Monday, 4 July 2011

FAME – we’re going to dig forever…

On Friday 1st July I spent the day in York, attending a conference organized by FAME (Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers) and the SMA (Society of Museum Archaeologists) entitled ‘Trouble in Store: facing up to the archaeological archives crisis.’

For readers not familiar with the terminology, archaeological archives are the products of organised archaeological fieldwork – the documentation (reports, maps, photographs etc) and the finds (if there were any, and ranging from the finest jewelry to bits of broken building material and environmental samples such as soil and snail shells).  Most archaeology in Britain nowadays is done in advance of development (the dastardly plans of certain fenland councilors notwithstanding).  Commercial archaeological contractors tender to carry out the archaeological investigation deemed necessary by planning officers and afterwards produce the archives.  These archives are then deposited with specific repositories to be stored, cared for and used for research.  The repositories are usually museums, as is the case in my patch - Lincolnshire.

However, as the title of the conference indicates, there is a sense that a crisis faces this seemingly simple system.   The crisis lies in the fact that some repositories are now full, and are not able to take new archives.  This has led to the contracting archaeological units themselves having to retain the archives they have produced.  This is not only unfair on these contractors - keeping the archives out of a sense of professional responsibility but not able to financially support such long-term curation, but it is also not in the best interests of the public, as these archives are not accessible in the way they would be in a publicly funded museum.

The seriousness of the situation was reflected in the fact that around 100 members of the archaeological community assembled in the attractive historic surroundings of York’s Merchant Taylor’s Hall.  In fact, this was perhaps the most single-minded I think I have ever seen the archaeological world, as museum curators, field archaeologists and planning archaeologists agreed that the problem was one that required immediate attention.

The list of speakers was varied and reflected the range of specialism present in the audience.  Interestingly, however, if recognition of the problem was unanimous, identification of the details and formulation of the cure were less so.  I have grouped some of the major discussion points below.

Defining the scope of the problem

That a problem exists was recognized over and over again throughout the day, but a key stumbling block to finding a solution is simply that we are not sure how big the problem is.  Sample surveys have suggested that it may be rather large indeed, with thousands of archives not able to be deposited.  The secondary problem is that the problem is geographically imbalanced.  Some areas have no current problems in taking new archives, yet in other areas entire counties have closed their repositories’ doors.

New innovations in digital archiving

The issue of digital archiving is the elephant in the room at any discussion regarding the future of archaeological archives.  Unsurprisingly, archives are increasingly being produced in digital formats, be that through digital photographs, word processed finds lists or CAD site plans.  However, the main purpose of the archive is long term preservation, and I think people would be shocked by just how quickly a ‘normal’ printed and stapled piece of paper will degrade, especially if it is a standard cardboard storage box.  Because of this, museums produce long and detailed requirements for the materials and formatting of documentary archives – occasionally to the chagrin of the contractors who have to meet those standards. 

For documentary archives to be submitted in digital format, the issue of obsolescence has to be tackled.  File formats such as .doc, .pdf and .jpg are all well and good now, but how will they be in 20 years?  It wasn’t that long ago that you were using floppy disks.  Can you instantly lay your hands on a floppy disk drive now?  How about a 5¼ inch floppy disk readable on an old ACORN?  Even modern compact disks and DVDs have a short guaranteed shelf life for the readability of the files on them.  For digital archives to be a reliable way forward, therefore, a system of ensuring that the (potentially hundreds of) files that comprise each archive are kept up to date.  With the best will in the world, museums just do not have the resources to do that for the many thousands of archives they hold.

This is where organizations such as the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) come in.  They store and provide digital access to documentary archives, and most museums now specify that copies of all archives are sent to them.  At the conference, two ongoing pilot projects to expand the reach and potential of ADS were presented – the Wessex Archaeology image archive, and the Southampton Arts and Heritage archive.  Both of these projects were exiting examples of how the future of documentary archiving really could be digital, and that the possibility of opening up archives to the public and researchers through the ADS website could be a reality, providing that guaranteed funding could be secured.

