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The Future of Public Archeology
Winter 1999

Online Archive

*  A Look to the Future

(photo) New Mexico's Fort Union National Monument on the head of a microchip.

"A shocking number of exhibit-goers were surprised at the extent of the Native American presence. "

Anna-Eliza H. Lewis and Brona G. Simon

by Francis P. McManamon

What we sometimes call the "federal archeology program" is actually a set of programs, some large, some small, carried out by 40 different government agencies and their partners. These agencies—who manage land, construct dams, highways, and pipelines, and regulate an array of activities—spend tens of millions of dollars every year identifying, analyzing, and preserving archeological sites, collections, records, and data. As one might expect, their archeological responsibilities are broad and diverse.

That so many agencies are responsible is a strength of the U.S. system in that more work is done and more attention focused on the resources. However, a drawback is that in the absence of central professional control, high standards of performance might not be upheld, objectives might not be appropriately focused, and too little attention might be paid to the results.

The federal archeology program, and public archeology generally, needs an integrative mechanism to maintain standards and keep efforts focused. That's the goal of the National Strategy for Federal Archeology, developed by federal archeologists in 1989 and issued by Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan in 1991. His successor, Bruce Babbitt, issued an update last year.

The strategy identifies four broad areas for action: preserving sites in situ, conserving collections and records, using and sharing research results, and promoting public education and outreach. All archeology programs should contribute to one or more of these; some already focus on all four.

The strategy encourages well-designed research in all of these areas, to be shared with professional and general audiences alike. Research is essential to all scientific disciplines. This research—in both design and execution—must take care to limit the destruction of the archeological record that inevitably accompanies excavations and, sometimes, analysis.

The National Strategy also focuses attention on the infrastructure of preservation and interpretation, calling for advances in developing and sharing databases, upgrading collections care, and improving archives management. The explosive growth of archeology since the 1950s has been channeled primarily into fieldwork. Only recently have concerns about collections and data preservation come into sharp focus. More attention—in terms of funding and staffing—is needed. Without solutions to these challenges, the hard work already put into the surveys and excavations will be substantially diminished.

One challenge not explicitly addressed by the strategy looms ahead. During the 1970s and 1980s, public agencies hired substantial numbers of archeologists to care for these newly recognized resources. This national network of public archeologists is one of the remarkable achievements of the period. Over the next 20 years, however, these professionals will retire. Government downsizing has already shrunk their ranks. Replacing this corps will require the attention of all of us, as well as concerted action by our political supporters and the leaders of the archeological profession.

There is no quick fix to the challenges identified by the strategy, now twice updated and reissued. Public agencies, the profession, private associations, and citizens must all embrace preservation as a part of what we do. The National Park Service stands ready to cooperate in every way it can.

Francis P. McManamon is Chief, Archeology Program, and Departmental Consulting Archeologist, National Park Service, Department of the Interior.