The Curatorial Process and the Martyrdom of St. Boko
I completed an internship at Texas State University’s (TSU) Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) during the Spring 2018 semester. In this paper I outline the mission of CAS, discuss the curatorial tasks I performed there , and explore what it is that archaeologists do beyond that of making square holes in the ground.
The Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University:
Currently headed by Dr. Todd Ahlman, CAS is located in the Trinity building of TSU’s San Marcos campus. CAS’ role is that of a center for research, the primary goal of which is to deliver training and research opportunities to students seeking careers in anthropology with an emphasis on the profession of archaeology. As part of their role as a research center, CAS conducts archaeological investigations for federal, state, and local government s as required by law such as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and the Antiquities Code of Texas. CAS also provides managerial oversight for archaeological sites on TSU’s campus such as Spring Lake. Additionally, CAS serves as a certified curatorial repository for the Texas Historical Commission and also serves the public interest through outreach and education about anthropology and archaeology (CAS 2016).
Perhaps counterintuitively, the most significant contributions made to the discipline of archaeology are undertaken far removed from where artifacts are excavated and almost never do they take place in the trench. What’s more, the amount of work performed during an excavation is the figurative “tip of the iceberg” compared to the amount of work undertaken at laboratories and research facilities. It is at these places where the full range of archaeological theory is developed and formulated through the synthesis of multiple and varied data-sets from throughout a region and beyond. A good example of this can be found right in TSU’s back yard.
In 1978 Dr. Joel Shiner conducted underwater investigations of what was then called Aquarena Spring, recovering lanceolate style projectile points and indicating the site could have been inhabited as early as 11,000 BC. Subsequent investigations have recovered artifacts showing evidence of the springs hosting continuous occupations for the past 13,000 years. This is owed to the clean and reliable water that issues forth forming what is now called Spring Lake. Situated at the confluence of several ecological zones, the location of Spring Lake makes it ideal habitat for animals and other resources which were necessary to sustain human life. Even during periods of extreme drought, animals such as bison, deer, birds, fish, and frogs would have been harvested year-round (SL Archaeology).
In 2010, the University announced plans for the construction of a ticket kiosk supporting glass bottom boat tours that have been in use at Spring Lake since the 1940’s. Because Spring Lake is designated by the Texas Historical Commission as an environmentally and historically sensitive site, CAS put together a plan and budget for the data recovery and archaeological monitoring of the project. During the fall and winter of 2011 , a team of archaeologists led by Jon C. Lhose performed controlled hand excavations in order to mitigate the impact of the project and offset the loss of data stemming from the construction of the kiosk (Lhose et al 2013:2). Over the course of 90 days, hundreds of cultural artifacts and one set of human remains were recovered from four 1×1 meter units for further analysis. In the case of the human remains, compliance with NAGPRA by CAS was required in order to negotiate and make arrangements with nearby cultural groups for final disposition (Lhose et al 2013:8). As the excavation progressed, all cultural artifacts, faunal remains, organic and sediment samples were delivered from the site to the CAS laboratory.
Back at CAS, the job of washing, categorizing, and cataloging the artifacts began, while soil and organic samples were subjected to appropriate testing. Once cleaned, the artifacts were grouped into the following descriptive and analytical categories: metal, glass, ceramic, burned clay, lithics, fire-cracked rock, organic fauna, organic flora, personal items, and modern synthetic materials. After being grouped into categories, each artifact’s individual provenience, weight, count and a brief description were recorded by hand. Then the curatorial process described earlier was performed and the artifacts were at this point deemed fully incorporated into the larger CAS inventory.
It was not until sometime in 2013 – fully two years after the excavation had finished – that results of the Ticket Kiosk project were published. Although much credit is owed to the masterful work performed by those who carried out the excavation, it was the work performed at CAS over the course of the following months that the real contributions to archaeology were made.
