Paper to Plastic: 5 Organizational Steps Behind Rehousing an Archaeological Collection

By Jessica Clark, Archaeology Lab Intern, Virginia Museum of Natural History

The Cabin Run Mitigation collection comes from Warren County, Virginia, from a project dating to the  early 1980s. The artifacts range across material culture, including decorated ceramics, stone tools,  bones that show evidence of use both for food and as tools, and much more. The artifacts arrived at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in brown paper bags, contained within about 50 cardboard boxes, without any sort of inventory or catalog. It has been my task over the past few years (!) to work with these materials and get them ready for permanent storage in the museum’s collections.

1. Bags on bags

organization post photo 1

The first step in this large project was to physically rehouse the artifacts from paper and cardboard into new, archival quality plastic bags. This process involved cutting out and keeping any notations that had been made on the paper bags, and transferring the artifacts into new bags. This was a bit of an adventure, because there was something new in every box—artifacts were stored in everything from cigar boxes to film canisters to 30 year-old plastic wrap.

2. Take stock

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Next, an inventory was created, listing all the materials that we had acquired so that there would be a record of the artifacts. This involved interpreting handwritten proveniences, counting all the objects, and recording their description and material type. Some bags of lithic flakes, for example, had counts numbering in the thousands, so this process took a considerable amount of time to complete. The catalog reached a final count of over 8000 entries representing 85,281 artifacts or soil/flotation samples.

3. Manage the data

organization post photo 3

With a catalog of this size, data management became a critical next step. This collection was received and rehoused in no particular order, so the data had to be reorganized into an archaeologically relevant order based on provenience. To accomplish this, each artifact was given a temporary number (between 1 and 8000); simply rechecking the catalog and labeling each bag took an additional 2 weeks to complete. The data was then reorganized in the spreadsheet, placing artifacts with others of the same provenience (Feature A with Feature A, Test Pit B with Test Pit B, etc.). Artifacts could then be physically sorted into the new arrangement using temporary numbers as identifiers (each a discrete number) rather than using the entire provenience (which may not be entirely unique).

4. Coordinate with volunteers

organization post photo 4

Sorting 8000+ bags of artifacts is no small task and could not have been accomplished without the help of some very willing and able volunteers. Through the combined efforts of museum volunteers and staff members, we were able to rearrange and store all the artifacts in less than 4 work days, moving approximately 4,000 bags of artifacts in one day alone.

5. Store material for future research

Now that all the artifacts have been sorted and put into Delta museum cabinets, their archaeological information and current physical location are now in a searchable document and much more accessible for people interested on conducting research using these materials. While data editing and some final curation processes remain to be done, this collection is now much more useful and available than it had previously been.

You might say it takes a village to successfully manage an archaeological collection of this size. From the first crinkle of brown paper to the resounding ring of the final drawer sliding into its storage cabinet, careful organization and teamwork were the hallmarks of rehousing the artifacts from the Cabin Run Mitigation project.

A day at the museum: #archaeobloggers explore the new rooms of Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, in Rome

One thing we often accuse our museum of—or at least, Italian museums—is that they rarely seem up to date with our modern tastes and, in some cases, they even keep that XIX century aura that it’s fascinating in its own right, but doesn’t really showcase the beauty of the treasures they guard. That’s especially true for archaeological museums, and quite a few of them still look like Wunderkammer, “Cabinets of Curiosities” stoked with random ancient objects, with little or none inclination to experimentation.

Luckily, that’s not always the case.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme is one of the four branches of the National Roman Museum in Rome, directed by Dr. Rita Paris. Its opening dates back to 1995, which makes it a young museum, but even so, since 2005, its rooms have been continuously renewed and updated to modern exhibition standards.

This past week, rooms 2, 3 and 4 on the first floor, the ones displaying portraits and statues made under the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (early to mid II century CE), reopened to the public and we were invited to have a sneak preview of them and to meet some of the curators of the new exposition.

Needless to say, we jumped at the occasion, and that’s how we found ourselves wandering through the newly opened rooms, looking up in wonder at the immortal portraits of people who once upon a time ruled the world.



Busts of Pompea Plotina, wife of Trajan, 110-120 and of Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 136-138

We were also dazzled by the beauty of the representations of the Roman Provinces as young women, originally from the Hadrianeum, the Temple of Adrian, located not far from the museum, and we could see the funeral relief of Apthonetus, a marble pedimental relief with a long epigraphy and Apthonetus’ portrait, displayed for the public for the first time and documented in every detail.


