Friday, March 19, 2010

Questions, Questions, Questions

This week’s guest blog is courtesy of Deron Sharp, currently interning with the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology. A senior at Elizabethtown College, Deron is a dual history and anthropology/sociology major and is considering pursuing a career in the field of archaeology upon graduation.

During the first half of my semester long internship in the Archaeology Lab of the Pennsylvania State Museum, I have been blessed with a phenomenal group of mentors to learn from. This group of people, who’s careers are dedicated to the preservation of history and the study and practice of archaeology, have emphasized the importance of developing questions while researching and maintaining the Museum’s vast collection of over four million artifacts.

One of the major questions that continues to emerge numerous times throughout my experience here pertains to education. I learn more, not only about archaeology and museum collections, but about culture and history in my few months here, than I did in my early years as a middle school and high school student. Why is this? Also, what can be done to place these opportunities in the hands of younger students?

I do not have any answers to these questions. However, a run-threw of what an archaeology lab assistant or technician does may help others come to an answer. The first weeks of my internship here have been extremely educational and exciting! The project I embarked on was a Cultural Resource Management collection prepared by the Louis Berger Group, Inc. for the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons. This collection was donated to the Museum by the U.S Department of Justice.

As a lab assistant, the project was to audit, accession, and shelve the collection. The artifacts were excavated from a phase one archaeological survey of a proposed U.S penitentiary site in Canaan Township, Wayne County. One of my favorite things about auditing collections is the vast amount of background research that is done on the area being excavated. The site report includes the landscape of the site, which in this case is labeled as open fields with streams to the south and east. Also included in the site report is the history of the land. The particular site had a railroad grade and farm complex, along with residential housing. None of these were present at the time of excavations, with only small remains of the railroad grade.

The audit can be a time consuming process, but also the most interesting and fun! Because every artifact needs to be accounted for, this process can take weeks. However, the artifacts themselves open windows to different cultures and time periods. It is fascinating to handle flakes thousands of years old, observe the many different types of historical nails, compare the different sizes of glass and determine their uses, or admire the pottery and wares of a time period! The lab assistants here have a remarkable eye for detail and because all of these items have to be counted and stored, an unbelievable level of organization. The accession process was as simple as handing the audited inventory to the Registrar’s Office. Also, shelving was not much different then the final scene of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc, with the exception of technologically advanced condensed storing units, controlled humidity and temperature, and a vast storage database.

Select artifacts from the William Munson House (36Wy136)

Each artifact raised numerous questions in my head, and I would love to thank the team for putting up with, and helping to answering them. Through this process, I was able to dig deep into an era of history, this so happened to be the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, and acquire an understanding for the way of life in which these people lived. I learned so much in such a short amount of time, that I began to wonder why I am only now being exposed to this type of learning. Answering the questions I mentioned earlier will take some time, if they can be answered. However, as a student in both the educational and museum worlds, I can see a huge benefit for students who spend time with the opportunities of learning a museum provides. I would suggest that some serious thought be given to help merge these two worlds in order to better educate tomorrow’s future.
*Thank you to the six individuals who make this blog possible; who alone manage, collect, and maintain the over four million and counting artifacts.

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


  1. Important and appropriate questions, Deron. It is good to hear the young thinking of the future as they work with the past. I am an amateur/avocational archaeologist. I discovered SPA Chap 21 about 5 years ago and have been an active member since. Though I am 60, I have found it exciting to enter the field of questions as you have by being exposed to the actual saturation environment rather than the sterile academic environment. The first has goaded/pushed/instigated/ensured my development in the second by reading what I can find to understand the possibilites of what I have exposed in my explorations. Our chapter has young members, a field school for local high school students, and home schooler participants in our sites and research. We look for ways to give youngsters the opportunity to have some sort of hands on experience when they visit our site or museum at Joanna Furnace during festivals. I have found it exciting to work with youngsters to teach them basics and get them to think in terms of questions to guide their actions and thought, to think about what life may have been like for the people who lived when. Keep you questions going, maybe you and your peers can help create that change you foresee as an important part of the needed growth in the field in which you like to play. Life's work must be play to render a good life.

  2. So many people seem bored with life,
    yet, holy cow, a bit of a visit to PA Archaeology
    and amazing...