Archaeology, indexing of – or why, in this technological age you still need an index in a book about archaeology

On another page this site tells you that I index books on archaeology and history. My educational and professional background is in archaeology, although I’ve done lots of other things. I’m still interested in the field and I love all the public outreach broadcasting such as ‘Digging for Britain’, an excellent programme that has improved this year by including more about new techniques for extracting information from the ground, from artefacts and bones. There’s something for everyone in archaeological publishing, from introductory books for the general reader or undergraduate student through to site reports, academic monographs, collections of papers and society journals.

So, why the need for a blog about indexing archaeological books? Why do we need an index? What about searchable pdfs, aren’t they good enough?

As it says on the Society of Indexers’ website “An index is an ‘ordered arrangement of entries … designed to enable users to locate information in a document  …” The ordering is usually alphabetical, as we all know what that means, even if we have to sing the song under our breath to get round all the letters. There are two main types of alphabetical ordering that indexers use, word-by-word and letter-by-letter, but we need not detain ourselves with the distinction at this point. But note that some publishers prefer one over the other.

Entries for archaeological books partly depend on the type of book and the readership it is aimed at.

  • Excavation reports are typically laid out in a standard way that introduces the site, the features, the finds, the plant and faunal remains, human remains if there were any, dating and other scientific techniques, and some discussion that puts the site into context. If you are reading an excavation report you are looking for specific information about what was found, what date it was and what the interpretation was. An index will have headings all of those things. But it can do more because it can answer questions such as ‘What pottery was found in the pits on the western side?’ or ‘Which house had evidence for fabric production?’. By summarising the finds and other other evidence under the feature headings, the indexer can show the reader at a glance what came from where. Questions about artefactual evidence can be quickly summarised under material type headings – ‘Was there any gold?’, ‘Were there any swords?’, ‘What were the swords made of?’ Entries might be – copper alloy: sword, gold: ring, iron: spear; ring: gold, spear: iron, sword: copper alloy. Or ‘Was there any jewellery?’, ‘Was there evidence for textile manufacturing?’ Entries might be – jewellery: beads, rings, textile production: needles, spindle-whorls, beads: glass, gold, rings: copper alloy, needles: bone, copper alloy, iron, spindle-whorls: ceramic, shale.
  • Monographs give the author the opportunity to look in depth at a particular site type, period, place, artefactual or environmental evidence. The author will have drawn together a lot of comparative data. The questions a reader might ask are probably centred around ‘What does the author say about x?’ The indexer has the chance to atomise that discussion into the relevant categories of evidence, the technological methods used to study them and the comparative examples given, in fact to show what the author has done with their time and research budget.
  • Collections of papers can be tightly focussed on the subject, or more general in their scope. The challenge for the indexer is to highlight papers which are more closely related in their choice of subject, at the same time indicating the scope of the collection, whether geographical, temporal, technological or methodological.
  • Society journals can contain a fascinating mix of papers in each edition. Individual volumes can be indexed or a cumulative index covering a longer period can be created. Both present indexers with a challenge because the level of detail being selected for the terms is often more generic than with excavation reports, monographs or collections of papers. Readers want to know quickly whether some place, site type or artefact is covered, as well as if there is anything relevant to the period they interested in.
  • But what about all those Open Access books that don’t have indexes? Relying on searching a pdf for every question they might have about the content of a book is just such a waste of your readers’ time. You won’t get so many citations and your work won’t get the coverage it otherwise deserves. Searching a pdf relies on the word or closely related term actually being present in the text. The author might not have used the term the reader is looking for. A good indexer will put in alternative terms and either double enter the page numbers or cross-reference to them to give the reader the best experience. You can’t see the whole spread of information in an easily accessible form if you don’t have all the terms available.

To answer the questions I posed earlier:

  • So, why the need for a blog about indexing archaeological books? To show what a good index can do.
  • Why do we need an index? To help readers find useful information, even if they didn’t know they wanted it.
  • What about searchable pdfs, aren’t they good enough? No, they are a wasted opportunity.