Archaeology Curation History and Heritage

Matt Larsen, Texas Historical Commission – Historic Sites Division

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In the spring of 2014, I interned at the Curation Lab of the Historic Sites Division of the Texas Historical Commission (THC). I chose this internship to learn more about historical archaeology and the curation of archaeological materials, aspects of archaeology with which I had only rudimentary experience through textbooks. During the course of my internship, I worked exclusively with material from Fort Griffin State Historic Site, one of the twenty historic sites administered by the Historic Sites Division.

The Historic Sites Division is responsible for the maintenance and improvement of 20 State-owned sites as well as for public education about the sites, including exhibits, and for the collections of objects associated with each site including archaeological material as well as furniture, textiles and documents. When these objects are not on display at the various sites, they are stored at the repository in Austin. The curation of these objects is the responsibility of the repository staff and interns.

Storage Facility
As I found it, the Ft. Griffin collection consisted of roughly 50 boxes from several different excavations. The collection had passed into the possession of the THC from Texas Parks and Wildlife in 2007. There had been some previous curation of the collection but it was still in a state of mild disarray. To give some background, since the collection had passed into the THC’s care there had been a funding cut of roughly 50%, causing the loss of staff and belt-tightening at the THC statewide. Additionally, the repository I interned at was still new and purpose-built for housing the Historic Sites Division’s collections, but that also meant that everything had been moved from the previous provisional repository. In that move, archival rigor suffered somewhat in the name of maximizing the efficiency of the move. So, for example, the Fort Griffin collection was jumbled together without regard to which excavation the material came from and, occasionally, an artifact from another site would find its way into a Fort Griffin box. Lastly, as part of the move from TPWD, Fort Griffin was undergoing changes and objects were pulled from the collection for conservation and then display. To summarize, the collection was a bit jumbled from the move, artifacts had gone to conservation and returned and some of those had gone to be displayed. There was one final wrinkle, some objects, roughly one quarter of the collection, had been inventoried to a master inventory but using an outdated system because the THC was moving to a new archaeological database called Rediscovery. All this seems to paint a negative picture of the THC but really it is a portrait of a still young Division dealing with the real world of materials curation, facing sometimes competing interests as best it can. This is what I wanted to experience in my internship: the world outside of the textbooks.

The first order of business was to familiarize myself with Fort Griffin and the excavations which had been undertaken. The reason this was so important, as I discovered later, was that I was able to gain an understanding of the site, where each excavation had taken place and what they were trying to understand. Having a firm knowledge of the site, knowing which excavator was using which process, helped me later in putting the collection in order.

Fort Griffin was commissioned in 1868 and active until it was decommissioned in 1881. Its major function was as a headquarters for US Army Cavalry and Infantrymen to fight Indians, mainly Kiowa and Comanche, and to protect the area from marauders. (Olds, 1969) Known as the “Hell Hole of the Clear Fork”, it was a hub for buffalo hunters and a way station on cattle drives. (Parker, 1960) The fort sits on a bluff above the Clear Fork of the Brazos River in Shackelford County just a few miles north of the county seat of Albany, Texas. The town of Fort Griffin, also known as “The Flat”, grew up on a flat area between the bluff and the Brazos. The town was an unruly frontier town full of saloons, dance halls and gambling houses, where,” hardly a day or night passed but when the pistol bark in some saloon sent some poor devil with his boots on to a coffinless grave in the old civilian cemetery” (Parker, 1960). About half a mile from the town lay an Indian village inhabited mainly by Tonkawa and Lipan Apache. The Indian village consisted of about 25 tipis on a half-acre plot which housed the Indian scouts employed by the Army and their families.

Fort Griffin was not a stockade fort but built on an open plan. The high location allowed them to see for several miles in all directions so they did not fear attack. Although commissioned as a permanent installation, Fort Griffin never received enough funds to upgrade most of the buildings from more than temporary or semi-permanent buildings (Olds, 1969). Only a few buildings were made of stone, the ruins of which are visible today. When the Fort was abandoned by the military, townspeople moved into several of the buildings. The town itself was slowly abandoned as the military left and all the buffalo were hunted to near extinction. The final nail in the coffin for the town of Fort Griffin was when the Texas and Pacific Railroad decided to run through Albany instead of Fort Griffin (Olds, 1969). There were still some inhabitants of the old buildings until the 1920s when they were finally completely abandoned.

