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Archaeological archives are an essential element of the archaeological resource. That mass of collected paper, drawings, photographs, objects and digital data, is a resource that enables not only the reinterpretation of original findings but also provides the raw material for further research, informs museum displays and teaching collections and gives every member of our society access to the evidence for our shared past. The archaeological archive is growing in size and also in significance as its value is more widely recognised. At a time when the reports of many archaeological projects appear as ‘grey literature’, and are thus only barely within the public domain, the project archive has become a vital source of information. Existing points of access to the archaeological archive include Historic Environment Records (HERs) and archive repositories. The former provide information on the extent of archaeological work carried out in a particular area, while archive repositories can facilitate access to records and objects. There is an increase in requests for consultation of HERs and archives, and it is therefore important that archaeological archives are accessible and comprehensible to all interested parties, archaeologists or otherwise.

Every archaeological project must therefore aim to produce a stable, ordered and accessible archive that can be assimilated easily into the collections of recognised repositories. Any repository that accepts an archaeological archive must be recognised as suitable for providing both long-term care and public access. Examples of these include accredited museums, local record offices and national monument archives. HERs and contracting archaeological organisations are not recognised as suitable permanent repositories for archaeological project archives.

The archive should be a record of every aspect of an archaeological project; the aims and methods, information and/or objects collected, results of analysis, research, interpretation and publication; and as such must be as complete as possible, including all relevant documents, records, data and objects. It is recognised, however, that collection must be subject to selection procedures, which are determined by the overall research aims of the project and requirements of the receiving repository. Selection for archive must follow accepted practice, and aim to preserve a complete and comprehensible record of the project. It is also good practice to prepare and deposit an archive efficiently, with the aim of quickly making it available to the widest audience. Use of this document by archaeological practitioners should ensure that repositories will accept that an archive is at a required standard.

This Guide is intended to inform every stage of the archive creation and management process. It includes guidelines relating to each identified stage of an archaeological project, which should be used within the framework of existing standards and techniques, to ensure that archaeological archives are properly prepared and delivered. It is understood that individuals or organisations (eg national bodies, planning authorities, contractors, consultants, specialists, laboratories, museums) may develop their own technical manuals, eg for context or finds recording methods, or for labelling boxes, as appropriate. Those documents should refer to this Guide, which sets out best practice and relates to national and international standards.


This document, hereafter referred to as the Guide, sets out recommended standards for the creation, compilation, transfer and curation of archaeological archives. It summarises existing standards and accepted best practice for all parts of the archaeological archive, including written documents, drawings, photographs, digital material, and objects. Relevant current standards are listed in the bibliography.

It is aimed at all archaeological practitioners, including those involved in resource management, project planning, project management, consultancy, data collection/fieldwork, finds work, illustration, photography, analysis, monitoring, consultancy, report writing, publication and curation.

To use this document you need to

  1. understand the definition of an archaeological archive, Section 1.1
  2. understand and accept the principles governing proper compilation and presentation of an archaeological archive, Section 1.2
  3. decide which part of the archaeological process you are engaged in, and establish the responsibilities of all personnel working on an archaeological project, or in an archive repository, Section 2, Appendices I and II
  4. consult the Standards section for guidance on how to create, compile, transfer and curate material in accordance with current standards, Section 3

It is understood that, in circumstances beyond reasonable control, some standards are difficult to achieve, and where this is the case in this document ‘should’ is used instead of ‘must’ when describing what is desirable. At all times, however, archaeologists must acknowledge their responsibilities towards ensuring the longevity and accessibility of their archive, and this Guide describes what is required to achieve that.

Section 5 sets out how to deal with transfer of title and copyright. This is a complex issue, and requirements often change. The principle of allowing the results of archaeological research to be accessed by as wide an audience as possible should, however, remain constant.


The term ‘archive’ refers here to an archaeological archive. It is intended that this document will apply to all types of archaeological project. The term ‘project’ here means an archaeological project.

1.2.1 Archaeological archive: All parts of the archaeological record, including the finds and digital records as well as the written, drawn and photographic documentation (after Perrin 2002, 3).

1.2.2 Archaeological project: Any programme of work that involves the collection of information about an archaeological site, assemblage or object. Examples are aerial survey, building recording, conservation, desk-based assessment, evaluation, excavation, surface recovery, finds analysis, finds collection, on-site survey, resource management projects, remote sensing, scientific analysis and watching brief. These may broadly be divided into those projects that are destructive in the course of data-collection, eg excavation, and those that are not, eg aerial survey. All types of project are likely to create archive material, but this document is especially relevant to the ‘destructive’ type, where data collection is an unrepeatable process and the archive represents a unique and invaluable record. It is vital therefore that the archive is properly compiled and presented, so as to facilitate reuse of collected information.


This document is based on the following fundamental principles.

1.3.1 All archaeological projects must result in a stable, ordered, accessible archive. All archaeological practitioners must acknowledge and accept their responsibilities in this regard. All documents that set out requirements or standards for archaeological work should reflect this principle.

1.3.2 All aspects of the archaeological process affect the quality of the resulting archive. The archive process begins with planning the creation of the first record, and, if proper systems of recording are not consistently applied, then the archive will not be ordered or accessible; for example, if there is no recognised terminology for features or deposits, then it will not be possible to separate records of post-holes from pits or, if some features are photographed with no identifying labels, then those records will have little value.

1.3.3 Standards for the creation, management and preparation of the archive must be understood and agreed at the beginning of any project. Archiving is not something that takes place only at the end of a project. Lines of communication are vital in any project, and especially in the archiving process. The standards that are to be followed must be understood from the beginning, and regular communication between all participants in the process, as well as with the intended archive repository, will ensure that the archive meets all requirements. It must be understood that an archive repository can return a project archive if it fails to meet agreed standards.

1.3.4 Ensuring the security and stability of the archive is a continuous process and a universal responsibility. All archaeologists must recognise that they must manage archive material, eg record sheets, drawings, digital records, to preserve the content and protect from damage and loss. This is as relevant on site as it is in the laboratory or museum.

1.3.5 A project has not been completed until the archive has been transferred successfully and is fully accessible for consultation. It is in the interests of all parties to facilitate the transfer of completed archives to recognised repositories as quickly as possible. It may therefore be appropriate for an archive to be deposited before the project has been fully published. In such instances a copy of the publication must subsequently be added.


An archaeological archive consists of all material identified as suitable for curation, and may be divided into two main elements.

  • the documentary archive comprises all records made during an archaeological project, including those in hard copy and digital form. This includes written records, drawings and photographs (including negatives, prints, transparencies and x-radiographs), reports, publication drafts, published work, and publication drawings and photographs. Digital material comprises all born-digital material, including text, data, drawings, 3D models, photographs and video, as well as files generated from digitised material, such as data entered from paper pro-forma and scanned images or text
  • the material archive comprises all objects (artefacts, building materials or environmental remains) and associated samples (of contextual materials or objects)