“Where’s the Duck?”

“Where’s the Duck?”

It all started with one simple question, “where’s the duck?” As a zooarchaeologist, I keep a reference collection of native and introduced fauna of Virginia and neighboring areas. This collection is growing constantly thanks to donations from wildlife rehabilitation centers, colleagues at other museums, local veterinarians, staff cats who are responsible for many rodents and small birds in the collection, and members of the public who find serviceable roadkill and give us a call.

This summer in the Virginia Museum of Natural History archaeology lab, we have had several zooarchaeology projects in various stages of analysis, from just starting to packing for return. These include material from a Middle Woodland (ca. A.D. 400) coastal occupation that has a shell midden filled with microfauna, a 19th century slave quarter assemblage, an 18th century Colonial cellar deposit excavated this summer by Dr. Carole Nash at James Madison University, a sample of oysters from an 18th century French encampment during the American Revolutionary War, a 19th century canal deposit, and an 18th century tavern. Organization in the lab is always critical; especially so when there are several projects under analysis at one time. Nobody wants a cow bone to end up in the prehistoric midden sample.


With all of these different projects underway, the reference collection gets a good workout. Skeletons are pulled out to aid with identifications, and are put away constantly throughout the day. Add to that new skeletons being processed through our dermestids and coming in for cataloging and the reference collection can quickly get a bit messy.



Today, when I was asking (mostly to myself), “where’s the duck?” and it took more than just a couple of minutes to find the exact specimen I was searching for, I knew I had to spend my afternoon doing some cleaning and reorganizing after technicians and volunteers left mid-day. Not one to work in half-measures, I decided to reorganize several cabinets that hold the reference collection, incoming archaeology collections headed for long-term curation, and ongoing projects. I found the duck, everything has a new home, the drawers all have temporary labels which will be replaced with neatly typed labels next week, and the only casualty was my toe when I dropped an empty drawer on it.

I think I’ll re-alphabetize my spices when I get home, that’s just the kind of mood I’m in today.

Crowdsourcing Science

Today at the Virginia Museum of Natural History I am preparing materials for a project that I am calling “Crowdsourcing Science.” This all started last fall when I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to excavate with archaeologists from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and volunteers from the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV) at the Great Neck Site, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


One of the features encountered during excavation was a pit densely packed with with shell and bone.  We decided to bring all of the material from the feature back to the museum for flotation. The result was 19 gallon-sized bags of flotation heavy fraction containing lots of fauna, some plant remains, a small amount of pottery, and (so far) a few lithic flakes.


We have started sorting the flotation at the lab but quickly realized that the volume of material would take months, if not years to complete. Besides the large volume of shell, we have already sorted out crab, drum teeth, gar scales, limpets, ray tooth plates and vertebra, and thousands of fish vertebra.


The crowd sourcing idea came about as the result of discussions about an activity I was doing with a group of high school students. The students came to the museum for a day of activities. They learned about the site, they helped with the flotation of a sample, then they helped sort a dry sample we had previously floted. They got quite a bit of sorting done and I couldn’t help but wish that I could have more groups of people help sort the flotation samples.


Fortunately, I happen to know an organization that has groups of people who would be interested – the Archaeological Society of Virginia. The ASV has chapters all over Virginia. Some members helped excavate the site and many of the members who were not in the field are still interested in the project. They can’t all come to me – Virginia is a pretty big state – but perhaps I could come up with a way for the samples to go to them. The next challenge was that while I could give them a presentation and start the sorting process with them, I can’t meet with them all regularly to work on the identifications as they sort. That’s when I came up with the idea of the “Identification Kits.”

Below you can see one of the Identification Kits developed for assisting with flotation sorting. As we work on sorting flotation in the lab, I pull an example or two of each type of thing we are finding, label them, put them in plastic boxes, and create sets for groups to use.


The boxes in each kit can be laid out and available for viewing by anyone helping sort the flotation samples.


To date I have four groups signed up to assist with sorting flotation. After I have given them each a presentation, the group will receive a kit, a gallon bag of material to sort, and lots of plastic bags to store things in when they are done.  Of course, then I’ll have all of those bags of specimens to identify, but I’ll deal with that problem later.



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

organization post photo 2

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.

