Archaeology Curation Museums

Joshua Flores-Manges, Center for Archaeological Studies

In the fall of 2015, I worked as an intern at the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS). I chose to intern at the CAS to learn how to curate archaeological materials, and to develop skills that will help me pursue a career in the archaeological field. I was under the supervision of CAS collections manager Amy Reid. In my report, I will educate the reader about CAS, and the process of curating an archeological collection through my experience working with the Miller collection. In addition, I will discuss the current issues that plague curation and how curational facilities are important for archeological research.

The Center of Archaeological Studies

CAS is a research center at Texas State University-San Marcos and is a Texas Historical Commission (THC) certified curational repository. (http://cas.anthropology.txstate.edu/) The types of collections that are housed at CAS are state–associated held-in-trust (HIT) collections, Texas State University departmental collections, non-HIT collections, and gifted collections. During my internship at CAS, there were five staff members: a Director; a Collections Manager; an Archivist; a Grants Assistant, and a Project Archaeologist.

CAS has many learning opportunities for Texas State University students and the general Public. For instance, the CAS has a public outreach program called Public Archaeology Serving Texas (PAST), a program that provides the public access to the archeology material of the Spring Lake site. (www.cas.anthropology.txstate.edu/PAST_Program)The PAST program also includes blog posts written by the staff at CAS and virtual exhibits develop by staff as well as interns. CAS is a place of opportunity for Texas State students who want to pursue a career in anthropology through internships, volunteering and student employment.

The Curation Process

During the time of my internship, CAS was in the process of curating the Miller Collection, once owned by E. Thomas Miller, an archaeologist who conducted many excavations in the Texas area from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. The site that I curated was known as “Bammel,” which got its name from the landowners at the time of the original excavations in the early 1970’s. The Bammel site is a pre-historic site that was occupied many times during the early, middle, and late archaic periods (8,000 to 1000 B.C.E). The kinds of artifacts recovered from the Bammel site included lithic tools, ceramic pieces, and indeterminate bone pieces. Unfortunately the site no longer exists, as it is now a residential neighborhood. Curating the Miller Collection was a multistep process that involved using multiple resources and tools to properly curate the artifacts.

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Figure 1.Tom Miller’s diaries (photo by Joshua Flores-Manges)

The first step of curating the Miller Collection was to catalog the artifacts. The definition of cataloging according to Childs (2003:63) is “the assembly of all primary information about each item in the collection.”  The cataloging process is one of the most important steps in curation, in that it is the process when all the relevant data is gathered and recorded on the collection’s artifacts for easy access by future researchers. Cataloging the Miller Collection required me to conduct critical research through Miller’s diaries (Figure 1), field notes, and information available on the THC’s Site Atlas, and matching the information to the artifacts in the collection. While cataloging the Miller Collection, the method I used to match the artifacts with the associated records was to link the date written on the artifact with the date on the records. Although, I was able to match some of the artifacts with some kind of provenience information, it was difficult to match the artifacts with the exact information. For instance, I would come across a few projectile points that would have a specific date such as “7/14/71”. When searching in the excavation records there would be a dozen points found on that day with no other way to distinguish them from each other. Instead of recording inaccurate the provenience information on an artifact, I have deiced to put a side note on some of the data entry forms that the provenience information may be found in the associated records. At CAS, all the relevant data on the artifacts were transcribed to a data entry sheet, which is later, transferred over to Past Perfect.

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Figure 2. The Author cataloging artifacts from the Miller Collection (photo by Amy Reid)

Another part of the curation process is to preserve all the artifacts in the appropriate storage containers. Storing the artifacts is a crucial step in curation, if done properly the artifacts can be used for research for many generations, but if not done correctly, it risks the life of the artifact. In addition, preserving artifacts helps develop the archaeological record, not just to help researchers, but also to educate the world on humanity’s distant ancestors. CAS has many archival grade containers besides bags that help preserve an artifact. For example, some of the artifacts from the Miller Collection such as modified bone and ceramic pieces are considered highly fragile (Figure 3), and instead of placing them into bags, they were placed into acrylic containers (Figure 4) with foam padding to prevent breakage of the artifact. An example of a fragile object from the miller collection is a modified bone bead. From my experience from taking Amy Reid’s “Curation of Archaeological Materials” at Texas State University, I knew the “Ziploc” bag it was collected in was not archival material. I took the bone bead out of the bag, placed it into an acrylic container and placed cotton padding in the container to ensure the durability artifact. I placing the Bead into the acrylic container guarantee that the bead is protected and preserved for future study.

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Figure 3. Fragile artifacts from the Tom Miller Collection, a ground stone gorget (left), and a bone bead (right) (photo by Amy Reid)

During the storage process, there may be artifacts that are damaged or are highly fragile that may have high educational value or aesthetic appeal that can be sent to a conservation lab for repairs. From my past internship at THC in the summer of 2015, I had some experiences of seeing artifacts from the Levi-Jordan site being shipped to the Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) at Texas A&M-College Station for repairs or to have reproductions made. Sending an artifact to be repaired or have reproductions made by experts may extend the life of the artifact and may heighten the research value of the object.

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Figure 4. Archival grade acrylic containers (Photo by Joshua Flores-Manges)

After the cataloging process, I transferred all artifact data I transcribed on the data sheets into the collections management system called the “Past Perfect Museum Software”. Transferring over the catalog information into Past Perfect is essential for recording keeping as it is a convenient way of keeping records for easy access for staff and researchers. To elaborate, once all of the collection’s data is entered into the Past Perfect system a staff member has instant access to accession information, catalog information, and storage information. 

