Animals in the archive: Exploring archival anomalies

Archive Number: 6430556
Carving on bench in St Mark’s Church, Brithdir.

Many people will tell you that one of the joys of archive research is discovering not the information and records you were looking for but the information you weren’t.  Often it will be unexpected material relating to the topic, place, or person you are researching; however sometimes it can be unlooked for records on a completely unrelated topic. 

Finding and exploring these can be very distracting; but they make archive research a fascinating adventure into the unknown.  This is just as true for archive staff, who are just as prone as researchers (perhaps more so!), to vanish down rabbit holes…

As most of you will be aware, the Royal Commission specialises in the study of Wales’ built historic environment, rather than the flora and fauna of its natural environment.  The National Monuments Record of Wales is our national archive for the historic environment of Wales.  It contains information, drawings, manuscripts, reports, photographs, digital records and more of over a hundred thousand archaeological sites, monuments, buildings and maritime sites in Wales.  You would not therefore expect to find any animals in the NMR; however, there are a number to be found if you look carefully.

I should, at this point, stress that by ‘animals in the NMR’ I mean photos and images of animals found in the archive files, NOT live animals roaming the archive stores.  Our archivists are very strict on the latter…

I can propose three, very good, reasons why there are a few animals to be found in the NMR:

Firstly, depictions of animals often form part of Wales’ historic environment, namely, carvings, wall paintings, sculptures and so forth.  These are therefore of interest to the Royal Commission and are included in the NMR as interesting features and details of historic buildings and other sites.

Secondly, there is what we might call the ‘incidental’ inclusion of animals in the NMR.  These are primarily in photographs of historic sites, often taken by the Commission’s own survey team, which happen to include animals. 

Cattle, sheep and horses are among the most common animals that sometimes make their way into the background or foreground of photographs of historic sites.  While they can sometimes be frustrating and obscure the actual or intended subject of the photo, they can also be very useful for researchers, for example, they can provide a sense of scale or an indication of the use or condition of the site. 

Animals can also form an integral part of a site’s purpose or interest, such as iconic native wildlife.  Indeed, in some instances it is difficult to tell if the animal(s) or the site is the main subject of the photo.  Very occasionally one gets the impression that the historic setting is the more incidental aspect! 

Finally, the third way that animals can find their way into the NMR is due to archival procedure.  The integrity of collections, sometimes referred to as respect des fonds is a key tenet of archival practice.  Many of the collections held in the NMR have been donated either by organisations or individuals.  Often these donations relate to a single historic site, e.g. from an archaeological survey.  However, some donations, especially bequests by individuals often cover a range of sites and areas.  In these cases, where a collection covers a range of subjects or topics, it is sometimes more appropriate that it is deposited with another archive e.g. The National Library of Wales or a county archive.  However, if the vast majority of the material, pertains to Wales’ historic environment, we will usually accept the entire donation in order to preserve the integrity of the collection, in line with our Collections Policy.  Allowing a small amount of otherwise irrelevant material into the archive, thus maintains the context as well as the original relationships of the records.

The principle of respect des fonds also accounts for the handful of examples of archive material in the NMRW relating to non-Welsh sites, including the images below from the Arthur Chater collection.

I hope these photos have demonstrated that, whether in the NMRW or another archive, the nature of archives ensures that you will come across the unusual and the unexpected.

The three reasons or categories I have suggested here are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor are they set in stone; however, they seem to fit all the instances I have found so far.  However, perhaps a simpler explanation is that Wales is a nation full of animals and animal lovers.

Rhodri E Lewis, Enquiries & Library Assistant

09/14/2021

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Carolyn Hunt
Carolyn Hunt
1 month ago

RE – “Archive Number: 6324667, Photograph of official with unspecified bird, probably a chough” – that’s definitely a chough, even though we can’t see the red beak and legs, it’s the only black bird with such a pronounced curve to the beak. Numbers were in steep decline, but thanks to careful management, are making a comeback – usually seen around coastal cliffs. Thanks for this article – very interesting, just one little question – is it possible to put the County to some of the less-obvious places please? For the geographically-challenged like myself, I never know whether they’re in reach… Read more »

Rhodri
Rhodri
28 days ago
Reply to  Carolyn Hunt

That’s very interesting about choughs, and I’m happy to hear my hunch was accurate! I’m glad you liked the article. The captions for the images are actually hyperlinks (the blue text), if you click on them it will take you through to the relevant site entry on Coflein which has more information including the county, grid reference and even a map.

Ceri Thompson
Ceri Thompson
1 month ago

Nice to see the colliery horse at Tower, however cats, and sometimes a donkey, were kept in underground colliery stables. However, I’ve never seen an image of either in spite of the large number of colliery related images in public collections. Anyone ever come across any?

Rhodri
Rhodri
28 days ago
Reply to  Ceri Thompson

I wasn’t previously aware of cats in collieries, however you’re quite right. All kinds of animals seem to have worked in collieries at one time or another. I think in many, or at least some instances the cats were feral which might partly explain the lack of photos. The only one I was able to find online was this: https://purrandroar.com/2016/01/30/cats-in-a-coal-mine/ But I’m sure there must be more in Mining museums’ collections.

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