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