Friday, June 25, 2010

Neglected Artifacts Receiving Attention

At the risk of redundancy, we are dedicating a second consecutive post to emphasize the importance of the Atwater Kent Museum archaeological collections recently transferred to the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Archaeological excavations in urban settings, like Philadelphia, can generate huge volumes of artifacts. Although there are a few obvious exceptions, the true value is not the artifacts in and of themselves, but rather the spatial context in which they are found. The potential information to be gained from the analysis of such collections provides a unique opportunity to compare, contrast and draw inferences about a multitude of aspects of urban life through time. With an ideal set of circumstances, the “where” of an artifact tells the archaeologist the “when” of an artifact, and the “when” with the right historical documents can tell us the “who” and so on. This is how reconstructions of past life ways, at least historical ones, can be created.

Preserving the locational context, the provenience, is of utmost importance to maintaining the scientific value of any archaeological collection. This begins with accurate documentation recorded in the field and continues with a well organized catalog, site maps and profiles, photography, reports, etc.

In a dusty run down warehouse on the north side of Philly, the material culture of the city’s early colonial through 19th century life sits in deteriorating paper bags and cardboard boxes crushed under their own weight, water damaged, many of them encrusted with pigeon feces. The product of decades of archaeological excavations required for federally funded infrastructure projects such as I-95, the Vine St. Expressway, the Commuter Tunnel, and others, these artifact collections were never properly processed to professional standards. Curation standards, and Cultural Resource Management (CRM) as a whole, have come a long way in the past 40 or more years since some of these excavations were conducted. Unfortunately, these collections weren’t along for the ride.

In those days the decision was made to store these artifacts close to the city, and the Atwater Kent Museum was chosen as the repository. The initial argument had good intentions. Artifacts dug in and around the “old city” should be kept in the city, or so the thinking went. The city and its benefactors know how to best care for the artifacts that represent a real physical connection to the City of Brotherly Love’s rich and storied past.

Unfortunately, a number of catastrophes were to beset the collection in the following years. Multiple moves, exposure to the elements, a break-in and boxes emptied of their contents plagued the collection. The passing of key individuals responsible for some of the early digs, and disagreements over the ownership of field records of still other projects has hampered efforts to reunite the associated documentation with the artifacts and severely compromises the scientific value of the collections.
Over the past several weeks The State Museum of PA and the Atwater Kent Museum have teamed up to make the best of this unfortunate situation. Artifacts have been teased apart into their respective projects, re-bagged and placed in new, clean cardboard boxes and shipped to Harrisburg for processing. The next step in the process will be to track down any and all associated documentation that may still exist in a number of institutions – itself a monumental task. Joining the artifacts with their records will restore the true value to these pieces of Philadelphia’s past.
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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