Anticipating and Respecting Curation

By Amy Reid

Today’s guest blogger is the Collections Manager at the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) at Texas State University. One of the final critical steps of any archaeological project is properly curating and safeguarding the artifacts, samples, and records for the future.  Amy came to visit us recently and check on our progress.

 

Early morning view across the bending Rio Grande just downstream from the mouth of Eagle Nest Canyon. Photo by Amy Reid.

Early morning view across the bending Rio Grande just downstream from the mouth of Eagle Nest Canyon. Photo by Amy Reid.

As I sit here on the front porch of the SHUMLA Campus, soaking in the gorgeous Southwest Texas morning, I reflect on my visit. All of the times I said to myself “I’ll come back” are floating through my mind. The inception of my plans to return occurred within hours of my arrival. The moment I took the first bite of the green chili chicken enchiladas that Steve Black fixed for dinner, I knew that I had to come back.

As the night went on, I met the personalities that make up the crew. We talked about everything from the obvious subject of archaeology, to Lower Pecos wildlife. I listened happily while Logan McNatt told stories of cave expeditions, cartel encounters and mountain lion sightings to the soundtrack of Bryan’s acoustic guitar.

The next day I joined the crew in the field and toured the sites. I was amazed, not only by the beauty of the canyon lined with rockshelters, but with the work that was being conducted. It was so special to witness such thorough sampling methods and documentation of complex stratigraphies. When our work was done, we cooled off in the river and talked about bears, beers, and Billy Bob Thornton (No Steve, he is not who we have to thank for the infamous Miley Cyrus).

 

Steve Black and Amy Reid at Kelley Cave.

Steve Black and Amy Reid at Kelley Cave.

I realize that my time here may sound more like a vacation than work, but I did have an important mission: to see the growing collection from Eagle Nest Canyon. You see, one day the artifacts and records generated from the project will likely be curated at CAS. It will then be one of the many collections I care for and provide access to for research and various public outreach activities.

As a certified archaeological repository, CAS has a set of standards and guidelines for the archaeologists and lab managers who are tasked with preparing collections for final curation. Instead of expecting them to submit a flawlessly cataloged and packaged collection using only a four-page document, I have decided to take a more interactive approach to curation. No matter how detailed and clear I think my guidelines are, there are always questions or issues that need further explanation. I have started offering to visit archaeological labs and evaluate curation needs and help with some quality control checks before the collection is shipped to CAS. By doing this, I have seen a huge positive difference in the condition of the collections submitted to CAS for curation. This is why I came to see the collection that the ASWT project is amassing with their ongoing work in Eagle Nest Canyon.

Part of me wishes I could say that the collection is in bad shape so that I could have a more legitimate reason for coming back than because the food is good, or because the stories are entertaining, but I can’t. The collection is in an unbelievably well-organized state of preparation and I am anticipating this to be one of the most seamless transactions CAS has ever seen. This is mostly due to the hard work and thoughtful planning of three people: Dr. Steve Black, Charles Koenig and Christina (Tina) Nielsen.

Last fall Steve and Charles visited me at CAS several times asking for curation advice.  For instance, they wanted to make sure that their field and analytic databases could be easily integrated with those we use at CAS for maintaining curated collections. For me it was rewarding to encounter archaeologists that truly recognize how crucial it is to consider curation issues before the fieldwork even begins. One of the things I told Steve was that he really needed to have someone in the field that had extensive lab experience.

By happy coincidence, Tina is one of Steve’s first-year graduate students at TxState. She also works as the lab manager for the Austin office of SWCA, an environmental consulting firm that carries out Cultural Resource Management archaeology. Tina is spending this semester in the field serving both as the ASWT lab manager and carrying out stratigraphic excavation and sampling at Eagle Cave that will become the basis for her thesis. Before the 2014 ENC Expedition began Tina and I were able to talk over collection and curation challenges and procedures.  As the expedition start date loomed, Steve and Tina also stopped by more than once to plead for “spare” lab supplies;  I couldn’t say no to my fellow Bobcat archaeologists.

