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
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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

Spiro Project

Engraved shell from Spiro
Engraved shell from Spiro

The Spiro Mound site, located in eastern Oklahoma, was one of the most important ceremonial sites in eastern North America between ca. A.D. 1000-1450.  After damage by looters, archaeologists from the University of Oklahoma conducted excavations from 1936-1941 and again in the 1970s and 80s.  Many unique and significant artifacts were found at Spiro, including engraved conch shell, decorated copper plates, pottery, ear spools, stone objects, textiles, and basketry.  Today the Spiro collections are split between a number of museums, including the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the Gilcrease, and the Smithsonian.

The archaeology department at SNOMNH recently received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to inventory and rehouse our Spiro collections.  By the end of the year, we expect to have documented nearly 168,000 artifacts from Craig Mound alone, and many more artifacts from other parts of the site.  We look forward to updating you on the progress of this exciting project!