Archiving and Assessing the Bureau of Reclamation Collections

As populations grew in the western US in the early 1900s, there was a greater need for water and effective tools to manage the water supply. The Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902 to construct Lake Thunderbird, the Tom Steed Reservoir, Lake Altus, Lake of the Arbuckles, and Foss Lake in Oklahoma. These lakes and other state parks now host over a million visitors each year, but were once occupied by Native American people and include archaeological remains attesting to these earlier occupations. For more information on the Bureau’s history, visit http://www.usbr.gov/history/borhist.html.

The Bureau has worked for decades with many kinds of professional and amateur archaeologists, including people from the Oklahoma Anthropological Society (check out their new website at http://www.okathropologicalsociety.org), responsible collectors, field school directors, and archaeologists from the WPA. The Bureau attempts to reassemble collections of artifacts that were long ago found on lands that have since been rezoned as federal property. The Sam Noble Museum (http://samnoblemuseum.ou.edu) has had an agreement with the Bureau since 2006 to house and curate many of the collections recovered from these areas.

This year, the Bureau is funding a Graduate Research Assistant to archive documents associated with these collections. Because some of these artifacts were collected nearly a century ago, a few of the field notes are now old enough to be considered artifacts themselves! They require careful handling and storage, and proper archival methods will ensure that they last for many centuries to come.

The kinds of documents encountered in the collections include photographs, letters of correspondence, oversized maps, excavation records, field diaries, and contracts for archaeological work. When preparing these for storage, we need to make sure that they are housed in a safe, cool, dry place, and are on conservation-grade acid-free paper that will not deteriorate and turn yellow over time. All staples get removed, and then most of the documents are scanned into a searchable database. This new database will allow researchers to immediately access all of the notes associated with each site. Having consistent systems of organization and preservation allow us to quickly find what we’re looking for, while also ensuring that the information is available for future researchers.

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Using archived notes to assess a collection from Lake Altus

For the rest of this year, the museum will work with the Bureau to physically inventory the artifacts and store them in new bags with proper artifact identification tags. Being able to look back at field notes from decades past has been very helpful in matching the artifacts to their catalog descriptions and ensuring that each piece gets stored with other artifacts from the same site.

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Bone awls and stone projectile points collected from the Lake Altus region in the 1950s

Collections from the Bureau of Reclamation

The Bureau of Reclamation was created on June 17, 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt for water development projects in the arid climate of the West. In Oklahoma, the Bureau constructed the Norman Dam in 1965 and managed other water resources on public land for municipal and industrial use, supplying water for cities and managing flood control. For instance, Lake Thunderbird State Park and other state parks host over a million visitors each year.
The Bureau is also responsible for collecting any cultural artifacts found on federal lands around lakes and dams. The Sam Noble Museum has had an agreement with the Bureau since 2006, to house and curate collections recovered from these areas. While some collections are recent, others were excavated in the early 1900s. Many of these artifacts have been donated by the Oklahoma Anthropological Society, private collectors, and managers from WPA projects in the 1930s.
This year, the Bureau funded two student Collections Assistants to enter the catalog into the collections database for 46 collections, to make the artifacts easier to identify and find. In two months, they created 3,094 catalog entries containing 38,557 artifacts that belong to the Bureau. In the future, the museum will work with the Bureau to physically inventory the artifacts against these catalogs and stabilize them with archival materials, ensuring that future archaeologists and the public will have access to these cultural resources for many years to come.

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Sarah Luthman and Samantha Hayes, cataloging collections for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Most of the sites on these federal lands are prehistoric, and include artifacts made by Native Americans from various time periods. Because so many items are recovered on the surface by private collectors, it is often difficult to determine an exact date or the associated cultural group. Examples of artifacts within the Bureau’s collections are tools (see below), including a bone awl, a stone drill, a boatstone, and five projectile point of various sizes and made from different types of stone.

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These artifacts were found in Kiowa County, and are from one of the Elmer Craft Collections (A/2008/002), donated to the museum in the 1950s.

Fort Sill Part I: An Invitation

In 2014, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH) began a project to curate a large archaeological collection from Fort Sill in Comanche County, Oklahoma. This collection represents the results of the last forty years of archaeological survey and excavation on the Fort Sill Military Reservation. Artifacts in the collection range from ancient stone tools to twentieth century bottles and cans. These artifacts reveal the history of Comanche County and Fort Sill in a way that written words alone cannot. As a material record of the everyday lives of people who occupied this land, both Native Americans and later Euro-American settlers, this collection tells a story that is in many ways the story of Oklahoma. Through a series of upcoming posts on the Sam Noble Archaeology Department Blog, we invite you to learn more about that story.

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Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century artifacts from Fort Sill

Archaeology Goes Public!

