My internship was conducted at the center for archaeological studies on Texas State campus. The Center for Archaeological Studies are located on Pleasant Street, just behind the University Star, in the Trinity building and across the ally from the Gault School of Archaeological Research in the Pecos building. My task at CAS was to curate the Swinney House collection, a historic collection generated on the campus before the demolition of the Swinney House. The Swinney House was a historic 111-year-old building on campus. The land it sat on was at one time owned by all three of the founding fathers of San Marcos. Eventually it was owned by Everette Swinney, a notable figure in the history department at Texas State. After he no longer lived there it was bought by Texas State and became a dormitory. It was recently demolished for the construction of a parking lot adjacent to the new engineering building the Bruce and Gloria Ingram Hall. In cooperation with federal and state laws, prior to the undertaking, an archaeology crew from CAS conducted a survey and some testing, in order to mitigate the loss of archaeological data. While the focus of my internship was on this project, I assisted with other projects in the day to day work at CAS.
Lay of the lab
CAS is basically one large room with office wall partitions that don’t extend into the rafters. Anyone at CAS is available with a shout. Everyone working at CAS is easy going and approachable. Through the center of the office runs a series of large tables on which you can splay out and work with collections stored in the repository. The regulars at CAS tend to have their own staked out real estate around these tables. The back most large table is typically dedicated to the veteran’s curation program. Next to the entrance is the door to the repository which can only be accessed with registered key cards. Todd Ahlman is the director of CAS. Jodi Jacobson is the associate director. Amy Reid is the Curator and was my supervisor during my internship. Paul Matchen is the Senior Archaeologist/Principal Investigator and was the PI of my project. Joy Schneider-Cowen is the grants assistant. Finally, Maximillian Hall is the curatorial assistant and as a public historian he did the bulk of the background research for my project. Without their ongoing aid and expertise this project would have taken much longer to complete.
My task was to fully accession the Swinney House collection. During the semester prior to this internship, Amy Reid had a curations management class which spent their lab time learning the basics of accessioning. This left the collection somewhat disorganized so much so that the first third of my internship was spent doing quality control on what that class had done. Much of the work they had done needed to be redone. We start with sorting the artifacts by their provenience which is essentially where the artifact was found. Where an artifact is found is the most important data we can have about the artifact. We record that provenience with a lot of numbers. The first job was to go through the physical paper catalogue of artifacts created by the class and add to or refine the data. The class had already cleaned the artifacts that could be cleaned without damaging. I was in the materials curation class, so I knew how to clean artifacts prior to my internship. After I finished quality control of the catalogue, I created the digital catalogue in excel. During this part of the project I did background research on artifacts that had enough easily identifiable information on them. Those were mostly glass artifacts with makers marks or other identifiable features. I became occasionally bleary eyed while measuring the lengths of nail after nail and the thickness of every single shard of glass. Some others like marbles were identifiable by their colors or manufacturing features.
With those artifacts chosen we then took pictures of them and made them ready for the THC draft report as well exhibition using photoshop to enhance the images. Following this I went through the lot bags and sorted them by type instead of lots while attempting to keep lots together within the bags. From these types I selected out artifacts that were indicative of the nature of the Swinney House site and history. The reason for that was to have pictures taken of those specific artifacts as they were to be included into the site report for the Texas Historical Commission.
The last step of the project that remains is to directly label artifacts which are large enough to be labeled, add the printed final archival tags to each artifacts housing, and create an exhibit for the Swinney House Collection. Since public outreach is a big part of archaeology, the exhibition portion is one of the most important parts of curation.
During my internship I built a database from scratch and how to accession a collection at every level. I took pictures and enhanced them in photoshop so that they could be added to reports for the THC or exhibits as well as how to build exhibits. I created the past perfect database so that the collection could be brought up for later research purposes. I think the most important of my internship was seeing how the backend of archaeological collections is managed. When moving forward in my field I will be better equipped with an understanding of the curation of the collections I am involved in generating. With my own personal research which this internship inspired I will hopefully have some control over how to better serve my collections either in the field or in the lab.
The most memorable moment of my internship aside from hanging out with CAS and VCP crew was when I found out what a bottle had been from a small remnant fragment. Archaeologists like finding cool stuff. That’s a big part of why we’re here. There were just enough features on the artifact to make identification seem possible. I spent hours going through a bottle makers book Todd gave me and an historical document binder which Paul had given me. All to no avail. Along the way I had managed to type a few other pieces with those resources, but my white whale haunted me still. Then I resorted to searching google using a vague description of the bottle including the date ranges of the later habitations of Swinney House and eureka! An exact match for the bottle was being sold on Etsy. I was even able to place some other glass fragments found in association with the primary fragment from the images of the intact sample. Todd mentioned how difficult it was to find out what something was prior to the internet or even a massive search engine like google. I feel like I got a small taste of what that must have felt like before giving up and doing my research in the 21stcentury.
