Posts Tagged ‘indigenous’

Conservation And Native American Beliefs: The Totem Pole

March 23rd, 2015
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Conservation And Native American Beliefs

“The Totem Pole”

 Lori Gross

                  Totem poles are one of the world’s greatest monumental expressions of the Northwest Coast Native Americans. Most commonly we think of them as tall, carved, freestanding, outside poles depicting animals stacked one upon another. As a child I had the opportunity to travel to British Columbia and I was mesmerized by the totem poles. I recall tilting my head back as far as I could to take in their immense size, intricate carvings and bold colors but like most I never wondered about the ‘what’, ‘why’ or ‘who’ that led to the creation of such masterpieces.

Given my experience it is no wonder that these beautiful artifacts have been coveted by museums and private collectors for centuries. I have to wonder is that what Native Americans intended when they crafted them? Were they meant to be moved, conserved, displayed and used as tourist attractions without fully understanding their meaning and intention (Mawani 2005)? Seen as a symbol of the Northwest Coast Indian during the late eighteen hundreds it was thought that no anthropological museum was complete without at least one pole so procurement was set as a priority employing the reasoning that those poles that were not sent to museums were at the mercy of natural processes and would rot, fall and be lost forever (Darling, et al., 1980). What museums did not take into consideration was the Native Americans perspective “…objects are created to be used and when those objects are damaged or worn out, they are thrown away and new ones are made. This applies to everything from small masks to large totem poles. For example, many Indian people feel that once a pole has served its purpose it should be allowed to go back into the ground. The objects themselves are not important; what matters is what the objects represent” (Cramner-Webster 1986).

In recent years more attention has been focused on understanding the perspective of the Native American Culture in regards to totem poles, especially by conservators. Instead of approaching the conservation of a totem pole with mere intellect some have turned to understanding the spiritual and ceremonial significance as well (Rhyne 2013).

One such totem pole ‘The Tongass Island Raven’ owned by a Tlingit Tribe was approached for conservation utilizing more than traditional conservation techniques. Recognizing that when a totem pole is originally raised, a great ceremony is held to honor the significance of the totem. The conservator came to understand that it was also important to perform a similar ceremony prior to the restoration. He learned that the purpose of the Raven for the tribe was to link them to their ancestors. Before the conservation was begun a Tlingit elder sang a blessing in their native language to explain the purpose of the intervention (conservation) to the Raven. The Raven was asked to understand that no harm was meant and that the effort to preserve the wood and stabilize the materials was so the Raven could continue to remind the native people of their culture, their symbols and the past (Rhyne 2013).

Gross Blog 3 Pic




Pictures Courtesy of the Ketchikan Museum Heritage Center


I was very touched and encouraged when I read the quote from the conservator following the ceremony “For myself as the conservator responsible for the treatment, the experience was a reminder that spirits and ancestors from the past were associated with the Raven and were understood to be involved with my work” (Rhyne 2013).

For me The Raven project signifies respect for not only cultural heritage and conservation but a new beginning. I hope in the future that conservators around the world embrace new approaches like the one described above and experience what I believe was a life changing experience for both the Tlingit and Rhyne.



Rhyne, Charles S. 2013. “Changing approaches to the conservation of Northwest Coast totem poles.” Studies in Conservation 45(Supplement-1): 155-160.

Cranmer-Webster, Gloria. 1986. “Conservation and Cultural Centres: U’Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, Canada,” in Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnographic Materials, ed. R. Barclay, M. Gilberg, J.C. McCawley and T. Stone, CCI, Ottawa (1986) 77-79.

Darling, David and Cole, Douglas. 1980. “Totem Pole Restoration on the Skeena, 1925-30: An Early Exercise in Heritage Conservation.” BC Studies 47: 29-48.

Mawani, Renisa. 2005. “From Colonialism to Multiculturalism? Totem Poles, Tourism and National Identity in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.” Social and Legal Studies 14 (3): 315–340.

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Patience is a virtue when Conservation is the goal: “The Ozette Village”

February 26th, 2015
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Patience is a virtue when Conservation is the goal: “The Ozette Village”

Lori Kay Gross

          As archaeologists we have all learned the delicate and deliberate methods of excavation, recovery and cataloging of artifacts. Time limitations, Mother Nature and funding often dictate the methods of excavation creating a dilemma between archaeologists and conservators.   The Ozette Village is an example where conservators and archaeologists worked as a team to preserve one of the most extensive collections of artifacts through careful excavation utilizing unusual yet appropriate methods to ensure maximum preservation in a challenging environment.

