Friday, April 16, 2010

Orphaned Artifacts

What happens when staff members plant the gardens at historic sites managed by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission? It is likely that soil will produce an artifact.

What is an artifact? An artifact is the physical evidence of past human behavior. To an archaeologist that evidence could be in the form of a stain in the soil, left behind from a hearth for cooking or from a stockade feature. Often that evidence is in the form of an object; a prehistoric projectile point, pottery, historic bottles, rusty nails, or stone tools are all links to past human behavior.

before treatment

after treatment
This bit benefited from conservation treatment, insuring preservation for future generations. Now on display at Pennsbury Manor.
Archaeological artifacts are not often “exhibit worthy”, but each fragment helps us to understand the daily activities and use of the buildings and grounds of the site. Distribution of fragments and the soil layers in which they are found provide archaeologists with information to recreate and understand past human behavior at a site.

Since these fragments frequently don’t look “pretty”, as they are often broken and incomplete, they are put in back rooms on a shelf for “another day”. If they are lucky, someone places them in a bag or box with a note “mouth of groundhog hole in formal garden behind mansion next to sycamore tree”.

Another day has come for some of these artifacts and they are receiving the attention they deserve. No longer are they waiting for someone to assign a catalog number to them so that their provenience, or location of discovery, will not be lost. At last they are being curated at The State Museum, Section of Archaeology; the proper repository for these orphans. Now they are accessible for a loan back to the historic site for display, or for other exhibits, as well as archaeology venues like the Pennsylvania State Farm Show.

Orphaned artifacts are reunited with the collections at The State Museum recovered from formal excavations conducted on PHMC properties under the guidance of trained archaeologists. These centralized collections are a valuable resource for researchers studying a wide range of topics, for example the form and function of redware pottery or seeking evidence of skilled Moravian potters from Bethlehem in our 18th century historic sites. Perhaps it is for the Site Administrator that wants to know what the archaeological record could tell them about the foods consumed by the residents or the style of wine glass they drank from.
Exhibit at Joseph Priestly House of artifacts representing activities in the Priestly laboratory.

The daily operations of our historic properties are often a challenging task. The resources are limited, but these sites continue to function offering a valuable resource to their surrounding communities both in educational opportunities and heritage. Now more than ever, stewardship of the archaeological resources as we move forward in placing properties under the care of volunteers and associate groups is increasingly important.

Understanding the significance of the archaeological evidence left by those before us is crucial to the preservation of these properties. Maintenance tasks as simple as digging a hole to plant a tree are important to record, as are any artifacts unearthed with this activity. If the tree dies, evidence of the hole will still be evident in the soil, but the burden of figuring out when this occurred rests on the archaeological record. If documentation of this activity on site maps and document files is completed and the artifacts produced from this activity are properly curated, we can more readily identify areas for potential future excavations.

Working diligently to educate the public about the importance of our heritage through public venues continues to be one of our major goals. Many of you enjoy the dugout canoe at Kipona Fest or at the Farm Show; some have viewed our exhibits and programs at the State Capitol or visited our gallery on the second floor of The State Museum. Preserving our cultural heritage is foremost in our mission and insuring that future generations are enriched through a better understanding of the past as represented not only in the written history but also in a well cared for archaeological record.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

No comments:

Post a Comment