Category Archives: archaeology

Personifying the Past

WarrenParkerPleasantThanks to Kym Maddocks, Manager of Research & Interpretive Operations at Old Salem for her assistance with this post.

History organizations often want exhibits to tell important stories but stall out when they run up against a dearth of artifacts to represent particular topics. Old Salem came up with an innovative solution to the problem of portraying past lives with few documentary and artifactual traces. Old Salem contracted artist Warren Parker to develop an exhibit about ten 19th-century African-Americans, many of whom had been enslaved, for the newly reconstructed African Moravian log church heritage center.

slaveWomanParker chose to feature a variety of artistic media to evoke these past lives in conjunction with salvaged grave stones and bits of biographical information found in Old Salem’s collections. A new addition to St. Philip’s brick church in 1890 covered over several African-American graves. Although no human remains had been disturbed, many of the other stones from the front lawn of the church were removed soon afterward and placed in a pile under the front steps of the building. The exhibit displays each encased headstone, alongside Parker’s artistic representation of the person it commemorates. ChristianSamuelParker sculpted several from various materials; other media include an oil painting, a man’s photograph enlarged to life size, a metal silhouette, and a carved wood panel. Each representation is life sized or larger to suggest a proportional comparison for each visitor in a way that appeals to both adults and children.

Young visitors enjoy listening to the tale of Christian David's life. [copyright Katrena]

[copyright Katrena ]

Based on the grave stones and extant documents, Old Salem staff was able to sketch out a life story for each of the ten African-Americans. The institution then arranged with drama students and staff from the nearby UNC School of the Arts to record first-person interpretations of each life. Visitors can pick up a receiver and push a button to listen to each. (At left, young visitors enjoy the story of Christian David. See, to learn more about their visit.) Although paper labels nearby present similar information, the ability to listen to a first-person narrative, while viewing a life-sized representation, conjures the humanity of the past life in a way that many other historic sites could replicate.



Object Values and Evidence



Those involved with cultural heritage collections, be they visitors, researchers, or stewards, value artifacts for many reasons. Some artifacts, especially precious metals and jewels, have intrinsic value. The materials are worth something, independent of their style or provenance. We value our collections for more subjective qualities, such as aesthetics, as well. Architectural embellishments, finished wood, and vintage clothing appear beautiful to many beholders. Age value is also important, especially in history museum collections. Often we prize an artifact that serves as a good example of a bygone way of life, such as this writing slate & abacus.

Collection stewards know that provenance is important, and our C2C workshops stress good collections record keeping. This abacus, for instance, is even more meaningful in conjunction with its provenance. A former slave used this while attending school soon after the Civil War. She grew up and became part of a prominent family in Cary, NC, and her son was the first African American mayor of that town. (To read more, find this object on NCDCR’s online collections database.)

Several years ago writers Rob Walker and Josh Glenn began an ongoing experiment that helps quantify the importance of provenance in their Significant Objects Project. After purchasing thrift-store objects, Walker and Glenn assigned an accomplished creative writer to develop a short story about each one. They then auctioned the object-story combo off on ebay. The significant object project purchased 100 objects for a total of $133.79 and sold them for $3,582.50. (totals from price list/ 2nd table) Every single object sold for at least twice what its thrift-store cost had been. The biggest increase in value had a sale price of 64 ½ times the original price. On average, the imagined provenances increased the value nearly 27 times.  Not only is the Significant Objects Project a fascinating study in material culture, it could also serve as the basis of an engaging public program at your institution. Click here for Walker’s discussion of the project and descriptions of public programs and fundraising events the project generated.

There are times when museum collections can be invaluable as evidence. (Few in the “evidence” category of the Significant Object Project actually functioned as such in their accompanying stories.) In a recent post here, NC Museum of Sciences Geology Curator, Chris Tacker, mentioned that the museum’s asbestos specimens have been used in court to prove the effects of radioactive environments on minerals. Similarly, the Museum’s plant and animal specimen collections can serve as evidence of changes in habitat. Archaeologists often consider the artifacts they unearth as evidence, especially when they make references that documents either neglect or contradict. For instance, wine and liquor bottles uncovered during the Thomas Wolfe Memorial archaeology project offer evidence that at least some folks at the “Old Kentucky Home” were drinking during Prohibition.

