Katie is a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, in the School of Anthropology, University of Arizona. She focuses on the religion of Scythians, Saka, and Xiongnu of Iron Age (ca. 1,000-100 BCE) Central Eurasia. She is a graduate curatorial assistant in the Collections Department at the Arizona State Museum. She is also the Editorial Assistant for Advances in Archaeological Practice, a new journal by the Society for American Archaeology.

Collecting Dissertation Data, Museum Style!

As we all know, many archaeologists spend their summers in the middle of nowhere, digging square holes in archaeological sites with (usually) amazing scenery. I haven’t had that pleasure in a while. You see, my dissertation research focuses on people who lived in north central Eurasia in the first millennium BC, commonly known as the Iron Age. These people are known as Scythians, Saka, Xiongnu, depending on which historic source you are referencing, such as Herodotus or Sima Qian. I am employing a variety of methods to try and identify their religious beliefs, and the ways that these beliefs may have impacted the way they lived their everyday lives. Most of my dissertation data is being collected and gleaned from: (1) museum exhibits, such as the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and State Historical Museum in Moscow, Russia; (2) published museum catalogs which always include great pictures; (3) site reports that list what was discovered; (4) and this summer, a trip to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology!

This museum is famous for a variety of reasons. For example, they participated in and therefore have a large collection from the grave of Queen Puabi at Ur. Aside from that famous site, they also have this neat little statue of a ram, looking through a tree(?).

Ram Caught in Thicket, 2550-2450 BC, Ur, Iraq

Ram Caught in Thicket, 2550-2450 BC, Ur, Iraq

They have been excavating in Egypt for a very long time, and have a large exhibit and extensive research collection, including a sphinx!

Shinx from the sacred enclosure of the temple of the god Ptah, 1293-1185 BC, Memphis, Egypt

Shinx from the sacred enclosure of the temple of the god Ptah, 1293-1185 BC, Memphis, Egypt

But, they also have a large collection, spread across many sections, of artifacts that are either Scythian, Saka, or Xiongnu, or very closely affiliated. I have spent my summer analyzing these materials.

In the Mediterranean section, I got to analyze gold objects for the first time with the so-called Maikop treasure from the north Caucasus region. Here is a picture of my favorite set!!! The gold plaques, depicting geometric designs and animals (the griffin animal is probably a composite of a feline and raptor) typically associated with Scythians, especially in this pairing with a domesticated ungulate, or non-predator, were probably affixed to a tunic with silver threads woven into the linen. It would have been a princely article of clothing!

Griffin plaque from the Maikop treasure, 499-400 BC, Kuban region, Caucasus

Griffin, deer with birds, and geometric plaque from the Maikop treasure, 499-400 BC, Kuban region, Caucasus

In the Near Eastern section, I was reminded of the whimsical side of these horse riding people, with this little bangle, in the form of a horse! It hang from something- possibly a saddle ornament of some kind.

Horse figurine ornament, 5th century BC, Russia

Horse figurine ornament, 5th century BC(?), Russia

In the Asian section, I had the pleasure of analyzing a large collection of artifacts from the Ordos region, probably in the vicinity of Inner Mongolia. Here, we have a variety of bronze pieces, some exhibiting signs of inlay and enamelling which will warrant closer study in the near future. More importantly, however, we have a plaque depicting cute lion cubs at play, and another large plaque, possibly a belt buckle, showing a common theme of a carnivore juxtaposed with prey.

Plaque with two feline cubs playing, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

Plaque with two feline cubs playing, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

Bronze belt buckle with a striped feline carrying a ram, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

Bronze belt buckle with a striped feline carrying a ram, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

In all, I have analyzed 811 artifacts this summer! I’m now ready to integrate these data into the database I discussed in last year’s Day of Archaeology post, for spatial analysis of particular attributes in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These attributes (e.g., decorations, context of the decorations, function of the decoration, material it is made of, technology used to make it), will illuminate structured usage of these variables in specific locations throughout their landscape. I’ll be running test models in the next month or so. As you can see, there is no need, yet, to excavate more sites until we have a good handle on everything that is currently available to study. Once I have assembled known artifacts associated with these people into a single database for analysis, we’ll know more about how they utilized landscape, which will help me identify good places to look for habitation areas and places where they were mining and processing the metals used to make the artifacts I showed you in this post. Then comes the fun part, survey and excavation!

