Making archives work for research

The European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science, E-RIHS [ˈīris], is working to launch DIGILAB: the new data and service infrastructure for the heritage science research community.  The DIGILAB platform will provide remote services to the heritage science research community but will also be relevant to and accessible by professionals, practitioners and heritage managers. DIGILAB will enable access to research information as well as to general documentation of analyses, conservation, restoration and any other kind of relevant information about heritage research and background references, such as controlled vocabularies, authority lists and virtual reference collections. For more details about DIGILAB see here.

By safeguarding information and enabling access to it, archives provide an indispensable component of the digital ecosystem of cultural heritage. As current archival approaches are quite fragmented, there is a critical need for an overarching methodology addressing business and operational issues, and technical solutions for ingest, preservation and re-use. One of our partners, the University of Brighton’s Cultural Informatics Research and Enterprise Group, has developed an extensive expertise in the area of digital preservation. In particular, the team has an established reputation for work in the curation and preservation of complex objects such as 3D renditions of cultural artefacts, as well as in data warehousing, database archiving, and data mining. With this background in coordination and dissemination, the team took a leading role in E-ARK, working on piloting a pan-European methodology for electronic document archiving.

Between 2014 – 2017, the Group coordinated a consortium of 17 partners from the UK, Slovenia, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Estonia and others. As part of the E-ARK (European Archival Records and Knowledge Preservation) consortium, the group worked to synthesise existing national and international best practices to keep records and databases authentic and usable over time. The project results fed into building an archival infrastructure across the EU and in environments where different legal systems and records management traditions apply. E-ARK has also demonstrated the potential benefits for public administrations, public agencies, public services, citizens and business by providing simple, efficient access to the workflows for the three main activities of an archive – acquiring, preserving and enabling re-use of information. The E-ARK open source, digital archiving framework, complete with accompanying metadata and other standards, has been thoroughly tested and has made a significant impact on the institutions who carried out the pilots: this has been assessed by carrying out semi-structured interviews at the pilot sites based on a detailed impact questionnaire. The results improved public awareness and allow web-based access to tools. The project worked to make archival processes open to re-evaluation, and to enhance the preservation and visualisation of archives. The expertise of University of Brighton’s Cultural Informatics Research and Enterprise Group as well as other UK partners, from the Archaeology Data Service to the National Gallery, will contribute to the construction of the DIGILAB and its services for new communities of users.

About the Cultural Informatics Research and Enterprise Group

The Group’s research focuses on technical areas, including 3D digitisation technologies, virtual environments, archives and collections management systems, web and museum based interactive applications and language technologies; and non-technical areas, including testing, economic and social impact evaluation in support of the development of the cultural heritage sector and its opportunities in tourism, entertainment and education.

As an expert in international project management, the group is a leader of the E-RIHS Risk Management Framework to design, implement, monitor and improve risk management consistently and efficiently across all aspects of the research infrastructure’s activities. It will enable a Corporate Risk Management function to be embedded in the structure and support audit activities.


Tailoring scientific equipment at ISAAC is improving art historical research

E-RIHS UK partners often design and build bespoke machines and scientific instruments for use in galleries, museums and heritage sites. Based at Nottingham Trent University, ISAAC has been innovating scientific instruments and applying its expertise to solving conservation, art history and archaeology problems across the globe. The laboratory is unique in developing advanced non-invasive imaging systems that are not only novel in optical and remote sensing instrumentation but also novel in applications to the museum and cultural heritage sector.

Among the technique innovation offered by the laboratory, ISAAC has been working on the improvements in Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). OCT involves fast, non-invasive, non-contact, microscopic imaging of subsurface cross-section and 3D tomography. This imaging method, originally designed for biomedical applications such as in vivo examination of the eye, facilitates non-invasive 3D imaging of subsurface microstructure. As the original OCTs have been optimised for medical use, ISAAC has been researching ways of improving its capabilities for use in the heritage sector.

