Documenting the material past in the National Museum of Ireland

A very late entry from the museum archaeology sector! On the Day of Archaeology this year, I am working as a Documentation Assistant in the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin. I work as a team member of the museum’s Inventory project in the Irish Antiquities Division of the institution.

The National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin city

The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin city

This project involves the documentation of the entire collections of the museum – a vast amount of objects amassed over a hundred years of collecting and conserving the Irish past. Documentation involves the organisation of information relating to all objects within a museum collection. When an object enters the museum collection, its details are recorded – e.g. object type, origins, dimensions and features – and it is assigned a unique museum registration number for future identification. The object is then placed in storage, and its details, registration number and current location are added to the museum database. If the object is taken out of storage, placed on exhibition, or loaned to another museum, the database record for the object is kept updated in order to monitor and track its location. A database of this nature also allows curators and researchers to search museum databases for specific object types, and to record secure curatorial and conservation information regarding a specific object. The National Museum of Ireland collection totals over four million objects, so without stringent documentation procedures, it would be impossible to maintain the required level of information, control and identification of their collections.

The Inventory Team documents the contents of hundreds of wooden drawers of artefacts from the storage crypt of the museum. The contents of the drawers can vary widely, and generally contain a mixed collection of artefact varieties and materials from several different chronological periods. Day to day, we can encounter a huge range of artefact types. These can consist of bronze swords, bone pins, flint scrapers, stone axes – and everything in between! We also deal with the more everyday domestic material unearthed from archaeological excavations, such as animal bones, organic samples and lots of pottery. Following a previous day of documenting a drawer of butchered animal bone, charcoal samples and clay pipe stems, I am rewarded today in my drawer of artefacts. I deal with a number of varied objects from an a donated antiquarian collection, which includes stone cannon shot, stone lamps, copper alloy dress pins and stone moulds used for casting jettons and bronze axes.


Stone moulds used for casting a bronze axe and jettons

Each artefact is identified, entered into our database with information on its find place, donor, distinguishing features and habitat. It is then given a new label and storage bag, and if necessary, repackaging for conservation needs.

The work can be challenging, with the former recording and storage standards of artefacts differing significantly over time, but this role gives me the opportunity to work hands-on with an amazing artefact collection. Each day gives me the chance to encounter and handle a previously unseen piece of our past, and gain an expanded knowledge and appreciation of our material culture.

To get an idea of the range of objects encountered during the National Museum of Ireland Inventory Project, a number of our most interesting and unusual artefacts are profiled on our Documentation Discoveries blog .


Archaeology Curator: Dr. Laura Kozuch

Laura Kozuch at desk. IMG_8496

As Curator at the Illinois State Archaeology Survey (ISAS), I care for the artifacts and documents that describe them and archaeological sites. This means I have to keep a watchful eye on temperature, humidity, pests, and other environmental issues such as rainwater and pipe leaks. I maintain and create databases so that a good inventory is available.

My personal research is on sea shells that were traded to Midwestern and eastern U.S. archaeological sites. These shells were used for beads, pendants, cups, and earrings, and some of them were highly prized for their ideational aspects. I also replicate these artifacts so we can understand what it takes to make marine shell artifacts.

Most of my time is spent answering e-mail requests, handling loans out to researchers, and in from other institutions, as well as donations from private citizens. I also handle requests for image use, and take care of the legalities surrounding copyright issues. I also ensure that artifacts and documents are available to researchers, both for ISAS staff and outside researchers. I spend time moving boxes in and out of our warehouse spaces, in order that proper inventories are done, and to get artifacts for researchers to analyze.

2013 June 19

Another big aspect of my job is to write grant proposals for collections improvement. I got one in 2008-2010 to catalog our Cahokia collections, and another in 2012 to assess our collection needs. I am currently writing two grants: one to catalog our Cook County (Illinois) artifacts, and another to the National Endowment for the Humanities to install humidity control in our collection rooms on campus.

All of this keeps me very busy! But the tasks are so varied that I rarely do the same thing from day to day, and I am never bored. 

