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Eloi Contesse

Management and preservation of archaeological documentation. A case study of archaeological archives in French speaking Switzerland

A survey has been conducted in the regional Departments for Archaeology of Western Switzerland to assess how Archaeologists see their own archives. Are they important in their eyes? Are they valuable enough to receive funds and human resources? What are the main challenges Archaeologists are facing concerning their Records? Such are the main questions at the core of this study. Rather than proposing concrete answers to actual problems, its aim is to create a debate on the management of archaeological documentation in Switzerland.

1. Introduction

This paper summarizes a study that I have presented for the Certificate in Archival and Information sciences at the University of Bern in April 2007. First, I would like to explain the reasons for the choice of the subject. As a student in Egyptology at the University of Geneva, I was interested in doing my Master's thesis on the documentation left by a Swiss archaeological team from a fieldwork of the UNESCO project for the Rescue of Nubia in the 1960s. My Professor told me that nothing interesting had been left unpublished.  As he told me this, I had the feeling that nobody had really gone through these archives and that in fact he couldn’t be really sure if anything worthwhile had been left untouched. As an archivist, I later understood that it is not an easy work to estimate the real value of archival documentation. I also discovered that archaeologists often considered archives as of no more value after the publication of an excavation. As such, I had the impression that archaeologists were not conscious of the importance of the documentation of the past excavations, thinking that all the main facts were surely published.

One can see that I have used here several times the term “feeling” or “impression”, and you would agree that it is not a serious way to look at a problem. That is the real point why I made this study, in order to see if these impressions were close to reality.

After having seen the complexity of the subject, even for a small territory like western Switzerland, I realized that my research could only be the beginning of a much larger research. What I am going to describe must be considered as a preliminary study.

2. Organization and funding

Switzerland is composed of 26 federal states, called “canton” in French. Presiding over these “cantons” is the Swiss confederation, which can be considered as the central power. In the fields falling under cantonal responsibility (such as Culture), the Confederation acts, as a rule, only if the Cantons fail to do their own job. Historically, very few cantons had legislation and/or offices that would care about archaeological sites and historical monuments. The Confederation had to manage these fields until modern legislation was passed in the Cantons and archaeologists were employed by the regional administrations. This happened from the 1950s until the 1970s. Since then, the Swiss Confederation acts only as financial support and management controller for the preservation of the sites of national importance. The consequence is that the main institutions in Archaeology in Switzerland are the Cantons Departments for Archaeology.

The main offices and their duties

Federal Commission for Monuments Preservation

Nowadays, it is the main organization at national level for the funding and supervision for the management and the preservation of the archaeological sites and monuments of national importance[1].

Federal  Archives of historic monuments

It is a small office whose main task is the management of the records of the Federal Commission for Historical Heritage, and also the Records coming from the time when the Confederation was responsible for archaeology. Surprisingly, this service has also the duty of supervision for the management of archaeological documentation in the regional Departments. This last duty is quite uncommon in Switzerland. As such, this Archive is the only institution of its kind which possesses a national importance, and which has some power over the way regional Departments manage documentation. On paper, this sounds good for Archaeological Documentation and would help for a national cooperation and improvement. However, in reality, Federal Archives for historic monuments have not enough human and financial resources to deal extensively with the management of their own Records[2].

Cantons’ Departments of Archaeology

Since the creation of adequate legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, archaeology is managed by the offices in the Cantons’ administrations[3]. Their main duties consist in maintaining the inventory and the preservation of the sites and in conducting the excavation when a site is at risk. For example, one of the main activities in Western Switzerland in the past two decades has been the management of preventive excavations during the building of new highways. It has produced a huge amount of documentation, which has still to be processed and published. At the level of the Cantons, we must cite two main problems.

   1. Human and financial resources are not sufficient. They are often given only for the excavation phase, but not for the processing and the publication phases. The documentation can lie long in the dust, while other excavations produce new Records. Therefore, in many cases the information consists only in non-processed archives and a short report written at the end of the excavation.
   2. In some cantons, the excavation phase is delegated to private consultants. This is always a problem for archivists. These private enterprises can only survive if they can continuously conduct new excavations. Therefore, they are accumulating non-processed Records in their warehouse until they received funds to publish it, which is not the common case.

Archaeologists vs. Documentation: what do they think of archives?

Archives? What does it mean?

The term of archives is not well understood everywhere. In academic institutes, I have been told twice that they did not possess any archives, although they had been accumulating a huge quantity of archaeological documentation. One of the reasons for this mistake is that scientific archives are not an issue in most universities. Managing documentation of past excavation is, in most cases, seen as a loss of time and money, which can be better spent in new research, or in a good scientific library with up-to-date information. As such, I would say that archives are often seen in universities as outdated information, even in Archaeology, where the value of recorded information is supposed to be permanent!