During instrumentation innovation projects, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Arts and Humanities Science and Heritage Programme, ISAAC built and tested prototype OCT systems to generate ‘virtual’ cross-sections of paintings and heritage objects. To this end, the laboratory has worked with heritage partners such as the National Gallery and English Heritage to increase the depth resolution and the probing depth of the instruments. The improved OCT technique enabled in-depth images of artist’s preliminary sketches and underdrawings. It also facilitated a detailed examination of the painting surfaces, and the distribution of the remains of old varnishes. The innovation has reduced the need for sampling and enable the subsurface microstructure to be imaged on intact objects where sampling was not possible. It has also encouraged more frequent and thorough examination of the whole object for early warning of deterioration. For Carolyn Allen from the Leverhulme Trust, developing an instrument that “‘sees through’ layers of paint and varnish, revealing previously hidden levels of detail about paintings and other historical artefacts”.

Bespoke OCT is a powerful imaging tool for heritage institutions. It helps to inform conservation strategy and create long-term savings in the cost of conservation through monitoring degree of deterioration. It also enables the scientists to explore new problems in conservation and art history that the next generation OCT can help to solve. According to Dr Liang, as ISAAC has established Optical Coherence Tomography as a new field of heritage science, the laboratory has been deploying the technique for new user communities:

“We now have a much more enthusiastic response from the conservation community and even private conservators contact us wanting to have access to this type of instrument”.

The ISAAC team has used their bespoke equipment on a variety of projects such as the influential studies of manufacturing techniques of the Limoges enamel and ancient Egyptian Faience at the British Museum or wall paintings at the Tower of London.

Currently, ISAAC is equipped with a range of in-house developed OCT systems that could be used not only in research on underdrawings, but also studies involving the detection of delamination of internal layers and monitoring of varnish removal and glass deterioration. Recently, the team has extended the application of OCT to a variety of industrial and biomedical problems. The laboratory and research group is continuously collaborating with other E-RIHS partners in research and innovation in multiple heritage science applications.


The Imaging & Sensing for Archaeology, Art History & Conservation laboratory (ISAAC) has been applying cutting-edge science to cultural heritage challenges for over twelve years. The laboratory focuses on applications of scientific techniques and works in collaboration with conservation scientists, conservators, archaeologists, archaeological scientists and art historians and curators. Previous collaborations included partners in the heritage sector in the UK, Europe, China, and USA.

The laboratory uses a wide range of instruments, including:

  • Spectral imaging systems
  • Fibre optic reflectance spectrometer (FORS)
  • Portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer
  • Compact Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer
  • Raman Spectrometer
  • Microfade spectrometry
  • Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) systems
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) Mouse

More information:

ISAAC research group
Selection of ISAAC projects

SUERC Radiocarbon Facility is transforming dating techniques

The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre’s Radiocarbon Facility in East Kilbride is a central facility for the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), facilitating dating support in the environmental sciences. It provides UK scientists and international collaborators with radiocarbon measurements.

The centre has an excellent track record of technical innovation and drives new developments in the carbon isotope dating techniques for heritage science.  Speaking to Irish News, professor Stewart Freeman and a senior scientist in advanced mass spectroscopy at SUERC said that the laboratory activity has a leading role in method development. For professor Freeman, “It is not an exaggeration to say the global carbon dating community has its eyes on East Kilbride to see how this advances our field.”

The NERC Radio Carbon Facility (NRCF) has an “open-door” policy for all existing and potential users of its facilities at all stages of their research projects. The facility is strongly encouraging collaboration and currently invites applications to the NRCF Steering Committee. Submissions should by sent directly to the facility by 5th October 2018

Courtesy of SUERC


The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre is one of thirteen E-RIHS UK partners. SUERC was established to provide to the universities of the Scottish consortium collaborative access to state-of-the-art research equipment and expertise. The main areas of strength are in geochemistry, radiochemistry and isotope biogeosciences and the Centre houses perhaps the most comprehensive suite of dating techniques available in the UK.

