Archaeology Curation History and Heritage Museums Research

Alex Baker, Center for Archaeological Studies

Starr Collection Figure 1

Figure 1: 2 shallow ceramic bowls with red designs on the interior; both nearly identical to each other but differ in interior designs

In the spring of 2015, I began an internship at the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) at Texas State University. The Center for Archaeological Studies works within the Department of Anthropology and, as a state-recognized repository, assists with archaeological and anthropological research and materials curation, while ensuring the care of excavated objects and upholding procedures set to assure preservation. The previous semester, I had worked within CAS as a volunteer assisting with washing, sorting, and cataloging materials recovered during their excavation of Spring Lake; however, my internship would entail significantly different duties than my previous tasks. I was tasked with reaccessioning the ceramics of the Starr Collection (Fig. 1), a project that called for artifact rehousing, relabeling, reconstruction, and uploading data on almost 200 artifacts into the Past Perfect program, a program that allows online exhibitions of collected historical materials. By reaccessioning this collection, it will be much easier for researchers to quickly access the ceramics. Over the course of my internship, I familiarized myself with the methods required to properly handle materials and the techniques to safely store and preserve artifacts, while also acquainting myself with the history of different cultures throughout Mesoamerica by observing the techniques, motifs, and designs in their ceramics. Only slightly familiar with accession work from textbooks, I was eager to build experience in a hands-on work environment and gain insight as to what the importance of curating materials encompassed. In the first days of my internship, I was introduced to the policies and methods required to properly handle accession work. I soon learned that the Starr Collection had already undergone a bit of reaccessioning since its arrival. A previously composed Excel spreadsheet contained details of the collection, listing each item with information pertaining to dimension measurements, box number, and description, if available; however, the majority of the collection had yet to be addressed. The Starr Collection was gifted to the Center for Archaeological Studies in 1994 and, although there is very little background information linked directly to the collection, there is plausible evidence tying the collection to excavations conducted in Western Mexico in the early 1900s. Though the collection may have been excavated a hundred years ago, the ceramics are believed to be over 1,400 years old and represent the 3 cultures: Chupicuaro, Huaxtec, and Nayarit (Smith 2001: 143).

Starr Collection Figure 2

Figure 2: shallow white bowl with red designs on the interior; used in rituals according to the designs; “blood-letting” bowl

Chupicuaro

The Chupicuaro culture was developed in Central Mexico around 500 BC, and continued to shape and form its identity for 400 years through traditions and practices passed down from previous generations. The traditional Chupicuaro ceramics revolve around designs of complex and restricted bowls, spider leg assemblages (tripod bowls), and incised patterns and punches (Braniff 1975: 219). It was not uncommon for ceramics to feature painted designs as well; rather than solely being used to improve appearance, designs were also used in ceramics to depict stories or explain an intended purpose. In the Starr Collection, shallow bowls with red markings on their interiors can be found amongst the identified Chupicuaro ceramics and, although they each share characteristics with one another in terms of size and color, each vessel differs in their interior markings; for example, one of the similar shallow bowls features red designs that explain its purpose to collect blood in rituals (Fig. 2).

Huaxtec

The Huaxtec had practiced their traditions since as early as 10,000 BC, but it was not until 750 AD that the Huaxtec were recognized as being at their most productive after their migrations from the northeast coast to the southwest terrains of Mexico. In the Huaxtec culture, the environment is revered as a necessity for life when considering the importance placed on local subsistence, hunting, and ethno-medical practices; as a result, the Huaxtec peoples have associated mountains, trees, caves, and rivers with symbolic meanings to spiritual entities (Tiedje 2005: 14). In the Starr Collection, the use of anthropomorphism and spiritual symbolism is observed, amongst identified Huaxtec ceramics, through an effigy jar with bird-like features (i.e. beak) and a bowl with elaborately painted designs of mountains and wind (Fig. 3), respectively.

Figure 3: White-ware bowl with designs resembling mountains and the sky; identified as Huaxtec.

Figure 3: White-ware bowl with designs resembling mountains and the sky; identified as Huaxtec.

Nayarit

Similar to the Huaxtec, the peoples of the Nayarit are believed to have inhabited the region as early as 5,000 BC, but the appearance of their first known civilization did not appear until sometime around 400 AD; and, like the Huaxtec, the Nayarit methods had been practiced and passed down long before their first civilization. With only one Nayarit ceramic identified in the Starr Collection, it is difficult to separate distinguishing cultural characteristics of this ceramic with other ceramics from the Chupicuaro and the Huaxtec. In the Starr Collection, the lone Nayarit ceramic is a tripod bowl with rattles in its legs.

