A Reflection of Digital Repatriation

Lauren Gastineau, Spring 2022 Collections Intern

When I entered the Sam Noble Archaeology Department as a volunteer my sophomore year, I immediately undertook the challenge of a huge feat. I had two short months to scan and digitize over 100 feet of documents, photos, and oversized maps. These text artifacts belonged to the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) collections which were being deaccessioned at the end of October of that year. Although the task seemed impossible, I was able to digitize the documentation that belonged to the collections entirely so that Sam Noble would not lose the information. When I finished this project, I was ready to start another because I loved seeing the tangible evidence of what my work could do for the museum. I also loved knowing that my contribution would help years to come. That is when we decided to completely digitize all documents, photos, and oversized text that the department sheltered. Sam Noble archives hold over 356 feet of documentation. While this may seem simple, scanning and cataloging can take time. This work is one of the foundational methodologies in digital collections. Further, investing in the beginning steps of a digital revolution is still essential.

There is now a movement in museums toward using digital repatriation alongside the work already being done under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Archaeologists Kelsey Grimm and Krystiana Krupa even suggest that digital repatriation could be another step in decolonizing archives (2021). The librarian-archivist and NAGPRA practitioner encourage the repatriation of archival documentation that contain ritual histories, ceremonial experiences, or burial photos. But should then the repatriation includes historical or archival recording, voice memos, and artworks displaying Native American experiences? This question addresses what NAGPRA does not cover as repatriated materials. Museum collections contain much more than just artifacts; photographs, maps, and personal writings about sites are commonly included in the site’s archives. These documents and photos do not fall under NAGPRA but still hold value within the history of the site and its affiliated tribe.

Grimm and Krupa use a case study of the Angel Mounds in Indiana to exemplify how digital repatriation applies to museums such as the Sam Noble Museum (2021). The Angel Mound site was even excavated under WPA, aligning with the majority of the sites we repatriate at the Sam Noble Museum. Since, under NAGPRA, the images and negatives collected at the Angel Mound site were not repatriated, scientists used digital copies and made publications using those images. Because materials such as photographs and drawings are not included in NAGPRA, these materials are open for research use by scientists insensitive to Native American communities. These images depicted the human remains of Native American ancestors being disturbed from their resting places and burials being taken apart. Obviously, for Native American communities, these photos and film negatives are wildly disrespectful. Because the photos are not repatriated under NAGPRA, the Angle Mound site used digital repatriation in order to cover more holistic repatriation. Those working on the repatriation of the Angel Mound site consulted with the affiliated Native tribe to help the community of Native Americans reclaims the photos taken. Now the culturally insensitive images have restricted access. Although the tribe did not want the repatriation of the original photos in this instance, their wish to have them restricted to no public access is a movement to decolonize the archive and give power to the Native American tribe through control of access to the photos that capture historical trauma.

This case study highlights how digital repatriation can help the Native American tribes give power back using digital collections. The team involved in the repatriation of Angel Mounds worked with the affiliated tribe to correctly repatriate or house materials that do not fall under NAGPRA. Although materials such as photo negatives and drawings are not under NAGPRA, the voluntary repatriation or restricted access of these materials takes decolonizing archival collections a step further. This voluntary repatriation gives the Native American tribes the power to use museums as stewards in repatriating, respecting, and representing their tribe as they wish.

Sam Noble houses collections exactly like the case study of Angel Mound. No NAGPRA site is the same, and thus each should be handled with the complete wishes and process of the affiliated tribal nation. By working with tribes not just with the objects that fall under NAGPRA but with digital collections, the repatriations “are even more powerful in their efforts to address the colonial history of collecting” (2021). The Native American tribe should ultimately decide on what is to be repatriated. It is important to be fully open with the repatriation of more than just the artifacts and remains of a site. This step will further the attempt at decolonizing archives. The practice of digital repatriation is also “a purposeful move toward addressing the historical trauma” (2021) caused by the decimation and collection of Native American burial sites. 

Digital collections, as seen in this article, cover a broad spectrum of how they can influence the processes of archaeology. Taking steps just as I have in completing the digital collections at Sam Noble can help us as a museum broaden our repatriation. Digital collections have surfaced as a methodology for voluntary repatriation. Completing the digital collections at Sam Noble Museum will allow us to work with tribes on voluntary digital repatriation. If done in collaboration with the tribal nation, this process can attempt to decolonize archives further and give the Native American community power back.