Archaeology and Appaloosas

Last year, several of my colleagues participated in the Day of Archaeology 2011 (Marks and Swords). I am excited and honored to contribute to this year’s posts. Today, I worked hard to keep up with my various and evolving roles as archaeologist, student, and assistant curator. As a research assistant and graduate student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho, I carry out a variety of tasks for a large historic archaeology project from Sandpoint, Idaho, a cultural resource project I began working on as an technician five years ago (holy cow!) with the companies CH2MHill and SWCA Environmental Consultants. Simultaneously, I am in the throes of thesis research and act as a museum assistant and curator for the Appaloosa Museum and Heritage Center in Moscow, Idaho.

Dakota Smith, a.k.a. Smitty, is a classic example of an Appaloosa horse and will reside in the pasture adjacent to the museum for the summer.

This morning I awake early to tend to Smitty, the Appaloosa horse-in-residence, main feature of the Appaloosa Museum’s live exhibit, and, I’m guessing, a somewhat unusual curation circumstance for a traditional museum. Then, switching gears, I drive to the University of Idaho to put in a few hours of deaccessioning artifacts from the Sandpoint Archaeology Project collection, the largest historical archaeological collection in the state of Idaho. Myself and several other students from the University of Idaho sort through boxes (… and boxes… and boxes…) of artifacts and execute the deaccessioning procedures carefully planned by the project’s principal investigators.

Deaccessioning is a process of officially (and usually permanently) removing items from a collection, museum, or repository, a practical curation necessity in the case of the extensive Sandpoint collection. Deaccessioned artifacts will find new homes in such educational resources as historical artifact comparative collections and teaching kits. For my master’s thesis I am collaboratively developing and evaluating historical archaeology teaching kits and lesson plans based on historical research and Sandpoint project findings. The deaccessioned historical artifacts will add an experiential element to the kits and provide materials for students to analyze.

Archival safe labels, bags, and boxes are used for storing artifacts.

It’s not yet ten o’clock in the morning and I must return to the Appaloosa Museum for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon. Though archaeological materials are not part of the museum’s collections, many of my curatorial tasks are similar to those performed at the archaeological repository for northern Idaho, the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology. As a new employee at a small museum I will learn a variety of often-specialized jobs such as collections management, exhibit design and maintenance, and give museum tours. Today’s tasks mostly include accessioning paperwork, data entry, updating website and social media information, greeting visitors, and answering questions. These tasks are all typical of museum work and many of the principles and processes are similar to those utilized in museums and repositories curating archaeological collections.

One aspect that is not so similar to archaeological work is the arrival of the second Appaloosa in residence for the summer, Snickers. Her arrival broke up my day and made Smitty very happy. As I write this, I begin to wonder if technically the horses should be formally documented as loans to the museum… though the horses’ owners belong to the Appaloosa Horse Club, which owns the pasture behind the museum…

Snickers and Smitty settle in to grazing.

At the end of the (official) work day I head home to develop lesson plans for the archaeology teaching kits and begin to draft a syllabus for the teacher in-service I am planning for this fall. The syllabus is a requirement of the in-service proposal I must submit to the University of Idaho and, if all goes well, teachers will be able to earn a continuing education credit while learning about archaeology and the use of the historical archaeology teaching kits (to be modeled after the well-executed in-service offered by Project Archaeology through Montana State University). After several hours our awesome neighbors invite us over to listen to some live banjo music and I take a much-needed break.

This poison bottle, one of many recovered from Sandpoint’s restricted district, is an example of a type of artifact that will be utilized in teaching collections.

Well past midnight and much later than intended, I begin updating the projects page for the Idaho Archaeological Society’s (IAS) website. Next comes this post and finally, before I nod off to sleep, I will pick up where I left off last night by reading about Basque history in preparation for the upcoming IAS archaeology project, archaeological investigations at the Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House. Members of the society will be excavating the well associated with the house next to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in downtown Boise, Idaho. A perfect opportunity for publicly interpreting archaeological excavations!

