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What is archeological curation?

  (photo) Archeological objects stored in stacked and compressed cardboard boxes.
Not only are archeological collections sometimes stored in inappropriate facilities, but these materials may suffer further from compression damage, water damage, and pest infestation.From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Archeological curation is an ongoing process. It involves the making of collections and their care and management over the long term. It also involves their accessibility to a variety of users for a number of uses.

Every archeological project produces an archeological collection. A collection of material remains may result from work at a single site or from a single investigation or project that involves a number of sites. Academic research and some contracted projects may yield a collection or series of collections from work at a single site over a number of years.

While many people might think of an archeological collection as only the objects or artifacts collected during an excavation or survey, other items are involved. These include:

It is important to understand that certain projects may yield an archeological collection that only consists of associated records. Such a project might be a survey during which no artifacts or specimens were recovered or no sites were found, but a contract and scope of work were written and signed, field notes were made, and a final report was written and distributed.

Everyone involved in the archeological profession is responsible for curation. Many archeologists in the field do not fully understand or think about their responsibilities to the collections that they unearth, especially after they complete analysis. Instead, they make assumptions that repositories, such as museums, are responsible with little or no interaction from archeologists. Also, some federal or state agencies, contract archeology firms, and universities do not always understand or take full responsibility for the care and management of their collections. These responsibilities may be legally, ethically, or professionally mandated, which is discussed further in the next section.

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:

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.

Brief history of U.S. archeology and curation

Archeology in the United States has changed significantly in the last century or more. The role that the management and care of material remains and associated records plays in the profession also has changed through the years. Unfortunately, curation typically has not been a core component of archeologists' work, except in the very early days.

(photo) American Museum of Natural History, New York, c.1902.
American Museum of Natural History, New York, c.1902.Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archeology in the US was closely aligned with museums. Museums hired archeologists such as Cyrus Thomas, Arthur C. Parker, and Fredrick Ward Putnam to conduct fieldwork and bring their collections to the museums for research, conservation, storage, and exhibition. Major museums founded at this time included the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. These and other museums tended to consider anthropological collections as part of natural history rather than cultural history. Placement of anthropological collections in natural history museums reflected attitudes of the time concerning "primitive" peoples (e.g., L.H. Morgan's "Savagery, Barbarism, Civilization" classification scheme) and the idea that the past of non-European-based cultures was vastly inferior.

The Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) was particularly important in advancing American archeology at this time. Established in 1876, the BAE was originally concerned with determining the origin of Native Americans and resolving the Moundbuilder Myth. They were also at the forefront of defining archeology as a science, advocating a specialization and professionalism within archeology, and aligning archeology with anthropology.

The importance of managing historical documentation was realized early at the Smithsonian. The Institution's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, founded the SI Archives in 1891. The National Anthropological Archives and the Human Studies Film Archives were founded in the next century to preserve anthropological collections, including field records, personal papers, photographs, and related materials.

In the beginning of the 20th century, major changes began to take place in both museums and archeology. Museums (with the exception of museum archives) became somewhat less concerned with research and acquiring collections and more concerned with public education and exhibition. Archeology, on the other hand, became a better recognized profession that required university instruction. The teaching of archeology in colleges and universities meant that excavation and research were now conducted by these institutions to a greater degree than museums. As a consequence, the excavation and making of collections began to be separated from collections care and management. So, too, began a slow demise in the curation of archeological collections in general.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries also marked the start of the concern for cultural resources and historic preservation reflected in the passage of federal legislation. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first major cultural resources law in the United States. It was passed mainly to protect archeological sites from looting, which had become a serious problem in the southwest, and to control research on federal and tribal lands through a permitting process. The Act also addressed curation to a certain extent. It stated that objects collected under the Act were for "permanent preservation in public museums" and that "every collection…shall be preserved in the public museum designated by the permit and shall be accessible to the public." Unfortunately, it did not explicitly recognize the need for standards or guidelines on how to perform these functions and who was responsible for getting them done.

Interestingly, while concern for preserving sites and objects was peaking in this period, the materials used to document archeology began a significant decline in life expectancy. Papers, inks, copy processes, and other media began a steady decline around 1850. It turns out, however, that these materials have much better quality and durability than the short-lived digital media of the 21st century.

(photo) Missouri Basin Project excavators working near rising floodwaters to recover information and artifacts.
Missouri Basin Project excavators often raced against time and rising waters to recover information and artifacts that otherwise would be inundated.Photo taken by Charles McNutt in 1958. Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The '30s into the '70s

Public works projects and "salvage archeology" became significant types of archeological work, especially on federal and state land, from the 1930s into the 1970s. Without standards or mandates to guide archeologists, curation fell by the wayside. These projects were designed to quickly excavate and preserve the archeological record prior to its destruction by the development of roads, waterworks, buildings, etc.