Personifications of the Roman Provinces, from the Temple of Hadrian, built by his adoptive son and successor Antoninus Pius.

We admired the smoothness of their faces, and the details of their clothes and armours and we were surprised by the pleasant effect given by the contrast between the marble of statues and the dark colour of the supports. We enjoyed our visit very much, and as always, we used our smartphones to fixate in tweets and pictures what we were seeing and feeling, that incredible, eternal charm these ancient statues can have on us.


Marble relief with with portrait and epitaph by Quadratilla for her father Apthonetus, from Colle Tasso, near Tivoli, 130-140.

We also had the pleasure to meet with Carolina De Camillis, architect and external consultant of Palazzo Massimo, in charge of the new lighting system of the rooms. She explained how lighting is an essential component of the new display: halogen lamps typically used in museums tend to give the surfaces of the statues an uniformed glaze, to flatten the differences of colour and in texture that are characteristic of the marble Romans used to make their statues.

The new lighting, created with special LED lamps, allows visitors to fully appreciate the traces that Roman artisans left on their works with their instruments, but also the natural veining of the marbles and, sometimes, even the single macro-crystal of the rock.

It is quite clear, then, that the new displays are the result of a common effort of a number of different professionals such as archaeologists, architects, lightening designers, specialised workers, who work behind the scenes to offer visitors new ways to enjoy the fascination of the ancient world.

Original post and pictures by Antonia Falcone (@antoniafalcone) and Paola Romi (@OpusPaulicium)

Translation from Italian and editing by Domenica Pate (@domenica_pate)

Archaeology from the depths of the Delaware River to high atop Philadelphia’s Skyline

Today, I coordinated the activities of two groups of faculty and students working on archaeological related projects at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA USA. One project supervised by Erik Sundquist, Director of the Westphal Hybrid Lab and being produced by Riley Stewart, a Digital Media sophomore is an 11 ft. replica of a cheval de frise, an American Revolution era underwater weapon used to prevent British warships from sailing into Philadelphia. The artifact was recovered in the Delaware River in 2007 by maritime archaeologist J. Lee Cox Jr. and donated to the Independence Seaport Museum. Shortly after the artifact was recovered,  Craig Bruns, Chief Curator, Independence Seaport Museum, asked if my team of faculty and students could make a 3D scan of the cheval as part of the Museum’s effort to preserve it. Then Digital Media faculty member Chris Redmann and Digital Media sophomore Mark Petrovich scanned the artifact and produced a 3D model. Recently, Craig asked if we could produce a replica of the cheval from our scan data. Craig plans to use the replica as a proxy for the actual artifact as the Museum prepares to exhibit the cheval de frise. Before producing the full scale replica, Erik and Riley printed a miniature replica of the cheval to test the integrity of the scan data. Satisfied with the model Erik and Riley plan to produce the replica next week.

For the second project I reviewed storyboards for two Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that will be used in October to alert the public to two archaeology events. The first entitled, “Explore Philadelphia’s Buried Past” is a one day celebration where archeologists explain to the public ongoing archaeological work being conducted in Philadelphia. The free event is held at the National Constitution Center and is sponsored by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and Independence National Historical Park (INHP) Archaeology lab. The other PSA will announce that October is Pennsylvania Archaeology Month. The storyboards are being produced by Digital Media freshman, Ryan Rasing. Both PSA’s will feature 3D models of archaeological artifacts from the INHP’s archaeology collection. The artifacts were scanned last week at INHP’s Archaeology Lab by Digital Media graduate student Jonnathan Mercado assisted by Ryan. Both are working to produce the PSAs that will appear on the upper floors of the Pennsylvania Energy Company (PECO) Building high above the city of Philadelphia for all to see.

Ryan (left) Jed Levin, Chief Historian INHP (center) Jonnathan (right) examine 3D scan data at INHP’s Archaeology Lab

Ryan (left) Jed Levin, Chief Historian INHP (center) Jonnathan (right) examine 3D scan data at INHP’s Archaeology Lab

Archaeology 101 and ‘Reverse Archaeology’

I wear many hats, some of which are archaeological, and so a typical day for me can come in many different ‘flavours’.

Today, my day started on public transit.

Taking the subway

Taking the subway

And then more public transit.

And the bus

And the bus

But I finally arrived at the Markham Museum.