It was a pleasure to follow up months later and see the ASWT field lab in action. Tina’s ability to plan and implement procedures for artifact processing and cataloging, organize field records and photographs, all while directing staff and volunteers, is remarkable. She is also highly efficient and skilled at data entry, database management, artifact analysis, and developing content for public outreach projects. Charles maintains and regularly backs up the ASWT database – 800 GB and counting – including lab inventory, field number and TDS logs, SfM photos (the lion’s share), field forms, and more. All archaeological projects should be so lucky!

Tina Nielsen at work in the ASWT field lab at the Shumla Campus.

Tina Nielsen at work in the ASWT field lab at the Shumla Campus.

I truly enjoyed my visit to the ENC 2014 expedition and I hope that by sharing my experience, more archaeologists, lab managers and collection managers will be inspired to form successful partnerships and share the responsibility of proper curation. Archaeological collections are irreplaceable representations of our own cultural heritage and recognizing the importance of preserving that heritage is only the beginning. Archaeologists: It’s time we move curation higher up on our priority list and plan ahead. Curatorial staff: it’s time we stop trying to counteract unacceptable collection submissions with inflexible guidelines and impersonal interactions. Successful partnerships will help us all fulfill our current professional responsibilities and make certain that our archaeological collections continue to yield research data for centuries to come.

Stay tuned for a post by Tina outlining the steps she and her team are taking to prepare the ENC collection for analysis and curation, and discussing the ASWT laboratory methods that will be used to extract useful data from artifacts, plant remains, soil samples, and more.

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“Come Visit:” A Zoooarchaeologist Is Lured Back to the Lower Pecos

by Chris Jurgens and Steve Black

I (Chris) recently joined the Eagle Nest Canyon research team after Steve kept urging me to “come visit.”  He lured be back to the Lower Pecos because of my research specialty – I study animal bones.  Also known as faunal materials, animal bones are common in the dry rockshelters.  Zooarchaeologists like me study both the faunal materials and artifacts made from bone.

Dr. Chris Jergens studying faunal remains under a microscope.

Dr. Chris Jurgens studying faunal remains under a microscope.

What is Zooarchaeology?

E. J. Reitz and E. S. Wing (1999) define zooarchaeology as the study of animal remains originating from archaeological sites.  Zooarchaeology studies those remains from a specifically anthropological perspective, instead of a biological or paleontological perspective.  Some archaeologists, Reitz and Wing included, further separate the study of vertebrate bony faunal remains as osteoarchaeology.  We would also include other vertebrate faunal remains, such as antlers, teeth, skin, fur, and other soft tissues.

Zooarchaeology developed over the past 80 years to investigate the physical constituents of animal bodies, their resulting byproducts, and the remains of any parasites that might have originally been present. Zooarchaeological faunal studies are also used to investigate site formation, biological processes, and cultural processes that are reflected in the particular collection (or sites) being studied.  The anthropological perspective addresses the complex interaction between humans, their environment, and the consequences of that relationship.

Context of faunal remains is the key to understand their role in any site.  Are the faunal remains found in an archaeological deposit there strictly as a result of natural processes? Are the faunal remains spatially associated with other cultural materials?  If the faunal remains are spatially associated with cultural materials, then the zooarchaeologist must ask other questions.  Have the faunal remains been modified by processes produced by cultural behaviors (skinning, butchering, tool manufacture or use, bone breakage for marrow removal or bone grease production, etc.)?

These are the animal bones recovered from one layer of one excavation unit in Skiles Shelter.  Much of the bone is from small mammals (e.g., rabbits, squirrels) but the large fragment on the right is probably from deer.

These are the animal bones recovered from one layer of one excavation unit in Skiles Shelter. Much of the bone is from small mammals (e.g., rabbits, squirrels) but the large fragment on the right is probably from a deer.

Zooarchaeological studies are important aspects of any archaeological project for several reasons, a prime one being to understand past environments.  Animals, particularly small ones like rodents and rabbits, often thrive only in certain ecological conditions, like arid uplands or well-watered canyons. By studying a faunal assemblage, a group of bones from same archaeological context like a rich midden layer dating to the Late Archaic about 3,000 years ago, we can make inferences about the paleo-environmental conditions in the vicinity.