Apart from NERC Radiocarbon Facility (East Kilbride), SUERC operates another Radiocarbon Laboratory. It is involved in archaeological, forensic and environmental research, additionally using stable isotopes (13C and 15N) for dietary reconstruction. As well as undertaking its own in-house and collaborative research, the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory also provides a radiocarbon dating service to national and international museums, universities and archaeology units. Other key facilities include Argon Isotope Facility, Isotope Community Support Facility and Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility.

Heritage Science editorial by Professor Matija Strlic, E-RIHS UK member, published in Angewandte Chemie

Professor Matija Strlic’s editorial ‘Heritage Science: A Future‐Oriented Cross‐Disciplinary Field’ was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, published by Wiley, earlier this month

Angewandte Chemie is one of the top science journals, with a clear applied chemistry focus. The editorial represents an introduction to the Heritage Science Special Issue of the journal.

Heritage science is an umbrella term that encompasses conservation science, archaeological science, and building science: regardless of whether the object of study is an iconic painting, a mummy, or a monumental building, the scientific methods and the approaches to research are often similar.

In the editorial, Professor Strlic discusses the philosophical and theoretical canon of the field as well as the grand challenges that the field faces in the future. In relation to physical sciences, these have been outlined as (i) Understanding of heritage ecologies, and (ii) Developing networked heritage ecosystems.

When discussing the importance of heritage science today Professor Strlic states, “It enables both society and individuals, as well as future generations, to exercise their right to cultural heritage and contributes to our understanding of who we are and our sense of place. It has a deeply social purpose”.

Read full editorial here

UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage is one of the leading centres of research and teaching. It trains future curators, managers and researchers whose work leads to innovative and sustainable solutions in the heritage context. In partnership with another E-RIHS member, the University of Brighton, the Institute hosts SEAHA, the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology. UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage is leading the development of the E-RIHS Academy, a bespoke suite of training for the E-RIHS scientific community.

The Special Issue was a significant success for UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage academics and students, with several CDT Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology academics and students also publishing their research in the Issue. See, e.g.

Classifying Degraded Modern Polymeric Museum Artefacts by Their Smell, by Curran et al.

Glass and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe: An Analytical Study of Glassware from the Oberstockstall Laboratory in Austria, by Veronesi & Martinón‐Torres

A Synchrotron‐Based Study of the Mary Rose Iron Cannonballs, by Simon et al.

Egyptian Grave Goods of Kha and Merit Studied by Neutron and Gamma Techniques, by Festa et al.

Crowd‐sourcing as an analytical method: Metrology of smartphone measurements in heritage science, by Brigham et al.

‘Preserving the Bits: Digital Preservation within Heritage Science’ lecture by E-RIHS UK Julian Richards (ADS)

On Thursday 19 April, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, our member organization, hosted a Guest Lecture delivered by Julian Richards, the Director of the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York and our partner in the E-RIHS UK hub. Julian discussed issues of permanent data preservation, as well as the opportunities to provide unparalleled access.

You can watch the talk here.

Archaeology Data Service is the task leader on data curation and data policy of E-RIHS, contributing to the creation of DIGILAB, a pioneering facility providing virtual access to scientific and heritage data from research and heritage institutions. In the UK, the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) has been working for over 20 years to ensure long-term preservation and access to archaeological data. It now disseminates over 1.3 million metadata records to the archaeology of the British Isles, over 45,000 unpublished fieldwork reports, as well as over 1400 rich research archives. All of these are freely available online, and the ADS is working with international partners to promote broader research e-infrastructures for archaeology.

Notes from the first annual meeting of E-RIHS PP in Amsterdam

On 21-23 February 2018, the coordination team organised the E-RIHS annual meeting in Amsterdam. The overarching goal was to facilitate connection between internal and external stakeholders. To this end the key objectives of the meeting were to

  • Present and discuss the progress of E-RIHS work packages,
  • Connect E-RIHS national nodes with international observers and other delegates representing national and international heritage bodies
  • Collate feedback from all participating consortia (and individual partners) at national level and other delegates/ministry representatives about the draft versions of governance, scientific strategy and other key deliverables

Over 100 representatives from national hubs and national and international heritage organisations, such as ICCROM, Russia’s State Museums, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, were present to listen to the speeches held by – among others – Luca Pezzatti (E-RIHS Coordination Office), Loic Bertrand (Synchrotron SOLEIL), Polonca Ropret (Institute for the Protection Of Cultural Heritage Of Slovenia), Clive Billenness (University of Brighton) and Jan van t’Hof (Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency).

