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MANAGING ARCHEOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS 4. TODAY'S KEY ISSUES

Introduction

(photo) Archeological artifacts inappropriately placed in plastic bags and stored in a cigar box. Inappropriate packing and packaging of archeological collections. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

The archeological curation crisis itself, and the debate and concern about it, came to light in the mid-to-late 1970s. Studies conducted found that, due to inadequate care, collections were deteriorating, inaccessible, and lacked security. Such conditions were, in part, a result of the "beliefs" among archeologists that excavation and fieldwork were more important than curation, and collections care was solely the job of museum professionals, not professional archeologists. Furthermore, the curation problem was exacerbated when research and data recovery was conducted by archeologists in universities or CRM firms that did not have either proper facilities for collections care or training in that important activity. Issues of ownership also compounded problems since some researchers thought that what they dug up was their own property, or at least their "intellectual" property. As such, they could keep indefinitely the material remains and associated records to conduct their research.

Several major factors contributed to the crisis. One was the rapid influx of collections from contract archeology, due to the laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s (see previous section). Another was the increasing number of material classes collected, such as flotation and soil samples, due to new analytical techniques and research questions. At the same time, there was little or no increase in funds or space for collections management and care. Another problem that has been recognized more recently is the decline in the life expectancy and durability of the media used to record archeological sites and recovered data, including paper, inks, color photography, and digital records. These and other factors contributed to the problems we face today.

Currently, there are a number of issues stemming from the crisis that are starting to be addressed by archeologists, federal and state agencies, culturally affiliated groups, repositories, and others. Many of these issues are outlined in the following sub-sections and then elaborated upon in subsequent sections.

Ownership

(photo) Pottery vessels arranged by type and stored on sturdy steel shelving.
Whole vessel storage at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

 

There are a wide range of owners of archeological collections in the U.S. These include federal and state agencies, museums and repositories, archives, tribes, universities, and private land owners. Unfortunately, there is a significant number of collections that have no available information on exactly who owns them and, therefore, who is responsible for their long-term care. Many repositories have catalogs and/or inventories that contain useful information on the research value of the collections they house, but no information on ownership (Ferguson and Giesen 1999).

Ownership responsibility for land-managing federal agencies is identified in the uniform regulations implementing ARPA and, for all federal agencies and federally recognized tribes, in 36 CFR 79. Many states have laws that identify state ownership of collections recovered from state lands. University museums and other types of repositories become owners of archeological collections by conducting field research through a process that clearly assigns ownership or through the acquisition of collections upon transfer of title (see Section VII). When archeological research is conducted on private land, the land owner has first rights to the collections unless a signed agreement transfers ownership to a responsible party, preferably a repository that meets the standards of 36 CFR Part 79.

Although ownership of research collections recovered by university-based archeologists and their students may seem to go to the researcher(s), due to the length of time the collection is in their possession, this is rarely the case. If the project was conducted on federal, state, tribal or community land through a permitting process, the collection usually belongs to the agency or organization that owns or administers the land. If the project was conducted on private land, the land owner has first rights to the recovered collections unless a signed agreement transfers ownership to the researcher or to a repository set up by the researcher.

CRM companies do not own collections generated from contracted projects. Instead, the organization that contracted the project, such as a federal, state, tribal or community agency or a private land owner (including developers), owns the resulting collections. The contract agreement should clearly state who owns the resulting collections and has copyright and other intellectual property rights to the associated records.

A primary responsibility of ownership involves handling long-term care, which involves providing and paying for curatorial and archival services. For many years non-federal repositories housed federal collections at little or no cost to the owner. It is likely that similar relationships between state agencies and non-state repositories were set up for collections made on state land. In return, the repository had unhindered access to those collections for research, interpretation, educational programming, and exhibits. The ever increasing costs of long-term care, stagnant or decreasing budgets of many repositories, and responsibilities related to NAGPRA have forced repositories to try to identify the collection owners and urge them to pay for the significant collections management services provided.

Ownership is complicated, however, when multiple agencies at the federal, state, tribal, community level or any combination thereof cooperate on a project. Because of the high costs of management and care, the group may dispute over who owns the collection. Eventually ownership may be determined by which organization owned the largest portion of land or which one had primary responsibility for financing the project. If ownership of a project collection is divided up between several entities, which is definitely not desirable, the different parts may be curated in more than one repository. If the different parts are curated together, however, the care-taking repository may have to comply with different collections management standards for each owner.

Furthermore, ownership of museum property may change when the ownership of the land changes on which a collection was recovered. If the repository that cares for the collection is not notified of an official transfer of owner, determination of a collection's current ownership may be difficult as time passes.

