Many agencies have turned to no collection field strategies in recent years. Unfortunately, these strategies vary widely and are implemented with very little data, so we don’t know if they are effective. Several members of the Collection and Curation Committee have been working with SHA and SAA to develop some best practices to consider if you are developing a scope or preparing a proposal that includes no collection. We welcome your thoughts on this.
Ralph Bailey, Chair, ACRA Collections Management & Curation Committee
Best Practices for No-Collection Projects and In-field Analysis in the United States
The Archaeological Collections Consortium (ACC) includes representatives from the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), and the American Cultural Resources Association (ACRA) who are focused on the use, preservation, and management of archaeological collections. A key ACC goal is to develop and act upon a common platform of objectives that seek to benefit the discipline and ultimately the public for whom archaeological collections are curated in the public trust.
The ACC is concerned about the growing trends of no-collection, in-field artifact analyses, and collections reburial*. The use of these practices is driven by several factors, including limited availability of collections storage space, costs of curation, pressure among agencies to reduce overall project costs, and concerns among some THPOs and tribes about how their patrimonies are being treated by others once archaeological objects are removed from a site. These practices negatively impact the types and breadth of archaeological collections available for present and future research, interpretation, and education. They impede the archaeologist’s ability to analyze existing artifacts by using future research designs and methods and independently verifying results, actions which are critical to the credibility of an archaeological project and the scientific process in general. They also run counter to the professional ethics** of the organizations participating in the ACC.
Furthermore, these strategies are not justified in law, are rarely included in federal or state standards and guidelines, and very little has been published on these topics***. Statutory authority for recovery of archaeological material remains on federal land primarily comes from Sections 106 (compliance) and 110 (resource management) of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). These federal laws were enacted in recognition of the need to preserve and research the enormous historic, cultural, and scientific value that archaeological materials contain for the benefit of the American people. By specifying that such items located on federal land are the property of the federal government, and by systematizing the procedures for the excavation and handling of covered objects, ARPA sought to 1) protect the items from pillage, and 2) by doing so, better enable the American people to learn about and appreciate the lives of those who came before them. Likewise, the NHPA ensures that development considerations are balanced with preservation values, and confirms the public's interest in heritage preservation. Compliance agreements under Section 106 of NHPA require management considerations, which in many cases include archaeological data recovery and curation of the recovered collections. ARPA permits also govern archaeological data recovery and curation of the recovered collections. The federal regulations 36 CFR Part 79 then ensure that the recovered and analyzed collection is deposited in a repository that meets certain standards. Burial in the ground does not meet those standards.
The ACC is not aware of any published studies that explore the relative costs of no-collection and in-field analysis versus long-term curation to determine where the most significant expenses/savings occur when both follow professional ethics and guidelines. No-collection strategies might actually cost agencies more than curation if sites must be revisited and reevaluated because collections are not available to verify artifact identifications and specific attributes of those artifacts. Additionally, even when artifacts are not collected during a project, the associated records, whether hard copy or digital, should be assembled as a collection and may be subject to curation fees (Childs et al. 2010; Drew 2010; Kintigh and Altschul 2010).
Various combinations of no-collection and in-field identification and analysis have been implemented, particularly in the western United States. It is unclear whether these practices were developed using data sets and studies about their benefits and drawbacks or whether an assessment was made of how these practices may run counter to historic preservation laws. The effectiveness and reproducibility of these practices and their impacts on the archaeological record and future research should be carefully considered by archaeologists and other stakeholders involved in an archaeological investigation.
Therefore, for all of the reasons stated above, the ACC strongly discourages the use of no-collection, in-field analysis, and collections reburial until further study can be done, with exceptions for the use of no-collection and in-field analysis in the following circumstances: when a site is subject to a HAZMAT situation (e.g., harmful contamination) and for projects that conform to selected types of surface survey only (e.g., water lines, culverts, power lines, pumphouses, microwave towers). For these few instances when the applications may be appropriate, the ACC offers the following best practices to provide guidance to stakeholders. The goal of these guidelines is to ensure that no-collection and in-field identification and analysis methods—when agreed upon, documented, and adopted—are implemented with appropriate care and ethical consideration. The ACC decided not to provide best practices on reburial at this time because the reasons for reburial and the methods used seem to be widely varied, unevaluated, and unpublished in the United States (an exception is Williams 2011 on reburial for conservation).
These best practices should be considered interim until more research is conducted on the history, legal foundations, and long-term impacts of no-collection and in-field identification and analysis on the archaeological process (see last section below). Primary stakeholders for these guidelines include government (federal, tribal, state, and local) archaeologists and resource managers, descendent communities, cultural resource management companies, academic archaeologists, students, and professional societies, all of which might participate in developing archaeological research designs.
The ACC also considers these best practices to provide a framework that can be adjusted to specific archaeological projects and, perhaps, state policies and guidelines. There is considerable regional variation in how prehistoric and historical archaeological investigations are undertaken across the United States, especially during survey projects, which can affect these practices. Factors, such as local flora, topography, and soil type(s), should be considered when choosing appropriate archaeological field methods, as should the guidelines presented below.
Best Practices for No-Collection and In-Field Analysis
The ACC and others (Heilen and Altschul 2013) advocate for more research on no-collection and in-field identification and analysis practices across the United States. Some critical topics to explore, which are ripe for dissertation or thesis work, include:
In conclusion, the ACC contends that the practices of no-collection, in-field analysis, and collections reburial run counter to historic preservation laws and professional ethics. In only two circumstances—the event of a hazardous situation and for some kinds of surface survey—does the ACC recognize that no-collection and in-field analysis could be utilized. Additional comparative studies on this topic are needed; the few that exist clearly demonstrate that no-collection and in-field analyses cannot match analysis completed in the laboratory, in terms of replicability and accuracy. However, given that no-collection projects are proceeding without clear answers to the questions outlined above, the ACC offers these best practices for no-collection projects and in-field artifact identification and analysis as interim guidance. When further research into the legality, legitimacy, and cost-effectiveness of these archaeological field strategies is completed, this guidance can be amended. In drafting these initial best practices, the ACC is making an effort to fill an informational void for those who undertake such projects while trying to preserve a breadth of archaeological collections available for present and future research, interpretation, and education.
This statement is available in its entirety with footnotes and references here.
*Several of the terms used in this document are defined by the ACC in a compendium of definitions jointly published in The SAA Archaeological Record (2016, 16(1):41-43), SHA Newsletter (2015, 48(4):4-6), and ACRA’s February Monthly Member Update (2017).
**ACRA Code of Ethics: http://acra-crm.org/code-of-ethics, SHA Ethics Principles: https://sha.org/about-us/ethics-statement/, SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics: http://saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx
***For exceptions, see Butler 1979; Griset and Kodack 1998; Heilen 2013; Heilen and Altschul 2013; Heilen et al. 2008; and Williams 2011. Only Butler 1979 and Heilen and Altschul 2013 are in peer-reviewed publications.
****The ACC is not including immediate reburial of large organic objects for preservation purposes in its consideration of artifact reburial.
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