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!

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