Archaeology Curation

Rachel Jenson, Center for Archaeological Studies

Internship at the Center for Archaeological Studies: The Process of Curating the Past

Rachel Jenson

 

Introduction to CAS, Collections, and Curating

In the Spring of 2017, I conducted an internship at the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State. The facility is a teaching center for the students on campus and a repository for Central Texas. There, I learned the process of curating an archaeological collection that had been accessioned some years before. This report describes the organization, background of the collection, my duties as an intern, and discusses the Curation Crisis that has troubled archaeological repositories for some time now.

 

Texas State Center for Archaeological Studies

The Texas State Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) is the on-campus repository for many archaeological projects. The primary goal of CAS is to train and give research opportunities to the students at Texas State. The department’s mission is also to promote archaeological research, conduct investigation, serve as a state certified repository, and support public education of anthropology, history, and archaeology.

As a repository, CAS accessions archaeological collections and protects them by ensuring they are curated properly. This includes storing artifacts in the proper archival materials and placing them in a humidity controlled room to prevent damage. This also includes logging collections more extensively in order to preserve them for future research. In the past, artifacts have been lost or damaged because they were often excavated and then abandoned in repositories, never to be looked at again. Now, curation is becoming a bigger focus for repositories so we can save collections for future research. CAS is at the forefront of this push to curation which is why it is so important.

CAS also conducts their own field investigations and accessions collections from other individuals and groups. These investigations can either be grant funded, federally funded, or conducted through cultural resource management firms. These investigations usually involve going to construction sites, and, as mandated by law, archaeological survey work is conducted to uncover the historical significance of the land. This protects sites from being destroyed unknowingly. The process of accessioning collections starts with a person or group who want to give a collection to the repository. They usually either want to protect the collection or have its research capacity investigated. CAS, and other repositories, will usually only accession collections that fit within their scope of research since storing and curating collections is expensive.

To accomplish these goals, the employees at CAS work together through their specialized areas to ensure nothing gets left unchecked. Dr. Todd Ahlman is the Director of CAS, which means he oversees the repository projects and helps anyone who comes in with questions. He also generally manages the field work the team has to do. As the collections manager, Amy Reid focuses on curation and ensures every step in the process is met when accessioning collections. She also helps give tours to those who want to see the repository before giving a collection to them. Jacob Hooge is the project archaeologist for CAS. As such, he conducts and monitors survey and excavation projects for Texas State. Joy Scheidner-Cowan is the Grants Assistant and generally takes care of clerical business regarding contracts. Last but not least are the student volunteers and interns who help with anything and everything. For the interns this semester, the job was to curate collections so they would be protected from damage.

 

Project Background

The Miller Collection in its entirety consists of multiple sites collected by Eldred Thomas Miller. Most of the collection was conducted by the Texas Hill Country Archeological Society in the 1970’s. Miller was an avocational archaeologist who started his archaeological path after retiring from the postal service in 1971. He quickly gained a reputation in the field for his excellent excavation skills and field notes. For example, he was fondly nicknamed “Table Top Tom” due to his nearly perfectly flat unit floors. Miller’s eccentric personality made him memorable to his field partners and he is commonly remembered at CAS for his quote: “No one ever really owns the collectibles in one’s collection. We are merely caretakers for future generations.” His love for history and the people in it was evident through his typically meticulous excavation styles that are present in the majority of the collection. He continued to excavate and devote his personal life to archaeology well into his 90’s. After his death, Miller bequeathed the collection to Dr. Black at Texas State, who then donated it to CAS. Letters addressed to Miller from Black discuss the possibility of doing so are contained within the written record portion of the collection.

The Beck site, also known as the trinomial 41KR118, was also organized by the Texas Hill Country Archaeological Society as a volunteer project in Kerr County. It was initially run by Miller and Daniel Marshall, another member of the society. Records saved from the THCAS executive and member meetings discuss callouts for the project and a few details about when they occurred, which was often sporadic. Unlike the other sites in Miller’s collection, the Beck site contains few written records. Miller wrote in his personal journal that this was due to the management of the project being transferred, likely to Marshall, and all records being destroyed after the new directors “demise”. The destruction of field notes caused the loss of valuable provenience information about the site.

