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  Managing Archeological Collections Curation in the Field and Lab Distance Learning

Field collection

(photo) Screening fill from a pitstructure excavation.
Screening fill from a pitstructure excavation. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Collections management in the field starts with implementing the field collecting and statistical sampling methods presented in the project research design. Many archeological projects yield classes of objects that are highly redundant (i.e., shell, fire-cracked rock, window glass, etc.) and/or do not fit into the research design (i.e., undiagnostic body sherds from a time period that is not the focus of research). These materials can occupy a lot of storage room at the repository, yet may or may not have research, interpretation, and/or heritage value. However, given the strong ethic in archeology to save everything for future research and interpretation, selective field collection and statistical sampling may constitute a good compromise if carefully conceived and executed.

Selective field collecting may or may not involve statistical sampling. For contract work, field collecting is often dictated by federal, state, tribal, or local requirements or policies (see Section III). There are some states and federal agencies, for example, that require a "no-collection" procedure during most survey projects. The Department of Defense, however, does not recommend such a practice for several cost-related reasons (Griset and Kodack 1999). These include the need for physical samples to perform laboratory analyses, the difficulties and costs in verifying field observations, and the difficulty in enforcing a "no collection policy" with the result that some collecting may occur and a statistical bias is created in the collections. Other states and federal agencies require selective collection of diagnostic objects, which may be designated historic or prehistoric, during survey.

Statistical sampling, which involves systematic collection of a certain percentage of a specific artifact class(es), may be appropriate for both contract work and research. The exact percentage of a designated artifact class to be collected may be stated in the research design if careful examination of similar collections from the area is used to determine the sampling strategy, and that strategy can be replicated.

On the other hand, the need for statistical sampling may be best resolved in the field during consultation between a specialist on a particular artifact class and the principal investigator. The specialist can advise on whether or not collecting a systematic sample is warranted and how best to do it. Close monitoring of the amounts and types of materials found as fieldwork progresses is essential in making a decision. It is generally best to do major sampling in the field or off-site laboratory after cleaning and basic assessment, as discussed in a later sub-section. In this case, no sampling should occur until the quantity and range of variation of the object class(es) is known. Unfortunately, there are currently no professional standards to aid archeologists in determining correct sample sizes. There are, however, several useful articles and books by archeologists on statistical sampling that may be helpful in this context (e.g., Baxter 1994; Nance 1994; Shennan 1997).

The collection of non-cultural materials can also impact the overall size and long-term care of collections, since they are often bulky and require a large amount of storage space. A strict sampling strategy should be followed for these materials in order to collect only enough samples as are actually needed to meet project goals. Processing non-cultural materials prior to packing a collection for submittal to a repository is another way to limit the volume of these materials in the collection. Processing can include running soils through flotation tanks.

It is important to keep sampling procedures consistent and well documented throughout a project, both in the field and the lab. Every effort should be made to record such information on long-lived media, such as archival quality paper. Unexpected discoveries at the site may necessitate changes in the collecting strategy and sampling plan. When changes are made they should be well documented and continue to support the research goals of the project.

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