While working with CAS I learned a great deal about the curation crisis. The curation crisis is essentially an abundance of collection generated over professional archaeology’s history that cannot be adequately cared for. Since the formal regulation of archaeology in America we’ve come to realize that out of the materials generated as a result of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Works Progress Administration which set people to work during the great depression, a massive stock pile of poorly curated and stored artifacts were left to sit un-studied. Later laws such as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the Reservoir Salvage Act of 1960 would add to this backlog. In fact, CAS is currently working on large collection generated as a result of these acts. This issue continues even today. Archaeologists will toss every artifact they find into a bag and let the lab worry about it. Most archaeologists will be involved in standard curation of a collection but then pass it off to a repository.
In general, the crisis means that accumulated archaeological collections have been stored haphazardly in repositories with little or no plan in place for their long-term management, care, and preservation (Thomson, 2014). Sarah Cain seems to believe that the primary issue is that university archaeology programs don’t seem to bother to teach long term curation to their students. More courses that included curation focused curricula would help in the understanding of the problem. Texas State offers a materials curation course, but such courses are rare. Detailed in Cain’s study on curation are the lack of curatorial training in archaeology or anthropology programs at university. Cain also analyzed archaeology textbooks and found that few taught curation materials and even when they did, little time was spent on the subject. Very few textbooks give curation its own chapter (Cain 2013). Education of the issue appears to be lacking.
The methods employed by field crews have begun to adapt to these issues in many ways. Some cultural resource management firms will do all their data recovery on site instead of taking materials back to a lab to be studied. Rather than store them in a repository, they’ll study, document, then re-inter the artifacts on site. The ground has served as storage for centuries or millennia, if the artifacts location is recorded and potential damage mitigated to them and the site then there may be no reason it cannot continue to do so. Of course, that choice will vary by the types of artifacts and the nature of the soils. Firms that make this choice typically don’t do so because of curation crisis concerns but because they simply cannot afford curation costs. Repository costs have begun to change to consider ongoing care. Fixed budgets rarely go over what is necessary for the project and curation is always the last step of a project, meaning curation only gets whatever funds are left over upon completion (Sexton, 2018).
Furthermore, the repositories are being paid for their shelf space and ongoing care for artifacts, so they have an interest in collecting and caring for artifacts so long as they collect the checks. Amanda Sexton drafts another approach to remedy the crisis. She’s studied repositories pricing structures and found that many used to utilize a one-time payment for care in perpetuity, which is absurd. They’ve lately been switching over to more ongoing care-based models. That considered, it seems then that when these people advise you to leave it in the ground or deaccession some of what you have stored with them, you may want to take that into consideration. Occasionally the deaccessioning of artifacts butts up against state and federal laws put in place to protect them. In that atmosphere, a detrimental effect is generated. Artifact collections bloat beyond the capabilities of the repository to care for them. They wait in climates unsuitable for their care. They are stored in material which is no longer technically archival for decades before anyone has the time to dedicate to them or before anyone can get the necessary funds to allocate to their care.
When curating collections of any size in the lab we know that while the lab work may be tedious and repetitive, it is very likely that our eyes may indeed be the only eyes to ever see those artifacts again, or at least directly examine them. The pictures may be glanced over, and the descriptions or measurement data may be queried up in search but the thing itself may never see the light of day again. It is imperative that we be as precise in measurement and clear in description as possible. The pictures must accurately capture the features of the object because these elements are likely to be the only thing any researcher may see. Only the coolest artifacts make it to exhibition. Though naturally those are not the only pieces we learn from.
The archaeological community has some tools in place to mitigate this growing crisis but in my time at CAS I’ve seen firsthand what long neglected collections look like. When we pull something out of the ground, we pull it out of its contextual provenience. We must take that provenience and roll back everything that happened to the artifact in ground processes. We essentially study and understand the artifact as it is so that we may study and understand it as it was. Any archaeologist will tell you that an artifact without context is virtually useless in extracting any high-resolution data. When artifacts are damaged in improper storage and neglect, we lose some of the data we could have extracted from them, sometimes this includes the provenience data. For the archaeologist that relies on this data, they will have to account for the storage issues. Other archaeologists may not even bother with collections acquired in slap dash WPA manners or stored in a non-climate-controlled attic. A collection excluded from research given its curational history and how fastidious the researcher may be is only stored to satisfy the legal requirements. Most collections often have few if any pieces acceptable for exhibition. I’ve learned in my time at CAS that no matter where we work in archaeology or what our specialties are, at some point the curation crisis will affect us all. The archaeological community needs better tools to remedy this crisis, the best tool may simply be awareness of its extent.
2013 A Preliminary Study on Curation Concerns in Higher Education Anthropology Programs with a Focus on Archaeological Collections. Research Papers, Paper 367
Sexton, Amanda M
2018 Covering the costs of curation: A Comparative Analysis in the Southeastern United States. University Honors program thesis, 348
2014 Handling the “Curation Crisis:” Database Management for Archaeological Collections. Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses.