Archiving guidelines (Rule 34)

Archives are part of any administration. A long history of archival traditions exists and archivists work according to standards that have been agreed upon internationally. The very special aspect of archaeological archives is, however, that finds, samples and artefacts are considered to be ‘data carriers’, just as documents or digital media are.

All archaeological projects must result in a stable, ordered, accessible archive. Archaeological practitioners must accept their responsibilities in this regard. Competent authorities should make sure that they do. Documents that set out requirements or standards for archaeological work, or that underlie archaeological permits, should therefore reflect this principle.

Standards for the preparation, creation and management of the archive must be understood and agreed upon at the beginning of any project. Lines of communication are vital in any project, and especially in the archiving process. The standards that are to be followed must be understood from the beginning, and regular communication between all participants in the process, as well as with the intended archive repository, will ensure that the archive meets all requirements. It must be understood that an archive repository can return a project archive if it fails to meet agreed standards.


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The relation between recording and archiving

All aspects of the archaeological process affect the quality of the resulting archive. The archiving process begins with planning the creation of the first record. If proper systems of recording are not consistently applied, then the archive will not be orderly and accessible. If, for example, terminology for features or deposits is not applied consistently, it will hardly be possible later, to distinguish the records of post-holes from pits, or to take a maritime example, to know to which deck a find should be attributed. It is advisable to use a standard thesaurus of terms throughout the project. Photographs of features that lack identifying labels will have little value, unless this is compensated by an extensive description of the individual shot. Extensive descriptions are to be the rule for underwater photographs that are taken under very variable circumstances.

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Keeping the archives together

Archives must be kept together and intact as a collection and this creates very specific demands. It is a central point, both of the 2001 Convention and of the Rules of its Annex.

Archaeology and the understanding of a site are based on facts and interpretation. It is also a cumulative process. With new information becoming available, interpretation needs to be reviewed. This can be after many years. It will then again be important to know what the considerations were for an intervention and on what information and considerations the earlier interpretation was actually based.

Keeping the archives together facilitates their curation, and allows the cumulative information to be available for professionals and the public. This is why it is important for each new piece of information to be kept with all other information regarding a particular site. It is also the reason why Rule 34 specifically indicates that the management of the archives should be subject to authorization by the ‘competent authorities’ defined in Article 22 of the Convention.

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Ensuring the security of the archive

Ensuring the security and stability of the archive is a continuous process. It is a universal responsibility. All archaeologists need to recognize that they must manage archive material. Record sheets, drawings, and digital records should be created to preserve their content and to protect it from damage and loss. Such records should be treated accordingly. This is as relevant on site as it is in the laboratory or museum.

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Archive curating guidelines

Since the documentation and material archive of archaeological research is an irreplaceable source of information, its curation should warrant its future existence. International standards have been developed to that end.


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Archive curating - conditions during storage

The combination of documentation archives and material archives in archaeological repositories implies that professional standards apply for several different aspects. All different materials must be stored in accordance with professional standards of conservation. This applies to paper documents and digital media, but it also expressly applies to heritage items that have been removed from their location, the samples and finds. These can only be archived after having been cleaned, documented and analysed, and after stabilization.

In the curation of archaeological finds, there are two simple, very basic principles to follow according to professional standards of conservation:

  • Finds that are not on exhibition must be stored in the dark.
  • Finds must not be exposed to wide fluctuations in temperature or relative humidity.

These two basic principles imply that project archives should be stored in conditions that are not susceptible to high light levels or to wide fluctuations in temperature or relative humidity.


Many materials can stand low and high temperatures, and low and high relative humidity, but they must not be subjected to constant variations in either. For many artefact materials, the ideal storage is at low temperatures (around 15°C) and a relative humidity (RH) that lies between 35% to 70%. Metals should be stored in a range of 15° to 24°C, and below 35% RH. Organic finds, such as objects of leather, textile, wood or bone must be dried before deposition in the archive and stored at 18° to 22°C and 45% to 55% RH.

The drying process

The drying process is where the challenges in conservation are greatest. Material from a saline environment must be thoroughly desalinated, to keep it from attracting moisture. Some packing and storage materials are better than others. Acid-free packing materials are preferred in international standards.

