Archaeology Curation Museums

Priscilla Ortiz, Center for Archaeological Studies

Repository Experiences at CAS

The Students at CAS usually sit on lab tables covered in protective paper hunched over boxes of lithics while sorting through debitage and projectile points. When their not getting their fingers covered in grime, one can find them typing away, entering numerous artifacts in Pastperfect, a museum cataloging software. In addition, one can catch them eagerly reading excavation records and lithic tool guides, while simultaneously researching and cross referencing data. That is how a typical day at an archaeological repository might seem to an outsider. But a person with a trained eye can clearly see that the makeup of staff, interns and faculty follow their own rules and regulations governed by this unique micro culture. This is exactly what I have observed during my time interning at the Center for Archaeological Studies. In the following internship report I will be discussing what curation entails, laws regarding curation and what challenges curation face. Furthermore, I will go into detail about key elements of repository work that I have experienced at CAS.


Figure 1

Archaeological Curation

Archaeological curation is the preservation and conservation of collections. Archaeological collections can include material remains like stone tools and pottery. They can either be intact as a whole or in fragmentary pieces. In addition, collections also consist of non-cultural materials such as ecofacts fauna and floral remains or soil samples. Furthermore, associated records always accompany collections. They enclose diaries, field notes, site reports, maps, photos and digital data. Once the artifacts are inside the repository, whether it may be in a museum or a university, it is their job to care for the artifacts, in terms of preserving and allowing accessibility to collections. In sum, repositories take on the responsibility of procuring artifacts and taking care of the evidence left behind from past peoples. (Podany 2003:201) Archaeological Collections have an increasingly diverse set of functions; as a research tool, educational resource, and gateway to cultural identity.

Carefully Conducted Curation.

Ideally curation is a process that should first begin with field archaeologists. Before an archaeological project even begins, archaeologists have to pick before hand, which repository will house the artifacts that they uncover. Usually, it has to be in the same state from which the artifacts were excavated from. They also have to estimate the future cost for housing artifacts in their original design plan. The cost typically depends on the repository. It can either be a one-time fee or annually. When archaeologist don’t do these necessary steps, problems can occur, such as the improper use of materials for the labeling of artifacts or result in the over flow of artifact boxes. Most anthropology departments at universities, offer future archaeologists, a course on curation to heed such problems.

Curation Staff and Long Term Care.

It is also noted that curation is a growing field comprised of professionally trained staff members, who in take accountability, in ensuring the long term care of archaeological collections. The long term care for collections is especially important because most of the time these artifacts and records are the only documentation of an archaeological site. The demand for long term care and accessibility is crucial among graduate students doing thesis work on existing collections, as well as researchers delving into collections trying to get a better understanding of their subject matter. Positions in repositories include but are not limited to collections managers, lead curators, archivists, technicians and conservators.

History and Laws of Curation

Curation has a long history dating back to the beginnings of 19th century American archaeology. Some of the first museums, like the Smithsonian, would hire archaeologist for the sole purpose of bringing back collections for research. However, in the 20th century, there was a major change. Museums became more concerned with public education and creating exhibits that would interest their audience. At the same time, archaeology became an institutionalized profession. This coincided with laws that forged the way for curation. One of the earliest laws to be imposed, that had an impact on curation, is the Antiquities Act of 1906. It states that artifacts and data should be collected, with care in mind, for preservation and be required to have a permit. (Dunec 2008:60) The Antiquities Act has shaped our public policy with the respect to the protection of culture. However, it is not until the 1960’s and 70’s which enacted laws critical to curation today. One of the most important being the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974. Under this law, any Federally-funded projects must provide preservation of archaeological materials that will be lost or destroyed due to construction. It wasn’t until 36 CFR 79 was created to outline regulations and procedures on how a repository must acquire and care for collections that shaped repositories. This became a uniformly standard among all repositories across the U.S. Some highlights taken away from 36 CFR 79 include: (National Parks Services 2006) sufficient amount of space for storage, regular inventories, to be physically safe from theft and fire and to have collections stored in a clean non obtrusive environment.