Works Cited

Krupa, Krystiana and Grimm, Kelsey. “Digital Repatriation as a Decolonizing Practice in the Archaeological Archive.” Across the Disciplines, vol. 18 no. ½ pp. 47-58, 8 November 2021. https://doi.org/0.37514/ATD-J.2021.18.1-2.05

Boxing the Past for the Future

By: Kian Steppe, Spring 2022 Collections Intern

*None of the images displayed in this post are subject to NAGPRA*

As an intern in the archeology department of the Sam Noble Museum, a large part of your job may be creating boxes and mounts for the many pieces of pottery in the collection. After being boxed, the pieces are made ready for their eventual return to their associated Native American Tribes. Resting on a table in the corner is the box making station, containing everything needed. A binder with instructions, hot glue, knives, Styrofoam, cardboard, and measuring equipment. At first, the many rules and guidelines to create a proper and stable mount can be overwhelming, but it gets far easier with practice.

Kian Steppe

            One of the most important aspects and simultaneously my favorite part is the carving of the foam base for the pot to rest in. Armed with a hot knife, I carefully scrape out a divot with the dimensions of the pot in question for a snug fit. There is no one size fits all way to do this, as the diversity of clay forms each requires special attention.

Before my time at the museum, I did not think too deeply about the native pottery held there. I recognized that many were objects of cultural patrimony belonging to Native American tribes which should be returned, and that they held significance in the archeological world as evidence of past cultural practices. Behind museum glass they were pretty and interesting, but far less exciting than the flint knives and traditional outfits. However, I developed a special appreciation for the artistry of the native pottery with each passing shift, due to having the privilege of being so close to the pieces.

It can be difficult to see the fine details of the pots from a distance due to the darker colors of the clay, but the designs and decorations stand out once they rest in your gloved hands. Triangles, circles, rectangles, and maze-like patterns sprawl across their surfaces. Many also had ornate handles and ornamented rims. One of my favorites in particular has a set of “cat ears” on top. The thinness of the walls of many large pieces was inspiring. In spite of their fragile nature, they held together for hundreds of years due to their expert craftsmanship. Even the “dullest” pot was still a piece to behold, with a symmetrical body and smooth curves.

Partially reconstructed jar with loop handles.
Accession Number A/1948/4 Catalog Number 34Mc8/1332.001

I got inspired after being surrounded by these works of art to make something of my own. Before I knew it a box of air dry clay was on my table at home, and I busily shaped it into small clay lanterns.

Beyond the gorgeous aesthetics of the pieces, working in the museum made me realize the intimacy many pots had with specific individuals. Often they are not found on their own, but instead in native burial sites along with human remains. It is important to recognize that these pieces are not at home on the shelf or cabinet of a storage room. That place is for the associated descendant communities to decide.

NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It was passed to create an outlet not only to protect native graves, remains, and cultural artifacts but to have them returned as well. Once a connection has been established between a tribe and the remains, the repatriation process can begin. On the topic of human remains, in particular, it ensures that they are treated with the dignity and respect afforded to any other American buried remains. In the case of the artifacts, NAGPRA does not simply serve the purpose of returning a group’s objects or possessions to their rightful owners, as that would be a disservice to their importance. Each pot is a beautiful, irreplaceable cultural creation. To make an analogy to a more familiar concept, it is incredibly obvious to us that famous paintings are each distinct and carry their own meaning, style, and unique attributes given by a talented artist. The pottery holds similar details and significant cultural and ritual value. Why then should they not deserve to be returned?

Interning at the museum has been a wonderful opportunity to not only get closer to the artifacts and learn about the inner workings of the museum collection world, but also do my part to help return some pieces to their rightful owners.

Practical Knowledge: How One Internship Shone Through in the Time of COVID

By: Emily Andrew, Dartmouth

I sincerely hope that your time at Sam Noble is nothing like mine. No, that’s not me slamming Sam Noble or trying to scare you away from what I’m sure will be an incredibly enjoyable and educational internship. My internship took place at what we all hope is the end of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021. This wider context undoubtedly affected my experience in ways I cannot fully understand. However, even with these difficulties, the people and projects at Sam Noble provided me with a plethora of practical and engaging experiences, and I have upmost confidence that they will continue to do so for all their future interns.

