We have all been hard at work inventorying the H.P. Thomas site at the Museum Support Center (MSC) this month. MSC is where most of our collections are stored off-site. The main museum on the mall outgrew our collections many years ago, and now the millions of objects out at MSC in Suitland, Maryland, are stored in modern, climate controlled storage spaces.
One of the problems with the H.P. Thomas site is figuring out which objects we have, and which objects are no longer in the collection. Some of the items that are no longer present in the collection were transferred to other institutions or colleges associated with the River Basin Survey for analysis, well before the collection arrived at the Smithsonian in the 1980’s. The HP Thomas Site (39ST12) is a Native American site that was excavated by Richard P. Wheeler as a part of the River Basin Survey during the late 1950’s. The site is located in Stanley County, South Dakota, near the Lake Oahe region, and its artifacts date from ca. 950 to 1850 A.D., which includes the Initial Middle Missouri, Extended Coalescent, and Post-Contact Coalescent time periods. For more on the River Basin Survey, see the NAA Finding Guide, and this article.
The items in the collection were all originally cataloged on paper during the excavation, but have not yet been input into an electronic database, like our database KE EMu. While the collections are easily accessible physically, and well-stored in mostly number order in the cabinets, going from paper to digital records is an important part of accessibility. Once all of these items are cataloged in EMu, people all around the world will be able to see the records on our website, without having to request copies of archival documents or make the trip here to see the collection to find out what it contains.
To start this project, we entered all of the items from the original specimen catalogs into an excel spreadsheet that is specially formatted to allow direct uploading into the database. Once that was completed, the spreadsheet was error checked several times, and discrepancies and questionable entries were flagged for further investigation at MSC.
A photocopy of the original Specimen Catalog (left), to compare with the Excel checklist (right). Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin
Once we got to MSC, Jim Krakker, Museum Specialist for the archaeology portions of the collection, led us to the pod where the collections from South Dakota were stored. The HP Thomas collection takes up a total of four ½ units there, with some 10-20 drawers per ½ unit. The largest part of the collection is made up of pottery sherds (yes, you read that correctly: sherds, not shards. Sherd refers to broken ceramics in archaeology, while shard is more often applied to broken glass). There are also many stone and bone tools, such as mauls, metates, arrow points, scrapers, and scapular hoes, as well as bone awls and weaving tools, shell, and horn objects. Post-contact objects (artifacts of European origin from 1650 A.D. onward) are also represented, such as steel knives, glass trader beads, glass bottles, gun flints, and metal buttons. The archaeologists also took several samples of wood from around the side, to use for dendrochronology or radiocarbon dating.
Together with Jennifer, Maddy, and Kathryn, I went through the drawers, matching object names and field numbers from the specimen catalog, with the objects in each drawer. Sometimes we found things we were not expecting, and had to alter the spreadsheet; other times an item seemed to be missing, and it took several pairs of eyes to locate it; while other times certain objects were just not there. Making notes along the way, we went over each drawer several times to make sure that each item present will be assigned a catalog number in the database. Sometimes we found missing sherds that were not missing at all, but simply in another cabinet, as a rebuilt pot combining several pieces!
We still have a ways to go on this project, but we will keep you updated with images of interesting objects in the meantime. Follow us on twitter @archaeologylab and check out our “Objects of the Day (OOTD)” posts for great pictures!
~Meghan Mulkerin, Collections Specialist Contractor