Tuesday, 28 July 2015

And the work begins: A new kind of archive

Dateline:  June 29, 2015
Place: The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre
Time:  9:30 - 11:30 a.m.
Temperature: 26°C
Song of the day: Dem bones by the Delta Rhythm Boys

What a lark! On our way to
the London Archaelogical Archive and Research Centre

"Excavation records" for the City of London--this is how Kathryn Creed, describes the holdings of the the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) during our class visit this morning. Hearing this definition makes me immediately aware of two things: one, that London is an ancient site; and two, that I am visiting a type of archive that organizes information in a way that is new to me.

Kathryn is responsible for learning services at LAARC. As she explains, the centre is one division within the Museum of London's archaeological archives department and the complex we are visiting has been at this location since 2002. As indicated on its official web pages, LAARC is an active depository that holds data and materials from more than 8,500 sites that have been worked in Greater London since the 19th century although Kathryn says most data has been discovered since World War II. This information is held in both paper and metal stores and, as a result of the vast volume of artefacts, LAARC earned the standing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest archaeological archives in the world! It is certainly the authoritative source for primary evidence of life in London.

While I have accessed and used documentary archives before, such as the corporate archives at Carleton University, I am not an archaeologist so both the materials and method for organization information at LAARC are unfamiliar to me. We cannot post any photos of artefacts that we see during our tour (and I am snapping photos like mad), but I am learning that there are two categories of materials:

  • registered finds, which Kathryn defines as unusual or unique artefacts that provide evidence to "tell a singular story" (such as the medieval man's shoe with the missing toe);
  • and general finds, which are "normal" because these types of artefacts (like pottery, animals parts and iron nails) turn up frequently at digs and, as "assemblages" tell a common story.

The vast number of finds--both individual and general--are not really surprising, given that London (the city and the greater area) is an ancient place where humans have lived for centuries. Kathryn tells us that people have been inhabiting this area for over 250,000 years, through the Roman ages (starting in 43 AD) and on to the present.

More than 200,000 acid-free boxes and numerous silicon bags (for metal objects) hold the remnants of the past that are found by professional, amateur and perhaps reluctant archaeologists--these latter sometimes being the developers who stumble upon important finds during the course of building new structures in the city.

What I find (no pun intended) particularly interesting is the metadata scheme used for organizing this historic information. Kathryn tells us that materials are organized according to the site in which they are discovered because it is important to know "where something was found, what it was found with, and what was found in it [if relevant]." This approach to archiving allows researchers to make links to what was happening in a given time or period--they can then make connections and "tell stories."  Any researcher can search the LAARC online catalogue and my search for ‘’clay pipes’’ found this detailed record: Site record HDS06. The record tells me far more than just the fact that clay pipes were found on this site. For example, that people had been inhabiting this location at least back to the 12th century.

Not only does LAARC receive archaeological archival material, but in the last four years has become responsible for issuing site codes to new archaeological projects and for collecting fees from commercial contractors who have been issued codes. The work with developers is especially important because, as Kathryn points out, there can be an economic incentive to suppress or even destroy archaeological artefacts found during building--preserving the past takes time and money. The standards for archaeological deposits are also found on the LAARC website. 

Aside from this political issue, one of the other challenges facing LAARC staff is that of resources (at least both space and staff). One solution has been to develop a volunteer program, in which non-professionals are encouraged to help with some key work, such as re-bagging materials already in boxes to make better use of available space.

1. In terms of my own work, both now and in the future as an academic subject specialist, the work done at LAARC helps me to more broadly define “respect des fonds”--the overarching principle for archival collection development--and, in particular, "original order." Whether it is a set of documents or artefacts from an archaeological dig, the order in which evidence is found is important to understanding its significance.

2. Plus, instead of narrowly seeing archives as repositories for documentary evidence, I now understand that these holdings can include a wide range of materials that could be useful to both student and faculty researchers--holdings to which I could refer my own “readers.” 

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