Any thoughts on this? Kate Fernie
From: Malcolm J. Watkins [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: 02 July 1999 09:47
Subject: Archiving finds
Chris Cumberpatch raised the thorny issue of rules for transfer of
I have some experience of such rules. Often the units do not bother to
ask (there are noticeable exceptions) until the project is complete.
'Planning' archaeologists rarely have any interest in the finds. (Wait
for the hue and cry). With the separation of archaeology into discrete
groups of 'specialists' there has also come a form of indifference to
other elements - 'it's not my problem'. Even IFA (the (UK) Institute of
Field Archaeologists) introduced areas of competence in recognition of
these specialisms. Sadly the concept of holistic archaeological
services has been largely destroyed, and in the few places where there
are some aspects chinese walls have had to be introduced to avoid
accusations of corruption. But there are few, if a any, places where
the archaeological decisions are being made in the best interests of
archaeology rather than of archaeologists (can't you tell I'm no longer
The decision whether archaeology affected by development of any type
should be made with the full understanding of the continued preservation
of the resource after the event. If the archive of finds and
documentation is not properly protected from the word go, then such
decisions are based on a false premise.
I accept that there are many other reasons for reaching the decision
that the archaeology on a site must be removed, and that strict
archaeological logic is often not going to be the principal one (no
matter how much we may like to think it) but how often does the entire
debate get aired before the diggers start their work?
In my, albeit limited, experience, the planning decisions are made prior
to the completion of any agreements with the recipient museums - first
Secondly, the excavators often (if the museums are lucky) are willing to
adopt the museum's accession number for the archive, and may even use it
as a site code, but how often will they mesh their own systems
(recording, boxing, etc) in with those of the recipient museums, to
ensure that a century in the future the museum will still have an
Even were that the case, my belief is that the ownership of finds and
archives, and now the copyright as well, is rarely agreed in advance.
This may be the greatest flaw so far.
Let us suppose that Berty Molestrangler, the SMR (Sites and Monuments
Record) officer for Loamshire County Council (England or Wales), has
advised the need for excavation on a cemetery site in Mudtown. On
behalf of Mudtown District Council he has prepared a brief for the work,
which has been won (by tender) by the Worldwide Heritage and Archaeology
Trust (aka WHAT). The planners in Mudtown haven't any interest in the
Mudtown Art Gallery and Museum of Archaeology (aka MAGMA), who don't
know about the project until they read about the find of an important
13th-century ivory statue in the local newspaper, The Mudtown Rag.
Berty Molestrangler's team have been maintaining surveillance of the
work by WHAT, and they are happy that the excavation is going as
The Curator of MAGMA, Shirley Knott, comes under pressure from her
Councillors and the media to exhibit the statue (which the site director
has been quoted as saying will go to MAGMA), but her archaeology team
has been ignored by the project.
WHAT says it had always planned for the archive to go to MAGMA, and will
the museum take it? 'Of course' is the enthusiastic response, although
Shirley and her team haven't a clue where they are going to put all of
it when it finally arrives - she hopes that the councillors will see the
need for additional accommodation.
Phil Theelewker, the developer and land-owner, has a slightly different
view - he reckons the statue alone would pay the cost of this d****d
archaeology, so opens negotiations with Grabbit and Runn, the
You can see where I am going. If you can't, you need help!
The point of this story is that there is a tendency for people to forget
the detail, or the role and needs of others. The planning decision is
made, but is the archaeology truly being protected when there is no
serious commitment to the long-term protection of the resulting
archive? How many 'planning' archaeologists are making absolutely sure
that the ownership of finds is vested in the recipient museum - or idea
ensuring that the recipient museum is on board before the start? I don't
mean claiming that they have done so by incorporating something into the
brief, but actually doing something about it.
Given the continued assault on local authority finances and services
(assuming there to be one) museums are increasingly under pressure to
reduce costs. Charging is not always a successful option, but in any
event will not raise massive finance. Storage costs a lot of money.
New stores are as rare as hen's teeth, and most museums have reached, or
are near, capacity.
The conclusion, if unattractive, is inescapable. Museums can not
reasonably be expected to continue to take all the finds and archives of
I am old enough to remember those days when we only retained items with
obvious features (decorated potsherds, rims, handles, etc.) and when
archaeologists published results - and then usually destroyed the site
notes and plans which were not in the publication, leaving the published
report as the documentary archive. That produced enough for museums to
deal with, without the bulk that we face today.
I know that there are all sorts of academic reasons for keeping the full
monty, but how many museums have seen researchers avidly going through
their backlog boxes in the store? I can only think of a couple of
people who visited my museum ( a not-unimportant one) to study the bulk
finds of pottery from the past - in 20-odd years!
We are going to have to face facts at some stage. The relative quietude
of fieldwork in recent years has lulled many of us into a false sense of
security, but come another big building boom in our historic cities and
the cracks will not only show - they may bring the whole edifice
BUT, the problem is that museums need to collect to maintain their role,
so it is rare for a museum to refuse an archive, particularly where
there are what one might call 'goodies'. It is an area where much more
thought and action is needed.