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BRITARCH  July 2003

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Subject:

Re: private collecting by archaeologists: was in praise of metal detecting: was (no subject) private collections

From:

Paul Barford <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 17 Jul 2003 14:40:22 +0200

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I wrote
>  the local museum accepted some of the pottery, threw the rest away and
> did not want the undatable other finds.
and Alison Ashwell wrote:
>  So, its better to throw away stuff than be a private collector
Well again we are getting back to this same old problem of seeing just the
artefact and not the information it gives and this question of context. What
kinds of information do you think one can get from a mixed collection of
totally unstratified material which was over a period of time chucked into
the sea (or was brought there as part of the earth filling of harbour works
and washed there by the waves) would justify keeping several tens of
kilograms of the stuff in the vague hope that somebody may come up with some
ideas what to do with it? I am not a museum archaeologist, and I had no
means of ensuring the financing of the long-term storage of all of this
material, and as such I do think the museums have a right to an extent to
determine their own collection policies with respect to this sort of
unstratified bulk material.

Perhaps I should explain that this harbour dredging produced huge masses of
totally unstratified material (pottery, bone, building materials, bits of
wood) dumped on the quayside in piles of smelly black sludge and gravel.
This particular city has a huge archaeological museum which already has a
large collection of pottery from well-stratified urban contexts from the
eleventh century onwards which already stretch the storerooms to capacity
but are fully available for study. When we went over the spoil dumps we were
unable to collect everything (in such conditions there is actually a limit
to what one can see in the sludge) but we tried to obtain a representative
sample of what was there. On washing it however a lot of it turned out to be
featureless bodysherds like hundreds of thousands of others in the museum
collection. Some of it however was of fabrics not yet well-represented in
the collections. In consultation with the museum and a leading post-medieval
ceramics expert we made a generous selection of the material retrieved for
the museum's collection and tipped the rest back into the sea. If the
material had been good assemblages of fresh sherds from well-stratified
contexts, I would have argued against such a decision, but I feel that in
this particular case the decision was justifiable.

Of course we are all aware that as ceramic studies advance we recognise new
fabrics and new questions, and there is always the risk that some of the
sherds we tipped in the sea would have been recognised as a previously
unknown fabric which would be flavour of the month at some future esoteric
ceramics conference. Decisions like this are therefore not to be taken
lightly and related to individual circumstances and not used as a cover-all
precedent. In this particular case however this particular "assemblage" of
material was demonstrably of very low cognitive value and actually told us
very little that we did not already know about the range of material in use
in this port. Nevertheless the opportunity to look at the material present
was worth taking. The pottery comes from a layer of rubbish which presumably
continues back under the seawards extension of the harbour in the 1930s and
thus nicely sealed should some future investigator decide to take a look.

I think that as the capacity of our museum stores become overstretched we
have to think carefully about what we decide to keep and why. This has been
the topic of serious discussion in British archaeology since at least the
1980s and is a problem that will not go away. While it would be very nice to
have museum storerooms capacious enough to consider saving every roof tile
fragment, every tessera and every scrap of white wall plaster and
oystershell from a Roman villa excavation (just on the offchance that
somebody might see something in it that the original excavator missed) I
think we all see that this is impractical and indeed not necessarily a
desirable ideal for each excavated site.

As to your question, "So, its better to throw away stuff than be a private
collector" I think the answer is that the material we save in excavation
archives kept for us by museums is retained for the purposes of providing
information and not simply because of the fact that it comprises
"interestingly old artefacts". It seems clear to me however that a myriad of
assorted artefacts scattered in small private collections (no matter how
tastefully displayed and labelled) is no substitute for a properly
maintained, administered and generally accessible museum archive with a
clearly defined collection policy and that as archaeologists we should be
aiming to encourage the expansion of the latter rather than the former.

Paul Barford

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