Working at CAS and the Curatorial Process:
The majority of CAS’ workspace is devoted to tables upon which employees and interns are able to spread out their work. Invariably, if you’re interning at CAS your work will be centered on artifacts under CAS’ care that must go through the rigorous and painstaking process of curation for incorporation into the larger collection.
Curation is what you think of when hearing the words “preserving the past” and though the role of curation is focused on preserving the past, it’s real value is devoted to the future. This is because curation of artifacts will equip researchers of the future with the ability to apply the latest techniques, thereby opening new avenues of perspective and interpretation (Sliva, R.J.).
Primarily, curatorial tasks involve washing, weighing, analyzing, describing, recording, and (in some cases) stabilizing and preserving artifacts prior to being stored in CAS’ climate controlled curation facility. The majority of my time at CAS was devoted to the curation of artifacts recovered from the latest excavation carried out at TSU’s Spring Lake (formerly known as Aquarena Springs ). Upon arrival, I retrieved my designated box of artifacts from the access controlled storage facility and numerically sort the contents using the lot number written on the intake label found within the artifact’s bag. This same routine was carried out for each box of artifacts within the group as they were initially categorized during intake at CAS (i.e. lithic, pottery, faunal remains, etc.).
The next step in the curatorial process performed by me was to reconcile the physical artifacts I had organized with what was reflected on a spreadsheet from source documents recorded during excavation. My sole focus here was to ensure that each physical artifact/lot I’d put my eyes and hands upon was accurately reflected in the spread-sheet — much easier said than done. The spread-sheet reconciliation procedure is a critical step , the purpose of which is to identify any missing artifacts or recording errors prior to the artifact being updated into the curatorial database . The importance of this task cannot be overemphasized , due to there being instances where a lot has been mislaid or recorded in error that requires close attention before commitment to the database/volume (curatorial system of record ). The database must reflect to the highest degree and utmost accuracy every artifact under CAS’ stewardship. This is because the database is a powerful research tool for inquiry and also enables the creation of a virtual artifact model of discrete locations , not to mention providing managerial oversight of CAS’ extensive inventory.
Once the records reflected in the spreadsheet have been put in order, the entire file is readied to be pushed en masse to the curatorial database (PastPerfect 5.0). The file is formatted into an earlier version of MS Excel compatible with PastPerfect and staged for import. However, before importing begins the database must first be readied for the spread-sheet records to be accepted. Because batch processing places the database in a vulnerable position vis a vis data fidelity, job one is to isolate the volume from all other users. This is done by the administrator placing the database into single user state, thereby preventing all other users from accessing it. A backup copy of the volume is then created in the event of problems arising during import that may require an accurate fallback position – this actually happened once while I was there , resulting in 2 days of database downtime.
Once readied (and with fingers crossed), the import is started and if all goes well, in about 10-15 minutes you will be greeted with a checksum of the number of records imported and those that may have failed due to field anomalies or constraint violations. If you’re lucky (as I was), your work will be rewarded with having 100% of the records being updated into the curatorial database. If you’re not so lucky, the rejected records will each have to be examined and then manually typed into the database after you’ve corrected the problem. It really pays to have done due diligence for this step otherwise, one could spend quite some time hammering these in by hand.
The database is then released for CAS users and it is then time to print barcode labels for each of the artifact records you have pushed into the volume. These barcodes serve a critical role within the maintenance of the CAS collection for inventory purposes that are to be performed on a periodic basis. The barcodes are generated using a canned barcode report function in the database and are printed at a rate of 12 bar-code labels to one sheet of 8 ½” by 11” acid free paper. After having been printed, your next task will be to cut these into individual labels on the evil paper-cutter.
Once cut into discrete slips of paper (in one instance I had 576 of them), each barcode label is slipped into an archival 2”x3” sleeve. For this task, it pays to be gifted with highly tactile and dexterous abilities of which I am sadly lacking (anthropologically speaking, a chimpanzee would have performed faster). After all of the labels have been sleeved, I then sorted the whole by lot number placing these in a neat stack. Next, return to the curation facility to retrieve the boxed bags of artifacts corresponding to your sleeved labels.
