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Destructive analysis

Scientific analysis and research is regularly applied to archeological material remains. Some of these methods involve the destruction or alteration of all or part of an item. Common procedures now include Carbon 14 dating, thin sectioning, metallography, neutron activation and other chemical analyses, and DNA testing. Determining the types and quantity of destructive analysis to be done on an object or collection should be a collaborative effort involving the original project manager, the researcher, repository staff, associated contracting managers, and, in appropriate cases, representatives of culturally-affiliated communities or organizations.

As noted in a previous section, the archeologist investigating and excavating a site should be aware of and take into account destructive analysis issues when implementing sampling strategies and preparing collections for long-term management and care. These include destructive analysis that the archeologist plans to do personally and any analysis that future researchers might perform. Unfortunately, archeologists cannot anticipate the scientific procedures that may be available in the future. Planning and foresight by the archeologist and repository staff, however, should include curating an adequate sample size for future research and identifying specific objects as appropriate for destructive analysis.

Every researcher has a responsibility to archeological collections when engaging in destructive analysis techniques. Most repositories have policies on destructive analysis and a researcher needs to be aware of these. Most repositories require the submission of a detailed request or justification, which include information such as:

  • Specific artifacts or specimens to be sampled.
  • Specific tests or analysis to be done.
  • What the data will be used for.
  • Time it will take to complete the analysis.
  • Amount of sample that will be used (and what may be left over from the procedure).

Researchers should also be prepared to provide the catalog numbers of alternative objects or samples that they could use if denied access to their first choice(s). Or they should be prepared to use a smaller sample size.

The repository (and/or owner of the object/collection) has the ultimate authority over the use of collections, including destructive analysis. The policies and procedures that most repositories have in place on this matter usually outline:

  • If and when destructive analysis is allowed.
  • What types of items or collections might be allowed or forbidden from destructive analysis.
  • What information researchers have to submit when making a request.
  • Procedures and authority for approval of requests.
  • Details on what is done with the data and sample remains after analysis is complete.
  • Repository requirements of the researcher.

How a repository decides what types (if any) of destructive analysis it allows on its collections depends on a variety of factors. One is whether it is a public or private institution. Federal collections are subject to provisions under 36 CFR 79, which stipulate that "The federal agency official shall not allow uses that would alter, damage, or destroy an object in a collection unless…such use is necessary for scientific studies or public interpretation and the potential gain…outweighs the potential loss of the object." They also state that destructive scientific uses should be limited to "unprovenienced, nonunique, nonfragile objects, or to a sample of objects drawn from a larger collection of similar objects" (79.10(d)5). Some states also have laws or regulations that govern the use of destructive analysis on their collections. It is important that, when a repository drafts its policy on destructive analysis, the policy complies with all regulations related to collections they do not own but are under their care.

(photo) A University of Washington medical technician captures data from the Computed Tomography (CT) scan of the cranium of Kennewick Man.
A University of Washington medical technician captures data from the Computed Tomography (CT) scan of the cranium of Kennewick Man.

Another issue that repositories have to take into account when dealing with destructive analysis is the study of human remains. Destructive analysis of human remains, especially those covered under NAGPRA, has sparked considerable debate in recent years. Unfortunately, none of the federal laws and regulations specifically cover the use of destructive analysis on human remains. With the passage of NAGPRA, genetic tests have been used to help establish lineal descent or cultural affiliation. Many Native American tribes have differing opinions on the use of this type of analysis, however. It is important that consultation takes place between the the affiliated Native American tribe, repository, archeologist or researcher, and any resource manager that might be involved prior to the use of any destructive analysis techniques. This consultation is required under NAGPRA for any human remains that are excavated after 1990. Consultation is also an important aspect of establishing good relationships with tribes and respecting the human remains.

It is not always easy to find a point of agreement between concerned parties. The difference of opinions between groups on this issue is illustrated by the recent controversy surrounding the "Kennewick Man" skeletal remains. The Kennewick Man skeleton was found in 1996 in Washington, along the banks of the Columbia River. Initial examination of the skeleton indicated features of a Caucasoid, while radiocarbon analysis yielded a date of almost 9300 years ago. Another complication was the fact that Kennewick Man has a projectile point embedded in his hip, possibly of the Cascade tradition, dating to around 8000 years ago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) took possession of the remains, and because of the projectile point and the date, determined that they were Native American and subject to NAGPRA. The USACE prepared to return the remains to a coalition of local tribes that planned immediate reburial.

A group of anthropologists sued the USACE seeking to block repatriation and force the need for further scientific testing to determine ancestry. They also argued that scientific analysis of the human remains was of major scientific importance, especially in answering questions about the peopling of the New World.

In response to court proceedings and controversy the USACE stopped plans for immediate repatriation and proceeded with plans for further analysis of the human skeletal remains and associated materials, including the possibility of destructive analysis. These plans angered many Native American tribes, who wanted no further testing done, especially if it involved destructive analysis. It also angered some scientists who believe not enough is being done to ensure that all of the important information from these materials is collected. In the end, government archeologists and curators and non-government experts carried out a series of examinations and tests in order to much more fully document the remains (see the Links page for Kennewick information.)

The Kennewick man controversy exemplifies the difficulties that face archeologists, repositories, government managers, culturally affiliated groups, and others concerning access and use of archeological collections, including what scientific analyses are appropriate in specific cases.

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