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Professional responsibilities and practices

(photo) An archeologist catalogues and cleans every artifact recovered during an excavation.
An archeologist catalogues and cleans every artifact recovered during an excavation. Photo courtesy of Fort Vancouver, National Park Service.

A significant number of archeologists still do not acknowledge their responsibility for the long-term care of the collections they create. Collections management is often seen as a storage problem, not a process of ensuring the long-term care of and access to an irreplaceable bank of archeological objects, records, and data. Most archeologists are not taught about managing collections of material remains and associated records, including digital data, in classes, field schools, or as part of their professional continuing education. Importantly, the different classes of archeological material recovered involve different considerations for the practicing archeologist.

Unfortunately, when trained archeologists become interested in the research potential and care of collections, they are rarely encouraged to enter professional careers as curators, collection managers, conservators, and archivists. Some university programs actively discourage collections research for dissertations and theses. This state of affairs will not change until the archeological profession at large values and encourages the development of more jobs related to archeological collection management. A recent curation needs assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers found that only five of sixteen repositories had a full-time curator for their archeological collections (Bade and Lueck 1994).

(photo) Survey crew recording a site.
Survey crew recording a site. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Although 36 CFR 79 provides a minimal set of standards and guidelines for handling collections from federal and tribal lands, they do not provide step-by-step guidance for collections-oriented decision-making in the field and laboratory during different types of archeological work (e.g., survey, testing, data recovery). We saw in Section III that most of the major professional anthropological or archeological societies address the archeologist's responsibility for the long-term management and care of collections in their professional codes of ethics or conduct. Only one, the Society for Historic Archaeology, has published guidelines for good practices of curation. The Society for American Archaeology has recently established an advisory committee on curation, which should also address this issue.

NAGPRA has stimulated some important new professional practices that are noteworthy. Primary among them is consultation with Indian tribes, particularly concerning appropriate analytical procedures for specific types of objects and appropriate access and use rights to collections. Consultation is now done regularly when new materials are recovered and, increasingly, on existing collections.

Historic archeologists working in the U.S., on the other hand, may not consult with Native Americans depending on the research goals of their project. Yet they may become involved with other culture groups, such as African Americans, European Americans, and Hispanic Americans, whose heritage is directly tied to the resulting project collections. Professional practices involving consultation, public outreach, and education are therefore important for all archeologists.

The shortcomings in professional responsibilities, practices, and guidance related to archeological collections can be hindered by:

  • better education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels;
  • better interaction among archeologists, curators, and other repository staff;
  • more training and jobs for people with skills in both archeological field and laboratory work and in collections care.
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