Why ‘bad’ records are better than no records?

Is it obvious to you? Or rather sounds a bit controversial?

It does a bit to me, I admit. In my previous post (www.arte-facts.co.uk/2019/09/16/are-pretty-archaeological-records-really-that-important/) I was trying to convince all the Readers that attaching significance to aesthetically pleasant and accurate visual records of artefacts and field documentation is important. I am not going to change my previous view here. Nevertheless, I would like to look at the problem of archaeological recording from a slightly different angle and stress out that, regardless if we like it or not, we need to answer ‘yes’ to the title question.

What ‘bad records’ mean then? It could be a drawing which is not neat, a scribbled one, or one on which not every stone is drawn. That could also be a badly lit or blurry photograph of an artefact or picture of a section with a bucket in the foreground.

Why such records are created? There are many reasons. Maybe we are careless in general? Maybe we think it doesn’t matter because we will describe everything correctly in our final report conclusion? Or because we are tired after a long day in a freezing drizzle? Possibly as well we may not even be aware of how it should be done properly, because no one has ever told us so. Or we have just a lot of work and very little time, as it often happens in commercial archaeology.

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“That’s not an excuse!’ a purist may exclaim. And they would be right, without a doubt. Due to specificity of the archaeological job which is the process of staged destruction of every site, what is done, can’t be undone. It is incontestable that a human factor will always be a weakest link in a chain. If someone makes a mistake in the field, it is their fault they hadn’t done it according to the rules of the art.

But if they hadn’t, the only thing that can be done is correcting the records in the post-ex. A level missing in the context sheet can be found on a drawing. A dirty plan with someone’s half readable description can be easily transferred and edited digitally. Bricks can be multiplied. A shade on the picture can be brightened, an unwanted bucket ‘patched’ off. Naturally, a blurry picture can never be sharpened to the extent, that it would look as properly made photograph. Yet, it will always contain INFORMATION.

Any information is better than no information. If someone claims: ‘either you do something perfectly or not at all’, without considering the circumstances, they are just clearly wrong. ‘Bad records’ are not an insult to the profession, as some archaeologists may see it. A phone picture of a cracked bowl only held in one piece by the fill inside, with someone’s hand supporting it most likely should not be suitable for a cover of a publication. It will definitely help a conservator, who will be glueing it later, though. A photograph of a vessel taken by a trainee, who forgot how to set the focus most likely will not end up on a poster promoting an exhibition. But may help to spot the particular artefact in the store, without checking all the labels. In a situation like these and many others, imperfect records are still very useful and should never be omitted or deleted.

And what when you need ‘pretty’ records for publicity? Well, that’s easy. You can always hire a professional finds photographer and illustrator. Check out our portfolio at http://www.arte-facts.co.uk/porfolio.

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