Determining Research Significance in Archaeological Collections from Historic Sites

01st December 2009

Ilka Schacht

PhD, Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific, Deakin University, July 2008

This thesis presents a model for assessing the research significance of Australian historical archaeological collections. It responds to problems being experienced in Australia and elsewhere in the long-term preservation of increasing numbers of archaeological collections: a consequence of important heritage legislation requiring the excavation of sites at threat from proposed development works. A ‘curation crisis’ is identified in the inadequate recovery, documentation, and legislative protection of historical artefacts and in the insufficient resources for their storage, conservation, and management. This has resulted in threats to both the physical condition of excavated collections and their accessibility for research, thus impacting on their research significance.

After exploring the emergence and current context of these problems, the thesis proposes that assessing the research significance of historical archaeological collections is an important preliminary step that establishes a basis for making decisions about the long-term management of these collections.

It is widely assumed that the significance of archaeological collections is contingent upon the research questions they can address. However, debate in the archaeological literature has stressed the subjective nature of significance, suggesting that links between archaeological collections and archaeological questions are almost impossible to determine with certainty. This reasoning has handicapped the significance decision-making process and certainly contributes to the fact that archaeologists and curators rarely identify the significance of the artefact collections they excavate and manage. Another important contributing factor has been the low level of training in the responsibilities of archaeologists towards the collections they create and the value of these collections for research. This has all resulted in the underutilisation of the collections in research, making it difficult to justify their value, and long-term preservation, to funding bodies and the general public.

The study utilised a variety of methods to identify assessment criteria commonly perceived to impact on the significance of an artefact collection and then tested their relevance through the significance assessment of six Australian historical archaeological collections. The results of these assessments established that the criteria ‘rarity’, ‘representativeness’ and ‘condition’ have little impact on the research significance of a collection. Of most importance is establishing the diversity within a collection (based on the diversity of artefact materials, forms and diagnostic features) and the collections’ archaeological context. Factors that impact on these are the size of a collection, whether artefacts have been discarded from the collection, and the quality of the collection’s documentation.

The study puts to test long-held assumptions about what defines the research significance of archaeological collections. The thesis acknowledges that the significance of archaeological collections is inextricably linked with the research questions for which they can provide data. However, it stands apart from previous approaches by bringing focus to the physical, quantifiable attributes of artefacts and collections that enable them to provide data for future research regardless of the research topic. Also unlike previous approaches, the model presented does not attempt to quantify the degree of significance in a collection. The model can be used to determine which collections have greater research significance than others, but the threshold that will result in particular management decisions about the collections must be determined by the institutions conducting the assessments, according to their needs and resources.

Ilka Schacht
December 2009
Thesis Abstracts
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