Wednesday, August 13, 2014

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

Following the publication of John O’Keeffe’s statement on the NIEA’s 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 O’Keefe:

“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
Editor’s 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 … whatever’s 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 Ireland’s 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 doesn’t address what happens to the site archive and have worked to make the most of this apparent ambiguity and save this material for posterity. They’ve seen the doughnut and they’re beginning to feast on the rewards. The NIEA have seen the hole – Dr O’Keeffe 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.”

Don’t 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. O’Keeffe 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 don’t want to be seen as especially taking the hammer to O’Keeffe and his colleagues, but the time for this initiative to have kicked off was several years sooner than it has. Had something like the NMS’s 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, O’Keeffe 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)