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Deaccessioning

Deaccessioning of archeological material remains, including specimens and ecofacts, is a contentious issue among archeologists. They have been taught that every flake of stone and every piece of evidence is important (if well provenienced) to understanding past cultural activity. Therefore, archeologists are hesitant to throw anything out. Regular changes in science and the development of new analytical techniques are other reasons cited for not deaccessioning. In the last few decades, new techniques have yielded exciting new and valuable information from material remains that were previously deemed unimportant. It is difficult to determine what types of materials may become important in the future, so there is a concern that deaccessioning might result in the discard of some potentially important items.

(photo) Storage room with row after row of steel shelves filled with carefully packaged atifacts.
Bulk collection storage at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

The sheer volume of archeological collections in crowded repositories is now forcing the deaccessioning issue. The conservation ethic to preserve sites in situ (Lipe 1974) is just not enough to stem the volume of collections recovered. What will happen, however, must involve professional ethics and responsibilities and the need for standards and guidelines for decision-making. Should samples be culled in the field or lab in order to cut down on what goes to the repository? If so, how? Can parts of collections, which have already been accessioned, be deaccessioned and reorganized? How? What documentation standards are needed for the deaccessioning process of archeological collections? Although such standards may be modeled after current practices by museum professionals, particular consideration must be given to documenting any action that breaks up an existing collection as opposed to deaccessioning an isolated find or a single museum object.

Another set of issues that are rarely considered concern associated records. Should all associated records that have been accessioned be saved "in perpetuity"? How is the value of associated records determined in order to make such decisions? What about records and data in a myriad of digital formats, which require continual monitoring and migration over the years? Should it all be saved? It should be noted that, after careful analysis, professional archivists may dispose of duplicates and inappropriate records without undergoing standard deaccessioning procedures. Also, they sometimes use a statistical sampling strategy to dispose of records that exist in great numbers and are of low value, such as cancelled checks from a project's financial records.

Some of these problems may be solved through more education and training on the subject, by establishing professional standards or guidelines, and by encouraging interaction and input between archeologists and repositories about best practices.

Implementing NAGPRA has already forced archeologists, repositories, agencies, and others to work on deaccessioning issues, since repatriation is a specific reason to deaccession following specific criteria and procedures. Some of the ideas and procedures that have come out of that work may help in dealing with the deaccessioning issues for all archeological collections.

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