An Archaeological Repository Minion and Ph.D. Student

I generally spend about half my time doing Ph.D. student things, and the other half working in the Repository of archaeological collections at the Arizona State Museum (ASM). Throughout this summer, and this day is no different, my day starts with boxes from Grasshopper Pueblo Field School (excavated 1963-1992), an old collection (also called a “legacy” collection) that the Repository is currently transferring from decaying and generally ill-labeled paper boxes and bags to new archivable plastic boxes and bags.


We also interpret and transfer information from the original field bags to new, acid-free “worksheet” tags. We call this process “rehousing” a collection. We then take these bags and organize them by year (each year has its own accession/project number), material class (e.g., ceramics, chipped stone, ground stone, pollen samples, etc.), and pueblo room number. Once we organize the bags into meaningful categories, the boxes with bags are inventoried into an access database, which will eventually be uploaded to the master inventory of all artifacts, bags and boxes housed in the museum’s Repository. My general role in this project is to create the database of bulk research collections, which occupied me for the morning.


For each bag, I record all relevant information and look for inconsistencies in the way we may have interpreted bad handwriting during the rehousing process, recorded information that is just unclear, which in many cases can be resolved by reading the excavator’s field notes. I am also trying to standardize information recorded on each bag which is generally different for each year and amongst the different areas of the pueblo. The database currently holds ~17,500 records of bags and we’re just finishing rehousing boxes from the 1972 excavations! We are hoping to finish rehousing this project in the next year, making the collection available to researchers who want to work with materials from this fascinating and important archaeological site.

The next order of the day was a special treat, a brown bag lunch discussion! One of our fellow Repository minions, Melanie, went to the Smithsonian in early June to learn more about the barcode system used to track catalog collections within the National Museum of the American Indian. Today, she presented the intricacies of this new system. We may be adding barcodes to our arsenal of record-keeping strategies!

MacFarland-Slide 3

After lunch and a stimulating discussion, we got back to work on the next order of business for the day, moving whole vessels from one the rooms containing the Grasshopper Pueblo catalog collection to the Pottery Vault in the ASM North building. Over the next few weeks we will be moving three types of vessels, medium sized, large, and very large. Today our focus was very large pots that need to be moved on carts, 4-5 at a time.

 The Process:

1) We move the carts from the basement of the ASM South building, to the connected Anthropology building, up the elevator, and back to the main floor of the ASM South building.


2) These vessels are currently stored in a room on the top floor of the Arizona State Museum South building. Our job is to carry them down the stairs to the waiting carts, ready to carry them to the ASM North building.


3) You can see the doors on the left of the middle picture in Step 2, but we can’t take the pots that way, since there is no ramp. We have to go back through the ASM South Building and down the elevator to ground level.


4) Then, we take the pots outside, through the Women’s Plaza of Honor (we call it the plaza of bumpiness), to the ASM North building.

MacFarland-Slide7 5) Once inside the ASM North building, our destination is the climate controlled Pottery Vault, home of the largest collection of American Southwest pottery in the world, with 20,000+ whole vessels.


6) Once inside the vault, we arrange the shelves to accommodate the height of the vessels.


7) Luckily, we don’t have to move vessels as large as those! Yikes!


8) Place the vessel in its new home


9) Record the location.


10) Start the process again!


Once we completed three trips, we called it a day on moving vessels. Then, I went back next door to my desk in the Lab of Traditional Technology to work on data collection for my dissertation, which has nothing to do with the archaeology of the American Southwest. Currently, I’m populating a database that I created to document all artifacts associated with inhabitants of central Eurasia in the Iron Age (ca., 1,000 – 100 BCE), commonly glossed as Scythians, Saka, and Xiongnu. Right now, I am recording artifacts documented in published museum catalogs, increasing my dataset before I submit applications for grants to complete data collection for my dissertation. If all goes well, maybe next year for the Day of Archaeology I’ll be at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, Russia documenting artifacts from sites within the Altai, in the final stage of my dissertation data collection. Fingers crossed!