The Pacific Northwest is rich in archaeological discoveries. Among these discoveries is a particularly interesting archaeological site located on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. This site, nestled on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, represents one of the most important North American archaeological sites. The significance of this site is demonstrated by the large number of artifacts recovered their unprecedented preservation and is often referred to as ‘A North American Pompeii’ (Steury 2008). This site is called ‘The Ozette Village’.

This Makah Indian fishing village, occupied from the Middle Pacific to the Early Modern time, was buried by a mud slide in the mid 1700’s, preserving the site and its artifacts nearly unaltered. In the late 1960’s, during a survey of the entire Pacific Coast of Washington, Ozette was identified as an important site by Richard D. Daugherty when he performed a test trench survey revealing radio carbon dating data correlating to approximately 2,000 years ago. He encountered well preserved artifacts which supported its significance but without funding the excavation did not continue. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s, after a series of storms battered the coast that large portions of this ancient village began to emerge (Kirk 2007). The exposure of well-preserved artifacts reignited the interest in saving this important archaeological find and with the support of the modern day Makah Indians and the Washington Archaeological Research Center excavation began (Steury 2008).

Geological evidence and historical records indicate that the most probable cause of the massive mud slide was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that dislodged a water saturated hill above the village. Although devastating, the composition of the soil contained large amounts of oxygen free clay combined with the water. Excavation findings confirm that these conditions created an up to 10-foot thick clay covering that aided in the preservation of the predominately wooden artifacts. Excavation would require the use of water to continue the careful exposure of the artifacts from the clay and for transportation and final conservation (Daugherty 1977).

Getting the delicate artifacts out of the slide in the first place provided the initial challenge. Most of the wet site was excavated hydraulically. The Ozette archaeologists pumped seawater at various pressures for different stages of excavation. Initial clearing was with high pressure. Once artifacts started to show, lower-pressure garden hoses were used to clean and remove the artifacts. At the end of a nearly eleven year excavation, the artifact inventory exceeded 50,000 items including wooden structural remains, harpoon shafts, hooks, canoe paddles, wooden bowls, whale bones, whetstones, woven baskets and mats (Daugherty 1977).



Whale Bone Club 2


Wood and Whale Bone Fishing Hook

 Photos courtesy of


Many of the artifacts recovered from Ozette are much the same as they were when they were buried. Once they’re exposed to oxygen, however, they begin to get brittle and disintegrate. So everything that came out of the excavation immediately went into a preservative bath of polyethylene glycol which forces the water out, solidifies it and begins the conservation process (Steury 2008).

In reviewing the process and procedures that Richard D. Daugherty followed from his first knowledge of the Ozette village in 1947 through the nearly 40 years of investigation, research and excavation his involvement reveals a very ethical and conscientious archaeologist. Even when faced with this exciting discovery Daugherty knew that disturbing the site before procuring the necessary support could result in artifact decomposition upon exposure.   Although it was certain that this location was rich in artifacts and history his complete evaluation of the site and advanced preparation to ensure the safe and effective recovery was inspiring.

As unique as the Ozette excavation was it also stands apart in that no artifacts from the site left the Makah reservation. Everything discovered is either displayed in the cultural center or stored in a state-of-the-art storage warehouse. The museum is expertly curated and the artifacts are mesmerizing. This is the result of Daugherty’s collaboration with the members of the Makah Nation and his belief that the excavation work should be accessible to the public to participate in the revealing of the collective history of the Ozette Village (Steury 2008).


Daugherty, Richard D. The Ozette Archaeological Expedition: A Cooperative Project of Makah Nation, Washington State University, National Park Service, National Science Foundation, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Washington (State): S.n., 1977-. Print.


Steury, Tim. “The Home of My Family: Ozette, the Makah’s and Doc Daugherty.” Washington State Magazine (2008): 1-8. Abstract. Print.


Kirk, Ruth, and Richard D. Daugherty. Archaeology in Washington. Seattle: University of Washington, 2007. Print.


