Archaeology Curation History and Heritage Research

Anna Schautteet, Texas Prehistory Research Project


During the spring semester, I took part in an internship at the Texas Prehistory Research Project located at Texas State University. The project’s main focus is the scientific research and exploration of Clovis technology. Clovis technology is a term associated with the manner in which the archaeological artifacts of the 13 B.C. to earlier time periods were created. But, although this is the primary focus of the project, my work has brought me to a different path of study. I am focusing on a personal collection of artifacts donated to the project for preservation in the manner the institution sees most fitting. The collection is an assemblage of over a thousand artifacts, ranging from projectile points to drills. Essentially, my task has been the categorization and the eventual “typing” of these artifacts. The overall hope of the project is the creation of a reference base for Texas projectile points. And, in striving for this goal — I gained comprehension of the importance of the anthropological understanding through research questions, research methods, and finally how all aspects can be drawn back to context. Ultimately, in understanding the archaeological use for these surface finds on a deeper level, the unmasking of a possible deeper discussion about these collections in reference to their collectors has also come about.


Research Questions:

Before we can fully comprehend how exactly a random assemblage of artifacts can hold any archaeological value, we must first understand the tasks employed to achieve that value. For the Colonel Charles M. Fergusson, Jr. Native American Artifacts Collection, I went through multiple steps of importance, both procedural and contextual, to get to the current point of archaeological understanding.

The first was the initial cleaning of the artifacts. More often than not these artifacts are seen as an art-form— and as a result collectors will glue them to boards and display them for others to see, as was the case with this collection. After a whole bunch of acetone, and multiple rounds of having my hands covered in glue, I eventually completed this tedious but important step of the process. The other reason this step was vital to the project was because it allowed for me to get an initial catalog and artifact identification for each artifact, which was before completely absent. This means that there was not only a more precise count of the artifacts that we had, but also that I labeled them in a manner which would allow for referencing back to them whenever necessary.

After this came the initial cataloging of artifacts based upon morphological characteristics, meaning that while looking at aspects such as width, size, base shape, and other physical features, I was able to separate the artifacts into groups on a broader basis. The reason for this was to gather an initial idea of how the morphological grouping of artifacts can differ from the contextual one, and by this I mean that in order to understand how the grouping of artifacts occur—the archaeologist must first understand what the question is being asked.

To explore this concept further, we must venture into our third step of the process, which is the actual “typing” of the artifacts. When typing artifacts in reference to the archaeological context, we must remember that the groupings are relative and exist in direct association with the research question being posed. But more than this, for archaeological contexts there are three components which classically make up an adequate taxonomy:

  1. Each type should be able to define geographic distribution.
  2. Each type should help differentiate the temporal span.
  3. Each type should be representative of the various forms present.

Since for our purposes the question being asked is “How can this collection which was found completely out of context be typed in a manner that holds archaeological value,” we can approach the collection with the classic form of taxonomy. Although this seems like a contradiction given the lack of data on hand, the reason for this is that we do not know the archaeological context in which these artifacts were collected, but we do have resources that can make up for this lack of information. These resources include field guides, such as A Field Guide to Stone Artifacts and other scholarly texts which yield the overarching typology of artifacts within the archaeological community based on copious years of research and case studies. With these resources, I am able to properly identify each artifact and obtain it’s temporal, as well as their geographical areas, based solely on their morphological features. Although I have this reference which serves as a guide in order to keep the groupings objective, we must also remember that making a judgement of which projectile point fits in which category is ultimately a subjective venture in terms of an individual’s personal judgement. Due to this, there are other aspects an archaeologist must familiarize themselves with in order to try and keep the descriptions as scientific as possible.


Research Methods:

The aspects employed in keeping a most correct and objective typing of artifacts include understanding the technology which goes into creating these artifacts, being familiar with the concept of use-wear, and lastly, utilizing colleagues within the field in order to gather scientific knowledge on the matter. First, when an archaeologist is looking at an artifact for typing purposes, more often than not they will first be observing the manner in which the artifact was created. Essentially this means looking at aspects such as flake scarring, retouching, and even telling the type of parent material the artifact was made from, which can all serve to be useful in proper typing of an artifact. Flake scarring for instance occurs from the percussion of the hammer-stone on the chert core during initial manufacture and more often than not, they are unique to certain projectile points, depending on the pressure applied. This is similar to retouching, which occurs when an artifact has been used for a while and has become dull, so the user will “retouch” the artifact on the edges to make them sharper; this is usually done through pressure flaking. Furthermore, in terms of looking at parent material, this can give the archaeologist an understanding of what geographical areas the artifact has come from, based on the location that the geological material is indigenous. But, archaeologists must do this while also accounting for the circumstances where individuals would collect the chert and take it with them to other regions. With this information, all of these aspects make up the technology of the artifacts and are vital in understanding that there is really no “ideal” form when we discover points; only what we come to find. What I mean by this is that as archaeologists we must be aware that artifacts have been subject to usage, which can have a large effect on the look, size, and shape of the artifact.