Figure 1. Much of my training and a fair portion of my internship work was completed at home due to the precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

My internship began with several simple tasks that aimed to help familiarize me with the physical locations of objects and tools within the building, with different physical tasks associated with repatriation, and, of course, with the different individuals working within the Archeology Department. The most central of these tasks was creating and attaching tags that describe important information about an object, including the provenience number, the object description and count, and the specific collection of which this object is a part. I found this task to be quite relaxing and enjoyable, though I would recommend bringing along an audiobook or podcast to enjoy while you’re working. Time flies when you’re listening to something you’re passionate about, and it will help keep you focused and prevent you from making mistakes.

The next task I was assigned to was completing assessments of several specific sites. The best way I can define assessment is by saying that it’s probably the closest you will get in this internship to the Hollywood ideal of archeologists. Don’t worry, you won’t find yourself running from rolling boulders and stealing relics from ancient tombs. Assessment is the part of the process where an individual receives a paper with all of the different objects that are supposed to be in a specific collection, and they are expected to comb through the entire collection and ensure that all of the objects are present, that their descriptions and object counts are correct, and that any issues that may require expert stabilization are properly logged and recorded in the database. It is incredibly detail-oriented work and can be quite time consuming, especially in larger collections or collections that have not been well-preserved. I have even found boxes in which all of the objects inside are still wrapped within the original paper from their excavation over 90 years ago. In this task, you will almost inevitably encounter problems, some of which you may not be able to solve on your own. That’s okay. The most important lesson that you can learn in this internship is not to be afraid to ask for help, for clarification, or for confirmation. It’s more important that these tasks be done right than fast.

I spent much of the latter half of my internship working on data entry and data correction for a variety of sites. This task is necessary right after an assessment is completed, as any new problems or resolved past issues must be recorded in the database. Data entry is rarely anyone’s favorite simply due to the monotony of it. However, without it, the entire system of the Archeology Department would almost certainly begin to break down. For me, data entry boils down to three simple truths: It will never be your favorite job at Sam Noble. It is one of the most important jobs in the entire Archeology Department. Finally, and this goes for every single task I have discussed or will discuss in the future, if you are unsure, please ask for help. The time it takes to explain something is infinitely smaller than the time it will take for someone to redo that entire project.

Near the end of my internship, I moved into the 2nd floor lab to learn how to label artifacts with Ms. Sally Johnston, one of the department’s long-term volunteers. If you long for the days of high school chemistry and biology labs, this might end up being one of your favorite areas. Labeling artifacts isn’t particularly difficult, and anyone who has ever dreamt of becoming a nail technician might really enjoy it. Attention to detail is important, as always, but having extreme body control and finger dexterity is almost more so. Anyone labeling artifacts needs to be able to handle remarkably small objects with extreme care as to attach the remarkably small labels (that they have cut down to this size themselves) with a liquid that is essentially the same as clear fingernail polish. My most central advice for this area? If caffeine makes your hands shake, skip it on these days and, once again, bring that favorite podcast or audiobook along with you.

Overall, I would define my time at Sam Noble as one of community. Of course, I found myself learning, discovering, and practicing a variety of new skills. I learned on both a theoretical and a practical level, thanks to our various readings and my regular work on the fourth and fifth floors. However, while these aspects of the internship were obviously important, it was the community within the Museum that really made this internship stand out against all of my others. I have worked in a variety of institutions throughout my high school and college careers; yet I can only think of one other position in which I found a workplace that felt so open, friendly, and collaborative. That specific factor is what caused this internship to stand apart from the others, and, more importantly, it is what confirmed for me that this is the industry and the cause to which I hope to dedicate my life.

Sam Noble, I thank you for your time. For the knowledge that you have imparted onto me and the experiences that I have been able to enjoy. More than anything though, I thank you for the people that you have brought together and the community that you have built.

“Finding My Career Path”

By Michael Hopper

My name is Michael Hopper, and I am a senior intern for the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History for the University of Oklahoma. My major is Native American Studies and History with a concentration on Tribal Cultural Preservation. I am a full-blooded Native American raised in the traditional ways of both my Choctaw and Osage people that includes being raised a traditional Southern Strait Dancer and community member on the Osage Nation reservation in northern Oklahoma. I also grew up participating in ceremonies and religious practices with my family, which has guided my interest in ancient civilizations and cultures in the pre-colonial Americas.

