The Present and Future of Curating the Past

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By: Andrew Creekmore

The corrugated steel garage door clamored as it rose. We stood on a dusty road in a small town in Turkey and peered into the darkness of our excavation depot. Anxious to get reacquainted with our artifacts—which we had not seen in nearly a year—we were about to step down into the space but hesitated.

As our eyes adjusted to the light we realized that the floor seemed to be moving — the room was flooded, soaking the lowest level of crates in sewage from the apartments above. With help from the fire and health departments we pumped out the sewage, removed the contents, and sprayed the room with antiseptic. Of course we threw out the artifacts that had been soaked in sewage, right? Not quite.

Sewage Depot: A depot awash in sewage. Photo byAndy Creekmore.

There is a greater challenge than sewage: how to dispose of archaeological materials when research is complete. In an ideal world they would be kept in perpetuity in case new questions or techniques emerge. In the real world they will only survive as long as our project continues to pay an annual storage fee for a private depot. If we give these materials to the local museum, as required when we complete our research, they will likely be thrown away due to lack of storage space. Colleagues report that some museums with large facilities store everything, but others are forced to dispose of anything that is not museum-quality or at least mostly intact. (Artifacts of special interest or quality are claimed by the museum after each field season.)

Large grinding stones may be more or less welcome in the museum, depending upon the number of doors that need propping or the size of their garden. But potsherds, animal bones, and stone tool debris, the bulk of excavated materials, have little secondary use as props or decoration. In most codes of ethics, selling artifacts is forbidden. If we could export these items they would be valuable in teaching collections. But today, due to the mass export of priceless treasures from the Near East in centuries past, export of antiquities is legally limited to small samples for specific analysis.

As scholars such as Morag Kersel have pointed out, such are the problems of archaeology everywhere in the world. Modern archaeology is so fine-grained that the quantities of materials collected are seemingly endless. In addition to pottery, stone, and bone, we collect soil samples for chemical, micro and macro botanical analysis, soil blocks for microstratigraphic analysis, clay samples for sourcing studies, and micro-sieved debris from earthen floors. These materials pile up quickly and storage becomes a problem. In the US this “curation crisis” led many agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, to encourage or require that survey projects under their jurisdiction eschew collection or only collect diagnostic artifacts, like painted sherds. In addition, excavation permits in much of the US require projects, before fieldwork, to designate a permanent storage location and to budget for these costs up front.

Curation policies and our propensity to collect more and more data with new analytical techniques put a damper on excavation fever. I expect every archaeologist has some guilt over a project that is not fully published, or at least concern about not fully documented materials in substandard storage. And just what does it mean to be “fully published”? What is the minimum standard for analysis and publication? Do we publish artifacts and plans from the best contexts but put the ephemera of notes and records online?

The adage “you break it, you bought it” feels especially apropos when 100,000+ potsherds are on the line. Are there solutions to the curation crisis that allow us to keep moving forward with fieldwork to study new problems but also acknowledge the elephant-shaped pile of samples in our room? Morag Kersel and her colleagues discuss several approaches that are gaining traction, including catch and release, deaccessioning, partage, and long-term loans. Here I discuss these and other solutions including additional study seasons, remote sensing, and digitization.

Study season, a.k.a. getting to know your depot

More projects schedule study seasons every other year or every few years to catch up on curation and collections research. This has the added advantage of mitigating a crisis, such as when international politics or warfare suddenly prevent access to collections.

Substandard Depot: Artifacts stored in a crumbling building. Photo byAndy Creekmore.

Letting go, a.k.a deaccessioning

Archaeologists keep things because it costs so much time and energy to collect data, because our questions change, and because new techniques bring new life to old samples. For example, until recently the idea of studying the DNA of ancient plants and animals was not realistic. Now we use DNA analysis to track domestication, among other things.


Cat Artifacts: Stacks of crates, some processed, some not. These crates are the source of many splinters, pricks, and cuts. Photo by Sue Ann McCarty.

Stacks Of Artifacts: A stack of stored artifacts sufficient for its own study season. Photo by Andy Creekmore.


Raimund Karl has described archaeologists as compulsive hoarders. But the insistence on keeping “everything” ignores the fact that much was already discarded at the time of collection; decisions to use a certain sieve mesh, sampling strategy for soils, and so on, has already edited the sample. Curation also consumes valuable resources, and consequently many collections are not stored under proper conditions. My impression is that in the Near East most projects rely on make-do storage in garages, and old houses, because they lack the funds to build or purchase proper climate- and vermin-controlled facilities. Shipping containers have become a popular option because of their price and portability.

Shipping container work spaces behind the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy Matt Adams.