Submerged depots

An alternative solution is to conserve artefacts in submerged depots. In this form of wet storage that is sometimes chosen for big timber objects, the artefacts are conserved in a wet environment that is similar to their original site context or in freshwater tanks. Yet again, the depots need to be controlled for light, temperature and whether the water is infested by organisms that feed on the wood. Some repositories control the tank environment with carefully selected living fish. Other institutes include reburial below the groundwater table as part of their archiving policy.

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Archive curating - location

Appropriate documentation, archiving and storage are of fundamental importance. The project archives must be stored in a place that provides the best possible conditions to prevent degradation of materials it contains. Moreover, it should meet safety requirements, while at the same time assuring availability to the interested public. Finally, the storage location should meet the best possible conditions with respect to temperature, humidity, lighting and exposure to the risks of natural disasters. Specific environmental desiderata may vary for the different materials that the archive will contain, but all will profit from stability. While it may be necessary to apportion the archive to different rooms with different indoor climates, it is nevertheless preferable not to have these rooms too far apart.

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Archive curating - submission and transfer


Documentation and reports are submitted to the archive on the basis of an established protocol. Electronic submissions must always be supported by paper copies. The responsibility for correct submission to the archive lies with the member of the research team assigned to the task. Information forwarded to the archive should be arranged in such a way that the information can be integrated into the institution’s inventory, as well as into an integrated IT system, if that is applicable.

Archives that specialise in digital information will have policies for that and may prefer certain formats over others. Imaging, drawing and mapping software often allows for saving in different formats, including very basic formats. These may not include all the processing information, but may be a wise backup all the same. Digital data that is not maintained in an active system risks getting lost. First of all, the magnetic or optical carrier on which it is kept may be subject to quality loss. Secondly, decoding software may not continue to be available over time. Readable formats may change.

In any case, research materials submitted to the archive must be systematically edited according to a pre-established and agreed upon methodology. This applies to digital archives and paper archives alike.

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Archive curating - ownership

Underwater cultural heritage is a matter of public interest, even when in some cases a private owner may still exist. As a consequence, archive repositories should also have a public responsibility and function. This implies some form of public control. There are different ways to organize this, and different models exist for different countries. Sometimes, the repository keeps collections on behalf of the national or regional government and in other cases, the State or municipality will be their owner. It is preferable for the repository to have ownership of any archive deposited with them. The repository should also have copyright, or shared copyright, over the documentary archive. This must be in line with existing legislation. Because of the legal complexities surrounding these issues, it is not possible to establish universal standards. However, general recommendations can be made. Regarding ownership and copyright, pro forma agreements and specific protocols should be subject to legal advice, while taking account of the public function of the collections as their most important characteristic.

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Archive curating - identification


All elements of the archive should be subject to a uniform identification system referring to the site number and numeration of individual artefacts and documents. In this respect, it is important to align the project design with the repository’s organization. Changing the unique numbers on individual items, especially small ones, needs to be avoided by all means. Renumbering will always introduce untraceable mistakes. As archaeological projects produce large amounts of data, which is diverse and structured in a complex way, it is essential to pay great attention to a master inventory of the project archives, listing all elements of documentation and reporting produced during research. It is equally important to implement schemes for cross-referencing the unique identification numbers.

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Archive curating - copies and backups

Nowadays, all project archives contain both digital and paper-based elements. Celluloid negatives and colour slides, which continue to have their own problems in conservation and curation, have been replaced by ready at hand digital photography, with large digital archives as a consequence. Relational databases, digital plans, and raw measuring data are other types of ‘files’ that one can hardly imagine a project to do without. In archiving, these digital data need extra care. The repository should have a maintenance policy for digital data, including regular back-up. As a safety measure, raw data, and digitally produced documentation, can simultaneously be kept in the form of a complete set of printouts on materials resistant to degradation. Conversely, it is also recommended to scan the entire documentation. Such a policy will prevent irreparable loss if either the paper-based or the digital archives are damaged or otherwise inaccessible. Despite the wide spread of technological possibilities that allow for safe storage and back-up of digital materials, it is nonetheless recommended to make paper and digital copies of the entire documentation and store them in separate locations.


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