Behind the scenes: homepage flat lay

Choosing a photograph for the homepage of this website was tricky. We wanted something that would represent a wide selection of items held at the Alexander Keiller Museum, while taking conservation requirements into account.

So, while we couldn’t mix paper and artefacts, we went for a selection of photographic prints, letters, diaries, and archaeological drawings.

Here’s what you can see on the Avebury Papers homepage, starting from the top left item working across, with further details about each item…

Various items from the Alexander Keiller Museum. There are 10 items and they are numbered according to their descriptions on this blog post. home page flat lay with numbers.

1. West Kennet Avenue Excavation Diary, 1934, accession number 78510467. Alexander Keiller and his team kept meticulous records during their excavations. We wanted to show an example of Keiller’s handwriting, and here we’ve opened the diary at a spread which shows a day entry on the left, and a list of gear loaned from ‘O of W’ (Office of Works) on the right. By the end of this project, handwritten diaries will be transcribed and searchable.

A spread from Alexander Keiller's diary from 1934, covering the West Kennet Avenue excavations. Keiller's handwriting is cursive and somewhat difficult to read!
West Kennet Avenue Excavation Diary, 1934, accession number 78510467.

2. A black and white print from 1939 of two standing stones, and two newly installed ‘obelisks’ to mark lost stones, with an early 20th century photograph number 39II24.

3. Three pen-and-ink drawings of flints, possibly made by H G O Kendall at Grimes Graves. These three drawings are pasted onto newspaper, and there are 84 such collages that are collectively accessioned to 88051603.

4. A postcard addressed to Alexander Keiller’s Berkeley Square home, with a postmark of 16 November 1924, accessioned with letters to Keiller at 78510455.

5. Photo Album A, open at page ‘000’, showing the West Kennet Avenue staff team in 1934, accession number 78510300. A key aim of the Avebury Papers is to identify these people and gather biographical information. Do you recognise anyone?

6. A photographic print of a flat lay of pottery dated to 1939, and accessioned with an early 20th century photograph number 39IV5. The letters ‘MIAR’ in the bottom right of this image stand for Morven Institute of Archaeological Research, the business that Keiller established for carrying out his archaeological activities.

Various items from the Alexander Keiller Museum including a cream postcard with a red stamp, addressed to Keiller; black and white detailed drawings of flints from Grimes Graves; three black and white photographs of the 1934 excavations at West Kennet Avenue, showing the members of the excavation team; and a flat lay arrangement of pottery.
Various items from the Alexander Keiller Museum archive.

7. The 1934 West Kennet Avenue excavations plotting book, accession number 78510469. The book is open at a spread showing – in very faint pencil – Keiller’s record of ‘Cutting XXI’. Today, we’d call a ‘cutting’ a ‘trench’. Keiller was idiosyncratic in how he extended trenches, sometimes adding ‘squares, rectangles, or parallelograms of extension’. In order to accurately map Keiller’s measurements onto a precise location, Mark has his work cut out translating imperial and analogue to digital and metric! You can read more about this activity in Mark’s blog series.

8. A stone supported by ropes and props, waiting for concrete to be poured at the base. The excavation staff devised pulley systems to support the megaliths as they were heaved from the ground and re-erected. This photo is dated to 1938, and accessioned with an early 20th century photograph number 38VIII24.

9. Workers excavating the ditch at Avebury, directed by Harold St George Gray for the British Association. The photograph was possibly taken by Gray, and is dated to 1908, with the accession number AVBAKP10.

A black and white photograph of seven workers excavating the ditch at Avebury in 1908. The people provide the sense of scale - the ditch is already extremely deep, four times the height of a man standing at the bottom, and there is still more to dig!
Workers at Avebury in 1908, accession number AVBAKP10.

10. Denis Grant King diary from Wednesday 31 August 1938, accession number 20001093. Grant King kept beautifully illustrated diaries, which add detail to 1930s Avebury. He was an accomplished archaeological draftsman, and his plans, sections, and drawings from the 1930s further make up a meticulous record of the excavations and findings.

