Archaeology Curation History and Heritage Research

Athena Van Overschelde, Texas Historical Commission

During the Spring 2015 semester, I worked with the Texas Historical Commission (THC). THC is a state-run agency that focuses on historical preservation, and the people there strive to preserve and share the history of the state of Texas. I worked with the Archeology Collections Specialist THC in the Historic Sites division, and focused on artifacts from two amazing archaeological sites. The first site I was involved in curating was the Levi Jordan Plantation, that dates back to the mid-1800s and has a turbulent past. The second site I was involved with was Fort Lancaster, built in 1855, and is along an important trade route between El Paso and San Antonio. During my internship, I worked on two specific projects representing different stages of the curation process. It was a fantastic experience to not only work closely with all the artifacts, but also to understand more aspects of an archaeologist’s job. While images of archaeology typically concentrate on excavation, there is also organizing, preserving, cataloguing, and deciding how best to present one’s findings to the general public in a way that captivates an audience. Working with THC has expanded my understanding of all these aspects, and I have learned a great deal.

Levi Jordan: History and Conservation

The Levi Jordan site is an old plantation that was built in 1848 by Levi Jordan in Brazoria County, Texas, on an expansive 2,222 acres. The plantation was excavated in the 1980’s and 90’s by Dr. Ken Brown of the University of Houston. In the following discussion, I rely largely on the work of Dr. Brown’s graduate student and collaborator, Carol McDavid (1997, 2000, 2004, www.webarchaeology.org).

When Levi Jordan died in 1873, his will created controversy between family members that would continue for years and lead to a court case in 1889. Levi Jordan’s will stipulated that the 2,222 acres be divided between his three grandsons, and completely cut out his granddaughter – Anne McNeill Martin and her sons from possession of any of the plantation. Jordan did, however, leave $5,000 for Anne’s sons, Royal and McWillie Martin. When Anne died in 1874, her sons began to spend time with their great-aunt Emily McNeill, who was overseeing the running of the plantation. Emily ultimately sold the northern 1,111 acres of the plantation to her nephews – the “Martin Boys” – for $10.00 in 1882. During this time the slave quarters were occupied by tenants who were still working the plantation and were primarily engaged in cattle ranching.

In 1889, a law suit was filed against the Martin brothers by Emily’s sons, the McNeills, and the McNeills went as far as bringing in two ex-slaves to testify against the Martins. When the judge in charge of the case ruled against the McNeills, the Martins divided the northern part of the plantation between themselves. After the division of the land, the tenants appear to have been forced out of their homes suddenly in 1889, based on the large number of artifacts that were left in situ in the tenant homes. Some sources say that McWillie Martin’s involvement in the White Supremacy movement led to him to forcibly remove the tenant farmers. (It should be noted that McDavid [2002] spoke to descendants who say that Martin repented being involved in the movement when he was dying).

Some of the descendants of Levi Jordan claim that what Dr. Brown was excavating wasn’t the tenant houses at all, but actually the sugar mill, and said that ‘lived history’ should be given precedence over the findings of Dr. Brown. Whatever the case, after the abandonment of these homes in 1889, flood water came into the homes and silted the artifacts in, leaving them amazingly well preserved.

My work with the THC involved helping to ensure the preservation of the material culture for future research and study. Many of the artifacts that were left behind were items that people would normally take with them when they move – items like an extraordinary number of buttons, beads and other types of jewelry, flatware and glassware, and porcelain and ceramic items.

When conserving and labelling artifacts, it is important to keep to the standard conservation guidelines (http://www.archaeologists.net/codes/ifa). Paper bags, and any bag that has a thickness less than 2mm, are not considered acceptable for curation purposes. When labelling artifacts, tags always go into a smaller bag and put into the artifact bag, but still separate so the ink from the printed tags will not off-gas and damage the object. If an artifact cannot fit into a bag or needs to be preserved a different way, there are paper tags that are specifically made so as not to off-gas chemicals. When labelling weaponry, like guns, these tags are used while the guns are on stands in the THC vault. It is also imperative to only use pencil, as pen ink can damage the item. There are numerous steps to conserving material culture, and it’s one of the most important steps of the process after excavation.

Due to the fact that the excavation of the Levi Jordan Plantation happened in the 80s and 90s, a majority of the bags that were used previously are no longer up to the current standards of curation. Many artifacts were in old zip-lock bags and had sticker labels placed inside the artifact bag. The glue on the back of the stickers off-gassed, so I had to remove the artifacts and place them in a curation-appropriate container. I also printed out new labels with THC data on them, and matched the tags up with the correct artifact.

