Securing a Future for Maritime Archaeological Archives

The project was undertaken in three phases:

  •  Element One – Mapping Maritime Collection Areas
  •  Element Two – Review of Maritime Archaeological Archives and Access
  •  Element Three – Analysing Present and Assessing Future Archive Creation

Element One – Mapping Maritime Collection Areas

The aim of this element of the project was to understand how museum and archive repository collection policies address maritime archaeological archives and to quantify the areas that do not have facilities that accept such archives. This was a desk-based exercise that focused on the zone between the high water mark and the limit of terrestrial waters (12 nautical miles). A questionnaire was developed to assess whether museums and archive centres:

  • Have collection policies which include the marine zone.
  • Hold any maritime archives.
  • Have the facilities and/ or expertise to curate maritime archives.
  • Have ever been approached to accession maritime archives.

It was distributed to all public museums in England and Scotland.


Survey responses indicated that:

  • Only 17% of museum collection policies include maritime archaeological archives.
  • 64% of museum collection areas include the coastal and/or marine zone (although a large number of these are the coastal zone to the low water mark rather than the marine zone).
  • 29% of museums have been approached to accession maritime archaeological archives.
  • 41% of museums currently hold maritime archaeological archives.
  • 22% of museums actively collect maritime archaeological archives.
  • Museums which do not actively collect maritime archaeological archives were asked to provide reasons why, 51 (of 104) museums provided further information which indicated lack of collection was due to:
  • o Never been asked – 27%
    o Lack of remit – 20%
    o Lack of facilities – 14.4%
    o Lack of financial resources – 11.5%
    o Lack of expertise – 10.5%; and
  • Of the museums which do not collect maritime archaeological archives only 19 (18%) indicated they would collect if issues over why they do not collect were resolved.

Issues – Policy

  • There is an urgent need to determine and articulate roles and responsibilities for archaeological archives from the marine zone, on which future policy and best practice can be based. The current absence of clear routes for the deposition of maritime archaeological archives is exacerbated by a lack of clear policy from UK level to local and regional museums.
  • There is a need to define responsibility for areas of collection so these can be articulated within the policy and guidance.
  • There is a need to provide guidance on the definition of maritime archaeological archive and their potential component parts.

Issues – Practice

  • There are no receiving museums for large areas of the marine zone, meaning that archaeological best practice often cannot be adhered to.
  • There are no maritime reference collections or coordinated approach to collection.
  • Experience of larger maritime archaeological archives may make museum approaches in relation to policy and collection more positive.
  • Few archives from maritime archaeological investigations are currently being deposited, leading to a potential back-log problem.
  • The general response to developing capacity for maritime archaeological archives by museums was negative.

Actions required – Developing Policy, Guidance and Best Practice

  • Recognising the extent to which maritime cultural heritage is not included within current policy and practice and treating it as a priority in order to fulfil Government obligations to adhere to established best practice such as IfA Standards and Guidance and particularly in light of the adoption of the rules of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage as policy.
  • Urgent need to clarify the roles and remits of museums and archives in relation to the marine zone from the UK level, to the local and regional level.
  • Recognition that maritime archaeological archives may have special requirements or ‘differences’ from terrestrial archives that involve the development of appropriate responses and/or guidance;
  • Development of guidance notes for best practice.
  • Recognition that development of capacity for maritime archaeological archives will require the investment of resources.

Actions required – Developing Capacity: potential solutions

  • Expanding number of currently established coastal museums that could accession maritime archaeological archives, although many of the survey respondents indicated they would not be willing to collect maritime archaeological archives even if the resources were made available.
  • Developing national or specialist solutions that could include maritime archaeological archive resource centres or the expansion of the facilities and capacity of a currently established museum with maritime holdings that could house a specialist centre.

Element Two – Review of Maritime Archaeological Archives and Access

The aim of this part of the project was to establish where maritime archaeological archives are currently held and determine their accessibility. This substantial project element required a combination of desk based research, questionnaire development and direct contact with archive holders. Six key sectors of ‘archive holders’ were targeted: public museums, private collections, exhibitions and non-public museums, archaeological contractors, research and societies sector, Designated Wreck Site licensees and archaeologists, and other individuals such as those reporting recovery through the Receiver of Wreck.

The questionnaires sought to establish:

  • Where maritime archives are currently held and by whom.
  • How accessible the archives are.
  • The composition, size and extent of the archives (including nominal descriptive information about the storage/ condition of artefacts).

This was supplemented by meetings with respondents from the sectors to further quantify archives and collections.


Analysis of the results demonstrated a range of issues that have a direct impact on access and security. A number of recommendations for action to improve this situation have been put forward.

Quantity of undeposited archives

Key Facts: Detailed responses to the online survey revealed the following numbers of type of archive not currently residing within public museums or archives: Objects – 48,864; Paper – 172,168; Photographs – 153,191; Video – 1,420; Sample – 4,358; Digital – 191,145. Additional summary information included thousands more archive elements, as well as over 30,000 artefacts from the RoW Amnesty report that are held in private collections.
Action: Use results to underpin enhancement of maritime archaeological archiving capacity

Accessibility and security

Key Facts:

  • A small percentage of maritime archives are currently held within public museums and repositories.
  • Private museums and exhibitions play an important role in making archives accessible to the public.
  • A large percentage of maritime archives have very uncertain long-term security.
  • The full scale of archives not within public museums remains unquantified in detail.