41KR118 was reported as a Paleo-Indian site, but it contains a large portion of Late Archaic to historic artifacts. Based on the records that survived, there were 2-3 Burned Rock Middens in the area that were mostly destroyed by the construction of an apartment complex. Due to the construction, much of the original context of the artifacts was destroyed. For example, “found in back dirt” is written on many of the artifacts. In total, the Beck Site contains roughly 600 artifacts. Most of the objects are lithic projectile points, shown in figure 1, but there is also a large number of flakes, a few cores, bifaces, and ground stones. Accompanied with them are a few pieces of bone, ceramic, and minerals. Surprisingly, there are also two pieces of historic metal which demonstrates the level of disturbance at the site. Unfortunately, with the severe loss of provenience information we are unable to tell whether or not the site was continually inhabited.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Before this semester, I had worked on the Beck Site collection with a group in the Material Curation class. There, we analyzed how to bring the collection up to CAS’ standards. Before us, one other intern worked on a portion of the artifacts in 2015. Originally, artifacts came in unsuitable packaging, such as overweight boxes and non-archival paper bags. Many artifacts were clustered together in cigar boxes, shown in figure 2, without protection or being cleaned. One box was even infested with termites and was immediately disposed of. My group went through two of the boxes, bagging and tagging along the way. We also gave some of the fragile bone items mounts so they would be protected. We were not able to finish processing the Beck Site during the semester due to the abundance of artifacts and work needing to be done on the collection.

Figure 2

Figure 2

 

Curating as an Intern

This semester, I finished the tagging process, made sure each item was clean, sorted into lots, recorded on specimen inventory sheets, and entered all the information in an excel database. The tagging process requires materials to be sorted into lots, placed into archival bags, provenience information to be recorded on slips of paper, and finally recorded on specimen inventory sheets. The inventory sheets are used to record information about the artifacts, such as item name (ex: Lithic, Projectile Point), item description, where it was found, and weight. They are separated into lot based on the provenience information. Recording everything into a database simply required entering the information on the inventory sheets into excel. Doing so will make it easier to import it into PastPerfect, a database specifically made for collections. For now, using the excel database has made it easier to see what the collection looks like as a whole and analyze it better. In total, there are 660 artifacts that were collected from 41KR118.

The miller collection has required 149 lots because of the inconsistencies of the information recorded about the artifacts. Many of the artifacts had no labeling whatsoever. However, many were also labeled with what seemed like arbitrary numbers, such as “I-20.” These numbers may be for units, but without the field notes it is hard to tell. Other lots are distinguished by dates and other random numbers such as “513” which created many single artifact lots.

The artifacts within the collection are very interesting. There are many examples of different projectile points throughout time. One point even has cortex on the center of the blade even though the base was notched, which is very unusual. There is also a great example of a preform that is made of conglomerate material, displayed in figure 3, which is rare for Kerr County. Another personal favorite of mine, shown in figure 4, is a long, curved biface with two sharpened edges. What is interesting is that the inner curve looks like there was a mistake made, breaking off more than was intended. Instead of discarding the piece, however, they continued to sharpen it. Along with these pieces there were some interesting cores and large bifaces that may have also been used as hand axes.

 

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Problems in Curation

There is a serious problem within archaeology called the Curation Crisis. Although the general problem can be traced to an earlier time, the onset of this crisis largely started with salvage archaeology. During this time, sites were being excavated incredibly quickly in order to keep up with the new construction occurring in the US. Because of this, many repositories became over full, and do not know the full extent of their inventory to this day. The Curation Crisis largely consists of a lack of funding and a mindset in the community that disregards old and new collections. This crisis affects how much we can learn and use from excavated collections.

