Institute of Archaeology


Haggai Mor

Issues concerning the function and purpose of archaeological material collections


Email: h.mor@ucl.ac.uk
Section: Heritage Studies



Issues concerning the function and purpose of archaeological material collections

The last three decades saw an exponential growth in the number of pre-development field projects which, in combination with archaeologists' emphasis on the practice of 'preservation by record', have resulted in a staggering amount of material being generated which necessitates expensive curatorship so it can be kept in perpetuity for posterity.

A concomitant problem is a prevalent supposition within the archaeology sector that under the common law landowners have title to everything which is discovered in or attached to their land. The interpretation of this rule gave rise to the notion that title to the objects which archaeologists collect remains with the site landowner. This then means that archaeologists cannot transfer the material to museums because museums are not permitted to accept any object without also receiving title to it and it also means that archaeology units are reluctant to promote the use of the material for research purposes in case it is damaged or destroyed.

These legal issues negate the notion that archaeologists collect and keep these objects for the purpose of public benefit.

My research concerns the examination of these issues. I focus primarily on the legal status of archaeological material which is collected during development-driven fieldwork and the ethical necessity to demonstrate the public benefit of archaeologists' actions.

The problem is that the current rate of material accumulation is unsustainable in terms of providing appropriate conservation and curatorship of such vast quantities of object collections. Furthermore, in the absence of a clearly defined purpose for collecting and keeping these objects, the perpetual storage of the objects becomes harder to justify in terms of financial expenditure and ethical practices. How many boxes of archived material should be kept, for how long and precisely what for?


    • BSc, Archaeology, UCL IoA
    • MA, Artefacts Studies, UCL IoA