Archaeology Curation Research

Sarah Chestnut, Center for Archaeological Studies

Enlightening the Avocational Archaeologist

Chestnut CAS 1

Figure 1: Working on the PastPerfect database

Introduction

In the Spring semester of 2015, I participated in an internship with the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) at Texas State University. My internship was a curation position, where I organized and curated artifacts belonging to the Tom Miller Collection acquired by CAS in 2012. This report will describe the CAS facility and the Tom Miller Collection. I will also explain the curation crisis in the archaeological community, and ask the reader to consider how improper curation on the part of hobby archaeologists, as well as some professional archaeologists with little knowledge of curatorial standards, can cause damage to the information of a collection and create unnecessary work the curatorial staff must perform to make the collection curation-ready.

Center for Archaeological Studies

The Texas State University Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) is a facility dedicated to providing training and research opportunities for students and faculty interested in cultural resource management. Along with teaching students aspects of cultural resource management and archaeological research, CAS also conducts archaeological investigations, manages archaeological sites associated with Texas State University’s campus, and serves as a Texas Historical Commission-certified curatorial repository (cas.anthropology.txstate.edu/about/mission).

The setup of the facility allows for a friendly environment where students can work together, inquire about different projects, and easily ask the staff questions obtaining to one’s project or just to learn more about cultural resource management. When entering the facility, one immediately finds a desk with a sign-in sheet for the many different kinds of volunteers: interns, graduate students doing research, and even non-majors interested in anthropology. To the left of the front desk is a door that leads to the repository’s curation storage facility, which is state-certified to house aisle upon aisle of archaeological records and collections. When one goes to the right of the front desk, they come across several long tables where volunteers may work on various projects together. In the back of the facility are washing areas, ventilation machines for projects dealing with chemicals, and drying racks used when washing artifacts. Along the walls are hundreds of books that make up the facility’s library, which many volunteers work on inventorying. Also along these walls are the offices of the CAS faculty, whose doors are always open.

The E. Thomas Miller Collection

While CAS is involved with several large projects, there are also a few small ones that the faculty just cannot get around to working on. Since the facility was able to have several interns and volunteers this semester, I was assigned to work on one of these: the Tom Miller collection. Eldred Thomas Miller was an avocational archaeologist who worked a great deal with the Hill Country Archaeological Society after his retirement. In November 2011, Miller passed away and bequeathed his personal archaeological collection to Texas State University’s anthropology professor Steve Black. Dr. Black sent the collection to CAS to be properly curated and stored.

Usually, there is a set of guidelines CAS requires when acquiring a collection for curation. These guidelines include proper packaging and labeling of artifacts, as well as an inventory of all artifact specimens in the collection (cas.anthropology.txstate.edu/curation/standards-procedures). The Miller Collection did not come close to meeting these requirements, so I was in charge of making the collection curation-ready. Along with an archive box, there were about seven medium-sized boxes filled with a variety of artifacts, most of which were stone. Some of the boxes contained paper bags or smaller boxes with artifacts in them, while others contained artifacts that were simply exposed. With just a first glance, I knew these artifacts came from a large range of archaeological sites; however, I did not know the extent of it until later.

Since context creates significance for artifacts, proper curation requires artifacts be grouped by the exact location in which they were found; this information is known as an artifact’s provenance. Because the collection was so poorly organized and labeled, it took me a full two weeks to organize the collection by the most precise locations I could. Creating an inventory of where each artifact in the collection was found was the first step in the long process. This was far more difficult than it needed to be, as artifacts from many different sites were often together in a single box or bag. Another issue that made this step more difficult was the inconsistency of labeling. If the artifacts were labeled, they were labeled in different ways: some by site trinomial, some by county, site or ranch name, and some just by description of the location. Although most artifacts were labeled in some way, many of them were not labeled at all. Using the records included in the collection, I was able to cross-reference some site names with a site trinomial, thereby concluding that some artifacts labeled differently were actually from the same site. For the majority of the artifacts, the only location information I could really find out was the county in which they were found. I eventually decided organizing artifacts by county would be best for sites without excavation records. After about a week and a half, I had two full pages of different location information attached to each artifact.

The next step was filling out catalog sheets for each artifact. Catalog sheets are essential for gathering research-worthy information in one area, thereby making it more accessible to researchers in the future. Each sheet required information such as measurements and a description of the artifact, the lot and level the artifact was found, the date it was found, who found it, etc.  I chose to start on the Pueblo Hills site (trinomial 41KR24) because it was associated with a file of archaeological records in the archive box. I did this because I had assumed it would likely have more information than a site that does not have records. I found this was not necessarily true, though. I quickly realized that the records that came with the artifacts described a lot of information about what the site was, and what took place during the survey, but they did not have the necessary provenance information I required to fill out the catalog forms. After discussing this with my supervisor, she assured me that this was a special situation, and I only needed to fill out the information that was available. Unfortunately, for about half of the artifacts in this site, the only information I had specific to each object was the measurements. For the other half, I was luckily able to figure out the lot in which they were found, but this is not nearly as specific as archaeologists usually prefer.