The first archaeological excavation took place in the 1940s under the direction of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) but we did not have that collection at THC, only some documentation. Sometime in the early 1960s, someone cleared the land of brush and mesquite with bulldozers, and by dragging heavy chains across the land. This work jumbled many of the artifacts and destroyed their provenience. Most subsequent archaeological work was commissioned by the TPWD and performed by archaeologists with the University of Texas at Austin. Most of the work was done as part of reconstruction and restoration efforts for Fort Griffin State Park. The priority was to answer specific questions. Where did the flagpole stand? What were the boundaries of the parade grounds? What were the officers’ quarters and the enlisted men’s quarters like? What did the Administration Building look like, that is, where were the doors and windows? The first excavation conducted to begin to answer these questions was directed by Doris Olds in 1969, for which we had the documentation and some artifacts, which may or may not belong to it. The first excavation for which we had the whole collection was conducted by Catherine Yates, in 1971. The next excavation was conducted in 1973 by Anne Fox, for which we also had the entire collection. The last real excavation to be done at Fort Griffin was also conducted by Anne Fox, in 1976, but this time for the Center for Archaeological Research (CAR) at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and for which we only had a portion of the collection. The remainder of the Fort Griffin collection came from various surveys done either in advance of minor construction projects or to evaluate future large scale excavation potential. The fact that excavation collections and portions of collections are missing is illustrative of the curation crisis and the neglect of proper storage over the years, as I will discuss below. Tragic as it may seem, everyone currently in the field of curation is trying to correct the mistakes of the past and I am sure the missing Fort Griffin artifacts are out there somewhere and, hopefully, they will be found and reunited with the rest of the collection.

My first actual task was to separate the artifacts into their respective excavation collections. This is important, because each excavation was meant to answer different questions, and, as matters stood, the pieces were jumbled together like two different but very similar jigsaw puzzles. As I sorted the artifacts, I had five or six in each box that required more in depth research to figure out where they belonged. In order to have better success, I made a trip to the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Archaeological Research Lab (TARL), where they stored the original paperwork from the UT sponsored excavations, to make copies of the specimen inventories. The specimen inventory is a list of all the artifacts discovered, where they were found and on what day. By using the specimen inventories, I was able to find out to which excavation most of the mystery objects belonged. Sometimes it meant going through the entire inventory line by line. In one case I identified that an artifact belonged to the Yates collection by matching the distinctive handwriting of one of the excavators. In the end I was able to place all the items except for one button that lacked any documentation at all. The process was at times tedious but every success was a small triumph.

After separating the excavations, my supervisor and I discussed how the collection should be organized. The best practice is to keep a collection as close to how the principal investigator organized the excavation as possible. For example, the 1973 Fox excavation is divided into 59 lots, each of which corresponds to a location they excavated. So lot 32 may be all the objects found in the northwest quadrant of the second officer’s quarters building, for example. If Fort Griffin had a deeper stratigraphy, then they could have also included levels or units corresponding to the level at which the objects were found. Therefore, the Fox 1973 excavation would be organized by lot numbers. The complication to this system is that different materials require different storage climates to prevent deterioration, as will be discussed in the following section. The answer is to organize the collection by both material and lot number. For example, if there are three boxes containing glass, then the first box may be lots 1-14, the second box may be lots 15-18, and the last box would contain lots 19-59. Then the next material type would be organized this way and so forth until the entire collection is organized. For the bulk of the excavation collections, the material divisions consisted of metal, glass, ceramic, bone, shell, stone, etc.

I decided to start with the 1971 Yates excavation because it is smaller and would be good practice for the larger Fox 1973 excavation. It turned out that the Yates collection was smaller but more complicated. The specimen inventory was actually turned into two inventories sometime in the past. One inventory is organized into lots 1-42 based on excavation locations, e.g. officers’ quarters L-12 portico or hospital complex P1-A Feature 20. This inventory, which I named inventory A, has all the excavated objects but is often not very detailed; for example, an Aiken saw hammer set is denoted as “1 metal object.” This means that it is extremely difficult to verify if an object is the listed object once it was been disassociated from the inventory.

The second inventory, which I named inventory B, is somewhat more detailed but leaves out many of the objects. The second inventory is labelled 1-325 and gives numbers to specific specimens, for example #325 pipe stem fragment or #67 shot pile. There are difficulties with this list. For example, the list maker(s) gave a specimen number to almost every bag of glass shards, usually by type or color, but left out of the specimen inventory many bags of nails, staples, screws and the like. However, towards the end of the list, sometimes glass is omitted from the list but nails are retained, especially if the specimen number refers to more than one object. Furthermore, the beginning of the second specimen inventory has one number for one object but by the end of the list a specimen number will refer to an entire lot’s worth of objects. Specimen #322, for example, is an entire bag of artifacts. Due to the lack of detail in inventory A, it was infeasible to reassociate the artifacts from inventory B into their proper lots, if not impossible. The solution was to note the existence of the two inventory styles and catalogue items numbered 1-325 as if they were lots.