The archeology of the 1930s was characterized by federal works programs. Initiated by Roosevelt under the New Deal to try to end the Great Depression, these federal projects provided work for the unemployed. Important New Deal programs that engaged in archeology included the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

New Deal projects involved large-scale excavations with some concentration of effort in the southeast. Major projects included Marksville in Louisiana, Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, the Chickamauga Basin in Tennessee, and the Missouri Basin Project along the Missouri River. These projects were coordinated through cooperative programs between the National Park Service (NPS), BAE, and a number of university departments.

The large-scale federal projects initiated under these programs brought a large volume of artifacts and associated records into repositories and other facilities in a short span of time. These collections often were not housed in archival quality or long-lived materials (cigar boxes, tin cans, and paper bags were the norm for storing artifacts) and received a minimum of research, analysis, and interpretation. The documentation was usually not produced using long-lived media or stored in long-lived containers. While these projects were important in advancing our understanding of the culture history of the United States, there was little to no thought given to long-term care of the collections. Laboratories weren't even a necessary project element until the late 1930s (Sullivan and Childs in press). Research and site reports were also sporadic in their quality, quantity, and scope (Haag 1985). The sad state of collections care for these projects has meant that many of the material remains and associated records are still unprocessed, are poorly known, and/or are lost. Furthermore, their life expectancy into the future is endangered.

Archeology all but stopped during World War II. After the war ended salvage archeology once again became important as large-scale federal construction projects were initiated or continued. One of the largest salvage projects at the time was the NPS and BAE's River Basin Survey (RBS). The RBS program was initiated to save sites that were going to be covered by water through the construction of major dams and reservoirs, mainly by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The largest part of this program was in the Missouri River Basin, where destruction of cultural resources at the main stem of the basin was estimated at 100% (Jennings 1985).

The Reservoir Salvage Act of 1960 helped to continue funding for the salvage of archeological sites. The Act did require proper curation of "relics and specimens" from these projects, although there was little thought or funding given to the long-term care of the very large collections amassed from reservoir salvage projects. Many of these collections ended up in non-federal repositories. The majority of these repositories cared for the collections, which still belonged to the federal government, without charging the government a dime for their care.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, similar salvage archeology programs developed in association with other major federal construction of highways and for oil, gas, and electricity transmission lines.

As noted, work done on many of these federal projects was often supervised by university departments, including professors and graduate students. Academic archeologists were also involved in fieldwork all over the world and large collections came into this country from other areas of the globe. Often, it was the individual professor or researcher who was responsible for the care of their material remains and associated records. This meant that much valuable research material sat in offices or closets, not in adequate repositories.

Anthropology and archeology departments placed an emphasis on research, fieldwork, and theory, not on collections management. While some large universities have established their own archeology museums (e.g., University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Tennessee, University of California at Berkeley) very few have directly linked their archeology programs with collections care and curation.

The disentanglement of museums and archeological excavations, the rapid increase in salvage archeology, and the changing academic professionalism of archeology have all contributed to problems in curation today. There also continues to be an attitude in archeology that fieldwork is much more important than collections care. Another common attitude is that collections management is what museum and archival staff do, not what archeologists do. Archeologists usually were not (and still are not) taught about curation or collections management and its importance in graduate school. Furthermore, many curators and archivists of archeological collection know relatively little about archeology.

(photo) Salvage archeology (circa 1970s).
Salvage archeology (circa 1970s). Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

From the '70s to Today

Archeology changed significantly again in the 1970s and '80s. Concern about historic preservation issues and the management of cultural resources, including archeological resources, led to passage of various laws (see Section III). Implementation of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 led to the development of what is now known as contract or cultural resources management (CRM) archeology. The majority of fieldwork in the US today is done through contract archeology and is not always tied to academia. As with earlier salvage programs, these programs have been mandated to save significant archeological sites from destruction by developers or to document sites before destruction. These often small-scale, hurried inventories, evaluations, or excavations continue to bring a large number of objects and associated records into repositories. The sheer number of items in those collections was something that few were prepared for, and many repositories have been unable to maintain their care.

Furthermore, many contracts for such work on federal, tribal and state land did not address copyright issues. Museums and archives, therefore, now hold and manage collections that they may not publish, reproduce, exhibit, or produce alternate versions of, except for fair use purposes, for long periods of time.

Some contract work, including survey, testing and excavation, has been criticized for producing inadequate analysis for colleagues or interpretation for the public. The majority of these projects produce a site report or "gray literature". Gray literature is usually defined as the unpublished project report(s) from CRM assessment or fieldwork. The problem with these reports is that few people see or have access to them due to the limited numbers that are printed and their rare appearance in libraries. It is very difficult to get a complete picture of the archeological resources in a region if information on where sites are (and are not) and details of their content are not readily available to the archeological community.

