Archaeological archives from sterile projects


A sterile archaeological project is one that produces nothing of evidential value.

Examples of sterile projects are sites truncated to the natural through recent development or clearance, or trenching that records nothing beyond topsoil, subsoil and features interpreted as producing nothing of evidential value. In such circumstances it is acceptable to apply a light-touch approach to archiving. This section sets out how to create an archaeological archive for a sterile project.

NOTE: Use of the term ‘sterile project’ is recommended because it relates specifically to this definition, but it is recognised that alternatives, such as ‘blank project’ or ‘blank site’ have previously been adopted. These terms are acceptable as long as they describe the project (not the archive) and meet the definition of producing nothing of evidential value.


All archaeological projects are planned in the expectation of producing something of evidential value. Project planning tasks such as the creation of a data management plan and agreement of a selection strategy should be carried out as a matter of course.

During the data collection or analysis stages, if relevant stakeholders have agreed that a project can be classified as sterile, the selection strategy may be modified to produce the appropriate archaeological archive.

The CIfA Selection Toolkit checklist aids the development of a selection strategy. All the tasks within the selection strategy checklist are relevant for a sterile project, although some will be significantly reduced. The Toolkit also provides an example of a completed checklist for a sterile project. See the Downloads section for the checklist and example documents.


By definition, a sterile project will not produce collected material, so the archive will be entirely documentary and likely to be mainly in digital form.

The archive compilation process should follow current standards, with the application of a selection strategy and data management plan as agreed at project planning and developed through the course of the project, in line with the requirements of the project lead, the relevant collecting institution and national and local planning policies and guidance.

The working project archive from a sterile project could include

  • project brief/project design
  • WSI, including selection strategy
  • data management plan
  • descriptive data (eg soil layer records)
  • spatial data (eg location plans)
  • drawings (eg trench plans)
  • additional reports and data such as geophysical survey
  • a site/event report

All elements of the working project archive are subject to inclusion in the preserved archaeological archive following application of the selection strategy. There is no expectation that all elements of the working project archive will require curation in the preserved archaeological archive but selection should be subject to the requirements of planning authorities, project leads and collecting institutions.

The preserved archaeological archive for a sterile project can take the form of a single digital document that incorporates all the relevant elements from the working project archive.


Where the archaeological archive comprises a single digital document, curation should be in line with local or national guidelines or requirements. In Scotland this would be with HES; in Wales with RCAHMW and in Northern Ireland with HED. In England, the ADS is currently the only Trusted Digital Repository that accepts archaeological archives. This document can be uploaded to OASIS as a means of submitting it for curation by the ADS. A document uploaded to OASIS is not preserved until it has been released into the ADS library, from where it will be curated.

The application of the selection strategy may result in the local collecting institution (eg a regional museum) wishing to curate individual elements from the working project archive (eg site drawings). In such cases, the preserved archive will be compiled in accordance with their own standards for archive deposition.

The project report should also be submitted to the HER.

Archaeological Archive

All records and materials recovered during an archaeological project and identified for long-term preservation, including artefacts, ecofacts and other environmental remains, waste products, scientific samples and also written and visual documentation in paper, film and digital form (Perrin et al 2014, 20).

Archaeological Project

Any programme of work that involves the collection and/or production of information about an archaeological site, assemblage or object in any environment, including in the field, under water, at a desk or in a laboratory. Examples of an archaeological project include: intrusive projects such as excavation, field evaluation, watching brief, surface recovery and the destructive analysis of objects; non-intrusive projects such as landscape or building survey, aerial survey, remote sensing, off-site research such as desk-based assessment and the recording of objects or object assemblages (Perrin et al 2014, 20).

One product of an archaeological project will be an archaeological archive.


Collected material

Materials recovered during the data gathering phase of a project and collected for appraisal and/or analysis.

Collecting Institution

Receives an Archaeological Archive from the Depositor for long-term curatorial care.

Data Management Plan

A data management plan, or DMP, is a document which describes how you are planning to manage the data gathered through the delivery of a project, and what will happen to that data (eg. plans for sharing and preservation) once the project is complete.

Evidential value

Evidential value derives from the potential of a place to yield evidence about past human activity.

Physical remains of past human activity are the primary source of evidence about the substance and evolution of places, and of the people and cultures that made them. These remains are part of a record of the past that begins with traces of early humans and continues to be created and destroyed. Their evidential value is proportionate to their potential to contribute to people’s understanding of the past.

In the absence of written records, the material record, particularly archaeological deposits, provides the only source of evidence about the distant past. Age is therefore a strong indicator of relative evidential value, but is not paramount, since the material record is the primary source of evidence about poorly documented aspects of any period. Geology, landforms, species and habitats similarly have value as sources of information about the evolution of the planet and life upon it.

Evidential value derives from the physical remains or genetic lines that have been inherited from the past. The ability to understand and interpret the evidence tends to be diminished in proportion to the extent of its removal or replacement.

(Historic England 2008, sections 35–38)

Project Lead

The individual(s) who initiates and/or monitors the Archaeological Project, to ensure it is successfully completed, often in a project assurance capacity on behalf of a planning or funding organisation e.g. Local Authority Archaeologist, Planning Archaeologist, National Heritage Body, Research Institution, Community Group.


The process of applying a selection strategy to a working project archive to determine which archive components, including documents, digital files and material objects, should be included in the archaeological archive. The aim of selection is to ensure that the archaeological archive contains everything required to establish the significance of the project and support future research, outreach, engagement, display and learning activities.

Selection Strategy

The methodology detailing the project-specific selection process, agreed by all stakeholders, that will be applied to the working project archive in order to create the archaeological archive.

The data management plan is a separate document to the selection strategy but should be developed in conjunction with it. Both documents should be included in pre-project documentation (eg project design and/or WSI).


The individuals or institutions with a stake in the formulation and implementation of the Selection Strategy. For example; the contracting unit or individual/group (e.g. universities and community groups) undertaking the project, the Collecting Institution accepting the Archaeological Archive, representatives of the developers or landowners, the Project Executive and Specialists working on the project.

Working Project Archive

The records and materials gathered during an archaeological project and retained for analysis prior to selection for the archaeological archive.