Challenges of Curation

What challenges does curation face? This is probably the most heated topic about the present day status of curation facilities. It is abundantly clear that the influx of archaeological materials is correlated to previously stated laws. Due to the preservation act, more archaeological collections are being made than repositories can care for. (Childs 2003:205) Most if not all repositories are not equipped to handle the consequences and soon experience inadequate care and deterioration because of lack of professional personal, funding and insufficient storage space. This is known as the curation crisis. One solution is to have better deaccessioning techniques. However, there is much resistance because even though an artifact; like an ecofact, might not seem important, due to evolving technology new information can arise. One case that proves space and funding is a problem among repositories is a report on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collection. (Bawaya 2007:1025) The survey concluded that out of the millions of artifacts that occupy 50,000 cubic space 75 percent had been stored in improper conditions and were disintegrating while 10 percent needed immediate attention. The field of curation will improve once we get rid of the notion that curation is not as prestigious as field work. However, despite these challenges, much stride is taking place to alleviate these problems.

My Repository Experience

During my internship, I worked on a new collection acquired by CAS, called the Tom Miller Collection. The Miller collection is composed of artifacts and associated records ranging from personal diaries, photos to even maps from multiple archaeological excavations of the lower Texas region. Within the collection, I was assigned to the artifacts from site 41KR118, otherwise known as the Beck Site. The site was excavated during 1973 through 1974 in Kerrville, Texas. The collection includes fauna, exotic material such as quartz and minerals, glass and bottle fragments. Lithics, however, make up the bulk of the collection. The lithics I have encountered are mainly from the middle archaic and date from 6000 BC to 3000 BC. For example, I have cataloged several varieties of projectile points, including, Castroville, Perdiz, Edwards, and Nolan dart points. See figure 2.


Figure 2


One problem that occurs a lot with old collections in repositories is the loss of associated records. After all what’s the point of pottery and stone tools if we don’t know where they are from? To know where they are from is to know it’s history. I had experienced this problem personally. The majority of my internship consisted of cataloging and sorting artifacts according to CAS’S lab manual and guidelines for handling objects. The artifacts came with specimen numbers attached to them. I then had to cross referenced the specimen numbers in the associated records to determine what the object was and where it was found and by whom. But due to previous lack of poor conservation and not keeping all associated records within the collection I had a hard time determining the provenance.

Researching and Learning Points.

Describing artifacts is an important job of cataloging, and since this was my first time cataloging outside of a classroom setting, I had to expand my knowledge of lithic tools. If I did not know what an object was, I researched it in a book recommended by the collections manager. It was called A Field Guide to Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians by Turner and Hester. The book contains in detail an array of all types of points, hammer stones, darts and blades. What I found especially helpful were the pictures of the anatomy of projectile points. Previously, I had no prior knowledge of what a barb on a point was the shoulder of the point, or the many distinctive styles of stemsbottom of the point. See figure 3. Now I had the proficiency to accurately list all the characteristics of an object. For instance, an example of describing a stem on a point could be square notched, corner notched, contracting or basal notched. The majority of lithics in the Beck Site are in fragments, so when I’m describing a point fragment, I can say the object is half a stem and a barb or just a proximal tip and shoulder.


Figure 3

Example of Cataloging.

When cataloging artifacts one must accurately label the object and correlated fields. Cataloging the Beck Site on a data entry form usually went something like this: I first had to determine the object name by determining what object I’m cataloging. For example, I found several pieces of Ochre. It would be read as: Sample, Sediment. A point would be read as Lithic, Projectile point or a scrapper would be Lithic, Biface and any unidentifiable fragments or core rejects could be read as Lithic, Debitage. Then, I proceeded to write the sites number; which for mine would be 41KR118, the collectors name, old specimen number, the objects weight in grams, artifacts year range early or middle archaic and any information I can procure like the level or depth it was found. Many of the objects provenances are unknown so that’s what I write. Lastly, I would describe the characteristics of the artifact. I normally write things like the objects color, the material it is made out of; for instance, lithics would be made out of chert, and what pieces it’s missing. After I’m done I would make temporary tags that would be attached to the objects. When the data entry form and tag is complete I would put both object tag and artifact inside an accurately sized polyvinyl acetate bag. When I’m done with the Beck Site box and all the artifacts are cataloged I will then go on to PastPerfect and put it into the computer cataloging system and print permanent tags with barcodes to replace the temporary ones. The barcodes are critical during regular inventory checks. Altogether, I have cataloged about 400 artifacts.

