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Collections and Curation
Summer 1996, vol. 1(2)

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*  The Long View

(photo) Archeologist measuring an artifact.

"The public perception of archeology derives more from Indiana Jones than from the realities of everyday practice. Recent changes in the discipline have shifted the emphasis . . . now the name of the game is curation."

Margaret C. Nelson and Brenda Shears

by Francis P. McManamon

Concern about archeological collections is hardly a new concept. It was one, perhaps the main, justification for the grandfather of preservation law, the Antiquities Act of 1906, passed because artifacts were being plundered from public lands in the Southwest. The act, by establishing a policy that these artifacts be cared for in accessible repositories for the public benefit, removed them from the category of commercially exploitable resources such as timber, grasslands, and minerals. A more fundamental public policy would be hard to imagine. Subsequent laws, specifically the Historic Sites Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, and the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, have refined this basic policy.

Legal requirements provide a basis for action, but do not always ensure that action be taken. With this strong legal basis as support, archeologists specifically, but also other professionals with interests in archeological collections and records, must refine the practice of their disciplines to improve our ability to preserve these irreplaceable resources.

Over the past generation, with new preservation laws in place, the number of public archeological projects has increased greatly. So has the backlog of artifacts and records inadequately accessioned and cataloged. The National Park Service estimates that it will take more than a decade to catch up on material collected from its park units. Other agencies have similar or larger backlogs. Unfortunately, there is no government-wide program or pot of money to address this need. Agencies, museums, and universities must find the means to accomplish this task by using existing funds or special initiatives within their own organizations.

Archeologists also need to modify their field practices to reduce the rate at which new collections are created. Project plans and scopes of work should include estimates of the appropriate amount of material to collect. During field work, collection strategies and results must be periodically reviewed with an eye towards long-term curation. When appropriate, the amount and kind of material to be collected should be adjusted based on this feedback. Archeologists have learned to use sampling in the field and lab to achieve their descriptive and analytical goals. Likewise they need to regularly review results and adjust accordingly to meet curatorial requirements. As part of these considerations, archeologists need to ask the critical question, "Does everything collected need to be curated?"

Museum and curation facility managers, for their part, have to take better control of the growth of archeological collections. This means developing scope of collections statements that provide firm guidelines, with reasonable, informed justifications, about the kinds and amounts of materials that can be accepted for curation. These statements should also set standards for project data and records.

There are signs of increased attention on these issues in all parts of the discipline. The "Principles of Archaeological Ethics," proposed last year by the Society for American Archaeology ethics committee, explicitly includes "collections, records, and reports" in its definition of the archeological record. One of the proposed principles directs archeologists "to work actively for the preservation of, and long term access to archaeological collections, reports, and records" (see Ethics in American Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s, edited by Mark J. Lynott and Alison Wylie, Washington, DC: Society for American Archaeology, 1995, pp. 23-24).

In 1994, the Society for Historical Archaeology established a policy calling for better consideration of how collections are going to be cared for and accessed as investigations are planned and executed. Archeologists in public agencies, often spurred by the requirements of new regulations (36 CFR 79) and NAGPRA, have already focused greater attention on collections for which they are responsible. This development is welcome by those who have lamented the traditional tendency of archeologists, with notable exceptions, to regularly abandon collections and records for new field work.

These developments should concern the preservation community at large as well as those inside the discipline. NAGPRA has focused attention on certain parts of collections and how they ought to be treated. A much larger part falls outside the realm of the act, but requires similar attention to ensure its preservation for research and public education. This is particularly true as the archeological record is steadily removed from its in situ context and placed in collections. This process is inevitable. Equally inevitable should be a greater concern for what happens during that process.

Francis P. McManamon is Chief, Archeology Program, and Departmental Consulting Archeologist, National Park Service, Department of the Interior.