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A fragment of an ancestral Pueblo jar dating to c. A.D. 1150.

America’s Archaeology Data Keeps Disappearing and That’s Not Legal

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By Keith Kintigh / The Conversation

Archaeology – the name conjures up images of someone carefully sifting the sands for traces of the past and then meticulously putting those relics in a museum. But today’s archaeology is not just about retrieving artifacts and drawing maps by hand. It also uses the tools of today: 3D imaging, LiDAR scans, GPS mapping and more.

Today, nearly all archaeological fieldwork in the U.S. is executed by private firms in response to legal mandates for historic preservation, at a cost of about a billion dollars annually. However, only a minuscule fraction of the data from these projects is made accessible or preserved for future research, despite agencies’ clear legal obligations to do so. Severe loss of these data is not unusual – it’s the norm.

Unanswered questions

Federally mandated projects yield massive amounts of irreplaceable data, particularly on Native American history. Those data are generated for the explicit purpose of benefiting the American public.

The primary data include things like counts of different kinds of artifacts; information on fragments of plant and animals found in fire pits; maps and photographs of ruined buildings; dates from charred roof beams; and the chemical composition of paint on pottery. This allows researchers to understand life in the past – inferring, for example, human population size and movement, social organization, trade and diet.

An assortment of Native American artifacts. The two white points on the bottom left were found in Illinois; all others were found in the Reno, Nevada. (Public Domain)

An assortment of Native American artifacts. The two white points on the bottom left were found in Illinois; all others were found in the Reno, Nevada. (Public Domain)

The data further enable archaeologists to study social processes that are important in today’s world, but that operate so slowly that they aren’t perceptible on time scales available in other social sciences. Why does migration occur? Why do migrant groups maintain their identities in some circumstances and adopt new ones in others? What factors have allowed some societies to persist over very long time periods?

However, this sort of synthetic research depends upon online access to a wealth of research data and unpublished technical reports. Access to these data also gives the researchers the ability to replicate the work of or correct errors by the original investigators.

What’s more, for many, ancestral sites are critical to maintaining identity and purpose in an increasing global world. Government agencies are responsible for appropriately managing sites for their scientific, cultural and educational values. But to do so effectively, they must have access to full documentation of past investigations.

Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) pottery sherds (900-1300AD). (Image: Marek via Fotolia)

Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) pottery sherds (900-1300AD). (Image: Marek via Fotolia)

Preserving the data

About 30,000 legally mandated archaeological investigations are conducted each year in the U.S. These projects are usually documented only in so-called “gray literature” reports that, in most cases, are not readily accessible, even to professional archaeologists.

The databases that contain the project data are even less frequently adequately documented, made accessible to other researchers or preserved in a way that will make them likely to be usable in a few years, much less 20 or 50 years. Data may be stored on media that degrade, like punch cards, floppy disks or magnetic tape. Hard disks on office computers or servers may fail, and database software can become obsolete, making the data unreadable. Data may become a victim to institutional housekeeping if files not used within a certain period of time are automatically deleted.

As a professional archaeologist and former president of the Society for American Archaeology, I believe that archaeologists have an ethical obligation to ensure that the digital records of what is discovered, like the artifacts, remain available for study in the future.

There are digital repositories expressly designed to make archaeological information discoverable, accessible and preserved permanently for future use. At my university, I led the initial development of the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), which has been publicly available for eight years. tDAR allows archaeologists to directly upload databases, documents, photographs, GIS files and other necessary data. The cost to upload a document or image is typically US$5, while the cost for a database depends on its size. This includes costs of permanently preserving the file and making it continuously accessible.

A similar service is available through the University of York’s Archaeology Data Service in the U.K., which has been around for more than 20 years.

I believe that for all newly authorized projects, agencies must ensure that the full digital record of their archaeological investigations is deposited in a recognized digital repository. That information would then become available not only to researchers and agency personnel, but also to the public. The cost for doing this is about 1 to 3 percent of the archaeological project cost, with lower percentages for larger projects.

Agencies also need to begin properly curating the data from projects that have already been completed. Notably, at tDAR, this process has been started by a number of U.S. agencies, including the Air Force, the Army Corps of Engineers and a few offices at the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service.

Federal agencies are already legally required to preserve the digital records of publicly funded archaeological investigations. They just aren’t doing it. To avoid this is to ignore not only their legal obligations and their obligations to the American public, it is to consign the data – and all that can be learned from them – to oblivion.

