Developing collection accessibility and record-keeping (a.k.a. what distinguishes Indiana Jones from real archaeologists)

All right, the title of this post isn’t quite accurate: there’s a WHOLE lot which separates Indiana Jones from a legitimate practitioner of archaeology (and you can read more about that here, if you’re so inclined). But maintaining a well-functioning system of records and artifact inventory is certainly one of the many highly important, if less camera-worthy, tasks that archaeologists conduct on a regular basis.

The CAP staff have spent the last few weeks inventorying the artifact collections stored in our main lab in order to update our records of exactly what items from MSU’s past are stored where. This is as exactly as glamorous as it sounds, but anyone who is familiar with the real, every-day practice of archaeology will know that much of what we do in this discipline is not done with a trowel or brush, but with computers and spreadsheets. Provenience – that is, the recorded context of the original location of an artifact – is nearly everything in archaeology. Good organization and record-keeping are critical to any archaeological storage system so that items may be retrieved easily and so their provenience info is easily managed. This is of especial importance should the collection ever be used for research or education; having a complete and thorough description of what is where makes the collection much more accessible.

Ian, yet another unsung hero of cultural heritage, working on the inventory.
Ian, yet another unsung hero of cultural heritage, working on the inventory.

After several busy years of fieldwork, the storage area needed reorganizing. This season, we’ve had the luxury of extra lab time due to a lull in fieldwork on campus. Kate also wanted to create an easily-searchable documentation system for items on loan from the storage to keep better track of what we use for our education and engagement efforts such as SciencePalooza and Grandparents University. What we’ve been doing is creating a shelf-by-shelf inventory of each cabinet with descriptions and provenience of each item, using our old friend Microsoft Excel. Additionally, we placed labels on both shelves and cabinets, and created check-out forms for tracking items on loan. Items in cabinets continue to be grouped by site.

This has been quite a time-consuming process (it turns out, CAP has excavated quite a decent amount of material over the years!). We will need to train future incoming CAP staff on how the system works; for example, that even the shelves are ordered in a certain way. We may also need to find homes for new material recovered in future fieldwork since the cabinets are mostly full.

Challenges included working with the changing forms of record-keeping used by various campus archaeologists over the years, although my general impression is that each succeeding archaeologist built upon and improved the system they inherited, so that over time it’s evolved (and starting it from scratch at the beginning could not have been easy). We will continue to work as a team on managing the collections – I’m sure there are even more improvements awaiting us down the line – to ensure a good home for the material history of MSU’s students and faculty, and to keep it readily available for future work.


Author: Adrianne Daggett

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