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Archiving archaeological materials: whose responsibility is it?

Archaeologists are portrayed in popular imagination as individuals with dirt-caked brows, hunched over in a trench, patiently digging away the sediments, revealing marvels from the past. While true to an extent, excavation is nonetheless only one characteristic of the discipline. Beyond the excavation is a long-drawn sequence of processes that archaeologists grapple with behind-the-scenes: cleaning, sorting, conserving, illustrating, photographing, cataloguing and studying the finds. As a custodian of the past, the archaeologist bears a heavy responsibility in caring for and maintaining archaeological collections. However, the archiving and curatorship of archaeological artefacts is a frequently overlooked aspect of the archaeological progress.

In the UK, archaeologists have the ethical and professional duty to ensure that the archaeological collection is looked after for posterity. In Singapore, the ownership of archaeological finds is unclear. There is no law addressing any antiquities recovered from either archaeological excavations or by chance. As such, there is no agency or institution in Singapore that serves as a central depository for archaeological materials. While select museums under the National Heritage Board (NHB) may occasionally accept a few items for exhibition purposes, these institutions hesitate over receiving the complete archaeological assemblage from an excavation project. Understandably, these institutions also do not have the necessary archaeological staff to handle and curate the collection. All this presents a conundrum for archaeologists in the country, as for the last three decades archaeologists have taken it upon themselves to look after the excavated materials, and this archive has grown over the years. Presently, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) has in its custody approximately 6 tons of artefacts from excavations dating back to 2004. Separately, another principal collection is held at the National University of Singapore.

In an attempt to answer the query of ‘whose responsibility is it?’ a dialogue on the future of the archaeological collection commenced with an ISEAS-NHB workshop on Archiving Archaeological Materials in late 2014, where heritage practitioners and archaeology specialists from the UK and Singapore debated and discussed the need for an archaeological archive. The workshop surmised that archaeologists and heritage institutions in Singapore all have a role to play in determining the fate of the archaeological collection or archive. In the immediate future, archaeologists as domain specialists will need to lead the way to develop the archiving protocols for Singapore. In the longer term, legislation addressing the ownership of antiquities, and the delegation of responsibility for their upkeep and care will need to be determined.

Artefact storage at the NSC Archaeology Unit, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. (Credit: Aaron Kao)

Meanwhile, at the NSC Archaeology Unit, the future is in the making. Since 2014, there have been post-excavation and collection management initiatives to demonstrate that archaeological archives are vital for both academic research and to safeguard a national collection for future researchers. With the provision of adequate resources and funding, the Archaeology Unit has plans to catalogue and care for the materials from excavations at the National Gallery Singapore, Victoria Concert Hall, Empress Place and other sites by 2024. This ambition is coupled with the production of useful research from the collection, including rolling out the publication of site reports as part of the documentary archive.

All this is contingent on the availability of adequate resources and funding. ISEAS looks forward to working closely with heritage agencies to collectively preserve the country’s archaeological collection.

A version of this article was first published in NSC Highlights Issue #7 (Dec 2017 – Feb 2018)

Papers from the 2014 ISEAS-NHB workshop Archiving Archaeological Materials are now published and available for download on https://tinyurl.com/auseries as NSC Archaeology Unit ‘Archaeology Report Series No. 7’.


Lim Chen Sian is an Associate Fellow of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute). His interests include the archaeology of colonial period (post-European contact) in Southeast Asia; material culture trends over the past millennium; settlement development; archaeological legislation; and public archaeology. The archaeological investigations at the National Art Gallery site (former Supreme Court and City Hall) in Singapore is just one of many projects he is working on this year. chensian@iseas.edu.sg

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