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Archaeological finds & archives in Northern Ireland | A reply from Dr John

Originally posted online on 28 March 2014 at

Samples as far as the eye can see ...

In a recent piece on the current financial health of commercial archaeology in Northern
Ireland I speculated that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) may not have a
coherent plan in place to deal with the heritage implications of one of the commercial
archaeological companies going bankrupt. This is a serious consideration, as my research had
shown that the financial viability of all of these four consultancies has suffered markedly in
the period from 2008 to 2012. Without repeating the entirety of the previous post, the
situation can be best summed up in the Net Worth, averaged across all companies where the
data was available. This indicated that the mean value was 192k in 2008, rising slightly to
209k the following year. However, this dropped sharply to an average of 6.5k in 2010 and
to a mere 2.3k in 2011. It made a slight return, reaching an average of 9.5k in 2012. However
these figures mask actual negative Net Worth for two companies in 2011, and for one of them
in 2010. If one or more of these companies were to enter administration or file for bankruptcy,
I felt that the implications for a significant portion of our shared excavated heritage of
Northern Ireland (and for the Republic of Ireland, too) could be catastrophic. A report by Hull
(2011) estimated that the four commercial companies together held approximately 1.47 million
items from archaeological excavations, along with large paper archives of original field notes,
context sheets, scale drawings etc., along with digital archives of various forms. The vast
majority of this material has little intrinsic value, but it does have significant cultural worth.
My fear is that, if one of these companies folds, those charged with selling off the assets to pay
off the banks and other sundry creditors will be immune to the charms of important but
worthless boxes of pottery sherds and flint assemblages. The whole lot could easily end up at
the city dump. This would be nothing less than an intellectual and cultural catastrophe for
Northern Ireland.

endless shelves filled with artefacts and samples
In the interests of fairness, I sent an email to Dr John OKeeffe, Assistant Director/Principal
Inspector of Historic Monuments at NIEA, Built Heritage. Unfortunately, he was unable to
respond by the time of publication (February 20th 2014), but I did receive a reply a week later
(27th February). He confirmed that this issue has been discussed in-house and with
colleagues from other administrations in general terms and that is an item of genuine concern
to both the professional archaeological and non-specialist spheres. The remainder of his reply
is given in full:

However, while discussing the issue is relatively easy, identifying a solution is more
challenging. A fundamental issue around what happens to the material arising from
archaeological excavations is that of ownership. As I am sure you are aware, the current
practice in Northern Ireland is that the material extracted from the ground belongs to the
person or persons who owned the ground at that time. Artefacts, samples and other material
derived from the excavation is therefore likely to belong to the landowner, not the
archaeological company who may currently hold that material. In the case of written or digital
material, there is a similar issue of ownership, but one which I cannot answer as the ownership
of that material may well depend upon the form of contract between the
archaeologist/archaeological company and their client. This Department has received written
reports (i.e. hard copy) for most of the excavations that have been conducted in Northern
Ireland over the past decade or so. These reports are retained as part of our Monuments and
Buildings Record. This is the only element of the overall site archive that we currently insist is
delivered to this Department. Management of material arising from archaeological
excavations, i.e. the fuller archive, has been a key work area for my team in recent years.
Following the assembly debate on this matter in 2012 and subsequent studies and analysis in
2013, a Joint Working Group was established between the Department of the Environment
and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (including representatives of National
Museums Northern Ireland) to bring forward potential solutions to this matter. The Joint
Working Group has now completed its analysis, and officials are reporting back to their
respective ministers at this time.

Archives ...
The chief comment I would make at this time is that since I moved to Belfast in 1997 (nearly
17 years ago) this has been the acknowledged situation. In those 17 years nothing has changed.
It was bad back then, but the Celtic Tiger years only exacerbated the situation. One impact of
the post-2008 collapse was that the financial pressures on commercial companies to store all
this material became more and more onerous and burdensome. While it is a statement much
to be welcomed, to hear that the NIEA are now putting plans in place 'to bring forward
potential solutions to this matter', I fear it may be too little, too late. While a recent
investigation by Kevin Magee for BBC News NI (here) has shown images of one warehouse
owned by an archaeological consultancy, piled high with artefacts, archives, and samples, it
may be too late for others. I have written before about persistent rumours that one company
called up previous clients and instructed them to come collect 'their' artefacts or face
an annual bill for curation. To the best of my knowledge, a number of construction companies
sent over representatives to collect the material. I am given to understand that large
collections, from several significant excavations, were loaded up and driven away. I'd love to
think that much of this material can be recovered for future study by students and academics,
but I genuinely believe that this material is lost forever. Even if it hasn't been dumped in the
nearest landfill site, the chances that it is being carefully cared for - even if can be found - are
pretty slim. I should point out that, even if true, the actions of this company were wholly within
the law. It doesn't make it any less repugnant, shameful, and an act of cultural vandalism. As
I say, I welcome John OKeeffe's words and look forward to seeing some action on them before
more culturally significant material slips from our grasp and is lost forever.

Hull, D. 2011 Archaeological archives in Northern Ireland: Legislation, guidance and
comparison with other jurisdictions. Research and Information Service Research Paper
(NIAR 621-1). Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast.