Archaeological Palaeoenvironmental Archiving: the Challenges and Opportunities

Raising awareness of England’s archived palaeoenvironmental resource as a way of researching past lifeways and surroundings.

England’s museums and repository services have accrued a considerable collection of palaeoenvironmental materials. Samples from these collections have recently been analysed as part of synthetic research projects using bioarchaeological techniques which were not available at the time of excavation. But are current attitudes towards the collection, retention, selection and curation of palaeoenvironmental materials changing with the times and allowing for a satisfactory archive for future scientific research?

An on-going research project - Archaeological Palaeoenvironmental Archiving: the Challenges and Opportunities - is part of a Historic England supervised Collaborative Doctoral Partnership. The project intends to explore what the often undervalued archived archaeological palaeoenvironmental resource can offer in its ability to enhance academic research and public science engagement. Although at an early stage, the research has identified a combination of practical and theoretical requirements. These can be exemplified as skills and awareness limitations on a sectoral level and recognising what theoretical and practice-based frameworks are required to articulate the importance of palaeoenvironmental materials and archaeological science more widely.

Archaeological archives

The increase in the quantities of finds and samples has not been matched by a commensurate growth in capacity for museums and other repository services.

 A profusion of materials collected from almost three decades of developer-funded archaeology has endowed the archaeological sector with a rich and varied archived resource. The growth in the quantity of formal archaeological investigations and the proportionate increase in the quantities of finds and samples have not been matched by a commensurate growth in capacity for museums and other repository services. Many museum stores are now crowded and often unable to receive any more archaeological archives.

A store for archaeological archives.
Fishbourne and Chichester District Council Archaeology Store. A typical crowded storage facility. © reproduced by kind permission of Professor Martin Bell

In response to the challenges experienced by the museum and archives services, artefact specific guidance documents, intended for an audience of specialists and contractors, have been drafted. A leading example is ‘A Standard for Pottery Studies in Archaeology’, produced by a group of ceramicists covering prehistoric, Roman and medieval fabrics. Guidance of this nature is expected to prove to be extremely valuable as it allows depositors the opportunity to improve the quality and size of an archive prior to deposition.

Archaeological palaeoenvironmental archives

Procedures which support how archaeological palaeoenvironmental remains are archived have, by contrast, received less attention. There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, the diversity of materials. Archaeological palaeoenvironmental materials can include remains as disparate as seeds, insects, molluscs, mounted microscope slides which contain pollen, and intact sediment samples, to name a few.

Three charred seeds.
Charred seeds recovered from archive. Feeding Anglo-Saxon England. © Image taken by Mark McKarracher, Oxford University, and used with permission

The associated difficulties in dealing with some of these materials (particularly those which are waterlogged, and need to be refrigerated or preserved in vials with flammable liquid) make them potentially awkward to conserve and curate. Identifying a comprehensive solution for the curation of such a diverse collection of materials is therefore, understandably, complicated.

The second and perhaps more damaging reason could be the falsely held perception that these remains offer little research value once the initial analyses have been completed. This notion underestimates the role which palaeoenvironmental materials can offer for re-analysing published excavations and further enhancing our understanding of past climates, environments and economies. It is conceivable that the failure to appreciate the value of the resource persists due to a limited understanding across the sector of what can be achieved with the recent developments in bioarchaeological techniques.

Scientific techniques that might not have been available at the time of the original excavations are being applied to archive materials

 The perception that the palaeoenvironmental archive has little sustained value is increasingly being challenged, particularly as scientific techniques that might not have been available or were not well-developed at the time of the original excavations are being applied to archive materials more and more. For example the Feeding Anglo-Saxon England project, co-ordinated by the universities of Oxford and Leicester, is using weed seeds and crop evidence (including the application of isotope analyses and radiocarbon dating) from the archived assemblages of long-since completed excavations to further the understanding of agricultural techniques, such as crop rotation and productivity.

A glass petri dish containing ancient seeds.
Organic material currently being analysed by the Feeding Saxon England project. © Image taken by Mark McKarracher, Oxford University, and used with permission.

The varied storage conditions which excavated palaeoenvironmental materials demand can present curatorial challenges, especially when compared to more robust materials such as ceramics or lithics which are regarded as being resistant. For example, intact sediment cores can require cold storage, insect remains can require storage in an ethanol solution, and charred or mineral-replaced materials must be stored in dry, cool conditions or risk degradation.

Unfortunately, some museums may struggle to provide appropriate controlled storage conditions. With many stores refusing to accept waterlogged materials and dry organic remains being maintained in sub-optimal conditions, the need to identify correct methods of storage and implement them is vital if we expect to have a functional archived resource in the future.

Recent excavations at Must Farm and Star Carr, which recovered an abundance of well-preserved palaeoenvironmental remains, demonstrate the demand for facilities which can receive organic materials and prepared samples for both short and long-term durations.

Available space within museums in which to install specialist equipment such as cold stores and flammable liquid cabinets is something which has seldom been seen as a priority and something most facilities cannot currently financially afford.

The next stage

As a first step, the research project dispatched two short survey questionnaires to 350 of England’s museums. This was crucial in identifying a sample of museums with appropriate collections. From this initial long list, 15 museums with palaeoenvironmental collections, from across five regions of England, have been selected for the next stage of qualitative data collection. In order to adequately assess the working practices of museums and the condition of the palaeoenvironmental collections themselves, visits to collecting institutions and interviews with museums professionals will constitute a key element of the project. Interviews and visits will take place throughout the autumn of 2018.

The project aims to raise awareness of the value of palaeoenvironmental materials across England’s museums and archaeological contracting companies

 Additionally, the project aims to raise the level of awareness concerning the value of palaeoenvironmental materials across England’s museums and archaeological contracting companies. This can be achieved by the publication of guidance, directed at specialists, contractors, researchers and museum professionals, designed to demonstrate how the archived palaeoenvironmental resource can be used to greater effect and to set out best practice regarding its curation.

Guidance needs to be applied holistically to the entire life of a project rather than simply treating the archive as an entity which exclusively exists at its end. The aim is to develop an approach which can both answer today’s research questions and provide tomorrow’s research material.

Conclusion

Projects such as Feeding Anglo-Saxon England are using bioarchaeological applications on material from published excavations and are demonstrating the current, and perhaps increasing, value which palaeoenvironmental archives possess. As new scientific techniques are developed and existing procedures become more affordable, access to the palaeoenvironmental resource is expected to become more prevalent. It is therefore important that consideration is given to methods of preservation and storage capacity if we expect to provide researchers with access to high quality archives in the future.

About the author

Paul Flintoft

Paul Flintoft

Doctoral Researcher with the University of Reading and Historic England.

Paul's theme of research follows on from interests which Paul developed during an MSc in Palaeoeconomy and Environmental Archaeology undertaken at the University of Sheffield in 2013-2015. Prior to the appointment to the doctoral research post, Paul worked as a project manager for a commercial archaeology organisation and witnessed first hand many of the challenges which face the perception of palaeoenvironmental materials.

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