Friday, June 18, 2010

This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology: The Atwater-Kent Project

For the past 2 weeks, a team of volunteers and employees from the State Museum, Section of Archaeology and the Atwater Kent have been busy preparing to transport collections from Philadelphia to Harrisburg for curation. The State Museum is currently in the process of transferring these archaeological collections from the Atwater Kent Museum, now called the Philadelphia History Museum, to Harrisburg. The poor condition of the collection required numerous hours of work to re-bag, re-box, and re-organize the vast amount of artifacts and will require many more hours to process the collection once it all arrives at the State Museum.

The Atwater Kent was a repository from the early 1970’s till the mid-nineties for archaeological collections excavated from some of the earliest historic sites in Pennsylvania. These collections represent the physical evidence of households from the developing stages of the city of Philadelphia. Prior to the building of new highways and hotels in Philadelphia salvage archaeology was conducted to rescue this heritage and try to interpret the refuse of hundreds of years in an urban setting. The artifacts were housed most recently in a warehouse which the city has now identified for an alternative use and they no longer could care for these collections.

The project began with 1375 boxes found in various states. While in storage, the collection was exposed to environmental damage including rain, animal infestation and cases of vandalism. Thus, a primary concern was to re-box the artifacts and get the collection fit for rehousing. After evaluating the best way to tackle the immense task, the team began by organizing the boxes loosely according to projects. Many of the boxes and bags that contained the artifacts were deteriorating. So the objects needed to be rebagged into new plastic bags and placed into clean record boxes. However, as we transferred the artifacts into new boxes, any provenience information found on the old box labels or tags attached to the artifacts were recorded along with the newly assigned box number.

In archaeology, provenience information is crucial to understanding the context of the object. However, considering the state of the condition of these collections, this was a difficult puzzle to construct. Loose tags and objects were found broken at the bottom of boxes or bags were ripped open and its contents spilled out by vandals. Other times, mixed association boxes turned up no relevant information. Moreover, some artifacts were poorly bagged in things like flimsy sandwich bags. So boxes of heavily corroded metal which were now indiscernible had to documented, photographed and then discarded. As a consequence, it is estimated that up to 20% of the entire collection will not be curated. Whole boxes containing organic material like wood, bone, botanicals and leather will be encased in bags and placed on shelves to isolate any mold spores from contaminating the other boxes and artifacts.

By the end of our 2 week stay in Philadelphia, the original 1375 boxes were eventually condensed into 1060 new boxes. We identified about 17 projects including: Blue Anchor Tavern, Head House (New Market), New Market West, Market East (and New Market at Pine St.), Commuter Tunnel, State and Schuylkill (S.I.S), MP, Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia Federal Building, Front and Dock, The Dock (Dock and Creek), Waynesborough (WSP), Pennsylvania Hospital, I-95 Expressway, Vine St., Hertz Lot (not taken in by the State Museum), and Franklin Square. Most artifacts dated from the 18th and 19th Century but items from Pre-Historic and modern times were also found.
Artifacts cover a vast assortment of object types. Bone, leather, ceramic, glass, botanicals, metal, architectural features, shell, stone and wood were among the categories identified. Although our work so far is only an initial step in processing the entire collection, an image of historic Philadelphia life was already being painted before us. From the cache of Head House sheep bone to the rich assortment of delicate ceramics and wine vessel lots from the Market East project, the archaeology collection from Atwater Kent poses potential as a valuable resource for researchers interested in studying the heritage of this urban community.

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

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