This brings us to the next topic, which is the way that use-wear plays an extremely large part in the proper typing of an artifact. By obtaining knowledge over a long period of time about how these artifacts were created, archaeologists are also now able to understand how they were utilized. And, because of this identification of usage— an archaeologist is able to properly type a used point with the correct grouping of initially created ones. This may not seem like a large feat to some, but in this field it has allowed for many more distinct “types” of artifacts, as well as the more concrete context of how these artifacts were spatially connected in a prehistorical manner. Furthermore, this more finite association gives an even deeper understanding of the cultural context of the time period. But, even with all of this these methods which should make the typing of an artifact less strenuous, sometimes a point can be made in such an odd manner or used for such a long period of time that making the differentiation can still prove to be ambiguous. A circumstance such as this one is where the reliance of multiple skilled and specialized colleagues comes into great importance. And, although there unfortunately cannot be a definite truth found— the multiple opinions of these individuals can help to place the artifact with the type which it will most belong.


Archaeological Context:

All of these aspects above begin to prove the research question initially posed, which was if these surface found artifacts could prove to be of any archaeological use without context—such as provenience. And, through the explanations given above it can be stated that they do. Artifacts such as these still yield technological as well as educational value, which cannot be diminished just because it was not found “in situ” (in place). Furthermore, artifacts such as the ones in this collection will assist in educating future archaeology students by allowing them to properly and scientifically identify artifacts. Providing each student a tangible example of not only the initial artifact creation, but also the often overlooked aspect of use-wear. But, with this finding a question should also arise for any archaeologist. This question is that if these surface finds are proving to provide such definite archaeological value— then is the avocation of surface hunting really a harmless hobby as some believe it to be? This thought can often be rebutted with the notion that many artifacts which are collected in a scientific manner never see the light of day, even in the museum which they are homed in. Such as in the article Homeless Collections, where it is finitely highlighted how overflow from certain museums is so severe that collections are being lost in personal garages, being housed in non-climate controlled storage units, and in extreme cases being stored in abandoned car washes. Another point of discussion is the fact that if we do not at least keep a semi-amicable relationship with these avocational archaeologists, many archaeological finds and sites would be lost to us forever. The reason for this is touched on in the article Collecting Practices, when Sharon Macdonald analyzes the psychological connection behind this impulse. And, how this affinity is deeply rooted within the individual, stemming back from their childhood. So, the probability that this type of collector will cease their behavior is slim. The same conclusion goes for collectors who loot for the financial gain, because the dealing of artifacts is a lucrative trade. Due to these findings, there must be a balance between the two— much like what many archaeological facilities implement today. The reason for this, is in order to  advance the scientific analysis of history archaeologists must look to another avenue of anthropology and be culturally understanding to these inclinations of human behavior. By realizing that this behavior will not cease but that the complete destruction of the research aspects of these sites can be avoided— a compromise can come about. By taking the time to create a relationship between collectors and archaeologists, the conferring of knowledge can occur amongst both groups. For archaeologists the benefit comes from having a contact to a group of people who know about sites that may otherwise be lost to archaeological context—same goes for the artifacts removed from those sites. While the collectors benefit from the systematical information bestowed on them by the archaeologists they converse with, on not only how to properly excavate and document archaeological finds, but also the scientific importance behind doing such procedures.This concept is further solidified by the example of the collection mentioned in this paper for instance, if a surface find is going to be collected it should at least be in the most scientific and educational way possible. The reason for this is because although the artifacts may not have a provenience which classifies them as proving to be of conventional archaeological importance, they do serve another important one in their educational advancement of future archaeologists. Ultimately, by having a mutual understanding of the importance of these artifacts regardless of the personal opinions from collectors or archaeologists— the benefit for the overall advancement of the scientific study of archaeology and the preservation of history can continue.


Sources Cited

  • Milanich, Jerald T. “Homeless Collections.” Archaeology 58.6 (2005): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 09 May 2017.
  • Macdonald, Sharon. A Companion to Museum Studies / Edited by Sharon Macdonald | Collections Search Center, Smithsonian Institution. Collecting practices. p., 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 09 May 2017.

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