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Dealing with the legacy

Lisa Brown, Rebecca Jones & Rod McCullagh

A 2000 year old weaving comb
Prior to the introduction of the National Planning Policy Guidelines for Archaeology and Planning in 1994, the bulk of excavations in Scotland were state-sponsored or conducted through private and university research activities. Before the formation of Historic Scotland in 1991, state-sponsored archaeological investigations in Scotland were mostly funded by the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments (IAM).

In the first three decades after the second World War, few archaeological excavations were well funded (one exception was the mid-1950s work in the Uists funded by the Ministry of Defence) and were instead impelled by private and university research ambitions to reach publication. From the mid-1970s onwards, such excavations were mainly ‘rescue’ in nature and were undertaken by IAM’s Central Excavation Unit (Scotland), the Urban Archaeology Unit, and by archaeologists recruited from universities, museums, local societies and from ad hoc groups of freelance archaeologists.

The working assumption, operating since the 1940s, was that all archaeologists were specialists who could bring projects to completion. Yet pressures of time, resources and other commitments on those excavators meant that many of these excavations did not reach publication stage – a legacy with which the sector has been grappling for decades.

Previous research

Since the 1970s, Historic Scotland (HS) and its predecessor bodies have attempted to evaluate the issue of publicly funded archaeological works that remain unpublished. The most recent assessment of the backlog, published in 1995 (Barclay & Owen 1995), was the most comprehensive. In addition to evaluating the scale of the problem and identifying the reasons for hiatus between fieldwork and publication, they offered possible solutions for clearing the backlog. Experiences in dealing with legacy projects from England and Wales were also presented, to provide a context to the Scottish situation and suggest a way forward.

The basis for this work was Historic Scotland’s project database, which contained, in 1994, the details for 1471 projects (ibid pp. 5). A systematic analysis was undertaken identifying those projects which had been published, those which were making progress towards publication, and those which did not merit publication (‘archive only’). Projects which deserved publication, but which had not yet achieved this, were also highlighted. This ‘traditionally backlogged’ category comprised 126 projects (ibid pp. 6).

Barclay and Owen concluded that active management was essential to help maintain the impetus towards completion (ibid pp. 6). Perhaps most pertinent was the decision to ‘manage the backlog project within the normal rescue programme’ (ibid pp. 7). This approach has subsequently helped to complete many of the backlogged projects identified in 1994 and it is one which continues to be utilised today.

What are we doing now?

Following a review of archaeology function in 2012, Historic Scotland recommenced an analysis of its unpublished funded projects in 2013. This builds on the foundation provided by Barclay & Owen 1995 and updates the definition, terminology and methodology of dealing with outstanding projects.

The current analysis attempts to avoid using the term ‘backlog’ because it attracts negative comment. In fact, the reasons for a delay in publication are multiple and for the most part are not the result of failings by the project manager; most are due to the way that archaeology was undertaken at that time.

However, to move forward there does need to be a guideline for an acceptable period between the completion of a project and its publication. For the current analysis, a period of 10 years is being used. This is an increase on the 7 years used by Barclay & Owen (1995), and brings HS policy in line with the Institute for Archaeologists’ Code of Conduct, principal 4, rule 4.4. Instead of referring to ‘current’ and ‘backlogged’, the following terminology is now used for categorising all projects administered through Historic Scotland’s Archaeology Programme:

Active: This term was initially used by Barclay & Owen to classify the reactivation of backlogged projects (1995, 6). It now widened to include all projects which are actively being worked on. This could mean that it has HS (or other) funding for the current year, or post-excavation work is being undertaken (e.g. finds analysis, illustration etc.), or the publication is being written / the author is in correspondence with the publisher. As part of active management by Historic Scotland, it is necessary that the grant recipient / project manager can demonstrate which stage of the process is currently being undertaken, in order that the project can be considered ‘active’.

Inactive: A project not currently being worked upon where HS has not agreed to stop the work. It is important that we maintain contact with the grant recipient to determine why a project has stalled and what we can do to help to remedy the situation.

Archive only: These are projects which do not merit publication as a journal article or monograph. This is not a judgement on quality – for some projects, publication may not be the intended outcome.

The task currently being undertaken is to assess each of the projects in the ‘inactive’ list individually, identifying which might actually be considered ‘archive only’ and which should be pursued further. This will be carried out in consultation with the grant recipient, project manager, colleagues within Historic Scotland and throughout the archaeology sector.

Creative approaches for moving forward

The final aim for the current project is to try and find the most appropriate outcome for each of the projects on the ‘inactive’ list, with the objective of clearing all projects.

Our initial thrust targets the original project managers or their executors, and / or the most obvious or available inheritor, aiming to establish whether the project can still be considered worthy of publication why the project stalled and help to find a way to re-activate their projects. Where there is no obvious owner or inheritor of a project, or where the condition or importance of the project archive are insufficient to merit pushing for publication, other options will be pursued.

For many, the major outcome will result in the project archive deposited in Scotland’s national archaeological archive, held by RCAHMS, and made accessible to the public through Canmore, and finds allocated through the Treasure Trove system. This should enable the conservation and accessibility of these assemblages of data for future use by researchers who will no doubt approach these projects from a different angle and will see more or new merit which our current position does not allow. Once projects have been archived, we are exploring further work on these by promoting their accessibility to undergraduate and post-graduate students to use as they (and their academic supervisors) see fit. We also hope to work with colleagues from across the sector to identify Scotland’s wider legacy of incomplete projects to see how we can collectively release locked knowledge for current and future generations.


Contact us

Archaeology Strategy Team
Heritage Management Directorate
Historic Scotland
Longmore House
Salisbury Place
Tel: +44 131 668 8811