A survey of archaeological archives held by UK archaeological practices

FAME has carried out a survey of undeposited archaeological archives in England, seek Scotland and Wales.

This was in response to the increasing concerns of its many members who hold completed archives that cannot be deposited because there is no store or museum able or willing to accept them.

Of 46 responding organisations, drugs two-thirds were from contracting organisations in England, allergy representing a likely sample of around 75%. There were three responses from Wales, but only one from Scotland.

The results suggest that the total number of undeposited completed archives in England is around 9,000. This represents

  • 28,700 boxes of artefacts or ecofacts
  • 0.67km of document files
  • 1.25m digital files, containing 2.15Tb of digital data
  • 9,300 monochrome films and 422,000 colour transparencies
  • Plus drawings, x-rays, colour prints, microfiche, blueprints, video, DVD, and other media

These completed archives occupy around 1,160m3, and cost around £300,000 to store annually.

The total volume of archives temporarily held by archaeological practices in England (including uncompleted archives and work in progress) is around 5,860m3. If any of these archives cannot be deposited on completion, the volume of undeposited archives may be significantly higher than the figures quoted above.

In Wales, as in England, it appears that some practices hold legacy archives for which no post-excavation funding exists. Paper/digital records are normally deposited with RCAHMW, and finds with local museums or the National Museum Wales. The results of the survey suggest that in Wales undeposited completed archives consist of only

  • 240 boxes of artefacts or ecofacts
  • 50m of document files
  • 60,000 digital files, containing 200GB of digital data
  • 80,000 colour transparencies

The survey suggests that these completed archives only occupy around 9m3 and cost around £13,500 to store annually. If these estimates are accurate (and they must be treated with some caution), they suggest that the problem of undeposited completed archives in Wales is significantly less severe than in England.

The data from Scotland was of very limited value, due to the low response rate and the fact that, while paper/digital records are readily accessioned by RCAHMS, the processing and allocation of finds are subject to the requirements of Scottish Treasure Trove law.

The principal reasons given for museums not accepting archaeological archives were that stores were full, no store existed for the area, no resources were available to accession them, or stores were temporarily closed. Other reasons cited included lack of response or interest from museums.

Practices occasionally provided Information on undeposited archives to museums and the IfA, but rarely to local authority advisors, and hardly ever to clients.

Three-quarters of practices received requests for access to temporarily-held archives, though such requests averaged only about three per year, and there was a strong view that the general public is largely unaware of their existence.

There was general consensus that the problem of undeposited completed archives was critical and worsening, and that doing nothing to address it was not an option.

Many respondents cited the absence of client funding as the critical issue in the failure to complete and deposit archives, and many that the problem was far greater if stalled projects and work in progress were also taken into account. Many raised concerns about inconsistent accessioning policy, and queried the compliance of planning conditions which cannot be met.

Three interlinked solutions were most widely favoured.

  • County or multi-county resource centres and archives stores should be established, to enhance capacity, concentrate expertise, provide greater consistency, and offer improved access to archives in regular use. It was felt that HLF funding might be appropriate for their establishment, with project endowments and planning levies sustaining them in the longer term. Such centres might loan material for local museum display or community use, while a further category of less-used material might be accommodated in more remote, deep storage.
  • A much more robust and rigorous selection process is required, based on post excavation assessment by recognised specialists, to ensure that the material selected for retention is that holding the greatest potential significance for further study, educational or community use.
  • Greater use should be made of digital archiving, which should be undertaken in accordance with a set of agreed national standards.

For the full report, click here.

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