The crisis has been intensified by a lack of government funding and an unwillingness for construction companies to pay the full expenses of curation. This causes archaeologists to understate the amount of money they will need so their proposals will not get rejected; however, it also means they end up unable to support or protect the whole collection. Staff at repositories are underfunded and new construction for full storage units is not affordable. This has caused staff to go to extreme measures and even store collections at their houses. In turn, many collections get misplaced or completely lost. “Some collections simply disappear” writes Milanich who is too familiar with the fallout from lack of funding. He, and other archaeologists like him, hope “our particular curation crisis will be eventually put to rest, though it’s going to take time and hard work in the trenches of government” (2005). Although this problem is being combated at CAS, it was still evident that they could use more funding to protect the growing number of collections. Homeless collections are often the result of lack of funding. They usually end up being destroyed from lack of care, which causes us to permanently lose part of history.

There is also still a large mindset within archaeology that once a collection is placed within a repository its research potential has been used up. This means curated artifacts get ignored, especially older collections who appear to have lost their provenience. However, this is not true. April M. Beisaw writes how she was able to finish a dissertation by using the written records held in a repository (2016). By using repositories to their fullest potential, we can understand more from forgotten collections. Furthermore, collections can be used for more than academic research. This could include public education, teaching collections, or technological analysis. The limits currently placed on collections reflect an old school of thought. Luckily, this is changing in the community through the efforts of repository staff, but it is still taking time.

I was also able to conduct some analysis on the collection for another class. I found the general flow of the point typology appears to match some interesting trends in Texas Archaeology. Most of the points were already identified by Miller, but I was able to confirm these by using Turner and Hester’s (1999) book on typology. From there, I used Collins et al (2011) report on the Gault Site to help distinguish what may have been occurring at the Beck Site. This analysis was based on climate conditions and whether the trends of technology at the Gault Site were being followed at 41KR118. For example, the presence of Martindale points coincides with an absence of bison. The presence of Martindale at the Beck Site suggests there was an absence of bison there as well. The pattern continues further as Collins et all (2011) suggest a return of bison during a “partial amelioration of the Altithermal” which is evidenced through a use of Andice points. An Andice point, shown in figure 5, suggests the Beck site also experienced a return of bison. Though the examples discussed here are limited, it is evident that the pattern of points at 41KR118 likely correlated with the bison fluctuations caused by the paleoclimate of central Texas. Despite the lack of provenience information of this site, it is still possible to understand what may have been occurring due to understanding the flow of technology patterns and what causes them. If more research can be done like this, it is possible to continue understanding collections that were previously left untouched. From here, we can continue to gain a greater knowledge of the area around us and what influences human technologies.

Figure 5

Figure 5

 

Conclusion: 120 Hours Later

My time at the Center for Archaeological Studies has not only been enjoyable, but eye opening as well. I was able to work with a very interesting collection and see firsthand how the Curation Crisis effects collections. From working with the staff at CAS and the other interns, I was able to greatly increase my knowledge of archaeology and what should be done after field work. In my opinion, everyone should understand the work that goes into protecting history. Furthermore, it was easy to see why and how collections are still valuable after the initial research and even a loss of provenience information. My respect for the people who used these tools has also increased after handling them. I never lost sense of what they represented – life being lived. Along with every other valuable lesson I learned, the most striking was how humanized history becomes after working with these artifacts for so long. They indicate one of the most important aspects of archaeology, that our material culture connects us to the past through learning how people related to the world, and see how we might continue to do so.

 

Figure 6

Figure 6

 

 

References

Beisaw, April M. 2016. “Archaeology without Excavation: Digging Through the Archives of the Pennsylvania State Museum.” Pennsylvania History 77(4): 467-476.

Collins, Michael B., Yelacic, David M., and Bousman, Britt C. 2011 “Realms,” a Look at Paleoclimate and Projectile Points in Texas.” Texas Archeological Society. 82:3-27.

Milanich, Jerald T. 2005. “Homeless Collections.” Archaeology 58(6): 57-60, 62, 64 Published by: Archaeological Institute of America

Turner, Ellen Sue and Hester, Tomas R. 1999 Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Taylor Trade Publishing. 3rd ed. Taylor Trade Publishing.

About the author

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