The field season is over, the excavation is complete, the artifacts have been analyzed and the report has been all nicely written up. Now what? What are you supposed to do with all the stuff? This is a problem that has just about come to its breaking point in Ontario. Here, legislation dictates that the licensed archaeologist responsible for collecting the artifacts is also responsible for keeping the artifacts. Forever.
This in itself is no bad thing – it ensures that collections are not simply discarded after excavation, in theory preserving them for the benefit of future generations. However, there are no rules or systems in place for ensuring that these collections are kept in appropriate storage conditions along with all of the accompanying information necessary for understanding what the artifacts are and where they came from. Unfortunately, it takes money, time, and training to ensure that a collection is properly cared for and made accessible to the public. As a result, due to the significant financial burden that securing decent storage space often requires, many collections are kept in poor conditions, are separated from their provenience information, and are completely inaccessible to the public and researchers.
Sustainable Archaeology is an initiative aimed at responding to this issue. With two locations (one at the University of Western Ontario and one at McMaster University), Sustainable Archaeology is an archaeological repository and research facility which specializes in the storage, preservation, and accessibility of Ontario’s archaeological collections. Here at the McMaster facility we have both a dry and wet lab available for use by researchers in addition to our collection storage space. Unlike many archaeologists, our “raison d’etre” is not to conduct our own research, but rather to make it possible for others to do so.
Most of our time is spent ensuring that collections are kept in good condition, and that material can be easily found and accessed within the collection. Typically this involves researching the background of the collections in our care, assessing their condition, and repackaging them when necessary. Many of the collections we’re currently working with were excavated in the early- to mid-twentieth century, and have been separated from their contextual information over time. This means that sometimes we open a box to find a bunch of mysteriously labelled artifact bags without any clues as to where they came from or what the labels mean. This is where the detective work begins, as we use whatever information we do have left to track down the rest of the collection’s context. Sometimes we are lucky and the archaeologist will have published a paper or left us a catalogue which clarifies everything — then again, sometimes we’re unlucky and those hopeful looking blank fields in our collection catalogue must remain empty for the time being.
Complementing our collections work, lab technician Samantha Atkins is also hard at work pioneering a thin sectioning protocol for use with our polarizing microscope. Slicing archaeological material (such as stone, ceramic, and teeth) into thin sections and viewing them under the polarizing microscope, it is often possible to determine from where a natural material was sourced, or the season during which an animal was killed. This information can be extremely valuable to an archaeologist, and as such Sustainable Archaeology has put an emphasis on creating thin sectioning protocols that can help provide archaeologists with as much information as possible. In order to do all of this, Sam’s days typically consist of a mix of research and experimentation. Because archaeological studies using thin sectioning rarely describe the process of creating thin sections, Sam has had to draw upon other fields (such as geology) to inform her techniques, and is also beginning to assemble a network of archaeological thin sectioning experts. In between bouts of research and experimentation, Sam is also responsible for photographing artifacts and editing images to be featured in our digital resources.