Archival archaeology

Whoever said archives and archaeology can’t be besties?

For the final essay in my Understanding Archives course last semester, I opted to focus on an emerging discipline that’s been of interest to me for a while now—archival archaeology. I just wanted to share some information and thoughts here rather than leaving my thoughts to accumulate dust in my Google Drive, as most things do. This post is separate from my essay (don’t worry, I would never commit self-plagiarism), but here are my thoughts and then some that didn’t fit so well in an essay format.

Archival archaeology is a subfield of both archival science and archaeology, marrying the two together to form a hybrid discipline. In all honesty, many historians and archaeologists practise archival archaeology without ascribing a methodological label to it. Some might argue these labels are void of any significant function, but I really like them, so I’ll use them and enjoy them. There is no standard definition of archival archaeology the moment, since it is merely beginning (to be recognised), but it is worth noting that it differs from “archaeological archives” in more than just its name.

The Archaeological Resources in Cultural Heritage: a European Standard group defines archaeological archives as

… compris[ing] all records and materials recovered during an archaeological project and identified for long-term preservation, including artefacts, ecofacts and other environmental remains, waste products, scientific samples and also written and visual documentation in paper, film and digital form.

Archaeological Resources in Cultural Heritage: a European Standard

Archival archaeology, on the other hand, I approach as the study of archaeological records that have been preserved in archives; this can include both primary source materials (such as excavation records and field notebooks) and secondary sources (such as scholarly publications and popular media).

Though only a newly developing discipline, archival archaeology takes the best of both archives and archaeology and seeks to join them in a way that has long been necessary. This is a niche area of expertise that enables the study of the history of archaeology, individual sites, individual artefacts, and more to become streamlined through archival science. Archival archaeology is gaining traction mostly amongst public archaeologists in the UK, notably at University College London, and amongst German and Eastern European archivists and archaeologists.

Ok, that’s cool, but how is it useful? Why should anybody care?

Great questions!

Here’s a big, complicated way to answer them. I’m an advocate for decolonisation. I will push for the dismantling, abandonment, burning, etc. of all colonial structures until the last one is gone. The mass decolonial movement many of us would like to see is not feasible without mass organising. In the meantime, we have to work within the hated structures to make them slightly more bearable. One way I can see this happening, particularly for archaeology, is through archival archaeology.

Christina Riggs in her 2020 book Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive excellently describes how modern archaeology originated:

… colonialism required the development of infrastructures, which required European investors and staff, which required reliable means of travel, certain standards of living, and financial and legislative practices that favoured foreign institutions and individuals. The development of scientific archaeology as a discipline in the nineteenth century was inseparable from the growth of colonial and imperial interests in regions rich in architectural and artifactual remains.

Christina Riggs, 2020, p. 13

In the colonies, knowledge acquisition was a major priority. In turn, so was knowledge control. What good is acquiring the knowledge if you can’t control it and manage it anyways? God forbid Indigenous populations contribute to and have authority over the information relating to themselves and their culture and history.

Anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler states that:

Archival conventions were built upon a changing collection of colonial truths about what should be classified as secrets and matters of state security, and what sorts of actions could be dismissed as prompted by personal revenge and ad hoc passion or accredited as a political subversion against the state.

Ann Laura Stoler, 2002, p. 103

We know that both archives and archaeology operated as colonial tools. How can we marry them together and make them work for us to deconstruct the very colonial structures they were developed to uphold?

I don’t have a concrete answer for this, and I don’t think archival archaeology can work in isolation to achieve progress in decolonisation. But it can work to reconstruct knowledge that colonial archaeology once destroyed. Any introduction to archaeology course will tell you that archaeology is an inherently destructive practise. I propose we use it to reconstruct the destruction.

Prior to the last few decades (and even then…), archaeological excavations weren’t really well documented. But any archival documentation relating to an excavation can be used to reconstruct an idea of what was destroyed or disposed of during excavation.

Many 20th century excavations in the Middle East destroyed and disposed of all medieval material culture and remains. After all, Roman ruins are objectively more important (please note the sarcasm). Using what documentation exists about said excavation, we can attempt to reconstruct exactly what medieval material culture and remains existed on that site before. Paying attention to notes about removal, disposal, abandonment, etc. sheds light in a dark, dark tunnel of colonial exploitation and disregard of cultural heritage.

I won’t go on for much longer, but I have put together a non-exhaustive bibliography via Zotero for those interested in engaging with the conversation on archival archaeology and its applications.

About the Author

Niġel Klemenčič-Puglisevich

MA Public History student at the University of Western Ontario.

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