Archaeological heritage management has long been based on a preference for the principle of preservation of archaeology in situ. While this principle is sound in theory, in practice, we frequently only achieve mere retention in situ: the archaeology is left where it is, unexcavated and unrecorded, but is not actually protected against most of the real and present dangers it faces. The situation is made worse by the fact that many of our heritage management laws, policies, and practices have made the principle of ‘leaving it unexcavated’ a disciplinary dogma, especially so in Austria and Germany. Instead of realistically assessing the likely future fates of archaeology merely retained in situ, any kind of archaeological fieldwork, whether invasive or non-invasive, is treated as undesirable by the national and state heritage agencies, even if conducted to professional standards.
In this paper, I demonstrate that retention in situ does not lead to the best possible preservation of archaeology for future generations, but rather leads to near-total loss of most archaeology, especially archaeology in places unlikely to be threatened by development. I also demonstrate that the only real means of preserving archaeology as long as possible is not to retain in in situ, but to excavate as much and as rapidly as possible of any archaeology which cannot actually be preserved in situ. By increasing the amount that is excavated, the likely gains in archaeological information saved from total loss is massive and would benefit the study of archaeology immensely.
It is thus argued in this paper that there is an urgent need for significant change in archaeological heritage management law, policy, and practice. Since we cannot increase the amount we excavate arbitrarily due to the limited resources available to us, better preservation by professional record can only be achieved by training as many members of the interested public in archaeological skills. Once they have received such training, anyone who wants to should be encouraged and given license to excavate any archaeology which can currently only be retained, but not actively preserved, in situ.