Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific


Making Room for the Past:

Determining significance in archaeological collections from historic sites


What makes an archaeological artefact significant?
How do we decide?
How many artefacts can we afford to keep?

This project will produce a model for assessing the scientific significance of artefacts from historic sites. The result of this study will be a doctoral thesis, and the development of a guide for conducting assessments of the scientific significance of archaeological collections, which will be available to relevant heritage and educational institutions.


Australia is facing a crisis in the management of archaeological collections. As a consequence of 1970s federal and state legislation protecting archaeological sites many hundreds of sites have been excavated and this has resulted in a rapidly increasing number of collections to be stored and conserved. It is no longer possible to preserve every object in perpetuity and informed decisions have to be made about what to curate.

Under the Victorian Government Heritage Act (1995), Heritage Victoria, the industry partner in this project, is the statutory authority overseeing the excavation of historic archaeological sites in Victoria. By default excavated collections have become the responsibility of Heritage Victoria as the government agency administering the legislation. A similar situation is seen in all states. It is important that a set of criteria are established which will permit systematic assessment of the scientific significance of the collections and provide the basis upon which museums and other repositories of historic artefacts can establish a Collections Policy to guide the composition and growth of collections.

Significance assessment is now an integral part of Australian heritage policy and practice. Nevertheless, there has to date been no formal treatment of the significance assessment of archaeological artefacts, how to design criteria for their assessment, nor practical examples of the application of such a methodology. Very few guidelines exist which deal with assessing the scientific significance of objects. The only example in Australia is a guide recently published by the Heritage Collections Council of Australia (2001) that provides a framework for the assessment of individual objects, and identifies as primary criteria historical, aesthetic and social or spiritual significance. However, with the exception of a brief note, the guide does not address the specific characteristics of archaeological collections that govern any assessment of their research potential assessment. Nor does the guide address issues of assessing collections as a whole rather than as individual objects.

Project aims

This research project will be the first to attempt to provide a national framework for assessing the research potential of archaeological collections from historic sites. The success of the research will depend on integrating the issues of academic or research archaeology with the needs of collection managers and conservators. The proposed research aims to bridge this professional distinction between archaeologists and curators, consulting with members of both disciplines to determine the best strategy for developing a model for assessing the research potential of archaeological collections.

Project outline

Stage 1

Literature review:
• Background to the problem and discussion of issues in the literature
• Identify core issues for archaeological and historical research

• With archaeologists, academics
• With heritage managers and museum professionals

Model development:
• Review of current models for assessing heritage significance
• Development of model criteria for assessing archaeological significance

Stage 2

Model testing:
• Sample of Heritage Victoria’s collections used to test model protocol on a variety of artefacts and materials (recovered from a range of contexts and conditions)
• Refining of model developed in Stage 1.
• Testing of model on additional collections interstate
• Writing of statements of significance for collections examined

Stage 3

• Evaluation of testing results
• Writing up of research findings as a doctoral dissertation
• Criteria published as a guide to assessing archaeological collections

If you have any questions or comments, suggestions or ideas, please contact:

Ilka Schacht
Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific,
Faculty of Arts, Deakin University
221 Burwood Highway,
Burwood, Victoria 3125
Telephone (03) 9251 7206
Fax: (03) 9251 7158

Ilka Schacht

Ilka Schacht as an Australian Postgraduate Award (APAI) funded researcher and PhD candidate, working on the ARC research project Making Room for the Past: Determining significance in archaeological collections from historic sites. Ilka holds a Masters of Archaeological Science in Archaeological Computing from Southampton University in the U.K and a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from the University of Queensland, where she majored in Classics and Ancient History.

After graduating from her Masters of Science degree, Ilka participated in excavations in the U.K and then returned to Australia, working with a colleague at the University of Queensland to research and build a CD-ROM of the antiquities collection held in the university’s antiquities museum.

Shortly thereafter, Ilka turned her attention to the archaeology of the Middle East, working for 2 years at the British Institute in Amman for Art and Archaeology (in Jordan) and then moving to Egypt. For the past 4 years Ilka has worked with the Theban Mapping Project, an Egyptological project at the American University in Cairo, renowned for its discovery and excavation of the tomb of the sons of Ramses II in the Valley of the Kings and the survey of the monuments of the west bank of Thebes, Luxor. Ilka was the coordinator for the production of the project’s multi award-winning website ( which documents in extreme detail, using a variety of media, the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and related sites and information. She was also responsible for developing and maintaining the project’s in-house archaeological and image databases, to which access is given on the project’s website.

Whilst in Egypt, Ilka took part in the excavation of Berenike, an important Roman harbour on the Red Sea Coast and, as a member of the North Kharga Oasis Project, carried out an hydrological survey of the previously unknown underground aqueducts of the Kharga Oasis in Egypt’s western desert.

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

15th January 2009