Display at Science in Action Day at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Display at Science in Action Day at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

In order to celebrate our archaeological heritage, the state of Oklahoma has officially declared October to be Oklahoma Archaeology Month! As part of this month-long celebration, the Archaeology Department at the Sam Noble Museum participated in the museum’s Science in Action Day and organized Archaeology Day.

At Science in Action Day, representatives from the Archaeology Department, along with other departments, had the opportunity to meet with the public at the museum. At our table, we identified artifacts that people had brought to the museum to share with us. We also taught kids about archaeology with activities and real artifacts.

Kids learn about ceramics through a coloring activity at Science in Action Day.

Kids learn about ceramics through a coloring activity at Science in Action Day.

Archaeologist Dr. Marc Levine explains what a scapula is to a young girl at Science in Action Day.

Archaeologist Dr. Marc Levine explains what a scapula is to a young girl at Science in Action Day.

For Archaeology Day on October 17th, the Archaeology Department hosted an event in the museum with a wide range of activities. Whether guests found artifacts in the exhibits through the scavenger hunt, threw atlatl darts, or watched flintknapping demonstrations, everyone had the chance to learn about archaeology first hand! Archaeology Day at the Sam Noble Museum was part of “International Archaeology Day”—including dozens of other museums across the globe.

A participant explains an atlatl at Archaeology Day (Photo courtesy of Susie Fishman-Armstrong).

A participant explains an atlatl at Archaeology Day. (Photo courtesy of Susie Fishman-Armstrong).

A participant at Archaeology Day throwing an atlatl dart. (Photo courtesy of Susie Fishman-Armstrong).

A participant at Archaeology Day throwing an atlatl dart. (Photo courtesy of Susie Fishman-Armstrong).

If you missed us this year, be sure to mark October 2016 in your calendars as Oklahoma Archaeology Month!

For more information:

https://www.facebook.com/archaeologymonth

www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday

Mystery Artifact #2 – The Reveal!

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Last time, you saw this picture of an artifact from an historic site at Fort Sill in Comanche County, Oklahoma. We asked you to put yourself in the shoes of the archaeologist to analyze this artifact by answering a series of questions. How did you do? Here is how we would answer the questions!

  1. What kind of material is it made of?

Because the artifact looks extremely rusty, we can determine that it is made from iron.

  1. How big is it?

Using the scale in the picture, we can tell that it is roughly 12cm long at the longest point and 7cm wide at the widest. Would it fit comfortably in your hand?

  1. What do you think it was used for?

Based on the shape, the material, and its location at an historic site, we think that this was a pistol.

  1. Who do you think used it?

Because we know the site was an historic site and the fort itself is an army post, we think it was likely used by a solider in the army.

  1. When do you think it was used?

Because guns were not used prior to the historic periods, we know it was likely made in the last 200 years. The amount of rust on it suggests that it has been outside for a long time, but it is hard to tell more than that without knowing about the other artifacts from the site. What sort of other artifacts could you use to date the site?

  1. If you found this at a site, what do you think may have been happening there in the past?

Soldiers living and working at the base were likely the ones to use pistols like this one, perhaps for training at the fort.

If you answered half of these like we did, then you are definitely thinking like an archaeologist! Come back next time to analyze more artifacts in the Mystery Artifact Series!

Mystery Artifact Series – You’re the Archaeologist!: Artifact #1

The Mystery Artifact Series blog allows you to step into the shoes of an archaeologist to identify an artifact! Look at the picture below, and try and guess what the artifact might be and what it can tell us about the site it came from. The artifact below was found at a site from the historic period at Fort Sill near Lawton in Comanche County, Oklahoma. To think like an archaeologist, you try answering the questions below:

  1. What kind of material is it made of?
  2. How big is it?
  3. What do you think it was used for?
  4. Who do you think used it?
  5. When do you think it was used?
  6. If you found this at a site, what do you think may have been happening there in the past?

Be sure to write down your interpretation and check back for our answers!

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Welcome to the Archaeology Department at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History!

Welcome to the Archaeology Department at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History!

When presenting archaeology to the public, we often focus on the charismatic archaeologists, exciting excavations, and the breathtaking artifacts, but these are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Have you ever wondered happens to the rest of the artifacts that don’t make it into museum displays? At the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), we not only display artifacts in the Hall of the People of Oklahoma exhibit, but we also house a myriad of collections and artifacts that never make it behind the glass. In fact, these collections make up the majority of the artifacts at the museum. However, they are sometimes out of sight and out of mind to many visitors at SNOMNH.

But no longer! In this blog, we invite you to a virtual behind-the-scenes visit to the museum. Here, you’ll learn more about the rich archaeological record of Oklahoma through the artifacts, sites, and collections that clue us in to how people lived in our state in the past. Stay tuned!

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