Are ‘pretty’ archaeological records really that important?

‘Aaaaah, so you’re digging holes and taking all the old stuff out, right??’

This is one of the most common comments we archaeologists hear after revealing our profession in discussions. Depending on our level of propriety and respect to the interlocutor, we either roll our eyes or not and, in a tone of condescension or excitement, start to EXPLAIN. ‘Well, yes, it is work in the field, and we do need to dig, but it is not just holes because they need to have certain dimensions and shape, and it’s not just taking out stuff, because it is all about RECORDING’.

Archaeology is recording. This sentence every archaeologist has so strongly imprinted in their heads, that they don’t even remember when they heard it for the first time. The truth is, however, that archaeological recording does not mean the same for every archaeologist. Or rather, it is not treated in the same way.

The recording is indeed crucial in archaeology. If the past is buried somewhere, and we dig it out destroying the environment, we need to record the stages. The only link between modern people and the past are the records. I deliberately used the general form ‘people’, as the records we create as archaeologists are not just for us, they are for everyone. There will always be language differences we can’t avoid, of course. But even if someone does not understand the texts itself, they definitely would be able to understand the location, all the maps and plans and the visual representation of finds, and these are the base of any research.

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While the necessity of the presence of such records might and definitely should sound obvious for any archaeologist, the actual quality of such documentation is often quite neglected. We all understand the fast pace environment we are forced to work in during commercial excavation, but we also always need to remember, that preparing proper site archive is the core of our job. And yes, of course, a bad record is better than no record (I will write about in another post), but good documentation makes a professional. And if someone wants to be considered a competent archaeologist, they need to remember, that a few scans of plans and phone snapshots of finds on a kitchen table with a ruler won’t do the job. Whatever one finds during excavations and writes in the report.

I am exaggerating and teasing you a bit here, I admit. Fortunately, such situations are becoming rarer. I just wanted to stress out the importance of accurate digitalisation. There are two main reasons why a digitally edited site or trench plan, a site range exactly presented on a map, field photographic documentation, and a correct post-excavation finds recording are so significant.

The first one I have already mentioned above. It just looks professional. When it looks good, it’s shareable (which is so important in our digital world), so one’s work as a scientist can have a wider outreach. It creates the impression that you care for what you do and want to do it properly. It also shows that you understand why creating a field and post-ex records are for.

Which brings me to the second, weighty argument for an accurate, clear, not pixilated digital archaeological documentation, particularly of finds records. This is the actual sake of archaeology. Archaeological finds in their greatest majority are rather fragile and even with all precautions and care, they may undergo the process of gradual destruction (not to speak of situation, when the care is not sufficient). Their precise representation on illustration and photography preserves their appearance and enables it to be shared among scholars to study and compare. Lack of specific depiction of all the details of a find can lead to some misinterpretations or even to overlooking some significant reference.

I hope I managed to convince you that ‘pretty’ documentation is important. It’s not just about the neatness and the delight looking at it gives you. Most importantly it is the accuracy of the actual records and the amount of importation about the past, which it provides.

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