The tragic loss of the reference collection belonging to fellow archaeologist and friend Mary O’Keefe in the recent fire in Wellington can be seen as a bit of a wakeup call. http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/9914388/Slice-of-city-history-destroyed-in-blaze
Our historic artefacts at ASL are also stored in an offsite storage facility, and not only that, we also have a ceramic reference collection that has been undocumented, as this is a non-archaeological collection that has been acquired over the years I have been interested in ceramics.
The issue of storage of historic artefacts is one that has raised itself at many a NZAA conference, and amongst discussions with colleagues. It is one that also has particular relevance for those archaeologists dealing with the huge amounts of material coming out of Christchurch at the moment.
It is common place for archaeologists to store artefacts either at home or off-site. This can happen for a number of reasons: sometimes we have assemblages awaiting analysis; sometimes money runs out and/or developers disappear, leaving us with the burden of dealing with assemblages; sometimes we hold on to them as they make a great reference collection, but perhaps the archaeological context isn’t so great to warrant them being of any historical significance; some collections are of sufficient regional interest for museums to want to acquire them and this process takes time; and sometimes we just don’t know what else to do with them.
In a perfect world we would all be able to hold on to everything endlessly in case someone in the future wants to reanalyse an assemblage – the principal of reproducibility is fundamental to science. Other than that unlikely scenario, ending up in a museum would be our most favoured route for historic assemblages, followed by being re-homed with descendent groups. Examples of our assemblages that have gone off to museums are those from the homestead belonging to Romulus Street in Taranaki – these went to Puke Ariki – and recently we have re-homed to Auckland Museum much of the significant assemblage relating to Chan Dah Chee’s market garden at Carlaw Park (to view final report click here). Museums can only take so much however, and remaining artefacts from both these sites were (with landowner permissions) given to family descendents. On a side note, the Ah Chee family used some of the bricks from the excavation to create a place of remembrance for the extended family – a bench on a floor made from the excavated bricks on a property in South Auckland.
All the artefacts from my (Janice’s) PhD research into the Jury and Autridge homesteads in Omata have gone back to the family descendents – in this case the landowner/descendent was the same family. It helps (and in many cases it is a condition of an HPT authority) to have agreements with both the landowner and the potential institution in place prior to removing finds from the ground. Remember, historic artefacts from European archaeological sites, unlike taonga tuturu (http://www.mch.govt.nz/nz-identity-heritage/protected-objects/taongatuturu), belong to the landowner. Also, an ideal situation would be to have a secure historical and archaeological context relating to the excavated artefacts, so you know who they once belonged to. This also raises an artefact’s significance and interpretive value, meaning it’s likely you’ll later find a home for it. For those sad artefacts that can’t find a home, I have heard of ceramics being sent off to make mosaics, and we have sent excess glass off to be re-purposed by glass blowers!
What can we do to protect our assemblages? It would be helpful if there were more policies and guidelines for archaeologists in New Zealand to follow, perhaps along the lines of what Heritage Victoria have in place (http://www.dpcd.vic.gov.au ). This however relies on political will – which is sadly lacking when it comes to heritage protection in New Zealand. More policies in place would make the process of dealing with developers and artefact analysis/storage etc run much smoother. It would also be great if we had either regional or centralised material culture storage facilities – fat chance of this ever happening (happy to eat my words if it does!).
So in the meantime, digital documentation is the best way of ensuring longevity of the excavated archaeological record. We as archaeologists have an obligation to record as thoroughly as possible artefacts that cross our paths. This largely involves photography and research. Maybe even consider using a material culture specialist. And an artefact that’s good enough for a reference collection is good enough to have been properly documented. And don’t forget to run backups of that documentation. As for us at ASL, the wakeup call is to continue our process of moving assemblages along and out of storage, and documenting the ceramic reference collection so that if anything tragic happens (such as an earthquake or fire) we at least have a record of it. And on that note, in a commitment to documentation, the next blog post is going to feature my favourite piece from that collection…..