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Conservation and Indigenous Peoples

February 26th, 2015
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Conservation and Indigenous Peoples

Kate Thomas


The 1991 passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act put in motion a way for archaeologists and native peoples to deal with the ownership of native artifacts. This had been a decades long battle, with the disenfranchised Native Americans desiring input into their own history, and archaeologists arguing that this was information for everyone. The politics of being an archaeologist dealing with indigenous groups have been a longstanding debate, but what about being a conservator for indigenous groups? Do conservators offer a side that archaeologists alone cannot?

The major criticism of archaeology by indigenous peoples, at least in the United States, has been that archaeologists tend to view their methodology as the ‘truth’ and ignore the input of Native histories (Deloria Jr. 1969). This, along with Red Power movement and the justified criticisms of the American government’s policy towards Native Americans led to the creation of NAGPRA. This law has allowed for legal proceedings regarding the repatriation of Native artifacts, the most famous of which has been Kennewick Man (Bruning 2006). Although legal battles have been heated, a large section of archaeology’s response is to embrace NAGPRA and attempt to change the archaeological process. This is even truer for the archaeologists who started studying archaeology after the implementation of NAGPRA, as for us it is not a change but rather the norm. An example of this is in Janet Spector’s “What this Awl Means” in which she involves the local community of indigenous peoples in order to better understand awls at a Dakota site in Minnesota (Spector 1993).

NAGPRA, and the debates preceding and proceeding it, is focused mainly on archaeology. However, conservation is a vital portion of this discussion. One of the major portions of NAGPRA is that all federally funded depositories had to inventory and repatriate human and cultural remains to the appropriate federally recognized tribe. Some of these item have already been conserved, could have been in the process of being conserved, or need to be conserved. The other portion of the law is that archaeological excavations must be approved and overseen by a tribal member, often times the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer or THPO. The tribe can then choose to repatriate their cultural items if they so desire. In both instances conservators are not mentioned directly in the law, but can be involved in the process.

If archaeologists can work with indigenous groups to interpret material remains, conservators should have an ethical duty to work with indigenous groups to ensure their cultural heritage is not destroyed. Archaeology has had to change its focus to being advocates for the disenfranchised, and conservators should follow suit. This, however, brings in another set of problems. The major criticisms of the involvement of archaeologists in native heritage has been overriding native input and the disturbance of Native American artifacts. This holds true for conservators as well. At the Arizona State Museum, conservators have been dealing with NAGPRA compliance in relation to their pottery collection. Their methodology has included consulting tribal representatives for every aspect of conservation, from treatments to the artifacts to artifact storage (Moreno et al 2009). This has been an ongoing process, and could provide a model for conservators to work with indigenous peoples towards the conservation of their cultural heritage.

Archaeologists and conservators alike often speak of the power of holding a tangible connection to the past in your own hands. Preventing the destruction of indigenous artifacts is beneficial to the community in this way. Perhaps even more importantly, having tangible historical evidence is an important tool in the battle for public recognition. Too often historical erasure is an important tool in subjugation and disenfranchisement, and conservation holds a unique position to prevent this from happening.




Bruning, Susan B. 2006 Complex Legal Legacies: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Scientific Study, and Kennewick Man. Society for American Archaeology 71(3): 501-521

Deloria Jr., Vine 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins. New York, New York: MacMillian

Moreno, Teresa Chris White, Alyce Sadongei, and Nancy Odegaard. 2009 Integration of Tribal Consulations to Help Facilitate Conservation and Collections Management at the Arizona State Museum. The SAA Archaeological Record 9(2): 36-40.

Spector, Janet D. 1993 What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press




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Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

February 12th, 2014

Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

 Allison Miller

The study and care of human skeletal remains continues to provide challenges to archaeologists and conservators, as the cultural implications of the remains often supersede their scientific implications. Many of the cultural and legal aspects of working with skeletal remains, however, can be mitigated if archaeologists and conservators remain vigilant about treating the remains of the individuals and their potential ancestors with the proper respect. While certain laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), exist to prevent the study of remains in deference to religious and cultural beliefs, they do not broadly hinder the study of human remains, as there continue to be many other remains to be examined. Conservators working with human remains should both be knowledgeable about conservation of bones and be concerned with the remains as a person.

Though the conservation of skeletal remains often lies outside of the scope of study of conservators, they are regularly called upon to assist in the best care of such remains (McGowan and LaRoche 1996). Considering the regularity with which conservators are asked to assist in the care of skeletal remains, it is prudent that dissemination of information on proper care practices for bones be provided through educational courses and publication of studies. “The treatment of human remains is an evolving topic, subject to updated and revised philosophies” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:112), of which publication would help conservators keep abreast of the most current care practices. Though it is as true as with any other material, no one practice would prove best for all situations, knowledge of the variety of treatments and storage available would provide conservators with the greatest ability to continue the preservation of the remains.

