Archaeologists have both ethical and legal obligations to preserve all of the data they collect for the benefit of future generations. This includes not just the artifacts from an archaeology project, but also the associated information and records such as soil samples, field notes, maps, photographs, and related historical documents. Archaeologists follow strict guidelines and procedures for cleaning, labeling, cataloguing, and storing objects. Visit the Society for Historical Archaeology’s “Standards and Guidelines for the Curation of Archaeological Collections” to learn about these procedures.
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Where are Collections Stored?
Each state has a responsibility to store the millions of artifacts recovered from surface collections or excavations within its boundaries. Finding space for these collections is a major challenge. While some collections are stored in many locations around the state, other states have created a centralized archaeology storage facility, such as the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. This laboratory houses archaeological collections from land and underwater projects, conducted by state and federal government agencies in Maryland. It also contains private collections that have been donated to the state.
Universities and museums also sponsor archaeology projects and are responsible for preservation and storage. Archaeologists working at museums or at universities that have museums may store their collections there. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Philadelphia is an example of a museum with important archaeology collections, which it stores, displays, and loans to other institutions for exhibitions. These collections are also studied by scholars from all over the world. At the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology, located in the National Museum of Natural History, archaeologists store their collections at the museum on the National Mall and nearby storage facility. (http://www.nmnh.si.edu/anthro/cm/)
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Why Are Collections Preserved?
Collections are preserved for both scientific research and public education. The application of new technologies and dating techniques to old collections yields valuable new information that may lead to new theories and understandings about our human past. For instance neutron activation analysis now allows one to trace the origin of the raw materials used in Maya ceramic pots, collected over a hundred years ago. In addition, both DNA analysis and atomic mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating are being applied to plant and animal for the study of origins of plant and animal domestication.
Archaeological collections are also preserved for use in museum exhibits so that the public may benefit from the archaeological research that unearthed them.
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