Another issue was the large number of nails and fasteners. In discussion with the other staff, I learned about bulk collections. One way to deal with a large number of the same type of artifacts is to create a bulk collection. Basically, if there is a large number of the same type of object, they can be separated from the main collection to make a sub-collection called a bulk collection. For example, another intern had worked on the Levi-Jordan Plantation collection, another one of THC’s 20 historical sites, where turtles were a common food source. She had numerous bags of turtle bones, and was able to make a bulk collection of them. Making a bulk collection allows the curator to catalog the items by weight instead of number. Instead of counting out 6000 or so nails, they are weighed and put into their own boxes. Ideally, when an archaeological collection goes to curation, the principal investigator will work with the curator to conduct a survey of similar objects. For example, the number and types of nails would be noted by location. Then a representative sample, 5%, 10%, 20%, would be kept and the rest disposed of. Interesting and diagnostic samples would all be kept though. This allows the collection to be kept to a manageable size. (Childs, 2000) These sorts of policy decisions are the responsibility of the agency though and, as mentioned, the Historic Sites Division is still young and working on these policies. Additionally, the Fort Griffin collection consists of excavations done before these best practices were created. Once a researcher conducts a survey, then, perhaps, some of the collection can be disposed of.

Curation is, unfortunately, an often neglected and overlooked aspect of archaeology. Many archaeologists are more concerned with work in the field and finding the artifacts in the first place. This is especially true of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) work, which is undertaken under the pressures of gathering as many artifacts and as much information from a site as possible before the site is destroyed by whatever construction work is taking place, e.g. building roads, dams, buildings, etc. Historically, most of the budget for an excavation goes to the excavation itself and very little is set aside for curation of the materials found. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent an estimated $165 million excavating archaeological sites between 1975 and 1990 and spent almost no money on the curation of the associated finds. (Childs and Corcoran, 2000) The neglect of archaeological collections is known as the curation crisis.

In 1990, the United States Congress enacted legislation, specifically 36 CFR 79, to address the issue of inadequate curation. The legislation required that archaeological collections should be properly stored and curated. Additionally, all archaeological excavations should specify where the artifacts discovered should be stored and provide funding for curation. Until that point, storage of collections was often appalling. Many collections were in the possession of the principal investigators in closets, offices, storage units, generally anywhere space could be found. These collections were not stored in proper receptacles in climate controlled spaces where deterioration of the materials could be ameliorated.

Curation begins in the field. When artifacts are taken out of the ground or soil samples are taken; whenever material is removed for scientific study, that material needs to have its context recorded and to be placed in archival quality receptacles to prevent deterioration.

Context is extremely important in archaeology as without it only superficial information can be gleaned from an artifact. Where the artifact is, at what stratigraphic level, as part of what feature, its deposition in association with other artifacts, all enable deeper levels of interpretation of a site. The locational context of an artifact is known as its provenience. For example, a provenienced button can tell a researcher the earliest possible time of occupation, the occupation and status of the person who wore the button, the connections of the occupants to trade and industry, contemporary fashions, etc. An unprovenienced button is next to worthless, nothing more than a misplaced clothes fastener.

In order to maintain provenience, archeological materials need to be well organized and stored in the proper receptacles. Archival quality receptacles are important because they inhibit deterioration of materials. When an artifact is found, it is being taken from an environment that, ipso facto, promotes preservation of the material to an environment that may promote deterioration. Materials reach equilibrium with the environment around them and therefore care should be taken to change that environment as little as possible. (Childs and Corcoran, 2000) Before curation became a priority and preservation was undertaken scientifically, artifacts were mostly placed in whatever receptacles were at hand at the site. Many, many collections of artifacts were placed in paper bags, old beer cases, and empty livestock feed bags with the artifacts all jumbled together regardless of whether one material may accelerate the deterioration of another. For example, physical deterioration could occur if ceramics were put with cannonballs or glass with iron ingots. Also chemical interactions can deteriorate artifacts, for example, acids and vapors from organic materials can cause lead to corrode. (Griset et al, 1999) Modern archival quality receptacles are designed to have a neutral impact on materials, for example acid-free boxes and bags. Additionally, when artifacts are put into storage, different material classes require different environments. Each material class, i.e. bone, ceramic, metal, etc., requires different ranges of temperature and relative humidity to maximize preservation.