This interest led me to being given the opportunity to intern in the Archaeology department under Dr. Marc Levine, Associate Curator and Susie Fishman-Armstrong, Archaeology Collections Manager and NAGPRA Coordinator. My internship focus has been on the collections relating to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The goal of the NAGPRA law is to return Native American Ancestral remains and associated funerary objects (AFOs) back to their original people. With this internship I have learned to properly care for the Ancestral objects related to NAGPRA, in preparation for their return.

Before starting this internship, like many students, I enjoyed my studies and the direction of my education, but I was struggling to find a career path that included my interests. An internship was required for my degree and I wanted to explore museum careers. Dr. Levine told me about this internship opportunity which would give me hands-on collections management experience in museums. With this opportunity, Dr. Levine and Susie Fishman-Armstrong have helped open a lot of doors for me that I had not expected. They were able to help me narrow my career path to Tribal Cultural Preservation, with a specialization in researching and implementing the laws associated with NAGPRA. With direction and encouragement from both of them, I reached out to other museums and tribal heritage programs for additional career advice.

Two of the programs they connected me to, were the Choctaw Nation and Osage Nation Cultural Preservation programs. Both Nations gave me great advice on what I should be focusing on in my studies for graduate school. The Choctaw Nation also invited me to their headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma to meet in person and tour their facilities. On that trip I was able to learn more from a tribal perspective about potential careers in tribal cultural preservation. At the end of the trip, I was offered a paid summer internship to work with the Choctaw Nation to learn more about how their program functions. Overall, this internship has meant a great deal to myself and others that have taken this opportunity before me. With the guidance of Dr. Marc Levine and Susie Fishman-Armstrong, I believe the internship will continue to be a great experience for those chosen in the future. And for me being Native American, it has meant a great deal seeing the important, hard, respectful work the Sam Noble Museum’s NAGPRA program does each and every day. I will always be personally grateful for getting to know the team and the time and energy they spent training me for a future in this field.

Collection Storage and Organization

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. 

Field notes from an archeological site excavated by the WPA

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.   

A box of broken pottery found on a shelf in the museum. Storing them this way makes them susceptible to breakage, not to mention how difficult it would be to find a specific piece of pottery

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.

  

References

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. 

The Hugh Byler Collection

Nathan Gossard, Anthropology Undergraduate

As the Legacy Collections Intern in the Archaeology department at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, one has the opportunity of working with many different collections of artifacts. I had the fortune to start my internship working with an amazing lithic collection graciously donated by Patti Hansen, and her sister Toni Good from their father, Hugh Vernon Byler Jr. This lithic collection is comprised of over 400 projectile points, along with other lithic tools, such as scrapers, axes, knives and other various bifaces.

Mr. Byler was born and raised in Oklahoma City, graduated from Classen High School in 1932, and obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in General Science from the University of Oklahoma in 1939. In 1941, Hugh married Jeanne Castleberry and they had two daughters, which they raised in Oklahoma City. Hugh Byler Jr. passed away in December 2009, while living in Perryton, Texas. Not only did he have a love of archaeology, he also loved art, especially the symphony, fine art museums, theatre, the Kirkpatrick Center, the Town Hall, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Western Heritage Center (Oklahoman, 2009). Byler’s collection was primarily found on his lake house here in Oklahoma, from the 1960s through the 1980s. His lake property was owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers. They agreed to take the collection and it is being held in trust on their behalf.

In my opinion, this lithic collection is one of the greatest put together, although I do not have much experience when it comes to lithic collections or in archaeology altogether (I am just an intern). When I found out that I would be responsible for processing this collection, I was very excited. I have quite a few favorite artifacts from this collection. The stone knife is pretty amazing, and it fits in your hand perfectly. There is a projectile point made out of a stone that looks like fire with a beautiful sunburst color. The largest lithic is a white spear point that is about 13 cm long. Toni Good displayed her father’s arrowhead collection at the annual Museum of the Plains’ Stone Age Fair in Perryton, TX, sponsored by Harold Courson.

figure 1 Nate's post
Figure 1: Stone Hand Knife
Figure 2: Arrowhead Projectile Point
Figure 3: Spear Projectile Point (White)