Curation of archeological collections has gradually increased in importance to the profession. The passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) in 1979 helped define and prioritize curation once again as an essential aspect of planning and implementing archeological projects. Regulations for the curation of federally owned and associated collections, 36 CFR 79, were finally passed in 1990. Archeological curation also has been aided by the strengthening professionalism of the museum field and the passage of related legislation such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA has, in fact, significantly assisted collections management by forcing agencies and repositories to conduct inventories and grapple with the issue of deaccessioning.

Is there a curation crisis?

The more than a hundred or so years of full-scale archeology in the U.S. has created an enormous stockpile of valuable collections that require ongoing attention. This accumulation of collections grew geometrically beginning in the '70s, when new laws were enacted that required archeological work in specific circumstances and the curation of the resulting collections (see Section III). For example, the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona curated about 950 standardized archival boxes of federally-owned archeological materials in 1969-70. Twenty years later it had 8,624 boxes, which doubled again by 1999-2000 (Thompson 2000). When we say, though, that there is a "crisis" related to the management and care of these collections, what exactly do we mean?

(photo) Crowded, unprotected objects in storage.
Crowded, unprotected objects in storage. Photo courtesy of the Art Conservation Center @ Univ. of Denver (formerly RMCC), Denver, CO.

Up to and since the issuance of 36 CFR 79 in 1990, most archeological collections were cared for inadequately on a long-term basis. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it spent approximately $165 million on archeological projects between 1975-90 while spending virtually nothing on curation of the resulting material remains and associated records (Trimble and Meyers 1991). Archeological collections were housed in repositories with inadequate space, a problem usually compounded with insufficient funding and a lack of professionally trained personnel. Some repositories could not accept any more collections due to lack of space and staff.

Several studies were undertaken from the late '70s through today to try to understand and quantify the problems. A study done by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1979 reported a wide range of problems and inconsistencies among repositories. Problems included: inadequate facilities, poor storage practices, collection deterioration, loss of entire collections, inaccessibility to collections, insufficient catalogs and inventories, and lack of security (Lindsay et. al 1979).

A 1986 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, "Cultural Resources--Problems Protecting and Preserving Federal Archaeological Resources", also highlighted problems in repositories, specifically those with federal collections. Their report found that 24% of the respondents had no inventory of their archeological collections, 30% had never inspected the condition of their collections, and 30% of non-federal repositories had already run out of room. Federal agencies also often had no idea what they owned or where it was stored. Despite some real progress in recent years, today, a number of federal agencies still do not know what they own or are responsible for. One the other hand, agencies such as the National Park Service have a clear idea of what they need to do and the enormous costs involved. In 1992, the NPS estimated they had 24.6 million archeological artifacts, 16.8 million of which still needed cataloging at a cost of $46.9 million dollars. The agency also estimated that $59.8 million was needed to rectify physical plant deficiencies and $158 million to construct new facilities (Hitchcock 1994). Some of these estimates changed after Congress allotted some funding to speed up the cataloging backlog.

The associated records of archeological projects were not given as much attention in these reports as the objects. Issues and problems that have been identified more recently include:

Clearly, there has been a crisis in archeological collections management and care. Has enough progress been made in the last few years to say that the crisis is over? We can say that considerable strides have been made to rectify some of these problems. New federal facilities, such as the Anasazi Heritage Center of the BLM and the Museum Resource Center of the NPS, have been built to comply with the basic standards set forth in 36 CFR 79. There are efforts underway to build repositories on tribal lands to care for both federal and tribal collections. Money finally is being allocated to correct some of the storage and staffing problems at federal repositories. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers founded the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections (MCX-CMAC) to provide guidance and expertise on collections assessment and rehabilitation standards for the Department of Defense and others. Many other federal agencies have been working diligently (often with non-federal repositories) to comply with 36 CFR 79. Also, NAGPRA has pushed many federal agencies to inventory their collections in order to determine if they own materials that are affected by this law.

Many laws and policies concerning archeological collections management have been enacted at the state and local levels (see Section III). This means that not only are the State Historic Preservation Office staff and the State Archeologist paying more attention to the issues, but also the staff of the Department of Transportation and similar agencies with active archeological programs. As well, some states, such as Maryland and Rhode Island, have built new repositories meeting the standards set forth in 36 CFR 79, while others are upgrading their facilities.

As federal, state, and local agencies become more aware of their responsibilities to their collections, the contractors who conduct the compliance work are hiring and/or training staff to better handle collections preparation and to work with the repositories that will care for the collections over the long term. Since some contract work is performed by university-based groups, some are learning the necessary skills to handle the collections, although generally not through formal coursework. In general, the university setting is where archeological collections may be at the greatest risk of inadequate management and long-term care.

Realistically, despite the progress, the crisis is not over. Major problems and issues still exist, many of which are discussed in other sections. Some of the largest problems exist for non-federal and non-state collections, collections for which 36 CFR 79 does not apply. The important thing to remember, though, is that there is momentum to work on the better care and management of archeological collections. Archeologists and museum professionals, including archivists and conservators, need to work together to maintain that momentum.


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