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.

Archaeology Collections and the Science of Excavating Boxes

My name is Kaelyn Olson, and I am working toward a master of arts degree in applied anthropology from Mississippi State University. During the three months of my internship, I have been working with collections from projects on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers–managed lands. In addition to the usual lab duties, I became a member of the North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA), worked with volunteers, and expanded my professional network. This internship was an outstanding opportunity for me to learn skills that were not covered in my university education and previous work experience, as well as honing skills that I had only limited experience in. I was already fascinated by the history of North Dakota and the northern plains, and this internship only served to deepen my appreciation of this region. While some of the day-to-day tasks of being a collections intern may not seem glamorous or exciting to the casual viewer, the work is extremely satisfying, and each new box is its own adventure. I’ll be sad to leave these collections behind as I return to school, but I am excited to know that the collections will be ready for research and additions when I come back.

A woman holding an elk antler

Kaelyn Olson in one of the archaeology collections storage rooms, holding an elk antler for scale.

two awls

Thank y’awl for being for being so welcoming this summer!

A box of sorted and cleaned artifacts next to a box of artifacts that haven't been sorted or cleaned

An image comparing artifacts packaged in 1964 (right) to artifacts that have been sorted, cleaned, and “rehabbed” by summer interns (left).

Hi, name is Sylvia Sandstrom and I will be graduating with my bachelor of arts degree in anthropology with an archaeology emphasis from Minnesota State University Moorhead in December 2019. I began my position as an archaeology collections intern in late May 2019, and in my time here over the past three months I have learned more than I could have ever imagined and achieved goals that make me feel entirely fulfilled.

My primary task was to work with collections owned by the USDA Forest Service, which are housed and cared for by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Four boxes of artifacts from Government Creek were my first project, which included re-bagging the artifacts into archival materials, assigning unique accession numbers to each artifact, and entering every single artifact into our catalog database. Overall, I added 383 individual artifact records to our searchable database for this collection, and 816 records total. Aside from working with artifacts, I learned to properly archive and catalog all the important paperwork that gives any artifact its context, and therefore, its research value.

Secondarily, I took up a side project that focused on my interest in Native American pottery. Alfred W. Bowers collected a set of unique potsherds from Mercer County, North Dakota, in the 1930s, but they just made it back to their state of origin early this year. These sherds caught my attention right away, as they were different from the typical jar-like vessels we see in the northern plains. These sherds appear to form some sort of platter or very shallow bowl. I hope to continue working with this piece in the future, as well as with the wonderful folks I have connected with while conducting this research.

A woman holding a box containing ceramic plate pieces

Archaeology collections intern Sylvia Sandstrom with unique ceramic plate collected by Alfred Bowers.

Placing artifact pieces next to each other to crate the object they once were

Process of discovering loose sherds and refitting them to reproduce the original vessel shape.

Two women standing in a room with table and cabinets

Archaeology collections interns Sylvia Sandstrom (left) and Kaelyn Olson (right) during their first weeks at work, size grading artifacts from On-A-Slant Village.

Solving Archives Puzzles: My Summer in the Stacks

This summer I was lucky enough to be chosen as temporary staff for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. My official title for the summer was reading room assistant; this includes greeting guests as they enter the State Archives and assisting them in finding the resources they need to complete their research.

College-aged man standing by a cash register ready to greet people

Zachary greets patrons entering the reading room.

You never know what the next person coming through our doors is going to want to find, or why. I have heard many interesting stories and find it fascinating the long distances people will travel to acquire what they are after. I have worked with patrons from all over the United States and even Canada. I look at each patron’s research like a puzzle, and have to find the missing pieces to help them complete it.

As archivists it is not only our job to find resources for our patrons but to archive and keep track of North Dakota history. My project for the summer has been to document Morton County probates in an Excel document. The end goal is to make this information readily available for the public to use in research. While working on the probates it has been interesting seeing all the foreign names of immigrants, and the cursive from back then looks like a whole different language. I am hoping this project will one day help complete another puzzle piece in a patron’s research.

College-aged man sitting at a computer working

Working on entering Morton County probates into Archives for patrons’ use.

The more I have learned about the Archives’ vast amount of resources, the more I have taken advantage of using them myself. I have used resources such as ancestry library and our county history books to begin piecing together a small genealogy project for my dad’s side of the family. I have also used the microfilm collection to look up old articles on family members and even on myself. I have started a scrapbook for myself on my high school soccer career that documents all my stats and interviews. The microfilm machines are very fun to use and are helpful in finding all types of newspaper clippings at lightning speed.

College-aged man sitting at a computer looking at microfilmed newspaper from the microfilm machine next to him

Looking at microfilm for old newspaper clippings.

After my experience working in the State Archives this summer, I am looking forward to utilizing my newly acquired research skills in my upcoming year of college. My love for history has never been in doubt, but this job has given me a greater appreciation of history and the wonderful people that archive and keep it safe.

College-aged man standing in an isle of shelves full of boxes

The stacks in the Archives were by far the sweetest thing to use.