Mr. Byler did most of his artifact collecting in the 1960s through 1980s. I am not sure what the federal or state laws were 40 plus years ago, but most of them are pretty clear today. I want to make sure that people are not violating any laws when they happen upon a Native American artifact in the state of Oklahoma. A person cannot excavate, remove or damage any artifact found on public or Indian lands. If convicted, a person can be fined up to $10,000 and imprisoned for up to a year. (Arrowheads, n.d.) However, if you are interested in archaeology and helping to save Oklahoma’s heritage, I would like to encourage you to Oklahoma Anthropological Society. You can access all of the wonderful information on the society at the following website: https://okanthropologicalsociety.org/. Please take some time to research the following websites as well for The Oklahoma Public Archaeology Network and the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey: http://www.ou.edu/okpan & http://www.ou.edu/archsurvey

Thanks to the donation of Patti and Toni, we now have the ability to preserve this wonderful collection of their father, Hugh Byler Jr. The collection has much research potential for future undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Oklahoma, and we will be able to look back on this history at our leisure. While labeling, identifying and sorting these artifacts, I could not help but look back in time on the people that made these stone tools. It was fun to try and think about the woman, man or child that carved these points and how they lived. I feel that these artifacts were made with love and I hope that the museum employees and future spectators of this collection can love them as much as Hugh Vernon Byler Jr. did.

References

The Oklahoman (2009, December 23). Obituary of Hugh Vernon Byler, J

Arrowheads (n.d.). Collecting Laws. Retrieved https://arrowheads.com/index.php/collecting-laws/306-collectionlaws

The Oklahoma Archaeology Conference

Savannah Miller, Anthropology Undergraduate, University of Oklahoma.

The third bi-annual Oklahoma Archaeology Conference took place in Tulsa March 5-7at the Helmerich Center for American Research at the University of Tulsa.  This conference provided a great opportunity for professional archaeologists and students to present their recent research, while also allowing them to connect with the larger archaeological community in Oklahoma.     

Ein Bild, das Gras, draußen, Schild, Feuer enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung
Conference Program Cover

Presentations covered a variety of topics with researchers studying paleolithic sites in the Aegean Sea to the historic Greenwood District in Tulsa.  

Posters sharing recent work lining the Frances W. O’Hornett Great Hall

Given that Oklahoma is home to thirty-nine tribal nations, it was good to see that not only were tribal members in attendance but that their perspectives and presence was welcomed by the larger community. The conference even had a specific forum titled “Shared Stewardship: Creating a Culture of Collaboration with Descendant Communities” which offered members from various OK tribes a platform to discuss their views on arch research and how such research relates to their respective communities, as well as how archaeologists can work with descendant communities in ways that focus on open communication and respect.   

            The conference also included a variety of workshops on an array of subjects in archaeology, including flintknapping, a tour of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, and writing grant proposals. 

Pit firing pottery as part of the traditional Caddo pottery demonstration, with artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles

The University of Arkansas demonstrated their 3D virtual reality model of the Spiro Ceremonial Center from the tesseract development team (more information at https://news.uark.edu/articles/48070/explore-the-spiro-mounds-with-u-of-a-s-archaeology-3d-virtual-reality-team-april-26-27).  This model creates an interactive experience where participants can take part in possible ceremonies conducted at the end of the occupation of the Spiro site.   

A still from the virtual reality model of the Spiro ceremonies

Overall, this conference was an excellent opportunity for members of the Oklahoma archaeological community to come together and share their work and learn about other projects happening in the field.  The next Oklahoma Archaeology Conference is planned for 2022, with updates available on OKPAN.org 

