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Guidance for Archaeological Archiving#


During this stage of the project, planning is put into effect and archaeological data and materials are collected, either in the field or elsewhere.

2.1. Ensuring access to the archaeological archive #

Project staff and researchers will need to access the archive contents both during and after the lifetime of the project. It is therefore important to document, organise and index the documentary and material (finds) archive in order to keep it comprehendible and accessible (See STANDARD for archaeological archiving Chapter 3). The following practices should be employed throughout the lifecycle of the project, with the resulting documentation also becoming part of the archive.

  • It should be easy to find a way through all parts of the archive. The archive should be fully indexed, beginning with an overall catalogue of contents, which leads on to deeper levels of individual indices for other elements such as context records, finds lists and drawings.
  • A project summary should be created that will introduce researchers to the aims and objectives, scope, location, content and results of the project. It should include links to any previous work undertaken on the project/site. The summary should be kept updated and complete until the project is finalised and the archive transferred to a repository
  • Project documentation should make clear how and why the archaeological records and materials (finds) were created, collected, selected and analysed. This could include information such as recording methodologies or sampling strategies. This is an essential tool for both the data creator and the researcher. It facilitates data management (for best practice advice on digital data management in archaeology see during the lifecycle of a project and also acts as an aid to understanding and interrogating the archive once the project is complete. (Examples of project documentation include: project designs, written schemes of investigation etc and their revisions, recording systems and techniques, selection and sampling strategies, manuals used, classification systems in use such as numbering systems or identifiers and translations of codes or abbreviations)
  • The application of metadata is essential for accessing the digital archive. Metadata provides summary information about a digital file or dataset to enable the user easily to access and use the information, or decide whether it will be useful or not.
  • In the case of digital data, it is important to follow international metadata standards to ensure that information can be clearly understood and easily re-used by both people and computers. Choosing the metadata standard best suited for the information can sometimes be difficult. A project should work closely with a Trusted Digital Repository when determining how the digital archive must be described and which metadata standards to choose. (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative:, see especially for the basic element set. CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model:, the Inspire Directive:
  • Metadata can be applied on three levels:
    • Project: this should describe the general context, geographical situation and time span of the project and the files that belong to the project.
    • Content: this level includes all glossaries, vocabularies and variables that have been used when recording data with a concordance of what the terms mean.
    • File: this should describe the specific content of the file.

2.2. Validity and comprehensibility of information#

It is essential to ensure that all the elements of an archive form a seamless whole facilitating movement between each part of the archive. For example, it must be possible to make connections between context records, finds records and photographs and one should also be able to trace individual finds back to the context, layer, trench and location. It should also be possible to research parallels in the wider archaeological record (See STANDARD for archaeological archiving Chapter 3). This is a duty not only for the project manager but for the project team as a whole:

  • The relationships between the project and the wider archaeological record should be clear. References and links to such things as research frameworks, associated publications and reports, and similar or related projects, will make it possible to interrogate the project archive within international, national, regional and local contexts.
  • The relationship between the archive and its origin should be clear, whether that origin is a site or a finds assemblage; and it should be possible to link all parts of the project archive back to their exact point of origin. For example, site plans and sections should be geo-referenced; finds should be marked or labelled with both a site identifier and an appropriate context or individual identifier.
  • The relationships within the project archive should be clear. All data and images should be able to be referenced back to associated materials or documentation, and vice versa. For example the drawings should be linked to the context record, photographs to the site plans, and object records link accurately back to the correct objects.
  • Wherever standardised and accepted terminology controls exist, such as glossaries or thesauri, they should be used and cited in the project metadata. If they do not exist then at the very least it should be ensured that terminologies are consistently used throughout the project record and that the relevant glossaries are included in the archive. Digital information retrieval and manipulation is reliant on searching and filtering within the data. For example if the term ‘posthole’ is used in one place and ‘post-hole’ in others, effective and efficient searching and filtering becomes impossible.

