The Future is Bright

When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how.

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As an undergrad about to graduate, the future can be uncertain. When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how. Being an indigenous student, I had been frustrated that the NAGPRA inventory process can take so long, I wanted to see change and I was convinced that I would be one of the people to bring change to the legislation in the future. Until this semester everything I had learned about NAGPRA had been theoretical, I knew how the process worked but I had never seen anything outside of a classroom. I began interning at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as a way to put my last 4 years to the test. I wanted to see if this was really what I wanted to do with my life. In a way, I was on a quest to right the wrongs of the past, to be the ideal Anthro/NAS student. While I still wish to continue work with NAGPRA I have learned that issues such as repatriation and NAGPRA inventory are not as clear cut as one would assume, and that a “great quest” is not the way in which to go about working towards change.

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Interns Ash Boydston and Emily Wagnon make a final check on the contents of an Archaeology collection box before re-shelving.

I have been humbled by my experience here at the Sam Noble. The first time I handled human remains, I had to take a moment to myself afterwards to fully comprehend the amount of responsibility I had to not only the tribe, but to the person this once was as well. I had an idea of what to expect from my classes, but lectures and study sessions cannot compare to the real thing. After being a part of the process, I now understand just why doing NAGPRA inventory can take so long. There is a diligence that must be adhered to. In order to ensure that the Sam Noble Museum is up to NAGPRA standards and is fostering the best environment possible for indigenous relations, each step of the process must be meticulous. In order to move forward in an ethically responsible way tribes must be consulted on how they wish for their ancestors remains to be handled, and the Sam Noble Museum must listen to these requests. Is it not the spirit of NAGPRA to form relationships based on mutual respect and trust?

 

NAGPRA was, and remains a victory for native peoples, but NAGPRA’s journey cannot be over just yet. There are still many things to be examined and re-worked. One issue in particular that has stuck out to me is that of “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains. In the article NAGPRA and the Problem of “Culturally Unidentifiable” Remains: The Argument for Human Rights Framework by Rebecca Tsosie, she discusses the historical and legal contexts surrounding “Culturally Unidentifiable” indigenous remains. She examines the “competing interests” of tribes and scientists when ancient remains are under debate. Much of the argument over “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains relies on the “existence of an identifiable earlier group”. The simple problem with identification through anyone other that the actual tribe, is that tribes have not always identified by the standards that the US government has set forth in the past 200-300 years. To many tribes these remains are not “Culturally Unidentifiable”, these remains are their ancestors. The use of a colonized system to determine who may belong to what people, and not allow the people to determine for themselves who is a member is continued colonization that was intended to be address with NAGPRA.

NAGPRA has done considerable good work and has served as a stepping stone in the right direction for building ethical relationships with tribal peoples, but like all legislation it is not without flaws and should be considered for amendments. We have seen many laws amended and given additions to make the understanding and jurisdiction more clear, and while NAGPRA has undergone amendments and changes, it is still not as all encompassing as one would hope. We are fast approaching the 30 year anniversary of NAGPRA, and I feel it is time to re-examine NAGPRA’s reaches and consider ways in which to make certain details of the legislation involving “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains more clear in order to ensure the best protections and protocols are in place.

Author: Ash Boydston

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

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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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.)

Oklahoma Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Competition

We are excited to announce that the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is participating in the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust’s Top 10 Most Endangered Artifacts competition.  We have nominated the Spiro “lace”, a rare textile fragment from the Spiro mound site in eastern Oklahoma dating to around A.D. 1400.  The goal of the competition is to bring attention to Oklahoma’s endangered cultural heritage present in museums, libraries, and archives across the state.

Spiro "lace" attached to yellowed matboard
Spiro “lace” attached to yellowed matboard

We need your help!  Please vote for us – and any other objects that interest you!  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KJTCTT8

Fabric and textiles have been an important part of the human experience for millennia for making clothing, blankets, and ornamentation — and yet few archaeological samples exist because of their rapid deterioration.  The “Spiro lace”, a unique textile fragment from the Spiro mound site, represents an important pathway to learning about the native history of Oklahoma. This extremely delicate artifact is very important for its rarity and research potential.  From this small piece of fabric, we can learn about an ancient artistic and technological tradition of textile production that has been largely lost to history.

Close-up of Spiro "lace" from Craig Mound
Close-up of Spiro “lace” from Craig Mound

The textile fragment consists of alternating horizontal bands of compact plain twining and single element interlacing (Brown 1996).  The compact plain twining bands serve to bind together broader bands of openwork.  The two main openwork techniques are plain oblique interlacing (braiding or plaiting) and bobbin lace work.  The latter includes two elements, a circular hole and a cross in circle.  The fabric is blackened from oxidation or burning.

The specimen was conserved by Joan S. Gardner in 1979.  When she found it, the fragment was glued to a yellowed mat board.  She noted that the material was too brittle to remove the glue in which it had been saturated and created a Plexiglas mount with a central cut out.  The mounted portion of the specimen measures 43 by 16 cm.

Gardner hoped that the at some time in the future a way might be found to remove the specimen from the mat board without further damage.  Today, 34 years have passed.  Now is the time to re-assess the conservation needs of this exquisite artifact.