Finally, all the paperwork generated by an archaeological excavation must remain with the collection in some form so the context can be preserved. Paperwork, such as field notes and specimen inventories, can also come in handy if an artifact is misplaced within a collection. When all these aspects come together–storage, protection, and organization–a collection can be said to be properly curated and its research value will be maintained in perpetuity.

Many agencies which regularly conduct excavations are working on collection guidelines in order to limit the materials which go to collection in the first place. The National Park Service has done the most work in this regard and recommends that only certain materials be collected and many others remain where they are found. Collection guidelines provide a rubric to determine whether archaeological artifacts should be collected or remain where they are. This often, though not exclusively, applies to surface finds. If information about an artifact can be noted without the artifact itself being collected, then that may be the best response to the find.

A corollary to collection guidelines is the replacement of artifacts after they have been excavated. The philosophy behind this is that artifacts have remained preserved where they are ever since they were deposited there and it may be detrimental to remove them. Once a certain amount of information about an artifact has been recorded then the artifact can be replaced and the location noted for future researchers who may be interested.

An artifact itself is next to worthless without context. Archaeology therefore is more about information than objects. Once enough information is gathered it may not be necessary to retain artifacts other than some excellent type specimens or very interesting artifacts to display and ignite public interest.

There are many involved in archaeological curation today who promote increased study of current collections. There is much material, especially from the CCC era, which has been collected but never fully studied. Barbara Voss (2012) describes curation leading to research on collections even when the collections themselves have been orphaned, that is, the provenience is lost or unclear. Voss writes about how her students were inspired during the process of curation to innovate means to use such collections to answer research questions. For example, her students’ research of a poorly provenienced collection stemming from a CRM excavation of a late 19th century Chinese neighborhood in San Jose, California provided evidence that the Chinese immigrants used specific locations as trash dumps and furthermore, they used specific dumps for specific types of trash. At a time when the Anglo residents typically threw trash in the streets, the Chinese residents were using what we now view as modern waste removal practices. This is productive research done on orphaned collections and, presumably, even better research may be done on fully cataloged and provenienced collections.

There is also an increasing emphasis in archaeology on low-impact, high-tech archaeology, in which there is an increased use of remote sensing, allowing focused excavations of small areas. As technology becomes more advanced, archaeologists will have an increased ability to see what is in the ground and study those objects without excavating at all if it is deemed unnecessary.

The final step in ameliorating the curation crisis is deaccessioning some artifacts and even the supervised destruction of artifacts. The previous philosophy was to save everything discovered in an excavation but not everything is useful or has lost its use over time. Though it may seem heretical, a deliberate and thoughtful analysis of collections may allow some things to be destroyed without harming a collection’s research value and thereby freeing space for other more useful collections.

As curators grapple with the curation crisis, the wealth of unexplored material also provides ample opportunities for research in the future. There is so much material begging to be studied in repositories around the world that an archaeologist may have an entire career without ever conducting an excavation. At the very least, properly curated collections can and should be used in conjunction with excavation in the study of the past. Several recent cutting edge archaeological hypotheses are due to archaeologists studying other institutions’ collections.

In conclusion, I have, in the course of my internship, gone from knowing almost nothing about curation to experiencing first-hand the issues, trials, and tribulations curators face each day. Curators have long been the unsung heroes of archaeology, but the work they do is as important as that of the excavators in the field. The proper curation of archaeological materials provides a firm foundation for future research through preservation and organization. The process of curation can itself inspire research, as handling archaeological artifacts ignites curiosity in the curator and invites him or her to contemplate the people who used the artifacts in the past. During the course of my internship, I have gained a great respect for the painstaking work curators do to maintain the collections under their care, and I have come to appreciate curation as not just storage but as an immensely important aspect of archaeology and the broader field of anthropology.


  • Childs, S. Terry and Eileen Corcoran. 2000. Managing Archeological Collections: Technical Assistance ( Washington, DC: Archeology and Ethnography Program, National Park Service.
  • Griset,Suzanne et al. 1999. Guide lines for the Field Collection of Archaeological Materials and Standard Operating Procedures for Curating Department of Defense Archaeological Collections (Final Draft).St. Louis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections
  • Olds, Doris. 1969. Archaeological Investigation at Fort Griffin Military Post, Shackelford County, Texas. Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Parker, Ella Frances Vaughn. 1960. Robert Thomas Hill: The Dean of Texas Geology. The University of Texas at Austin.
  • Voss, Barbara L. 2012. Curation as research. A Case Study in Orphaned and Underreported Archaeological Collections. Archaeological Dialogues 19 (2): 145-169.

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