If all goes well, this year will culminate in the completion of the large long-term archaeology project as well as my completion of the master’s program. As an archaeologist interested in public education and engagement, I am continually thankful to work with folks who are supportive of my teaching kit project and are enthusiastic about public education and involvement in historical archaeology.

University of Idaho

Further Reading: Sandpoint Archaeology Project

Excavated by cultural resource archaeologists between 2005-2008 prior to the construction of a byway, Sandpoint’s earliest historic district originally abutted newly-built tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad and ancient shores of Lake Pend d’Oreille before the town expanded across Sand Creek. In the thousands of years prior to the influx of railroad, lumber, and mining industries in northern Idaho at the turn of the century, tribes such as the Kallispel and Kootenai seasonally inhabited the shores of Lake Pend d’Oreille and crisscrossed the region in a transhumance cycle. (Transhumance is a seasonal cycle of moving between traditional lands.)

Though Native Americans traversed the region for thousands of years before settlers, due to the explosion of material production following the American industrial revolution and Sandpoint’s location along the railroad the majority of recovered artifacts date to the occupation of Sandpoint’s historic commercial and restricted districts – including a hotel, pharmacy, jeweler, butcher, dance hall, brothel, bordello, and saloons – along with the Humbird Lumber Mill’s technologically transitional blacksmith and machine shop, a Chinese residence and laundry, and one of the town’s first jail. Analysis of these materials in conjunction with historical research will allow archaeologists to shed light on some of the lesser-known lives of townsfolk as well as add details to the history of the town’s development and role in the beginnings of a globalizing world.

As you may have already learned from reading other great posts, the life of archaeology extends far beyond initial research or field excavations. Since archaeologists finished excavations four years ago we have catalogued the artifacts, presented initial findings at professional conferences and public lectures, are finishing up the cultural resource report for the Idaho Transportation Department, developing content for the project web page, preparing the collection for curation, anticipating the project exhibit at the Bonner County Historical Museum planned for the end of the year and have completed a variety of other tasks, some of which are being discussed by my colleagues. We are only scratching the surface and are excited for many years of analyses yet to come.

This sign was recovered during Humbird blacksmith/machine shop excavations in 2008.

Skeletons, but not in cupboards

Hampshire Arts & Museums Service is carrying out an audit of all the human remains in its Collections.  Where appropriate, this includes the rebagging and reboxing of material.  Garrard Cole, currently an Hon Research Assistant at UCL, is tackling four skeletons from Harrow Way Farm, Penton Mewsey, excavated by the Test Valley Archaeological Trust in 1988.  This improvement in the physical storage conditions goes hand in hand with an update of the associated records and  compilation of a database.

A Day in an Archaeological Conservation Program

I’m a Conservation Specialist for the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program, a graduate conservation training program specializing in the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic materials.  In our 3 year course, we train students in the methods and techniques used for the examination and preservation of objects and have them understand the properties of materials, how they deteriorate and ways to slow down or prevent further deterioration.

In a typical day our students attend lectures in the morning on various aspects of conservation and then follow that in the afternoon with work in the lab.  We just had an intake of a new class in the Fall of 2011 and they spent their first year learning about and working on materials such as archaeological ceramics, glass, metals, and  textiles.

In one course they learned about the deterioration of archaeological ceramics and the damage caused by soluble salts. Students then determined how to identify the salts and remove them. Here a student is taking a conductivity reading of wash water as she desalinates a small ceramic vessel.


Mapping Interactive Workshop – Festival of British Archaeology (28 July 2011) by Sam Rowe

As a Community Archaeology Trainee for National Museums Liverpool every day at work is different for me; some days I will be excavating an industrial site with a group of volunteers, other days I will be surveying a graveyard with a local society, assisting with museum education workshops, and at other times accessioning objects for museum collections. I love the range of activities I get to do as part of my training.

I have also been involved in several events for the Festival of British Archaeology. Last Thursday I helped run a workshop in the Merseyside Maritime Museum on the Mapping Interactive resource that will form part of the History Detectives gallery in the new Museum of Liverpool, which incidently also opened its doors during the festival fortnight. The interactive map of Merseyside will allow the public to explore local buildings and places, peeling back layers of historic mapping to reveal how the landscape of Merseyide has changed since the last ice age up to the present day.

