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

Online Archive

*  Wealth Concealed: The Importance of Preserving the Archeological Record

(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 Don D. Fowler, Nancy J. Parezo, and May Elizabeth Ruwell

Over the course of the 1930s and 1960s, Emil Haury's excavations of Snaketown, Arizona's Hohokam site, yielded an impressive research and professional corpus: field notes, site forms, daily logs, object catalogue cards, accession records, conservation records, lab analyses, maps, drawings, photographs, and of course Haury's long list of publications. Add to that his vast correspondence to friends and colleagues, his teaching notes and those of his students, and the many newspaper stories about him and his work, and one begins to see the importance of preserving the often-irreplaceable records of excavations. Luckily for researchers, Haury's legacy is safe, protected at the Arizona State Museum. The same cannot be said for the records of the public archeology boom in the decades since.

Unfortunately, while many archeologists have been cognizant of the need to preserve artifacts, too often associated field records and other documents have not been saved. Records in individual and institutional hands are destroyed, physically degraded, or scattered. A range of factors can be cited: lack of proper storage, insufficient funds to hire professional archivists, improper curation methods, and the fact that funding agencies often consider long-term preservation a low priority.

There are other factors too, all too common among anthropologists: uncertainty about when one is "really finished" with personal and professional papers, doubt as to the quality of the information and whether recording methods will meet future standards, and concern that someone will misuse the data, especially since some documents may be private property.

The result is that many records are not turned over to a public repository—an irretrievable loss for the pursuit of knowledge.

The Imprint of Humanity

In its broadest sense, the archeological record is a resource for studying cultural development and diversity available in no other form. It consists of unexcavated artifacts and associated landscape and contextual material as well as materials that have been collected during a survey, excavation, or other archeological work, together with all associated records and documentary materials.

Archeological records are found in any media generated during the course of a project, from initial planning through fieldwork, analysis, report production, and curation. These include, but are not limited to, field records, survey forms, provenance catalogues, architectural drawings, cartographic records, photographs, inventories, and the like. They also include oral histories and related ethnographic materials, cultural resource management and preservation records, and lab reports (including computer software).

No less important are the administrative materials involved in project preparation, legal paperwork, materials produced during analyses, and post-project materials. These include accession and curation records created by the repository housing the artifactual and other field materials as well as records referring to them that an archeologist or researcher may have produced. They can be in the form of lecture notes, diaries, correspondence, lectures, and publications; all provide information useful for understanding the project rationale as well as the intellectual development of the discipline.

This record is cumulative in nature and always active. Artifacts, ecofacts, and related records are never exhausted, for they are usually all that remain of archeological sites whose excavation can never be completely replicated. Records on which information are recorded become the primary evidence of archeological endeavors. To preserve these records properly is to perform an act of stewardship that helps preserve archeological resources as well as information about humanity itself.

Planning for the Hidden and Underutilized

To help anthropology and archeology ensure the future health of their disciplines' records, a group of anthropologists, archivists, and information specialists have formed the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records, CoPAR. A non-profit organization, CoPAR intends to act as a clearinghouse to assist anthropologists, archivists, and librarians by identifying anthropological records and encouraging their use and preservation. Specifically, CoPAR will provide information on record locations and access, help support repositories, and offer consulting and technical assistance about preservation guidelines, bequests, and more. It will also carry out special projects.

As one of its current initiatives, CoPAR is working with the National Park Service on issues of access, especially problems in locating records. Important archeological records already reside in repositories, but a lack of research aids hinders knowledge of their existence. CoPAR hopes to begin a multiyear project that will help researchers discover materials on individual tribes, cultures, ethnic groups or societies, locales, time periods, and research projects.

Because this critical cross-indexing needs to be in a national database, CoPAR plans to establish a national guide to anthropological records. This will be similar to, and work in conjunction with, the National Archeological Database, a communications network that provides on-line access to archeologists and others interested in preservation. During the next few years we will be gathering information about document collections and creating a user-friendly database to centralize records.

CoPAR will also work to educate both individuals and professional organizations about preservation needs, ethical and legal issues, and new developments in information management and access. This fall CoPAR will begin a series of bulletins on topics such as the nature of anthropological records, easy ways to preserve them, appointing a literary executor, surveying records, and finding a home for them. Attention will be given to educating the archival community about special problems relating to archeological records and how to work with those who hold them.

Clearly, archeological and ethnographic records are America's largest hidden and underutilized cultural and intellectual resource. To increase access to them, Peter McCartney and Michael Barton have established a World Wide Web site for CoPAR. The address of the site, which is at the Archaeological Research Institute of Arizona State University, is http://archaeology.la.asu.edu/copar/.

The site will include information on CoPAR's mission and goals, the names and addresses of individuals who have agreed to serve as contacts for the national guide to anthropological records, and the bulletin series. If you would like to assist with these projects or serve as a contact, we would value your help.

For more information, contact Don Fowler, Mamie Kleberg Professor of Historic Preservation and Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557, (702) 853-3471, fax (702) 784-1988, e-mail hp@scs.unr.edu or Nancy Parezo, Curator of Ethnology and Professor, American Indian Studies, Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, (520) 621-6277, fax (520) 621-2976, e-mail parezo@ccit.arizona.edu.


Fowler, Don D. and Douglas R. Givens. "Preserving the Archaeological Record." In Preserving the Anthropological Record, vol. 1., ed. by Sydel Silverman and Nancy Parezo, pp. 14-28. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1992.

Kenworthy, M. A., Eleanor M. King, Mary Elizabeth Ruwell, and Trudy Van Houten. Preserving Field Records: Archival Techniques for Archaeologists and Anthropologists. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1985.