Planning archaeology and the deposition process

Without wishing to make them seem a scapegoat for all of the shortcomings in the archaeological process, it was recognized that planning archaeologists are the biggest constant throughout the lifespan of a project.  It was felt that they were in a prime position to promote changes to the archive process, in particular in increasing communication between the contractor and the museum at the outset of a project and in having an oversight on depositions at the end of projects.  I am pleased to say that in Lincolnshire the communication with regard to deposition is now very good indeed between the planning archaeologists and the museum, and I hope that the systems we have recently put in place might serve as an example to other areas where the relationship is not as evolved.

Problems with the archives themselves

One important element of the discussions was with regard to the archives themselves.  Are they simply too big?  Should retention of material be much more selective?  Are we creating even more storage problems for the future? When researchers use the archives, what elements of it are they mostly using?

In all honesty, answering these questions involves the use of data we currently just don’t have nationally.  To know whether the material we are keeping is appropriate, we need to know how it is being used by researchers and what potential there is for it to be studied in the future.

Fortunately, English Heritage has already begun work on a document called ‘Evaluating the archaeological resource in store: informing the future’, which will attempt to:

  • Update the national map of museum collecting areas
  • Establish the date that archives held in repositories were deposited (how quickly are archives being processed)
  • Identify areas where Archaeological Resource Centres might be a solution
  • Clarify the relationship between archaeological collections and other types of museum collection, in terms of quantity, storage space, staff specialisms etc
  • Characterise the users of archaeological archives
  • Establish the quantity of archaeological archives held by contractors and with no identified repository

Although the data gathered will not in itself solve the problem, hopefully it will provide a firm foundation to build on.


Although museums are the final recipients of the archives and only have a limited input into their creation, there are still ways in which those of us in museums can make life easier for colleagues in the wider archaeological community.

For instance, museums could be more consistent in their requirements for the preparation of archives.  At the moment, individual museums write their own guidelines almost in isolation, meaning that contractors have a completely different set of criteria to meet depending on which museum the archive is being prepared for – different sizes of box, different methods and levels of marking, and different ways of organizing the contents.  If museums can work to nationally agreed standards for other areas of museum work, such as documentation or collections care procedures, then surely it is not beyond the wit of man to do the same for archaeological archives.  After all, the material is basically the same, and the museums are managing it in basically the same way.

The other issue is around access.  Museums are generally good at telling the public about their objects, but if we’re honest, archaeological archives are not promoted and used in the same way that other objects are.  They are not seen as sexy or populist at a time when museums are expected to be sexy and populist.  Only a small percentage of finds from an archive will be deemed display worthy, but often the story of a site can be well told even when the finds aren’t that spectacular.  Museums should be making more attempts to bring the fantastic, but mostly invisible, resource contained within their archives to public and academic attention.

It was also recognized that, as archaeology is now embedded in the planning process, it is not in the public eye as it was when museums were the ‘home’ of professional archaeology.  Despite this, claims that museums do not have the archaeological expertise required to understand and interpret their archives were firmly refuted.  In fact, the combination of skills most archaeological museum curators possess puts them in the best position to make the most of the archaeological archive resource.


The main accusation levied against some (I hasten to add ‘but not all’) archaeological contractors is that archives need to be given a higher priority, not considered an expensive and annoying afterthought.  The production of the archive is a fundamental element of professional archaeology.  Digging the site is only one aspect of the project, and if the products of archaeological investigation are not written up and made available for future scrutiny then, basically, all that is happening is the vandalism of an archaeological site.

So, in conclusion, the day definitely goes down as a success, but as the first step in admitting the problem rather than solving it.  The progress of English Heritage’s research will be very interesting to watch, but I hope that every attendee will go away thinking about their own role in the process, and ultimately how they can make the entire process work more smoothly and for the greatest public benefit.  Oh, and the day only featured a very small amount of rabbit cuddling…


  1. Hope you don't mind, but have linked and quoted this post on BAJR Federation. - I enjoyed it. and think people have to realise that this issue of archives involves us all. Indeed, it is only through your article that we in the archaeology world are hearing about this.

    thank you

    David Connolly

  2. Li

    I've only just come across your excellent post about the FAME conference, which I really enjoyed reading. I'm glad you found it a useful day, if only as starting point in recognising the issue. All the presentations from the conference have now been uploaded to our website and I've also taken the liberty of adding a link to your post.


    Adrian Tindall, Chief Executive, FAME