Friday, August 12, 2016

The Value of Collections: Seen and Unseen

In recent weeks, our TWIPA blog has discussed a number of collections that have been donated to The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Have you ever wondered what happens to these collections once they are cataloged and accessioned into the museum’s inventory? Do they just disappear onto dusty shelves where they never see the light of day again? Does the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark come to mind?

Although it isn’t possible or necessarily useful to put all of these collections on permanent display in the museum (there are literally millions of artifacts in the Archaeology Section alone), they do serve a purpose. Archaeological collections are comprised of a variety of artifacts that range from broken fragments of prehistoric or historic pottery to chipping debris left by native peoples in stone tool production.  Each of these fragments is cataloged and while they hold important research value to archaeologists, they are of minimal use in exhibits.  Some collections are put on temporary display, such as portions of the Doris Freyermuth collection that are currently part of the changing exhibit located on the second floor of the museum that features amateur collectors. Other artifacts are placed on short or long-term loan to institutions or historic sites. Some artifacts that have no provenience location (no specific collection site) recorded are sometimes utilized in the teaching collections for school children to see and handle.

One of the most important uses of the State Museum collections is in scientific or scholarly research. A main objective of the collections policy is to acquire those collections that have research value. Many of these researchers are college students examining collections as part of completing a masters or doctoral thesis. For example, one of our recent visitors, Dan, spent several days conducting research for his doctoral dissertation. With the assistance of the Section of Archaeology curators, Dan’s forensic analysis of physical remains will be utilized to determine Late Woodland population migration patterns of the Mid-Atlantic Region.

Another student, Lucy, spent nearly two months analyzing, measuring, and photographing bifacial and unifacial stone tools from fourteen different prehistoric collections for her master’s thesis at Mercyhurst University. Lucy utilized the State Museum’s extensive collection of artifacts from stratified sites that span the Paleoindian (11700-19800 BP.) through Middle Archaic (6850-10200 BP.) periods. The data she collected will be used to compare to other previous research that will hopefully support her thesis statement.

Philadelphia Pottery Specimens (The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Another type of researcher may be searching for specific artifacts that fit a pattern. The Archaeology Section’s staff members Janet Johnson and Kimberly Sebestyen are currently conducting research on a specific type of pottery manufactured in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century. Janet and Kim are identifying specimens of this pottery, analyzing them, and recording the information for each vessel. The data that is collected will be turned into an article for the Journal of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology that will, in turn, help to provide guidance for others seeking to classify this type of pottery in the future.

Some research projects are conducted by students who occasionally spend a semester internship in the Section of Archaeology. These projects are designed to not only provide a learning experience for the intern but to serve a secondary purpose of completing important curatorial work within the section. The results of these projects may be used in many ways including to help better define the collections as a whole. For example, two student interns conducted months of analysis on a group of stone axes, which allowed the specimens to be categorized in a manner that will assist future researchers who need to access this important resource.

Section of Archaeology Intern Measuring and Recording Stone Axes (The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

So, who is allowed to make use of the collections? Anyone with a legitimate research project may request access to the collections. Topics are as broad as the whole of human existence in Pennsylvania, as the museum’s holdings represent approximately 16,000 years of habitation from the PaleoIndian period through the twentieth century. If you are interested in conducting research in the Archaeology Section collections, please contact Janet Johnson at 717-705-0869 or, or Kurt Carr at 717-783-9926 or for more information or to request access to a collection.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this “behind the scenes” tour of our curation facility and the important resource we care for on a daily basis.  Our preservation efforts along with the research conducted here have enabled archaeologists to further our understanding of the past. Please help us to preserve our archaeological heritage by collecting responsibly and organizing/cataloging your discoveries. We ask you to join us in ensuring that our archaeological heritage is preserved by supporting public programs and preservation laws so that we can protect the past for future generations.

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

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