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  Managing Archeological Collections Today's Key Issues Distance Learning


(photo) Archeological artifacts inappropriately placed in plastic bags and stored in a cigar box. Inappropriate packing and packaging of archeological collections. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

The archeological curation crisis itself, and the debate and concern about it, came to light in the mid-to-late 1970s. Studies conducted found that, due to inadequate care, collections were deteriorating, inaccessible, and lacked security. Such conditions were, in part, a result of the "beliefs" among archeologists that excavation and fieldwork were more important than curation, and collections care was solely the job of museum professionals, not professional archeologists. Furthermore, the curation problem was exacerbated when research and data recovery was conducted by archeologists in universities or CRM firms that did not have either proper facilities for collections care or training in that important activity. Issues of ownership also compounded problems since some researchers thought that what they dug up was their own property, or at least their "intellectual" property. As such, they could keep indefinitely the material remains and associated records to conduct their research.

Several major factors contributed to the crisis. One was the rapid influx of collections from contract archeology, due to the laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s (see previous section). Another was the increasing number of material classes collected, such as flotation and soil samples, due to new analytical techniques and research questions. At the same time, there was little or no increase in funds or space for collections management and care. Another problem that has been recognized more recently is the decline in the life expectancy and durability of the media used to record archeological sites and recovered data, including paper, inks, color photography, and digital records. These and other factors contributed to the problems we face today.

Currently, there are a number of issues stemming from the crisis that are starting to be addressed by archeologists, federal and state agencies, culturally affiliated groups, repositories, and others. Many of these issues are outlined in the following sub-sections and then elaborated upon in subsequent sections.

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