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Archaeological finds & archives in the Republic of Ireland | A reply from

Edward Bourke
Originally posted online on 13 August 2014 at

Following the publication of John OKeeffes statement on the NIEAs state of

preparedness for dealing with archives from archaeological consultancies in Northern
Ireland, I though it advisable to seek out a different perspective. To this end, I
contacted Edward Bourke, Senior Archaeologist at the National Monuments Service,
within the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I posed him the same two
questions I asked Dr OKeefe:

I would be grateful if you could confirm what, if any,

preparations have been made by the NMS:
1) To investigate the possibility of any of the archaeological
consultancies no longer being able to continue in business?
2) To develop contingency plans for the safe retrieval, storage,
and curation of the whole range of physical and digital cultural
assets, from artefacts, soil samples, paper records, and
computer files etc?

Excavation reports being loaded into the Tambour Units

I received the following reply, published here in full:

We have already dealt with one major company which went out of business. Although
the finds are automatically the property of the state, there was no requirement for the
deposition of the paper archives from excavations, as opposed to the reports, which
were required as a licence condition. Our response has been to provide a database and
the archival boxes for sites to anyone prepared to lodge their archive with us. This has
elicited a good response from excavators as there are three advantages for them. The
first is that it is something that most of them want to do for professional reasons. The
second is that it involves only the expense of doing the work, as all other aspects
(including transport), are covered by us. The third is that it means that they no longer
have to pay for warehousing the material. So far we had the initial company who did
their best to send us their archive even though they were in the throes of selling their
headquarters and letting staff go. What they sent us was not perfect, but we have their
entire archive. The Dublin material was sent to Dublin City Archives and they have
already archived much of it. At the moment we do not have the staff to do this but the
material is relatively well organised and we will get around to it eventually. Since then
with the provision of boxes, database etc., we have much better quality control in place.
The process works like this.
1. The person is given the box size and the database and a document explaining how
we wish the material to be presented. They estimate the number of boxes required.
They can also send us their plans in folders or in rolls.
2. We visit them at their place of work with the boxes and explain the system again.
3. They archive the material using the database which also produces box lists,
box labels etc.
4. We visit them and check at least 10% of the boxes. If we discover significant errors
we go away and they have to fix the problem. If no significant errors are manifest we
arrange for the archive to be transferred to Swords.
5. We shelve the material in Swords and there is an automatic upload which allows us
to add the data to our database en masse.
Archaeological Survey of Ireland Files
The reason we dealt with this problem using this method, is that when we started, the
Archive Unit had three staff under my direction and three other main strands of
archived material. Even then we knew we would need a semi-automated system and
that staffing would become an issue. Without going into too much detail, we have had
companies which are still in business on a smaller scale but who needed to downsize
(hate that word) both in terms of staff and office and warehouse space. Other
companies were in a position where the directors felt that they were likely to go out of
business but still had enough to pay a skeleton staff to archive the material. We have
also had cases where licence holders went back into a company office and archived
their own excavations. There is a strange mix of altruism and money sense going on,
but so far, we are not yet aware of any company abandoning their archive without
telling us. Because the deposition of the paper archive is not yet a requirement under
law, there is a possibility of someone doing this. The law is unlikely to be retrospective
when and if the Bill is passed into law, so to a certain extent we are dependent on the
professionalism, money sense and altruism (in some cases) of the companies and the
individual licence holders. In one case that I am aware of the Developer made it a
requirement of paying for a pair of licences that the report should be written and that
both the NMI and ourselves should have accepted the finds and the archive.
Archaeological Survey of Ireland Files
In the case of excavations carried out on National Monuments by our own staff, or
contractors there is a requirement to allow for presentation of material to the archive
in their budgets. This also works retrospectively in that older sites are now required to
include archiving the material as part of their budget for writing up. We are also aware
that some of the companies were in dispute with some of their licence holders and, in
the case of at least two companies; the archive is partly skewed with only some of the
archive deposited. The evidence for this is visible in the archive, however in the longer-
run we will be approaching the individual excavators to ask them whether they would
be prepared to lodge, that part of the archive they retained, with us. Some of these
reports have never been submitted and some have, so the issue has to be approached
sensitively. Our relationship is theoretically with the license holder, but there could be
a situation where both the license holder and the Company could demand access to
both parts of the archive which might cause problems. In the current climate such a
scenario is unlikely though and in such a scenario we would look for agreement. We
are also keenly aware that if the archive is not lodged in the one place, the chances of
making any sense of the material at some time in the future will be gone forever. As
you can see the answer I am giving, may reflect the current position, but does not
describe a panacea for all our ills. This situation is something that was unthinkable a
few years ago, but is now the situation facing us all. On the other hand the new
concentration, both North and South, on the paper and artefactual archive from
excavations is a development to be welcomed.
Paper records from private sector companies arriving

