When the trowels are down, the trenches filled, and the report filed, it might seem that an excavation has come to an end. Archaeology is an inherently destructive science, and once something has been dug, there is no chance to do it again – for this reason, archaeologists will section sites and leave areas for the future, with its promise of better methods.

But what happens when archaeologists want to revisit previous work and see if they can they can learn something new? For questions like this, and so many others, archaeologists turn to the archives.

Archives conjure images of silent libraries, crackling papers, illegible handwriting, and dust. While all of these things can be true – especially the illegible handwriting – archives include so much more. There can be drawings, slides, samples, and reports, as well as letters, photographs, notebooks, and keepsakes…the options are endless! One of the best things about archaeology is that it touches on every aspect of human life, and so does its archive. 

When archaeologists go digging through the archives, they might be looking for background on a new project or to revise old results. Critically reviewing the data and results is essential to the research process. The archives include published reports; the Vindolanda Trust makes their reports freely available online, and anyone can evaluate the published data alongside the archaeologists’ interpretations.

Reports, ones published a half-century or more ago, might not include enough (or the right sort) of information. The archaeologists then go hunting for the original sources of the data – the notebooks from the trench, the drawings, the photographs, and any finds or samples preserved. Studying this material depends entirely on whether archive has been saved, organized, and made accessible. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the importance of these archives and many have been lost due to the cost of storage and maintenance.

The archives preserve more than just data, they also capture the social history surrounding the archaeology: who was present, what were they interested in, and how that shaped their interpretations. Sometimes details of the excavations might emerge in letters or photographs, but make it into published reports, and these sources can offer new and essential insights. In other cases, the personal relationships or historical context of the work, as documented in the archive, can help to explain an archaeologist’s particular focus on an area or topic in a report, and help to trace the transformation of the field.

For as many questions as it answers, the archaeological archive raises far more and the opportunities to keep digging are endless.