Learning Something New Every Day

When I started at OU as a freshman in the fall of 2017, I was certain I wanted to be a field archaeologist after I graduated. After spending a semester as the legacy collections intern at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), I’m not so sure. As my boss, collections manager Susie Fishman-Armstrong, told me, the real discovery is often not out it the field, but rather here in museums. Being able to work here at the museum has been amazing, and has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of museum work as a career.

Personally, what drew me in to this opportunity was the “behind the scenes” aspect to it. As someone who loves museums, it has been fascinating to have a hand in the process of working with artifacts, and to see the many other elements of museum collections at work, such as research and conservation. Getting a larger perspective has given me a greater appreciation for the work that museum professionals do, and for the important roles of curators, collection managers, volunteers, janitors, conservators, pest management, security officers, and many other people whose roles are in the “back of the house”. Another particularly interesting part of this internship has been the mystery of the work, specifically with the inventory.

My main project for the year was completing a full inventory of the artifacts and records in the 5th floor and the 2nd floor lab, which are part of our “Legacy” collections. When a museum is bringing in a new collection of artifacts, or when collections that are already at the museum are being worked with or researched on, it’s easy for a museum to get behind on projects, and leave some particularly difficult work off to the side, to get back to later. The artifacts and collections I was inventorying could have been last looked at a year ago, in the 1930s, or anywhere in between. It was a daunting project, but thankfully the previous intern, Wynne Clark (read her blog post here) had already put together a system and went through the 4th floor legacy collections with it, so I had a strong model to follow, and existing protocols. Using her system, I implemented it on the 5th floor collections, modifying as needed to accommodate the unique issues that arose.

The process was simple, on the surface. I went through box by box (through 141 archival boxes, 3 stacks of maps, 6 mason jars, 26 trays, 2 enormous plastic storage bins, and 1 large blue cooler) opening them up and taking notes in a spreadsheet about what was inside, including any information that came with the artifacts. The goal of the whole endeavor was to know as much as we could about what was in the collections. The things I found ranged from pottery vessels related to the Spiro Mounds site, to South American obsidian points, to historic glass and pottery, not to mention the hundreds of rock samples in the Lithic Type Collection, used for matching stone artifacts to their sources. Now that these artifacts are in the inventory, they can be found for research, exhibits, and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) related projects, as soon as we need them.

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While my inventory is finished, legacy collections are still a large problem facing the SNOMNH, and the larger museum community. If the inventory isn’t kept up, and updated whenever things get moved or worked with, then the problem will return. Just as well, now that these collections have been rediscovered, there is still a lot of work to be done to process them, including further research, cataloging, cleaning, and labeling.

This is where you come in. The SNOMNH, and many other museums like it, runs on volunteers in every department, both out with the exhibits and in the back with the collections, and not just archaeology. There are positions for adult and teen volunteers, as well as current OU students. Dates and hours are flexible, and opportunities open up all the time. Whether you are interested in people, plants, animals, or rocks, an organized person or more innovative, more creative or more practical, wanting to jump right in or to just get your feet wet, there is an opportunity for you. Ultimately, museums exist for the people, and there is no better way to get involved and get invested than to volunteer.

Author: Ella Crenshaw

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My Love of Museums

I have loved museums for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my mom took me to all kinds of museums: art, history, military, you name it. My favorite museum, though, was the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Even though I didn’t move to Oklahoma until last year, my mom is from Moore. Every Christmas and summer vacation we would make sure to stop by the dinosaur museum in Norman. My family is also Native American, so that combined with my love of museums has fueled my passion for wanting to work on repatriation efforts and study archaeology.

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Intern Emily Wagnon Repackaging Faunal Bone

I’m a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Native American Studies. In the Fall 2017, I am extremely lucky to be an intern in the archaeology collections at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH). I’m even able to receive school credit as part of my degree. If you’re an OU student, you can learn more about student internships here. Interning at the museum has been an amazing opportunity for me to learn about preservation, archaeology, and working with tribes, as well as getting an insight into the ethical and legal issues that are going on in the museum community right now. A lot of the collections that I have had the opportunity to work with involve NAGPRA.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was enacted in 1990 as a response to the millions of indigenous remains and associated funerary objects that are held in museum collections across the United States. Many of these artifacts were obtained by illegal means, and NAGPRA creates a legal channel for ancestral remains and burial goods to be rightfully repatriated back to their tribes.