Other issues over ownership have come about with the passage and implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Indian tribes now have rights to some objects from federal collections as defined in the Act. Determining which tribe may have rightful ownership due to its cultural affiliation with Native American human remains or other cultural items covered by NAGPRA has been a challenge for many repositories.

Costs

(photo) Collections technologist processing artifacts.
Artifact processing at the Archeological Collections Stabilization Laboratory, Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District's Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archeological Collections. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

The costs related to the long-term care of archeological collections are not insignificant. Unfortunately, little money has been budgeted for collections management and care during project planning over decades of archeological work. The lack of line item budgeting for curation was especially problematic after the late '70s when CRM legislation resulted in enormous numbers of new collections. Although 36 CFR 79 placed the responsibility of paying for the care of federal collections on the federal agency that owns the collection, adequate financial support has not been regularly forthcoming since 1990. In the meantime, many repositories have instigated fees for the long-term care of federal, tribal, state, and local collections they do not own.

As curation fees proliferate across the U.S., it is difficult for agency cultural resources managers, CRM company managers and principal investigators, and others who handle the budgets for archeological projects and resources management to understand the costs of curation. This is because of the great variety of fees charged, how the fees are determined, and the variety of services offered for a fee, such as initial processing and long-term care of a new collection, and inspection, rehabilitation, and conservation of an existing collection. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine if the services provided meet the standards set forth in 36 CFR 79 or similar state and local regulations and policies.

Fortunately, we are beginning to identify the variation of costs, which may eventually lead to some standardization of how fees are set and increased across the U.S. For example, some state and federal repositories do not charge curation fees, especially for their own collections; yet some do. Some repositories charge fees by the cubic foot for material remains and by the linear foot for records, while other charge by a variety of box sizes or by drawer space. A few repositories charge by the number of staff hours involved in processing the collection. Some charge fees for processing and long-term care for "in-perpetuity", while others are beginning to charge annual fees. Costs can vary by geographic region, the number of available repositories in an area, or other criteria.

The various factors by which repositories devise their fee structure include:

When a comprehensive review of all the costs is undertaken, the fees charged invariably do not cover the actual costs of the initial processing and long-term care of a collection "in-perpetuity". That amount is too high for virtually all archeological project budgets. Furthermore, the real costs of professional conservation and archival work on archeological collections are just beginning to be fully understood and appreciated by both archeologists and repository staff. For example, conservation work on submerged archeological resources can be enormous when full consideration is given to the professional expertise, necessary equipment, and space required. Also, archeologists' widespread use of short-lived media, such as color photographs, low quality paper, and digital data, for field and lab records is now posing significant challenges for archivists and conservators. Reproduction of deteriorating photos, videos or audio tapes, rehousing of records in appropriate storage containers and environments, developing an infrastructure for managing and migrating digital data, and creating finding aids to facilitate access to the records all have significant costs.

Furthermore, the costs of curation and the adoption of curation fees by many repositories seem to have affected, both positively and negatively, archeological field practices. A 1997-98 informal survey by the National Park Service yielded information on at least two types of effects (Childs 1998). One is the condition of the collections at the time of receipt by a repository, including:

The informal survey also detected some effects on field practices, including:

All of this information makes it clear that better control over and predictability of the costs of collections management is critical in the future. This can be facilitated by developing methods and practices to standardize how curation fees are determined. Recently, some effort has focused on the advantages of adopting standardized storage box sizes by repositories (Kodack 1998). It is also critical to develop a standardized set of activities, materials, and professional expertise by which a repository calculates its different fees for initial collection processing, conservation, archiving, rehabilitation, etc. Efforts such as these will help contractors, CRM managers, and professional archeologists to reasonably predict curation costs, budget them into their projects, and compare curation costs at different repositories.

Standards for care and management

(photo) Collections in temporary storage awaiting repackaging.
Collections in temporary storage awaiting repackaging. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

 

The need for standards for the long-term care and management of archeological collections has been recognized since the late 1970s, largely because significant differences in practice and staffing existed among repositories. Few guidelines existed to aid archeologists and repository staff until 1990 when the issuance of 36 CFR 79 set up a minimum set of standards for federal agencies, tribes, and repositories. Over the last decade, some federal, tribal, state, and local agencies have used these standards as a foundation for developing more detailed policies and guidelines for the long-term care and management of their own collections.