Paper catalog sheets are not easily accessible for researchers, though. Today it is mandatory for curation facilities to have an electronic database of their collections (Sullivan et. Al. 2003: 32). PastPerfect, the database CAS uses, makes it easy for researchers and the CAS faculty to search through their collections. After filling out paper catalog sheets, and assigning catalog numbers for all the artifacts found at the Pueblo Hills site, I inputted the information into PastPerfect (pictured in figure 1). At this point I was once again faced with how little information I had for all the artifacts, as PastPerfect has innumerable fields for artifact information.

Cataloging these artifacts took a large majority of the semester. As I got used to the format, and learned more about stone artifacts, I was able to describe the artifacts in more detail than when I first started. This was specifically true with describing projectile points, in that I learned to describe projectile points in much greater detail and, with the help of Turner and Hester’s Field Guide to Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians (1985), learned to identify different types of points. When I noticed the variety of projectile points in the collection, I began to believe this could make up for its lack of contextual information. Although the collection might not be useful in terms of cultural research, it would be a remarkable resource for students who want to learn to identify projectile points.

Once all the records for the Pueblo Hills artifacts were created in PastPerfect, I used the system to print barcodes and small catalog number labels for every artifact. I then set about labeling and bagging the collection. My supervisor had taught me that every physical thing done to an artifact must be reversible in order to ensure the artifact’s stability. Therefore, CAS’s labeling procedure is to use a B72 solution as a base, place an acid-free strip of paper with the object’s catalog number on it, and then place a top coat of the same B72 solution. This is a secure way to label artifacts, yet it is easily removed using acetone and would not damage the artifact. Also, the labels placed on the artifacts are very small and placed on insignificant areas so as not to cover researchable characteristics.

Miller had already labeled most of these artifacts with the Pueblo Hills site trinomial. Although this was helpful in the first stage of the curation process, it was now time to remove them and replace them with the CAS labels. However, I quickly found most of these labels had been written with some kind of permanent marker and would not come off. There was no way to reverse this, so I had to place the CAS labels right below the labels Miller had made. This was not ideal, as it covered more area of the artifact than necessary.

Once labeling was complete, I bagged all artifacts in individual bags, and then again by lot number and object type with bag labels in each bag. I then created a barcode label for the box the objects would be stored in. Once all Pueblo Hills artifacts were in the box, I found a place for it in the storage facility of CAS. This was a bittersweet moment for me. On one hand, I was proud of the work I had done and all I had learned. When I looked at the Pueblo Hills artifacts completely curated, it really did look professional and I felt solace in that these artifacts Tom Miller had collected would be properly cared for. On the other hand, by the time I finished the Pueblo Hills site it was the end of the semester and my internship was over. After organizing the entire collection at the beginning of the semester, I was really looking forward to working with it all. There were about twenty sites in the collection, and I was only able to get through one. So although I ended my internship by placing a completely curated box on the shelf, which should have felt very satisfying, I still saw the huge cart with boxes and bags full of artifacts that still needed curating, and I would not be the one to do it. I know if the collection had arrived a little more organized, I would have been able to get through more—maybe get at least one other site curated.

Most importantly, though, I was saddened by a thought that came across my mind when I placed the Pueblo Hills box on the shelf. When will be the next time this box is opened? It is lacking so much information that I’m not sure any researcher will choose to study it even though it contains such interesting artifacts. I couldn’t help but think how much information is in that one box, yet most of it is lost.

The Curation Crisis Starts in the Field

After working with CAS and taking a course on materials curation, I’ve learned that there is a curation crisis in the archaeological community. Concern for archaeological materials began in the mid-1970s when professionals noticed that inadequate care for collections was causing damage and inaccessibility for research. Repositories were often overflowing with artifacts that were not stored correctly, and were therefore damaged by pests, mildew, or by being crushed under heavier artifacts (Bawaya, 2007). Additionally, proper archaeological records were either not kept or isolated from the collection. Without contextual and locational data, also known as “gray” literature, artifacts are virtually useless for future research (Sullivan et. Al. 2003: 29).

This problem was largely due to archaeologists not taking responsibility for the care of the collections they generated. As S. Terry Childs, a professional archaeologist and writer of several scholarly articles concerning curation, pointed out, “too often, excavation is seen as a more worthy aspect of the profession than what must inevitably come afterward” (www.nps.gov/archeology/cg/fd_vol7_num4/crisis.htm). Even today there are incredibly few courses provided in the education of archaeologists regarding curation. Archaeologists ignorant to the importance of curatorial processes often cause great physical damage, as well as damage to the integrity of a collection.