  • Further quantification studies, where outcomes will enhance public access and security.
  • Development of research and reference collection priorities.
  • Development of acquisition approaches and appropriate resources.
  • Provision of interim archive measures.
  • Innovation in access.

Storage and curation:

Key Facts

  • Many archives are held in private collections which do not have ready access to advice on storage and curation, and operate outside of established guidelines on collections care.
  • Digital data poses particular storage and curation challenges.
  • Curation in terms of heritage management suffers from a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities for archives from the marine zone.

Actions: Improving storage and curation

  • Detailed review of storage and curation of a range of archives not within public museums, including examples from a number of sectors (such as protected wrecks, larger regional shipwreck exhibitions and archaeological contractors) to gain a more accurate picture of storage and curation conditions.
  • Review of sources of advice on marine archive storage and curation for private collections and exhibitions.
  • Work with Receiver of Wreck to promote storage and curation of marine recoveries while ownership is being established.
  • Review of current best practice in relation to digital data, strategies for long-term storage, copyright and licensing agreements and their applicability to a maritime context.

Actions: Curatorial and management framework

  • Clarity in relation to roles and responsibilities for archives within the marine zone that is clearly articulated to all heritage agencies, local authorities, museums, archives and those undertaking the investigations.
  • Curatorial input to include digital archiving is included within project briefs and conditions of consent which will allow it to be properly costed into tenders and to reach deposition.

Guidance, support and training

There is a need for a range of measures to develop guidance, support and training in relation to marine archives across the sectors. Again, the lack of clarity over responsibility means that no single organisation has promoted maritime archaeological archives and issues specifically related to them. Hence, it is now appropriate for all organisations and agencies involved with archaeology, museums and archives to review this situation.


  • The promotion of the AAF archive guidance (Brown 2007) and, where necessary, the development of further guidance clearly articulating the archiving process in relation to marine material, such as those being developed by the ADS for digital archive.
  • A review of current education and training within available courses from vocational through to post-graduate.
  • The involvement and consideration of all sectors currently producing maritime archives within the development of training, guidance and support.
  • Recognition that the provision of adequate support for all sectors during the process of improving the deposition of maritime archives will require resources.

Ownership, disposal and attrition of the seabed archive

Key Facts

  • The salvage system means that historic objects are treated as ‘lost property’ rather than heritage assets.
  • Regular, small scale recovery of artefacts from sites is gradually reducing the seabed archive with no consideration of the continued loss from historic assets.
  • It is common for artefacts to be recovered from the seabed with the prime motivation being profit from their sale.
  • Significant shipwreck collections have been dispersed through sale without consideration of the regional or national significance of the collections.


  •  The continued inclusion of historic wreck material within the salvage regime (Merchant Shipping Act 1995) should be kept under review.
  • Methods for encouraging the acquisition of historic material through the RoW system should be reviewed and developed.
  • Methods for reviewing the archaeological and historic significance of material, whether individual artefacts or collections, declared to the Receiver of Wreck should be assessed to ensure archive of regional and national importance is not being dispersed.

Research potential and developing coordination

Key Facts

  • Lack of coordinated collection of maritime archaeological archives has negatively affected the development of the discipline and related research interests.
  • Poor communication and integration between archaeology, maritime archaeology, museums and maritime museums is a barrier to developing maritime archaeological research and associated reference collections and centres of specialism.
  • Highly significant archives have been overlooked due to residing in private ownership or being difficult to access.
  • Without developing access to privately held collections maritime archaeological research and understanding will be hampered and remain poorly developed.


  • Review ways in which archives within private ownership (including RoW reported material) can be integrated within research programs and frameworks.
  • Promote the dataset from the 2001 RoW Amnesty as a source for research and for consideration during the development of management approaches.
  • Analysis of the data gathered for this project in terms of its research potential for ships and shipping of various periods.
  • Articulation of responsibility for championing maritime archaeological research, to enable better integration across maritime museum, maritime history and historic ships sectors and raise the profile of the maritime archives.

While it is not claimed that this survey was comprehensive of every archive it does provide a detailed snap-shot of the situation facing maritime archives and further underlines the urgency for action. The survey results have provided qualitative and quantitative data which highlight a wide range of issues affecting maritime archives.

Element Three – Analysing Present and Assessing Future Archive Creation

This project element aimed to establish the composition and level of archive creation now and in the future, in order to gauge curation needs. This involved desk-based research and interviews with a wide range of archive creators, curators and marine industry sector representatives.

The key archive creating sectors were surveyed to characterise:

  • The type of projects (eg recovery, survey, evaluation, excavation), and the number of projects represented.
  • The nature, components and scale of archives produced by each type of project undertaken.
  • The number of active and past projects.
  • The speed at which archive material is being created and relative volumes.
  • Expected future archive creation.

To examine the main mechanisms through which archives are being created, the types of project generating archives and to review future levels of archives creation interviews were undertaken with curators, regulators, marine industry sectors and seabed owners. This sought to establish:

  • Current levels of development, extraction and/- or construction work within the marine zone.
  • How archives are affected by current development and consenting frameworks.
  • Predictions for future expansion of work.
  • Planned large scale developments predicted to create archaeological archives or other expected spikes in development work.