Virginia Museum of Natural History

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

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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

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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

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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 Lab Full of Shells

In the archaeology lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), I am continuing work on an assemblage from a site that I posted about for Day of Archaeology 2011 (, the Barton Village site. Located in western Maryland on the Potomac River, this multicomponent village site has been the subject of excavations for over twenty years by Dr. Bob Wall at the Towson University. The Barton site has yielded a large quantity of faunal remains – the boxes of bones fill an entire industrial shelving unit. When working with an assemblage this large, I generally sort, identify, photograph and capture data one bag at a time, with each bag from a separate provenience. This site has some interesting materials though that are worth removing from the rest and looking at separately. Specifically, this site has a fairly large number of mollusks.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

When a site has a lot of mollusks, I find it useful to pull out all of them and identify them all at once. When working with a lot of the same thing, I find my identifications are more accurate and consistent if I do a lot at once instead of one this week, two next week, and so on. It also reduces the number of times I have to pull out specimens from the reference collection and is more efficient with my time.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

In this photo you can see some reference material on the back of the counter and the archaeological specimens toward the front. This is a small portion of the mollusk reference material at VMNH. We have over 50 species of bivalves just from Virginia in our collection.

The mollusks from the Barton site make an interesting sample. So far we have identified almost 20 species of bivalves and gastropods – mussels and snails.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

The stack of plastic boxes in the photo is just the shells that have been sorted and identified and rehoused so they don’t get crushed. There is another entire box of shells yet to be identified. One of the specimens we have identified is from the genus Marginella, a sea snail whose closest source would be from the Atlantic coast almost 150 miles to the east. Marginella were frequently traded by Native American tribes in the east and can be found at many sites. The rest of the specimens identified so far are freshwater species and were probably gathered locally for eating or for bead and tool making. Two of the larger specimens of freshwater mussel were modified into scrapers with serrated edges. One of the species identified was thought to have been introduced to the Potomac in the late 19th century, but its context here is 17th century. I’m withholding the name here because while I have had the identification reviewed and confirmed, the publication extending the range of this species is not yet out.

If you want to learn more about eastern mollusks, you can find some great information, identification keys, and manuals at

A quiet day at the lab

As a zooarchaeologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, I usually spend quite a bit of time in my lab identifying, or trying to identify, many pieces of bone, antler, and shell, mostly from Native American sites in the North American Middle Atlantic states.  The lab is also usually bustling with volunteers washing, sorting, and labeling samples.  Today though, the lab is unusually quiet (hopefully there’s a photo below).  I am out of town doing some background research for a new project, the fauna from the Barton site – a multicomponent Native American village site in western Maryland.  This week I was working at the library at the Maryland Historical Trust.  The Trust library houses the site files, reports, and publications dealing with Maryland archaeology and historical resources.  I now have a much longer reading list to work through over the next couple of months!

I decided to take a break from library work and the 100 degree heat and took a diversionary trip to The Walters Art Museum ( in Baltimore to see their temporary exhibit on writing implements.  I saw an object new to me – an 18th century small ivory writing tablet.  The tablets in the exhibit were small (approximately 1 in wide and 2 inches long) and were stored in small metal cases.  The user would write a note on the tablet and then they could wipe the note off of the smooth ivory surface and write a new note when needed.  The first write-on-wipe-off board!  And one more use for ivory to consider if I see flat ivory pieces in a historic site assemblage.  Even on a gallery visit where I didn’t plan on seeing anything work related there was still something to keep in mind for future analyses.  That’s one of the great things about archaeology; there’s always something new to learn and almost everywhere you go there is something relevant to what we do.

It looks pretty quiet in there!