Order UP! Artifacts in from the Field, What Happens Next?

Most folks don’t consider what happens to material collected in the field.  The artifacts have to go somewhere.  Where do they go?  What happens to them?  Is there a cost?

A quick overview of the answers to these questions:

Where Do They Go?:  In a perfect world the artifacts/objects/material and its associated documentation (field notes, maps, photographs, journals, budgets, etc.) are typically stored either in a museum or an institutional/agency storeroom or repository.

What Happens to Them?:  Objects and associated documentation are accessioned, assigned catalog numbers, labeled, cataloged, inventoried, rehoused from their field bags/boxes (in acid-free, inert, archival microenvironments), assigned locations within the facility, and stored.  Some, usually the unique or “really cool” objects, are kept out to become part of an exhibit.  Most often the only time artifacts are accessed is for loan to other museums/institutions, further study, or yearly inventory.

Is There a Cost?:  YES – the cost is exceptional:  a facility must be acquired and maintained, qualified staff for accessioning, cataloging, housing, and management are required, temperature and humidity must be regularly monitored, pest control measures must be taken, security measures must be implemented and adhered to, protection from light, fire, and natural disasters must be implemented, and proper supplies must be used to ensure the health of the objects and their life in perpetuity.  (There is a lot of “must” in this paragraph, isn’t there?)

Keep in mind this is just a quick overview and food for thought.  Most museums have hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of artifacts in storage with just a few thousand on actual display.  Most educational institutions and repositories have hundreds if not thousands of boxes of material in storage/on-site facility with a small amount out for loan, continued research, and use in classrooms.  Once an object is taken out of the ground we (humans) have a permanent responsibility for its care and future as well as public education.  Museum and Agency Curators are Stewards of the Past and the Future.

Here at Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, objects that are found in the facility or recently received from the field are given a good, clean, safe, and proper home.  We make them accessible to agency staff, Native American Tribes, educators, like agencies or institutions, researchers, genealogists, students, and the public (when appropriate).  We also make sure the collections are searchable in a database so as much study/research can be done prior to accessing actual objects, we prefer them to handled minimally and for as brief a time as possible.

NOTE:  Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission does not actively excavate for artifact and data collection meant only for interpretive or research purposes.  We work primarily with Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms and Native American Tribes when a development or utilities upgrade/repair is necessary in one of our parks.  We have agency Archaeology staff that manage the archaeology aspect of a project and can and do engage in surveys, shovel probes, test pits, and excavations.  We are stewards of state lands and the state’s cultural and natural resources, therefore, we prefer to work outside the boundaries of a known site or divert a project if a new site is realized.

More from Mount Vernon

Hello, I’m writing from our archaeology lab in Mount Vernon, Virginia along the lovely Potomac River just south of Washington, DC.  I’m a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in historical archaeology.  At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, I’m doing a pre-doctoral fellowship to digitize and put online artifacts excavated from a fantastic feature.  By the end of 2012, we will be offering a website devoted to the material culture of George Washington and the enslaved individuals who lived and worked near the mansion.  The archaeological record of this colonial household comes in the form of a large midden feature – chock full of 18th century ceramics, glass, beads, buttons, buckles, tobacco pipes, fish scales, I could go on and on!

Archaeologists excavated the midden feature from 1990 to 1994. George Washington's mansion is in the background.

Our vision for this project takes a material culture analytical approach that unites the archaeological record with probate inventories, a database of George Washington’s orders and invoices for goods from England, those items stocked in local stores, and even museum collections to better understand the developing consumer revolution on the part of colonial Virginians.

Want to dig deeper into George Washington’s trash?  We have a blog and a facebook group!

Here’s a sample of some of the highlights of the assemblage:

Imported 18th century white ball clay figurines, minus heads.

Stoneware mug made by the "Poor Potter" of Yorktown, Virginia, ca. 1725-1745.


Sword scabbard ornament engraved with partial "GW" monogram, ca. 1778.

What are we doing in the lab?

Every week I run an open lab for anyone who wants to walk in and help wash, sort, bag and catalog the artifacts we have recovered.  This summer our lab day is weds.  Today the drying racks in the lab are full so it is time to sort the artifacts into categories– brick, historic period ceramic fragments (known to us as sherds) glass shards, stone tool making debris, stone tools, nails-wrought, cut and wire.