Transitioning and Keeping Track

Over the summer of 2019, I had the privilege of working as an intern at the National Guard Memorial Museum. This opportunity had resulted from a combination of circumstances, the most important being that my father had served with the Oklahoma National Guard for several years. He believed it was his calling, and he did his job well. He earned many awards, including the Soldier of the Cycle at basic training and the Bronze Star Medal during his deployment to Afghanistan. In August of 2011, I lost my dad to a roadside bomb while his team was responding to an emergency call from another unit. It’s been a long and hard road for my family since he died. As a Gold Star kid, there are many scholarship opportunities for me, without which I may not have been able to attend the University of Oklahoma. One of these scholarship opportunities is a grant from the National Guard Education Foundation (NGEF), which is also in charge of the National Guard Memorial Museum (NGMM), which has an incredible museum internship program. You can find the link to their website here. Over those three months, I worked with Anne Armstrong (NGMM director and curator) on an array of projects and learned the ins and outs of running the museum as well as the structure of the National Guard itself, where the museum falls, and why its role is important. I also received training in how to properly handle the artifacts within their collections, as well as how to package and store them safely. Being a museum dedicated to preserving and educating the public on the nearly 400-year history of the National Guard, many of the artifacts I worked with pre-dated the establishment of the United States of America and required special packaging and care in order to preserve them. I became very familiar with unbuffered tissue paper and Hollinger boxes! My job mainly consisted of furthering their efforts to digitize their collection by accessioning it into PastPerfect, a digital museum collections program, and I was even able to use the knowledge I gained to assist in the accreditation process, an achievement recognized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). You can find out more about this process on their webpage, located.

My summer internship and all I had learned there at the NGMM fueled my excitement about museums, and I hoped to continue learning about them when I returned home for my junior year of college here at the University of Oklahoma. With this in mind, I applied to the NAGPRA internship program in the archaeology department at the Sam Noble Museum. As an anthropology major, I have learned so much about the history of the field of archaeology. The study of archaeology has contributed much to our understanding of the past, but also has a history of obtaining artifacts illegally. Since I first learned about the NAGPRA program and how it provides Native American tribes with a legal means to have their ancestors returned, I knew I wanted to one day work to help right, or at least reverse, these wrongdoing of the past. We have a responsibility as a museum to preserve history, but not at the expense of the tribes. Having this opportunity is extremely humbling, and I’m grateful to have the chance to combine a passion for museums with a desire to help. Not only this, but this NAGPRA internship is very different than what I became used to over the summer on Capitol Hill.kmj.png

Firstly, there are two major differences between the SNMONH and the NGMM, and that is the environment. The NGMM is a relatively small, privately funded museum located in an office building on Capitol Hill. This places many limitations on the collection management, especially when it comes to storage and temperature maintenance. Once during a heat wave, the temperature in the auxiliary storage room reached upwards of 95 degrees, and even the building manager could not help. In this case, we removed artifacts that we considered at-risk of damage, and prayed that the temperatures wouldn’t rise any more. On the flip side, calls often had to be made to the building manager to raise the temperature on the museum floor, which often dropped below 60 degrees. Being a museum in an office building isn’t the most ideal situation, but the NGMM does very well with what they’ve got. Obviously, the SNMONH is a large, university funded museum located conveniently on campus, and doesn’t have to deal with these kinds of problems. Of course, it does get a little cold in collections, but the artifacts are rarely at risk of damage under any circumstance. Aside from the environment, my role here at the SNMONH took a bit of getting used to as opposed to my role at the NGMM. Over the summer I was the sole intern, but here in archaeology collections I get to work with four other interns. For this reason, my job is focused on just a small part of the whole accessioning process. Once sites have been assessed and updated in the database, my job is to create and ensure that each artifact gets a proper tag, and its box is labelled with the correct information when it goes back on the shelf. I work with both NAGPRA restricted collections as well as archaeology collections, and it often takes me several days to tag each item within a collection. This may not see like a very important job, but I assure you that it is just as important as any other. Knowing where each item is and knowing that we will be able to locate it again in the future is extremely important, especially when it comes to NAGPRA collections that will be returned to their associated tribes to be repatriated.klm

In addition to this, I have been learning the ropes of the database in order to speed up the accessioning process (so I can get to my tagging!) and working on a few final projects. The biggest project I am working on in collaboration with a fellow intern to digitize the exhibit book, which will serve a similar purpose to collections, allowing us to identify and keep track of all of the items on permanent display in the Hall of the People of Oklahoma.

The Curation Crisis

One of the biggest problems museums are facing, both in the state of Oklahoma and across the country, is the lack of storage space for new collections. Designated repositories like the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History are encouraged to take in new material when archaeologists survey and excavate sites, but most museums and repositories are understaffed and have collections dating back many decades. Archaeological material in a state can only go to its designated state repositories and cannot go to storage outside of its respective state, which can be an issue if a state only has one or two repositories total. As stated in the National Park Service information on the curation crisis, archaeologists are required to find repositories for all of the artifacts and documents from their excavations to apply for state or federal permits. Organizing and cataloging collections can take weeks or months, and if someone leaves in the middle of cataloguing a collection, it means at best the next person to work on the collection will have to start from the beginning and take time away from other collections that need to be processed. At worst, the collection is put away and all knowledge of it is eventually lost. New collections come in every day, adding to the growing number of boxes in storage, and if there are only a few people working through them at a time, when some collections can take months to process, they will not be able to keep up with all of the new and legacy materials.

