Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An Artifact's Journey

The artifact cases on display at this year's Open House.
             Hello Everyone! It’s Sara here, back today to talk about our artifacts. Many of you came by our open house last weekend and were able to experience many awesome things, one of which was the artifacts cases we prepared. Laid out on tables were two display cases with glass windows, which showcased some of our most recent finds as well as artifacts from past seasons that are associated with a few of our community partners. The artifacts neatly sewn into the cases had to go through strict procedures in order to be featured in our display; they will eventually find their way to Western Michigan University for analysis, before they are added to the collection of over 300,000 artifacts already processed.
              The artifacts of course have to come from somewhere. They are most often found while soil is being excavated from our pits or when the soil that is pulled from the pit is screened and artifacts are found and removed. After these pieces dry or are placed in artifact bags, they are taken back to our field lab at the Stables.
Me in the lab (a.k.a. my happy place)
washing artifacts.
               In the field lab, we have procedures for cleaning the artifacts to ensure that they remain intact, are correctly identified, retain their provenience, and get as clean as possible. First we check to make sure that the tag within the artifact bag is complete and matches the tag on the outside of the artifact bag. These tags list information on where the piece came from specifically by listing things like the site name (Fort St. Joseph), the coordinates of the pit it was removed from, and whether the item was located in the South or North half of a 1x2 meter pit.
                Next, we examine the contents of the bag to see what we have. The items are placed carefully on a tray, and the bag is turned inside out to ensure there is nothing left stuck in the bag. When looking at the items, it is important to set aside any iron objects, charcoal and anything else we are unsure of, so that they don’t get wet. When wet, things like iron nails will start bleeding rust, and charcoal will float, then start breaking apart.
               Now that they are separated, it is time to wash the artifacts. We fill a tub with tap water only (no soap!) to clean the items, and grab tools like dental picks, tooth brushes, and cardboard flats to put them in to dry. We then gently clean them with the water, getting into every crevice to ensure the artifact will be clean for storing. After the artifacts are clean, they are placed on cardboard flats or directly onto a drying screen to dry overnight. This is important as the items will be stored in small plastic zip bags and need to be dry to preserve them. 
              From here the items are rough sorted. To do this, we take all of the items that are similar within the accession and catalog number and sort them by type. For instance, all glass pieces for the specific catalog number are combined into a pile, just as things like unburned bone and seed beads will be. After everything is sorted for that catalog number, you place the items in an appropriate sized bag (too big and they can float around and break, too small and they can puncture the bag), and a small slip of acid-free paper with the relevant information on it is placed inside and then sealed. With specific categories like metals, we also place a silica packet into the bag, to absorb any excess moisture and prevent degradation. Other categories with more delicate items (such as hollow bird bones) get vials to protect the item from breakage.
The blown up picture in the new finds case of my
favorite artifact.
                It is from this point that we chose the items from our most recent excavation to go into our display case. My lab partner Claire and I were assigned this task and with some help from the Project’s Lab Coordinator Anne, we were able to curate a case full of new archaeological finds as well as past finds in our community partners themed showcase. It was a challenge but also a lot of fun to choose which items the public would see. For the community case, we chose to represent some of the groups that we collaborate with by displaying artifacts we felt would be of interest to them. An example of this is choosing belt buckles to represent the Living History group (also known as reenactors). The Living History group often tries to replicate the artifacts that we find at the fort in order to be as historically accurate in their representations as possible. We chose a belt buckle that was more utilitarian and also one that was more ornate to show examples of decoration at both ends of financial status at the fort.
               After an item is chosen, the information is recorded separately and a slip with the item’s accession (identification) number is made to accompany the item. The item is then sewn into the fabric base with fishing line (which is used because it’s clear), and a marker with the items accession number is pinned next to it. After all of the items are in the case, the case is secured with screws so that the items inside will not be tampered with.

               The new finds case was exciting to compile because the majority of the artifacts were processed just days before they were added, making most of the items in the case our freshest finds. As soon as some of the items were plucked from the screens they were making their way to our display case. My personal favorite came from the pit I briefly helped excavate with Hannon. He found part of a lead seal that featured the letters “OHN.” From this we were able to interpret that the cloth that was attached to it was from an English origin, as the name was most likely John (which is English), not Jacques, as it would be in French. The cases ended up with an impressive array of artifacts from belt buckles, to crosses, to clay pipes that represent a lot of the items we often find here at Fort St. Joseph.

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