Although an important beginning, 36 CFR 79 does not address several key issues and needs. They do not provide specific requirements for inventorying either material remains or associated records. They do not institute a system to certify repositories that meet the standards of 36 CFR 79 or establish deadlines and enforcement protocols for bringing repositories up to standards. Nor do they set up a grant program to facilitate any of these latter efforts.

Some differences in the execution of standards have caused headaches for both the owners of collections and the care-giving repositories. Repositories are sometimes faced with different collection management standards that are required by different agencies. As well, federal and state agencies may have collections in many repositories, each following different levels of standards. As discussed in Section III, there are many differences in the standards and policies used by states, tribes, universities, and museums across the U.S.

Although 36 CFR 79 focuses on standards for the care and management of material remains, it also provides some standards for associated records and reports. It is important to recognize, however, that professional archival standards for the care and management of archeological records are not fully considered in 36 CFR 79. For example, there are a variety of different media of records (e.g., paper; photographic negative, slide, and print; audio and video tape; motion picture) and archivists have standards of care for each. Archivists also have begun to develop appropriate standards for the long-term management of digital data, which have become a significant component of archeological records in recent years. Unfortunately, since 36 CFR 79 was developed over ten years ago, the care and management of digital data is not addressed.

Also of importance is access to the associated records of archeological projects. The regulations do not cover the standardization of document finding aids for optimal use by research archeologists, managers, interpreters, culturally affiliated groups, and the general public. The Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records (CoPAR), however, is working on increasing access to such records.

Conservation and heritage interests

There are several key issues dealing with the conservation of archeological material remains and associated records that are gaining attention, especially among the culture groups with heritage interests in existing collections.

One issue involves the identification, documentation, and risk management of chemical pesticides and preservatives once used on objects and records, and which now remain as hazardous residues. In particular, arsenic and mercury salts were used decades ago to halt or prevent damage by a variety of pests to organic items, such as baskets and other fibers, cloth, wood, or paper. Unfortunately, non-organic items may have been treated as well. More unfortunately, most repositories did not record pesticide and preservative treatments of individual objects, which would help in a program of detoxification today.

As efforts increase to make collections more accessible to the public, researchers, and culturally affiliated groups, attention to the potentially harmful effects of these chemical residues is critical and is being pursued (Odegaard 2000). This need is highlighted in the NAGPRA regulations (43 CFR Part 10.10(e)) that state:

Conservators, therefore, are researching ways to detect contaminated objects, to identify the source and quantity of contamination, and to handle detoxification. They are beginning to work with tribal communities, in particular, to identify potential health risks as objects are returned for long-term care, restoration, and/or active use.

A related issue involves the need for greater communication between repository conservators and culturally affiliated groups over the care and conservation of objects that may still have an active function in the culture. Conservators are learning to reach the best compromise between the most appropriate conservation solutions and special cultural requirements, such as appropriate positioning of objects, appropriate support materials, use of housings that do not seal fully, or the need to conduct periodic rituals that may introduce new contaminants.

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:

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.

Information and records management

(photo) Expandable paperboard folder overstuffed with various archeological records.
Inappropriate packing of archeological associated records. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Several serious issues currently exist concerning the management of the associated records created during a project, and the creation and management of information that document the long-term storage and care of a collection. It was not until the enactment of ARPA in 1979 that the records associated with an archeological project were recognized as an integral part of a collection. In fact, sometimes field notes, photos, and maps make up an entire collection, particularly for survey projects that do not yield any materials remains.

36 CFR Part 79 has helped focus some attention in the last decade on the importance of both the records associated with an archeological project and the records associated with the management of an archeological collection. The regulations mandate that: 1) records related to federal projects are highly valuable and must be kept with the material remains; 2) the federal agency is responsible for the administrative records of its collections (e.g., Requests for Proposals, contracts, budgets), and 3) the repository is responsible for long-term care of all the associated records in a collection. Many state and local agencies have followed the federal lead and require the long-term care and management of these project records. Unfortunately, 36 CFR Part 79 does not list what types of materials constitute associated records. Therefore, the regulations do not acknowledge that digital data and records are a growing part of the critical documentation created during an archeological project and have unique problems of storage and long-term accessibility that need careful consideration.

Responsibilities of archeologists

Despite the regulations and policies developed in recent years, many of the records associated with archeological projects and the resulting collections, both in the field and out of the field, have been poorly collected and managed. Problems seem to begin with archeologists' poor understanding of their responsibilities toward the associated records they create and the long-term preservation of those records. Significant improvements could be made if:

Notably, submission of records can pose a problem for archeologists who actively use them, particularly when writing books and articles, lecturing, and conducting other professional activities. Therefore, in some cases, secondary records, such as correspondence, analytical records, draft manuscripts, and auxiliary research notes, may accumulate over time. Archeologists must then remember to add these records to an accessioned collection as they are able.