The solutions to lack of storage space are simple in theory, though executing them would likely be much more difficult. Archaeologists cannot simply stop excavating sites while collections are processed, so something like another repository or bringing in more people to work in collections would be more plausible. However, it would take significant funding and either state or federal approval to have a new museum repository or proper storage facility built. Bringing in interns or volunteers would require more outreach and generating interest in state history. This is the most likely solution, and though it would likely take years of work to start making visible progress, it can be done.

“NPS Archeology Program: Managing Archeological Collections.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/archeology/collections/intro_cur04.htm.

 

Processing Sites

IMG_3652Throughout my almost 9 months of working for SNOMNH, I have come in contact with many enlightening experiences in the field of museum and curation studies. I’ve learned how to properly house a pot, how to prevent chipping of stone tools, and even learned that glass essentially melts over time! However, learning how to process a site has been one of the most daunting anthropological journeys I’ve been on.

What is “processing” a site you ask, and what does is entail? Well, it is the process of accounting for a site’s entire collection of artifacts as well as its documents and ensuring all the work completed on a collection is fully documented, with the ultimate goal to ensure all notes and paperwork are properly documented before it is placed on its permanent location on the shelf. For many of the sites I worked on this semester include human remains and associated and unassocicated funerary objects. My work in properly processing projects ensures that all information, human remains, and cultural objects are identified within the museum so they can be properly and respectably returned to their affiliated Native Tribe. The end goal is to produce a collection ready for permanent shelving or repatriation.

My job this semester was to assist the Collections Manger in writing and standardizing the 32 steps to processing a site – 39 if the site involves NAGPRA items. Organized in a methodical checklist, these steps tediously review every part of the site and encapsulate all available knowledge of the collection. More specifically, they allow us to get a feel for the site we’re working with, its purpose, its provenance, and what information exists to support it. We use multiple databases of stored site information to do most of this work, on top of physically examining the site’s artifacts and/or remains – analyzing their conditions and revitalizing their storage when necessary.

Processing a site may seem very technical and difficult – and that’s because it is. However, it acts as a highly important step in the bigger picture. What is the bigger picture? Well I’m elated you asked. The bigger picture is to eventually give these sites a rest, either on our shelves or in the grounds of the tribes they belong to. Many of the sites that take top priority at SNOMNH are those affiliated with NAGPRA law, or the  . This law, if you aren’t familiar with it, defends and addresses the rights of Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations and lineal descendants of Native American remains and artifacts. It requires federal agencies and museums to account for any Native American remain or artifact they possess, communicate with the objects’ affiliated tribe(s) and inevitably repatriate it back to them. With this information, it makes sense as to why completing a site to its entirety plays a big part in the adherence to this law. By recognizing and prioritizing the Native American remains we do have, we are putting these tribes, who have historically been severely discriminated against and forgotten about, at our highest point of interest. By repatriating what we do have, we are able to form and build upon relationships with these tribes and, above all, reunite them with their ancestors and sacred objects that were taken from them.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on how learning to process sites has proved very valuable to my education and future career abilities. Throughout processing, I have become very familiar with the Archaeology Department’s physical and digital information organization (our digital database, made with FileMakerPro, I have come to know best). Making my way through hundreds of type-written letters, aged maps and old field notes, I have developed an eye for the important bits that give context to my mission. I’ve come to know my way around checklists and digital flow forms as well. The detail-oriented mindset that this process takes has also grown my administrative capabilities, challenging me to double-check and verify every detail of the site at hand; making sure its information is as accurate and thorough as we can possibly include, and overall ensuring that we are doing our best work here at SNOMNH.

In sum, processing a site may not be the most glamorous, eye-catching subject of the entire process, but it definitely deserves its own recognition. Its tedious nature has put me to the test, but out of it has grown parts of me that I needed to improve upon. In the end, it is getting one of the most important jobs done – giving a site comprehensive completion, and eventually providing closure to the tribes and peoples whom these site remains belong.