Analyzing the Ceramics from the 3 Cultures

The Starr Collection was divided between 4 lots, whether the artifact identified as Chupicuaro, Huaxtec, Nayarit, or unknown. Chupicuaro ceramics made up the majority of the identified artifacts and encompassed several different designs, such as oval bowls with pinched sides, tripod bowls, ollas, small bowls, and jars. Huaxtec ceramics are far fewer compared to the number of Chupicuaro artifacts, and, although they are comprised of features found in Chupicuaro, they are the only culturally identified ceramics to express anthropomorphism. The unidentified ceramics of the collection are composed of ceramics with characteristics found amongst the Chupicuaro, Huaxtec, and Nayarit, such as oval bowls with pinched sides, tripod bowls with rattles for legs, and anthropomorphic effigy jars; however, these unidentified ceramics with similar exclusive characteristics have yet to be officially recognized and affiliated with any of the 3 cultures.

The artifacts were classified as either Chupicuaro, Huaxtec, or Nayarit based on assemblage, designs, and motifs of each ceramic. Though the ceramics bear characteristics that may allow them to be immediately recognized, looking at the collection as a whole casts doubt on cultural affiliation, as they greatly appear to be similar in one way or another; thankfully, subtle differences found in each serve as a stepping stone for their classification, yet the features observed may not be concrete enough to set apart from other cultures. For example, through visual analysis, identified Chupicuaro ceramics consist of oval bowls with pinched sides, and are consistent with red designs on a buff, or uncolored, background not seen amongst the identified Huaxtec artifacts; likewise, the Huaxtec ceramics contain anthropomorphic themes and designs depicting nature (mountains and sky) in its recognized form not depicted in the Chupicuaro or Nayarit lots. The Nayarit artifact is a tripod bowl, which can be found in both Chupicuaro and Huaxtec, with rattles in its hollow legs, also found in Chupicuaro; however, the latter characteristic being shared by Chupicuaro is not uncommon. Although it can be argued that this feature does not set a definitive difference between the two, it should be noted that methods of the Nayarit were practiced for hundreds of years before the emergence of the Chupicuaro in the same region. During the Bauer and Blake excavations of the Toluca Valley, a region known to have been inhabited by several cultures over centuries, recovered ceramics were dated to be from between 900 AD and 1520 AD, the Late Post-Classic phase, of the Toluca culture; interestingly, the ceramics recovered at Toluca Valley shared similar basic designs, such as tripod bowls, red-on-buff features, and incised markings with the ceramics of earlier cultures of the same region, such as the Chupicuaro and Nayarit (Smith 2001: 143). The use of anthropomorphism and spiritual association in ceramics is exclusively seen in the Huaxtec artifacts of the Starr Collection, setting them further apart from ceramic designs of the other cultures; however, these motifs are common in ceramics of cultures in Eastern Mexico, such as the Olmec. Following the Fall of Teotihuacan in 750 AD, trade and migration increased throughout Mesoamerica; as a result, new inhabitants of regions set out to build upon these areas, while applying their traditions to develop a unique, improved identity differing from their previous one by making use of the new resources available and applying new learned methods (Gidwitz 2010: 41). By continuing their ceramic techniques and design motifs, Huaxtec ceramics developed uniquely alongside cultures that followed West Mexican ceramic traditions. Aligning the cultural history of each group through geographical diffusion and migration of peoples, the resources available, and the inhabitance of the same region over time, implies there is strong evidence that similar ceramic vessels are the product of traditions passed down from generation to generation with subtle and gradual changes developing throughout time (Smith & Doershuk 1991: 302). Artifacts of these cultures show, through a system of building tradition upon tradition, the development of Mesoamerica as a melting pot of history.

Reaccessioning the Starr Collection

No matter how small or insignificant something may seem upon first glance, it could serve as a defining feature in the long run. Going from box to box, I began gathering the information required to complete the spreadsheet by recording the measurements of each artifact noting diameter and width (cm), height (cm), and weight (g), and providing a current description of each. Each vessel was housed and cushioned in storage boxes. After all the artifacts of the current box were noted, I rehoused them appropriately in a new box. Some artifacts, however, were too large to house in the boxes provided and required special order to meet the mandatory requirements of the repository for housing, such as sturdiness, appropriate size/shape for the materials stored, and reinforcement to prevent damages. By documenting dimensional information and housing location, the ceramics, when uploaded into Past Perfect, will allow for online exhibitions to study and observe each ceramic without the necessity of physical materials to be present, as well as quick access for the repository in locating an item for further use.

