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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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
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.

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