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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 17:31 GMT
Old computers lose history record
Obsolete computer files mean historical records could be lost
Computer files: Which is the dinosaur?
Vital archaeological records could be lost as the computers on which they are stored become obsolete.

The physical site is nearly always completely destroyed during a dig, but archaeologists claim the knowledge they glean from the ground is then available for posterity.

Studies in York have revealed that in fact data stored on computers could disappear in little more than a decade.

"The irony is that archaeological information held in magnetic format is decaying faster than it ever did in the ground," warns William Kilbride of the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) at the University of York.

Important evidence

The ADS was asked to examine computer records of 180 Bronze Age excavations in North East London conducted between 1991 and 1996 by the Newham Museum Archaeological Service, which has now closed.

London's archeology could be lost
London's history at risk
The Newham excavations yielded important information about London and the Thames during the Bronze Age, but that data was never published.

The records comprised more than 6,000 database, geophysical and CAD (Computer Aided Design) files held on 220 floppy disks.

When they came to examine them, the archivists found that 5% of the older disks had become corrupted. The magnetic coating on the disks had simply succumbed to the slow erosion of time.

State of the ark

Another problem they encountered was obsolete formats. In computer terms,1991 is ancient history. Some of the word processor and database programmes used then are no longer available.

Old disks are useless when the hardware is no longer available to read them

Keith Westcott, Archaeologist
"The formats of computer files change rapidly. A file created in state-of-the-art software one year becomes obsolete the next, as the software is updated. Old disks are useless when the hardware is no longer available to read them," says archaeologist Keith Westcott.

Finding a computer that will physically accept old-fashioned 5-inch or Amstrad-style three-inch floppy disks is not easy.

The Newham records have now been saved to a modern server which is linked to the internet. If the records had been left on floppy disk for much longer, they would have been lost forever.

The only secure answer to data conservation would seem to be the internet. Servers can go down or will need upgrading, but in theory, information on the internet will last forever.

Kept on standalone computers or on disks in a shoe box, data from sites will be of less use to tomorrow's archaeologists than if the site had not been excavated in the first place.

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