A lot is being made these days of the phrase ‘Preservation by Record’. This phrase usually comes to the fore in Developer-led or Rescue (ha!) archaeology, where a site is deemed to be of major importance, but the economics and politics of the situation overrule the archaeology, which is then destroyed forever, removing any future prospect of learning more from the site. See the Thornborough Henges for a classic example of this where entire settlements have been (some would say needlessly) quarried away (and subsequently flooded) for the sake of short-term profit.

At the same time, there is a current philosophy of moving towards ‘Open Access’ archaeology – however you define that. For many, it means everything (?) available online, preferably for free, but often at a (prohibitive for some) cost and invariably difficult to find. But the main point is that archives are increasingly becoming digital in nature.

So what does this mean for future historians and archaeologists? The source material is being obliterated – archaeology by definition being a destructive process – and the source records are being digitised, thus also eliminating the primary records.

Now talking about digitised records, I recently came across some 5.25″ diskettes in my attic, some labeled ‘personal documents’. I have no idea what is on these disks, which are some 15 years old, possibly older. Brief enquiries among my ‘geekier’ friends for conversion suggestions came up blank – although one did say he could cope with 8″ or 3.5″ diskettes, but not 5.25″! I am now resigned to having lost these digital records, when I don’t know what they contain.

Yes, I had some of these too! Image © Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward not 15, but 50 years. What digital technologies will exist then? More to the point, what technologies will survive to enable today’s digital records to be read? It is extremely unlikely that today’s formats will still be in use. Even today, some of the earliest versions of PDF documents can no longer be read by today’s sophisticated viewers due to incompatibilities and potential security loopholes. Even more to the point, at a time when funding is constantly being squeezed from all sides, who will pay to maintain and convert the existing digital records in a format that will be readable in 10, 50, 100 years time or more?

© Wikimedia Commons

So it would seem that the answer may be to retain the primary source records, in paper format. But this has its own problem set, not the least of which is space. There was an interesting discussion on this topic at the British Archaeological Trust AGM earlier this year. Again, cost is a major factor but there are opportunities to overcome the space issues, by utilising underground caverns and mines. Deepstore  was specifically mentioned as a facility which many archives are currently investigating, though the fact that it uses a salt mine raised environmental concerns for some of those present at the meeting.

So it seems that although the problem is acknowledged, without ongoing funding the future for our archives would appear to be potentially very bleak indeed.

Archaeology – Enjoy it while it lasts?

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