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All Dug Up and Nowhere To Go
San Diego’s archaeological community faces a “curation crisis”
SAN DIEGO’S HERITAGE is being saved through extensive archaeological digging, but once artifacts are dug up there’s often no place to put them. The San Diego Archaeological Center (SDAC) calls it “a curation crisis,” and there are no easy solutions. As an SDAC paper states: “People have lived in the San Diego region for 10,000 years. In the past 30 years, we have almost lost the evidence of their existence.”
Blame legal limitations. While most folks think of archaeology as meticulous digging for artifacts to bring back to a museum or university, in San Diego County “99 percent of archaeological excavations are development-driven,” says SDAC director Cindy Stankowski. Area archaeologists often work for cultural resource management (CRM) firms, private companies hired by developers—or by local, state or federal agencies—to ensure compliance with preservation regulations, such as the California Environmental Quality Act. While these regulations have spurred excavation and removal of artifacts from immediate danger of destruction, they don’t fund mandates for curation—the preservation and use of the artifacts after excavation.
And that’s a significant problem, given that there are some 17,000 archaeological sites in San Diego County, more than in some states. A growing number of artifacts, beyond the capacity of universities, museums or CRM firms to absorb, are winding up in storage facilities or, in the worst-case scenario, Dumpsters.
That’s where SDAC comes in. The private, nonprofit facility was founded in 1998 to save artifacts and share them with scholars and the public.
Despite a small staff and a shoestring budget, the center has earned contracts to curate collections for the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, and is an approved curation facility for the city and county of San Diego. Collections acquired by the center have grown from 10 boxes in 1998 to 3,000 today, and the artifacts the society has saved range from Native American stone tools to adobe bricks and oxen yokes used by 19th-century American farmers.
SDAC often negotiates with private developers and CRM firms to rescue “orphan” collections. According to Stankowski, this can involve a degree of wheeling and dealing as she tries to balance a tight budget against curation costs and the developer’s need to control costs. “What I try to sell them on is they’re doing a good thing,” Stankowski says. “They’re preserving this.”
The center negotiates a fee, putting part of the money into an endowment. The remainder is used to inventory the collection, enter it on the center’s database and make it available for educational use, research and exhibits. When artifacts are used in a center-sponsored exhibit or educational lecture, acknowledgment of a developer’s help is part of the presentation.
While passionately concerned with the center’s mission of saving and sharing history, Stankowski is not pointing fingers. The curation crisis is, in her words, “everybody’s fault but nobody’s fault.”
She’s focusing her efforts on fixing it.
—VINCENT NICHOLAS ROSSI
San Diego Archaeological Center
16666 San Pasqual Valley Road
Escondido, CA 92027-7001
760-291-0370, ext. 103
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