Fabricating the Past

Today in the Archaeology Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, we are hard at work preparing for an upcoming exhibit, Exploring Virginia. Part of the exhibit discusses some of the early European explorers of this corner of the world, using maps to illustrate how their reports changed how European powers viewed the continent.  We have on display almost 90 mounts of animals mentioned in their journals and material culture from the Native American groups that they met on their travels. The remainder of the exhibit discusses how we know about the past today, whether it’s from historic journals and maps, or through archaeological excavation and interpretation.


Virginia Museum of Natural History - Exploring Virginia exhibit

Virginia Museum of Natural History – Exploring Virginia exhibit

We decided early on in this exhibit development to use a large number of artifact replicas – we wanted lots of objects that visitors can touch and handle which is unusual for most exhibits. We’ll still have plenty of actual artifacts on display but wherever possible we are incorporating replicas for interactives and touchables. There are two ways we have been producing replicas for the exhibit. The first is through 3-D scanning and printing. We have partnered with Dr. Bernard Means of the VCU Virtual Curation Laboratory (https://vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com/) to select and create over 100 3-D printed artifacts! Interns from the Virtual Curation Lab and interns and volunteers from the VMNH archaeology lab have been finishing and painting these replicas getting them ready for viewing and handling. One of the VCU/VMNH interns was Brenna Geraghty, who has her own blog entry today so I’ll let you read about her exploits in her entry (http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/brenna-geraghty-virginia-museum-of-natural-history/).

VMNH volunteer Rebecca Moore painting 3-D replicated passenger pigeon bones.

VMNH volunteer Rebecca Moore painting 3-D replicated passenger pigeon bones.

The second way we produce replicas is through molding and casting. This is a multi-step labor intensive process that produces resin replicas nearly identical in shape to the original artifacts. The first step in this process is surrounding the object with clay so a silicon mold can be created. Most of our molds are two-part molds where first one side, then the other of the artifact is molded, the two parts of the mold fit together, the silicon is poured into the mold, then the mold can be taken apart to reveal the replica.

Clay being warmed under a heat lamp and the construction of one part of a two-part mold.

Clay being warmed under a heat lamp and the construction of one part of a two-part mold.

The pink material you see in this photo is silicon and is covering the top half of the artifact. The bottom half of the artifact is encased in clay. When the silicon sets, it will be removed, the artifact will be turned over, and a silicon mold will be made of the bottom half of the artifact. The two silicon parts then fit together, resin is poured into the mold, and a replica is made.


Silicon molds.

Here you can see three molds – one one-part mold and two two-part molds held together with rubber bands. The rubber bands hold the two pieces together so that resin doesn’t leak out of the mold seams.

Archaeological dog burial feature for a discussion about the early presence of dogs in North America.

Archaeological dog burial feature for a discussion about the early presence of dogs in North America.

This is one of the more complex replicas that we are producing. We are reproducing an archaeological dog burial feature for a discussion about the early presence of dogs in North America. For this exhibit piece, Ray Vodden, who runs our molding and casting program, made a cast of every skeletal element recovered from the burial. Those casts are now being laid out to mimic the archaeological feature – you can see a magnified field sketch of the feature standing up on the table. The casts are being held in place by clay. Once all of the replica elements are in place, we will build a clay dam around the entire piece and make a silicon mold and a resin cast of the entire feature. That will then have texture added to replicate soil and be painted to look like the original feature. One of the benefits of creating a replica of the entire feature this way is that we can reproduce it if there are other museums who would like to have a copy for exhibit. We make various sets of artifact and fossil teaching kits and this will eventually be added to our catalog.

Education and public outreach is an important part of our mission at VMNH. We hope that by incorporating more things that visitors can touch and handle, they take away a greater appreciation for Virginia’s past

Brenna Geraghty – Virginia Museum of Natural History

What could get a college student excited to leave behind her friends, city, and a summer of relaxation to spend nine weeks in a small town on the opposite side of the state?  For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime paid archaeology internship at a beloved state museum.

This was the situation in which I found myself as the spring semester drew to a close.  Thanks to the support and assistance of VCU professor Dr. Bernard Means and Virginia Museum of Natural History Curator of Archaeology Dr. Elizabeth Moore, I would be moving from Richmond to Martinsville, Virginia, where I had been accepted for a summer internship at VMNH. While I geared up to make the nearly 4-hour drive with all my belongings, friends asked what I would be doing in this town they’d never heard of.  I tried to provide them a vague answer laced with technical terms they were unlikely to understand, such as “curatorial assistance” and “exhibit development.”  I wasn’t trying to hide anything about the internship; it was simply that I didn’t actually know what it would entail.