With sleeved and sorted barcode labels at the ready and a box of artifacts in hand, find an empty space at a table to spread out. Open each artifact bag, extract the intake label from inside the bag and slip this into the reverse side of the respective barcode label matching the artifact. Insert the now united barcode and intake label , both housed in the sleeve, back into the artifact bag and zip-lock it after eliminating any trapped air inside. Lastly, return your finished work back to its assigned shelf in the curation facility. Congratulations, you’re done.
Lessons Learned and the Reality of an Archaeology Profession:
Shortly after starting my internship at CAS , it became apparent how much of my duties were apportioned outside of what I’d traditionally thought of as archaeology. We can thank Hollywood for fueling the widespread misconception of how the work of an archaeologist is characterized. One opinion often heard in response from friends and family after being queried about my studies describes that of a bespectacled obsessive roaming the wilderness in search of dinosaur bones from which to extract DNA and accidentally bringing about a reptilian apocalypse. A second misconception, closer to reality yet still a far distance from the truth, describes the image of a rugged individualist who, while suffering privation and pestilence in exotic lands, bravely rescues rare artifacts and distressed damsels (in that order) from the clutches of the bad guys.
Many of those who work or are pursuing careers in archaeology will roll their eyes at these vignettes, yet may secretly confess to these distorted portrayals as having some influence on their choice of career. True, some lucky few of these may run into bad guys, experience hardships in faraway places, and even make spectacular discoveries. But as the majority of budding archaeologists are soon to learn, the reality of an archaeological profession is one wholly different from that portrayed in popular culture .
Archaeology is more than excavating:
Defining major periods of the distant past is one of the most important contributions to the conduct of archaeological research, the primary reason for which is to establish an historic sequence of events (Renfrew and Bahn 2012:166 ). This sequence represents mile posts for adaptations born through the demands of social, economic, environmental, and climatic pressures that are seen through changes in artifacts left by the land’s earliest inhabitants. Moreover, and of paramount importance here, what is witnessed at these temporal junctures is that most fundamental aspect of human behavior – technical innovation. These innovations when successful, diffuse regionally eventually replacing outmoded technologies, and when combined with these major periods create for us our model of the past. Finding answers to the questions of “how, when, where” these innovations spread are of the utmost interest because these are what complete our picture of Spring Lake , and it is only through the analysis, research, and curatorial process performed at research facilities such as CAS that we are able to do this .
The Martyrdom of St. Boko:
It was during the curation process of Spring Lake artifacts that I held in my hand a 3000-year-old canine tooth once belonging to a carnivore found in the remains of a burned rock midden. Sitting amongst the literally thousands of artifacts curated by CAS, it wasn’t very remarkable: just the remains of an animal that once prowled the area around Spring Lake sometime in the Late Archaic period. What set this artifact apart from the numerous others arrayed before me with evidence of butchering was that it once belonged to an animal taxonomically labeled Lynx Rufus, more commonly called a bobcat. This particular bobcat was probably looking for a meal or maybe a cool drink taken from the gin clear water bubbling from springs that give this place it’s modern name. What this bobcat didn’t realize was that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another predator had arrived there first and was lying in wait for just this moment. Hopefully, what happened next was over quickly – the unsuspecting bobcat was cursorily skewered and was to be headlining the menu of the innovative animal that killed it – Homo Sapiens. It suddenly dawned on me that what I had in front of my very eyes was the earliest documented “Boko” to have called the area we know as Texas State University home. Imagine that…a relic of the original TSU bobcat, “Saint Boko the Tasty”, in the palm of my hand. The irony of this moment was almost too rich for words. Let’s just say that “Eat ’em up cats – Go cats GO!” will (for me at least), forever have much different ring to it.
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