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ink sketch of womwn of varying age in cllothes from 1870 to 1950

Recovering women's contributions to archaeology, history, and heritage

Published: 10 July 2023

Professor James Baker, Director of Digital Humanities at Southampton, is collaborating with colleagues at the University of London and the Society of Antiquaries of London on the Beyond Notability project. They are creating an open-source digital dataset that recognises the work of women who played a role in these fields.

James said: “We are taking the incredibly fragmented historical record of women’s involvement in this period and creating a mass of digital information that provides the basis for other people to build on.”

Buried in the records

The 19th and 20th centuries were a time of great social, political and cultural change in Britain that was marked by women’s entry into various fields of public life. 

Women who played an important role in archaeology, history and heritage are well-known, however, many more women who worked in less notable roles are less visible in the records.

We wanted to get at the slightly more unremarkable people who worked in more difficult conditions or in roles that were perceived as less important, whose work has often been overlooked in contemporary sources. 

Without the Beyond Notability project, the nature and extent of women's work in these fields would remain hard to comprehend and difficult to access.

Professor James Baker

Delving into the archives to write a new history

To gather the information on these women, the team is exploring 3 significant cultural archives, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Royal Archaeological Institute and the Congress of Archaeological Societies. They are conducting the first comprehensive analysis of these institutions’ archival holdings from 1870 to the 1950s. 

The analysis is providing the basis for the team to write new histories of archaeology, history and heritage that reveal the extent of women’s contributions to its shaping and practice.

They are gathering what information they can on the women, in some cases this is just a name, details of a presentation, a dig they took part in, or a meeting they chaired. But this is providing enough to create the digital database and ensure they become a part of the global knowledge ecosystem.

Creating a long-lasting digital infrastructure

One of the main issues the team faced is ensuring that the information has life after the 3-year project finishes in late 2024, and this is where James’ expertise at the intersection of history, heritage, technology and culture was vital.

He said: “I had experience of carrying out research into other pioneering women in this period and a history of building digital resources and infrastructures.”

Together the team is developing a framework for digitising the achievements of these forgotten women. Information about more than 900 women has already been captured and a linked data resource, modelled on Wikidata, has been created.

They are also working with the British Library to give more than 550 women International Standard Name Identifiers (ISNI) – a globally recognised way of creating a unique identifier for an individual.

James said: “ISNIs are very hard to create when very little information is known about the person. But because we had created these digital resources, the British Library is able to use our information to create a record. This framework could be used for future projects in completely different areas.”

The Beyond Notability project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Beyond Notability is helping us to imagine new possibilities for digital infrastructures. We are connecting with the world’s major information resource to enable the long-term preservation of the history of women working in archaeology, history and heritage.