In light of these challenges, giving away collections to other scholars, institutions, or even reburial when research is completed, needs to be considered – if this is allowed by the national antiquities authorities. After years of leaving excavated structures exposed to weather, decay, and looting, archaeologists now recognize the need to cover, rehabilitate, or bury those features for protection; the same may apply to artifacts and other collected materials.


Sue Ann McCarty with a single day’s excavation worth of pottery. Photo by Andy Creekmore.

Processed pottery disposed of on-site in lieu of long-term storage or perpetual curation. Photo by Alex Joffe


Collection Chic

We should acknowledge that studying collections is not less intellectual or exciting than generating new material. Scholars, and especially graduate students, often feel they need to prove themselves in the field and generate their own field data. But today conferences are full of papers, and publications abound, from studies of materials collected in the past. This is increasingly true for areas that are inaccessible to archaeologists today, such as parts of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, countries from which collections were exported decades ago from projects that were never fully published or for which new questions emerged. Such studies are limited by past research designs and recording but important new information can still be developed. The biggest drawback of this approach is that universities often demand their faculty take students into the field. Establishing field skills and a field project often trump important collections research.

Storage Wars

The TV show Storage Wars follows speculators who bid on unclaimed or unpaid self-storage units, gambling that there may be treasures within. In a similar fashion, archaeologists should be willing to let others into their collections, acknowledging that they need help with their data. It is easy to think you will get to it “some day,” but goodness knows our data are big enough to share with others.

Leave no Trace, aka “Catch and Release”

I worked on some projects in the US that collected everything, including chewing gum, tools or debris left by previous excavators, personal hygiene products, and every rusty nail or broken window glass shard from a historic site. At the time some of these items seemed ill-suited for analysis and storage, but the principle and ethics of documenting the full life history of a site is strong.

In contrast, today many projects collect as little as possible, especially during surveys. Non- or Limited-Collection surveys photograph, scan or otherwise document finds in the field instead of picking them up and taking them back to a storage facility. The explosion of digitization technologies in the last decade has made it possible to create highly accurate 3D models of artifacts, features, and even whole excavation trenches through digitization. Some projects attempt to fully document the entire archaeological process, from fieldwork to lab analysis, and to publish results to the world via the Internet.

Look before you leap

My favorite approach to the curation problem is remote sensing. Techniques such as LiDAR, satellite imagery analysis, magnetometry, and ground-penetrating radar make it possible to identify buried remains that can be investigated through small-scale, targeted excavations that recover relatively little material when compared to expansive trenches.

Conclusion?

So we have solved our storage problem – dig less, study more, let go of some things, study old collections, use remote sensing, collect fewer materials going forward, and digitize everything. Alas it is not so simple. As the problem of storing materials is mitigated, digital storage challenges arise. I once thought that the giant boxes of slides in my basement were my biggest “home” curation challenge. But now I have far more digital images that must be renamed and migrated to upgraded storage platforms. Add the 3D image files, video, and databases that are generated by modern archaeology and we have a vast range of file types to store and upgrade in perpetuity .

Solutions to digital curation include repositories, such as tDar (the Digital Archaeological Record), opencontext.org, digital collections in institutions, and other places that promise to store and maintain access to digital data. These are a start but many challenges remain. How will we access those files in twenty or thirty years when computer technology will change drastically, and cloud-based computing is the norm? As data are migrated to future-proof formats will our slick database and 3D models, into which we poured hundreds of hours, be reduced to novelties only accessible on vintage computers? Will our stored data also be shunned in favor of new excavations or digitizations? If so then we will have come full circle, solving our curation crisis by digitization only to be left with an ever-increasing cloud of neglected digital data.

Andrew Creekmore is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado.  

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References used and items for further reading

Advisory Committee on Curation. 2003. The Archaeological Curation Crisis: An Integrated Action Plan for the SAA and Its Partners. Society for American Archaeology.

Karl, Raimund. 2015. Every sherd is sacred. Compulsive hoarding in archaeology. In G. Sayeh, D. Henson, Y.F. Willumsen (eds), Managing the Archaeological Heritage. Proceedings of a session at EAA 2014, Istanbul.

Kersel, Morag M. 2015. Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis? Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, 2015, pp. 42-54.

Roosevelt, Christopher H., Peter Cobb, Emanuel Moss, Brandon R. Olson, and Sinan Ünlüsoy. 2015. Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice. Journal of Field Archaeology. Volume 40, Issue 3 (June 2015), pp. 325-346

Voss, Barbara L. 2012. Curation as research. A case study in orphaned and underreported archaeological collections. Archaeological Dialogues 19(2):145-169.

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2 Comments for : The Present and Future of Curating the Past
  1. Pingback: The Present and Future of Curating the Past — The ASOR Blog | Talmidimblogging

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