Treasure Keepers Conserve Heritage Objects

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Hold a native pot and look at the timelines of tangible and intangible culture found in the pot’s details, markings and cracks. Only then can we appreciate how the practice of conservation works to extend the life of physical objects, so that future generations may better understand diversity of cultures.

Santo Domingo jar from WACC collection

Santo Domingo jar from WACC collection; photo credit: National Park Service, Western Archeological and Conservation Center


Downtown off of North Commerce Park Loop, largely unheralded and unknown to the public, curators and conservators are at work conserving both the heritage of physical remnants found in our National Parks, and the stories of the people who used them.

The Western Archeological and Conservation Center (WACC) is the state-of-the-art repository and conservation laboratory of the National Park Service (NPS). Built in 2003 to NPS specifications, the WACC building houses and curates nearly 14.5 million objects specimens and archives from at least 71 parks in 8 states. WACC preserves this valuable part of America’s heritage, and makes it accessible for public research and appreciation through its conservation work.

Staff member working at WACC

Staff member working at WACC; photo from 2015 WACC video


The Tucson WACC is open to the general public only once a year — In 2016, WACC was open to the public for lectures and tours during Arizona Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month (March), as it commemorated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. During the remainder of the year, the WACC facility is open for research, by appointment only. Appointments are available Monday through Thursday except federal holidays and the weeks from mid-December until Jan. 1 (library and archives) and October 15-July 15 (objects).

WACC’s work is painstaking — with the conservation lab meticulously stabilizing various ethnographic collections and preparing safe environments to store priceless items. The repository houses archeological items, historic artifacts, art and a limited number of natural history specimens in a climate-controlled, secure environment. There are prehistoric items like ceramics, stone tools, basketry, textiles, and sandals, as well as remains of prehistoric foodstuffs like corn, beans, and squash.

Cleaning and stabilizing beadwork

Cleaning and stabilizing beadwork at WACC; photo from 2015 WACC video


Of particular note for visitors during the NPS Centennial March lectures and tours was a prehistoric hunting net, more than 1,000 years old, which was found in a dry cave on Garfield Peak in Chiricahua National Monument, in 1971. An interdisciplinary team collaborated to recover this rare artifact, and NPS Southern Arizona Acting Archeologist Matt Guebard discussed the excavation during the March lecture at WACC. Less than 20 hunting nets like this one have been found across the Southwest. The Garfield Cave discovery uncovered a 3-foot long net made of yucca fibers tied and knotted in overhand style. A coil basket, with remnants of corn and feathers, believed to be from the same period as the net (1000 A.D.), also was found in the cave, probably used by hunters to store the net.

Prehistoric hunting net

Prehistoric hunting net; photo credit: National Park Service, Western Archeological and Conservation Center


Protecting these diverse and priceless historical objects is critical, and provides the foundation of park interpretation and education programs. The work is valuable in so many ways: Objects in park collections tell the story of our national history as well as the human experience. Tucson’s WACC certainly opens a critical window to the past.


  • If you’ve never visited the Tucson WACC facility, check this video for an informal virtual tour and orientation:
  • Readers: Do you notice BorderLore has switched back and forth in the spelling of archaeology and archeology? In the 1890s, the Government Printing Office actually influenced this spelling variation; learn this bit of government folklife here.

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