Markham Museum

Markham Museum

I work as a program instructor at the museum, giving tours and programs for groups that come, but this morning I was actually doing a special program for the museum’s own summer camp.  This week’s theme is Junior Archaeology, so I was teaching a group of seventy 4-8 year olds about Archaeology 101.

I had my tools:

Dirty dig kit!

Dirty dig kit!

And some artifacts:

Markham Museum artifacts

Markham Museum artifacts

And I spent a while talking about all the things that archaeologists learn from bones and stone tools and broken pots.  I also talked about how archaeologists don’t find dinosaur bones, and how we only find things that people have left behind – mostly garbage.

After Archaeology 101, I did some reverse archaeology – burying things for the campers to dig up later.  The activity I set up was Archaeology Bingo, laying a grid and burying everyday objects under some of the squares.

Archaeology Bingo

Archaeology Bingo

Archaeology Bingo

Archaeology Bingo

It was hot work, nearly 40C with the humidity.

But after I finished up, I headed home to put on my next hat.  That involved taking my youngest to a museum to enjoy some well-deserved air conditioning!



So while my day did not consist of excavation, or research, I was imparting the joy and excitement of archaeology to a great group of kids.  Archaeology catches the imagination, and where better to encourage that than in a day camp during the summer at a museum!

Archaeology in the Museum Stores

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Measuring a case from the inside, with colleague Mike

Measuring a case from the inside, with colleague Mike


A lamp?




On the actual Day of Archaeology last Friday I was with my colleagues from Leisure and Culture Dundee at one of the museum’s industrial out stores. Regardless of our curatorial specialisms – archaeology, art, social or natural history we donned our steel-toed boots and worked together with the Museum’s Registrar and Conservator to undertake a week-long audit of the storage facility. We worked across the collections, a coal –powered fish fryer a stuffed walrus, marble sculpture, a log boat and everything in between.

We unwrapped each object, checked its condition and measured it, then recorded each object’s unique accession number and location before attaching a yellow tag and photographing the object before protecting it again. This information will be added to the museum’s digital records management system. Sometimes the information will confirm what is already on the digital record, sometimes the information will enhance the existing record and sometimes an entirely new record will need to be created.

Though auditing collections is core work for any curator, is a day spent in this manner a ‘Day of Archaeology’? I was as dirty and dusty as I’d even been on a dig

Recording, measuring and data entry may not be glamorous, but documentation is vitally important to both archaeology and museum work. Those accession numbers are the object’s context – they link to the object’s biography – what it is, where it came from, who used it and how. It is as important in archaeology as in a museum that the context of the object is retained. As visually arresting as an object may be, it loses something of its intrinsic value if it no longer has context. This is the information that is shared with the public and held on to for future generations.

The Restoration Department and the Bibat, Museum of Archaeology of Álava region show their daily inside work

To celebrate the Day of Archaeology we arranged guided tours to the to the collections storage rooms of the museum and to the Restoration Department.  With these visits we wanted to show the inside of our daily job and to explain the journey of an archaeological artifact from the site to the display cabinets.

In the Archaeology Restauration Lab, Isabel Ortiz took us through the process of scientific restauration, describing conservation criteria and used treatments in several examples such as a wooden chalice from the Old Cathedral of Vitoria-Gasteiz, an early medieval axe, and a bronze basin.



At the Bibat Archaeology museum we explained to the visitors how in addition to be just a museum we also are the deposit centre for the archaeological material of Álava province (Basque Country, Spain) and that we are in charge of managing all the archaeological interventions in the region.

During the tour we also gave a short introduction about what archaeology is, highlighting the importance of the process and the context, not just the precious objects. Then we showed the laboratory and the research room. Finally we conducted our visitors to the secrets kept in our collections storage room.

It was a great and successful experience. It would be fantastic make this kind of tours more often to keep making people aware of the value of archaeological heritage.





Why Archaeological Archives Matter: Providing Archaeology For All

Today I thought I would write something specifically about the way my working life revolves around archives so what follows below is a personal musing about them as sources of inspiration, collective knowledge and latterly of concern.

