Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The History Center Up Close

Hola again!

This last week Molly and I were lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look at the History Center, given by Marcia Anderson. The History Center, located downtown St. Paul (it has a great view and is practically next to the capital) and houses nearly all of the Minnesota Historical Society's collections. It's a relatively new building that was created to unite not only the collections but the staff of MHS as well.

Sadly, this was also the day I forgot my camera. In light of my forgetfulness you will simply have to imagine everything. :)

Anyhow, Molly and I get a behind the scenes look at MHS's artifact storage led by Marcia, who appears to know everything there is about not only the collections and MHS, but everything else too. She walked us downstairs, through a secure area with a swipe card access, into a huge room lined with cabinets. Like to the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit, MHS uses these huge cabinets to house many of its objects. The cabinets make accessing the objects safe and easy (for both people and the artifacts), they don't off-gas nasty things that could over time damage the objects, and they are super space savers. Of course, unlike the Logan museum, MHS ordered 400 of them. Holy crap.

Here's a few statistics for ya'll to give you an idea of just how large not only MHS is, but the History Center as well. In its archaeology section alone it will house over two million objects. Over fifty percent of its collections are from its historic sites, like Fort Snelling. The other collections are from old excavations and gifts with good provenance. (Provenance is a reliable explanation of where the object came from, through generations, and tracing it back to its beginning. Basically, provenance is what gives the object its story and makes it useful. Without provenance a shoe is a shoe, with it a shoe can have belonged to a Holocaust victim and traveled across Europe.)

Molly and I then got to see some of the awesome things housed in the storage. One, a bandolier bag, had such a good provenance that Marcia was able to tell us exactly who made it and for whom... even the year. This is what makes inanimate objects interesting. Without their stories... why even bother. We saw beautiful moccasins, bank robbers' coats, a flight suit, a 1960's TV set, and loads of other fascinating things housed in the basement of the History Center. They have an entire huge room set aside for furniture! Because it is MHS's job to record and preserve Minnesota's history, every aspect of it is being collected. Even things that currently seem silly. A certain style of lawn chair, suitcases, and even (yes) TVs.

And, because MHS realized that their mission statement projects a (literally) infinite level of collection (as long as Minnesota has a history, MHS will be collecting to preserve it) there is a whole wing of the History Center which is currently empty, waiting to be filled with objects in the future. With over two football fields of empty space... that is planning ahead!

The building itself was beautiful too - it has apparently been nicknamed by MHS's employees "the palace" because it's so huge and elegant looking. Lots of wealthy businesses and individuals contributed to its making and it shows.

All in all, it was really awesome. :)

I'll definitely be going back to check out the exhibit currently on display, Minnesota's Greatest Generations, which looks at MN during the depression when I next have the chance. :D

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Tricky Project

Howdy again!
Molly and I often get projects that take a lot of time since the people who actually work at Fort Snelling have loads of other (more important) things to do. This latest project... was a bit of a nightmare.

A year ago a professor at the U of M (that's Minnesota, not Madison) borrowed a collection from MHS from a field school at Upper Rice Lake that was excavated many years ago. It was a 1 year lending agreement in which his students were supposed to learn how to catalog, float, and just generally deal with the artifacts. For reasons still a bit of a mystery, what came back was in pretty dire shape.

To begin with, the artifacts were organized by their type (lithics with lithics, ceramics with ceramics), not their provenience (where they were dug up), so Molly and I had to re-sort the entire 6 boxes of artifacts (many, many little plastic bags) in their catalog numbers which had originally been assigned in provenience order. This alone took a long long time, but it was only the beginning ... With the handwritten catalog that came back to MHS with the artifacts, we started checking off what was there... and what wasn't.

And here began some of the problems. Multiple people had contributed to the final handwritten catalog and for reasons unknown had not entered the numbers in numerical order. With each catalog number having multiple (but an unknown number of ) entries, not listed in order, we had to go through all the pages to make sure we didn't miss any of them. To put it simply: catalog number 948.22 could be next to catalog number 948.199 and we had no idea how many 948.22 there were total to even look for. With over fifty or sixty catalog sheets in total this became very irritating very quick.

But we persevered and made it through the whole catalog... only to discover that we had missing things. Not only were there missing artifacts that had been listed in the catalog, but we had artifacts (many of them) that had no entries in the catalog at all. Yeiks!

The problems continued with a whole nother box of flotation fractions with no catalog numbers. Flotation is a method used by archaeologists to separate really really tiny artifacts from dirt. Water is used to separate organic material which floats to the top and heavier material which sinks to the bottom while the water and dirt is strained out. Molly and I were able to figure out their numbers by looking back through the original archaeology provenience notes but their numbers not only didn't help fix the earlier problems, but added problems of their own. Certain levels that had been dug held floation samples but didn't have catalog numbers either!

