Storage Wars

If you have an hour, go and check out the recent forum on the storage crisis in archaeology in the awkwardly named Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies. Morag Kersel offers a nice essay framing the storage crisis in Eastern Mediterranean archaeology, and argued for re-exploring the potential of long term loans as a way to alleviate some storage pressure by distributing significant artifacts or those under study to other institutions. Her argument is that while there are some absolute limits to amount of material that can be stored, most of the current storage crisis revolves around social, political, and economic realities that result in unequal access to storage facilities and technology.

If foreign projects had to make provisions for storage and curation of artifacts prior to excavating, some of the burden for storage and curation of artifacts would shift from the host country to the guest excavators. Unfortunately, aside from a very few major excavations, the relationship between excavator and host country remains far stronger than between the excavator’s institution and the host country. Because excavators change schools, depart projects, and even die, sustainable funding can never be tied exclusively to a project or individual. In fact, I’ve worked on a large and relatively well-funded foreign expedition supported by a school with the resources to provide sustaining funds for an artifact storeroom containing material under study. When the project director retired, funding to sustain the project began to decline, and we have recently learned that it will be discontinued entirely leaving the storage of the artifacts under study in limbo. While I don’t understand the politics behind the decision to cut funding to the project, I suspect it was not being guided by a clear sense of archaeological ethics and responsibility to the scholars, host country, or objects involved. At the same time, I recognize that few academic institutions are likely to commit to funding for storage of artifacts in a foreign country indefinitely, and any expectation that they might do so probably represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how global higher education works.

Even if we understand that changing the fundamental structure of higher education funding is beyond our grasp, I do think that it is possible to change some of the expectations within our discipline, or at least recognize that the storage wars are partly a problem situated at the very core of the discipline. So while there is not an immediately available solution to the storage problem within the grasp of the archaeology, there are ways that we can ameliorate the issues related to storage moving forward. And some of the steps that we can take to ameliorate future storage problems will also allow us to think critically about the structure of the discipline today.

1. Recognizing the Tragedy of the Commons. One of the key issues facing academic archaeologists today is the pressure to develop our own projects – particularly excavations – to both train students and to elevate the profile of our institutions and write large national grants. Much of the pressure archaeologists feel, however, is from within the discipline. While Kersel and company locate the pressure to excavate as inherent in the discipline of archaeology, I think that this obscures the real source of pressure to do field work.

So junior scholars desperate for jobs and tenure develop projects that produces material that contributes directly to the storage problem. The discipline could, just as easily, put pressure on these vulnerable junior scholars to study material excavated from projects years ago that languishes, orphaned in overstuffed storerooms. While subjecting artifacts to careful study does not necessarily obviate the need to store them for future generations (and in some cases knowing what is in a storeroom makes the decision to store or display an artifact even more complex), it does ensure that artifacts could be moved into more compact and less accessible storage.

Convincing the senior members of the discipline to encourage junior scholars to study material excavated years before deserves study before new material is excavated or collected is a difficult task. It involves recognizing that earlier excavations – even those conducted in unorthodox or less than optimal ways – produced information that is deserving of study even for faculty at elite universities who have the resources to fund continued excavation. In fact, researchers at these universities must take the lead. 

2. Survey and Sampling. It’s not just excavation that produces material exacerbating storage issues. Intensive pedestrian survey has become even more intensive over the past decade and has tended toward even more robust sampling methods. At the same time, intensive survey has two advantages. First, our (and I consider myself a survey archaeologist first and foremost) collection strategies are grounding in sampling. In other words, the quantity of material we produce whether for storage or for study in the field, is dependent, in part, on the sampling strategies that we use. Excavators are more or less stuck with whatever artifacts come our of trench. Once excavated, artifacts cannot be either left in place or returned to their original archaeological context. In other words, the context of these sherds has been irrevocably altered putting some pressure on the archaeologist to save as much as possible to ensure that as much information could be recovered as possible from the trench. In short, there is a greater ethical imperative to save artifacts from an excavation than from a survey where artifacts left un-sampled remain in an archaeological context that existed prior to the intervention of the archaeologist.  

Second, several authors identified the possibility of returning artifacts to the field after study (so-called “catch-and-release” methods of artifact collection). Intensive survey has used these practices for years and projects like the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) were able to generate significant data from assemblages collected, analyzed, and left in the field with only a very small subset of diagnostic material returned for long-term storage. Artifacts collected during intensive survey are often very clean – compared to excavated ceramics – and, at the same time, undiagnostic pottery from survey has less potential for analysis than undiagnostic pottery from excavated contexts. Whereas the association between undiagnostic material (coarse ware sherds, for example) and more diagnostic types of material from excavations can lead to our identification of certain plain pottery types through their consistent association with stratigraphy and other artifacts, the absence of stratigraphic control in intensive survey makes it nearly impossible to seriate and identify undiagnostic material from surface contexts. As a result, undiagnostic pottery from surveys tend to have less potential to generate future archaeological knowledge. So if in-field analysis of pottery is combined with responsible sampling practices, we not only leave behind in the field an assemblage that can be revisited by future archaeologists, but we also limit the quantity of material entering long-term storage. 

3. Remote Sensing and Low Impact Archaeology. Finally, the last forty years have seen a flourishing of remote sensing and non-destructivey practices in archaeology. Projects that lack funding or infrastructure for the sustainable storage of artifacts can nevertheless make an impact by using a combination of surface survey and remote sensing. A shift within the discipline toward more sustainable archaeological practices and away from the “big dig” model of field work has benefits that go beyond just mitigating the storage crisis. First, as funding in the humanities becomes more challenging to get, keep, and develop, remote sensing practices and small scale surveys offer ways to collect meaningful assemblages of data without the added expense of physical expropriation, conservation, curation, and storage. Moreover, remote sensing practices leverage technological innovations that ally archaeology with their cousins in the STEM disciplines. Archaeology will never be a STEM discipline (and keeping our feet set in the humanities has real value), but, at the same time, encouraging more sustained interest in technologically mediated field practices allows the discipline to draw on funding traditionally reserved for STEM programs. Finally, a greater commitment to remote sensing allows for more targeted excavations when those kinds of interventions are necessary. By limiting how much archaeologists need to expose to answer research questions, we can limit the amount of material that enters into over-burdened storage networks. 

It would be naive to suggest that intensive survey, remote sensing, and a renewed attention to excavated but unstudied material will solve the storage problem. Salvage excavations, ongoing excavations and surveys, and orphaned material will continue to tax existing storage infrastructures. In a perfect world, the foreign universities that encouraged and supported excavation would step up with funding to help ameliorate problems in host countries (as well as at home), but this kind of responsible action seems beyond the scope of most institutions. At the same time, the discipline of archaeology should be capable of responding to the challenges facing the practical realities of producing disciplinary knowledge. This will involve a critical look at existing academic expectations as well as support for new ways of producing archaeological knowledge. 

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