This image is a close up of a spread in Denis Grant King's diary. The diary is handwritten in black ink - and Grant King has very neat handwriting. On the right hand page, King has drawn a neatly-labelled section of the Avebury henge and ditch in pen and ink.
Denis Grant King diary, showing the entry for Wednesday 31 August 1938, Alexander Keiller Museum accession number 20001093.
Blog Press coverage

Avebury Papers on BBC Radio York

Dr Colleen Morgan was interviewed by Ellie Brennan on BBC Radio York on Friday 23 January. Listen to the clip below.


Ellie Brennan:

Now, from dissertations and homework, to a very serious and amazing project going on to do with a world-famous stone circle. It’s going to be brought to life online for the first time. Experts from the University of York are involved in the work to digitise the archives about the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, and they’re going to make them available to the public.

And with me now is Dr Colleen Morgan, who is from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. Morning, Colleen.

Colleen Morgan:

Oh, so nice to join you, Ellie, thanks for the welcome. 

Ellie Brennan: 

Thank you for coming on and talking to us about this, it sounds amazing, For people that don’t know, can you describe the Avebury site for us? How significant is it?

Colleen Morgan:

Oh, it’s very significant, it’s a key component of the UNESCO Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, and it’s actually the largest stone circle in the world.

And I think people are really personally very invested in this site, It is from the Neolithic, but unlike Stonehenge, you can actually go up and touch the stones.

Ellie Brennan:

Oh, my goodness, I was just going to ask you about this, because Stonehenge, I feel like, gets all the glory here. I had no idea that Avebury was the biggest.

Colleen Morgan:

Yes, absolutely, and it’s just a fantastic opportunity to investigate this really important archive that has been hereto really inaccessible.

It’s in the middle of the monument, so you have to actually go there, and it’s really difficult to access even if you are there. And it’s really interesting to be there because there’s not a lot of phone signal, the internet is not very good, and so it really is revealing this world-class archive to the entire world.

Ellie Brennan:

So that’s why it’s important to digitise, more people are going to have access to it.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in the archives? And what might we be able to see in the future?

Colleen Morgan:

I think for me, personally, it’s actually seeing the faces of the old excavators: there were a lot of excavations in the 1930s headed by Alexander Keiller, he’s the major player, but we don’t know the personalities of the people involved.

But we’re also doing a full analysis of all the material that’s ever been excavated there at Avebury as well: Ben Chan from Bournemouth is working on this, and so we’re really excited to do the more scientific techniques that we’ve developed since the 1930s on this really important archive.

Ellie Brennan:

How significant is this archive for you in terms of history?

Colleen Morgan:

Well, it’s got 13,350 pages of documentation, it’s got 500 drawings and 3000 images, much of which have just been under used to a certain extent. They did a similar project at Stonehenge a few years ago under the same curator, the amazing Ros Cleal, and they were able to herald a new programme of research at Stonehenge and so we’re hoping the same revival comes to Avebury as well.

Ellie Brennan:

You’ve just mentioned there over 13,000 documents, 3000 pictures, how long is it going to take to digitise this? Because that sounds like an awful lot of scanning in.

Colleen Morgan:

Oh absolutely! And so there’s a fantastic researcher down there right now, Fran Allfrey, and she’s been working really hard to scope the archive. It is going to be finished in the four years that we have on the project, but we are also enlisting many, many volunteers down in Wiltshire.

But the exciting thing is that after we digitise things, we’re going to need the help of online volunteers to actually do a lot of the transcription because Alexander Keiller has the worst handwriting I’ve almost ever seen in an archive, and so it’s going to take a lot of puzzling out.

Ellie Brennan:

Okay, so if you think you’re good at reading handwriting, you’re needed: is that the call out here?

Colleen Morgan:

Absolutely! And there’s just going to be so much there and so much available, and it’s going to be available through the Archaeology Data Service, which we are really lucky to have here at York because it is, again, a globally known digital archive for archaeology that is freely available online for people to go and root through the past.

Ellie Brennan:

That sounds absolutely incredible. I mean, if people would like to volunteer and get involved with this when it is going online, how can people find information about this, Colleen?

Colleen Morgan:

Ellie Brennan:

Fantastic. Well, it sounds like a mammoth project and so interesting, thank you so much for coming on to talk to me about it today. That’s Dr Colleen Morgan who’s from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, who I think will be doing a lot of scanning over the next few months, of all the archives about the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire.

