SPAD: Scottish Palaeoecological Archive Database


Origins of the SPA Database

The case for a Scottish national database of palaeoecological data was outlined in a report by Lowe and Tipping (1994) who identified a number of potential benefits vis:

  1. To identify and protect from destruction sites considered to be of key scientific value.
  2. To inform decision making by government authorities, conservation bodies, scientists and others affecting the management and conservation of sites.
  3. To enhance public awareness of the importance of palaeoenvironmental archives in the context of the historic and prehistoric natural heritage of Scotland.
  4. To direct research more purposefully there is a need to identify and synthesise available high quality data – a database being an essential tool in this process.

Following the Lowe and Tipping Report a joint project was established by Historic Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage to create a stand alone PC-based database of all the sites in Scotland where palaeoecological research (especially palynological research) had been carried out. The development of this site index Scottish Palaeoecological Site Index (SPSI) was carried out by the then Department of Archaeology (data acquisition) and Department of Geography (system design and implementation) at the University of Edinburgh. This system, including the data set, has subsequently been made available for downloading by individual researchers.

As part of the development of SPSI the Principal Investigators reported on the potential future development of both system and data. Following their recommendations a further Historic Scotland funded project was established to develop a web based system to query and manipulate a much extended database. This site is the product of that project.

It is intended that the SPA Database should become a “National Archive Database” for palaeoenvironmental data. The SPA Database has been designed with the potential to record all forms of palaeoecological data in addition to the pollen evidence currently listed.

Contents of the SPA Database

The range of palaeoecological data available in Scotland is considerable. The majority of the information we have is derived from the study of the mire and lake deposits which form natural archives of information about the history of the environment. Unfortunately many of these sites have been destroyed or are in the process of degradation. However, without a central list of all sites, it is difficult to gain a full appreciation of the state of this natural archive. With this in mind this database contains access to the following:

  • Location of all mire and lake sites where palynological investigations have been carried out (this currently excludes soil pollen and archaeo-palynological analyses).
  • Location of all extant raised and intermediate mire sites known to Scottish Natural Heritage (based on a dataset provided by SNH). This includes sites where no known or published palynological work has been carried out and serves to indicate the distribution of sites for potential future work.
  • Details of all publications reporting palaeoecological work on the above locations.
  • Information on the nature of the work carried out on each site; it aims and principle conclusions. Where available this includes summary pollen and sediment stratigraphies and details of radiocarbon age determinations (including laboratory codes). In some cases it has been possible to provide photographs of the site, location plans, pollen diagrams and other illustrations.
  • Information (where available) on modern landuse, landuse capability classification, designations as SSSI and possible development threats.
  • Addresses and contact points for palaeoecologists and environmental archaeologists currently active in Scotland.

With such a large dataset some errors will occur. If you note an error, especially in the reporting of your own work, we would be glad to hear from you and will amend the record forthwith. Equally we would be interested in hearing of forthcoming or presently unpublished research which would complete the picture of work in Scotland.

This system will ultimately be judged as successful only if it is used by the palaeoenvironmental community, and genuinely assists researchers by promoting awareness of sites and ongoing research. Please help us to meet these goals by contributing your information.

Implementation of the SPA Database

The primary aim of this project was to provide a database which was accessible to a large and diverse research community. The implication was that an easily and cheaply accessible system was required. While the MS Access-based SPSI provided this, there was a genuine problem with data currency and collating and distributing updates which could only properly be overcome through the use a definitive central database. With the realisation that World-Wide Web access is now cheaply available, even to those with fairly basic PCs (certainly less powerful than the configuration required to run SPSI) it has become clear that the internet gives a standardised means of querying a consistent central database and a straight-forward route to providing updates.

Careful database design is critical to developing a functional database which achieves satisfactory performance. The design of the SPA Database has taken account of the principles of data modeling, such that a consistent database can be created and maintained. The design guarantees the integrity of the data within the database while also facilitating potential future extensions to the database and the query system. A further requirement of the system was a user friendly interface for people with minimal computer experience.

It should be noted that the SPA Database has been designed in such a way that it could be easily expanded to include many other forms of palaeoecological data and future work may include the addition of data on soil pollen, archaeo-palynology, peat stratigraphy/humification, coleopteran, chironoid and diatom analyses. The Scottish Wetlands Archive Database (SWAD) is already shares data and tables with the SPA Database. We could also link to information on geochemical analyses of tephra layers (for Scotland and elsewhere in the North Atlantic region) held in Tephrabase also developed by the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh.