Japan’s rich past is of course a national treasure, but the sheer volume of items to be cared for and preserved for future generations can be overwhelming.

Japanese archaeology faces such a challenge as it tries, in an age of limited budgets, to protect and restore ancient sites, catalog and study dug-up artifacts, and simply manage to store the mounds of unearthed pottery shards.

The Cultural Properties Protection Act was strengthened in 1975, but by 1997 the number of excavated items had so multiplied that the Agency for Cultural Affairs said unearthed items not meriting preservation could be reburied or discarded after being carefully recorded.

However, as the Asahi Shimbun reported (Dec. 24), those involved are reluctant to discard any precious fragment from the past, especially since it is impossible to predict whether an artifact may provide valuable clues in the future when new research methods are developed.

Thus, as of the end of the 2008 fiscal year, some 7.63 million boxes (each box measuring 60 cm by 40 cm by 15 cm) of artifacts were in storage throughout Japan and increasing at the rate of over 100,000 boxes annually. And in November 2009, local authorities in Kashiba city in Nara Prefecture came under fire when it became known that they had reburied more than 20 tons of excavated tiles in “underground storage.”

A similar problem of materials management is now challenging the Japanese Archaeological Association (JAA). It has archived some 57,000 documents, mostly excavation reports and local archaeology-related publications, that it has received as donations since the JAA was founded in 1948. Since few people were using the collection, the board of directors decided to give it away to a suitable institution.

In the end, however, the only serious offer the board received came from England — from the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Opposition then arose within the JAA and, at a special session held last October, the vote was 922 in favor of the transfer vs. 1,111 opposed, leaving the future of the archive up in the air.

What is clear in both cases is that it is not enough simply to accumulate archaeological materials, as their full value will not be realized without professional evaluation and management.

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