DigVentures blogNo room for archaeology?

Archaeology is like an iceberg, with excavation being just the bit above the water line. Archives are one of  the hidden costs (like post-ex analysis and publication) that lurk below the surface, ready to rip a hole in the Titanic.

When developers and the government moan about the prohibitive costs of archaeology, they tend to overlook the fact that budgets have to take into account all of this essential work. You wouldn’t expect an architect not to charge their clients for time spent on structural calculations and choosing the right doorknobs, even though the countless hours needed for this process are invisible in the final structure. So why should it be any different for archaeologists?

The issue of lack of storage and resources for archaeological archives is nothing new. There are museums across the world that just can’t, or won’t, accept any more objects. This gives companies like Odyssey Marine fuel for their fire about why they should be allowed to sell off coins, amphorae, etc. when clearly nobody else wants big assemblages of nearly identical items. Like pottery sherds. Or worked flint. Or waterlogged timbers. The list goes on.

This is morally repugnant to most archaeologists, however, let’s stop for a moment and consider how much it costs commercial units in the UK to house collections of material from their sites that local authorities can’t take in, and that the units themselves aren’t set up to put on display. A personal comment to the DV team from one big unit puts their storage bill at about £100k annually, for items that just sit in boxes, never to be seen or appreciated.

DV correspondent Poppy Cooper has picked up on a recent report by the Society of Museum Archaeologists that shows the alarming rise in overstuffed stores that are closing their doors to more items, and what this means for collections that can’t be looked after. The final solution, as ever, is money – which isn’t a solution at all, because extra funds to address this issue won’t be forthcoming anytime soon. Clearly, creative solutions, or even a complete overhaul in attitudes towards what merits storage, are needed.

Tell us what you think: If we can’t afford to store and curate archaeological archives, and selling them off is not an option, what happens next?

Comments are open at the bottom of the post

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Archaeological archives. Image courtesy of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society.

DV correspondent Poppy Cooper wades into the fray with a closer look at what happens when there’s no room at the inn…

The Problem

According to a new survey from the Society of Museum Archaeologists, 27% of museums have run out of room for archaeological archives. Not only that, but 70% are not able to employ a specialist curator to care for already overstuffed stores, leading to sub-standard levels of conservation and documentation.

Those hit particularly hard are the local authority museums, which don’t receive statutory funding and are often the first victims of spending cuts. In fact, 47 local authority museums stated they could simply not accept any more archaeological collections, which are instead being temporarily stored by archaeological field units or consultancies.

Why is Archaeology Necessary?

But why is this a problem? Where do all these new archaeological finds keep coming from?  Why don’t we simply stop conducting excavations, which produce never-ending and unmanageable surpluses of archives?

…Because both academic integrity and public policy forbid it. Also, Public Policy dictates that, before construction takes place, an evaluation must first be made as to whether said construction might harm the heritage of the landscape. Enter the archaeologist. The bread and butter of contract archaeologists comes from preconstruction work. For instance, the Crossrail project in London has produced some absolutely glorious finds so far, all of which – by contract –  must be housed by the Museum of London.

The Issue of Disposal

Adrian Tindall, chief executive of the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers, states: “It is placing a strain on archaeological operations, which have a professional and ethical obligation to retain archives. The temptation is to dispose – and we are trying to avoid a situation where it comes to that.”

Beyond the obvious discomfort any museum professional would have with throwing away archaeological archives, there are more serious implications. Most museums either hold, or are working towards Accredited Status, as it opens up several vital funding channels for them. One of the criteria for Accreditation is a clear collections and acquisitions policy which prohibits allowing collections to leave the museum world, either through sale or destruction.

Case Study: Wiltshire

Wiltshire Museum Archaeology

Archaeological collections from Wiltshire Heritage Museum. Image courtesy of Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Library and Archives.

Wiltshire Council recently stated it plans to develop up to 213 hectares of land for housing, business and infrastructure by 2026. This development is estimated to produce over 2,000 boxes of archaeological archives, all of which will need a home. Currently, the two museums to which this task will fall, and indeed whose accreditation and funding depend on their willingness to do so, Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Heritage Museum, are full. Their stores already contain 5,000 boxes of archaeological archives, which are actively managed to ensure that only essential finds are retained. A further 4,000 boxes of archives from Wiltshire are held in temporary storage by archaeological contractors and research-funded excavators. The museums need more funding for space and staff if these collections are to be properly cared for. The lack of storage space prevents the excavations, which in turn prevents the development itself.

What’s the Solution?

Short answer: money. Museums, especially local authority ones, simply don’t have the finances to provide space and staff to care for these archives.The big concern is that museum professionals will have no choice but to dispose of large parts of their collections, preventing further research. In their report, The Society for Museum Archaeologists produced a set of recommendations on how best to tackle the issue, centring round recognising the national importance of the archives and the need for increasing awareness of the problem. Time will tell if anyone sits up and pays attention.

Follow Poppy: @Museumwatch

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Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures, Lisa makes sure the boxes are ticked, the diggers run on time, and that everyone has a *really* good time along the way. She is responsible for the Americanisms, ridiculously strong site coffee and early morning DV dance parties.

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