I love deleting email. As I work through my inbox there is the satisfying feeling of ticking tasks off my list. But I'm a Vandal (in the old Dark Age sense) - and so is everyone who empties their recycle bin; I'm no better than the person who kindled the fire in the Great Library of Alexandria, a treasure of the ancient world. Because among all the spam are the important messages - the historical evidence of the future. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain stepped off a plane waving a sheet of paper; in 2004 it would have been an email. I hope that we retain somewhere the emails between George Bush and Tony Blair on the eve of the Iraq War.
How will we write the history of archaeology in the 21st century? We've woken up to the need to safeguard the context database, the CAD plans, and the electronic site report, but what about the email correspondence that led to the project in the first place? What about the people involved? Many years ago, whilst researching for my PhD, I used the archive for the excavations of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Mucking in Essex. The most fascinating bits were not the context sheets or plans, but the site diaries recording day-to-day ephemera. The recipe for spam stew and the shopping list including a special order of two chickens for Christmas Dinner: a vivid insight into rescue archaeology in the early 1970s. More recently I've been working on a Viking cemetery in Derbyshire, first excavated in the 1940s. It was difficult to get a feel for the nature of the excavations from the brief published reports. However, the letters between the site directors, re-discovered in Repton School library, provided vital information about the dating of the site, an unpublished burial, and the anxieties of the Ministry of Public Works and Buildings inspectorate.
It's hard to find such insights in the ADS digital archives. In fact, people carefully remove personal correspondence and draft documents before they are deposited. In the aftermath of the positivist 'New Archaeology' and the false scientism of the 1970s, many excavators remove from their archive any trace of personal anecdote. In this issue of ADS News we explore several projects looking at the early history of archaeology, when people weren't afraid to record the personal aspects of fieldwork. For the sake of the future historians of archaeology we have a duty to save at least some of our email.