fellow archaeologist

Curating a Small Archaeology Museum

I am the curator and archaeologist for the Lost City Museum, a small archaeology museum located in Overton, NV. The main focus of the museum is the Virgin River Branch of the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) who lived at the archaeological site complex formally known as Pueblo Grande de Nevada, but more commonly referred to as the Lost City. The Lost City Museum has a collection of artifacts dating not only to the Ancestral Puebloans, but to the group that occupied southern Nevada after it was abandoned by the Ancestral Puebloans, the Southern Paiutes.

As the curator of a small museum I have many different projects going at once, ranging from a rehousing project that is being funded through money to organizing special events at the museum. One of the projects I am currently working on is the analysis of the museum’s incised stone collection. The incised stones were collected from Clark County, NV, the southern-most county in Nevada. Incised stones are intriguing artifacts because archaeologists aren’t entirely sure of their prehistoric use. Some suggest that it is a form of portable rock art while others suggest they could have been used by shaman during rituals.

Sometimes it feels like I don’t choose the projects I work on, they choose me. As I was rehousing the archaeology collection of the Lost City Museum I kept coming across more and more incised stones. I knew the museum had a couple dozen incised stones that were recently on display at the museum. It wasn’t until I went through all of the boxes in the collections storage areas that I realized the museum had over one hundred incised stones (this perfectly illustrates why I started the rehousing project; I never knew for sure what the museum had and what wasn’t stored in the correct place). Given the number of incised stones at the museum I felt that it was extremely important that I properly catalog and analyze the stones so that the information could be used by researchers in the future.

My analysis of each incised stones consists of recording the dimensions of each stone and noting whether the stone is hand size or smaller (the majority of incised stones can be comfortably carried in a hand). Next I categorize the design present on the stones. A past researcher was helpful enough to come up with eight categories of incised stone designs: curvilinear, dendritic, circle, band, bisect, cross-hatch, anthropomorph, and no discernible design. An example of a curvilinear design can in seen in the included photograph. Next I determine the stone’s material type. A majority of the stones analyzed so far have been sandstone, a readily available stone in southern Nevada. Once I gather all of the data I will be able see the patterns present within the collection. I can then compare this information to the information already obtained from the analysis of other incised stone collection at Nevada State Museums and see if the Lost City Museum collection differs greatly from those collections.

This is an ongoing project because as much as I would like to focus all of my time on the analysis of the incised stones, new projects or issues pop up on a daily or weekly basis. As the curator of a small museum I wear many hats, and I often have to put projects on hold while I research something for a fellow archaeologist or give a tour to a group of Girl Scouts. One great thing about being an archaeologist for a museum is that it is unlikely I will run out of research topics any time soon.

A Day in the Life of a Curator & PhD Student From Down Under

A6008. Roman pendant earrings, 1st-2nd Century AD. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Image © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

A6008 – Roman pendant earrings. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Image © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

So I thought I’d share some insights into what it’s like working in archaeology Down Under (i.e. in Australia!) – specifically, in my role as an Assistant Curator of Design & Society at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and as a PhD candidate in Egyptology at Macquarie University.

As a museum curator, I don’t really have a ‘typical’ day. In my position, I work quite broadly across the collection, from my specialist area in archaeology and antiquities (especially Egyptian, of which the Powerhouse Museum has a small but select collection) all the way through to Muslim fashion, Central Asian and African textiles, historical and contemporary furniture, numismatics, ceramics and so on.

I always start the day by answering emails (actually, as I’m always connected, you can often find me answering emails throughout the night as well!) before I turn my attention to the different projects I am working on (rarely, if ever, do I work on a single project at a time – but that’s what I love most about being a curator – the rich variety in what we do!).

Of interest to the ‘Day of Archaeology’ is an upcoming jewellery exhibition I am working on with my colleague, Eva Czernis-Ryl, which is both a chronological and thematic look at the history of jewellery collecting in Australia. I am involved with developing the antiquities section with fellow archaeologist, Dr Paul Donnelly, and have spent the last couple of days researching the nature of ancient jewellery in the many different public and private collections, which span almost all states and territories in Australia. Right now I’m reading the exhibition catalogue to ‘Beauty and Betrayal – Ancient and Neo-Classical Jewellery’ held at the Nicholson Museum, Sydney in 2010 and am liaising with Macquarie University’s Museum of Ancient Cultures with regards to viewing some of their objects which we’d eventually like to have on loan.

I’ve also been down in our basement re-looking at some of our ancient jewellery, including our Egyptian amulets, faience beaded necklaces and beautiful Roman pendant earrings. At this early stage, we’re gathering our corpus of ancient jewellery objects from which we can potentially choose from to narrate our story (note – the exhibition is not scheduled to open until October 2013). We’re most interested in details like provenance (where was the piece excavated and how did it come into the collection?), interesting stories (around ownership and use) and of course, more practical matters like condition (is it suitable for display?) and costs (since loan objects involve fees, including insurance).

When I’m not ‘curating’, I’m studying for my PhD and doing other things ‘Egyptian’! My thesis topic is on the typological dating of false doors and funerary stelae of the First Intermediate Period (specifically, the reigns of Pepy II to Mentuhotep II – roughly 2400 – 2100 BC).

In brief, the First Intermediate Period was the first time in Egyptian dynastic history where there was a collapse in central kingship and a shift in administration from the Memphite capital to the provinces. My reason for studying false doors and stelae (slabs of inscribed stone usually placed in the west wall of the tomb) is that they are one of the best examples of Egyptian material culture which can be traced continuously at this time, which means they potentially offer an important benchmark for dating other objects and events of the period.

At this very moment, for example, I am transliterating and translating the stela of nfr-TbAw from a private French collection, one of almost 600 false doors and stelae I am working through. Apart from transliterating and translating them, I am also recording information about the owner and his/her titles, the collection location, acquisition/excavation details, bibliographic references, suggested date, commentary, parallels etc. Simultaneous to this, I am starting to test certain dating criteria on subsets of my corpus – like the writing of the Htp dj nswt offering formula as it applies to all those tomb owners holding particular groupings of titles.

To top things off, I’m in the preparation stages of a fairly long visit to Egypt! In September I will be heading to Tell el-Amarna to do some cataloguing work and will be returning again in November-December to work at the South Tombs cemetery. InshAllah or “God Willing”, as they say, I am also scheduled to lead a couple of tour groups through Egypt and the Western Desert. Never a dull moment, I can truly say I’ve found my calling in archaeology!