The Archaeological Backstretch

More times than not, the life of an archaeological collection will outlive the lives of the archaeologists who originally excavated it, but what happens in the “golden years” of the collection? Like people, a collection’s condition in later years depends the care it receives from its “family and friends.” With proper care and attention to detail throughout generations of archaeologists, a collection can continue to add pieces to the puzzle of our human history.

Archaeologists, including University of Idaho (UI) students, curate and research collections at the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology in Moscow (a small town in Northwest United States). The Lab is the main repository for Northern Idaho anthropological and archaeological collections and documents as well as an arena of applied research for the University. Students, faculty, staff, and volunteers care for, store, rehabilitate, document, and provide access to prehistoric and historic artifacts, their associated documentation, ethnographical works, and a host of references and research resources.

On this day in July, Lab folks continue to rehabilitate several collections in addition to a host of other daily and ongoing tasks. This post is a collaborative effort by many of us who had an archaeological sort of day.

Front cover of the field journal that turned Leah's day around.

Front cover of the field journal that turned Leah’s day around.

There is good to be found amidst the wreck and ruin:

Leah K. Evans-Janke
Collections Manager, Archaeological
Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology

On days like these I really wonder why I became an archaeologist.  I have been running from project to project trying to stay ahead the workload destined to land on my desk.  It seems everywhere I look there is a responsibility begging for my attention and each one is equally important.  Today I am actively working on two NAGPRA inventories, curating documents from a collection excavated over 40 years ago, planning a large scale exhibit and creating an activity booklet, trying to write a grant, finding ways to boost our Facebook audience, and a bunch of other stuff.  I am waiting for someone to say “you are an archaeologist/collections manager – why aren’t you working with artifacts?” but this is the reality of archaeology. I might be able to get back to artifacts in a month or two, but a lot of being an archaeologist in our modern world comes down to paperwork, administration/budget management, and fretting endlessly about making sure employees have jobs for this moment and into the future.  The reason I fell in love with this job is rarely part of what I do on a day-to-day basis.   For those of us who learned to trade in our hiking boots for cubicles, there are moments when we remember what drove us into this career and the spark reignites.  For example, I included a picture of one of the documents I am curating today because the front cover not only made me laugh, it reminded me that I am an essential link between “then”, “now”, and “someday”.  Time passes all too quickly and before we realize it, we become part of the “then” and our experiences, although small and largely insignificant, build into this thing collectively known as the human experience.  As I am reviewing field note books, I am seeing one of Idaho’s oldest and best known archaeological assemblages through youthful eyes, straining to see the past for the first time.  It can be some pretty powerful stuff – if you let it grab you.  It can be powerful enough to take you out of your cubicle and into that wonderful time known as “then”.

The view from Alyssa's desk.

The view from Alyssa’s desk.


Alyssa Schoeffler Griffith
Laboratory Technician

I am an undergraduate at the University of Idaho with a major in Anthropology.  I am lucky enough to work at the “Bowers Lab,” “Bowers,” as we know it.  On any given day you can find me processing archaeological collections for curation, scanning archaeological documents for archival purposes and entering data into a database.  On this particular day, I am surrounded by archival-grade, grey storage boxes stacked all over my desk.  They contain the last 54 bags of artifacts to be processed from a collection our lab has been intermittently working on curating for the last decade or so.  While not glamorous, my job today entails giving each of these bags an individual bag and box number and entering it into the collection’s Access database.  Doing this allows artifacts to be easily located once they have been shelved in the repository as well as making it easier to create box and bag labels that are generated using said database.

Courtney Berge
Laboratory Technician

As a volunteer in the lab throughout the summer, I have been privileged to watch as the rehabilitation of a 40 years old collection moves towards completion. A few weeks ago the lab started cataloguing the final year of this collection, which was excavated from the late 1960s-early 1970s. We have been working on dividing all the artifacts into their proper categories, assigning them new catalogue numbers, and entering their new numbers into the database. Today, I am work to ensure that every artifact has a permanent label. These coded labels contain their catalogue numbers, a site number that tells us in which site the artifact was found, as well as the number of artifacts in a bag, and what type of artifact it is. These labels are extremely important because they allow us to be able to identify the artifact easily and quickly. Making labels may not seem like the most fun thing to do in archaeology, but it is important. It is exciting to know that in a few weeks we will be finished working on this collection and that it will be ready to be used by someone in the future.

The view from Amy's desk.

The view from Amy’s desk.


Amy Johnson
Laboratory Technician
Curating collection from Florence, Idaho (10-IH-1923)

Chi-Namel powder varnish can recovered from historic Florence, ID.

Chi-Namel powder varnish can recovered from historic Florence, ID.

Florence, Idaho, was a historic mining town established at the onset of the Idaho Territory (1863), and the  site I am curating dates to the early 1890s. Florence was was one of the most productive placer gold mines in the state and mining continued when quartz substituted gold as the sought after resource after the gold had been depleted. Few people resided in the town year-round due to harsh winters and the town was completely abandoned in the 1950s. This site had a prominent Chinese population, as did most mining sites in the Northwest United States. The site was excavated in 1993 and the curation is taking place this year. The collection is associated with a single home, likely inhabited by family of European descent. Among the artifacts that I have rediscovered in this collection include a can of table varnish entitled Chi-Namel. The can has not been opened and still contains the powder varnish. Advertising that was found while researching the artifacts depicts a racist representation of Asian Americans cleaning and varnishing wooden surfaces while a white middle class woman sits and relaxes in a chair. This sort of bigoted advertising was unfortunately common in turn-of-the-century America. Though remote, the town did have a prominent Asian American population involved in operating the mines.

Amber Zielger
Laboratory Technician

The view from Amber's desk.

The view from Amber’s desk.

An undergrad in cultural anthropology, I work as a lab tech for the Lab.  For the last several weeks, we’ve been curating a pre-contact collection excavated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My role in the curation has largely been one of data entry, but since we’re on the very tail end of the project, I’ve moved on to curating the documents for the collection. Today, that means scanning thousands of pages of catalog sheets, saving them as PDF files, and double-checking to make sure each sheet scanned properly.

When I first started working at the lab, I expected archaeology to be much like what one sees in films and on TV. I thought anthropology labs were mostly built of stainless steel, and that we might wheel skeletons out of hidden closets for comparative reasons. Few of my expectations were fulfilled, but as it turns out, I prefer it that way. The work I perform is often tedious, but it makes me proud to know that we’re contributing to a wider understanding of humanity’s history (often one flake of débitage or catalog sheet at a time.)

Note: We’d like to extend a special thanks to all the folks who entrust archaeological collections to the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology and the constant support we receive from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho.