Perishable Artifacts in the Bureau of Land Management’s Cerberus Collection: Bringing New Meaning to Unprovenienced Archaeological Materials

This event is brought to you by the Four Corners Lecture Series, the Bureau of Land Management, Monticello Field Office and Bears Ears National Monument in partnership with Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum.  The illegal removal of archaeological artifacts from public lands is an ongoing and large-scale issue. Federal law enforcement regularly recovers looted artifacts and works with Federal cultural resources programs to manage and care for the artifacts after recovery. Managing recovered artifacts can come with additional challenges not encountered with the permitted removal of artifacts. These challenges arise because the recovered artifacts may lack original context, may have less research potential due to the way they were handled or displayed by collectors, and may not meet the Scope of Collections statements of many museums that avoid taking objects that were collected through looting. These factors may make recovered artifacts harder to curate. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is working to develop a better way to manage artifacts recovered through law enforcement cases by making a case for the legal reasons to curate certain artifacts alongside traditional collections and to use and care for these artifacts in a manner consistent with their significance to the profession and the objects’ descendants. The Cerberus Collection is the BLM’s largest collection obtained through recovery during a law enforcement case and consists of 101,782 artifacts originating from the American Southwest. To effectively manage the artifacts recovered during the case, the BLM worked with tribes and consultants to better understand the nature and significance of objects in the collection to support making the objects more accessible to tribal communities, researchers, and the public. Consultants helped identify objects and determine their research and exhibit potential to better establish their significance for curation. Currently, the BLM is working with non-Federal partner repositories across the region to curate the Cerberus Collection artifacts at museums nearest their origin to make them accessible to the local communities in areas from which they were removed. As part of this project, perishables specialist Laurie Webster worked with BLM archaeologist Diana Barg to identify and interpret 4,518 perishable artifacts. In this presentation, they will present an overview of the project’s methods, highlight significant perishable artifacts in the collection, and discuss some of the curatorial and interpretive challenges involved with the management of these undocumented materials.