As a responsible archaeological contractor we have excellent storage facilities for the material we recover. This storage is to support our work in analysing and reporting on our findings. Long term archival storage is not our responsibility but, due to the lack of space in many museum repositories, we now hold a significant backlog of archive material. The backlog exists as the result of an inconsistency between planning policy, which requires retention, and funding for repositories, which is insufficient to meet the need.
As a charity we cannot continue to carry the costs of this storage and we are now working with our clients, our colleagues in the museums and planning sectors and with government to find a solution. We have the technical and subject area knowledge to consolidate archive materials and to prioritise retention and we are making those services available to clients and curators to help reduce costs. However, until a permanent home can be found for archive materials we have no choice but to ask our clients to meet the interim storage cost.
What is the planning position?
The historic environment is a material consideration for all planning applications. One of the most common responses (mitigations) to developmental impact on archaeology is preservation by record - the idea that in extremis we can preserve a significant portion of the value of the impacted resource through record keeping and long terms storage. Some planning authorities articulate this by placing a specific condition on a planning consent which requires deposition of the archive, others consider deposition to be implicit within the condition to “secure the implementation of … a programme of archaeological works”. In practice, if deposition is not included in proposals they will not be approved.
As archaeological consultants and contractors our role is to work with our clients to help them comply with the requirements of the planning system. We negotiate on our client’s behalf to ensure these requirements are reasonable and appropriate but ultimately we recommend compliance. Where deposition of the archive has not taken place, many planning authorities will refuse to discharge the condition.
What is the legal position?
All our work is conducted under our standard terms and conditions and the services we offer to our clients on a particular project are set out in a Written Scheme of Investigation. Within our WSI we offer to arrange for the deposition of the site archive with a repository specified by the planning authority and such arrangements are confirmed and communicated by letter. Where we have made all reasonable efforts to complete the deposition process but have been unsuccessful due to circumstances beyond our reasonable control, we hold the contract to have been ‘frustrated’ and we inform our clients of their potentially on-going exposure. Our standard terms and conditions do provide for the need to charge our clients for storage and in many cases we have now informed our clients of our intent to do so.
What is the ethical position?
As archaeologists, as individual members of IfA and as an IfA Registered Organisation, the company has an ethical and professional obligation to ensure the preservation of material derived all project work. Archive material can range from a single report submitted to a county Historic Environment Record, to a large collection of finds, environmental material, paper records, digital data, etc. which require physical deposition with an appropriate museum. We make every effort to ensure museum deposition for archive material and to ensure accessibility for future researchers, although we are also obliged to comply with the request of any landowner wishing to retain finds made on their land.
We regret that the levying of regular storage charges may result in some archives being reclaimed by the client/landowner, as this may result in a reduction in accessibility to those archives, but we cannot continue to provide interim storage indefinitely where museum facilities are not currently available.
What else can be done by Wessex Archaeology in mitigation?
Further archive consolidation may be possible. For example, archives resulting from projects with multiple stages of fieldwork may be rationalised; small paper-only archives could be scanned and stored digitally.
In addition, the finds assemblage could be looked at to determine whether a selection policy could be applied and the finds quantities retained thereby reduced. Wessex Archaeology follows nationally recommended guidelines (Society of Museum Archaeologists 1993; Brown 2011), which allow for the discard of selected artefact and ecofact categories which are not considered to warrant any future analysis: this process is carefully applied on a site by site basis, based on archaeological considerations rather than a need to reduce the archive size.
What alternatives might there be to levying a monthly storage charge?
It is possible that discussion with local planning authorities and other bodies may result in the provision of alternative storage facilities, and Wessex Archaeology aims to pursue such discussions with any interested parties.
Other alternatives to continued storage by Wessex Archaeology might include ‘deep storage’, whereby archives are stored in secure locations (for example, Cheshire salt mines) under controlled conditions, and where access would still be possible, although more restricted. However, there would also be costs involved in this option (regular annual payments, plus charges for box retrieval if necessary). All such arrangements and negotiations will be chargeable to the client.
Society of Museum Archaeologists, 1993, Selection, Retention and Dispersal of Archaeological Collections
Brown, D.H., 2011, Archaeological Archives: a guide to best practice in creation, compilation, transfer and curation, Archaeological Archives Forum