As the archaeologist and curator for the Lost City Museum every day is different for me. One day I might be entering the museum’s catalog records into the computer and the next I am doing research on trash middens or getting down and dirty while restoring the museum’s adobe pueblos. The museum where I work is an archaeology museum devoted to the study of the Virgin River branch of the Ancestral Puebloans (you might know them as the Anasazi). As a museum archaeologist I don’t get into the field as much as I would like, but the trade off is that I get to handle some pretty awesome Ancestral Puebloan artifacts.
My predecessors conducted more fieldwork than I have been able to for two reasons. One is that the valley where the museum is located experienced a lot of growth over the past 25 years, and often the places where people wanted to build their houses were located on archaeological sites. The landowners would sometimes grant the museum archaeologist permission to excavate as much of the site as possible before construction began. The excavation of these sites has led to a backlog of artifacts to be processed and cataloged because as is often the case in archaeological fieldwork, the excavation of the site is the easy part, and the processing of artifacts is the tedious (and unglamorous) part of the process. I would guess that most museums with archaeological collections have some sort of backlog of collections that were excavated and essentially forgotten without an analysis or formal report on the findings of the site.
This backlog has led to the second reason why I am not currently conducting field research. There has been a shift in the past five or ten years towards analyzing what is already present in a museum’s collection to obtain information about a site or a culture because the information is already available. Excavations are expensive, and there are perfectly good artifacts sitting in museum storage waiting to be analyzed. Another reason for this shift is connected to the realization that archaeological sites can be better preserved by not excavating them and waiting for technological advances that make archaeology a less destructive process. Advances in technology already allow archaeologists to “see” what is at a site through the use of ground penetrating radar, which means archaeologists can make better informed decisions on when, where, and how much of a site to excavate.
The great thing about my job as a museum archaeologist is that I get the best of both worlds. I can help out on the projects of other archaeologists, do site visits with site stewards, or conduct research on rock art sites when I need to get out into the field, and I have the satisifaction of knowing that I am helping to protect prehistoric artifacts that are over one thousand years old. Plus, as a museum archaeologist I get to see all of the great stuff that isn’t out on display!