Here's a tiny fraction of the mess. The papers strewn below are what we had to sift through (note: they weren't in any sort of order either...) to find the catalog numbers for these little bags...

Above is Molly, (whilst blinking) sorting the flotation bags into their new order (there was no previous order) once we went through the long, long process of figuring out their numbers.

And this is Rachel, a soon to be senior at her high school who has been volunteering with us for a summer project. (She's cool) After their sorting Rachel, Molly and I divided up the numbers and cataloged them, writing down the contents of the bags, their provenience, and the (very important) catalog numbers.

Our mess got even larger when unfloated soil samples turned up too (which are exactly what they sound like - paper bags full of dirt). We ended up creating a new catalog for both the unfloated and floated material since none of the flotation material had been included in the original catalog.

But we made it - and although it was a mess and a lot of work (not all of the problems have been resolved yet, either) it was extremely educational. I think one of the best ways to learn about the right way of doing things is by looking at other people's mistakes (and, of course, your own too). :)

Next time:
A trip to the History Center!

Friday, July 17, 2009


Howdy everyone!
Here's another update on what I've been doing at Fort Snelling: cataloging!

In addition to inventorying, Molly and I also learned how to catalog. Cataloging is like the older brother of inventorying, and in addition to writing down what is in a collection, requires us to assign the material with its acquisition number as well.

In this case there were several boxes from a dig in Fort Ripley back in 1995 that had been bouncing around for years. They made their way to Fort Snelling, but even then hadn't been properlly accessioned. So Pat did the paperwork and got a number for each site and Molly and I got down to business.

We sorted through the sites and got everything set out in order of provenience. Sites are dug on a grid coordinate system - getting things in order of provience basically means getting them in the order of their horizontal grid as well as their vertical grid. For example: 0N0W 1-10cm goes before 0N0W 20-30 cm.

Here's what it looked like just out of the boxes - note that within each bag there are loads of other bags. And within each of those loads of other bags, there are even more bags. Bags within bags within bags basically sums up archaeology. ;)

Once they were all laid out in their proper order we went through and inventoried what was in the various bags. For most of this process we were aided by various different documents that had been written up since its 1995 digging, but in some cases even previous inventories didn't solve some mysteries... In one case we had a previous inventory that listed 200 + artifacts and a single zip-lock bag containing ... 1 tiny ceramic sherd.

While inventorying, we assigned every artifact its own number. Every place has its own special way of doing numbers, but here's the way the Minnesota Historical Society does it. The number it was assigned started with the year (2009), then the specific number of the site (XX) seperated by a period, then it's provieneice (XX) again seperated by a period, and then finally it's individual object number (XX). Simply by looking up the number of an object you can figure out what site it came from, which provienece (it's horisontal and vertical location at the original site) and how many others came out of the ground with it. Pretty nifty.

Once the numbers were assigned (and written on bags) we got to what we nicknamed "arts and crafts time." We printed out a list of all the numbers we would need on archival paper in size four font from a file aptly named "tiny numbers." Then we cut up each little number and adhered it to it's proper object in a two step process. Here's a picture of how we worked the system. We keept each provience number on its own pink foam tray and then numbered them provience by provienice so we wouldn't get confused.

And, finally, we had hundreds and hundreds of little objects with their correct tiny numbers archivally glued to their bodies. ;)


Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Real" Archaeology!

In addition to the lab stuff, I recently got the chance to do some "real" archaeology too.

Fort Snelling was going to put in a few maintenance lines and, of course, archaeologists had to be brought in to make sure nothing important was going to be touched by the construction. To sum it up, a total of 15 or so shovel test pits were made and Molly and I got to help out on a couple of them. :)

Yay for digging holes!

A lowdown of shovel test digging:

Shovel tests are basically the equivalent of sampling the cake - you statistically place holes in such a way that the archaeologists get a pretty good overall idea of what the area is like. If there was gravel, glacial rocks, the type of soil, and (of course) artifacts, all turn up during shovel tests.

How they're done is pretty simple - you dig a hole. :) And then you sift through the dirt over a screen. The one we used, pictured below, was a 1/4 inch screen that caught large things. In areas where littler things would be expected to be found, a smaller screen would have been used. But in our case, with not a whole lot being expected to turn up, 1/4 inch was dandy.

And here's me looking dorky. ;)

And finally, all the dirt that comes out... must go back in. And it never quite fits in the same, either.

While Molly and I were out there we found three pieces of a probable colonial era pipe stem, which was pretty nifty. Sadly, nothing else archaeological was found and most of our time was spent putting all that dirt back in its happy home.

But "real" archaeology is pretty fun! Although I could see it getting pretty exhausting pretty quick, our little two hour digging spree was a blast!