Does your cultural heritage collection contain artifacts which, together with their provenances, serve as evidence? One notable institution that values its history collection this way is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The artifacts and their associated records stand as testaments to the veracity of accounts of the murder and torture that have been questioned by fringe groups in recent decades.

Which artifacts in your institution could testify? Which historical trends or events could they prove or disprove?

Silica Gel

Silica gel is a safe, inexpensive, and useful product to help regulate relative humidity (RH) in an enclosed space. Such a microenvironment is the best tool available for stabilizing corroding metals.  Conservation product suppliers, such as Gaylord, Talas, and Conservation Resources, sell several varieties of silica gel.

Silica gel serves two primary purposes for museum collections:

Mystery object from the Museum of Ashe County History

tool from the Museum of Ashe County History

1. RH reduction:  Certain materials, especially metals, require environments with low RH in order to preserve them for perpetuity.  Whereas 50% RH is the optimal level for a variety of artifacts, closer to 35% is usually best for metals.  In order to stabilize corroding metals, they need to be stored in an airtight container; plastic (polypropylene or polyethylene) tubs are often the most convenient for creating microenvironments. With the right amount of silica gel included in the container, RH levels can drop to 15% or less–the necessary range for metal stabilization. This article can help you estimate the amount of silica gel you’ll need for a particular space.

For a good discussion of metals care, see

OrangeSilicaGelOrange-indicating silica gel will be orange in its conditioned form (ready to adsorb moisture) and then turn either dark green or white when it becomes saturated.  It will then be time to recondition the gel. Conservation Resources’ guidelines for reconditioning orange-indicating gel call for baking it in a glass pan in a low-heat oven (220-230 degrees F) for at least an hour. A little indicating gel can be mixed with a larger amount of conditioned regular gel as a cost-saving measure.  Use a humidity strip or a hygrometer to monitor the humidity within the microenvironment and adjust the amount of silica gel according to the target RH level.

2. RH stabilization:  Canisters of silica gel will offset seasonal RH fluctuations as well as more rapid RH-altering events, such as power loss.  The gel beads will trap moisture at times of high ambient RH and then release moisture when the RH gets below optimal levels (around 50% for most artifacts).  When using silica gel to stabilize, humidity strips or hygrometers are still useful to make sure RH is near target levels and adjust the amount of gel accordingly.  With the right amount of gel in place, it should only need to be changed or re-conditioned once each year.  The color-indicating feature is less important for stabilization purposes.

For more on preservation environments and monitoring devices, see

Native American Museums

Thanksgiving is not only a time for gratitude for the abundance of the harvest, but it’s also a time for honoring the many ways Native Americans shared crops and knowledge with European colonists. North Carolina witnessed two such exchanges in the sixteenth-century with Spanish explorers at Fort San Juan, near Morganton, and British settlers at Roanoke Island. In both cases, European groups initially learned from and exchanged with local tribes, before their ultimate devastation or mysterious disappearance. The image on the left represents the type of house Spanish explorers built at Fort San Juan. Based on archaeological investigations, this form exhibits Native American construction influences.

Native American communities proudly persist in North Carolina, and representatives from many of the state’s 8 recognized tribes participated in the Museum of History’s 17th annual American Indian Heritage Celebration this past weekend. (To learn more about each tribe, click here.)

A variety of cultural heritage collections across the state focus on Native American artifacts, honoring the prehistoric past as well as the ways communities have evolved over time. The Town Creek Indian Mound State Historic Site interprets Pee Dee Culture (1000-1400) through archaeological research. Both the Frisco Native American Museum on the Outer Banks and the  Harnett County Indian Museum exhibit artifacts from the local area as well as those from across the continent to showcase the vibrancy of Native American handiwork.

