Storage of Historic Artefacts

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.

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.

Most of these are 19th century, some are new - guess which ones!

My “reference” collection: most of these are 19th century, some are new – guess which ones!

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.

Repurposed bricks from Chan Dah Chee's market garden now at the Ah Chee family home

Repurposed bricks from Chan Dah Chee’s market garden now at the Ah Chee family home

Carlaw park repurposed bricks 2 sml DSC_4994

Close up of bricks repurposed from Chan Dah Chee’s market garden in Carlaw Park

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 (, 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 ( ).  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…..

5 thoughts on “Storage of Historic Artefacts

  1. Adam Archer

    Historic bottles and other similar items should be released to regional Historical bottle collectors clubs.
    These people have more knowledge of, and record and research each item much better than most archaeologists.
    Bottle collectors have researched and written more local histories and appreciate the significance of these items better than any institution or state funded archaeological organisation.
    Plus the items would be safe in perpetuity as they would be distributed to passionate individuals who will look after and value them.
    Bottles locked up in unknown and inaccessible storage facilities only known to archaeologists are of absolutely no use to anyone, it denies the opportunity for their full story to be appreciated.
    I would say to the various archaeologists and tax-payer funded organisations to release the archival items that will not be used by museums for display to interested individuals, what do you all think?

    1. admin Post author

      Hi Adam. Generally, finds by archaeologists should be well documented enough so that any significant bottles are recorded and are then accessible for researchers via reports to the Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand). This actually makes the information more accessible than the physical bottle being locked up in a collectors private collection completely out of its historical and archaeological context. If you read our report to Carlaw Park you will see one rare bottle in particular that is now with Auckland Museum that on the open market would have ended up making a collector a fair bit of money, and then been locked away from public view. Legislation as it currently stands means the landowner owns archaeologically excavated historic materials, but in our experience most are not concerned with any potential monetary value and happy for the archaeologist and HPT to make recommendations as to where the materials should end up. I think there’s always going to be a tension between archaeological values and values of bottle collectors that have often damaged or destroyed archaeological sites in order to grow their collections (and back pocket), until bottle collectors stop doing this – you included!

      1. Adam Archer

        It seems that you completely missed the point of all this and just seem to obsess about the potential [usually minimal] monetary value of bottles, completely dismissing the contributions of historians like myself who record and research bottles in far more depth than any archaeologist.
        We collectors publish our findings on the company histories, show our items at public shows, DONATE a lot of our finds/collections to museums, [just visit Rangariri historical museum to see a large collection I donated there] AND write reports for the trust, I wrote a comprehensive report detailing the age, history and origin of the bottles/fragments from a dig I did with another collector in TeAwamutu, AND their contextual significance, this went way above and beyond many of the dreary reports done by different contracting archaeologists that merely offer graphs and numerical lists of items excavated ordered to type, seldom accurate and rarely followed further as to the detailed significance of each item, this is not a criticism of archaeologists per sae but just pointing out that a collaborative effort would be a much better way of going about things, just USE our knowledge for the benefit of all.
        As you said in your article, distribution and storage of these items is an issue, how is it that the items destroyed in that fire would not have been better off dispersed to collectors? AND how was that “archive collection” accessable to anyone but the archaeologist with the key to the lock up? In what way was it different to being in a specialist collection?
        I know I have looked for bottles in inappropriate places and paid dearly for it, but when we get the landowners full informed consent to find bottles on less sensitive less important sites how is it a bad thing? we always offer to share our finds with any interested landowner.
        A high and mighty attitude from the archaeological community towards we who just want to save and enjoy history I feel is just really negative and counter productive, just USE us to help with knowledge etc, most of are only too willing to share, I work giving analysis and historical background for bottles and ceramics for an Auckland consulting archaeological company FOR FREE and they love the depth and completeness it adds to their reports for their clients.
        Anyway, hope we can be friends!
        All the best, Adam

        1. admin Post author

          Hi Adam, yeah of course we can be friends, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on a few things. I think archaeologists are concerned about context first and foremost, and when a bottle is removed by a digger that context is lost. Sure the bottle itself has information, which is what the bottle collectors can advise on (dates, shapes, contents etc), but how it was used in that context is lost. That’s the number one concern. Plus, if bottle diggers were really concerned about the information bottles can provide and not the monetary value, then they wouldn’t focus on gathering just the whole bottles, leaving the broken ones aside. I’ve never seen broken bottles for sale on Trademe.

          I’m certain that most of the artefacts lost from the storage unit in Wellington were not complete artefacts, therefore there would have been very little of interest to collectors, as collectors do not want fragments and sherds, they want something that is complete. The difference for archaeologists is that we can get as much information out of a sherd or fragment of something, as we can a whole item.

          As an aside, I’m happy to use published collectors books and reports for my archaeological work – most of my ceramics identification information comes out of collectors publications, and I have used other privately produced information for glass, such as chemists bottles. That information is useful, and if I were you, I’d focus getting more of that literature out there. Or how about creating a website such as the one connected to the Society for Historical Archaeology in the U.S.

          1. Adam Archer

            Thanks for the positive reply.
            Yes, there will be things we agree to disagree on but you would be surprised how much we agree on as well.
            Context is of importance to collectors too, as are broken shards and pieces of pottery, often they are the only known reference that a particular item exists or was ever made, I and others ALWAYS recover and record broken bits of potentially unknown items and they are just as important as whole ones.
            In that fire in Wellington there were hundreds of complete bottles and broken items as well, their loss was a loss to us all especially as our researchers never had access to them before they were destroyed.
            Archaeologists always have access to my information and reference collection anytime they request it, as do our clubs.
            You mention trashme website, of course they don’t sell broken bottles, most of the sellers on there are general public who are just selling their household items including bottles, and the collectors who let items go on there usually record the type, age and a bit of the history of the items they move on, it’s amazing how many family descendants of the bottle manufacturers end up with the items, so you could say they have gone to good homes!
            We ARE building a website, a monumental task with thousands of items, pictures and their histories, all for FREE PUBLIC ACCESS but it is expensive and extremely intensive labour wise, our historical club is funding it and each member is working in their specialist field, all our reference collections will be on there as well, so far we have half way finished and with a bit more fundraising and road trips to see more collections and archived items that friendly archaeologists let us see, then hopefully finished inside 2 years.
            I feel that as per your comment on context then in really important sensitive sites that it is VITAL as an aspect of archaeology, however in many urban mass replicated ‘common’ types of sites like say a 1900’s villa redevelopment or any kind of jumbled assemblage such as land fill, or a random mixed disturbed deposition in a tidal or river system for example, the collectors should be encouraged to recover and record what can be saved, free from the threat of HPT or anyone else criticising their passion or energy in doing so, of course while asking relevant owners/caretakers of such places.

            Once again, thank you for your reply and positive commentary, its refreshing to actually talk to an archaeologist who will listen and discuss the issues in an open and mature way, of course if there is anything I can do to help you in any way, I will happily provide labour and information and expertise and network in any way I can to assist for free any project you have going. You have my email.
            All the best, Adam

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