In handling skeletal remains, their dual scientific and cultural value must be remembered at all times. Archaeologists and conservators must remember not to separate themselves from the remains they are handling; they must always remember that those remains were once, too, a whole person, an individual, with a personality and a life story. The cultural background of the individual should also be remembered, as it can provide a basis for the treatment and storage options that are most culturally acceptable; sometimes reburial may even be best practice. Care for individuals whose identity and therefore cultural background is unknown, though case dependent, should often include reburial in a condition relatively unaltered from first recovery (Ubelaker and Grant 1989).

Proper storage is likely to be the primary concern of conservators working with skeletal remains, as many conservation techniques used elsewhere may prevent further study of the remains. This study is often fraught with complications, as well, since they can damage the physical characteristics of the bone, though new, less invasive methods are being developed (Bolnick et al. 2012). Too often, bones are improperly stored at the excavation site, which then becomes long-term storage. Sound conservation practices should ensure that skeletal remains are properly stored in acid-free materials with environmental controls and correct cataloging of the remains. “The proper storage and treatment of human remains serve the interests of both an engaged descendant community and the scientific community” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:116).

Working with human remains can be a sensitive subject, as it highlights many spiritual and philosophical belief systems. Concern for the proper scientific analyses and conservation practices of skeletal remains can communicate the respect shown for the individuals and help allay the concerns of descendant cultures.



Bolnick, Deborah A., Holly M. Bonine, Jaime Mata-Miguez, Brian M. Kemp, Meradeth H. Snow, and Steven A. LeBlanc, 2012, Nondestructive sampling of human skeletal remains yields ancient nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 147(2):293—300.

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl T. LaRoche, 1996, The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2):109—121.

Ubelaker, Douglas H. and Lauryn Guttenlan Grant, 1989, Human Skeletal Remains: Preservation or Reburial? Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 32:249—287.

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Skeletons in the Closet

January 30th, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet:

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

Eva Falls

I was shocked that when I visited the AIC (American Institute for Conservation) website’s ethics page, there was hardly any mention of the complex and sensitive concerns that surround the treatment of human remains.  Just a call for conservators to obey applicable laws:

“The conservation professional should be cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity. Among these laws and regulations are those concerning the rights of artists and their estates, occupational health and safety, sacred and religious material, excavated objects, endangered species, human remains, and stolen property.” (AIC 1994)

This four part series will discuss the conservator’s role in the treatment and storage of human remains in museum and archaeological settings, as well as the ethical implications.  This is also a call for the AIC to use stronger language and address the treatment of human remains specifically in their code of ethics.

“Laying Down the Law”

             In order to discuss how conservators should approach human remains in accordance with the AIC’s code of ethics, it is important to be aware of the laws and regulations already in place in the United States.  The most influential piece of legislation that has affected the treatment of human remains would have to be NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) that was passed in 1990 (McGowan and LaRoche 1996).  This law was passed in response to Native American activist groups that demanded the return of their ancestors’ remains that were being stored in universities and museums across the country.  NAGPRA forces these institutions to catalog their collections and determine whether they are affiliated with a recognized tribe (Owsley and Jantz 2001).  That tribe can then determine the fate of the remains, most choosing reburial.

            This law was initially met with serious criticism by some members of the academic community, especially physical anthropologists that believed they were being robbed of valuable research.  It has politicized osteology and led to lengthy and expensive court battles (Rose et al. 1996).  The law does not protect African American cemeteries and other minority groups, nor does it protect Native American groups that have not been federally recognized (McGowan and LaRoche 1996).  Sometimes anthropologists cannot determine the tribal affiliation in cases such as Kennewick Man where the remains are extremely old.  This can and has led to contentious court battles over these remains (Owsley and Jantz 2001).

            Of course, this law has not actually led to the end of the world in the academic community.  NAGPRA has had some positive results and contributions.  It has provided funding and jobs for physical anthropologists to analyze collections, as well as funding for better storage facilities. Collections that have not been looked at in decades are now being closely examined using new techniques.  It has actually led collaboration and a new level of trust between academia and many Native American groups.  Anthropologists now have access to oral traditions, and Native Americans are participating in more archaeological projects than ever before. (Rose et al. 1996)

           Of course, the big question is: what has this to do with conservation?  Conservators should be assisting archaeologists and physical anthropologists in determining the proper care, handling, and storage of human remains as ethically as possible (which I will visit in the next installment).  They can add their expertise to the interdisciplinary teams that work with human remains in collections across the country.  Conservators can be advocates for the remains themselves.