Thursdays’s workshop was a chance for the public to get a sneak preview of the early stages of this new learning resource before it enters the museum later in the year. Archaeologists who have been working on the project for the last few years were on-hand to guide visitors through the features of the map, allowing them to search for historic sites, buildings, famous people and periods of Merseyside. We also prepared a ‘lost places’ activity that highlighted several buildings that the centre of Liverpool has lost over the last millennia including Liverpool Castle and the overhead railway . Visitors were challenged in trying to place these lost building in the correct place on the map where they once stood in the city.

The Mapping Interactive resource has been formed from Historic records but also from pictures and information from the public and is still an ongoing project that anyone can get involved in.

The next tasks…

So the flint finds are all done and placed in the archaeology store (why are archaeology stores often located underground?). Also took down another box that had been hanging around the office. This box contained the paper archive created by the Museum of London Archaeological Service when they carried out an archaeological survey during the redevelopment of Farnham Hospital.

When I came back up from the store I found some visitors needing a bit of help in our library. They were researching their family history and I located for them some microfilms of the local newspaper ‘The Farnham Herald’ which I set up on the microfilm reader. Hopefully they found what they were looking for.

From 1:00-2:00 I was recording on a Dictaphone the curator’s talk about the four new objects placed on display in the ‘A History of Farnham on 50 Objects’ exhibition. This week she was talking about medieval pottery, Farnham Greenware, a diorama of stuffed squirrels playing poker and a pastel drawing of William Cobbett.

The curator is adding a new object every week and gives a talk once a month. Most of the objects in the exhibition have been accessioned but many are not on the museum computer database yet. It is important to have a digital database of a museums collection’s as it acts as a back up to the paper records, is much more efficient than paper records for finding information about collections and the software can be used to place the collection online therefore increasing the collections accessibility. So I have photographed objects that have been recently added to the exhibition, including the pottery and some Roman roof tiles (from the Six Bells site), and will now add them to the database.

I feel very lucky to have found a job in a museum with an archaeological collection and I hope that in the future I will continue to work with material like this in a museum setting.

Found it!

I have located some flint tools donated to the museum a number of years ago. No wonder I couldn’t find them. They are tiny. They were unearthed near Frensham (just south of Farnham) and the finder kindly wrote all of the grid references on to the bags. The finder has given a number of other objects to the museum in the past and it is great to have people in the local community donating to the museum regularly and increasing our knowledge of the local area. On this occasion he has donated 23 flint tools.

One of my main tasks at the Museum of Farnham is to deal with the ‘accessioning backlog’. To ‘accession’ an object is to formally accept it into the collection and deal with all of the paper work that comes with this process and finally find a home for the object. Quite a few museums have problems with ‘backlogs’ of objects. This is generally because there are not enough staff hours to deal with the backlog and other things such as events, applying for funding etc. appear more pressing and have solid deadlines which need meeting. If some flint has sat in a corner for a year it can sit in the corner for another year and be totally fine…right? Not really. The longer objects are left in limbo the more chance there is of information about them being lost and objects deteriorating due to poor packaging and an unstable environment.

So on with the paper work, assigning an accession number, taking photographs, recording all of the information about the objects onto a database (we use Past Perfect, recording the same information onto an index card as a backup and  finding a home for the object in the archaeology store. Should take some time with 23 to do…

Archaeology Conservation at HCC Museums Service

We are lucky at Hampshire Arts and Museums Service to have a group of trained and professionally accredited conservators, looking after our collections in store and in our museums across Hampshire.  We are spread over the different disciplines – my responsibility is mainly archaeology.  Although I initially trained as a historic objects conservator at the University of Lincoln, I have a background in amateur archaeology which was what spurred me to go into conservation.  I wanted to know what happened to the objects once they left the site!  My working days are varied, and can include bench conservation work, stores work (repackaging etc.), environmental monitoring, mount making, outreach, training and exhibitions work.  Some of that will be happening during the course of today!