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Questions, Answers, and Lessons Learned

Boise National Forest, Idaho, 2002
by Tyrone Corn and Marc Münch, FS Archaeologists

Archaeology, like most scientific disciplines, is driven by a never-ending curiosity that clearly defines what it means to be human. We are forever chasing what may be around the next corner or what may be on the next screen. And although this motivation is responsible for an amazing body of knowledge, there is a potential downside. At times, the excitement can be so seductive that we ignore smaller details in our hunt for the unknown. As a result, archaeology has a long history of biting off more than it can chew or, more appropriately, digging up more than it can process.

Archaeology is a young science when compared to biology or chemistry. Not long ago, it was little more than an avocational pursuit using methods singularly inspired by the “hunt for the unknown.” It was during this time that archaeologists earned a negative stereotype that still haunts us today—that of collecting a lot and documenting and displaying very little. Although it has taken many mistakes and more than 200 years, we now follow a set of ethics that promotes the seeking of knowledge through responsible and accountable methods.

So what does all this have to do with the PIT program? While PIT was designed to give the public opportunities to work with archaeologists and historians on historic preservation projects, it also allows PIT leaders to impart the ethics of our profession to volunteers.

Since the beginning of PIT in 1989, the Boise NF has conducted more than 30 PIT projects, including excavations, field surveys, and lab projects. Our volunteers have asked a couple of common questions that are unique to the type of project. On excavations, the question is “Why do we have to keep everything we find in the screen?”; on surveys, “Why don’t we collect everything we find?” During lab projects, volunteers wonder why the artifacts require such meticulous processing. Although these questions may appear contradictory, the answers are more alike than not. All have to do with responsibility to a nonrenewable resource and the information it can provide.

In projects such as the excavations conducted at the Hop Lee Placer Claim (in 1995, 1996, 1997, and 2001) near Idaho City, Idaho, archaeologists and volunteers unearthed thousands of artifacts, most of which were duplicates of items already discovered. This led to questions about the value of keeping every rusty nail or can fragment. Although it is important to keep all cultural materials because the quantity of a particular artifact can yield information, the greater issue is the destructive nature of excavation. An archaeological site can be excavated only once. This demands that sites be excavated as thoroughly and carefully as possible. We would rather make the mistake of keeping too much than discard items that may someday be meaningful. Often, portions of a site are left untouched in the event that the future might bring more-revealing, less-invasive techniques of data recovery.

In the summer of 2001, volunteers surveyed a historic mining district burned by the Trail Creek Fire. Reduced vegetation and increased visibility led to the discovery of many new sites, most with numerous associated artifacts. Sites were documented through artifact inventories, digital photography, and detailed site maps, but very few artifacts were collected. This gave rise to questions about what we chose to collect and why. Although collecting surface artifacts does not represent the same impact as excavation, it still alters the site. As a result, we collected only diagnostic artifacts that were likely to be stolen by looters. Additionally, collection is a process that starts with photographing the item in place and ends with documentation and curation at a specialized facility. Although the artifact is no longer in situ, there is a paper trail leading back to its origin, and it is available for examination and research.

The Boise NF offered its first lab project in the spring of 2000. During the project, volunteers processed nearly 275 boxes of unsorted archaeological materials from the Danskin Rockshelter, a prehistoric site on the South Fork Boise River. The site was excavated in 1989 by a state-sponsored field school that ran out of both time and money to complete the job. The collection spent the next decade in storage until this lab project began the process of sorting, cataloging, and analyzing the artifacts recovered. Often volunteers asked questions about the level of detail required of the process, wondering if it wasn’t excessive. Curation is the promise made to a collected artifact that removing it from the site will not be the end to the information it can offer. This promise requires recording information without the benefit of knowing how it may be used and is the last step in a process that validates archaeology as a legitimate scientific pursuit. In this case, the lab analysis led to conclusions that directly contradicted findings of the preliminary report. Further analysis will lead to a more complete picture of activities at the Danskin Rockshelter.

In the early years of PIT on the Boise NF, volunteers were spared what we believed to be the tedious task of curation. This created a backlog of processing that just wasn’t getting done. Afraid that the volunteer response would be minimal, our first lab project was somewhat of a gamble. We were pleased to discover that volunteers enjoy the curation process, and since that time we have hosted three additional successful curation projects. As a result of this success, lab work is now conducted concurrently with excavations, giving volunteers the chance to participate in the process from start to finish. This is significant to archaeologists and volunteers alike, but the greatest benefit is to the curated materials and the profession as a whole. We have made great strides toward reducing the backlog of processing, but there is still much to be done. We will continue to offer projects for lab work and curation and with the help of volunteers, we will process collections professionally and responsibly.

For information on archaeological ethics, please visit the Society for American Archaeology web site at
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