Learning in all its forms is really at the heart of much of what I do. Since the National Curriculum has been remodelled I’ve been working on delivering a series of CPD sessions aimed at local primary school teachers. Our ‘Bristol Curriculum’ is a model we use for locally-relevant learning that uses Bristol-specific examples to enable teachers to plan and deliver schemes of work. It struck me as I delivered ‘Roman Bristol’, that it would have been impossible without the wide range of artefacts that had been derived from excavations and most importantly the published interpretation of sites that existed in the local landscape 2000 years ago. One of the many skills a museum archaeologist needs to have is the ability to ‘translate’ excavation reports for the benefit of a public audience: we need to be able to understand the detail revealed by field reports as well as academic theory. Introducing teachers to Gaius Sentius and the daughter/wife for whom he had a commissioned a tombstone found at Sea Mills in the 1870s was a joy, but the context in which they might have lived could have only been provided by the excavation archives held in store. With a 100+ years of digging out at the Roman town of Abona there’s a lot of stuff that’s been studied and still waiting to be studied!

And isn’t that the point? Museum archaeological archives are a living resource not just a bunch of dusty boxes full of spent objects that have already revealed their all.The importance of these archives is that they can and should be used over and over again, especially as new sites and new techniques reveal more and more pieces of the jigsaw. Perhaps equally importantly they can be used for very different purposes by very different people.

At the moment we are well into dissertation season – by that I mean many students are looking for suitable material to study, and of course the archives we look after should be the open book they’re looking to for inspiration. Although many collections are well-documented, and some available in digital format online, you can’t beat looking at the real thing: you simply can’t turn a digital record image over to look at that particular feature, mark, etc. that will add value to a proper study. Similarly you can’t underestimate the genuine need to be able to make comparisons between several groups of objects at the same time. Museums, their stores and their curators, many of whom have acquired a vast working knowledge of the content of hundreds of archives, are a far better bet for helping to reveal connections between sites and objects than using an online search engine. One of my biggest frustrations is that whilst there is so much potential for inspiration and learning there are not enough hours in the day to take advantage of it all and the numbers of specialist curators with the skills and vision to unlock this potential are dwindling.

On the positive side, the range of enquiries I receive is enormous: in recent weeks I have been visited by researchers wanting to look at Palaeolithic material from Hampshire and photographic surveys of a Bristol dry dock made by a local unit in the 1990s. I have been asked to verify that we still hold material recorded on a local HER and to shed light on its documented provenance. Post doctoral researchers have enquired about collections of human remains relevant to an AHRC grant application and I have given advice on how to demonstrate impact without creating an exhibition. We have also had members of a local community history project jumping for joy because they felt so privileged to be able to take photographs of real objects found in their locality to post on their website.

Unfortunately on the negative side I am very well aware of just how many of these archives are at threat of having no final resting place, with no specialist care and consequently with precious little guaranteed public access. As Chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology I am frequently being asked to write letters of concern regarding the continued long term care of archives because of museum closures or staff cuts as the result of austerity measures. In fact I was asked to do that for yet another museum today. What can we do stop this? It is my very firm belief that we will only be able to do this by acting together as one profession because to be honest that is the only way we will get our voices heard. We need to play to our strengths – if we truly believe that our raison d’etre is to inspire others with the collections we acquire, study and care for, we need to use them more effectively to inspire the policy makers who hold the purse strings and to make them understand why they are so important to so many people. As archaeologists we need to find the locally relevant agendas, make ourselves aware of appropriate wider local and national issues and arm ourselves with fighting facts and figures. We need to show that #WeAreAllArchaeologists and most of all how vital it is that we continue to be a source of  inspiration and learning by providing archaeology for all.

Follow the Society for Museum Archaeology on Twitter @socmusarch and visit the website at for membership details and to find out more about the work that it does.

Experimental Archaeology towards Experiencing Archaeology

My name is Martin Lominy. I’m a trained archaeologist, a career educator, a self-taught craftsman and the founder of Aboriginal Technologies Autochtones, a Quebec based business with an educational mission aimed at providing the general public with a more practical vision of the past and a better understanding of aboriginal cultures of North America through the reproduction and experimentation of ancient technologies. In the past couple of years, my Day of Archaeology posts have focused mainly on artefact reproduction because this is what I do most of the time. So this year I would like to talk a bit more about my work in education as I am spending the day preparing educational material for upcoming activities that take place in August during Archaeology Month in my home province of Quebec.

Flintknapping demonstration in a reconstructed native village. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

Flintknapping demonstration in a reconstructed native village. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

Third grade student learning to fletch an arrow.

Third grade student learning to fletch an arrow.