The consortium reaffirmed the strong positioning of the E-RIHS proposal regarding its scientific mission, the maturity and long-standing common experience, and the vision for clear and robust service portfolio and access for the international members – including new universal chronology services, digital services and training/support services. Additionally, several key observations were made during the presentations:

  • E-RIHS represents the largest consortium of heritage science capabilities;
  • The scientific value of the new research infrastructure has the potential to be a transformative mechanism to enable cross-disciplinary research;
  • It additionally has a pivotal place in providing new data discovery and access services that underpin scientific innovation;
  • E-RIHS has now a clear scientific strategy, positioning in the emerging heritage science and Research Infrastructure landscape

Selected elements of the agenda:

  • Russia’s interest in E-RIHS
  • Communication
  • E-RIHS Academy
  • Risk management
  • New services and catalogue of services
  • Financial planning
  • Governance
  • Innovation and sustainability
  • Access and user strategy

Further discussion about the developments of E-RIHS work packages will take place during an interim meeting, held on 17 April 2018 in Copenhagen.

Luca Pezzatti and Clive Billenness discussing E-RIHS risk management

E-RIHS PP 1st Annual Meeting

The 1st E-RIHS PP annual meeting is approaching. Taking place in the KIT Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam on the 21st – 23rd February, it will gather partners from 16 national hubs and observers to discuss key issues of the E-RIHS PP development, such as the E-RIHS Academy, a catalogue of E-RIHS resources and services and access policy and user strategy.

The UK hub activity will be represented, among the others, by Matija Strlic from the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage and Clive Billenness from the Cultural Informatics Research Group at the University of Brighton. Clive will present his work on risk management for the infrastructure.

The E-RIHS UK group brings together 13 research institutions and heritage organisations representing scientific communities from across the UK. Through taking part in this trans-disciplinary research network, research institutions and heritage organisations in the UK will have greater access to inspiring, cutting-edge research and educational resources. The infrastructure is open to new members across the UK.

More details from the meeting soon.

E-RIHS preparatory phase kicks off

Under the gothic vaults of the Sala Capitolare of the Convento del Maglio in Florence, the Preparatory Phase of the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS PP) officially started today. The workshop, attended by more than 200 delegates, was opened by the President of the Italian Research Council, Massimo Ignuscio. Speaking at the workshop, the STFC representative Catherine Ewart stressed the importance of collaborative shared infrastructures for UK science and industry.

Within the preparatory phase, participants from 16 European countries will develop the scientific, organisational, training and legal aspects of the distributed infrastructure. This 3-year formal phase is supported by an EU H2020 grant (€4M) and is planned to lead towards the signature of an agreement establishing E-RIHS.

During the preparatory phase, national E-RIHS hubs will be developed in parallel. The founding parties of the UK hub ( are in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding, following which the UK Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science will develop as a hub in its own right and as part of the wider European initiative, supporting the globally leading role that UK heritage science has. Launch is a distributed research infrastructure for heritage science in establishment.  As a UK infrastructure, as well as the UK hub of the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science, it will support the cross-disciplinary science of interpretation, management and conservation of cultural heritage.

Please read the Press Release at the occasion of the launch of the preparatory phase of E-RIHS in Florence, 29-31 March 2017.

The study and preservation of cultural and natural heritage is a global challenge for science. In the frame of the research infrastructure, access to state-of-the-art tools and services will be provided to cross-disciplinary users and communities. E-RIHS will connect arts and humanities and social science researchers with engineers and physical scientists, to foster a culture of exchange and cooperation. Through training, access, and international collaborative research, the infrastructure will play a cohesive role in the global community of heritage science.