Public Outreach

Aside from preserving archeological collections, curation facilities may choose to have public outreach programs such as CAS’s PAST program. Public outreach programs are an excellent way of educating the public about archaeology and history. It is important for the organization to display the archaeological material in terms that the general public can understand. McGimsey (2007:617) writing about public outreach mentions, “ it is the individuals engaged in outreach who have primary responsibility for conveying to the public what the rest of the discipline is doing, in a format the public can understand and appreciate ”. For example, a part of the PAST program is a virtual exhibit on the CAS website accessible to the public. During my internship, I had an opportunity to create a virtual exhibit using the artifacts from the Bammel site. I wrote an introductory description for the virtual exhibit based on Tom Miller’s diaries and the THC’s site atlas records. I also wrote a brief biography about Tom Miller showcasing his passion for Texas history and archaeology. For the Exhibit, I had to write detailed descriptions on each artifact. For instance, when analyzing lithic projectile points I had to describe the shape, base, barbs, and the condition of each point. In addition, I had to link the projectile points to certain types such as “Castroville”, “Montell”, or “Frio”. Another part of the virtual exhibit I developed was the visuals. For the pictures, I took standard archaeological style shots of the dorsal and ventral sides of each artifact. In addition with the pictures, I drew idealized reconstructions (Figure 5) of the damaged artifacts of how they might have looked like whole. I have developed the exhibit in a way it might appeal to the general public.

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Figure 5. Idealized sketch of a projectile point (photo by Joshua Flores-Manges)

Curation Crisis

Archaeology among scholars is known as a destructive science. In the process of an archeological excavation, the site and its materials are exposed to the elements slowly decaying away. It is important that after excavation that these archaeological materials are stored away in proper storage facilities in order to have the specimens available for future research.  Unfortunately, post excavation care to many archeologist is an afterthought. This leads to what many archaeologist and many scholars call the “Curation Crisis”.

To many archaeologists, long term care of archaeological collections is not considered as important as the excavation process. Unfortunately many archeologists mainly focus on their own personal research questions and excavations rather than post excavation care of archeological materials (Childs and Sullivan2003:28). This kind of thinking is problematic not only for the archaeological materials but for the future of archeological research. When archaeologists do not properly plan for long-term care many issues arise. Childs and Sullivan writing on “the making versus caring for collections” notes (Trimble and Meyers 1991) “ [Collections] were regulated to dank basements; asbestos-coated surplus warehouses … and leaky barns.” When collections are stored in these conditions it risks the life of the archaeological material and associated records. As a result the materials in the collections may deteriorate losing their research value.

Professionals and amateurs in the archaeological field must understand the importance of curation. In addition, professionals need to find ways to improve curational facilities to better the conditions of archaeological collections. Childs and Sullivan (2014:33-34) provides an argument to “rectify professional attitudes”, in which they have made several suggestions in ways to educate and to persuade people to value the importance of curation. The first suggestion is for universities to have a basic archaeological collections course. Students that take the course may be influenced to pursue a career in archaeological curation. For example, when I took Amy Reid’s “Curation of Archaeological Materials” class it influenced me to participate in an internship for CAS. In addition, taking an Archaeological Materials course thought me the importance of long-term preservation. Another proposal is to increase the number of jobs in repositories and Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Firms. This may reduce the deterioration of archaeological collections as there are more people working on the collections. Last recommendation is for archaeologist to have more interaction with repository staff.  The interaction between the repository staff and archaeologist may better the planning of long term care of collections and excavation practices.

Repositories are important for Anthropological research as they may contain existing collections that may help develop or debunk scientific Hypotheses. Studying existing collections in repositories allow archaeologist to conduct research without the destructive nature of excavation. It also permits archaeologist to reexamine older hypotheses to verify its validity. Beisaw (2010) provides an excellent example of how an archeologist can perform research without excavation to test out scientific questions. For her research, Beisaw uses the existing collections in the Pennsylvania State Museum for her dissertation, “ Did the Susquehannocks reuse existing graves to inter the newly dead as a way of representing a link to these earlier people (10)”.  During her research of Susquehannock burials Beisaw was able to determine that an earlier hypothesis proposed by Barry Kent was false. Kent’s hypothesis about The Engelbert site was that it was the “largest concentration of clearly identifiable Susquehannock remains (3)”. After her analysis of the historical records of the Engelbert site, Beisaw concluded that the remains in some of the burials were not only Suquehannock, but some of earlier people as well. In addition, Beisaw found evidence that the burials were being reused through out time. The original archaeologists that have excavated at Engelbert did not come up with the accurate analysis of the site as Beisaw did. Beisaw’s research in the Pennsylvania State Museum is an excellent example of how an archaeologist can conduct research on existing collection to test out scientific hypotheses or to retest existing hypotheses

Conclusion

In conclusion, my internship at CAS made me appreciate curationist, as they are the unappreciated heroes of anthropological research. Curationist help preserve irreplaceable archaeological materials that are considered extremely fragile, without them these materials may be lost forever. It is difficult to imagine why some archaeologists do not consider curation as important as excavation. Curation provides opportunities for future archaeologists to test out new ideas and older ideas as well. A quote from the Miller collection’s associated records reads, “ … no one ever really owns the collectibles in one’s collection. We are all merely caretakers for future generations.

 

References

Beisaw, April M. 2010. “ARCHAEOLOGY WITHOUT EXCAVATION: DIGGING THROUGH THE ARCHIVES OF THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE MUSEUM”. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-atlantic Studies 77 (4). Penn State University Press: 467–76. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.txstate.edu/stable/10.5325/pennhistory.77.4.0467.

Childs, S. Terry, Lynne P. Sullivan. 2003. Curating Archaeological Collections: From The Field to the Repository. New York: Altamira Press

McGimsey, Charles R.. 2003. “The Four Fields of Archaeology”. American             Antiquity 68 (4). Society for American Archaeology: 611–18.       doi:10.2307/3557064.

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