Friday, March 18, 2011

Curation's Role In Saving The Past For The Future

C is for curation, conservation, context, catalog, collection and the list goes on. The focus for the letter C this week is curation. Archaeological curation is defined as the process of managing and interpreting archaeological collections over the long term (Sullivan & Childs 2003). Often we have heard others refer to curation as “warehousing” of archaeological collections. Warehousing is putting something on a shelf and never looking at the contents of the box or crate again. It does not allow for the research which is routinely conducted on the collections at The State Museum or the loans to public facilities across the nation. Curation of archaeological collections involves the preservation of not only the artifacts, but also the documentation surrounding the recovery of these artifacts. This is what comprises an archaeological collection- the field records, field maps, journals and daily logs, photo documentation, any additional field documentation, artifacts and a complete professional report. This square sheet drawn by archaeologists while excavating a site is used to document features and changes in the soil.

Archaeologists excavate and map artifacts using an established grid.

Excavation of archaeological sites is a destructive process, and therefore it must be a scientific process. Professional archaeologists painstakingly measure and record every square inch (or cm) of the site that they are destroying. They record this data using transits, tape measures, line levels, mapping squares, and grid sheets to name a few of the tools employed. Profiles of soil changes are produced; photographs of the excavation record the process and preserve what the eye is seeing. Archaeologists know that once they dig beneath the ground surface, that they have forever removed a portion of history contained in that landscape and that the preservation of maps and images are essential records. The history of that plot of ground is dependent on how well archaeologists document what they observe in those soils, and the careful recovery of the physical evidence of past inhabitants. Artifacts are the evidence left by those before us and serve as the physical connection to our past.

Dr. Bernard Means examines a pottery vessel while conducting research on sites excavated under New Deal programs.. For more information on Bernard’s research visit our New Deal Archaeology web site.

Curation of the documentation associated with archaeological investigations and the preservation of artifacts assists archaeologists in documenting and interpreting past human behavior. Researchers scour the documentation for information that facilitates our understanding of prehistory from how stone tools were produced and used, to the house sturctures of our early Native American population.

This excavation of a house structure provides the archaeological evidence of this type of structure and improves our understanding of Native American prehistory.

Artists drawing of house structure based on archaeological evidence.

The historic record is often enhanced or corrected by our archaeological evidence recovered from our more recent past. History documents significant events or people, but archaeology provides a picture into the everyday life of peoples who are often left out of the historic record. Our past is our cultural heritage and the preservation of this heritage is facilitated through curation. Most of us have a connection to something from our past which we treasure, it may be an object, a letter, a photograph or a memory but it is that piece in our lives that provides us with a link to our individual past. Think of how you would feel if this was then taken from you and that connection to your past was gone. Hopefully this blog has provided our followers with a better understanding of the important role curation plays in the preservation of our heritage.

Sullivan, Lynne P. and S. Terry Childs
2003 Curating Archaeological Collections: From the Field to the Repository. Archaeologists Toolkit 6, AltaMira Press, Lanham,MD.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .


  1. Excellent, thank you.

  2. The artists conception of petal structure house looks vaguely familiar. Could you please provide full citation and reference? The blog is very informative BTW.

  3. Interesting post! I love talking about curation! The management of a collection involves so much work, updating and enforcing policies and procedures, approving research in the facility, organization and upkeep of the storage facility, and assessing artifact needs (stabilization, conservation, special storage needs). The list goes on, I definitely think that curators need a big shout out!