Several institutions preserve the heritage and culture of the Cherokee, the only North Carolina tribe with full federal recognition, and present it to the public. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual complement the living history presentations of the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee. The Junaluska Memorial & Museum in Robbinsville also interprets the tribe’s history.

The Lumbee Community from Union Chapel, c. 1900, collection of the Museum of the Native American Resource Center

The Lumbee Tribe is the most populous Native American group in the state and has achieved partial federal recognition. The Lumbee Indian Museum in Laurinburg and the Museum of the Native American Resource Center at UNC Pembroke focus on this group.

How does your institution present Native American history? By preserving artifacts, presenting them through exhibits, or by developing public programs?

Skeletons in Your Closet?

Thanks to Stephen Claggett, State Archaeologist, for the following guest post.

Or, how about human teeth, or bones re-worked into smoking pipes, or even women’s hair braided into watch fobs?

They’re all human remains, in the biological sense of being physical parts of (most likely) deceased people. And while the presence of such things in museum collections may not be uncommon or even surprising, how they are handled may present ethical, moral and even legal challenges to curators and other professionals working with museum collections.

So, how do any of us deal with bones and other human remains in our custody? First, you should be aware that North Carolina laws exist (as in many other states) that condition what we may or may not do with these objects. Federal laws may also be in play, including the oft-cited—and mis-cited—Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 USC 3001) which addresses Native American remains already in museum collections, or that may be encountered on federal (think National Parks) and tribal (think Cherokee Reservation) lands.

State laws here in NC extend protection to cemeteries, gravesites and their contents, and are used often by property owners, descendents, law enforcement and other officials to avert or address the disturbance, destruction, defacement, vandalism or desecration of caskets, human remains, grave markers or “any repository thereof” of human remains (NC General Statutes §14-148 and §14-149). Illegal disturbance of graves, and felony-level violations of those laws by people seeking bones, Civil War uniform buttons, ancient pottery and such items unfortunately is something that the Office of State Archaeology, medical examiners and law enforcement must deal with on an all too common basis.

But that addresses only the “final resting places” of our dead citizens. What of the human bits and pieces that have been obtained legally through archaeological excavations or other means like biological supply businesses? Again, NC law allows professional archaeologists to recover (“dig,” in the vernacular) human skeletal remains found during planned excavations of Indian villages, colonial farmsteads, and old family cemeteries. Burials likewise can be excavated in the course of recovering remains inadvertently revealed during farm plowing, construction projects and natural erosion of stream banks or ocean beaches. The law (NC General Statute 70, Article 3) that covers such situations is the “Unmarked Human Burial and Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act,” or, more simply, the “burial law.”

Germane to this discussion are the “prohibited acts” embodied in the burial law (§70-37). It is illegal in our state to knowingly acquire human skeletal remains, knowingly exhibit or sell remains (more on that in a moment), or retain remains for scientific analysis beyond defined time limits. There are several things to note carefully here; that law applies only to remains from “unmarked burials in North Carolina after October 1, 1981,” the date the law came into force. It may not apply to remains from marked graves, or those from other states, or that were obtained before October 1, 1981. (Other state and federal laws prohibit interstate transport of human remains obtained from outside NC, that were procured in violation of other state and federal archaeology laws, including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, 16 USC 470).

So, while archaeologists, medical examiners, and law enforcement officials may gather and keep (at least temporarily) human remains, where does that leave museum professionals? It is clear that museums may legally possess bones and other remains acquired through donations of private collections, and even through purchase. It is less clear, however, how curators should properly care for, much less exhibit human remains (perhaps not a good idea, in the moral sense, and especially in the court of public opinion). Determining the original provenance and, especially, the age and ethnic relations of human remains is often difficult, even with able assistance from archaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Even the hint of Native American origins may complicate things (cf. NAGPRA); and with only very rare exceptions, DNA analyses of bones, teeth, hair, skin flakes, or nail parings will not give you quick and easy answers to who’s in your collection, and are they related to Miss X, or Group Y. It’s easy in the television world of CSI, but not in real life.