I had absolutely no idea that was bigger than Stonehenge: every day truly is a school day isn’t it!


Archive scoping

What comes to mind when you think of a ‘digitisation project’? For me, it’s a vision of a beautiful photography studio, with soft raking light, a camera poised above, the gentle ‘click’ of the foot pedal, and a hard-drive whirring away keeping digital files secure.

However, the reality is that digitisation begins far from any camera, with extremely analogue tasks!

I joined the Avebury Papers project team in July 2022. One of my first jobs was to scope out the paper archive: to work out what materials we are dealing with, how much, and whether there any preservation needs. All of this would inform what kind of studio set up to go for.

What’s in the collection?

The bulk of paper materials at the Alexander Keiller Museum relate to excavations supervised by Alexander Keiller himself in the 1930s. There are also documents and photographs from Harold St George Gray, who excavated at Avebury in the early 20th century, and later documents including preparatory notes by Isobel Smith and Denis Grant King made as they brought together and analysed findings from the 1930s work, commissioned by Gabrielle Keiller.

The National Trust has a catalogue of items in its collection (this link shows you everything at Avebury – not just the paper items). However, many of the paper items are accessioned (organised) into bundles or groups – which is quite normal for a collection of this type. So my first task was to conduct a manual quick count of all paper materials.

For facts and figures fans, here’s an overview:

2700 items in the paper collection, including:

  • Photographic prints (loose, mounted, or pasted into albums)
  • Letters
  • Notebooks and diaries
  • Plans and drawings
  • Printed books
  • Photographic slides (glass and cellulose)
  • 1 roll of cine film
  • Two CDs, 16 video tape, and 3 cassette tape

From these 2700 items, we will be creating 13,500 unique digital objects. This number accounts for individual pages of multi-page items.

In addition to the paper items held at the Alexander Keiller Museum, we’ve also identified relevant letters, diaries, and scrapbooks at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. There may also be materials to draw in from the Historic England archive. I’ll share more about these holdings in future posts!


The variety in item size and type directed my search for the ideal photographic studio set up: we needed equipment that can cope with a range of documents and bound books, handwriting, print, and drawings, as smoothly as possible.

216 items (8% of 2700) are larger than A2, with 50 items larger than A0. So, we’re currently scoping out the best way to deal with these outsized (and often oddly-shaped!) papers.

The fact that 70% of the collection is hand written also presents a challenge for transcription (creating digital, searchable documents). Whereas typed documents may quickly and easily be run through OCR (optical character recognition) software which automatically turns analogue writing into digital type, Alexander Keiller’s handwriting especially needs human eyes – and patience!

This image shows a double page spread of the 1934 excavation diary kept by Alexander Keiller and Stuart Piggott. The spread shows entries for Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 May 1934, and a list of gear on loan from 'O of W'. Keiller's handwriting is cursive and difficult to read!
A double page spread of the 1934 excavation diary kept by Alexander Keiller – with some entries by Stuart Piggott. The spread shows entries for Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 May 1934, and a list of gear on loan from ‘O of W’. Keiller’s handwriting is cursive and difficult to read! Accession number: 78510467.


Scoping out the collection raised a bunch of questions as well as challenges. Now we know what we have, how exactly would we like people to be able to see and interact with digitised items on their screens at home? Because the collection is so varied, we need to ask this question for each item type.

This question is also guided by what sort of experience we’d like digital archive users to have in the future. This is not a decision that the core project team will make alone – we are planning various workshops in the coming months to find out what users want to see, and how they’d like to use the collection.

I’m also particularly inspired by elements of the Courtauld’s approach to digitising their art and architecture photographic collection. As Tom Bilson explains, they look to facilitate:

“An appreciation that every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box – a set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within our collections, and the recognition that appearance online is absolutely not their year zero, but another milestone in their malleable history”

Tom Bilson, 2020

For instance, take the Keiller-era photo albums held at Avebury. These consist of photographic prints pasted onto pages that are bound together, sometimes with more than one print per page. One approach to digitisation would be to focus on the prints only, and crop out the mount and album details. However, we’re leaning towards capturing the entire page, so that archive users can get a real feel for the photographs as physical objects with varied contexts.

There are many more decisions to be made about how we photograph and add detail to the collection. Let us know your thoughts and questions below!