Section IB: Unique Traits of Archaeological Collections
Archaeological collections differ from non-archaeological collections in unique ways, such as:
- Archaeological collections are used for education, exhibition, and research like other collections, but there is an important difference. Consider the contrast of an archaeological collection with a historic collection of tools, clothing, or artwork. By definition, historic collections are objects from periods of time where much is already known about the cultures they represent. Objects may be used to fill in gaps in the historic record or provide new perspective, but by definition these historic collections do not exist in a vacuum of knowledge about their functions, creators, or cultural context. In contrast, archaeological collections may be some of the only sources of information about certain aspects of their creators and have a primacy that is different from other collections. From the perspective of an archaeologist, archaeological specimens are proxies of human behavior that can inform us about cultures that are otherwise poorly understood. It is important to note here that archaeological collections from American sites originate predominantly from pre-contact Native American cultures, many of whom have descendent communities with rich oral histories about their ancestors. These oral histories are of no lesser significance or potential than written histories of other cultures, but centuries of forced removal and forced assimilation have led to the loss of traditional customs and knowledge in some Native American communities. In the Midwest where the Lichliter project takes place, some tribes have suffered great loss in this regard. Some native partners have expressed interest in studying archaeological collections themselves to recover lost cultural knowledge as preserved in these collections.
- The characteristics that are significant to an archaeological collection may be those that are also normally recorded for other kinds of collections, but the significance of those characteristics is different. For example, it is a standard practice in all forms of museum curation to record the types of material(s) of which an object is composed (e.g. wood, paper, canvas, leather, etc.) In an archaeological collection, there is usually a narrow range of materials represented (e.g. lithics, ceramics, faunal, floral, etc.), but material type is highly significant and is usually the primary criteria by which a collection is segregated for analysis and storage. Archaeologists routinely divide and subdivide material types into increasingly specific compartments for analysis.
- Archaeological collections can have massive disparities in object size, ranging from boulders to microscopic pollen within the same collection. The smallest objects may be the most or least significant for research depending on the site and the research questions of interest. For example, botanical remains from a 16,000 year old Late Pleistocene ("Ice Age") site might be the most important specimens in a collection since they allow the reconstruction of a poorly known natural environment that is radically different from the modern environment. Similar specimens from a site more recent in age would be informative but would not likely have the same significance.
- The most scientifically important collections are not necessarily the rarest, oldest, largest, most complete, most complex, or most aesthetically pleasing. The research value of a collection is primarily dependent on the quality of its documentation from its initial field recovery. A collection of rare or exceptional objects with poor provenience has less potential than a collection of common objects that are well-documented. Where an object was recovered will always be at least as important as what was recovered.
- Not all archaeological specimens are equally important within a collection. Some specimens are individually significant or research, while others are only collectively significant when they occur in large numbers and/or recognizable spatial/temporal patterns. The idiosyncratic nature of these collections makes it difficult to predict which specimens will hold the most significance.
- There is wide variation in the potential significance of individual specimens or groups of specimens, much of which is dependent on the quality of the metadata. The most important metadata about an archaeological object is usually spatial (i.e. provenience). In the case of isolated finds, provenience is itself sufficient for research purposes. When objects are found in a cultural context, provenience data is accompanied by data about context and association which increase research potential. Two identical objects from the same site may have differences in context that render one more significant than the other. For example, a ceramic sherd found on the surface would not necessarily have the same potential as a similar sherd from the same pot found in a subsurface feature; dependent in part upon what questions are being asked.
- Precision does not necessarily correlate with research potential. Given the importance of provenience, it stands to reason that the more precise a specimen's provenience - the greater its scientific value, but this would be a misleading oversimplification. In general, an archaeologist would always seek the most precise level of provenience that is feasible, but precision on its own merits is not necessarily meaningful. In many projects, archaeologists pursue different scales of precision for different specimens.
- Archaeological collections can have massive disparities in collection size, which do not necessarily correlate with research potential. A collection of 100,000 nails from a historic site may not have any greater research potential than a representative collection of 500 nails from the same site, all other things being equal. Most specimens are most useful when they occur in groups where spatial and temporal patterns can be observed and interpreted. The collection of 500 nails may have more potential depending on the associated data (e.g. spatial position) recorded at the time of discovery.
- Archaeological sites can vary in complexity for a wide variety of reasons. A large collection is not necessarily a complex collection. Complexity can be the result of how a site is composed, but it could also be the result of a sophisticated field methodology designed to address very specific research questions.
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