Home > General Conservation > Tricky Situations: The Role of a Conservator during Ownership Battles

Tricky Situations: The Role of a Conservator during Ownership Battles

February 26th, 2013

Tricky Situations: The Role of a Conservator during Ownership Battles

 Sara Kerfoot

            Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, the dynamic between Native Americans and archaeologists has changed drastically. “NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations” (NPS 2012).  The majority of the public agrees in appropriate treatment of the dead; this thought extends to Native American ancestors (McManamon 1994). Therefore, scrutiny after excavation, without permission, has fallen out of favor. It is Federal law that all Federal agencies and private museums that have been funded by Federal dollars must comply with NAGPRA. The pressing issue is not archaeologists refusing to comply with the law, but the action those conservators and archaeologists must take when multiple Nations are declaring ownership of excavated human remains and funerary goods. The conservators have to make a choice on what actions they should or should not take while waiting for legal battles to be solved.

            NAGPRA ensures that a greater amount of respect is shown towards Native American groups. This Federal law has required that greater amounts of communication transpire between American Indians, all Federal Museums, and government archaeologists. Museums must create inventories for all cultural items that are subject to NAGPRA; after the inventory has been made, they must be sent to all potential lineal decedents and Indian tribes (McManamon 1994).

            There are complications. Human remains and grave goods that have been found today do not necessary have a direct connection to today’s contemporary tribes. This is an issue because ancient nations do not all exist; many tribes have changed and integrated into other nations. At one point, there may have been one prehistoric American Indian group, but with time, people moved and dispersed across the country. This is an issue because when Federal agencies release inventory lists, multiple groups may lay claim to a single artifact. An example of this can be seen in Arizona, specifically at Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, and Montezuma Well. There are various grave goods and human remains that are originally from the Sinagua people. However, there are no Sinagua people today; it is best inferred that they integrated with Hopi and Yavapai peoples (NPS 2013). This leads to battles in who is allowed rights to the funerary remains.

            Today’s archaeologists must adhere to strict rules when dealing with all potential burials, however, archaeologists of the past had very few guidelines and many of them brought up anything that caught their interest. Burials are not as likely to be excavated today from professional archaeologists; however, today there are many cultural items in museum collections that are in the process of being returned.

            Conservators and curators have a duty to hold on to artifacts and human remains until the legal issues have been sorted. There are a variety of materials that can be associated with burials, ranging from linens, ceramics, food remains, and bones. Since each Nation wants a different outcome for the cultural items, it can be hard for conservators to know what to do This could be a tricky situation depending on the mentality of the Nation; some may be interested in preserving an artifact, while others may be more interested in reburying it. This could become complicated for the conservator, who of course, is interested in the life history of the artifact and has a time window when an artifact may be preserved or begin to deteriorate. A conservator may not know if they are solely supposed to stabilize an artifact from further deterioration or if they should begin to mechanically clean an artifact and slowly reveal some of the artifact’s basic characteristics. Some nations feel violated when their past is uncovered by people not of their heritage, whereas others enjoying seeing a physical connection to their own ancestry regardless of who discovered it. It can also be difficult if a collection has been broken up in multiple museums (Iverson 2008). Ceramics found in the desert are fairly easy to conserve but organics, such as cotton and yucca woven cloth needs to be preserved in a stable environment. An issue is that many Nations do not want these specific cultural items to be preserved; yet they do not want them to deteriorate until they have had the items returned to them for reburial.

            The best action for conservators to take that are faced with the shifting ownership of cultural items is to have open communication. There needs to be an agreement between Federal agencies and various American Indians tribes so that no group becomes alienated with the conservation practices while the court discussions proceed.

            Conservators are obviously interested in preserving the past in order to uncover the story of humans, however just because they have the ability to discover the facts does not mean they should uncover the past. This is easier said than done, at least from a curious person’s perspective, and admittedly, conservators and archaeologists are curious people. To not analyze artifacts that hold answers to the past that have been left in front of them can be very difficult. The best way to deal with this situation is to work with tribes in order to find a happy medium for all groups. American Indians understand that burials and grave goods have information about the past that the public is interested in their story. It is possible to have a compromise, such as the conservator continuing treatment of the artifacts, so long the artifacts remain in a stable condition and all actions done to the artifact are non-invasive and reversible. There can be workable scenarios, such as photographing all artifacts and human remains for further study. These photos would have the caveat of not being seen by the public and solely used for research purposes. 

            In order to have good working relationships between Federal agencies and American Indians, many cultural collections may be repatriated. To date, 38,671 individuals, 998,731 associated funerary objects, 144,163 unassociated funerary objects, 4,303 sacred objects, 948 objects of cultural patrimony and 822 objects that are both sacred and patrimonial have been repatriated since the passage of NAGPRA (NPS 2012). This has been hard for archaeologists and conservators but it has created better relationships with American Indian groups because it shows that researchers are doing their best to respect Native American practices. Better relationships have the potential to allow for more research to occur in the future.

            Conservators are knowledgeable on the deterioration of various organics and inorganics. This knowledge allows them the insight in how they should proceed in attempting to preserve artifacts. Conservators today have to be concerned with more than artifact conservation; they must be updated on current events and artifact ethics before they proceed with any work done to an artifact. Today, the popular trend in conservation is preservation, not restoration. This allows the artifact to keep more of its original integrity. This mentality has the potential to forge better relations with American Indian groups since their cultural collections are not being manipulated in a way that was unintended.

            While various groups battle over human remains and grave goods in court, conservators must forge open communication so people can benefit from the past’s insights. They must do their best to not alter the artifacts original substance while trying to conserve it and if they lose their cultural collection in court, they must be willing to accept that as a respectable decision. 


Iverson, Anne, 2008. Tuzigoot National Monument: NAGPRA Report. In: Western Archaeological and Conservation Center. < http://www.cpcesu.nau.edu/current/documents/TUZINAGPRAreport.pdf>. Accessed 17 February 2013.

McManamon, Francis P., 1994. Changing Relationships Between Native Americans and Archaeologists. In: Forum Journal March/April Vol. 8. No. 2. National Trust for Historic Preservation. <http://www.preservationnation.org/forum/library/public-articles/changing-relationships-between-native-americans.html>. Accessed 17 February 2013.

National Park Service, 2012. Frequently Asked Questions. In: National NAGPRA. U.S. Department of the Interior. <http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/FAQ/INDEX.HTM>. Accessed 17 February 2013.

National Park Service, 2013. Montezuma Castle National Monument Arizona. In: Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary. National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. < http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Montezuma_Castle_National_Monument.html>. Accessed 17 February 2013.


General Conservation

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.