The SNOMNH has protocols in place to ensure we are as careful, meticulous, and respectful as possible. As an intern, I got the chance to help create some of these protocols. We protect the privacy and sanctity of the tribes and tribal artifacts we work with, and ensure that we keep a careful record of the status and location of every artifact so each object has its cultural and/or preservation needs met. Part of this process includes faunal and human remains. It is important for every fragment in the collection to be analyzed to ensure all human remains are identified and separated from the faunal material. To expedite this process, I created a station where staff and volunteers can log faunal (animal) bones that need to be analyzed by the bioarchaeologist on staff.

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Faunal Analysis Staging Area

 

It is important for repatriation (explore what that is here) that we have every single bone and object in a collection analyzed so that nothing is missing when the collection is repatriated. Once the bones have been analyzed, they are placed back with the rest of their collection if they are faunal, or moved back to the archaeology department’s restricted NAGPRA area if they are not. Being involved in the process of creating procedures gave me skills and an insight into why the museum works the way it does.

This internship has truly been an incredible learning experience. I’ve worked before in the front of the house for a museum, but to be able to work behind the scenes and see how we are able to take care of artifacts as they make their way from boxes to exhibits, or more importantly, back to their homes, is a joy. I hope to continue working in the field of archaeology, and this experience is one that I will be able to look back on for years and years to come. If you want to learn more about the museum and its collections, please consider volunteering for the SNOMNH at this link.

Author: Emily Wagnon

Family, Heritage, and Archaeology: The Lois Bookout Collection

Some days you really get a sense of the human side of archaeology.  This is the story of a wonderful woman, Ms. Lois Bookout, and the very special gift she made to the Museum.

This past June, Ms. Bookout visited the Sam Noble Museum with two members of her extensive family.  She brought with her a large piece of worked stone, broken into three pieces.  The object was originally found in the 1950s.  Ms. Bookout’s husband’s mother, Evelyn, saw the artifact while she was out collecting wild onions in LeFlore County, near the Poteau River.  She brought it home and gave it to Lois, who kept it safe for the next 60 years.

Ms. Lois Bookout
Ms. Lois Bookout

Lois and her daughters hoped that the Museum would be able to identify the object and tell them about the people who made it.  Archaeology staff identified the artifact as an elongate celt.  It was made of a stone local to LeFlore County that had been painstakingly worked; chipped and ground down until it was just the right shape.

Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate celt in three pieces
Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate celt in three pieces

With growing excitement, the archaeology staff realized the celt was similar to those found at the Spiro Mounds site, the major ceremonial center also located in LeFlore County, along the Arkansas River.  Ancestors of the present-day Caddo and Wichita people once lived at and around Spiro from about A.D. 800-1450, more than 700 years ago.

Lois’ elongate celt is very similar to one in the Spiro collection at the Smithsonian, illustrated on p. 97 (figure 6.21a) of Sievert and Rogers’ recent publication (currently available as a pdf document at http://si-pddr.si.edu/dspace/handle/10088/17285?mode=full).  Both have one end (the bit) that is flared out and rounded.  Both are slanted at the other (proximal) end.  Lois’ celt is large: 46.5 cm long, 11 cm wide at the bit, and 5 cm thick.  This is larger than the Smithsonian celt; indeed, larger than many celts.

Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate Celt
Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate Celt

Some celts were once used as weapons or as tools.  Lois’ celt is so massive, though, that is was more likely used as a ceremonial object – a symbol of office, perhaps, for a great leader.

After sharing this information with Lois and her family, the archaeology staff gave them a tour of the collection, showing them other artifacts made by the people who once lived near Spiro.

Two months later, we received a sad call from Lois’ daughter, Ms. Kim Manuel.  Lois had passed away on July 15.  One of her wishes was for the celt, which had been with her for so long, to be given to the Museum so that it could be shared with everyone.  Ms. Manuel visited us on August 23, bringing us the celt and sharing reminiscences of her beloved mother.  It was difficult for her to leave this piece of her family history with us, and we promised to take good care of it.

We are very grateful for the gift of Ms. Lois Bookout to the Museum.  More than that, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with Lois and her family.

Ms. Lois Bookout
Ms. Lois Bookout

We have labeled the celt pieces with the catalog number 34Lf0/240, which means that this is the 240th set of archaeological objects from unknown locations in LeFlore County to have entered the Museum’s permanent collection.  We have placed them in an acid-free box and cushioned them with ethafoam and acid-free tissue paper.  We look forward to sharing them with the public.

This story reminds us that objects have many meanings.  Artifacts have research value that teach us about the way people lived in the past.  They are also culturally-significant representations of history that are important to the descendants of those who made and used them.   Artifacts are also, however, cherished pieces of family history, making this donation even more meaningful.  We thank the Bookout family for this special piece of their family history.

(Sievert, April K. and J. Daniel Rogers. 2011. Artifacts from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. Smithsonian Contribution to Anthropology No. 49. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.)