Marie Kondo, Books, Digital Media, and Archaeological Hoarding.

NSEAP my office
My office during the NSEAP era. All those bags had to go somewhere. 

David Anderson over at Forbes wrote an article about Marie Kondo and her KonMari Method.  He talked a little about the backlash Kondo got from her suggestion that people should only have 30 books, and how the internet lost its collective mind. The internet losing its mind is a common occurrence, so let’s set that aside except for  Anderson observing that this reaction proved Kondo’s point about the emotional attachments people have to the objects in their lives.

That very attachment, Anderson says, is what we as archaeologists study when it comes to materials from the past. It’s a perfect explination. It’s also why archaeology is so complicated, especially when it comes to storage.

There’s the old joke that as an archaeologist I study other people’s trash. Which is true, but isn’t the entire truth. I would never compare a burial site as trash, or a ceremonial site, etc. It’s also worth mentioning when I see an archaeologist say ‘trash’ it’s almost always with a little glimmer of interest. One person’s trash really is my Treasure. But it does show the weight we as archaeologists give the objects we find and curate, and also explains the rows upon rows of boxes we keep in basements, storage units, and storage shelves all over our academic world.

Archaeologists weighing, measuring, and recording shatter. 

Why do we keep all this stuff? The smallest piece of corroded metal, the smallest fracture of chert, every brick from a historical walkway, nails, bits of bottle glass, Formica chips, whiteware pottery sherds, every led bullet ever recovered from a historic battlefield. These objects possessed little or no emotional weight to the people of the past, but to an archaeologist, it could mean the difference between a wealthy homestead and a poor one, or a trendy ’50s household vs a thrifty one. Retouching chert tools speaks to resource availability and skill, and bullets tell the tails of lives lost.

My point is, we as archaeologists are putting emotional weight on the objects we find, which may or may not be in alignment with the emotional weight the original user put on them. Was this the trusted first bullet or the desperate last shot? Was this an heirloom plate broken by accident or the mismatch ugly duckling put down for the neighborhood stray? Were these bricks the family’s first proud upgrade representing their success, or the obligatory yard decoration expected of the wealthy?

Our own emotional weight explains why we keep everything we find, to the point where archaeology is having a crisis of space. We have more artifacts than we have room to store it. And it’s expensive to store what we have, things have to be kept in a certain way in according to the material it’s made from to keep it from degrading. Museums and Universities are running out of places to keep their growing collections, and the activity of CRM Archaeology is adding to the crisis. Most CRM companies are small and don’t keep the artifacts they collect. Those artifacts have to go somewhere, but where?

Which brings us to Digital Media.

Maria Kondo tells people to simply take a picture of things that they still hold dear, but no longer want to keep. A similar approach has been suggested to help with archaeology collections.

Unidentified Chert Group
A collection of chert debitage and finished tools. 

The problem here is, data takes up space. Even with shrinking file sizes and growing storage capacity, digital media takes up actual physical space. Sure, my lovely Kindel ebook holds almost as many digital books as I have on my physical shelves, but even my 128SD card is going to get full eventually. My GoPro creates hours of film that has to be moved from its 64SD card (seriously though these are chips not cards) to my 2T computer for storage. Even the internet exists on actual real space somewhere.

Anyone working with ArcGIS understands the size of GeoDatabases. The same can be said for 3D scans of, well, anything. Don’t forget all the PDF’s, .docx, .rtf, .jpeg, and .tiff files that are generated with every report that is written. I’ll even bet you forgot about MP3’s, MP4’s, and .wav files for audio and some video. These are just the popular file types. One of the challenges of digital archaeology is how do you store older files, older versions of current programs, and so on.

When it comes to digital media, space translates to money too. You have to buy the physical objects that hold the data, or you have to rent the virtual space to store your physical files somewhere else. The more data you have, the more expensive it gets.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to data storage in archaeology.

But how does this get back to KonMari and Archaeological Hoarding?

Look people, we got too much stuff.

Archaeologists and Students working on a small mountain of artifact bags. 

It’s coming to a critical point where we need to step back and KonMari our attachment to our collections. Rather than sparking joy though, we need to decide how best to get the most information from an object and then decided if it needs to be preserved. Do I need every bit of shatter from a lithic stone tool production site? Do I even need every single point? What about pottery? Glass? Nails?

I’m not saying the answer is easy. I’ve watched people do KonMari vids on YouTube and most of them cry at some point. I get it, I have several objects that I’d rather give a finger up than part with. So I get that going through our collections is going to be a painful experience and will leave many people with wounds. But the other option is we can’t keep collecting things now because we’re out of space. Personally, the second option is much more crippling than the first. Can you imagine putting archaeology on hold until more space can be created for storage? I can’t.

Digital archaeology is equally affected by this, the only benefit here is we can get a jump on it now before it becomes a crisis. Do I need every version of a PDF ever published? Probably not. Deciding which versions to keep though, that might be a difficult call to make.

Now, I’m sure I’ve ruffled a few feathers with this. So feel free to contact me in the comments, or via email. We need to have this discussion.

Follow Sara on Instagram and Twitter. She also hosts the Archaeological Fantasies Podcast and maintains the blog of the same name.


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