After the Dig: Working in an Archaeological Repository

Me and the lab vehicle, delivering artifacts to one of TARL’s storage areas.

There’s a certain glamour to being covered in dirt, in the middle of a jungle or desert, unearthing objects and structures unseen for centuries. Escaping the mundane realities of strip malls and daily commutes to go find evidence of long-ago lives carries with it a special magic—the magic of reaching across time, to come in contact with people whose names we’ll never know. That special experience is one that draws many people to archaeology, but often it’s hard to see how the appeal of archaeology can continue after the artifacts have been bagged and the trenches have been backfilled. For me, that’s only the beginning of the archaeological story.

I work at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL), an archaeological repository and research center affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin. TARL’s mission is to provide storage for archaeological collections and their associated records, while providing training and education for archaeology students and the general public. Our collections include millions of artifacts—probably upward of 50 million—in every material category you could imagine: pottery, stone tools, bone and shell, basketry, textiles, firearms, mummified lizards, painted pebbles, a pipe in the shape of President Zachary Taylor’s head. The collections span the entirety of human history: 2.5 million-year-old Oldowan tools from Tanzania to a 1922 penny. We also maintain the records of excavations at more than 80,000 archaeological sites across Texas, as well as a library of several thousand rare publications.

My job is to assist the Head of Collections, meaning I do a lot of the day-to-day work of maintaining the artifact collections. On a typical day, I might be found rehabilitating an old collection, accessioning a new collection, or assisting researchers who come to look at old artifacts with fresh eyes. This lab has collections from archaeological projects conducted as early as 1919, many of which are in need of new packaging and re-analysis. Artifact inventories from those early days—when they exist at all—virtually all need updating and digitization. New collections arrive regularly, mostly from various CRM companies working around Texas, and I check those collections against their inventories and process the artifacts for long-term storage. Every collection has to be easy to retrieve any time a researcher wants to analyze it, so I spend a good deal of time working in our database to update collection locations and add inventory details. Researchers may have me rounding up collections, digging through old excavation notes, or taking photos on any given day.

My workspace while doing artifact inventory!

 

What happens when you leave artifacts in low-grade plastic bags with no climate control for 60 years? A curator gets to clean them up one day!

Another major component of my work is teaching undergraduates. I’m not a university faculty member, but I get to supervise a good number of interns and student volunteers who come through the lab looking to gain hands-on experience and build their skills. It’s so much fun to work with these younger archaeologists and help them work toward their goals. I teach students how to classify and inventory artifacts, how to use inventory spreadsheets & databases, and proper curation practices. During their time in the lab, students typically help with rehabilitation or new accessions, so they really get to find out whether lab work, with all its tedium, is something they enjoy. They also learn about processing collections, which will help them be better field archaeologists—they will understand the importance of keeping everything well-organized!

Teaching students how to make scale drawings of artifacts.

 

Talking about archaeology at a local elementary school’s career day.

As the lab’s token Millennial (sigh), I also manage most of our digital communications and social media. I gather articles for our quarterly newsletter, which I also lay out and edit, and I write posts for our blog and Facebook page. I’m the lab’s point person for organizing our annual Texas Archeology Month Fair, which brings together representatives of many local archaeological groups and offers hands-on activities for kids and adults. I also organize several workshops for archaeology students and professionals each year. This work has gotten me involved with a group of other local archaeologists working to build a network for public outreach—something that is increasingly important as archaeologists fight against cuts to research funding and regulatory enforcement. Our goal with these public outreach efforts is to increase public awareness of the fact that archaeology is happening around them all the time, and to promote archaeology as an important part of environmental conservation and scientific research.

Overall, this job is wonderful, even though it isn’t what I originally envisioned myself doing when I first started studying archaeology. Working in a lab provides me with more stability than doing long stretches of fieldwork, and I get to get up close and personal with artifact collections from some of the most incredible archaeological sites in Texas and North America. My position also allows me to work on my own independent research with open access to these collections, records, and libraries. I miss doing fieldwork, but that’s certainly not something that’s closed off to me forever. I’ve got open invitations to visit many sites that are the subject of archaeological investigations, and I’m surrounded by experts who have been working in Texas archaeology for years.

Every time I open a box or a cabinet of artifacts, I’m confronted with the same magic you might feel uncovering an artifact for the first time. I have the opportunity to play another small part in the life of these priceless pieces of the human story. My colleagues and I take very seriously our role as stewards of this vast collection, which must be protected and cared for in perpetuity. These collections aren’t done telling their tales when the excavations are over and the crew hits the trail—they’ve only just begun.

Visit the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory online.

Find TARL on Facebook.

Visit the digital atlas of Texas archaeology, Texas Beyond History.