Documentation is important… but is no priority

Archaeology has to deal with small budgets. It invests principally in what is felt as the core tasks of the discipline : excavation and scientific communication (including publication and exhibition). At the end of my survey, I realized that archaeologists were aware of the importance of documentation: they know that they have to create reliable and permanent Records at the moment of the excavation. But they ignore what it means in practice to ensure a long-term access to a continuously growing amount of recorded information. Managing Records coming from past excavations is seen as a secondary task and receives very small amounts of money. This is one of the reasons why the digital problematic has not been dealt with, even if digital tools are being in use already for a long time.

As an example, I will use here the following case. In a canton possessing a site of European importance dating from the Iron Age, a new office uniting the regional Museum, the regional Department for Archaeology and also an academic institute for Prehistory has been created. At the same moment, the creation of a software managing all archaeological information was decided, being Records or artifacts, which seemed very promising, but the financial support was soon lacking and the software was not completed for the part which is managing the Records. The person responsible for the project was fired and the very modern office in a very modern building is now without any archivist and any software for the management of a large amount of documentation, all resources being put into the exhibition and management of artifacts (for the software project: Vaudou 2004)[4].

International situation on the field of Archaeological archives

I offer you a very short view of the international situation, with some insight of the subject in the European Union, United States, France, Germany, and finally United Kingdom. You would also find good projects elsewhere (especially in northern Europe), but it is not the purpose here to do a complete state-of-the-art.

It is not easy to find information concerning the management of archaeological documentation. It remains largely a field with few actors. If you go through the scientific literature, you will find several papers speaking of ancient excavations or the history of archaeology including the study of archives, but the question of how we preserve, process and disseminate archives is rarely dealt with. A good example is the research network AREA which focuses on the history of European archaeology. I was a little disappointed to see that this project produces very interesting ideas on the use of archives, but very rarely speaks of how we have to manage the documentation if we want to access its content (Schnapp, 2006). As a project enhancing the access to the documentation, ARENA (Archaeological Records of Europe Networked Access) is much more concerned by the practical questions of data preservation and archiving (Kenny & Richards, 2005).

In the United States, Keith Kintigh (Kintigh, 2006) developed a very interesting view of what we could call a Knowledge Management adapted to Archaeology.  The digitizing and disseminating through the Net of raw data from excavation is considered to be an answer to the accumulation of Records, which are very seldom published and not accessible. This would also permit studies at a much larger scale, if researchers can access information from all over a continent, being able to compare immediately data from a lot of different sites. Computer technology is seen as the key to the management of recorded information in archaeology.

In France, a much centralized country, it is interesting to see that the problem of the management of the documentation has been discussed at a regional level. This creates a debate that is close to reality and offers constructive answers (Deyber & Persignat, 2000; Balsamo, 2001). The “dépôt archéologique” (Archaeological warehouse) is seen as an ideal regional unit, managing at the same time the documentation and the artifacts. Meanwhile, Archaeologists are made aware of the importance of a professional management of the documentation to ensure a lasting access to recorded information (Brunet-Villatte et Danion, 2000, p. 269).

The German case is very interesting for us in Switzerland, as its administrative structure is close to ours. As in Switzerland, Archaeology is under the responsibility of the Länder, the federal states. As a response to the heterogeneity of the situation, an association of the Länders’ Departments of Archaeology has been created. One of its commissions is concerned with the questions of information systems and the preservation of access to the data produced by these systems. As such, the question of archiving seems to be seen mainly from the digital point of view[5].

The British response to the challenge of archaeological documentation has been for me a real surprise, as I saw that the question was an issue since at least three decades. The most impressive aspect is the way the ongoing discussion has considered the problem of the recorded information in Archaeology as a whole, in which archives have a place at the same level as publications. At the same time, the use of digital tools has been considered as an occasion to reorganize and rationalize the management of archaeological information. As an example, this following quotation made a great impression on me: “This should be the true use of digital archaeology: increasing the accuracy and understanding of the archaeology on site and at the same time increasing the quality of the data gathered for analysis and archiving” (Backhouse, 2006).  The Digital data survey of the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) in 1999 and the Publication User Needs Survey (PUNS report) in 2001 are for me the major examples to follow (Archaeological Data Service 1999; Jones et alii, 2001).

Perspectives in Switzerland

Before any consideration, I might say a word on my own situation. I have done this work outside any organization concerned with archaeology. I have studied the subject in my free time, without any support from the administration. That is why the perspectives I will show you here depend largely on the reactions of the archaeological community to my report. Nevertheless, I will develop here four aspects that are vital in my view.

