Smoke and mirrors: Merging archaeological curation and conservation programs within private and federal sectors

Nicola J. Longford

Abstract

With the publication of the federal archaeological curation regulation (36 CPR, Part 79) in October 1990, the professional archaeological community has become increasingly more aware of the need to improve archaeological storage conditions. Despite the fact that the obstacles associated with the provision of adequate and accessible storage facilities for archaeological collections have long been recognized, little has been done to remedy a growing predicament with the preservation of the nation’s archaeological heritage. This new regulation (36 CPR, Part 79) directs that all archaeological materials under the jurisdiction of Federal agencies be deposited in repositories with the ability to ensure long-term curatorial needs for such collections. However well-intended, the mission of 36 CPR, Part 79 has been ignored in favor of compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in November 1990 (NAGPRA- P.L. 101-601). This act, more than any other, has contributed to the rapid re-awakening within the academic and museum community to solve problems related to the identification, inventory and rehabilitation of many large and varied archaeological collections gathered from the last ninety-five years.

Although determining how and where to start with the task of sorting and separating collections, coalescing associated materials and records is daunting, there are more distinct obstacles facing the archaeologist, collections manager or laboratory supervisor responsible for the care of archaeological materials which are not addressed specifically in the aforementioned law and regulation. How do they go about finding out how and where to store the collections? With whom should they consult for advice, and what specific guidelines and standards should be observed?

Lack of funding, shortage of trained personnel, inadequate staffing and vague standards for guidance contribute significantly to the steady loss and deterioration of archaeological data currently housed in barns, sheds, shipping containers, and commercial self-storage units across the country. Correcting these problems should not be reserved only for those archaeological collections which are theoretically federal property, but those collections which have been retrieved from private-sponsorship as well.

Conservators and archaeologists must work together to provide logical and practical solutions to the glaring problems facing archaeological curation and the dearth of conservation assistance within the federal and private systems. Many of the problems faced now by archaeologists are not directly related to on-site and immediate post-excavation difficulties, but rather with assemblages retrieved from years past.

This paper will address the strengths and pitfalls of federal legislation and suggest strategies for co-operative efforts between conservators and archaeologists.