Editors Comments:
The first point that I would make is that the NMS are to be congratulated for taking
these proactive steps, especially in such financially difficult times. Obviously, there are
significant differences in the legislative frameworks in the two jurisdictions. In the
Republic of Ireland archaeological artefacts are the property of the state, while in
Northern Ireland they belong to the landowner. If that landowner, say a large
construction firm, has no appreciation of the cultural significance of the materials in
their possession, they are wholly within their rights to dispose of it as they wish. They
could, in theory, offer these pieces to local museums, private individuals, or simply put
them out with the rest of the rubbish for the bin men to collect whatevers easiest!
The NIEA appear to have relied for many years on the good will of the archaeological
companies to house and curate this material. Now that the volume of archaeological
artefacts is reaching/has reached crisis point, coupled with the financial difficulties
that many of these private enterprises appear to be in, the potential for the loss of these
archives is significant. As I have said on a number of previous occasions, one
archaeological consultancy apparently acting legally, if immorally is believed to
have returned entire archaeological archives from a series of significant excavations to
the developers who paid for the excavations. Even with the most willing suspensions
of disbelief, I find it difficult to imagine that any of this material will ever be seen by
professional archaeologists or students again unless someone excavates a section
through a Northern Irish landfill site at some time in the future. This devastation of
Northern Irelands excavated heritage is already underway and unless rapid changes
are put in place is only set to continue.

For me, however, the biggest difference between the situations in Northern Ireland
and the Republic is that there has been a catastrophic failure of imagination in the
former. The NMS have taken the view that the existing legislation doesnt address what
happens to the site archive and have worked to make the most of this apparent
ambiguity and save this material for posterity. Theyve seen the doughnut and theyre
beginning to feast on the rewards. The NIEA have seen the hole Dr OKeeffe states:

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.

Dont get me wrong the situation as outlined by Edward Bourke is far from perfect.
By no means would I describe it as the best of all possible worlds, but it is in place
and it is working. Swift action by the NMS several years ago managed to rescue the
totality of a company archive just as it entered liquidation, saving it for the nation. In
that time little, if anything, concrete has emerged in Northern Ireland. OKeeffe and
the NIEA have not been idle. As he points out:

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.

This is all well and good, but there is still no actual process in place to manage these
archives and no means or regulating the commercial archaeological sector to prevent
them from disposing of significant cultural assets and having them pass beyond all
form or curation and scholarly access. Similarly, there is no safety net in place to rescue
this material if one or more of these companies are unable to continue in business. I
dont want to be seen as especially taking the hammer to OKeeffe and his colleagues,
but the time for this initiative to have kicked off was several years sooner than it has.
Had something like the NMSs scheme been in place even three years ago (2011) it
could have saved a consultancy in serious financial trouble from disposing of large
quantities of our shared archaeological assets. Even if they are arriving late to the
party, OKeeffe and the NIEA are to be commended for at least addressing the issue.
For too long it has been one of those somebody should do something problems that
only ever generated sighs of resignation and wringing of hands, but no actual action.
At least now there is cause for some hope and some action. However, until such time
as the hope manifests in real, physical action we will continue to see material
artefacts and archives that should be considered as publicly owned cultural assets
quietly disappear from the warehouses and offices, never to be seen again.

One of only two empty spaces we have left where the plans from Private sector excavations
will be stored (the ones in folders anyway)