2.3. The creation of a stable archive #

Archiving is a process that aims to preserve information and material for posterity. The physical products of an archaeological project are unique and irreplaceable; therefore the project team should ensure that adequate care is taken of it from the project outset. Procedures and practices should be followed which promote the lifespan of the archive (see STANDARD for archaeological archiving Chapter 3):

  • During data-gathering, especially in the field, common sense measures for keeping the archive, clean, dry, appropriately managed, packaged and stored should be applied.
  • Objects requiring conservation should be stored in a way that maintains the conditions in which they were found, for example wet organic objects should not be allowed to dry out. They should also be brought to a qualified, experienced conservator as soon as possible after recovery.
  • During the analysis stage, archives are usually held in normal office conditions or in temporary storage facilities until final deposition in an approved repository. It is essential that facilities and office practice should not endanger the safety and lifespan of the archive. For example by not smoking, drinking or eating over site plans, leaving photographs in strong sunlight, or by storing archives in damp cellars, near water sources or where rodents, insects or other pests may be present.
  • One of the prerequisites is that digital files must be readable in the future. To make these files sustainable and readable they should be transferred as soon as possible from portable carriers such as local hard disks, CDs, memory cards and data sticks to servers that are under permanently controlled, well managed, safe conditions.
  • Standards for care and curation of the archive (chapter 4 of the Guidance) should be employed until the archive is transferred to a recognised or trusted repository.

It is the responsibility of all to use methods and materials in the creation of the archive which will aid its durability. Since most individual countries and states have their own specifications on drawing mediums, storage boxes, etc. it is not possible to specify exact materials in this Guide. Country, regional or state specific bibliographies should be referred to in this instance However, whether in the field or elsewhere general principles apply:

  • Appropriate materials should be used as carriers of information and as packing and containers for the archive. For example, paperwork not in active use should be stored in acid free boxes, analogue photos stored in polyester hangers or acid free inert sleeves, and sensitive finds stored with the appropriate humidity and temperature controls. Good quality drafting film, paper, inks etc should be used which will be durable over time.
  • Appropriate materials and procedures should be used to provide the information and labels on the documents and finds. For example, if drawing on drafting film, the pencils used should not be so soft that the drawing rubs off during handling or storage. All handwriting, whether on paper records, drawings or labels should be clear, durable, legible, securely attached and written in a format specified by project data management strategy.
  • Appropriate treatment should be given to all finds before they become part of the archive. For example, finds should be clean and dry (unless otherwise recommended) before storage and packed in appropriate packaging material. Any sensitive or fragile material should be treated by a conservator-restorer as soon as possible.

2.4. Disaster management#

During data gathering it is essential, whether in the field or elsewhere, to develop and maintain a strategy for securing the archive against damage and loss. Archaeological archives are unique and irreplaceable. Whilst any disaster may seem a remote possibility, accidents can and do happen and there can be hazards in all environments.

A good disaster management plan identifies the areas of risk and puts in place a contingency plan in the event of any of those areas of risk developing into something real. The security of the archive should be an important part of this plan.

The following factors should be taken into account. Is the location in an area susceptible to flood or theft? Are buildings damp, do they leak, are they secure, and are any archive holdings a fire risk? Are all storage areas safe, is the shelving secure, has the electrical wiring been tested? Such a plan includes setting up a disaster reaction team and notification system, an IT security plan, systems for salvage, clearance and cleaning, requirements for equipment, fire prevention systems and telephone numbers for emergency services. (For fuller advice see ‘Disaster Management Planning for Archaeological Archives, IFA Paper no 8, Kenneth Aitchison, 2004, IFA and AAF’

  • It is important that a project disaster management plan is in place during this stage and that all project staff are aware of its contents and understand their role in its implementation. Conditions will differ according to location whether one is on site, in temporary accommodation or in the office/laboratory/finds/archive store, but developing a disaster management plan is no less valid.
  • Information on digital carrier media is vulnerable to corruption or loss. It is of primary importance that a system of security copying and regular back ups is maintained and that the security/back up copy is held in an alternative location wherever possible (See ADS).

2.5. Selection and retention #

During this stage a clear strategy for what documentary and material (finds) archive elements are to be selected for retention should be both understood and implemented by the project team and it’s use monitored by the project manager. The selection and retention strategy should be flexible and open to amendment; for example the discovery of unexpected finds or stratigraphy may affect the decision about what was previously identified for dispersal.