Faunal materials can also open windows into how prehistoric cultures functioned.  Archaeologists use bones, teeth, and other faunal materials to address questions about subsistence (diet and hunter-gatherer economy) and in the Lower Pecos, later groups often relied heavily on small mammals and fish.  And we try to figure out the exact techniques used in making bone tools and ornaments and how these crafted bone items were used.  Certain items, like bone rasps used to make rhythmic sounds associated with ritual, may reflect belief systems.

Unfortunately, even though the dry rockshelters of the Lower Pecos often yield extremely well preserved animal bones, faunal assemblages have rarely been carefully studied, especially in comparison to the many studies of chipped stone artifacts that have been done.  Prior to my work, the only other major faunal study in the region was Kenneth Lord’s 1983 dissertation study of animal bones from Hinds Cave.  For my own doctoral dissertation I studied a sample from the nearly 50,000 faunal specimens excavated from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99).  This deeply stratified site is on the Pecos River near its confluence with the Rio Grande, about 14 miles southeast of Eagle Nest Canyon and Langtry (see www.texasbeyondhistory.net/arenosa/ to learn more about Arenosa).

Bone preservation at Arenosa Shelter was excellent, especially in Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric strata.  Animals represented in the sample included terrestrial and aquatic species from a variety of fish, turtles, rodents, rabbits, carnivores, and deer to extinct animals, such as Pleistocene horse, deer, and bison.  The Arenosa fauna provided an excellent basis for both paleo-environmental reconstruction and the first detailed study of bone technology in the Lower Pecos. I also published a 2008 article “The Fish Fauna from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99), Lower Pecos Region, Texas.”

Dr. Jergens identified this catfish vertebrae from Eagle Cave.  Based on the size of the bone, this fish would have weighed over 50 pounds!

Jurgens identified this catfish vertebrae from Eagle Cave. Based on the size of the bone, this fish would have weighed over 50 pounds!

On to a Fuller Understanding

The faunal collections from Eagle Cave, Skiles Shelter, and Kelley Cave can be compared with that from Arenosa Shelter and expand our understanding of life-ways in the western part of the Lower Pecos region.

Sixty percent of the Arenosa Shelter faunal materials and bone artifacts were found in upper deposits (strata 4 – 9), a Terminal Late Archaic context dating between about 2,300 and 1,300 years ago.  Many of the deeper and earlier Middle and Early Archaic deposits at Arenosa Shelter (strata 12 – 36) were heavily damaged by high energy Pecos River flooding.  The floods removed most of the bone these deposits may have originally contained, especially that from smaller animals.  Remaining bone in these strata is quite often in secondary context.

Although we are still evaluating the contexts of the ENC sites, most of the faunal material we have recovered is well preserved, especially the bones found in organic-rich layers like those seen in the upper part of Kelley and Eagle Caves.

Chris Jergens analyzes a bone tool recovered from Skiles Shelter.

Chris Jurgens analyzes a bone tool recovered from Skiles Shelter.

Comparison between Arenosa Shelter and the Eagle Nest Canyon (ENC) sites will primarily focus on Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric bone technology and subsistence economies.  The ENC sites appear to contain very similar faunal remains, including those of small to large mammals, fish, birds, turtles, and other reptiles. Much of the faunal material and bone artifacts from the Eagle Nest Canyon sites have not been burned.  They will be directly comparable to the Arenosa Shelter observations, including eco-niches targeted by the inhabitants, specific subsistence behaviors that include filleting of fish and specialized skinning of mammalian carnivores, and use wear on tools or ornaments.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even find catfish spine tools as at Arenosa Shelter or other, new and unexpected evidence for how the prehistoric inhabitants of Eagle Nest Canyon lived in this austerely beautiful land.

 

 

References

 

Jurgens, Christopher J.

2005  Zooarcheology and Bone Technology from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99), Lower Pecos Region, Texas. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The University of Texas, Austin.
2008  The Fish Fauna from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99), Lower Pecos Region, Texas. Quaternary International185:26-33.

 

Lord, Kenneth J. 

1984   The Zooarchaeology of Hinds Cave (41 VV 456).  Published by the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M in an unnamed Hinds Cave report series. [Published version of  Lord’s 1983 University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. dissertation.]

 

E. J. Reitz and E. S. Wing

1999    Zooarchaeology. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology.  Cambridge University Press.