CONSERVATION AND ARCHAEOLOGY IN GREAT BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES: A COMPARISON
JESSICA S. JOHNSON
7 THE EFFECTS OF AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY'S ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
From the late 1960s until very recently, American anthropological archaeology has been dominated by the development of the “New Archaeology.” This approach rejected the traditional, descriptive approach of earlier archaeology. Instead, it embraced the general goal of much of social science to “formulate laws that will explain socio-cultural processes and associated human behavior” (Trigger 1978, 20). As part of this approach, archaeologists rejected the quality and usefulness of previously excavated material in collections and called for new excavations to collect new data that could be interpreted through their own, sound, scientifically valid methods (Trigger 1985). There was little support in archaeology for the upkeep and care of collections in museums (Lindsay and Williams-Dean 1980).
Recently, some archaeological researchers have been examining the effects of formation processes, those social and environmental factors that affect the development of the archaeological record. One of the major proponents of the study of formation processes, Michael B. Schiffer, recently published a basic text that included a chapter titled “Environmental Formation Processes: The Artifact” (1987), which discusses deterioration of materials, a traditional area of expertise of conservators. He acknowledges “architectural preservationists and museum conservators” (144) and liberally quotes texts by Plenderleith and Werner (1971) and Dowman (1970) as the most recent texts in conservation. However, the field and museum conservator appears to have no active role to play in Schiffer's identification of formation processes. Elucidation of formation processes would seem to be a major potential area of collaboration between conservation and archaeology. Conservators, who are trained in materials and technical analysis and who closely examine every object during treatment, would appear to have an ideal perspective from which to identify and determine some factors that have influenced the artifacts they are conserving. For example, the careful examination of metal artifacts required before mechanical cleaning can reveal methods of manufacture and repair previously destroyed by more injudicious corrosion removal. Organic material is often recovered during mechanical cleaning of metals and can reveal much information about the depositional environment of the metal and organic material (UKIC 1989).
Most recently, the requirements for repatriation of Native American material culture and human remains have led to the development of an attitude expressed something like this: “If we are just going to rebury it, why bother with conservation?” Until specific federal guidelines are developed to legislate the repatriation of material housed in collections, there may be little impetus for archaeologists to accept the need for long-term preservation of the objects recovered from future as well as past excavation.