Apart from continuing the preservation of the material culture, there is also the task of examining and cataloguing the buttons that were found in the tenant houses. These buttons ranged from plain, four-hole china buttons, to hand-made bone buttons, to various types of military buttons, and buttons that had different decorations on them. There is a name for almost every type of design for a button, and the THC uses a website called Button Country (http://www.buttoncountry.com/) to identify each type. The website can be searched by the material of the button and how the button was fastened onto clothing, and has pages upon pages of data to go through. For example, by using this website and googling military buttons, I identified at least a few of the buttons as being made by Scovills & Co. The Scovill Company began in 1802, and continues to make military buttons for the United States today.

Porcelain Doll’s Head circa 1905-1915 Photo by Author. Used with permission of the Texas Historical Commission

Porcelain Doll’s Head circa 1905-1915
Photo by Author. Used with permission of the Texas Historical Commission

Each time the Scovill Company makes a military button, they are slightly different and this makes dating the buttons quite easy. My examination of the buttons was intended primarily to get as much information as I could from I could from the design of the button, and input that data into an Excel spreadsheet that was the inventory list for the whole Levi Jordan excavation project. Each button was given a new tag just like the previous artifacts, and I would input the lot number, unit number, level, and, finally, subunit number into the spreadsheet so we could have a digitized copy of where exactly that specific button was found.

One of the most exciting aspects of this portion of my internship was being able to research and date some of the artifacts. I successfully dated a porcelain doll head to between 1905 and 1915 based off her hair style. I also discovered that dolls at this time would have had a porcelain head, arms, and legs, but the main body of the doll would have been cloth which is why we don’t have that portion anymore. I also dated a Koh-I-Noor thermometer based on multiple newspaper advertisements that were printed in 1905.

Apart from buttons and glass shards, there was an extraordinary amount of plate-ware found on the plantation, but because most were missing their makers mark, it was hard to learn anything about them. The majority of the plate-ware was earthenware or ceramic, but there were some tea cups and saucers that were made out of china. I was able to date a few plates either from the maker’s marks (usually dating around early 1900) or by the pattern on the ceramic. On one, I was able to date and find the maker of a plate based off of the type of fruit that was painted on the plate. The plate was made by a German company between 1906 and 1916. I found the date of another plate based off of the bird that was painted on it, and it dated to around the same time as the previous ceramic.

China plates with the Royal Seal and other maker’s marks and decorations (Early 1900s) Photo by Author. Used with permission of the Texas Historical Commission

China plates with the Royal Seal and other maker’s marks and decorations (Early 1900s)
Photo by Author. Used with permission of the Texas Historical Commission

When it comes to finding more information on the lot in which artifacts are found, the details get a little muddled. It appears that a lot of Dr. Brown’s notes were lost in the transition to THC, and what few we have are incomplete. However, items like the porcelain doll and plate ware dating to the early 1900s are not from the tenant farmers, as they had left the land some 10 years previously, so we know these artifacts are from the Martin family and their descendants.

Brown and Cooper (1991) provide a great deal of information about each tenant cabin that was excavated, and the number of each type of artifact found. They put this information in a chart, making it easy to see the changes in material culture for each cabin. For example, in cabin II-B-1, there were 404 buttons found, which was the most out of any cabin Dr. Brown excavated. Using data about the material culture, one could put forth the idea that whomever lived in cabin II-B-1 might have been a seamstress because of the large number of buttons found there.

The Levi Jordan Plantation is a special site because it is rare to come across material culture that is so well preserved. The extreme circumstances that forced the tenant community to flee their homes left a glimpse at the world in which they lived. It was exciting to be able to work so closely with such informative material culture.

Fort Lancaster: History and Exhibition

According to records provided by the THC (Clark, 1972), Fort Lancaster was built in 1855. Its location was close to the trading route that spanned from El Paso to San Antonio, and had easy access to the Pecos River. The majority of the buildings were made from materials found nearby like limestone and adobe. By 1858, the fort housed the H and K companies of the 1st U.S. Infantry. The artifacts that have been found show that there were women and children residing in the fort along with the infantry. Most of the women and children would have been family members of the soldiers, but there were also laundresses that were hired by the Army. There would not have been many ways for the soldiers to pass time in Fort Lancaster except for drinking and gambling, as shown by the number of intact alcohol bottles and various game pieces found on the site. The fort was abandoned by the U.S. Army during the Civil War, then occupied by the Confederacy. In 1867 it was re-occupied by the K Company of the 9th Cavalry and was successfully defended in an attack from the Kickapoo and Lipan Apache tribes, making Fort Lancaster the only fort in Texas to have been attacked by the Native Americans. In 1874, Fort Lancaster was officially abandoned, and its building materials repurposed for the nearby town of Sheffield.