My first week gave me a glimpse of how the summer would go.  After being given the rundown of the museum and meeting all the staff, my days settled into something of a routine.  The activity I was most often engaged in, however, requires a bit of explanation.

Brenna Geraghty prepping artifacts that were 3D scanned and printed for painting.

Brenna Geraghty prepping artifacts that were 3D scanned and printed for painting.

At VCU, I took a class called Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology.  In this class, we were tasked with coming up with the text and images for a museum exhibit on archaeology in Virginia.  We also had to select objects that could be used in our exhibit from an inventory of artifacts that had been 3D scanned by VCU’s very own Virtual Curation Lab.  The chosen items would then be 3D printed in the Lab and painted to look like the originals in order to be put on display.  The class was in partnership with VMNH, where the exhibit would open in the fall.

In all, some 220 artifacts were selected to be printed.  At the museum, we received them in batches from Richmond, and the job of painting all those replicas fell to me.  I spent a good part of most days painting, and over the course of those nine weeks completed nearly a hundred of the faux artifacts.  Many of the 3D printed replicas will make up touchable interactives in the exhibit, while others will simply take the place of original artifacts we are unable to have access to for various reasons.

Not every day followed a routine, however.  There were numerous field trips to pick up collections from other groups or individuals, or for information or media pertinent to the exhibit.  I learned how to weld, pour silicone molds, and cast resin replicas.  Additionally, I was tasked with reworking an exhibit on Virginia’s lithic points through time, and learned a great deal about identifying different kinds of stone tools in the process.  During my last week, I created and wrote labels for a temporary exhibit on wildlife encountered and hunted by Virginia Indians.

As I helped push the exhibit my class had created, called “Exploring Virginia,” along its development track, it became clear to me just how much work goes into the making of a museum exhibit.  If the class itself had taught me to think critically about exhibits for the first time, the internship caused me to truly appreciate the effort involved.  Once the idea is conceived and mapped out (which, remember, took my class of roughly 16 students an entire semester), it must undergo exhaustive review and editing.  Then, any interactives are planned for in detail, and ultimately constructed, often by hand.  Marketing and public relations must be involved to entice people to visit the exhibit once it opens.  Finally, the exhibit goes on display, but has to inevitably be touched up as the wear and tear of visitors takes its toll.  The work seems endless, but also endlessly rewarding.

3D scanned and printed artifacts painted and ready for exhibit installation.

3D scanned and printed artifacts painted and ready for exhibit installation.

All of this gave me tremendous insight into the world of museum archaeology, and despite the obvious and not-so-obvious challenges that are intrinsic to such careers, I can honestly say I’m more excited than ever to pursue one myself.  Many thanks to Dr. Moore for her unfailing patience and encouragement, and to all the VMNH staff for making my internship one of the greatest experiences of my academic career.

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 (http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/a-quiet-day-at-the-lab/), 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 http://naturalsciences.org/research-collections/research-specialties/invertebrates/arthur-bogan.

In Search of Corn

My name is Dr. Elizabeth Moore and I am the Curator of Archaeology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Virginia has been seeing some unseasonably high temperatures so fieldwork is not a viable option these days for many of my volunteers. The 2012 Day of Archaeology saw a high of 104 degrees F. It’s a good day to be in the lab.

Partially complete Native American vessel that contained mixed botanicals.

Today I am examining an assemblage that recently came into the museum from an interesting site in southwest Virginia. The site had a very light scatter of recent materials on the surface and a single buried Native American ceramic vessel. Carbon residue dates the vessel to ca. A.D.1,200. Inside the vessel was an assortment of botanical materials including wild bean, wild grape, wild blueberry, and corn. Corn in Virginia first dates to ca. A.D.1,100 so the corn in this vessel is fairly early for this part of the world. I have been sorting through the bagged flotation samples to see if there is enough corn to get a direct date using AMS on the corn itself. So far the only fragments I have seen are very small but there are still a couple of bags to go so maybe we’ll get lucky.

Flotation samples

Some of the flotation samples I am searching for corn remains.


Some of the small seeds in this assemblage include grape and blueberry.

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 (thewalters.org) 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!