Learning about ancient technologies through experimentation is central to my work but sharing this knowledge is the ultimate goal of my career. In fact, most of my artefact reproductions are purchased by museums and interpretation centres to complement their activities and exhibitions. I have worked as a museum educator for over a decade from delivering to developing public programmes and always enjoyed giving the general public a better understanding of what life would have been like in the past. I have dealt with all sorts of groups ranging from children to elders and from amateurs to scientists as well as survivalists looking towards ancient technologies to expand their wilderness skills. It’s always been a challenge to adapt the complexities of archaeology to a variety of audiences but one that has kept me passionate about public education.

Families learning to make prehistoric fish hooks. (Photo: Maison Nivard De Saint-Dizier)

Families learning to make prehistoric fish hooks. (Photo: Maison Nivard De Saint-Dizier)

Survivalist group learning about ancient fishing technologies. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

Survivalist group learning about ancient fishing technologies. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

As a craftsman, my educational approach is about communicating through objects that can be touched, used or created so my activities range from interactive conferences for adult audiences to craft workshops for school groups and demonstrations for public events where people can experience the subject directly. For this purpose, my work in artefact reproduction is not about imitating artefacts with synthetic materials but rather going through the entire process or creating them from raw materials to finished tools and testing them so that I can explain how they were made and what this meant for people using them in the past. This level of experimentation is mostly a way for me to learn beyond theory but it also allows me to share my knowledge and skills with specialized groups such as college and university students interested in experimental archaeology.

Anthropology students from the University of Montreal learning about the uses of plant fibres. (Photo: RÉAUM)

Anthropology students from the University of Montreal learning about the uses of plant fibres. (Photo: RÉAUM)

As a part time anthropology teacher, I have also used my classroom experience to develop specific activities that can be integrated into anthropology classes to give students a better understanding of anthropological concepts, archaeological techniques and past lifeways. The school curriculum in Quebec includes several chapters on aboriginal culture and history which were integrated only a decade ago, so most of the groups that I meet are primary and secondary level classes looking to complement their programme with activities giving them access to specialized knowledge and material while discovering archaeology as a profession. Primary school children are my favourite age group whose limitless curiosity and enthusiasm inspire me the most to educate the public about the importance of learning from the past through archaeology.

Primary school students learning about prehistoric lifeways through a modelling project.

Primary school students learning about prehistoric lifeways through a modelling project.

So these are the things on my mind and on my table today. To learn more about Aboriginal Technologie’s educational programmes, please visit my website.


Small steps forward

I’m a museum archaeologist, Curator of Archaeology at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. Today I have been working on the final touches to a list of objects we want to include in our new gallery. The new displays won’t be created until next year but the list for this case is already overdue (the final, final deadline for supplying it to my colleagues was 16 June!). I had a good draft by then and have been steadily refining it over the last month. Today, I just had to measure three final objects – a glass bowl, an iron horseshoe and a perforated tusk. I already knew where the glass bowl was stored but I used our computer catalogue to find the location of the other two items and then set off into the store to try to find them. There is always a sense of excitement when looking out objects in the store, mixed with worry that you won’t come across them – all the more so because I have only been working at Museums Sheffield since April and am still learning my way around. Luckily, this time I managed to find and measure all 3 items and, in the process, discovered that the iron horseshoe was recorded as being in the right box but on the wrong shelf. I added the information to the Excel list and updated the computer catalogue. Small steps towards that perfect catalogue which is the holy grail for museum curators!

Tusk with perforation through it

Perforated tusk that needed measuring. Copyright Museums Sheffield

Also today, some of our volunteers have been cataloguing flints collected by Thomas Bateman, a 19th century antiquarian who investigated and collected from many sites in the Peak District. They have been measuring, photographing and describing the objects. As there were only two volunteers in today they documented straight onto the computer catalogue but normally they use a paper form to record the information as we only have 1 spare laptop. My colleague and I then create the computer catalogue entries later.

I have also been emailing information to my contact at the Friends of Wincobank Hill. We are working with this community group on part of the new displays. Wincobank Hill is an Iron Age hillfort in the east of Sheffield. The group visited the store on Wednesday to look at the objects that past excavations have found and also photographs, notes and drawings created during these investigations (the documentary archive).

Other things I’ve been doing this week include arranging with a colleague in our learning team to discuss the prehistory session she is developing, speaking to a member of the public about how to access the collections not on display, supplying information to an academic about the exterior decoration of one of our objects and running an activity with a group of 8-10 year olds about bronze working where chocolate stood in for bronze in an experiment to create their own bronze working moulds.