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What happens if we keep on digging?

What happens if we keep on digging?

Once in a lecture during my undergraduate degree in Archaeology, the PowerPoint screen was pasted with a picture of what could only be described as a warehouse stacked high with boxes and bags of archaeological finds. We were posed with the question of what should we do with all this stuff?

Being in the throes of disillusion with my archaeology degree at the time (2nd year – I think we were in the depths of philosophy by this point) I was struck with the notion that we just needed to STOP DIGGING! There was no space left, and if we weren’t doing anything with the stuff then why should we keep it?! That was a dark time.

However, I quickly moved on, got back into loving my degree and indeed loving archaeology; I forgot all about it. I was made the Site Manager of the research dig that I attended as part of my degree later on that very year in the summer, a role which I was asked back to again in my 3rd year, then even after when I had left archaeology and moved to an MA in Cultural Heritage Management, and then again for this summer even though I am now out of academia and in employment! Needless to say, I had made an impression, and equally I love it!

We dig every year up on the wild and beautiful north shore of Ardnamurchan, in weather pertaining to the height of summer and the depth of winter, all in three weeks. We are the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project – a crazy bunch of archaeologists from the Universities of Manchester and Leicester, and some hangers-on’s mad enough to go back each year, like me. Each year we have a wonderful season and bring up all sorts of things like jet beads, pottery, stone tools, etcetera etcetera, and of course the ever present soil samples. It never once occurred to me to ask where all of that stuff went, it was just dug up, wrapped, boxed and carted away.

It has only been since joining Culture Syndicates and being involved in the review of an archaeological store which is just jam-packed full of pottery, bone and soil samples that again the question occurred to me, what happens if we keep on digging? Where will it all go? There just isn’t room for every little thing we dig up. But then, if we have dug it up, why would we want to throw it away, doesn’t it add to the historical record? But I ask you, what’s the point if it is just sitting on a museum store shelf gathering dust?!

I can practically feel the archaeologists shudder in horror, frantically whispering, “but it might one day be useful again, we might develop some new fantastical technique to discover something amazingly interesting about the past”. We might, it’s true…but then again we might not. And in the meantime, where does all this stuff go?

​The reality is, stuff will have to go.

So, there I was, sat at my desk, flicking through a 2000 strong inventory of archaeological material making cut-throat (considered, I promise) decisions about what to keep and what to dispose of. And then I was struck…I say struck when here I mean questioned by my boss…how do we dispose of archaeological materials once we have decided it’s not relevant and when no other museum wants it, for example, who could possibly want heaps and heaps of soil samples that don’t even have a context (eye-roll)? My response – I have absolutely no idea. Queue hours of Google searching and still no answer. I even contacted an actual full-time archaeologist and they said that they just put it in a skip (shocked face!).

So here I am, an archaeologist by training, a heritage professional by employment, with absolutely no idea, or found any practical guidance, on two pretty key issues to the practice of archaeology.

1. What happens if we keep on digging and there is no place left to put stuff? (I suppose I semi have the answer to this – you in some mystical way dispose of it all, still my inner critic cries, so why keep digging it all up and saving it then?), and 2. How do you get rid of it once you’ve decided you don’t want it?

Neither of these things were we taught about at uni…

I found one rather amusing answer during my google searching on another blog post (https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2016/02/11/happily-never-after-a-moral-proposition-for-the-management-of-museum-collections/) here the answer posed is quite simple:

“Burn it. Burn it all.”

Now I myself find this, although a little extreme, quite refreshing. Yes, this material was used by ancient people and can give us historical knowledge, but I would like to counter this with the idea that if it is not still useful, or even interesting to people now, then we just get rid of it! We simply can’t keep digging everything up and saving it all, we’ll eventually be left with more boxes of dirt above ground than below it! Perhaps we should be more realistic during the actual digging. Instead of just saving every single teeny, tiny piece of pottery, and minuscule flecks of charcoal and slag (something to do with burning things in the past), we should be like, will we ever really test all of this (NO), or will it just end up in boxes for several years (YES), so let’s just throw it away hey, and save the pretty things.

Now doesn’t that sound nice…you see the real problem with this is the age old archaeological concern of context.

All the things excavated on an archaeological dig are important in relation to each other, so one piece of pottery can be related to another piece, which can then give the context (background information, I guess) to another type of find which was dug up between the pot, i.e. perhaps the find was in the pot. Just for example. So that logic lends itself to all archaeologists saying, everything is important. All the things, every bit, important. Which is why I find myself with this list of thousands of pieces of pottery and animal bones and charcoal.

Although this may be true, we simply can’t carry on the way we are. And so ending this blog, not with a conclusion, but rather with my continuing confusion around the question:

What happens if we keep on digging?

By Helen Simmons, Trainee Project Manager

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