Responsibilities of repositories

Management problems also exist in repositories, especially those without an archives or professional archivists on staff. In cases well documented by Meyers and Trimble (1993), the material remains and associated records have been stored in completely different facilities, often hundreds of miles away. This practice makes it impossible to simultaneously study the material remains and the contextual information about those remains that exist in the records.

Other problems arise due to poor decisions about the security and safe-keeping of records from fire, flood, and other disasters, which have resulted in their destruction, deterioration, loss, or inappropriate disposal. Professional archival standards and practices for saving existing archeological records and preventing the loss of new records that need to be implemented include:

The records management task of ensuring access to the contents of associated records affects the ultimate value and importance of a collection of material remains and records for research, exhibition, and public interpretation, as well as legal proof of work accomplished. In turn, accessibility to a collection depends on a system of accountability, most typically a finding aid (e.g., guide, card catalog, or inventory of the collection's contents). Standard archival finding aids include a project history, dates between which the records were created, collection size and document types, and arrangement (see Section VIII for more related information).

For years, useable inventories and other finding aids of archeological collections either were not created by the care-giving repository or were not regularly updated after creation. Several surveys found that basic catalog lists and inventories with storage information were lacking for both material remains and records, especially for federal collections. Furthermore, specific information for accountability purposes were missing on a collection's exact storage location(s), what it contains, the condition of its contents, the contents and location of its associated records and research reports, and who owns any associated copyrights. Although the creation and maintenance of collection finding aids, especially inventories, is improving dramatically, they still do not exist or have not been updated for many old collections.

Furthermore, ownership of copyrights and other intellectual property rights related to the associated records of archeological projects requires responsible management. Otherwise, the result may be lawsuits against the repository.

Finally, the practices of both information management and records management are changing dramatically with advancements in computer and digital technology. Computer hardware and software allow easier and more robust data management, although systems can sometimes be expensive, quickly become obsolete and need migration to newer systems, and require particular staff expertise for their development and maintenance. Archeologists, agency staff, and repository staff, including archivists, have to find a way to keep the variety of records up-to-date and accessible through the ever advancing technologies. Many of these issues are being tackled in the U.S. by the Society of American Archivists and the American Association of Museums, and by the Arts and Humanities Data Service in the United Kingdom.

Another essential aspect of digital data management is defining and using standards. This includes standards on record or file format, data content (terminology), and data elements. The use of standard terminology helps to ensure that information is consistent and comparable throughout a repository. Data standards should be flexible enough to be applicable to all related objects and records and all actions. Periodic review and revision of these standards is also important. Information about data standardization for collections and recommended data standards may be found through the International Documentation Committee of the International Council of Museums (CIDOC).

Growth management

(photo) Collapsing stacks of cardboard boxes fill the aisle of a collections storage room.
Overcrowded storage and crushed boxes. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Most archeological collections in the U.S. have not been amassed in a systematic way. For years, collecting was based on individual researchers' interests, or on the need to salvage sites before development occurred. These collecting procedures, which are mostly random, have resulted in a huge national collection that represents only some of America's archeological resources. Larger, "more exciting" sites are disproportionately represented. Small lithic scatters found during a survey, for example, may not be collected at all. In fact, selective collecting is now being encouraged by some agencies in order to reduce the number and size of collections that need to be managed (see Section III). Until recently, little planning effort has focused on ensuring that the collections across the nation truly represent the known archeological record and provide maximum value for future research, interpretation, education, and heritage needs.

The issue of growth management then is to try to involve key stakeholders (e.g., archeologists, repository staff, affiliated culture groups, interested public) in the creation and execution of a systematic collecting strategy at the national or, more feasibly, the regional or state level. Such a strategy can help archeologists fill interpretive gaps in the archeological record, while justifying the need to properly curate and manage the collections that are saved.

A critical step, however, in creating a regional or state collecting strategy is to figure out what the existing collections, both the material remains and associated records, contain. How does information that can be gleaned from the existing collections relate to what is already known about the archeological record? What condition are the collections in? Are they accessible for use? When it is known what information is already available through inventory and interpretation, it will be easier to determine what collections still need to be developed. In a few places, some of this work is being tackled by state and regional archeology societies. At the federal level, knowledge of what an agency's collections contain can help focus research and preservation initiatives in compliance with Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended.

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MJB/EJL