The aforementioned braided hair watch fobs likely fall out the equation for curators, as such things are not expressly addressed in the laws mentioned. If items incorporate Native American hair or similar elements, they could fall under the purview of NAGPRA, but the typical majority of Victorian-era ornaments or collages should be safe to display.

The best practical, and perhaps experiential, advice I can offer is this: if you have, or even think you have human remains in your collection, do not openly advertise that fact. Don’t store or handle those items in a careless or disrespectful manner. Do not plan to display any human remains—even with caveats about the legality of how they were obtained—either as original objects, photographs, digital images, or—heaven forbid—decorated art objects. Unless, of course, you’re willing to defend openly your personal and institutional insensitivity to cultural norms, and the feelings of real or claimed descendents.

Over my professional career, I’ve excavated, analyzed and handled hundreds of human bones (and even greater numbers of deer, raccoon, bear, bird and fish skeletons). And it doesn’t bother me to do so. My performance stays within the letter and intent of the laws, and the bounds of my professional ethics. Museums and their accrediting bodies must have similar expectations of curators who deal with a plethora of object types and materials. Human remains may be among them, but there’s no reason to be inordinately afraid of the skeletons in your closet.

Engaging with Artifacts

How much should we rely on introductory text panels in exhibits? As we’ve discussed earlier in this blog, if you don’t engage visitors at the beginning of the exhibit, they’re more likely to proceed through the whole thing with a continuing (and maybe growing) strain of museum fatigue. Objects have the power to raise questions and inspire imagination. But, if they’re buried inside too much interpretation (a common fault in history museums), that power is overwhelmed by pedantry.

One blogger for TourSphere recently reported on an engaging exhibit experience where the museum did not provide much interpretation up front and instead allowed the artifacts to spark viewers’ curiosity. Read this account and think about how the design of your own exhibits facilitates curiosity and imagination or, rather, squelches these experiences from the get-go.

Old North State Detectorists Club

A tangential point the TourSphere post addresses, and one with several several examples in North Carolina, is the way that metal detector hobbyists can be involved in uncovering cultural heritage. (Be sure to click on the “dude with a metal detector” link within the TourSphere blog for a great image.) Some North Carolina exhibits and the Office of State Archaeology (OSA) have benefitted from our local troop of “dudes with metal detectors.” Dr. William Purkey, for instance (pictured above with a detector) uncovered a significant Revolutionary War button during an OSA-led survey at the Alamance Battleground State Historic Site.

Let’s create and/or revise history exhibits to allow artifacts to raise questions and give visitors a chance to participate in interpretations by inviting them to imagine meanings. This type of engagement is surely a part of what motivates treasure hunters like the Old North State Detectorists. There’s probably always space for an expertly written narrative of the past, but should viewing it always be mandatory? In the case of the National Geographic Museum, profiled on the TourSphere blog, visitors could opt into the narrative documentary. What other designs, media, or exhibitry techniques might forge exciting partnerships between visitor-imagined meanings and research and interpretation?

Alamance Battleground Button

Another Artifact Anecdote, by John Mintz, Assistant State Archaeologist

All archaeological field investigations begin with a well developed research design.  The outline of the research design can range from simple to complex, informal to formal.  Archaeologists can and do develop the plan to address any number of specific research questions.  Often, once the actual field investigations begin additional research avenues become readily apparent.  This frequently is the result of unanticipated artifact recoveries. 

courtesy, Alan Westmoreland

Recently, archaeologists and historians investigated the archaeological evidence pertaining to the May 16, 1771, battle that took place between Royal Governor William Tryon and over 2000 local Regulators at what is now Alamance Battleground State Historic Site, when they discovered a unique and very interesting button.  At first glance, it appeared to be just an “ordinary” metal button with the letters USA visible on one side. However, upon closer examination, research historian Josh Howard of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History immediately recognized the button as a type worn by the Continental Army in the American Revolution.