Each type above gets a separate ziplock bag and a catalog number– a unique number that signifies exactly where in the site this batch of artifacts was recovered.

This is a first step towards artifacts analysis.

Several blocks away from the lab is an old cotton warehouse turned into a storage facility.  There we have rented a space to store the massive collection we have amassed in 16 years of research. The Kolb artifact assemblage is stored in 600 plus cardboard bankers boxes.  Over time our lab staff and Carl have sorted these by types–stone tools, prehistoric ceramics, historic ceramics, animal bones, botanical specimens have all been culled from the collection and are stored together.


Johannes Kolb Site

Good Morning its 8:22am and the temperature will reach 100 degrees today. My name is Chris Judge and along with colleagues Carl Steen and Sean Taylor we are co-directors of  a 25 year researcha nd education project to explore a site spanning 13,000 years in South Carolina.

Today Carl is editing a chapter we three wrote on the Kolb site for a book on South Carolina to be published by the University of South Carolina Press.

I am in the lab expecting student volunteers to help wash artifacts from our two week field season in March, editing the 2011 South Carolina Archaeology MonthPoster featuring the Johannes Kolb Archaeology and Education Project, and beginning to plan our 2012 field season.

Sean is asssiting local law enforcement with a looted site in the western portion of the state.




Day in the Life of an Adjunct Professor

By training, I’m an archaeologist, but currently I teach cultural anthropology for a community college in the Northeastern section of the United States.  I leave my archaeology work for volunteer archaeology workshops for middle school students, writing pieces for a science advocacy’s publication, and for whenever I can incorporate my knowledge of the discipline to my students (to give them a preview of what else is included within anthropological research). This summer, my work included items like lesson and syllabus planning, previewing videos and DVDs for classtime discussions, and adapting to the different textbooks selected for the fall semester. I also worked on writing book reviews, columns, and articles for submission to anthropological and science-based publications.

However, this week, I’m partaking in a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks workshop geared toward community college faculty, where my days are chockful of archaeological work. Earlier this week, I got to see a ROV (remotely operated vehicle) device in action and also ever so briefly use it to scan over a shipwreck site in one of the Great Lakes. We also watched others use sonar devices under the lake and bay waters. We’ve gone further up the coast to see the remains of a wreck washed ashore and worked on practicing mapping the pieces which remain. Although I have never formally studied the Great Lakes or maritime/nautical archaeology beyond archaeobotanical coursework, my summer included days of reading articles and books on the subject matter.

You see no matter what you do as an archaeologist, constantly learning subject matter is essential work and involves a level of professional development. I came here to upstate Michigan this week to learn, explore, but most of all, to find new materials, approaches and activities to spark a new level of teaching from within. My students are my primary focus, although a lot of what went into my decision to apply this spring for this particular workshop series included the chance to spend a week somewhere I had never travelled, with facilitators and colleagues I never met before this week. Of course, maritime history and archaeology are topics I never explored before as well.

Today, we will be coming together as 25 students who teach across the United States (and within different academic departments and disciplines) to learn from experienced archaeologists, historians, doctoral students and governmental employees for a final day of workshops. While it is hard to imagine surpassing snorkeling over a wreck, and surveying a wreck on the shoreline yesterday, the same speculation could have been made earlier in the week. I mean, how do you top using and watching others use an ROV over a wreck? Or, seeing sonar being used to map shapes and features on the bottom of the water? The life of an archaeologist or an aficionado of the field can be quite eclectic, but no matter what your age, pathway, or deviations throughout the course of life, no matter what, you can always find your way to or back to, archaeology and enjoy the experiences.

For now, I plan on working on my final assignment then heading off to the marine sanctuary for a day of presentations, a boat ride, a few more research and photography hours, and then closing events. I should have some photos on my webspace at some point, so do feel free to take a look and also to write me an email with any questions. Likewise, if you are a community college instructor in the United States, I highly encourage you to check the NEH website for more on all the professional development opportunities which could be awaiting you as well next summer!