Works Cited

AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.\ColdFusion9\verity\Data\dummy.txt. (Accessed 01/21/2013).

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl J. LaRoche. 1996. The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2): 109-121.

Owsley, Douglas W. and Richard L. Jantz. 2001. Archaeological Politics and Public Interest in Paleoamerican Studies: Lessons from Gordon Creek and Kennewick Man. American Antiquity 66(4):565-575.

Rose, Jerome C., Thomas J. Green, and Victoria D. Green. 1996. NAGPRA:  Osteology and the Repatriation of Skeletons. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 81-103.


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Context in Conservation

January 30th, 2013

Context in Conservation

Hannah Smith

            In a world with changing views of the past, ownership, and best practices for the preservation and conservation of archaeological artifacts, conservation has been facing new challenges regarding how to handle the conservation of objects belonging to indigenous groups. With a greater interest in and cooperation with indigenous groups in the United States and elsewhere, museums and conservators are faced with new and different requests. These include repatriation, loans for continued use, and culturally sensitive storage and display in museums (Clavir 1996). In some countries, access to objects is restricted based upon ceremonial beliefs. There are also photography bans within some exhibits to show respect for the culture that created the objects. Similar trends are appearing within the field of conservation. As a result, it is necessary to balance the wishes of the group that created the object with the professional and ethical concerns of today’s conservators.

            There are several ways that conservators can work with indigenous groups to create treatments that serve the needs of the object’s cultural source, the needs of the institution that is housing the object, and the needs of the object itself. When working with indigenous groups, the values of all involved are important. At times, however, the values of the originating culture can conflict with the values espoused by conservation (Clavir 1996). Navigating these differences requires open communication. Therefore, consulting with the group that created the object allows for the needs of all involved to be addressed as completely as possible. This consultation occurs at the beginning of the conservation process in New Zealand, and it would be beneficial to apply this practice elsewhere (Clavir 1996). By communicating with indigenous groups, the conservator may be able to learn important aspects of the object’s construction, which can help determine the best treatment methods. It also allows the conservator to explain why a certain treatment is necessary, while also allows concerns to be express about proposed treatment methods. Through communication, it is possible to balance need for “conceptual integrity” with the object’s physical integrity (Clavir 1996). For example, if the group wants the item to be returned for use in rituals and ceremonies, it may be possible to determine treatments that limit the risk to the object, one of the conservator’s concerns, while preserving the ability of the indigenous group to continue using the object.

            Another concern for all involved is change in the object itself. Conservation attempts to stop, or at least slow, the deterioration of an object, which does not always account for the intangible aspects of that object. Without culturally determined care, the intangible aspects of an item can decay, even as its physical form does not change. As a result of this change in focus, Clavir (1996) states that “conservators are being asked not only to value the less tangible attributes of an object but also to realize the acceptability of continuing process and the validity of a more abstract, shifting context than is usually found in conservation”. This suggests that there may be room for some culturally mandated care, either by a member of the indigenous community or the conservator, to be included in the care of objects, as long as it is not too harmful (Clavir 1996). This could also allow the continued use of the object by the originating group. Conservators are being asked to allow change in the state of an object in some cases. But what is allowable should be judged based on each individual situation, rather than trying to apply a blanket statement to all conservation situations (Clavir 1996). Clavir (1996) cites museums that have “touchable” collections, as well as practices for lending out “sturdier” items for use by the originating group as examples of ways to allow a changing context for objects.  By allowing people to continue interacting with objects, these contextual changes allow for people to continue being interested in, and understanding of, their and other cultures. And, by allowing for changes over time, less invasive conservation methods may be developed or applied more frequently.

            Accepting and working with changing contexts through open communication is key to keeping conservation, and the past that the field attempts to protect, viable into the future. While we should not throw existing ethics out in attempts to address the changing needs of museums and the public that they serve, it is necessary to adapt our ethics to changing times.



Clavir, M. 1996. Reflections on changes in museums and the conservation of collections from indigenous peoples. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2): 99-107.

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