Savannah Miller, Anthropology Undergraduate, University of Oklahoma.
The practice of archaeology generates a huge number of artifacts, big and small, rare and commonplace. All of these artifacts need to be stored and cared for so they are available to future generations. But when a single excavation can yield hundreds, or even thousands of artifacts, organization becomes a challenge.
Many of the archaeological collections at the Sam Nobel Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH) are from several decades ago, when the standards for curation were very different. The earliest archaeological collections were acquired through Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects in the 1930s-40s. The WPA was a national program begun during the Great Depression to provide work for the many unemployed Americans. Public works projects were begun all over the country, and Oklahoma was one of the first states to use the WPA to begin archaeological excavations. These projects generated a lot of information about Oklahoma’s past, but they also generated a huge number of artifacts. After being boxed up, many of these collections have remained just as they were in the 1930s. Many of them even include the original field notes, now old enough to warrant their own place in a museum.
Back then, we didn’t have the foresight to think about archival attributes (i.e., acid-free) or how to manage them. Methods of organization and storage weren’t standardized, and each museum or curator had their own system, leading to problems like damaged artifacts and difficulty locating particular objects.
Since then, museums have been working hard to update their collections with improved standards of curation with better methods for organization and preservation. Today, collections are stored in special acid-free boxes, paper, and sealable bags, and organized by their unique number.
Now you may be asking yourself – “Why is it taking so long? It’s 2020!” The problem is that not only collections from the WPA need to be redone, but as collection standards continue to improve, every single collection must be reviewed, which means literally millions of artifacts. And on top of that, more new artifacts are being accepted (see previous blog posts on the “Curation Crisis” – https://samnoblearchaeology.wordpress.com/2020/02/12/the-curation-crisis/).
Updating older systems takes time. All of these artifacts need to be sorted, bagged, assigned their own unique number, tagged, and cataloged. This purpose of this updated system is to make it easier to find a specific item and helps museums to keep an accurate account of everything they have.
At times, all of this work may seem daunting, but it’s important to make sure that these artifacts are well cared for so that they are available to future generations. This internship has shown me how important it is to preserve artifacts, and therefore preserve a piece of history. There is a lot of work to be done, but it is work that makes the difference between saving finite resources that tell us about our past or letting them disappear. Interning at the museum has allowed me to be a part of work that will be truly meaningful to archaeologists and curators in the future.
Bustard, Wendy. “Archeological Curation in the 21st Century Or, Making Sure the Roof Doesn’t Blow Off.” CRM 5 (2000).
Hammerstedt, Scott, Amanda Regnier, and Patrick Livingood. “The Last of WPA Archaeology in Oklahoma: The Clement and McDonald Sites”, In Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, 110–26. Tuscaloosa, Al: University of Alabama Press, 2013.