Figure 4: Starr Collection ceramics being relabeled

Figure 4: Starr Collection ceramics being relabeled

With the artifacts rehoused and recorded, the next phase of my internship was to re-label each item, replacing their old identification number with their new object identification number (Fig. 4). With their new ID numbers, the Center for Archaeological Studies will be recognized as the current owner of the Starr Collection should other repositories seek to study the ceramics physically. Using B72 acetone as adhesive, I positioned each new identification on each artifact carefully so that no distinctive characteristics were covered. It was crucial to use an adhesive that is reversible, since collections move from place to place and are updated and tagged by the next facility.

Starr Collection Figure 5

Figure 5: broken-in-transit ceramic red bowl

While looking through the previously accessioned boxes, I came across artifacts that had been broken in their transit to CAS; before I uploaded the data into Past Perfect, I had to gather the measurements of the broken artifacts, which required me to piece back together each item as perfectly as possible (Fig. 5). I started off by figuring out which pieces went where and the best course of reconstruction to ensure all the pieces joined together; very much like putting together a 1,000-year-old jigsaw puzzle, but with gluing each piece along the way. With an acetone containing only 10% of the B72 used in labeling, I swabbed each piece on its joining face with another shard before bringing them together. The solution required 24 hours to completely dry and stabilize the rejoined shards before the piece could be joined with another. Each items’ measurements and weight were collected and the reconstructed artifacts were then rehoused. By reconstructing the objects, features of each were much more prominent and observable than in their shattered state, and this incredibly lessened the difficulty in attempts to classify and describe each item.

With the collection information accounted for, I updated the Excel spreadsheet and prepared to upload it into the Past Perfect program. Past Perfect serves repositories by allowing users to observe collections and materials without physically accessing them, greatly assisting museums with exhibiting astounding archaeological finds from across the country. I had to be sure to make a backup file before uploading my data, since the smallest mistake would permanently misplace information. As it serves as an online database for historical artifacts used by repositories throughout the country, the program was incredibly picky and proved to be frustrating to work with. At long last, the collection had been successfully uploaded into Past Perfect. Using this program, I was able to list each item according to their box number and print of bar-code labels for each box that, when scanned, will yield the artifact contents of the box and allow for quickly locating any specific item, rather than searching through a score of boxes housing hundreds of objects.

Nearing the end of my internship, I began preparation for 3D scanning of the artifacts from the Chupicuaro, Huaxtec, and Nayarit cultures. Due to the abundance of shared features in the collection, only a few items were selected based on their shared and differing characteristics. The scans will be uploaded into Past Perfect and help provide a visual representation for online exhibit use. Although the number of items scanned only makes up a small fraction of the entire collection, the selected artifacts will embody the homogeneity of the Starr Collection ceramics’ interwoven cultures over centuries.

Conclusion

Walking into the Center for Archaeological Studies at the beginning of the semester, I was overwhelmed with curiosity pertaining to the new responsibilities and tasks I would learn to further my experience as an anthropologist. Given the initial layout and overview of what my duties would entail, I was eager to get to work. Although some individuals would probably prefer not to spend an entire semester noting measurements and descriptions of ceramic vessels, I was intrigued by the opportunity; there was little-to-no background literature on the Starr Collection, yet the information recovered could greatly assist with further research into the ceramics and the story behind them. With the information uploaded into the Past Perfect program, repositories and museums will have access to the collections data and assess a research plan to continue piecing together the history of Mesoamerican societies.

 

References

Braniff, Beatriz

1975    “The West Mexican Tradition and the southwestern United States.” In The Kiva, 41(2): 215-222.

Gidwitz, Tom

2010    “Cities upon cities.” In Archaeology, 63(4): 38-43.

Smith, Michael

2001    “Postclassic Ceramics from the Toluca Valley in US Museums: The Bauer and Blake Collections.” In Mexicon, 23:141-145.

Smith, M.E. and J.F. Doershuk

1991    “Late Postclassic Chronology in Western Morelos, Mexico.” In Latin American Antiquity, 2(4): 291-310.

Tiedje, Kristina

2005    “People, Place and Politics in the Huasteca, Mexico.” In Anthropology Today, 21(4): 13-17.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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