 This is the type and style of button that was issued to the Maryland and Delaware Continental Regiments in the fall of 1780. The recovery and subsequent identification of this button was extremely important, as it provided, to date, the only known archaeological evidence to support a long-standing documentary claim that suggested a Revolutionary War skirmish took place at the site in 1781, between Capt. Robert Kirkwood’s Delaware Continental company and a detachment of General Cornwallis’s Army. Kirkwood wrote in his journal that he and his comrades “came up with the enemy at Allamance” on March 4, 1781 and marched to “the Regulation ground and attack’d the advanc’d picquet” on the following night.

 This much welcomed but unanticipated discovery has allowed the staff of Alamance Battleground State Historic Site to interpret an aspect of the site that previously had not been part of their mission statement and thus not interpreted, because no physical evidence of the skirmish had been discovered.  Further, because a systematic, research-driven methodological approach guided the field investigation, the button’s exact provenance is assured.  This type of information will assist other researchers in defining additional areas of the site that may have witnessed Revolutionary War era activities.

Less is Usually More

Those who have been in the museum field awhile have surely noticed an evolution in professional standards over time.  Conservation know-how is one area especially prone to obsolescence.  For instance, years ago a conservator recommended polishing brass with wenol to one of our staff members who then worked at an historic house.  Current advice, however, acknowledges that wenol contains ammonia, which is harmful for brass. 

This example of fatty spew or bloom is from the Alaska State Museum and can be found at

Dressing leather with neatsfoot oil, or some other product, used to be a routine part of professional care.  In contrast, conservators today have documented the build-up of grime and outbreaks of fatty bloom as potential effects of these treatments years after application.  Most now recommend preventative conservation measures for leather, such as storage in a regulated environment and dusting with a soft brush.

Similarly, our recent Wood & Metals Workshop participants heard from Conservator Jane Bynon that problems with decades’ old archaeological treatments have prompted British conservators to rethink unearthing materials in the first place.  It may be best to leave known artifacts in the ground or under water in an environment that has allowed their preservation thus far, rather than removing them and initiating a series of treatments.  As careful as conservators try to be, loss is often involved in treatments.  The ideal of reversibility frequently translates into the reality of re-treatability.  Some in the archaeological branch of the field question whether routine cleaning is ethical.  Even the simple process of brushing dirt off a shard removes irreplaceable contextual information and evidence of the artifact’s history.

 For those responsible for museum collections, then, the lesson of obsolescence should not provoke mistrust in conservators.  Rather it should be a caution to undertake any kind of treatment without education, research, training, and experience.  Seek advice from those you know to be knowledgeable; gathering multiple opinions will inform your decisions more thoroughly.  Most importantly, work to establish storage environments that will promote preservation: managing light, temperature, and RH levels and protecting artifacts from pests and pollutants.  With good collections care practices, artifact treatments will still be necessary, but less (handling and solution applications) is usually more.

Accidental Archaeological Discoveries

Another Artifact Anecdote by Assistant State Archaeologist, John Mintz

Sometimes an inadvertent artifact discovery captures the attention of site staff and visitors alike.  Such was the case on June 9, 2008, at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, when four members of the United States Marine Corps Explosive Disposal Ordnance Team from Camp Lejeune uncovered a complete (albeit rusted and corroded) 1859 model Austrian Lorenz Bayonet. The EOD Team was searching for unexploded Civil War-era munition prior to an archaeological investigation into the construction techniques of the earthen fortifications at Fort Anderson by the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology.  Rather than finding explosives, the Marines discovered a firearm element specific to a key period of the site’s interpretation.

The quadrangle socket bayonet was attached by a diagonal mounting slot to the muzzle of a .54 caliber, percussion lock, muzzle loading, Austrian Lorenz rifled musket.  The Confederate Army issued as many as 100,000 of this type of musket to its troops.  It is probable that this bayonet and the rifled musket came to North Carolina’s coast along with troops initially stationed at either Fort Holmes on Baldhead Island or Fort Caswell, located on Oak Island.  Those soldiers retreated to Fort Anderson in mid-1864. 

The discovery and subsequent conservation of this bayonet were very fortuitous and timely.  The accidental find is slated to form the centerpiece of an exhibit at Fort Anderson, beginning in the fall of 2011, in recognition of North Carolina’s commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.