By RuthAnn Smith
Admit it – you have no idea what is in your closet!
This is exactly what had happened with most of the artifacts recovered from ITD projects since 1976. They were collected, diagnostic items cataloged, lithic patterns analyzed, and reports written, while the artifacts themselves were placed in temporary storage, waiting for final curation.
But with the press of new field projects and limited resources, that opportunity rarely occurred, until these collections filled 101 cardboard boxes from 86 different sites. Something had to be done.
Why was there renewed concern about these artifacts?
For one thing, professional ethics dictate that artifacts are properly curated as part of a cultural resource management program. Sitting in dusty cardboard boxes stacked one on top of another, even if dry and in a controlled temperature area, is not how artifacts should be handled.
No one knew what the boxes contained; delicate items were not being protected; and the artifacts were not accessible for any purpose. Secondly, federal law requires artifacts be handled according to standards. ITD expends federal funds on a variety of transportation projects. This funding source invokes provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) that deal with the curation of artifacts.
Specially, NHPA requires both prehistoric and historic artifacts that are recovered by cultural resource surveys and/or excavations for federally-funded projects be curated to federal standards and deposited in an approved long-term cultural resource repository. In other words, the “closet” was not working.
What is now being done at ITD to address its artifact collections?
First the question “what was in the closet” had to be answered. An initial inventory was made of the boxes to identify how many there were and what sites or project activities generated their collection. Not all boxes were opened and fully examined during this inventory, so there are still surprises being found. The smallest box contained artifacts from twenty separate sites throughout eastern Idaho while ten boxes are all from one prehistoric site in Owyhee County. One highway project alone generated 27 boxes of artifacts, over a quarter of all the boxes, representing nine sites. Both prehistoric and historic sites have been encountered throughout the state by ITD projects.
Next, the standards for curating artifacts had to be identified. Within Idaho, there are three regional repositories for long-term artifact storage; together they form the Archaeological Survey of Idaho (ASI). The ASI was established in 1992 by the state legislature to ensure the preservation of and continued access to archaeological collections from Idaho sites.
Collections accepted for accessioning by the ASI repositories must meet standards for artifact cleaning, sorting, labeling, cataloguing, documenting, conserving, and packaging. With this information in hand, the collections were sorted by region, labeling and packaging supplies were ordered; previous reports and project records were reviewed; and the processing of individual artifacts begun. Time has been spent describing, weighing, measuring, photographing, labeling, and repackaging, along with entering individual artifact information into a database; all to ready the collections for transfer to the appropriate ASI repositories.
By the end of 2005; collections representing 26 sites, originally contained in 18 boxes, were ready for repository transfer. In addition, 33 sites from 12 more boxes were in various stages of work.
Many times a complete collection has not been fully curated due to a number of problems, including having one or more of the original boxes of a specific collection “in the back of the bottom row of the closet”! Regardless of the difficulties encountered, significant progress has been made to properly and adequately preserve and protect ITD’s artifact collections.
If preparing artifacts for long-term storage and curation sounds like an interesting project to you, please contact RuthAnn Smith, ITD Cultural Resources Records Specialist, at (208) 334-8089 or RuthAnn.Smith@itd.idaho.gov for further information on volunteering with ITD’s Cultural Resources program.