Archaeology Curation

Alyssa Parsons, Texas Historical Commission – Historic Sites Division

This past semester I obtained an internship with the Texas Historical Commission in order to gain practical knowledge about the inner workings of curation and preservation in historical archaeology and modern day archival techniques. The Texas Historical Commission was established in 1953 as a state agency employed with the task of identifying and preserving important historical sites across Texas, today it is the administrator for national landmark registration in Texas, a service which allows the state to preserve historical buildings around Texas. They also have jurisdiction over 18 historic sites across the state, recently adopting more from the department of Texas Parks and Wildlife. The main goal of the Texas Historical Commission is to keep the history of Texas preserved and accessible to the public.

My duties at the Texas Historical Commission change daily, each time I walk in the door I am greeted by a new task for the day. These can range from moving and reorganizing artifact boxes to doing the initial inventory on a new part of a collection being brought into the depository. In the beginning I worked with the Fort Lancaster collection, applying labels to each individual artifact and verifying its accession number, so that they can be easily identified when they return to their place of origin. The labeling process is fairly simple, using an acrylic white paint you apply it to a small area of the artifact and fill it in with the accession numbers. The labels can be easily removed with acetone and don’t harm the artifacts. I have also worked with the Levi Jordan collection with which I did a physical inventory for the Commissions records. Each artifact must be entered into an Excel work sheet with a description of the object, its original location, material and a transcription of the archeologist’s notes.

When it comes to restoration of these precious artifacts, the THC turns to the Conservation Research Lab at the A&M University. The Conservation Research Lab is one of the foremost labs in the country for historical restoration and is used by universities and labs all across the country. I had the pleasure of visiting the lab itself to retrieve some of the artifacts that the THC was having restored. The lab is located on the outskirts of the A&M campus; it is made up of several smaller buildings as well as open area warehouses. The lab itself is surrounded by tubs and plastic pools full of metal objects in the process of being restored through electrolysis. By running a current of electricity though the objects while in an electrolyte solution the process converts the rust into a black oxide which does not react with air and stops the deterioration of the metal. This process is done outside the lab or in a fume hood because the gasses that are released by the electrolysis can be toxic to humans. As you enter the lab, everywhere you look there are artifacts in the process of being restored, from a dugout canoe to a mast of a ship. Aside from electrolysis the lab also utilizes silicone oil to restore some of its more delicate objects. While a relatively new process silicone oil has produced some amazing results. Mostly used with woods and fiberus artifacts, the silicone oil penetrates the porous material and reinforces the molecular structure itself. While visiting the lab I was invited by the lab head into one of the back rooms and where she showed me a coil of thick rope. She explained that it was from the La Belle shipwreck where it had spent three hundred years underwater and that it had recently been restored using the silicone oil. While explaining this to me she reached down and picked up part of the rope and started bending it back and forth to demonstrate its suppleness. I was amazed that something that had no right to even be in one piece let alone be picked up and played with could be restored to such an amazing condition. There is some debate as to the use of silicone oil, since it is such a new technique there is no reference timeline to how long the effects of the treatment will last or what the long term effects on the artifacts will be. But considering the results, it might be worth the risk. The Conservation Research Lab is a great resource for the THC and has helped to restore many important objects.

While working here at the THC I have learned a lot about what it’s like to work in an archive. For all that we learn from classes about the fundamentals of curation it is a different story when you strip away the romanticism of it all. The paper work at times is tedious, you can spend hours in freezing vaults leaning over a laptop trying to figure out what exactly it is your holding, the sheer amount of organizational work is at times overwhelming. But that’s what makes the job great, not knowing what the next box will hold, what mysteries you’ll uncover. I have held things in my hand that contain so much history, knowing that at some point these things belonged to someone, maybe they were treasured by them or just briefly used as a means to end. Either way they have a meaning now, and will protected for years to come because of it. While working at the lab I saw what it meant to do archeology, the responsibility that rests on these people to work diligently, to take what is needed and to leave what is not. I learned that as an archaeologist just because you want to take everything doesn’t mean you should, because somewhere down the line some intern like me is going to be staring at planks of wood and questioning the sanity of those individuals that took them.

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