collections management systems

Day of Archaeology at Sustainable Archaeology: Western

This year’s Day of Archaeology found find staff at Sustainable Archaeology: Western videoconferencing with our partners at Sustainable Archaeology: McMaster to discuss partnership and policy for an upcoming project.  It was my first meeting with my McMaster colleagues, and it was a pleasure to put names to faces, even though I joined them remotely.

Sustainable Archaeology was founded in part as a response to the growing curation issue for archaeological materials.  In Ontario, licenced archaeologists who hold excavation permits retain personal responsibility for excavated materials in perpetuity.  That responsibility can be transferred, however, to approved facilities.  Sustainable Archeology was envisioned as a centralized repository that could relieve the burden of long-term care from CRM companies and safeguard the recovered material record of Ontario’s heritage for future generations.

But care and collections management was only the first part of the vision.  Each of the SA facilities offer different opportunities for research into that material heritage:  SA: Western focuses on digital archaeology and non-invasive analysis, and SA: McMaster on materials analysis.  SA: Western also continues to work towards our goal of creating an accessible web-based Informational Platform where anyone can access information about the heritage in our care.

On a day to day level, what all this entails can vary greatly.   It can mean development meetings for the informational platform, assisting researchers who are here to use our imaging equipment, collections monitoring, supervising student employees who are working on collections processing, performing basic maintenance on our equipment, or a hundred other tasks that look more like office management than archaeology.

Today, we wanted to make sure that our procedures and workflows for accessions are standardized between the two facilities.  It is important to us that our collections are processed in the same way in order to keep our database consistent and facilitate the flow of information and collections between our facilities.

Our work may be far removed from the public image of what archaeologists do – whether that image is of Indiana Jones or digging square holes in the dirt – but it is important to archaeology and cultural heritage nonetheless.  We are here to provide resources for answering archeological research questions, and to make sure that collections in our care are neither neglected, nor forgotten, once they are out of the ground and the report is handed in.

-Dr. Heather Hatch, SA:Western Coordinator


Archaeology at Letchworth Museum: telling stories about the past

A bronze escutcheon from an Iron Age wine-mixing vessel

A bronze escutcheon from an Iron Age wine-mixing vessel found in Baldock © North Hertfordshire District Council

We archaeologists are constantly reassuring the public that it’s not all about treasure: we are as interested in rubbish (if not more so) than in Tut‘ankhamun’s gaudy baubles. Yet we all go slightly dewy-eyed when something really beautiful turns up, even if we are sometimes ashamed to admit it. A gold stater of Cunobelin found on site will have everyone rushing across to see it: yet another sherd of Harrold shelly ware will not.

This isn’t hypocrisy. As I explained in my previous post, most archaeological finds really aren’t suitable for public display. All too often, they consist of fragments – slivers of animal bone, potsherds, rusty lumps of iron – that are, frankly, uninspiring (unless you know what you’re looking at, of course!). When we find something that is instantly recognisable for what it is – a well preserved brooch, a sculpted stone, a complete pot – it really is more exciting. And the good thing, from the point of view of a museum archaeologist, is that it is easier to tell stories about it to non-archaeologists.

For this reason, museums tend to display their best looking artefacts. With a collection that is varied, there is almost an embarrassment of riches: we have to pick and choose what goes on display. We also have to pick and choose which items will be priorities in our disaster management plans. Which objects do we save first? The most valuable? The most fragile? The most iconic? It is always a difficult decision and one for which there are no right answers. I have my own personal favourites that are on display, but they are not necessarily the artefacts that would need to be saved first.

Tenth-century sword chape from Ashwell

Tenth-century sword chape from Ashwell © North Hertfordshire District Council

Because Letchworth Museum tells the story of North Hertfordshire from the arrival of the first humans (actually most likely members of the species Homo heidelbergensis) over 400,000 years ago through to the turn of the twentieth century, there is an enormous range of objects on display. We have Lower Palaeolithic hand axes from Hitchin, Mesolithic tranchet axes from Weston park, a Neolithic polished axe from Pirton, a Bronze Age Ballintober type sword from Gosmore… By the time we reach the Iron Age, there are so many objects that could potentially be displayed that we are forced to choose the best: we have two cauldrons (one from Letchworth Garden City and one from Baldock), for instance. Pride of place goes to the early Welwyn-type burial from Baldock, which was packed with treasures. Moving into the Roman period, there is a beautiful marble portrait head, probably from Radwell, that is among the finest ever found in Britain.

Although the closure of the museum in September will mean that these items will not be available for public viewing again until the new museum opens in 2014, we are working on a digitisation scheme that we hope will make selected parts of the collections available through the web. We are currently looking at collections management systems and web-based solutions for making our huge collections accessible to a wider public. There are interesting (and busy!) times ahead.