A FUSION OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND CONSERVATION: PAINTED CLAY-COVERED BASKETRY FROM THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Incorporating the discipline of professional conservation into the process of archaeological fieldwork in the American Southwest is both unusual and relatively recent. Complex archaeological investigations often include multicomponent sites (such as architecture, agriculture, and activity specialization) and analysis representing a wide range of specialist activities. Typical areas for grouping the results of specialist studies may include chronological, environmental, osteological, and artifact analyses.
Although sometimes critical to the excavation process, conservation research has generally been utilized as a separate activity that is exclusive to the traditional analytical studies required in professional archaeology. More often, the interpretive observations of conservators are received during the process of postexcavation care when the artifacts have been accessioned and cataloged into a museum collection. This stage is usually long after the archaeological investigation and written interpretation phases have been completed.
Typically, only certain artifacts (special, unique, discussed or illustrated in the archaeological site report) are selected for individual museum accessioning and cataloging. The remainder may reside in bulk form as part of a repository collection. The technical observations made by the conservator about the objects during examination, cleaning, stabilization, storage, or exhibition tend to remain isolated in conservation laboratory files and are rarely incorporated back into the academic body of knowledge regarding the archaeological investigation whence they came.
Of course, there are some exceptions to this situation, and many conservators have found great satisfaction in the process of offering new skills, tools, and techniques to the recovery of finds. In fact, conservators can offer substantial additional information if they are included in the excavation and the interpretation phases of the archaeological process. This contribution has particularly applied when the excavation conditions for very fragile and fragmentary finds can be controlled through the excavation of a block lift back in the conservation laboratory.
Successful collaborations linking an archaeological excavation, conservation, and the interpretation of the archaeological finds include this story of three clay-covered basketry vessels with painted decorations recovered near Punkin Center, Arizona, in 1995 (Odegaard and Crawford 2001) and an armband made with similar technology recovered near Globe, Arizona, in 1997 (Odegaard, forthcoming). Together, these objects illustrate the benefits of conservation research in the interpretation phase of an archaeological investigation. Obtaining accurate and complete information pertaining to funerary objects is of particular importance due to the recent national and state laws regarding timely returns for reburial.