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  Managing Archeological Collections 2. Introduction to Curation Distance Learning

Why is curation important?

Every archeologist knows about the importance of provenience when on an archeological project. What's just as important is ensuring that the provenience information stays with the material remains collected, otherwise all the time and effort spent digging materials out of the ground and recording that process becomes useless. Keeping provenience information intact involves all aspects of archeological curation, including:

  • ensuring that all items are properly labeled and inventoried;
  • keeping associated records intact and in their original order;
  • storing all the collections (e.g., objects, soil samples, associated records) from single project in the same location;
  • using long-lived and durable media to capture and store any digital data from a project;
  • obtaining and documenting all necessary permissions and intellectual property rights when a collection is created and accessioned;
  • recording everything that is done to individual artifacts, records, and digital data, or to the collection as a whole;
  • conserving and preserving the entire accessioned collection to ensure that it lasts and is accessible for generations.

The research value of a collection is preserved if its provenience information is kept intact. A 1996 study by Nelson and Shears documents the increasing use of existing collections for scholarly research. Their study found that 16% of doctoral research used museum collections in 1990, while 30% used collections in 1994 and 1995. There is still much to learn from existing collections, although it is unknown just how many existing collections have never been analyzed or used for research. Advances in the field will continue to bring about new research methods and techniques that will sustain and sometimes change the research, interpretive, and heritage value(s) of existing collections.

(photo) Improper mixing of materials in storage - a box containing breakable ceramics and a very heavy cannonball. Improper mixing of materials in storage - a box containing breakable ceramics and a very heavy cannonball. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

It is also important to ensure proper curation because archeological collections are irreplaceable records of the past. The archeological record in the ground is a one-time, unique occurrence. Once a site is excavated or once an area is developed or once a site is looted, that physical record cannot be replicated and the original context is gone forever. The archeological material remains, associated records, and reports are the only evidence left. Critical archeological information is lost if collections are allowed to disintegrate, disappear, become disorganized, or different parts are separated.

Archeologists tend to focus on the importance of the material remains recovered during a project, but almost all documentation associated with archeological research (e.g., digital data, photos, maps, field notes, audio and video tapes) carries significant long-term value. It is important that the archeologist works with the repository to ensure proper conservation and preservation of both the records produced and material remains recovered. Therefore, the archeologist should think about archival issues from the very beginning of a research project. These include using archivally safe materials for records, evaluating and reevaluating the importance of different documents as the project progresses, and establishing and keeping an organizational system for records. When the records are placed in a repository, the archeologist should give the repository staff information on what the documents contain, their relationship to associated objects and collections, and the relative importance of each record. Documentation is especially critical for digital data, which may not be useable without information on file format(s), file names and relationships, data structure, the methods used to generate the data, etc.

The archeological profession is becoming increasingly accountable for its actions. Federal and state laws are responsible for the majority of archeological fieldwork done in the U.S. today. Most archeologists, particularly the principal investigators of projects, are therefore accountable to the federal or state agency, taxpayer or landowner that paid for the work. It is hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on an excavation if the results, artifacts, and associated records--the tangible legacies of that work--are not taken care of properly.

Archeologists are also accountable to the people whose heritage might have been investigated, including African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and European Americans. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) has increased public awareness that US archeology is very much tied to living cultures. Archeologists and repositories are obligated to show that they are able to care for the cultural heritage that resulted from archeological activity.

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