Zen and the Art of Curation


Greetings from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign! Recently, I have been spending my days in the lab helping to update and transcribe site inventories into a digital database.  The excavations that produced these artifacts were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the only inventories that exist are on hard copy.  Additionally, some of the artifacts are still in their original paper collection bags.  I am currently relabeling and rebagging artifacts, mostly lithics, and entering catalogue and provenience information into a digital database.  (Provenience refers to the exact location on the site at which the artifact was found; as opposed to the “Antiques Roadshow” term provenance, which refers to the entire history of the object from its discovery to the present).  It is important to curate these items using materials and technology that will help to preserve both the artifacts and their associated provenience information.


While this task might not entail bullwhip-cracking excitement and Spielberg-worthy finds, I think it is every bit as valuable as the discovery of a new site, the excavation of a unique artifact, or the ground-breaking research taking place daily.  This is due in part to my recent completion of a Master’s thesis in which I analyzed artifacts from the Chesapeake Bay region, despite living about 800 miles away in the Midwest.  I was able to conduct a majority of my research and some data collection using the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture database (, created by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and other Chesapeake archaeologists and collaborators.  This information was available to me thanks to the careful curation and meticulous inventorying of thousands of artifacts by Tidewater archaeologists in Maryland and Virginia.


As I work on curating the artifacts and information from excavations conducted years ago in Illinois, my recent research experience is always in the back of my mind.  I hope that our careful curation of the artifacts from decades-old excavations will assist researchers investigating these sites to more easily access this information.  The field of archaeology continues to advance both technologically and theoretically, and it is important to preserve artifacts and information as completely as possible to assist future researchers in the reinvestigation and reanalysis of previously-excavated sites.  Who knows what exciting reinterpretations might someday be based on these nondescript bags of broken rocks?

These chert samples were collected from a site investigated in the 1960s and 1970s.


Day of Archaeology Comes to the District of Columbia!

Day of Archaeology

Howard University at the Day of Archaeology

On July 30th, 2011, Archaeology in the Community, Inc brought together a diverse set of archaeological organizations to celebrate archaeology in the Chesapeake. This festival is particularly exciting in DC, where Ruth Trocolli (DC SHPO) has been working tirelessly to promote the importance of archaeology in conjunction with DC heritage.  Organizations began to set up in Garfield Park, a few blocks from the US Capital, at 9am.

JPPM Activities

In attendance was Maureen Malloy from the Society for American Archaeology, Louis Berger Group, Inc., Dr. Ruth Trocolli (City Archaeologist) and Charde Reid (Assistant City Archaeologist) with the Washington D.C Historic Preservation Office, Carol Ebright representing Maryland’s Native American Liaison Committee (CFMA), Tiffany Raszick from the Cultural Resources Division of the Maryland State Highway Administration (MDSHA),  and Kelly Cooper and Patricia Samford from Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Also in attendance were Howard University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology represented by Dr. Flordeliz Bugarin and students Ashelee Gerald (Senior), Takisha Black (Senior), and Eva-Maria Tobin (Junior).  Nurse Kristina Foster manned the First Aid station and Dominique did some of the most amazing face painting I’ve ever seen!

Tiffany (MDSHA) and Carol (CFMA) educating about prehistory in Maryland.

Although the kids loved the face painting and balloons, they were really riveted by the varied activities.  Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM), the State Museum of Archaeology, taught kids how to make pinch pots that they could take home with them, and let them try out all kinds of prehistoric tools. At the Howard University booth you could make marbles and bead necklaces. The DC Preservation Office had artifacts from DC archaeology sites to touch and identify, and the Society for American Archaeology helped kids dig through sand to find and analyze “artifacts” like a real archaeologist!

Making Pinch Pots

Dr. Ruth Trocolli (DC SHPO) showing off DC artifacts.

Over 150 DC and Maryland residents came to learn more about archaeology yesterday, even though temperatures were over 90 degrees.  Music from a group of live musicians, lead by Dava Sykes (bass) with Mike Pryor (piano) and Trae Couter (drums), and the sounds DJ Earth 1ne, who kept spirits high (thanks also to sound engineer Tony Smith, who also volunteered his time and equipment to the cause). The archaeologists representing all of the organizations really appreciated the excitement and fun that this group of artists brought to our celebration of archaeology.

Musicians at Day of Archaeology festival

Amazingly enough, everyone involved volunteered their time; the only pay was pizza! Archaeology in the Community, Inc (AITC) could not have reached so many residents without the hard work and enthusiasm of so many wonderful volunteers, many of whom were not archaeologists. And thank goodness for our interns Saamerikes Hetep Anderson, and Tariq Haqq from The Mission Continues. They passed out flyers all over Washington DC  in 100 degree heat all week long.

Archaeology in the Community organizing volunteers.

We can’t wait to do it again next year!

A beautiful Day for Arcaheology!

Mount Vernon Interns

At Mount Vernon, we have reached our final day (sad face) of an 8 week internship program devoted to different aspects of the Archaeological Collections Online initiative.  Our interns came from prestigious universities around the country to take on individual research projects pertaining to the material and social worlds of planter elites like George Washington and the enslaved community upon whose labor these genteel lifestyles were based.

Here’s what our interns have to say about their work!

Katie Barca: Today I am in the process of entering decorated or marked pipes from the South Grove Midden as Objects in the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). In the future, images of these pipes will be posted on the  Mount Vernon’s Midden website.

Joe Downer: Today I am transcribing store accounts from an 18th century Virginia merchant, Alexander Henderson.  By transcribing Henderson’s ledgers, researchers are better able to understand what colonists were purchasing in Northern Virginia before the Revolution, and have a greater insight into pre-revolutionary material culture.

James Bland: I’m also transcribing the Henderson store accounts, but for Alexandria instead of Colchester.  Henderson worked for John Glassford and Company, who together were the Scottish Tobacco Kings of the Chesapeake region.  Their records show an emerging class of non-elite consumers that didn’t exist in the early colonial period.

Page from Henderson's store account, 1763.

Leah Thomas: I am currently writing the report for my summer project, which involves research on 18th century dining objects as represented in museum collections.  I am also looking into the possibility of a connection between dining vessel and utensil form variety and the Rococo art movement in the American colonies.

Sophia Farrulla: This day of archaeology has been packed with thoughts of items related to tea, coffee, and drinking chocolate.  Twinnings tea in hand, I’m finishing a final write up on exotic beverages amongst the 18th century elite.

Tea cup decorated with Aesop's fables found in the midden.

Julia Kennedy: Squirrels and Bamboo and Grapes, oh my! I’m working on drawing a small rodent decoration that appears on Washington’s (George’s or perhaps his elder half-brother Lawrence’s) Chinese export porcelain plates. Each plate was hand-painted, therefore making each curious critter unique.

Squirrel, tree shrew, or other googly-eyed rodent on Washington's Chinese export porcelain.

Jennie Williams: I’m researching George Washington’s purchases from England between 1754 and 1772.  Eventually, these data, gathered from Washington’s orders and invoices, will be available to the public through an online, searchable database.

Anna Dempsey: Today, I am working on my paper for the research I’ve done on lead shot in the archaeological and historical record. I’m also writing an entry about picking 1/16” material, including lead shot, for our blog.

Interns ponder how their projects will appear on the Mount Vernon midden website!