To learn more about the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust, visit, http://www.culturalheritagetrust.org/node/1
Elsbeth Dowd and Lindsay Palaima at the OK State Capitol
Elsbeth Dowd and Lindsay Palaima at the OK State Capitol
Bibliography:
Brown, James A. 1996. The Spiro Ceremonial Center: The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma. Vol. 2. Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology No. 29. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Gardner, Joan S. 1980. The Conservation of Fragile Specimens from the Spiro Mound, Le Flore County, Oklahoma. Contributions from the Stovall Museum No. 5. University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Box-making

One major part of the Spiro project is rehousing the artifacts, which is critical for their long-term preservation.  Best practices for housing artifacts have changed a great deal since the early days of excavation at Spiro.

Old artifact storage - plastic baggy, acidic cardboard box, and bubble wrap
Old artifact storage – plastic baggy, acidic cardboard box, and bubble wrap

Our goal is to make sure the artifacts are in a stable environment, both physically and chemically.  This is particularly important for delicate items, such as engraved shell, wood, textiles, basketry, and copper plates.  To protect the artifacts physically, we make sure that they do not rub against each other, are cushioned, and move as little as possible.  To protect the artifacts chemically, we use acid-free archival materials and expose them to as little light as possible.

Additionally, all of the collections at the Sam Noble Museum are kept in climate-controlled conditions and bugs are kept at bay through an preventative integrated pest management system.  No food or drinks that might attract critters are allowed!

In order to rehouse many artifacts, we make our own boxes out of acid-free corrugated board, commonly known as blueboard for its blue-grey color.  It is much less expensive to buy the materials and make your own boxes than to purchase them pre-made.  This also lets us fit the size and shape of the boxes to particular artifacts.  Other useful box-making materials include acid-free tissue paper, ethafoam, a glue gun,  acid-free gummed linen tape, a steel ruler, a bone tool, a cutting board, and a utility knife.

Tools for box-making
Tools for box-making

We are making three different types of boxes for the Spiro artifacts.  Excellent instructions for making the first type of box, which has a separate body and lid, are available here: http://mgnsw.org.au/uploaded/Box%20Making%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

The second type is a clamshell-style box with ethafoam sides.  We got this idea from Eric Singleton at the Gilcrease Museum.  One advantage to this type is that it is easier to construct – making close-fitting lids for the first type of box takes some practice.  The clamshell box is useful for holding a number of smaller artifacts.

Clamshell box made of non-acidic corrugated board and ethafoam, holding many smaller boxes
Clamshell box made of non-acidic corrugated board and ethafoam, holding many smaller boxes

Within the clamshell boxes we are placing a number of smaller, unlidded boxes, padded with ethafoam and tissue, to individually house engraved shell fragments.  These boxes keep each fragment protected yet still visible as a group, which decreases the need to handle them.

Small box ready for assembly. Before folding the sides up, crease the board with the bone tool.
Small box ready for assembly. Before folding the sides up, crease the board with the bone tool.
Finished box, padded with ethafoam and acid-free tissue, containing engraved shell fragment
Finished box, padded with ethafoam and acid-free tissue, containing engraved shell fragment

For some of our larger and most delicate objects, such as the engraved shell cups, we cut out a cavity in an ethafoam plank, which will hold the artifact steady and secure.  Next we line the cavity with acid-free tissue or Tyvek.  Finally, we place the ethafoam and artifact in a custom-made box.

Engraved shell cup cushioned in ethafoam cavity lined with acid-free tissue paper
Engraved shell cup cushioned in ethafoam cavity lined with acid-free tissue paper

Daily Life of the Project

A major highlight of working on the IMLS grant is seeing some of the marvelous artifacts from Spiro, such as this basketry fragment with remnants of copper attached.

Spiro basketry fragment
Spiro basketry fragment
Close-up of basketry fragment
Close-up of basketry fragment

Achieving the primary goals of the project, however, requires a tremendous amount of time-consuming and painstaking work.  For that, I thank my Collection Assistant, Emily Turriff, and all of our wonderful volunteers and interns.

Emily Turriff working on pottery inventory
Emily Turriff working on pottery inventory

The two major goals for Year 1 of the IMLS grant are (1) to inventory the Spiro collections and (2) to repackage the artifacts.  For the inventory, we compare what is on our shelves to the original catalog records.  Each catalog number corresponds to a particular provenience, or geographic location, from which the artifacts were excavated.  That catalog number will encompass all of the artifacts found in that provenience.  Most of the artifacts were carefully counted and described when they originally came to the Museum, but for others we only have a vague description.

For example, some of our catalog entries say that we have a “box of beads”.  For the inventory, we are updating the record by counting the number of beads and describing their material type and shape.

Beads from Spiro - need to be counted!
Beads from Spiro – need to be counted!

Repackaging the artifacts involves moving them from their original storage materials into archival materials, and also organizing the artifacts.  The original storage materials included brown paper bags, old plastic baggies that are now falling apart, and acidic cardboard boxes.  We are moving them into 4-mm polyethylene zip lock bags and archival boxes.  Delicate objects are supported with foam and cushioned with acid-free tissue paper.  Each artifact bag gets a tag listing the catalog number, contents, and provenience.  Then we put all of the artifacts from a single material type together and organize them by provenience.  This makes the artifacts much easier to find and keeps them safe.

Artifact storage - BEFORE
Artifact storage – BEFORE
Artifact storage - AFTER
Artifact storage – AFTER