Ancient Pueblo Peoples

Curating a Small Archaeology Museum

I am the curator and archaeologist for the Lost City Museum, a small archaeology museum located in Overton, NV. The main focus of the museum is the Virgin River Branch of the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) who lived at the archaeological site complex formally known as Pueblo Grande de Nevada, but more commonly referred to as the Lost City. The Lost City Museum has a collection of artifacts dating not only to the Ancestral Puebloans, but to the group that occupied southern Nevada after it was abandoned by the Ancestral Puebloans, the Southern Paiutes.

As the curator of a small museum I have many different projects going at once, ranging from a rehousing project that is being funded through money to organizing special events at the museum. One of the projects I am currently working on is the analysis of the museum’s incised stone collection. The incised stones were collected from Clark County, NV, the southern-most county in Nevada. Incised stones are intriguing artifacts because archaeologists aren’t entirely sure of their prehistoric use. Some suggest that it is a form of portable rock art while others suggest they could have been used by shaman during rituals.

Sometimes it feels like I don’t choose the projects I work on, they choose me. As I was rehousing the archaeology collection of the Lost City Museum I kept coming across more and more incised stones. I knew the museum had a couple dozen incised stones that were recently on display at the museum. It wasn’t until I went through all of the boxes in the collections storage areas that I realized the museum had over one hundred incised stones (this perfectly illustrates why I started the rehousing project; I never knew for sure what the museum had and what wasn’t stored in the correct place). Given the number of incised stones at the museum I felt that it was extremely important that I properly catalog and analyze the stones so that the information could be used by researchers in the future.

My analysis of each incised stones consists of recording the dimensions of each stone and noting whether the stone is hand size or smaller (the majority of incised stones can be comfortably carried in a hand). Next I categorize the design present on the stones. A past researcher was helpful enough to come up with eight categories of incised stone designs: curvilinear, dendritic, circle, band, bisect, cross-hatch, anthropomorph, and no discernible design. An example of a curvilinear design can in seen in the included photograph. Next I determine the stone’s material type. A majority of the stones analyzed so far have been sandstone, a readily available stone in southern Nevada. Once I gather all of the data I will be able see the patterns present within the collection. I can then compare this information to the information already obtained from the analysis of other incised stone collection at Nevada State Museums and see if the Lost City Museum collection differs greatly from those collections.

This is an ongoing project because as much as I would like to focus all of my time on the analysis of the incised stones, new projects or issues pop up on a daily or weekly basis. As the curator of a small museum I wear many hats, and I often have to put projects on hold while I research something for a fellow archaeologist or give a tour to a group of Girl Scouts. One great thing about being an archaeologist for a museum is that it is unlikely I will run out of research topics any time soon.

A museum archaeologist

As the archaeologist and curator for the Lost City Museum every day is different for me.  One day I might be entering the museum’s catalog records into the computer and the next I am doing research on trash middens or getting down and dirty while restoring the museum’s adobe pueblos.  The museum where I work is an archaeology museum devoted to the study of the Virgin River branch of the Ancestral Puebloans (you might know them as the Anasazi). As a museum archaeologist I don’t get into the field as much as I would like, but the trade off is that I get to handle some pretty awesome Ancestral Puebloan artifacts.

Pueblo restoration

Giving the Lost City Museum's adobe pueblos a facelift.

My predecessors conducted more fieldwork than I have been able to for two reasons. One is that the valley where the museum is located experienced a lot of growth over the past 25 years, and often the places where people wanted to build their houses were located on archaeological sites. The landowners would sometimes grant the museum archaeologist permission to excavate as much of the site as possible before construction began.  The excavation of these sites has led to a backlog of artifacts to be processed and cataloged because as is often the case in archaeological fieldwork, the excavation of the site is the easy part, and the processing of artifacts is the tedious (and unglamorous) part of the process. I would guess that most museums with archaeological collections have some sort of backlog of collections that were excavated and essentially forgotten without an analysis or formal report on the findings of the site.

This backlog has led to the second reason why I am not currently conducting field research. There has been a shift in the past five or ten years towards analyzing what is already present in a museum’s collection to obtain information about a site or a culture because the information is already available. Excavations are expensive, and there are perfectly good artifacts sitting in museum storage waiting to be analyzed. Another reason for this shift is connected to the realization that archaeological sites can be better preserved by not excavating them and waiting for technological advances that make archaeology a less destructive process. Advances in technology already allow archaeologists to “see” what is at a site through the use of ground penetrating radar, which means archaeologists can make better informed decisions on when, where, and how much of a site to excavate.

The great thing about my job as a museum archaeologist is that I get the best of both worlds. I can help out on the projects of other archaeologists, do site visits with site stewards, or conduct research on rock art sites when I need to get out into the field, and I have the satisifaction of knowing that I am helping to protect prehistoric artifacts that are over one thousand years old. Plus, as a museum archaeologist I get to see all of the great stuff that isn’t out on display!

Cleaning a pot on display at the museum.