Objects with Special Meaning.

Certain types of rocks are considered sacred or once held a special meaning to the past peoples who collected them. While sorting through the debitage of the Beck Site, one thing I found interesting was the amount of rocks that were collected. The rocks that were collected were minerals such as hematite and metamorphic rock such as quartzite. I didn’t know if the archaeologists who worked on the site collected these rocks on purpose or by mistake. After consulting with the collections manager we came to the conclusion that the rocks are to be referred to as “out of place objects”. Most likely they were brought in from another site to their camp because they were prized by the areas past people’s culture. For example, they could have been used as some type of currency or possessed a religious meaning.

Fauna and Diagnostics.

When archaeologist excavate animal bones within an archaeological camp site it is important to distinguish diagnostic fauna for future analysis. In the site that I am working on a good amount fauna was collected. However, which species of animal they belonged to is unknown. In order to find out the species, an analysis must be done on a diagnostic. A diagnostic is any part of the skeletal system that could determine the animal’s species. Determining the animal’s species can be important for a variety of reasons. One being that archaeologist can find information relating to past people’s diet and health. While sorting through the ecofacts, I cataloged them altogether by type. But if there was a diagnostic I would individually wrap them up separately for future analyses. For example, many pieces of the bone were in fragments but I recognized what seem to be a femur as well as several molars. So both of these qualify as a diagnostic. Diagnostics can also be long bones and vertebrae.


A majority of objects found in a dig are debitage, which may seem redundant but in actuality they can tell an archaeologist a great deal about the creation of lithic tools just by chip patterning. One of the hardest parts of cataloging was sorting through debitage and recognizing the certain production phases of bifaces. While sorting through the debitage I noticed that many of the flakes were reused into lithic tools. For instance, a flake can be made into graver or if the flake is big enough it can be turned into a scrapper. While cataloging I made sure to describe them as utilized flakes. However, another type of flake can exist. A modified flake. A modified flake is different because it has been worked on but not enough to make it a complete biface. For example, I found this huge flake that had an edge with chip patterns all across it but just on one side. These chip patterns were caused by the re-sharpening of the tool because after each use the tool, it would get dull. Overall, I gained knowledge that many objects are modified by past peoples in order to utilize their materials and by looking at flake patterns one can determine what the object is.

This was only a brief description and illustration of the experiences one might encounter interning at a repository, especially at CAS. Has my own experience deter me away from choosing a career path in curation? The answer simply is no. Curation might seem tedious and uneventful but if you have a passion for this type of work, it can be very self rewarding. In the end, my internship at CAS was an enjoyable experience that gave me great insight to the daily life of what goes on inside a repository.


Work Cited

Childs, S. Terry. “Archaeological Collections: Valuing and.” Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Proceedings of the Conservation Theme at the 5th World Archaeological Congress, Washington, DC, 22–26 June 2003. Getty Publications, 2006.

“Federal Historic Preservation Laws.” National Center for Cultural Resources, National Park Service, Department of the Interior. 2006

Bawaya, Michael. “Curation in Crisis.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 3127, No. 5841. 2007

Dunec, J. L.. (2008). [Review of The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation]. Natural Resources & Environment, 22(4), 60–61.

Podany, Jerry. “Introduction” Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Proceedings of the Conservation Theme at the 5th World Archaeological Congress, Washington, DC, 22–26 June 2003. Getty Publications, 2006.

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