1.      Lobbying

Nothing can be done if the archaeologists are not aware of the various advantages of a professional management of archaeological Records. We must show them that archives are a service that can help in facing the challenge of data preservation and analysis. Therefore, we must emphasize the improvements of their daily work through the creation of practical tools and services, rather than focusing on old archives.

2.      Strategies for digital data

As a leading project, a digital data survey following the example of the British Archaeological Data Service would surely be a successful way to obtain a better audience in the archaeological community. Nowadays, the Cantons’ Departments for Archaeology are wondering in which manner they are going to face the question of digital data. With one project at national level, it would be possible to create a single report useful for every administration and certainly less expensive than if every Canton decides to do its own survey.

3.      Cooperation

Resources at national level must be given to make cooperation possible between cantons. This could help the regional departments raise money for specific projects, to find the right information for the problems they face, or to develop common strategies. Actually, it is hard to find accurate information on the subject. The creation of a special unit in the Federal Archives for historic monuments would permit the collection and dissemination of information concerning it.

4.      Ethical issues in foreign excavations

The question of the documentation produced in excavation in foreign countries (mostly in southern Europe and the Near East) remains unsolved. As researchers in academic institutes have no legal obligations regarding the preservation and management of this kind of documentation, it happens that some archives are in a bad situation, even if they possess a high heritage value for the country in which the excavation has taken place. For me, this is first of all a moral issue. Speaking about the management of Records from foreign excavation is to speak of ethical obligations. It must be the responsibility of the Universities and Heritage funds to remind archaeologists going abroad that their duties consist not only in conducting a scientific excavation and achieving a publication, but also in preserving and making accessible the Records they have created.

As a final quotation, I want to present here the sentences of Julian D. Richards which translate the core of my thoughts:  “It is clear that […] archiving must be considered at the outset of a project,[…] and that we must provide adequate documentation to allow re-users to understand the context of our recorded observations […].We must also train future generations of archaeologists to apply skills of source criticism in their use of archival sources and, as the distinction between archiving and publication becomes blurred and both are seen as part of the dissemination strategy for our discoveries, we must ensure that adequate academic and professional credit is given for both.” (Richards, 2004).


ARCHAEOLOGICAL DATA SERVICE 1999, Strategies for Digital Data – Findings and recommendations from Digital Data in Archaeology: A Survey of User Needs, York, 1999, URL:

BACKHOUSE P. 2006, « Drowning in data ? Digital data in a British contracting unit », in : Thomas L. Evans & Patrick Daly (éd.), Digital Archaeology. Bridging method and theory, Oxon and New York : Routledge, p. 50-58.

BALSAMO I. 2001, Tri, sélection, conservation : quel patrimoine réunissant les actes de la table ronde organisée patrimoine les 23, 24 et 25 juin 1999, Paris.

BRUNET-VILLATTE F., DANION B. 2000, « Le traitement documentaire ou comment valoriser l’information archéologique », in : DEYBER-PERSIGNAT D., Le dépôt archéologique : conservation et gestion pour un projet scientifique et culturel. Assises nationales de la conservation archéologique. Bourges les 26, 27 et 28 novembre 1998, Bourges, p. 269-277.

CONTESSE E. 2007, Gestion et conservation de la documentation archéologique : les archives de l’archéologie en Suisse romande, Certificate thesis in Archival and Information Sciences, University of Bern, Switzerland.

DEYBER-PERSIGNAT D. 2000, Le dépôt archéologique : conservation et gestion pour un projet scientifique et culturel. Assises nationales de la conservation archéologique. Bourges les 26, 27 et 28 novembre 1998, Bourges

Kenny J., RICHARD J. D. 2005, “Pathways to a Shared European Information Infrastructur for Cultural Heritage”,  Internet Archaeology 18, URL:

KINTIGH K. 2006, « The promise and challenge of archaeological data integration », American Antiquity 71/3, p. 567-578.

JONES S.  et alii 2001, From The Ground Up – The Publication of Archaeological Projects: a user needs survey, URL:

RICHARDS J. D. 2004, “Online Archaeology: summary”, Internet Archaeology 15, URL:

SCHNAPP A. et alii 2006, «AREA, Archives de l’archéologie européenne: bilan et perspectives”, Les Nouvelles de l’INHA 25, p.2-4, URL :

[1] See the website, only in German, French or Italian:

[2] See the website:

[3] The website presents the links to all cantons departments official websites.

[4]              See also the website of the Latenium:

[5]              See the website of the Commission for Archaeology and Information Systems:; also the interesting Centre for Information and Documentation in the Archaeological Heritage Service of Saxony in Dresden: