SOCIETY FOR PENNSYLVANIA ARCHAEOLOGY, INC.
in cooperation with
THE STATE MUSEUM OF PENNSYLVANIA
Men, women, and children have lived in the Commonwealth for nearly 14,000 years. Yet, only a small portion of that time is documented on paper. Archaeological evidence often represents the only surviving record of Pennsylvania’s prehistory and can provide new information about where, when, and how people lived in the past.
What is archaeological evidence? Where is it found? Bits and pieces of objects made, used, and discarded or lost by people going about their daily activities make up Pennsylvania’s archaeological record. These artifacts appear under the streets of modern towns and cities, in plowed farm fields, on hill tops near springheads, and along streams and rivers. Anywhere people worked, lived, or played we are likely to find some evidence of their behavior, so long as the materials they produced and used have survived.
Many factors determine what types of artifacts remain to be found. Objects made from bone, wood, and leather, are more susceptible to deterioration and rarely last for thousands of years. Stone and ceramic artifacts, on the contrary, are very durable. Unfortunately, the rapid rate of modern development places ALL artifact types at risk. As a private artifact collector, you can play an important role in helping to discover and preserve knowledge of the Commonwealth’s past before it is lost forever.
When you return home, keep discovery information and artifacts together. A simple note or tag should “travel” with the artifact until it is labeled. Feel free to clean newly-found artifacts only if you can do so without harming them. Durable items, like stone, most ceramics, and glass, can be washed using a soft brush and water. Bone, wood, shell, and metal objects, however, may be too brittle or otherwise deteriorate if wet-washed. Therefore, a soft dry brush is often recommended for these materials. If you are uncertain about the best procedure to use, seek advice from a professional archaeologist or conservator before proceeding.
“… private collectors are encouraged to participate in a state-wide registration program known as the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey.”
A label applied to an artifact ensures that its discovery location will always be known. Some collectors use their own system of symbols or numbers to code discovery site information. For example, artifacts found in the northwest quadrant of John Brown’s field might be marked with the letters “B-NW”; whereas, objects found in the southeast quadrant might be marked “B-SE.”
Instead of creating your own labeling system, private collectors are encouraged to participate in a state-wide site registration program known as the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (PASS), maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The importance of registering sites with PASS cannot be overstated. A modern development project that uses state or federal funding or assistance is required to take into consideration destructive effects the project will have on significant archaeological sites. In many cases only those sites registered with PASS may be deemed important enough to warrant investigation before development activities are allowed to proceed.
When a site is recorded
in this confidential file, a registration number
is assigned and reported to the collector. The
PASS site number can be used to label each
artifact found at a recorded location. The State
Museum of Pennsylvania uses the assigned PASS
number over the number “1” to label surface
finds from archaeological sites. Hence,
artifacts found on the surface of the Strickler
Farm site in Lancaster County, which bears the
PASS registration number 36LA3, are labeled.
An artifact label consists of an undercoat to prevent ink from penetrating pores or cracks in the object’s surface, a number or symbol written in ink, and an overcoat, which keeps ink from being removed when the object is handled. First apply an undercoat of clear sealer to the artifact’s surface. Mixtures of either 15% polyvinyl acetate and 85% ethyl alcohol or 25% Paraloid (or Acryloid) B-72 and 75% acetone are recommended. If the B-72 solution becomes too thick and “bubbles” when applied to an artifact, it can easily be thinned by adding acetone. When dry, use indelible ink to mark the object. After the ink has dried, apply a clear sealer over the number or symbol. Gesso, a white acrylic, is a suitable undercoat substitute for use on dark-colored artifacts as is opaque Paraloid B-72.
Once artifacts are cleaned and labeled, assemble a catalog or inventory list. Provide a detailed description of the discovery site, the PASS number or symbol assigned to the discovery location, and the quantity and types of artifacts found at the site. Catalog lists are also useful for insurance purposes.
Curating Private Collections
Most collectors want to share their finds with family and friends. Artifacts are frequently mounted in frames which can be handled or hung on the wall. Unfortunately, objects are sometimes unwittingly damaged by improper mounts made from adhesives (tape or glue) and wire. Seek professional advice before using any of these materials to affix artifacts to a surface.
“Curating a collection means caring for it”
Archaeological collections and associated records (maps, paper catalogs, photographs) should be stored in stable environments. Organic materials, like wood, bone, shell, and paper, can be damaged by molds and mildew if stored in a location where the relative humidity is 60% or greater. Likewise, organic materials may be damaged by storage environments that are too dry. The ideal long-term storage atmosphere consists of 45%-55% relative humidity and 68°- 70° F temperature.
If you are unable to properly care for an artifact collection, consider donating it to an institution that can guarantee its well-being and preservation. In this way important pieces of our heritage will survive for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.
Although not easy to ponder, what will happen to your collection when you pass away? Will it be divided and sold on the auction block? Will it languish in the garage of a family member or relative who has no real interest in “those old things?” Some collectors are now making provisions for donation to repositories in their wills. Don’t assume that the local historical society or museum is properly equipped to do the job. Take time to discuss your interests and needs with a facility that has professional staff and can provide appropriate storage environments, fostering long-term care. By all means, consider The State Museum of Pennsylvania, which accepts cataloged collections from around the state. Although located in Harrisburg, The State Museum lends artifacts to responsible historical organizations, thereby making private collections available to local communities where they were found.
Be Sure Your Collection Has A Future!
- Make detailed notations about where artifacts were found at the time of collection.
- Record collection sites with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (PASS).
- Label artifacts with appropriate catalog numbers.
- Maintain an artifact catalog.
- Store collections in a safe, stable environment.
- Make provisions for the long-term care of your collection.
For more information about recording archaeological sites, cataloging artifacts, caring for archaeological collections, or other issues related to private artifact collections, contact the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology or The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
Judy Duritsa, Secretary
301 North Drive, Beech Hills
Jeannette, PA 15644
300 North Street
Harrisburg, PA 17120-0024