Archaeological Archives: problems loom

Breaking News

In response to a recently issued Press Release by the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers (FAME), RESCUE will shortly be releasing a press release highlighting the importance of the issue, but also the importance of a long term solution.

RESCUE has a long track record of concern about the lack of resource to provide suitable storage to ensure long term viability of archaeological archives. (See Dominic Perring’s article in RN 69, published in 1996, the Chairman’s letter to The Times of April 2006 and RN 99, Summer 2006).

Preservation by record

There is an assumption that archaeological archives should be preserved, curated, and be accessible to scholars, for the foreseeable future. This underpins much of the archaeological strategy and practice of the past 20–30 years. The `level 4’ publication strategy set out in Cunliffe’s 1983 report assumed that the ‘level 3 archive’ would be curated and remain accessible to future researchers who wished to re-examine the evidence or do more detailed research using the site records. This is the basis of the concept of ‘preservation by record’ which made PPG 16 possible by considering the recovery of archaeological evidence as valid and acceptable a means of preservation as leaving sites undisturbed in situ. The unstated assumption was that excavation records would remain available for scholars to access in perpetuity. The strategies of Management of Archaeological Projects, (MAP 1 and MAP 2) and now MORPHE (Management of Research Projects in the Historic Environment), a set of free guidelines covering the management of all historic environment research and R&D projects with a framework of defined roles, procedures, stages, terms, and key documents for the management of projects in the heritage sector, are all predicated on a staged procedure culminating in publication of a synthetic report and the hand-over of a site archive to a responsible body to store and maintain, and also facilitate access to the records and material evidence more or less on demand.

There was an assumption that museums would be willing to have these additions to their collections, and to assume this responsibility in addition to their other roles and functions. In some cases deposition of the site archive comes with a box or storage grant, but it is rare for such potential on-costs as conservation for display to be factored into the transfer. To their credit many areas have taken on-board this area of responsibility and many local museums and county museum services have risen nobly to the challenge. The Museum of London’s London Archaeological Archive & Resource Centre (LAARC, see RN 86, Spring 2002) is the prime example of how it is possible to use this material as an important local, national and international resource.

Sustainability issues

It is becoming increasingly clear, since sourcing adequate funding for all aspects of archaeological work will become increasingly difficult, that sustainability factors arising from these assumptions about the long term survival of archaeological archives have not been adequately considered by the profession as a whole.

Who owns the past?

Archive transfer also includes obaining the necessary permissions for deposition of the material finds from excavation. If this isn’t sorted out at the outset there can be considerable difficulty establishing who actually owns objects recovered byexcavation. Some time will have elapsed before a site archive is ready for deposit. The finds belong to the legal owner of the land at the time they were excavated. This may not be the same body or individual as the client commissioning the excavation. When post-excavation work is completed and the archive ready for transfer, tracing the legal owner may be a herculean task. Museums and repositories however need to obtain legally valid deposition permissions from representatives of the owners of the material before they can accept responsibility for adding it to their collections. This issue is considered more fully by Haggi Mor in issue no 114 of British Archaeology for September/October 2010, following her own experiences working in LAARC.

Economic emergency

With the economic downturn a further complication is that many commercial contractors and consultants for various reasons facing abrupt closure. This can lead to uncertainty about the stage of preparation of site archive reached, the whereabouts of the material, some of which may have gone to other specialist consultants, and the legal aspects of deposition, as well as the practical aspects of vacating premises abruptly if a property lease ends or is foreclosed. Becoming aware of some of these problems as a result of the abrupt closure of the ARCUS archaeological contractor based at the University of Sheffield in late summer 2009 (see RN 108,) in May this year MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) Renaissance Yorkshire appointed Patrick Ottoway of PJO Archaeology to conduct a review of the implications for the regions museums. The closure of ARCUS led to some urgent decisions about its archive, some of which is deposited at Clifton Park Museum, Rotherham with other material destined for Museums Sheffield, which the Museum is unable to take at present.

The case is an example of the impact a closure can have on museum resources in a region. In an economic recession, such as that of 2008–10, museums acting as archaeological depositories may be exposed to an increased risk of being asked to accept archives in similar circumstances.

Implications for regional museums

This underlined the need to assess the capacity of museums in the Yorkshire and Humber region and how to deal with the financial and managerial pressures resulting from the potential closure of other archaeological contractors who become unable to contribute to the long-term preservation of their archaeological archives.

Janet Thompson, manager of Renaissance Yorkshire, said: ‘This report on the current state of archaeological collecting in Yorkshire has important and interesting recommendations, which could prove nationally significant. It highlights the fragmented nature of the current system and points the way towards a more effective way of working. It could be the catalyst for more inclusive partnerships between all those responsible for our archaeological heritage.’

Archaeological archives

For the survey an archaeological archive was defined as the paper, photographic and digital records, the finds and environmental material (including soil samples and sample residues) arising from a field project. The production of an ordered and well-managed archive for a project is vital to enable the reinterpretation of its results, provide the raw material for further research, inform museum displays and as an educational resource for the community as a whole.

The survey

Key stakeholders, including selected contractors, local authority archaeologists and museums, were consulted about a range of issues related to archives, initially by means of a questionnaire which was followed up by email and telephone communication and in selected cases by interview. Topics included the quantity of archaeological archive material in contractors’ stores awaiting deposition, the capacity of contractors and museums to store further archive material in the next 5 years, and how storage problems might be tackled. Stakeholders were asked about communication and liaison between them and about the guidance given to contractors in the preparation of archives. National bodies including the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Institute for Archaeologists were also consulted about issues surrounding closure of an archaeological contractor and the fate of its archives.


The assessment concluded that preparation and curation of archaeological archives takes place in a challenging environment, because of the number of investigations in the region, and the number of different contractors. Because financial pressures on contractors have not necessarily receded with the easing of the recession, further closures must be a possibility. It also concluded that storage problems will have to be ad- dressed, at least in part, by the dis posal of archaeological material of no further value for research or other purposes. External factors affecting the archive process partially relate to public-spending cut, but also to changing museum priorities. The project suggest that more account should be taken of archaeological archives in the planning process; there should be improvement in communications between stakeholders; standardisation of procedures for archiving and for disposal of archaeological ma terial of no further value; problems posed by digital archives; and a need for contractors to look at ‘disaster management’ strategies. The report Assessment of Archaeological Collecting was published in July and can be consulted on the MLA website. Or read it inline below:

Assessment of Archaeological Collecting Renaissance Yorkshire 2010


  • Cunliffe B 1983, The Publication of Archaeological Excavations. Report of the Joint Working Party of the Council for British Archaeology and the Department of the Environment. London: DoE
  • MAP 1: English Heritage 1989, The Management of Archaeology Projects. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission.
  • MAP 2: English Heritage 1991, The Management of Archaeological Projects (2nd edn). London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission.
  • MORPHE: guidelines can be downloaded from: http://tinyurl. com/3xe4nh4

Related posts