What many of these archaeologists do not realize is that curation is meant to start before an excavation even begins in order for a curation facility to smoothly acquire a collection. Since recognition of the curation crisis, federal guidelines have been put in place in order to rectify the growing problem (Sullivan et. Al. 2003: 33). When planning an excavation, a repository must be chosen for long-term storage of the collection that emerges from it. The archaeologists must view the procedures and standards the chosen facility requires, so they can adequately prepare artifacts while in the field. Examples of facility standards include: a complete catalog of objects, copies of all associated field records, and objects in a stabilized condition (Sullivan et. Al. 2003: 32). Obviously, this kind of preparation requires interaction between archaeologists and repository staff. Such planning removes the possibility of issues and redundant tasks for the curatorial staff of the repository upon acquisition, but also keeps the integrity of the collection in tact.

Although the archaeological community has made great strides towards rectifying the curation process, there is still a critical issue not addressed in current regulations: most of these regulations do not apply to private or avocational archaeologists. This is very disconcerting, considering that archaeology is a very appealing hobby for history buffs and fans of the Indiana Jones franchise. Knowledge of curatorial standards is already rare among professional archaeologists with proper training. One may shudder to think of the damage an untrained archaeologist may cause to a collection.

Conclusion

Why should avocational archaeologists care about curation standards, though? Most of them are only hoping to build a personal collection and probably won’t ever see their collection in a certified repository. This argument has been greatly disputed in terms of ethics amongst archaeologists. I have two schools of thought for this question.

The first I gained during my time curating the Tom Miller collection at CAS. Due to the condition of the Miller collection when it was acquired, a great deal of work was needed to prepare it for curation. There was so much initial organization and research on locations to be done for it, that I was only able to finish curation for a fraction of the collection during the semester. Additionally, since there were very few records and provenance information associated with it, the collection has all but lost its cultural context, rendering it nearly useless in terms of research. This was very saddening for me, as I found the collection to be extremely interesting and unique. If Miller had an idea about curatorial standards and the importance of it, we would know a great deal more about the collection he had created.

Secondly, if it were more widely known among avocational archaeologists to contact professionals about their collection, they may be able to learn more about what they have found, as well as enlighten the professional about a location that may have archaeological significance. My suggestion for avocational archaeologists is to take note of where artifacts were found, and bring them to professionals in order to learn more about them. Many facilities, including CAS, are more than willing to meet with avocational archaeologists for consultations. Professionals would be able to give the avocational archaeologist information about what was found. This may be as simple as letting the collector know what kind of object was found and a brief history of how it was used. The consultation might also include information on the importance of context and how to best preserve the artifacts, thereby letting the collector choose the best way to organize their personal collection. For objects that are commonly found, the archaeologist would likely say, “this is really cool, enjoy it for your personal collection”. If something rare or of extreme importance to the archeological community was found, a professional would likely explain why the artifact is important and ask where it was found, so that a more in-depth excavation might take place at the location.

Anthropologist William H. Marquardt (1977) wrote:

“Curation is a professional responsibility; we must argue for it, insist on it, teach it, believe in it, and practice it” (Marquardt, 1977: 39).

Not only is insisting avocational archaeologists contact a professional ethical, it also just makes sense to me. I would assume that if one is interested enough to go looking for artifacts, that person would, of course, be interested enough to learn about what was found and how to best take care of it. And if I were to find an object that an archaeologist describes as having historical significance, I would be proud that something I found warranted heavier research on the area. Taking these steps would ensure that even a personal collection would retain its cultural significance, and would give avocational archaeologists the knowledge to properly care for the collections they learn to love so much.

Chestnut CAS 4

References

Bawaya, Michael. “Curation in Crisis.” Science, August 24, 2007, 1025-1026.

“Curation Requirements.” Center for Archaeological Studies : : Texas State University.

http://cas.anthropology.txstate.edu/curation/standards-procedures.

Marquardt, William H. 1977. Regional Centers in Archaeology: Prospects and

Problems. Columbia: College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri-Columbia.

“Mission & Vision.” Center for Archaeological Studies : : Texas State University.

http://cas.anthropology.txstate.edu/about/mission.

“NPS Archaeology Program: Common Ground Online.” United States National Parks

Service. http://www.nps.gov/archeology/cg/fd_vol7_num4/crisis.htm.

Sullivan, Lynne P., and S. Terry Childs. 2003. Curating Archaeological

Collections: From the Field to the Repository. Altamira Press.

Turner, Ellen Sue, and Thomas R. Hester. 1985. A Field Guide to Stone Artifacts of

            Texas Indians. Austin, Tex.: Texas Monthly Press.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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