Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Adventures in Archaeology: What does a Collections Assistant Do?

What does an archaeological collections assistant do? And (even more importantly) why? Here is a whirl-wind review of some of the things I am involved in and why!

I do a lot of cataloging, photographing, and labeling of archaeological artifacts. North Dakota has an estimated 12 million objects in its state archaeology collection! Unless we record these objects, have a way to identify them, and can find where they are stored, it is very difficult for anyone to study, learn from, look at, or enjoy our collections. This is my favorite part of my job. You never know what you might find next.

I also catalog paperwork relating the collections to the archaeological surveys and excavations from which they were recovered. This is important because the paperwork connects the artifacts to their provenience (where the objects were found). Knowing exactly where objects were found means we can learn things about people living in certain areas of North Dakota at particular times. And knowing exactly where objects were found in relation to other artifacts and features within a site means we can form a clearer picture of how people lived and interacted with the world around them. It makes the stories that the artifacts can tell us much more detailed.

Older collections are sometimes stored in less-than-ideal boxes and materials. In the past, objects were often stored in whatever was available at the time (including window flower boxes, cigar boxes, and old newspapers). We have learned over time that older acidic materials like these (even if they look nice) affect the objects stored in them--the writing on the boxes and bags fade away and the objects stored inside these materials start to crumble or fall apart. We don’t want to lose the collection information on the boxes and bags, and we don’t want to lose the objects themselves! So re-bagging and re-boxing artifacts in archivally stable (acid-free) materials is another big part of my job.

Left - Before: wooden post fragments stored in an unlabeled wooden flower box stuffed with newspaper (Photo by Wendi Murray)
Right - After: wooden post fragments stored in an archival box (complete with label!) and wrapped in acid free tissue for padding and support

I get to work with the archaeology volunteers too, and volunteering involves a fun variety of people and projects. The current main project is sorting objects excavated from the Larson Village site into material types so we can send them to specialists who can tell us more about them. I usually sort some of the smaller sized material, but there are amazing things to be found even there.

Left - A tray of small-sized unsorted materials from the Larson Village site
Right - Fun objects can come in small sizes!
Top Row: a piece of copper, 2 biface or projectile point tips
Bottom Row: part of a bone fish hook, (top) the tip of a stone drilling tool, (bottom) the base of a projectile point (“arrow head”), (top) a bone tube bead, (bottom) 2 glass beads

This is just one row in the new collections space.

There is a lot of variety in this job. The recent expansion project meant that a lot of time has been devoted to planning the layout, labeling the new shelves, and moving collections to the new storage spaces. One of the most exciting parts of the expansion process was being included in some of the new exhibits planning– there was a lot of proof-reading of labels and texts, documenting conditions of objects coming off and going on display, searching for new or different display objects in our collections, tracking the locations of objects, and carting objects to and from the old and new galleries. I love this because it means bringing collections out where people can see and learn about the North Dakota’s extensive past.

In summary, being an archaeological collections assistant involves a lot of documenting, sorting, and re-housing of artifacts. All this is done to help preserve North Dakota’s state archaeology collections and make them available for present and future use.

Moving Collections

Moving priceless objects can be daunting. Depending on the object, simply moving a rare or priceless object from one table to another or even shifting it a few inches or feet can be stressful. Moving thousands of priceless objects over 300 feet is even more daunting; moving priceless objects under a time schedule, even more so; moving priceless objects under a time schedule, through a construction zone, even more yet. However, with proper planning it can be done.

In the early days of planning the Heritage Center expansion it was quickly discovered that the State Fossil Collection was potentially in harm’s way with all the construction going on in and around the building. Not necessarily from a large piece of machinery or debris, but instead from possible exposure to the elements of nature (water and steeply fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels). Both of these elements can wreak havoc on fossils if not properly prepared for. After all the pros and cons of keeping the collection where it was versus moving the collection to an offsite storage facility were weighed and debated, the decision was made to keep the collection in place and protect the collection from any foreseen hazards to the best of our ability.

In this case water was our main concern. A minor concern was vibration from nearby heavy machinery. To protect the fossils from vibration, foam was placed in drawers and between fossils, cradling each fossil (figs. 1 & 2). To protect it from dripping water, the collection was completely covered in plastic sheeting (fig. 3 & 4). Fossils were also removed from the first 12 inches above the floor in case the storage room should flood. The storage room was heavily monitored for any sign of problems over the next few months. Meanwhile a new storage room was being completed and filled with new, state of the art cabinets and storage compactors to house the important collection (fig. 5).

Finally moving day arrived. Due to all the things needing to be done our window to move the collection was small. A team of paleontologists and skilled volunteers moved thousands of fossils over the course of a few days, reorganizing the collection as we moved it.

The project has been completed and the collection receives routine and ongoing maintenance and organization.

Fig. 1 – Paleontologist Amanda Person (left) and paleo intern Samantha Pounds (right) placing foam padding between fossils.

Fig. 2 – Paleontologists Becky Barnes (left) and Amanda Person (right) placing foam padding between fossils.

Fig. 3 – Paleontologist Becky Barnes securing plastic sheeting on top of metal cases containing the ND State Fossil Collection.

Fig. 4 (left) – Metal cabinets containing ND State Fossil Collection covered in plastic to protect from possible water damage.
Fig. 5 (right) – The new cabinets holding the important ND State Fossil Collection.