My purpose with the artifacts from Fort Lancaster was to prepare specific items for putting on display in the new Visitor Center, and to ensure the continued protection of the artifacts that THC would keep in storage. I was also tasked with organizing the artifacts in their boxes, replacing old boxes with THC-approved ones, and making inventory lists for all the items that THC would keep in their climate-controlled storage facility.

The first task was to organize the artifacts that had been boxed up when the old exhibit was being taken apart. During the packing of the exhibit, all the artifacts were assigned a THC number, and an inventory list was made. During the planning of the new exhibit, THC created a report that was page after page of laying out exactly what artifacts were needed, where everything would go, and what the information signs would say. Most signs for the exhibit could only be a certain length, and there were many notes in the margins that words had to be taken out of a description to lower the word count. One of the best things about the new exhibit is the plan to create stations for the visitors, so that they can interact with replicas of the artifacts found at Fort Lancaster. Getting the public involved is always a challenge, but to engage them in a way that gets them to think about what life was like then is an excellent way to do it. So much time has to go into the planning of each word and placement of each item for exhibits, and it was fantastic to see it all planned out.

To prepare for the exhibit, I made a list of artifacts to pull based off the exhibit layout document. Next, I organized the artifacts into groups depending on whether THC was keeping them, or if they were going to the exhibit. I also made sure they were all stored in curation-approved boxes. Thankfully, most of the items were easy to find, and organizing them was very simple. Most of the work at this point revolved around unwrapping the artifacts and making sure that they were still in good condition, and changing the way they were wrapped if it was needed.

The next step in getting the items ready was to organize the remaining artifacts that would be staying in the THC vault. This step involved making sure all the remaining artifacts were labelled correctly and organized in boxes by THC number. The THC box had an inventory list attached that included each artifact’s corresponding THC number, its accession number (a number given to the artifact during the previous exhibit), and a basic description of the item. This step included research into a few rifles that had been part of the collection. Unfortunately, they were not labelled, so it came down to examining the rifles for signs that they were replicas or real artifacts. Most of them were replicas, which became obvious when there were stamps in the metal that said “Made in Italy.” One of the rifles was a historical piece, however, and was placed into the climate-controlled vault.

THC 3

A replica rifle for display at Fort Lancaster Photo by Author. Used with permission of the Texas Historical Commission

The last step was creating a complete list of all items that were going to the exhibit and all the items that were staying with THC. Most of the lists that were being used during the organization process were incomplete, so it became a matter of entering all the data I had collected into Excel from scratch. Each box got a new label that included the code for Fort Lancaster, the number of items in the box, a list of the THC numbers in the box, and the date that the label was printed. In each stage, attention to detail is extremely important, and this step was the same way. If the count on the label and the actual count inside the box did not match, that could lead people to think that there were pieces missing. Thankfully, this part went very smoothly and the boxes are organized, labelled and ready to be shipped back to Fort Lancaster for exhibition.

Conclusion

During my internship this Spring, I learned how much time and effort go into preservation and curation of artifacts after an excavation. Once the digging is done, there are so many more steps – the correct labelling of artifacts, the different types of packing material that are used to make sure the artifact is not adversely effected, and the steps that go into finally putting the artifacts on display. It is so important to learn all aspects of preserving the past and understand all the work that goes into it. Interning with THC was a fantastic opportunity to work with dedicated people who love what they do and love to see history preserved for the public and for future generations.

 

REFERENCES

Brown, Ken “History: A brief history of the Plantation.” Levi Jordan Plantation. webarchaeology.com (March, 2015)

“Button Country.” Button Country. Accessed August 7, 2015.

“CIfA Regulations, Standards and Guidelines.” CIfA Regulations, Standards and Guidelines. Accessed August 7, 2015.

Clark, John W. 1972. “Archaeological Investigations at Fort Lancaster State Historic Site.” 1-99

McDavid, Carol. 1997. “Descendants, Decisions, and Power: The Public Interpretation of the Archaeology of the Levi Jordan Plantation” Historical Archaeology 31 (3) 114-131

McDavid, Carol. 2002. “Archaeologies that hurt; descendants that matter: a pragmatic approach to collaboration in the public interpretation of African-American archaeology” World Archaeology Vol. 34(2): 303–314

McDavid, Carol. 2004. “From “Traditional” Archaeology to Public Archaeology to Community Action – The Levi Jordan Project” 35-56

 

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