Friday, August 24, 2007

Museum update Can't provide a link because it's subscription only, but Science has an article on problems with artifact curation in US museums:

Some of the bags have split, spilling their contents into the boxes. And the artifacts' provenance information--where they came from, which is vital to their research value--is written on the bags. TVA is required by law to care for the artifacts, which belong to the federal government, but the strapped agency doesn't have the money. So the University of Tennessee has stepped up to provide space and staffing, but it can't afford to rehabilitate the collections.

The result: a curatorial crisis. "We don't even know at some level what's going on in those bags," Sullivan says, adding that some of the metal artifacts--axes, knives, gun parts, and hoes--are rusting.

Sullivan isn't alone in her plight. Many collections in other repositories are in "much worse shape," she says. Indeed, says Dean Snow, president of the Society for American Archaeology, "the curation problem is at crisis proportions." The effects are being felt not only by researchers using museum collections but also by archaeologists in the field, who worry about where to store the artifacts they recover--and whether they should recover any at all. "I think it's the end of the days of endless archaeology," says archaeologist Teresita Majewski of Statistical Research Inc., a cultural resource management firm in Tucson, Arizona.

I've harped on this many times here. And it's not just a new problem, though the scale is. Attempting to use old collections can be difficult because of some of the very problems noted above: poor storage results in damaged artifacts or unreadable provenance information. Even one of my favorite studies ever, Dunnell's reanalysis of the Mayo site (I'll dig for the reference), had to deal with the fact that all of the faunal material had turned to dust.

archaeologists are thinking harder about what they collect. "For decades and decades, people were collecting everything and keeping it all," says S. Terry Childs, an archaeologist with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. Now, archaeologists try to choose a representative sample of artifacts, she says. "They are thinking about 'What do I keep?' " Those decisions must be made in the field, and they aren't always easy, says King. She mentions a dig in Maryland in which one of her colleagues, working pro bono, left the artifacts in the ground instead of cleaning and analyzing them. He identified them--and the house he was trying to date--as 20th century; later, more detailed excavation showed that it was 19th century.

One extreme solution is the use of no-collection surveys, says Childs, in which researchers simply record artifacts' location on the surface and leave them there. "This is just horrible," she says, adding that anecdotal reports suggest such surveys are on the rise. Omitting actual artifacts risks the discipline's integrity, agrees Christopher Pulliam of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Archaeology professes to be a science," he says. "If one can't replicate research results or reanalyze the materials from a site, then [archaeology] can't proclaim to be a science."

This doesn't bother me all that much -- the no-collect survey -- on the condition that it's in an area that won't be easily disturbed. But this sort of thing goes on anyway. Decisions are made during the mitigation process to determine whether any archaeological materials in an impact area are "significant" or not, and "non-significant" remains are left to fend for themselves. In Egypt, people have been throwing away sherds by the thousands for a long time. Body sherds that can't be fitted to a vessel are routinely weighed and discarded. But, of course, there's always this problem:
But artifacts uninteresting to some are valuable to others. Back in the 1990s, King co-directed the excavation of the 17th century home of Charles Calvert, governor of Maryland, and found many brick fragments. Bricks were considered expendable and most were discarded, but King says some revealed the earliest evidence of a decorative technique used in the Chesapeake Bay region.

The federal government is drafting new rules to guide deaccessioning some of their hundreds of millions of artifacts; the Department of the Interior alone is responsible for 90 million artifacts. The government tried to implement deaccessioning regulations in 1991 but backed off after ferocious opposition from archaeologists, who said that even artifacts of no research value now might yield important information when examined with future technologies.

The last paragraph mentions collections-based research not being given as much academic credit, and the future of research being largely collections-based. Obviously, unless the existing stuff is properly curated, it's not going to be suitable for study anyway.

There's no easy solution (well, okay, apart from just throwing it all out and starting over). Mitigation work has to be done and that's going to result in new material coming in. There probably won't be a lot of incentive to do anything until the public starts asking serious questions about what is being done with all the stuff they're paying to be dug up, analyzed, and housed. And that might not happen since the vast majority of the stuff that's collected just doesn't excite the lay public enough to care.