cross, 3000 Grave Sculpture, 4000 Headstone) – take heed of the recommended minimums outlined above.
Depending on the situation, reinterpretation of each monument might involve a net-loss of information (although this ‘lost’ information might still be made available in the project archive), or a net-gain if you are prompted to examine a new aspect of the monument. The reinterpretation and checking process could involve working at home from photographs or trips out to the graveyard. However, be aware that if your legacy data was produced a long time ago, monuments could have moved or been eroded. If changes have occurred, it is how they are now that should take precedence, with a description of the changes included in the comments field. You can also use the comments field to record details that were originally recorded, but might not be accommodated within our methodology. For example, a previous survey might have recorded the colour of stone used in the monument’s construction, but this does not form part of the DEBS method.
Once your data has been converted, you should follow our guidelines on archiving. The digital archivists at the ADS will be able to advise you on how to prepare additional materials, like original recording sheets or digital files containing the unconverted legacy data.
A conversion project will still need to address the problem of funding. Archiving costs money, and Archaeology Data Service can only recover these costs at deposition. While funders such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund might support a data conversion project if it is sizeable enough, or if forms a strand of a broader heritage project, but it is unlikely to fund a relatively small data conversion project, e.g. a single village churchyard survey. In this instance you might speak to the advisors at your local Historic Environment Record (HER), and/or consider applying to the Open Access Archaeology Fund. This is a fund specifically for the costs of data deposition and publication.