Top image: A fragment of an ancestral Pueblo jar dating to c. A.D. 1150.          Source: Keith Kintigh, Arizona State University, CC BY 4.0

This article was originally published under the title ‘America’s archaeology data keeps disappearing – even though the law says the government is supposed to preserve it ’ by Keith Kintigh on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.



Gary Moran's picture

Some of the problems in the past -say 50 yeays ago and longer may have been the result of ignorance. Some may also have been the result of outright discrimination and “intellectual bias”. I believe the Smithsonian is largely responsible, as decades of blatant abuses, supression, and outright bigotry are well documented on the part of their upper management. Does rhat mean that it’s likely that our government hs been pulling those strings by using funding as leverage to maintain the party line? Unfortunately, that organization (Smithsonian) has no legal authority to force adherence to legally mandated standards, and it’s questionable in my mind whether they would even if they could.

If there are laws on the books, there should be some method specified to prosecute violators. Don’t think individual complaints will fix much, unless groups of concerned people band together.

“if three people do it, they’ll think it’s a movement”    “Alice’s Restaraunt”   Arlo Guthrie

I spent the summer working as a archaeological monitor for my community, and can affirm the primary points made in this article.

These examples given below were done regularly and so, i concluded that CRM is not archaeology - anyone doing CRM who calls themselves an 'archaeologists' is self diluted...and full of fecal matter.

This past summer, i saw how the so called 'CRM Archaeologists' contribute to maintaining a lie, and protecting a defunct status quo; they seem to think no one see's them, such is the arrogance involved.

We saw them trespassing on traditional territory's and digging without consent, saw them leaving artifacts in the field to be forgotten or 'picked up later' by Phd's and Masters students.

The above example is totally devoid of the 'scientific process' and 'standards' set out by that industry and again, this being done by students of the CRM protocols taught at the local university here on the Lakehead of Lake Superior.

This is called 'Systemic Racism' for those unable to face the truth of it.

The 'disappearing of artifacts' is done using C.R.M. and its biased and bigoted proponents who will literally, leave artifacts in the field, bury the artifacts in labs never to be studied or simply walk past 'high potential areas' to be tested.

When dates of newly discovered and lab tested artifacts prove their dates are wrong and need to be moved back - all of a sudden the same lab instruments are no good and fail scientifically.

But, when those tests come back with dates and results 'they like'...well then, those same tests are just 'fantastic science'.

The company i was monitoring is in fact, one of the better ones doing CRM here today - the others are far worse where i heard second hand stories of artifacts being reburied or physically destroyed or taken home for their 'private collections'.

And where, non-native people with no vested interested in protecting the Indigenous resources, other then the pay check and 'false prestige' it provides, are allowed to speak for the indigenous community because the 'new 2011 standards' are simply ignored for the sake of corporate directives.

The racial biases and bigotry are so subtle, yet so apparent to anyone with eyes to see. It was those same attitudes which led to violent conflicts in the field, back in the 80's and 90's.; hence CRM was 'invented'.

Today, my community members see it as yet another forced policy of assimilation' because we were given no voice at the table, by which to contribute to the CRM protocols and the so called 'industry standards'.

And then these 'scientists' wonder why indigenous communities have no trust to give them - they have not earned that trust, yet.

Preferring instead to prop up their corporate sponsors by 'hiding significant finds' or poison entire populations if need be, to protect their fragile egos.

As an example, the scientists at Monsanto, EPA and FDA should all be stripped of their 'titles of nobility' and thrown in jails for their 'scientific contributions to humanity'.

An extreme example? yes i agree. But such is the state of scientific en-devour today, across many fields of study it seems.

People of all creeds, globally, are waking up now; seeing that 'science' in general has failed to protect and educate humanity on the valued 'truth' of most every recent discovery; and even those of any little significance for that matter.

However, hope remains when good articles like this one are written by truth seekers, and can be found in the words...

..."The world continues to turn over; all lies come to the surface quickly at this time - spider woman weaves a new web'...

be well, miigwetch
miniiwanigoshii benashi

Gary Moran's picture

I’ve seen several several articles accusing prestigous organizations (such as Geographic) of destroying or concealing artifacts that do not agree with the ‘established’ notions of history, i.e. giants or remains reported to have been discovered in many locations in U.S. There have even been stories of respected researchers being discredited and black-balled for daring to propose theories based on research that does not agree with the official version of events.

I hope you don’t get any kickback even though your article is very diplomatically worded.

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